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Napoleon: Hero Or Tyrant?

Grade level: 7-12
Subjects: History, Language Arts
Estimated Time of Completion: 3 class periods to set up the assignment and show related segments of the video "Napoleon." 1 to 2 weeks of research, writing and meeting time for students.

I. Objectives
II. Standards
III. Materials Needed
IV. Procedure
V. Assessment Suggestions
VI. Extensions/Adaptations
VII. Web Resources

I. INSTRUCTIONAL OBJECTIVES

  • To help students learn, review and assess what they know about Napoleon and his era.
  • To help students learn to take a position and to back up the position with evidence.
  • To help students understand the relationship between point of view and historical interpretation.
  • To help students practice their writing skills and learn about journalism.
  • To help students learn how to work effectively in groups.
II. STANDARDS

This lesson correlates to the following national standards for history, established by the National Center for History in the Schools at http://www.ssnet.ucla.edu/nchs/standards:

  • Explain how the French Revolution developed from constitutional monarchy to democratic despotism to the Napoleonic Empire.
  • Analyze leading ideas of the revolution concerning social equality, democracy, human rights. constitutionalism, and nationalism and assess the importance of the these ideas for democratic thought and institutions in the 20th century.
  • Explain how the revolution affected French society, including religious institutions, social relations, education, marriage, family life, and the legal and political position of women.
  • Describe how the wars of the revolutionary and Napoleonic period changed Europe and assess Napoleon's effects on the aims and outcomes of the revolution.
This lesson correlates to the following national standards for language arts, established by MCREL at http://www.mcrel.org/:
  • Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
  • Uses grammar and mechanical conventions in written composition.
  • Gathers and uses information for research purposes.
  • Demonstrates competence in the stylistic and rhetorical techniques in the writing process.
III. MATERIALS NEEDED
  • The four-part PBS video "Napoleon," specifically episodes 2, 3 and 4.
  • Access to computers with Internet access for writing and research.
IV. PROCEDURE

Overview

This unit asks students to assess Napoleon's career and to decide if he was a hero or a tyrant.

The time is 1815. Napoleon has been exiled for good, this time to St. Helena. Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne. Meanwhile in Vienna, various European heads of state and diplomats are meeting to devise a new order for Europe.

Students are assigned to a team. Each team must produce a newspaper from 1815 which assesses Napoleon's career. Each journal must take the editorial stance that Napoleon is either a hero or a tyrant. To bring the Napoleonic era to life, students will also publish articles on the arts, sciences, and fashion of the times.

Defining "hero" and "tyrant"

How do students define the terms "hero" and "tyrant"? Divide the blackboard into two columns, one for each category. Ask students to name people from any era in history (including our own) who they feel deserve to be designated "hero/heroine" or" tyrant." Hopefully their choices will engender some lively debate. After the class has agreed upon at least four names in each category, ask the class to list some of the attributes of the people on their lists. From the attributes they name try to get a working definition of both labels.

Next ask a student to read aloud a dictionary definition for each word. (Both words have Greek derivatives.) Now pose the question: Are these terms mutually exclusive? Is it possible that a hero could be a tyrant or a tyrant a hero? Regardless of the conclusion students reach on this conundrum, explain that in the newspapers they will write, students will have to view Napoleon as one or the other, much as at trial a lawyer must lend support wholeheartedly to the side he or she defends.

Invite students to probe deeper into defining these two terms by posing the following questions, or encouraging students to pose their own:

  • Did Napoleon do more to preserve the legacy of the French Revolution or to destroy it?
  • Although Napoleon assumed dictatorial powers, he became First Consul as well as Emperor with the enthusiasm and approval of the French people. Should this affect how we judge him in the role of "tyrant"?
  • Must we assume that all conquerors throughout history are villains? When, if ever, can a conqueror be hero?
  • Did Napoleon conquer others for a higher purpose, or only for his own glory?
  • Should a leader's personal and romantic life be factored into the assessment of hero or tyrant, and if so why or why not?
End this preliminary discussion by visiting "Tyrant or Hero" on the PBS Napoleon Web site and reading the comments from contemporary historians.

