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Napoleon

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Napoleon

Few people are ever as successful in their endeavours as Napoleon Bonaparte was. Fewer still have a whole series of pan-continental events named after them, as the Napoleonic Wars were. So, who exactly was this great Napoleon, how did he rise to such power, and what led to his eventual downfall?

Napoleon Facts: Early Years

Napoleon was born Napoleone di Buonaparte in 1769 into a reasonably wealthy noble family on the island of Corsica, off the west coast of Italy.

Corsica had only been part of France since 1768, previously part of the Republic of Genoa.

He was baptised a Catholic but religion was not particularly important to him – he was even married in a civil ceremony.

Napoleon’s first language was Corsican, only learning French at age nine when his family moved to the French mainland. Allegedly, he was bullied for his thick Corsican accent.

Napoleon was academically gifted, particularly in maths, history, and geography. He enrolled at the École Militaire in Paris in 1784, but his father’s death meant he had to complete the two-year course in just one year due to limited finances. He was the first Corsican to graduate from the military academy.

Napoleon Portrait of Napoleon StudySmarterPortrait of Napoleon, Pixabay

Napoleon’s Early Military Career

After graduating from the academy, he became an artillery officer in the French army in 1785. The French Revolution broke out in 1789, but Napoleon was preoccupied with Corsican affairs. It was not until 1793 that he rose to prominence.

Corsica

A man named Pasquale Paoli had led Corsica until the French invasion of 1768–69; he had been a critical figure in the resistance. When the nationalists were defeated the following year, he fled. However, having joined the French army, he was permitted to fight in Corsica in 1790. Napoleon was a devout Corsican nationalist at this time and joined Paoli’s group. However, Paoli shunned him, considering Napoleon’s father a traitor as he had abandoned the fight for Corsican independence.

When Napoleon returned to France, he joined and eventually led the Jacobin Club. Back and forth to Corsica during this period, Napoleon was made a Captain in the Revolutionary Army in 1792, only to return to Corsica for the final time. Paoli had broken with France, and Napoleon joined the Corsican Jacobins’ political group in opposition. In 1793, Paoli condemned Napoleon’s whole family, and they fled to France.

The Jacobin Club

The most famous political group of the French Revolution that became increasingly radical and violent.

Siege of Toulon

Later in 1793, having published the French Republican pamphlet Le souper de Beaucaire (Supper at Beaucaire), Napoleon made powerful allies in the Revolutionary hierarchy – notably the Robespierre brothers, who were Revolutionary commanders, and Corsican comrade Antoine Cristoph Saliceti. He was made a senior gunner and artillery commander for the Siege of Toulon.

The British, who wanted to see the restoration of the monarchy, supported the royalists (people in support of the monarchy) in Toulon. Napoleon was key in the success of the Siege for the Revolutionary forces, as the British were forced to withdraw. This was his first military victory and earned him a promotion to Brigadier General.

The Vendémiaire Uprising

On 5 October 1795, 25,000 royalists marched on the French government, which seemed to be a losing battle for the government and was greatly outnumbered, but Napoleon’s command saved the day. This triumph got the attention of politician Paul Barras, and Napoleon was made Commander of the Army of the Interior and later Commander of France’s Army of Italy.

Napoleon’s successes in Toulon and the Vendémiarie Uprising saw him rise in popularity, which was only the beginning.

Napoleon’s Rise to Power

From his first military victory in 1793, to ruling France in 1799 – how exactly did Napoleon manage this?

EventExplanation
Napoleon in Italy
  • Napoleon was made Commander of the Army of Italy on 2 March 1796, beginning his invasion a month later.

  • At this time, Austria controlled much of Italy.

  • Napoleon saw great success in Italy, with a considerable territory ceded to France through the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio made with Austria.

  • He returned to Paris later in 1797 to a hero’s welcome.

