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Why was propaganda so important during the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars of 1792-1815?


Why propaganda was so important

During the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars propaganda was extremely important. For the revolution and the wars, one of the most important things was the support of the masses. Especially in the revolution, the main aspect was that the people would be in control of their lives and their governments, so therefore propaganda was needed to rally the populations. In the Napoleonic wars, both France and Britain, needed their people to support and believe in their country. Propaganda was also used here to encourage the soldiers to fight bravely and the civilians to continue working and supplying the country with all that they needed.

“War of Ideas"

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were of course fought with military, but also, due to the opposing forces’ differences, they gained another name; the “War of Ideas”. This was because the two main sides had two very different ideologies and political systems. The French revolutionary side were fighting for a republic and the “sovereignty of the people”, and the British (and the old French system supporters) were fighting for Monarchies, and not just their own, but also for those all over Europe. Both sides new that they needed military strength to win, but also needed to use propaganda in order to maintain and also change the populations ideologies.

“Invasion of Ideas”

The idea of a French peoples republic was a fairly new one, in comparison to the original way of having a monarchy. These new ideas came from many sources, most of which lie in the Enlightenment. But the Enlightenment was not just in France, but all over Europe, and therefore there were also groups of people in Britain who shared these ideas. This is understandable, as the French Revolution was all about taking the power away from the Kings and Queens, and giving them back to the people of that particular country, so with Britain having such a strong ruling monarchy, there were obviously going to be some people who would see this as a brilliant idea. This is often looked at as the French “invasion of ideas”. These people in Britain would most likely have known of these ideas before the French Revolution, but their faith in it would have only grown stronger after seeing that it was, in fact,possible. It was mostly the poorer, average citizen that would have shared these views, as they would be the ones most affected by the extreme hierarchy at the time. It is not hard to see their attraction to this new way of life, and they would have seen the French propaganda saying “Every soldier a citizen, and every citizen a soldier” as displaying ideas of equality, solidarity and unity.

Nationalist Propaganda

The British knew that these ideas would be present in their country in some places, and also were aware that the only way of fighting them would be with strong propaganda. This counter propaganda was done in many ways, and it’s aim was to create a nation of people that were loyal to Britain, and that would want to fight and die for the monarchy. A lot of the propaganda was focused on depicting the French in a bad way, such as bullies, or that the French revolution was a foreign threat that wanted not to change the political ways of Europe, but to erase British culture and replace it with that of the French. This was done by the creation of Characters such as John Bull, or by cartoons that had roast beef representing Britain, and frog’s legs representing France. They created stereotypes that tried to have to people create stereotypes of the French in their minds, and, as they would probably never properly meet the French culture, they would fully believe it. The overall aim of this side of Britain’s propaganda was to exploit the differences between the two nations, and have the people become strongly proud of their nation and their culture.

"Black Propaganda" VS "White Propaganda"

While that was black propaganda, the British also used while propaganda. They wanted people to love Britain and to create a nationalist feel to the place. The king at the time, George III, was given names such as “Farmer George” or the “Father of his people”. These names gave him a new appearance, one that would compare him to the average working man, which allowed the people to feel that he was working as hard as them for the country, and that maybe they were equal to him. But also at the same time, but not in a contradictory way, that he was in charge of the country in a fatherly way, and that he was looking out for their well being and that he cared for them. While this propaganda was not like the cults of personality like that of Stalin or Hitler, it was similar on a smaller scale, and helped mould the people of Britain into a nationalist country.

French "White Propaganda"

Napoleon Bonaparte also new it was necessary to keep the loyalty of the people. He understood that in order to maintain an empire that was based on the inclusion of all the population, that he must have the support of the whole country, not just certain classes.
The government were able to pick out specific things that needed changing, and were able to use them to their advantage. One example is with newspapers. They made a greater choice of newspapers, most of which were completely pro-government such as the “Le Constitutionnel” or “Le Pays”, and made sure that they were available all over France, including all the places in the country side. Also, throughout France, placards would appear on the streets or in public places, they would have pro-governement slogans written on them, or sometimes drawings that would depict the government in a good way. The government were always looking for ways in which they could reach all members of society. They made many various pamphlets that would shed a good light on the regime, and allow the people to see how much life had improved since their empowerment. One pamphlet, “Titres de la dynastie Napoleon” was printed 170,000 times, and was posted to people of all classes in society.

Another piece of propaganda was “Les Malheurs et le triomphe de Jacques Benhomme”. This was a book that described peasants and their presence fighting in the calvary all through history up to the revolution. It romanticised their participation in military actions, and praised them for the loyalty. It goes on to describe the peasants of the new revolutionised regime as being new, happy peasants, and that the other people of France that live in the cities are in fact jealous of them living in the country side. This propaganda was important, as it made the peasants feel important to their country, and also that it insured them that they were happier now than they would have been without the revolution.

Perceptions of Propaganda

Also, at any important social gathering, or reasons for people to come together, perhaps to celebrate, the person that was hosting it, would usually speak for a short while about how the celebrations were only possible due to Napoleon’s leadership. It was not uncommon for a public celebration, that praised the Empire for its success and achievements. These celebrations would glorify events such as the unveiling of new statues of war heroes, or the construction of new rail roads, or perhaps the opening of a new boulevard. Again there would be a speech that would describe that this new convieniance was only available thanks to the regime. These were important parts of Napoleon’s propaganda as it reminded the public that they would not have these benefits with any other regime, especially one that resembled a monarchy. David Baguley, in his book “Napoleon and His Regime”, says that he believes there was no idea of what propaganda actually was during this time, but that the government were still able to see the benefits of praising their systems, and denouncing others. He says; “They perceived that affirmations were more effective than discussion, that a simple statement or phrase was more convincing than a reasoned argument.”

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Overall, during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, propaganda was a vital aspect to success. Both the British and the French understood that they could achieve success my simply using military force, but in order to keep their own peoples ideas the same as their rulers, as well as to make sure that they were not anything like that of their enemies, they would have to constantly remind them of how their country looked after and protected them. The overall aim of both countries propaganda was to create a nationalist people, who actually wanted to fight and die for their country, as opposed to just doing it for their wages.

S.J. Ennis


Lessthansteve (author) from Ireland on May 16, 2011:

Over here, our leader is a tub of melted butter

vrajavala from Port St. Lucie on May 15, 2011:

I believe the Irish and the American struggles against British colonialism is still going on to this day. What many people do not realize is that our present resident in the Oval Office was born a British subject due t the 1948 British Nationality act.

good hub. I enjoy history.

Nathaniel Zhu from Virginia Beach on May 04, 2011:

Thanks. This should help on my history exam.

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