Introducing the newspaper assignment

Ask students how they might feel if they were living in 1815 after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Would they rejoice? Would they be fearful that what might come next would be worse? Would they mourn the passing of their hero's star?

List on the blackboard several hypothetical French characters such as:

  • An aristocratic lady who fled France during the Revolution after several relatives were guillotined.
  • A worker in Paris who was among those who stormed the Bastille in 1789.
  • A soldier who fought with Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.
  • A French mother who lost two sons in the Retreat from Moscow in 1812 and who lives in a village with families still grieving for other young men who died during the many years of warfare under Napoleon's rule.
  • A bureaucrat in the National Bank (created by Napoleon) who would not formerly have merited a government position under the Ancien Regime.
  • A recipient of the Legion of Honor, established in 1802 by Napoleon.
  • A priest whose church was desecrated during the French Revolution.
  • A French Jew who, thanks to the Revolution and Napoleon's enlightened policies, is now a citizen.
Discuss with the class how these people might have reacted to the news of Napoleon's defeat and why. Would they all necessarily share the same viewpoint? Why or why not?

Now explain that students will be put into teams to publish newspapers. Half the class will be assigned to write for a newspaper which supports Napoleon, the other will write for a newspaper which is a detractor. Divide the class into the two halves (without yet assigning them their newspaper teams) to watch sections of the video "Napoleon."

Now access or print out the Timeline from the PBS Napoleon Web site. Choose several significant events in Napoleon's life and ask the class how those events might be viewed positively or negatively, depending upon one's viewpoint at the time.

Showing Sections of the Film

Explain to students that they are going to watch several excerpts from the video "Napoleon" and that they should look for incidents from Napoleon's career that support their viewpoint.

From Episode Two, begin with the image of the clock, approximately 27 minutes into the film and end at approximately 44 minutes into the film with the image of the flower and the bee. This excerpt covers the 18 Brumaire coup that abolishes the Directory as well as the accomplishments of Napoleon as Consul (e.g. Napoleonic code, establishment of the state schools, the central bank, etc.)

From Episode Three, start 8 minutes into the film and end at approximately 34 minutes into it with images of fields of stubble. This covers one of Napoleon's greatest moments on the battlefield: Austerlitz.

Then show either Episode Four - the first 5 minutes which covers Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Spain.

or

Episode Four - approximately 13 minutes into the film with the image of the fire and end at approximately 24 minutes in with the images of horses and sabers. This covers the battles of Borodino and the retreat from Moscow.

Newspaper Staffs Get to Work

Divide the class into newspaper staffs. For 30 students you might create six teams of five, three for Napoleon and three against. If possible, students should write two articles each. Create enough roles on the newspaper staff so that each member of the team has a function such as:

  • Editor-in-Chief - in charge of coordinating assignments, calling meetings, and insuring that the newspaper articles reflect a consistent point of view.
  • Copy Editor - in charge of proofreading articles for grammar and style.
  • Layout Designer - in charge of "cutting and pasting" articles into columns or using a computer software program to help create the layout.
  • Pictures Editor - in charge of downloading and selecting pictures from the Web, or assigning students to draw "etchings" which can be pasted or scanned in.
  • Masthead Designer - in charge of designing the masthead, creating the newspaper's motto.
  • Headline Writer - in charge of seeing that each article has a dramatic and appropriate headline.
Assigning Topics for News Articles

Either the teacher or the team, with the help of the Editor-in-Chief, should assign the topics. The team should decide on the name of the paper, where it is being published, and who its main readership might be. The Editor-in-Chief should make sure that his or her newspaper has at least one article in each of the following categories:

