It rose and it fell under his command, but history hasn’t since repeated itself. During the rule of Napoleon, who first overthrew the Directory in 1799, France was a thriving nation with control of much of Europe. Still, Britain was a consistent threat, often leading the charge against Napoleon and ultimately being one of the main powers to defeat him at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. With France reduced to its original borders, the stage was set for Britain to utilize it’s workforce, new technology, strong navy and rich colonies in order to dominate the global landscape. As shown through the power shift from France, to Britain, and now to the USA, no empire can remain paramount forever. But how is such a massive shift in power made possible?
Quite rapidly, Napoleon’s persuasive, relentless nature led to him great heights as the man in charge of the fastest growing empire in the world. Beginning as a member of minor aristocracy on the island of Corsica, the determined Napoleon moved quickly through the ranks in France’s army. He was convincing and inspiring, swaying the minds of others while his held steady. Utilizing the patriotic feelings of the French following their Revolution, Napoleon mobilized massive armies as he went about conquering bits of Europe. After crowning himself Emperor in 1804, he had even more power over the minds of the people, gaining the trust of many, partly due to the use of censorship in the media and education systems. Napoleon took advantage of his newly conquered nations in order to grow the French Empire, forming an army comprised of men of varying ethnic backgrounds.
Napoleon was gaining much of Europe’s territory, but a weakening army and strengthening enemies halted his quest for world domination. Not all nations were compliant with French occupation, with Spain taking a firm stance against Napoleon and his men. After their king was replaced with the French emperor’s brother, the Spanish resistance grew even stronger, strong enough to defeat the Frenchmen. A 5-year war, fought with methods foreign to Napoleon, was a crack in the ultimate authority of the French leader. Still, he continued to fight, entering Russia in 1812 after they turned their back on a previous agreement and continued trade with Britain. Instead of battle on a field, the Russians retreated, burning the shelter and food that was ahead of the Grande Armée. After reaching the gates of Moscow, the Grande Armée was spent and thousands died on the long trek home through the harsh winter weather of Russia. Leaving his defeated army, Napoleon returned to Paris,his reputation severely weakened. But he remobilized, and a new army fought many successful battles against the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians. Then a vital battle was lost at Leipzig, in present-day Germany, followed by a defeat near Paris. Napoleon, crushed, abdicated and was exiled to Elba.
Though an opponent of the most influential and powerful empire at the time, Britain was a fierce threat, ultimately playing one of the main roles in the defeat of the Napoleonic Empire. From 1803-1814, the British and French underwent a series of wars centered on trade. In an effort to suppress Britain and exert greater control over his territory, Napoleon created the Continental System, banning his colonies from trading with Britain. In response, Britain issued similar laws, smuggled goods into French colonial territory, and taking advantage of its own colonies across the seas. With relations to Napoleon never improving, they were a vital player in the 7th Coalition that worked to destroy Napoleon after his return to France. At the Battle of Waterloo, they did just that, and Napoleon was sent to St. Helena in the south Atlantic. Quickly, Frances original borders were reinstated, with Britain taking over much of the fallen Empire.
With rich natural resources, both in England and her colonies, a growing labour force, and a previously exerted dominance via the seas, Britain was in the perfect condition to grow and remain the most powerful nation on Earth for over a century. Napoleon had commanded a France with a larger population and more robust agricultural sector than Britain, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Britain’s population was on the rise, especially in the urban centers, where farmers whom had lost their jobs to improved technology fled in search of work. Through enclosure, the seed drill, and a new system of crop rotation, among other technologies, the countryside was producing an abundance of food that in turn could feed the growing city population. These people were put to work using the latest industrial technologies, which quickly became powered by a resource with which England was abundant – coal. Even with this perfect mix, Britain could not have thrived well into the 20th century without their efforts being so focused on trade. With natural resources from its many colonies across the seas that it commanded, Britain was able to fuel its industry and have a reliable market to sell its manufactured goods to. The colonies sold their raw resources, and in turn could buy all sorts of fancy goods. That, coupled with up-to-the-minute technology, meant it dominated the competitive market, offering the cheapest new products.
Some of Britain’s main colonies, providing raw materials and tax dollars, were the Thirteen Colonies who ended up breaking away once they gained enough strength to defy their “motherland.” The first British colony in present-day USA was the Virginia Settlement in 1607; by 1733 all 13 had been established. Local governments were in place in the settlements, as Britain was far, far away. While the colonists were not represented in the British Parliament, they were subject to British taxation. Soon, the expanding colonies were protesting, resulting in the American Revolution of 1775-83 and ultimately, the independence of one of Britain’s main trading partners.
The newly formed USA had a long way to go before it would outcompete the British, now in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, for the top spot. It had to build on the structure already in place; natural resources, a solid military and infrastructure had to be developed and great trade relations formed. Jumping forward to the early 20th century, the USA was taking on a more prominent role as a forward thinking nation with a rapidly changing culture. The economy was thriving following the Second World War, which had spurred capital investment and industrial growth. The USA, along with the USSR, was placed at the head of international relations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the tension between these two powers, or the Cold War, ended with the USA coming out on top.
No empire can remain the most dominant power forever. There is a natural progression as different nations develop new technologies, form stronger trade relations, and build upon practices already in place in other countries. What matters is making sure your domestic and international relations are strong so that after you fall you still have means to survive and thrive, even if it’s in a lower position. Though they were originally at odds, Britain and and the USA reconciled their differences as both recognized the advantage to be gained from cooperation; the UK now has a Special Relationship with America, as they share much in the way of “economic activity, trade and commerce, military planning, execution of military operations, nuclear weapons technology and intelligence” (Wikipedia).
E pluribus unum is the Latin phrase on the Seal of the United States, translated into “Out of one, many.” This could be taken as “out of many colonies emerged one nation” but I automatically thought of “out of all counties, the USA has come out on top.” It may not be that way for long though; in our lifetime, the title of global superpower may fall to the increasingly influential industrial powerhouses in Asia. From President Obama: “The fact of the matter is that for most of my lifetime – and I’ll turn 50 next year – the US was such an enormously dominant economic power, we were such a large market, our industry, our technology, our manufacturing was so significant that we always met the rest of the world economically on our terms. And now because of the incredible rise of India and China and Brazil and other countries, the US remains the largest economy and the largest market, but there is real competition.” Or in other words – will the sun soon be setting on the American empire?
Cranny, Michael. Crossroads: A Meeting of Nations. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 1998. Print.
“Obama Acknowledges Decline of US Dominance.” The Times of India. The Times of India, 8 Nov 2010. Web. 12 Apr 2012.
Wikipedia contributors. “Battle of Waterloo.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Web. 8 Apr 2012.
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