How important was Napoleon Bonaparte’s use of propaganda and censorship in the rise and consolidation of his power in France? (Part 2, by Valentin Boulan)

How important was Napoleon Bonaparte’s use of propaganda and censorship in the rise and consolidation of his power in France? (Part 2, by Valentin Boulan)

One way in which Napoleon ensured to retain his public image and avoid criticism throughout his reign was by increasing his influence on all written information, starting, of course with the press. As previously mentioned, by the late 18th century the French press enjoyed a political diversity and freedom never seen before and Napoleon, who was very much aware of that, needed to narrow down the number of newspapers in order to maintain a satisfactory level of control. Hence, one of his first decisions as Consul was to reduce the number of Parisian newspapers from 73 to 13 by January 1800, and by 1807 only four remained . Still complaining about the papers by April 1800, Napoleon wrote to Fouché, his Minister of Police that “Le Bien Informé, Hommes Libres and Défenseurs de la Patrie shall all cease publications, unless the proprietors procure editors of good character and of incorruptible patriotism”, insisting that every issue should be “signed by a recognised editor” .

Such hierarchical changes became common practice and, in addition to the heavy taxation system put in place to create a dependency on government funding, many of Napoleon’s advisers worked closely with newspapers, either as editors, censors or even as owners. For example, Riederer and Maret, both members of Napoleon’s government, were soon appointed as owners of the Journal de Paris . This enabled Napoleon to choose what topics the press could discuss. For instance, many articles about the strict censorship in foreign countries aimed to convince people of the freedom of the French press, as well as propagate the idea that living conditions were superior in France .Ironically, Napoleon also cleverly made use of the remaining papers to justify his government’s decision to destroy the press. For example, the Gazette de France published an article which argued that a smaller number of papers was preferable to the reliability of information published . On the other hand, such control also helped prevent commonly sensitive subjects with may cause unrest to be discussed, such as religious affairs, the Bourbons or Napoleon’s private life, as well as more current affairs like the heavy mortality rate in Paris or the rise in grain prices.

As pointed out by Holtman, the control Napoleon exercised over written information was not limited to the press, and a comparable system was put in place in the field of literature. Indeed, the government quickly set up a scheme to review books before their publication. In addition, this commission ordered many books, mainly historical volumes and novels, often bearing moral and patriotic aims and praising loyalty to the ruler whilst legitimising imperialism. Authors also regularly received pensions and prizes for writing favourable books . Needless to say, as for the press, recurrent themes like The Bourbon and the papacy were closely monitored and, unless serving a governmental purpose, forbidden. Likewise, pamphlets were also subjects to censorship, and the police often confiscated copies of undesirable material and arrested the authors and printers . Whilst Napoleon saw placarding as a sign of weakness, he also frequency made use of it for addresses, and accounts of the imperial ceremonies which increasingly replaced Revolutionary celebrations, to reach those who did not read the press . Hence, written propaganda and censorship in the press, books and pamphlets was key to preventing civil unrest because it provided Napoleon with a platform from which he could prevent criticism and convince the public of the prosperity of the regime, and the moral righteousness of the imperial system.

As he was well aware that shaping public opinion early on rather than attempting to alter it later was preferable, Bonaparte was also keen to control every aspect of the education system. In an 1801 letter to the Minister of Home Affairs, he thoroughly described the organisation he wishes the education system to adopt. Hence, Napoleon demanded that lessons in natural history, geography, French and Latin use “elements of ancient history, and a collection of virtuous and heroic deeds calculated to inspire [students] with patriotic and moral ideals” . Similarly in 1808, writing about the manner with which the history curriculum should present the Revolution years, Napoleon emphasised the need to find historians who are “adherents of the Government” and “directed by sound opinions”. He also asked for the righteousness of the Revolution not to be questioned, and for pre-Revolution France to be described in terms of its “constant financial disorder, the chaotic state of the providential assemblies, the pretentions of the parlements, and the lack of administrative methods”. This aimed to convince students of the benefit of living under Napoleonic rule . A consequence of this process was that in every Lycée, the libraries of 3,000 books were exactly identical, containing a list of books drawn up and approved by the government . Furthermore, as with newspapers, each Lycée had an appointed censor, as well as three inspectors who, by law, visited each establishment at least once a year.

In addition to organisational changes, the Napoleonic era witnessed a significant change of expectations, both from teachers and students. In another letter from 16th February 1805, Napoleon highlights his plan to turn the position of Professor into a prestigious role, which brought high income and more importantly recognition from the government. He states that “The most distinguished members of the corporation could be taken under the Emperor’s protection, and his patronage would raise them even higher in public esteem than the priests were, at a time when priesthood passed for a rank of nobility”, and concludes that “Of all political questions this is perhaps the most important. There will be no stability in the state until there is a body of teachers with fixed principles ”. J. Codechot points out that although Napoleon’s regime was not a military dictatorship in the modern sense, civil institutions, and schools particularly, were strongly influenced in organisation and values by the army, stressing the importance of Honour, obedience and glory . For example, teachers in Lycées were constrained to remain single and could be suspended, whilst student marched to drums and received distinctions comparable to that of the army .Hence, Napoleonic propaganda was decisive in shaping the opinions and ambitions of French youth and teaching elites, particularly through the introduction of a new higher education system. This, in turn, was also a way to keep order by satisfying the increasingly influential bourgeoisie, and ensure the latter would therefore remain non-Revolutionary .