Military Tactics
  • Napoleon’s tactics and his army’s superior technology earned him significant fame and influence in political circles.
  • He created magazines for his troops and circulation in France, and Royalists disliked him even more, as they feared he had the potential to become a dictator.
Coup of 18 Fructidor
  • A coup in 1797 expelled two directors and over 50 royalist members of the legislature.
  • Napoleon sent the general who commanded this at the request of the Directory.
  • It demonstrated the power of the army and saw increased power in the executive, foreshadowing rule under Napoleon.
Napoleon in Egypt
  • After his success in Italy, Napoleon was appointed Commander of an expedition to Egypt.
  • The aim was to reduce the dominance of Britain in the area and damage France’s rival by cutting Britain’s links with India via the Suez Canal in Egypt.
  • Despite some initial success, the campaign ultimately failed due to local resistance, disease, and Britain’s sinking of most of the French fleet.
  • Napoleon returned to France in 1799.
Coup of 18 Brumaire
  • Napoleon was welcomed back to France again, despite his failure in Egypt.
  • Upon his return, politician Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès approached Napoleon, as he desired a stronger executive body like Napoleon. He asked Napoleon to join a coup d'état to overthrow the existing government.
  • Napoleon led the coup on 9 November 1799, which was successful.
Constitution of the Year VIII
  • After the coup, Napoleon, Sieyes, and Roger Ducos were made provisional Consults in charge of the government.
  • The new constitution created a new form of government: the Consulate.
  • Napoleon became the First Consul, giving him more power than Sieyes and Ducos. He, therefore, had more powers and effectively became the dictator the royalists had feared.

Napoleon favoured a military approach called the ‘hinge’ tactic that involved attacking the area of an opposing army where two of its battalions joined – the so-called ‘hinge’ of the army. He could then force them apart and concentrate on the weaker side until they fled and then turn to fight the remaining force.

Napoleon’s Early Rule

The first years of Napoleon’s rule were characterised by battles, particularly as the Austrians attempted to regain ground they had lost in Italy. Finally, in 1802, a tentative peace treaty was signed with Britain, ending the Revolutionary Wars. Taking advantage of this newfound European peace and recovering economy, Napoleon went to the people to approve a new Constitution which would make his position as First Consul permanent. The constitution was approved via referendum, and Napoleon turned his attention to the French colonies, particularly in the Caribbean.

The peace in Europe was tenuous, and the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars was imminent.

Napoleon’s Coronation

In 1804, a new constitution was passed, making Napoleon Emperor of the French and establishing the First French Empire. On 2 December 1804, Napoleon was crowned in Notre Dame. The title ‘Emperor of the French’ was specifically chosen to distinguish Napoleon from past French kings, suggesting he ruled over the people rather than the state.

Additionally, in 1805 Napoleon was crowned King of Italy. He had been president of the Italian Republic since 1802, which Napoleon had formed during his conquest of Italy (at that time, it was called the Cisalpine Republic). This coronation bore a striking resemblance to that of a Roman Emperor: he was crowned with golden laurels, mimicking his Roman counterparts before him.

The Napoleonic Wars

The Napoleonic Wars is the name given to Napoleon’s campaigns against various coalitions of European states attempting to remove the French from their dominant position, from around 1801 until Napoleon’s final abdication in 1815.

Napoleonic Empire

The French Empire controlled almost the entire European peninsula at its most powerful, apart from the Balkan States. France included Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as large parts of Germany and Italy, and by 1814 Napoleon and his family ruled over Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Poland and Malta. There were alliances with the Nordic states, Prussia, and Russia. Napoleon had direct rule over around 44 million French citizens and, by extension, around a further 90 million who lived in the Empire.1

Napoleon had a large family whom he used to rule over the limbs of his Empire he couldn’t administer himself. For example, his brother Joseph was made King of Spain, and his stepson was made Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy. However, Napoleon’s Empire was so big that he began to have to use more distant relatives and his trusted generals to run parts of it, such as General Murat - he was made King of Naples.

