Napoleon failed and failed hard. His rise incredible, his talent almost unsurpassed, his reforms educated and liberal, he unified, he inspired and yet in a relatively short amount of time, it was all over. It didn’t have to be, here are the primary reasons he failed:
The most superior form of government to prove itself over and over again in history is a Republic. In the short time that Napoleon was First Consul over a free Constitutional Republic his GDP roared, his debts lightened, his soldiers won, the people they conquered felt liberated. Then, for reasons only he really understands, he decided to crown himself emperor. Never has a man grabbed the crown and coroneted himself. This was the greatest blunder in world history! By switching to an empire, he told his conquered people that they were subjects and not citizens, and neighboring powers that no one was safe, for an emperor is always about expansion and conquest.
The Continental System
The continental system was a program of trying to economically strangle itself in order to punish others. What is a kingdom when compared to a Republic in trade? Had Napoleon gone the other direction and encourage trade with Britain at all costs no matter the situation, helped push a black market, and also included Russia in the trade it would have created peace, filled the treasury, and given him time to solidify his relationship with the US and his colonies especially Haiti.
A Non-Existent Navy
Napoleon was not a Navy man. When his entire Navy was whipped out in one swift battle he seemed not to care. It was his fault, he kept an inept and unqualified man as the admiral. Had he treated his Navy like he did his early Army with the best people in the best place and diverted the majority of the military funds to the Navy he could have controlled the entire Mediterranean. What a greater prize than controlling islands across the ocean. Most of all, he could have rescued his Egypt men, the ones he abandoned, he could have saved them from certain death and then turned those men into national celebrities and showed everyone the loyalty he had to his men. The Navy could have increased commerce and secured his homeland especially from Britain.
From the beginning of mankind, the bad guy is the aggressor. Napoleon should have really listened to his public relations firm and not invade Russia over something as petty as trade. Of course they are going to want to trade and keep their economy going who is France to say they couldn’t trade. Invasion is evil and by doing it Napoleon surrendered the high ground which is incredibly empowering to an Army. Elective War is a destruction to a nations soul.
Worse than elective war for a nation is perpetual war. If you are going to engage in elective war, make it fast, brutal, total and complete. Totally destroy the enemy. Pillage and loot and make sure there will never be any retribution. No nation in all of history has ever benefited from perpetual war. Napoleon, by choosing to restrict commerce, allow the Navy to be destroyed, invade powerful nations, to occupy instead of conquer or even much better, liberate, ensured a state of constant war. How many coalitions formed to beat him? Way too many, those should have all been his own coalitions to conquer the rest of the known world and divide it all up!
Royalty, Nepotism, and Vassalage
Napoleons entire rise to power was because of being in the exact right place at the exact right time. One of these right times was the movement to expel royalty. The US had been in existence and was functioning and republicanism was on the rise. In the beginning of his career as well, he was huge into making sure men of pure talent were in leadership. As time went on, he feared men of talent. Instead of making them feel empowered, he feared them and instead, made his family kings and queens and emperors and empresses and instead of making the lands that were under French control including Spain and Italy and Austria free and provincial with talented governors and governor generals he made them subjects and put his own incompetent family as kings over them. Had he allowed those who he occupied to be free, to be a rule of law republic and give them talented men they would have loved him and the insurgencies that plagued his rule would have been gone, those lands would have been absorbed. The crazy thing to understand is that he understood this principle. He understood the unity of liberty but instead allowed the power to act as the ring of Sauron did to Isildor.
Finally, as a first generation consul for life and later Emperor, he needed to avoid the trappings of royalty. Had he fully embraced a form of principled life in which he honored his wife publicly and didn’t indulge in adultery, even being the leader of France this would have allowed for him to focus more on being a mighty ruler and less on what the power brought in terms of decadence.