What I've been reading
If you've never read anything about Napoleon, this is not the book to start with, as Woloch freely admits in his preface. He ignores pretty much everything that we think of as "Napoleonic" history - his military victories, his coronation, his law code - to focus on the men around Napoleon who helped him take power and ease his creation of a dictatorship. In fact, after the first chapter, detailing the coup of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799), which made Napoleon the first consul, Woloch rarely brings the emperor into the picture very much. He always lurks in the background, and he shows up for Senate debates and the like, but Woloch implies at some places and baldly states at others that Napoleon was too often off engaging in military expeditions to be too involved in the nuts and bolts of government. Napoleon was very keen on governing, and when he was in Paris, he was a dynamo of activity, and even when he was at the front he insisted on dispatches that would keep him abreast of what was happening, but Woloch shows us that his collaborators were working hard to implement his program even when he wasn't around.
This is a serious work of history, so it's somewhat dry, but for someone who has read a little about Napoleon but usually only in the context of the great conqueror as one-man empire, it's a neat book. Woloch basically goes chronologically through Napoleon's reign, and he makes clear that Napoleon didn't do it alone. He was a genius in making people believe they had a say in how France was run, even though after about 1802 (when he became consul for life), there was really no way to stop him beyond assassination (which came on 3 Nivôse - 24 December 1800 - and really catapulted him even more toward authoritarianism). So the people he surrounded himself with - the Senate, the Tribunate, the Legislature - were allowed to believe that they had some input, and Woloch is unable to say whether they really believed they did, or if they simply deluded themselves. Probably a bit of both.
Woloch devotes one chapter to Jean-Jacques-Régis Cambacérès, the second most important man in Napoleonic France. Cambacérès was the second consul and later archchancellor, and as Woloch himself admits, perhaps second most important man in the country "is not saying much, given the absolute grip on power that Bonaparte eventually established" (page 123). But Cambacérès gives the reader an interesting focus, because of his credentials as a revolutionary. In Napoleon, the revolutionaries thought they found a culmination to what they had worked a decade for, and many were unwilling to admit they had been betrayed by Bonaparte. Cambacérès is one of these people, as Woloch shows that he tied himself into knots trying to justify his service to Napoleon, just as he had tied himself into knots in 1792 when it came time to vote for the death of Louis XVI (technically, Woloch points out, he could be considered a regicide, but with less enthusiasm than many of his colleagues). As Napoleon became more secure in his power, he began to phase the older revolutionaries out, perhaps because he feared they might actually remember their past and do something about him as they had to the king.
Woloch goes over several key topics concerning the later empire, including the creation of a nobility in 1808 and the return of press censorship. What he does nicely is show how many of Napoleon's edicts were heartily endorsed by his government. They didn't do this out of fear for their life, Woloch argues, because with the spectacular exception of the duc d'Enghien, people did not lose their life for speaking against Napoleon. He exiled them, sure, but didn't kill them. With very few exceptions (Tallyrand the most notable, perhaps), the men in Napoleon's government didn't resign in protest. Napoleon created a dictatorship, as Woloch makes clear, but he did it with the full endorsement of the men who overthrew the last oppressive government, that of the Bourbons.
This book isn't a page-turner by any means. It's well written but not particularly lively. It's for people who like history books (hey! that's me!), but not for someone with only a passing interest in the past (and that's nobody, right?). If you've read a book or two about Napoleon and want to learn more about his rule, I'd certainly recommend it, because it sheds a lot of light on how Napoleon was able to carve out a dictatorship when the French had just gotten rid of one. In many respects, this book is more valuable to the present than a straight history of Napoleon. This shows us, in chilling bureaucratic detail, how a government can take away rights if they do it "the right way." Good thing we don't know any president who tries to do that, right?