Key events of the Napoleonic Wars

EventSummary
Attack on the RhineNapoleon knew he couldn’t defeat the British navy, renowned for being the strongest in the world, and couldn’t lure them away from the English Channel. Instead, he attacked the River Rhein in 1796, capturing Vienna and securing huge bounties of loot and land.
Prussian InvasionFrench dominance greatly reduced Prussia’s influence in central Europe, so they declared war on France in 1806 – Napoleon’s army decimated the Prussians. Napoleon was stronger than ever, seemingly undefeatable.
Continental SystemAs he couldn’t defeat their navy, Napoleon wanted to weaken the British economy. He used his European dominance to establish a trade embargo known as the Continental System in 1806, banning nations in the French Empire and those allied with it from trading with Britain. Despite this, countries such as Russia continued to buy and sell from Britain, infuriating Napoleon. The embargo did little to weaken the British economy, save for reducing its exports to Europe, and it arguably weakened Napoleon’s hold on his Empire, as it angered his allies.
Failure against AustriaIn recent years, Napoleon defeated Austria twice, so in 1809 they declared war once again on France to reclaim their pride. Napoleon stifled the invasion, but upon giving chase to the Austrians as they retreated, he was prevented from crossing the River Danube. For the first time, Europe saw that Napoleon could be defeated.
Failure in Russia Due to Russia’s repeated violations of the trade ban and increasing tensions, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. However, the French made little progress due to the extreme cold and snow and the Russians’ refusal to directly engage in battle. When they eventually fought, Napoleon’s forces couldn’t overcome the Russians. It was increasingly clear Napoleon could be defeated, and countries began to form greater alliances to remove him from his position of near-total dominance in Europe.
Peninsular WarBetween 1807 and 1814, the Spanish, Portuguese and British fought to remove the occupying French from the Iberian Peninsula. France and Spain had jointly invaded Portugal in 1807, but France turned on Spain and occupied its former ally in 1808. Napoleon made his brother, Joseph, King. The Napoleonic rule was unpopular amongst the Spanish, and they fought a war to remove him, which lasted until 1814 upon Napoleon’s defeat to the Sixth Coalition and first abdication.
Defeat to the Sixth CoalitionHaving seen that Napoleon was increasingly capable of being defeated, a huge coalition was formed, consisting of Sweden, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Britain, and Prussia. They fought to remove Napoleon from his Empire and reduce it to a fraction of its current size. The Coalition defeated Napoleon in the single most significant battle of the Napoleonic wars, the Battle of Leipzig, and marched through Paris. Napoleon lost the support of his generals and abdicated in 1814. He was exiled to Elba, where he remained for ten months.

The Hundred Days

The Hundred Days refers to a brief period in which Napoleon regained his power in France.

Napoleon managed to flee Elba in February 1815 aboard a ship named Inconstant with 700 men in tow. Louis XVIII sent an army to recapture him, but Napoleon still had massive support in France, and King Louis fled on 13 March.

When Napoleon arrived in Paris, he regained rule of France. In a proactive attempt to head off the Seventh Coalition headed to unseat him, he headed into what is now modern-day Belgium to face the British and Prussian armies.

Battle of Waterloo

On 18 June 1815, the Duke of Wellington led the British army against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. He held off Napoleon’s forces while the Prussian army managed to break through the French lines – Napoleon fled to Paris but found that he had lost the people’s support.

By this point, the Coalition armies were moving swiftly through France once again, aiming to restore King Louis to power. On 22 June 1815, having lost his country’s support, Napoleon was forced to surrender.

Exile and Death

Napoleon was once again exiled to St Helena, a small island off the West Coast of Africa. He was allowed visitors and held dinner parties and card games, although the island was guarded to prevent any possible escape. Despite having a relatively high degree of freedom on the island, he was known to moan about his living conditions and confinement with his guests.

Nobody is quite sure of Napoleon’s exact cause of death, but his health quickly went downhill in February 1821. His living conditions were squalid, and he cared little for his hygiene. He died at his home on 5 May 1821, having had a Catholic priest read his Last Rites.

Napoleon’s Legacy

Napoleon’s legacy has been widely debated – he was a military genius, but was he intent on expanding his country and full of national pride, or a self-service despot who only wanted power for himself?

This question you may well decide for yourself! There are certainly arguments both ways, with one journalist commenting that he could be viewed as 'an enlightened despot who laid the foundations of modern Europe' or “a megalomaniac who wrought greater misery than any man before the coming of Hitler.' 2

Like many things, you will find in historical analysis, the answer is probably somewhere inbetween. Napoleon instigated many changes during his reign, which are still visible today. He legalised divorce well ahead of his time, and his Napoleonic Code was the basis of the modern-day Code Civil, the French Civil Code.