As the religion of an estimated 90% of the French population at the time, and given the function it could perform in passing on desirable values, it is not surprising that Napoleonic propaganda also paid particular interest to Catholicism . Signed in April 1802, the Concordat between Napoleon and the Pope recognised Catholicism as the religion of the majority of French citizens. More significantly, it practically established that the clergy would no longer elect itself, with the First Consul appointing bishops and archbishops, who would then appoint lower clergy under the government’s approval. Furthermore, clergymen also had to swear an oath of allegiance to the regime, which in return would provide salaries. This effectively turned the Church into another branch of civil service . The advantage of such policy is evident from a letter Napoleon wrote to the Archbishop of Lyon in 1802, in which he warns that “Lyon […] contains a large number of priests formerly attached to a party in opposition to the state”, and ordered to forbid their appointments . Such tactic was, needless to say, hugely influential and the clergy proved very useful in legitimising Napoleon’s demands, for instance by promoting the morality of conscription . Combining his ingenuity in press publications and his influence over the Church, Napoleon also ensured the uniformity of religious papers by ordering that “Church papers shall cease separate publication, and be combined into a single paper”, the Journal de Curées, whose editors should be appointed by the archbishop of Paris . The support of the Church was a powerful tool for Napoleon, who used the Concordat and the governmental control of Church finances to indirectly exercise total control over the clergy. It enabled him to use the Church’s network to track down enemies of the state, whilst using its influence to convince people to follow the Emperor’s will. Most importantly, it persuaded the people of the legitimacy of Napoleon’s status, for instance through the pope’s attendance of Napoleon’s coronation, which meant the Emperor could now justify his status both on a popular and religious basis.

An ultimate field which Napoleonic propaganda particularly exploited was that of the arts. As highlighted previously, Bonaparte’s early propaganda was already greatly associated with the arts as he wished to be portrayed as an educated, enlightened figure, and because many artists attempted to use the popular interest for Napoleon to make a profit. It has also been pointed out that once in power, Napoleon put particular care in ensuring that all literature glorified the regime. Perhaps the most blatant (and still observable today) example of how Napoleon used the arts to promote himself remains painting. As a witness of the time pointed “Every painting […] seems to celebrate [Napoleon’s] glory”, and many artists like David, Gros, Gerard, Girodet and Ingres contributed to the artistic heritage of Napoleon . For instance, Gros’s Bonaparte Visiting the Victims of the Plague at Jaffa symbolises the paradoxical image Napoleon wanted to convey, namely, that of a heroic, sacred figure who did not fear the Plague, yet also a man of the people, who remained loyal to his troops. Likewise, Ingres’ painting of Napoleon on his imperial throne “draws on imperial Roman imagery […] and various iconic representations of rulers from the Byzantine and Carolingian empires” in an obvious attempt to separate himself from the unpopular monarchs of the Ancient Regime, whilst still representing himself as a superior being .

More impressive even in its extent was Napoleon’s control over the theatres. As with the press, these were used to present topics which would directly or indirectly glorify Bonaparte, and forbid certain sensitive issues to be discussed. For example, Napoleon wrote to Fouché in 1805 about his concerned regarding the release of a tragedy about Henry IV. Arguing that the period was “not distant enough to rouse no passions”, he rather stressed that “the stage [needed] a touch of antiquity”, concluding his letter by insisting that Fouché “ought to veto this particular play.” In order to exercise a tight control of the theatres, Napoleon first banned the establishment of any new establishment without imperial authorization, before, as he did with newspapers, reducing their number in 1807 from 39 to 8, in order to facilitate supervision . Sensitive to the fact that propaganda from the theatre or the opera could only reach the bourgeoisie who could afford it, Napoleon attempted to attract the lower classes during historical anniversaries and important events, by giving free theatres performances, beginning on August 15, 1802, with the celebration of his birthday. In total, 28 events of the kind were organised during the imperial era .Finally, the government put a lot of effort in changing the standard of poetry, by suggesting the use of national subjects and heroes, and by rewarding poets through pensions ranging from 1,200 to 6,000 francs, important positions in the government and the Légion d’Honneur .

