Britain vs Napoleon

I am bothered by the idea I see tossed around that in the Napoleonic Wars, the British state stood for freedom against Napoleon’s tyranny.

Britain was a fairly tyrannical country at the time. It was an aristocratic state with a powerful merchant class, and a staunch opponent of both democracy and republicanism throughout the 19th century. The popular nature of the Sikh soldier’s councils was one of the causes of the Anglo-Sikh wars in the middle of the century, with one diplomat fearfully describing the Sikhs as “the world’s largest armed democracy”.

To be fair, Britain wasn’t absolutist like many European monarchies; parliament, which remember was in no sense a democratic body at this point, had limited the power of the monarchy. Even extracting this concession had taken forty-eight years of popular struggle in the face of brutal political repression.

Things began to change in Britain with the Chartists and the great reform act (1832), but it wasn’t really until the early 20th century that Britain became a representative democracy of the American kind – until 1928, women under thirty or without property still could not vote, and incredibly it took Britain until 1948 to end the practise of giving extra votes to businesspeople, owners of more than one property, and university graduates.

Napoleon, on the other hand, was defending a republican revolution in France. This is what the war was about – aristocratic government vs republican government. The French republican government certainly became despotic under Napoleon, but this was not a genuine factor in the conflict, which began with the revolution, long before anyone had heard of Napoleon.

lokithecomplex asked: Did the wars have any reforming pressure on the UK?

Haha, that’s a really good question with a complicated answer!

I would have to say yes. A good part of Napoleon’s success was the levee en masse, that is the mass conscription of troops, which was possibly under the republican system but a bit scary for aristocrats (you want me to arm HOW MANY peasants?!)

Prussia solved this issue with extraordinarily harsh military discipline, and built Europe’s strongest land army in the 19th century.

The revolution itself excited the passions of people across Europe, and kicked off a new radical upsurge. Demobbed Napoleonic veterans would play a key role in the early radical struggle in Britain, including the armed uprising in Scotland in the 1820s.

So I would have to say yes, the revolution certainly produced pressure for reform, and in more direct answer to your question so did the wars themselves, if only by giving hundreds of thousands of men military training then releasing them back into the general population.

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