His other, less noble exploits included filling French museums with the loot from his plundering of other countries; the Louvre in Paris became a shrine for foreign artefacts he had acquired from far-off lands. While there can be no doubt his conquests and military brilliance were unrivalled, perhaps his most outstanding unifying achievement was in uniting almost everybody against him. France lost its overseas colonies and much of its European territory and was bankrupt at the time of Napoleon’s exile and having lost countless lives in the process of conquering Europe.

He has been portrayed as a heroic visionary and a power-hungry megalomaniac. He was probably both.

Napoleon - Key Takeaways

  • Napoleon was born in 1769 into a reasonably wealthy noble family on the island of Corsica, off the west coast of Italy.
  • In 1784, he enrolled in the military academy in Paris.
  • He was a member of the radical revolutionary Jacobin Club.
  • He quickly rose through the army's ranks, once he had been forced to flee from Corsica by Paoli, with victories at Toulon and in the Vendémiaire Uprising.
  • After commanding troops in Italy and Egypt, Napoleon was part of a coup in 1799 which overthrew the French government. He became First Consul and in 1804 became Emperor of the French.
  • The Napoleonic Wars initially saw huge victories for Napoleon but eventually led to his downfall.
  • Even having been exiled once, he escaped and re-won the support of the French in a period called the Hundred Days but his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo once again forced him to abdicate.
  • He spent his last days in exile on St Helena and died on 5 May 1821.

1Lyons, M., Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution, p. 232.

2Max Hastings, Everything is Owed to Glory, Wall Street Journal, 31 October 2014

Frequently Asked Questions about Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of the French who rose through the ranks of the Republican army remarkably quickly. He became the new French Republic leader and led his armies to victory in almost every battle they fought. He is one of the most successful military leaders and rulers of all time.

Napoleon was born in Corsica, a small island off the coast of Italy. He moved to France when he was nine years old.

Napoleon died in exile on St Helena on 5 May 1821.

Having only had one or two minor setbacks, his first major failure came at the attempted invasion of Russia, when the weather was the main obstacle. However, the major defeat leading to his downfall was at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. His final defeat was at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Napoleon was exiled twice; once to Elba and then to St Helena – both times to contain him and prevent him from ever becoming leader of France again. It was on St Helena that Napoleon lived the last days of his life.

Final Napoleon Quiz

Question

Where was Napoleon born and brought up?

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Answer

Corsica, a former Italian island given to France the year he was born. He moved to France at the age of nine.

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What was Napoleon’s educational background?

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Answer

He was academically gifted, particularly in maths, history and geography. After finishing school, he went to the École Militaire in Paris.

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Question

What was the Jacobin Club?

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Answer

The most famous political group of the Revolution, which Napoleon joined and then led. They became increasingly violent. 

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Question

What was the Vendémiaire uprising?

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Answer

It was a Royalist uprising against the government. The government seemed destined to lose and was vastly outnumbered, but Napoleon led them to victory.

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What was Napoleon’s reward for defeating the Vendémiaire uprising? 

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Answer

He was made Commander of the Army of the Interior, and then Commander of the Army of Italy

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What was the Coup of 18 Fructidor?

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Answer

The expulsion of two directors and over 50 royalist members of the legislature by a general Napoleon sent

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Why did Napoleon fail in Egypt?

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Answer

Disease, local resistance, and loss of ships due to British attack

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Why did Napoleon want to invade Egypt?

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Answer

To disrupt British trade through the Suez Canal, as he couldn’t directly take on its navy

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What were the Napoleonic Wars?

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Answer

Wars fought against various coalitions of European states who wanted to remove Napoleon. 

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How did Napoleon rule his empire?

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The parts he could control, he ruled himself – in the further reaches of the Empire, he delegated to members of his family and trusted allies in his military.

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What was the Continental System?

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Answer

A trade embargo Napoleon established, preventing states in the empire and its allies from trading with Britain in an attempt to weaken its economy

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Question

Which two events signalled that it was possible to defeat Napoleon?

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Answer

Failure to cross the Danube against Austria and the failed invasion of Russia

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How was Napoleon eventually defeated?

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Answer

By the Sixth Coalition, a huge alliance of European nations that teamed up to remove Napoleon once and for all

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What do the Hundred Days refer to?

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Answer

A period when Napoleon managed to regain power in France, having escaped exile on Elba

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What finally ended Napoleon’s second rule?

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Answer

Defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and exile to St Helena by the British

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