So was Napoleon’s propaganda really infallible? Whilst Napoleon still complained to Fouché about newspapers treating of forbidden topics like the Revolution as late as April 1807, and although it was common knowledge that the press, particularly the Moniteur were influenced by the government, the repetition of propaganda made it very effective overall . Even so, Holtman points out the reluctance of the French clergy to be completely committed to the imperial cause, taking the example of the priests of Loire-Inférieure’s refusal to read army bulletins on the grounds that religious ceremonies should be dedicated to religious matters. This stands as proof that Church control was not always completely effective . In other fields, it can be argued that the effectiveness of propaganda and censorship was again favoured by circumstances. In education, Napoleon mostly profited from the changes already devised during the French Revolution. Certainly, the idea of a universal education system based on a national curriculum rather than divided up into regional schools was not introduced under the Bonaparte government. Indeed, it was during the Revolution that teaching became centralised, with, for instance a new patriotically motivated focus on all lessons being taught in French rather than in local dialects .

It is also observable that before Napoleon, the government had already realised the propagandistic potential of the education system. When the Paris Normal school was created, its curriculum was to include “republican morality and the public and private virtues, as well as the techniques of teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, practical geometry, French history and grammar” and students were taught to use books published and prescribed by the Convention . Hence, it is evident that Napoleon benefited from the structure already in place, which he alone would have struggled to create from scratch, and which was decisive to the effectiveness of his propaganda. Downplaying Napoleon’s control of artistic trends, Alexander makes a similar argument and points out the unsuccessful popular reaction to theatrical tragedy, a genre favoured by Napoleon. He adds that the collapse of patronage after the Revolution meant that Napoleon could to an extent use the financial power of the state to reshape French artistic culture, but remarks that Neo-Classicism, ancient Greek and Roman art, wrongly associated with the Napoleonic period, can be traced back to before the Revolution. He therefore suggests that the effectiveness of Napoleonic propaganda in the arts was again partly down to the favourable context on the era .

Undeniably, propaganda and censorship played a central part in Napoleon’s rise to power and his ability to remain publically undisputed in France for so long, particularly in the press which he used throughout his career. However, the strength of Napoleonic propaganda lied with its ability to reach peoples of all backgrounds, and to affect all aspects of society, from information to education, from religion to arts and entertainment. The constant presence of Napoleon’s influence is particularly obvious from the numerical and chronological recurrence of propagandist topics throughout his personal correspondences with his closest friends and advisors. Indeed, propaganda put in place a system whereby, for instance, the peasant class who did not necessarily read newspapers were still exposed to the patriotic message of their local clergy, whilst the educated classes who did read papers remained continuously exposed to misinformation even in their leisure time, whether at the theatre or art exhibitions. This enabled Napoleon to strengthen his dictatorship in several ways. Firstly, by portraying the self-contradictory image that he was a great, superior being whilst also a man from and chosen by the people. Secondly, it allowed the prevention of public debate surrounding morally and politically problematic subjects, as discussed throughout this article. Finally, it allowed Napoleon to praise the state of France under his rule. In that respect, one can only admire his success, since the reality of early 18th century France was rather more negative than her Emperor tried to show. Certainly, the harsh reality of the Napoleonic era was rather characterised by lacking freedom of expression, several economic crisis particularly severe in the years 1805 and 1810-12 and a continuous state of war leading to the loss of roughly 900,000 men during the Consulate and Empire years, indeed the equivalent of a whole year’s worth of births at the time . That many historians still ignore such facts perhaps remains the most flattering tribute to the efficacy of Napoleonic propaganda.

However, one must not overlook that such effectiveness was often very much dependant on other factors such as Napoleon’s talent as a general, as well as the multitude of outside political and social dynamics of France by the end of the 1790s, and the changes in education and the press which can be traced back to the years of the Revolution. It would be appealing to compare those factors of propagandist success in France to those of foreign territories, and perhaps a more thorough study of late 18th- early 19th century propaganda should compare the significance and ways in which Napoleon used propaganda and censorship in France, and how he did so throughout his vast empire.


Primary Sources:
Thompson, J.M., Napoleon’s Letters (London, 1998)
Courrier de l’Armée d’Italie
Journal de Bonaparte et des hommes vertueux
Le Moniteur

Secondary Sources:
Alexander, R.S., Napoleon (London, 2001)
Anceau Eric, Napoléon: l’homme qui a change le monde (Paris, 2004)
Butterfield Henry, Napoleon (London, 1962)
Bertaud Jean-Paul, Le Consulat et l’Empire (Paris, 2007)
Boudon Jacques-Olivier, Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire (Paris, 2003)
Cabanis André, La Presse sous le Consulat et l’empire (Paris, 1975)
Holtman Robert, Napoleonic Propaganda (New York, 1969)
Lecomte Henry, Napoléon et le monde dramatique (Paris, 1912)
Popkin Jeremy, The Press in France, 1789-1799 ( Durham, 1999)
Tulard Jean, Napoleon: The Myth of the saviour (London, 1977)

Online Sources:


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