Negating the Tyrant, the Society Decides Napoleon Was Not Beneficial for France

The Society and guests from the Demosthenian Society of the University of Georgia convened on March 15 for the ninth debate of the semester to examine the question Resolved: Napoleon was beneficial for France.

Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo spoke on the affirmation.  Mr. Joshua Donovan spoke on the negation.

Mr. Spagnuolo began the evening by setting the scene, describing how Napoleon found France consumed by a Hobbesian state of chaos and battle, in desparate need of a leviathan. He argued that for liberty to truly reign, France needed order and stability. Napoleon brought just this while providing for the nourishment of the citizens, increasing food production and paving the road for private ownership and industry. Through the Napoleonic Code, he codified French law for the first time, creating parameters for a merit system and prohibiting ex post facto and secret laws, both of which protected commoners from exploitation by the law. Ultimately he concluded that without Napoleon bringing the ideas of liberty forward while providing security, modern France could not be what it is today. On the negation, Mr. Donovan began with a bit of Philodemic Society history, noting that the Society’s first debate in October of 1830 was over whether Napoleon Bonaparte or General Washington was the greater man and the Society negated Napoleon’s tyranny, a tradition he hoped we would continue today. He urged the Society to look at the truth: Napoleon took a nascent republic and turned it into a tyranny while systematically trampling on the rights of his people, striking the worst blow of all in depriving them of the right to vote. In his reign he allowed millions to die for the wars he waged for himself, not for France. Ultimately he ignored the values the French had just fought and died for, leaving a legacy that legitimized tyranny, absolute power and suppression. He asked the Society to consider what it means to live in a republic and what the responsibilities of the leader are, asking, “Is it enough for an entrusted leader to give his people empty words, broken promises, and self-serving military conquests?”

During the floor speeches Mr. Hipple (Class of 2009) argued that the Republic was just a new face of oppression. From the perspective of Europe, Napoleon was a fire, burning the foundations without putting a system in place to replace him, thus leaving a vacuum for liberty to enter. Mr. Bade countered by comparing Napoleon’s France to communist China; while many might say China was left better, what about the people who were hurt and lost everything to the system? He presented this as an issue of individual rights, asking the Society to think about the men of France who were drafted to fight in the bloodbaths of Napoleon’s ego. On the affirmation Mr. Dulik reminded the Society that in evaluating historical figures we must not forget that they come from times with values fundamentally different from our own and we must evaluate them within their contexts. Ultimately, Napoleon was beneficial for France because when he came out of his second stay, the France he left was stronger than the one he found. From the Demosthenian Society, Mr. Alan Goldman (’14) affirmed that Napoleon was a leader, and what is a country without leaders? Wars lead people in a direction and so at least Napoleon made the people work together to do something, which is ultimately beneficial. Also from the Demosthenians, Mr. Monty Lucco (’14) countered that Napoleon was a tyrant and tyrants take the trust and free will of their people and run with it. Napoleon took it and ran to Moscow, where he “froze their trust, tripped, and shattered it.” Ultimately as a victor he was meant to stay a victor, but instead he left the French with nothing. Mr. Manchester added, “Silent, obedient, oppressed consent is not the same as liberty.” He ruined France in the most sure way possible: by creating an empire and an unsuccessful one at that. Looking at the country’s brief period stability as being proof of a truly beneficial impact is a myopic view. Mr. Medina countered on the affirmation that although Napoleon was an emperor and a tyrant, “he was our emperor; he was our tyrant.” The French loved him and he was the epitome of the Enlightenment’s legacy of rationalism and equality before the law by rising to such power from a background without nobility. Chancellor Iacono pointed out that loved leaders often do much detriment to their people. He argued that the French died for Napoleon’s page in history books, not for anything real, and that is absolutely not rational. Ms. Green added that we cannot be so shortsighted so as to mistake Napoleon’s charisma as being beneficial for France. She argued that a country is more than bricks and structures or the charisma of its leaders; it is the spirit of the people that runs through the city. On the affirmation Ms. Daniels argued that it is precisely this argument that shows Napoleon’s benefit: he gave that spirit to his people. France had simply been united as a bureaucracy but Napoleon gave them a united language and meaning through war, since defeat does not mean that a war cannot engender pride in its people.

Mr. Donovan noted that we’ve been lingering on the ideas of Hobbes and Machiavelli by arguing that France’s existing state of chaos lead to an ends justify the end mentality, but that’s simply not true. He argued that there were better ways to go about solving existing problems; France did not need Napoleon. He refuted the notion that modern France exists because of Napoleon, noting that we have modern France because of Metternich and the Council of Vienna since Napoleon left his country unstable enough to have its existence questioned. He ended by stating that liberty did exist in the 18th Century and we must hold Napoleon responsible for what he did. Mr. Spagnuolo reminded the Society that Napoleon removed the power of the aristocracy and opened the possibility for people to have private property and for the industry to come, all of which are beneficial. He argued that Napoleon’s laws gave the framework for future liberty and that he did in fact have his support from the people. Bringing the ideas into a modern time, he stressed the idea that we must judge on context by predicting that fifty years from now our leaders will probably be criticized for actions such as oppressing the gay community. We have freedoms and opportunities that come to us from past deaths, struggles, and tyrants and ultimately the benefits of Napoleon’s reign are what allowed France to become what it is today.

The Society voted 37-25 to negate the resolution.

The following outstanding speakers were awarded Merrick points:

  • Mr. Spagnuolo – 5
  • Mr. Medina – 5
  • Ms. Green – 3
  • Mr. Manchester – 2
  • Chancellor Iacono – 1

This brings the Merrick totals to:

  • Ms. Green – 23
  • Mr. Henderson – 20
  • Mr. Medina – 20
  • Chancellor Iacono – 18
  • Mr. Manchester – 13
  • Mr. Dulik – 5
  • Mr. Spagnuolo – 5
  • Mr. Petallides – 3
  • Ms. Daniels – 2
  • Mr. Askonas – 2
  • Mr. Taft – 1


Emily R. Coccia

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