  • Napoleon's heritage, early life and education (1769 - 1792).
  • Napoleon's rise to power, from Toulon through the invasion of Egypt (1793 -1799).
  • The Consulate, from Napoleon's seizure of power through renewal of war with Great Britain (1800-1803).
  • The Empire, from Napoleon's coronation through the Treaty of Tilsit (1804-1807).
  • The Empire, from the invasion of Spain to Waterloo (1808-1815).
  • A newsbreaking event of the day - 1815 (Congress of Vienna closes, defeat at Waterloo, Louis XVIII returns, etc)
  • Editorials - summaries of the Napoleonic era which reflect the viewpoint of the paper; predictions for the future of Europe now.
  • Arts, sciences, fashion, literature reviews (Artists of the day include musicians Beethoven, Liszt, and Rossini, writers Chateaubriand, Washington Irving, Jane Austen, Byron, Shelley, Mme. De Stael, and Goethe, painters Ingres, Constable, and Goya. Early steamships and steam power engines are being field tested at this time, and Lamarck is writing about biological species. For an excellent listing see: The Timetables of History by Bernard Grun, Simon & Schuster, 1991.)
Students can begin their research by looking at the PBS Napoleon Web Site, starting with the Timeline. They should not try to cover all the events of Napoleon's career, but rather pick and choose those which will support their paper's point of view.

Writing News Articles

Remind students that they are neither writing personal essays, nor encyclopedia articles—they are writing news articles. When President Clinton's term is over, both Republican and Democratic newspapers will assess his two terms in office. However, only in the editorials will the papers directly express the editor's viewpoint. Students need to realize that the case for or against Napoleon will rest with the facts they present, although they can to some extent pick and choose those facts. Remind them that they need to present events as if they have happened in their own lifetimes. Encourage them to find and use contemporaneous quotes on the PBS Napoleon Web site, in books or on the Internet. They can interview imaginary people as well (e.g. a soldier at Waterloo), but what he or she recounts must incorporate the historical record.

You can review journalistic writing style by bringing in current-day news articles. Students should study lead sentences to observe how journalists incorporate the 5 W's (who, what, when, where and why) and for how they get a "hook" that interests the reader. More advanced classes should be introduced to the much more elaborate and embellished writing style of 19th century authors whom they might try to emulate. For example, read aloud the opening passages of Charles Dickens's novel, A Tale of Two Cities or Thomas Carlyle's history, The French Revolution.

V. ASSESSMENT RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Students can be evaluated for their participation in class discussions led by the teacher, as well as how cooperatively they worked on the their newspaper teams.
  2. Students' news articles can be judged according to a specified rubric by their teammates, or by other student readers of their papers and/or by the teacher.
  3. News articles should reflect factual mastery of the Napoleonic era and an understanding of how point of view affects interpretation.
VI. EXTENSIONS/ADAPTATIONS
  1. Student newspapers should be published and distributed either by Xeroxing them or by having them published on your school's Web site. It is important that members of opposing sides read each other's papers.
  2. For an even more complex look at point of view, you can suggest that some papers be published outside of France, for example from the United States (then fighting the British), Britain, Austria, Russia (or any other ally in the fight against Napoleon), or a Jewish press anywhere in Europe (Napoleon liberated the Jews from ghettos throughout the lands he conquered).
  3. Lead the class in a series of informal or formal debates about Napoleon. Hold a final vote to establish whether the class believes Napoleon was a hero or a tyrant.
  4. Compare contemporaneous views of Napoleon with what historians think today. Start by investigating the PBS Web Site on Napoleon, especially the section "The Man and the Myth."
  5. As students continue their study of European history following the Napoleonic era, ask them if what they have subsequently learned changes their views of Napoleon and his legacy.
  6. Ask students to examine a controversial figure from the 20th century in light of the hero versus tyrant controversy. For example, who might consider Ho Chi Minh or General Douglas MacArthur to be a hero rather than a tyrant, or a tyrant rather than a hero, and why?
VII. WEB RESOURCES
(Note: these links will take you away from PBS Online.)

For pictures of the Napoleonic Era:

Napoleonic Gallery
http://napoleonicgallery.napoleonicwars.com/

For maps and charts:

Royal Navy During the Napoleonic Era
http://home.gci.net/~stall/ship1.html

For additional articles on the Napoleonic Wars:

Napoleonic War Series
http://www.wtj.com/wars/napoleonic

For heroines in world history:

Women in World History
http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine.html

For 20th century heroes and heroines:

TIME 100: The Most Important People of the 20th Century
http://www.time.com/time100/index.html

About the Author
Joan Brodsky Schur teaches Social Studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. She is the co-author of In A New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature and a frequent contributor to Social Education. Other online lessons by Joan can be found at the National Archives Web Site "The Constitution Community": http://www.nara.gov/education/cc.

 

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