Napoleon's Biography And Role In French Revolution

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Very rarely does a figure enter the stage who becomes as renowned as Napoleon Bonaparte. Along with the likes of Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror, Napoleon has secured his place in history as a man who, for better or for worse, radically altered its course. Born Napoleone di Buonaparte, Napoleon was born on the 10th of August 1769 in Corsica, France. He was of Italian heritage, and Corsica had previously belonged to Italy, becoming a province of France shortly before he was born (McLynn ch. 1). His mother Letizia had given birth to thirteen children, although only eight survived into childhood. His father Carlo married Letizia at the age of seventeen, when she was only thirteen. They were fairly wealthy, although as McLynn notes, being one of the wealthiest families in their small hometown of Ajaccio is not very impressive compared to the wealthy families of mainland France, who they aspired to compete with. Their status as Corsican nobility did not afford them many privileges. Still, they lived a relatively comfortable life.

During his life, Napoleon was always known and referred to as a Corsican, but he hated this, and preferred to be viewed as an Italian. His Italian heritage was very important to him, and it was only when he married in 1796 that he changed his name to Napoleon Bonaparte. He went to a Jesuit school at age seven, where he learned fundamental skills such as reading and writing. His mother Letizia was strict, and physically punished the young Napoleon for the slightest misdemeanor. Napoleon would later praise his mother and say that her punishment taught him discipline and ‘good sense.’ However, he had criticisms of his mother, many of which he did not express publicly (McLynn ch. 1). For example, his mother tasked him with spying on his father Carlo while he was at the saloons in Ajaccio. He was less vocal about his father, and it is generally considered that he usually played less of a direct role in his upbringing. In December 1778 however, Carlo sent Napoleon to the city of Autun in mainland France, and the following January he began school there, where he stayed for a short while. Soon after, he transferred to a school in Brienne in May 1779, and then to the military academy in Paris in 1784.

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To provide some context, France at the time was was an absolute monarchy. The king held supreme power, and was not subject to the authority of a parliament or law. There was no concept of natural or human rights, and France at the time was, even more so than today, a deeply hierarchical society with social class firmly established by law. The idea of social equality was nowhere in this picture. Many had pinned their hopes on an enlightened absolute monarchy, as a sort of compromise between the existing system and the true realization of enlightenment ideals. The power of the monarch, however, was largely reliant on the support of the estates and beneath the veneer of absolutism was the underlying feudal system (Hobsbawm 23). Feudalism was still the dominant system in continental Europe, and change within this system would represent a change in form, rather than a change in content.

In his book The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had stated that the characteristics of European society were too deeply ingrained for the transition to truly just society to occur. Nevertheless, revolution did occur, as the economy experienced a serious downturn and the contradictions of French society had pushed France to its breaking point. The resulting upheaval was far more radical and powerful than any of its contemporary movements.

When revolution broke out in France, Napoleon was a military officer after having recently graduating from military the military academy in Paris. Napoleon had then taken leave, and on his return to France he had joined the Jacobin Club. He had good relations with Maximilien Robespierre’s younger brother, Augustin. He was appointed an artillery general because of this (McLynn ch. 4). The French Revolution however later made a turn to the right, and resulted in the Robespierre brothers being guillotined during the Thermidorean reaction in July 1794. Napoleon had at the time gone on a trip to Genoa, and had been accused of going there on a mission from the Robespierres. So, he had been placed under house arrest. He had later been vindicated, however, and was freed. In truth, Napoleon was not as committed to the revolution as the Robespierres were. To quote McLynn:

‘But where Robespierre genuinely did dream of a utopia of perfect equality, the nonexistence of poverty, the triumph of morality, and Rousseau’s General Will, Napoleon never paid more than lip-service to those ideals. At bottom, Napoleon’s heart was with the ancien régime, with its patterns of hierarchy and order.’

With that in mind, it is understandable to see why Napoleon was able to so quickly pivot from the left to a more moderate position.

Early in October 1795, there was a rebellion against the government by royalists in Paris (McLynn 96). Napoleon had assigned Joachim Murat with the task of seizing artillery belonging to the National Guard, with the purpose of crushing the rebellion. Murat, through his association with Napoleon, would later become the King of Naples. Napoleon, having been credited with suppressing the attempted counter-revolution, would become quite notorious as a result. After this, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Interior resigned, and Napoleon had been assigned to fill this position. Napoleon had soon after entered a romantic relationship with Josephine de Beauharnais, who would later become his wife. Josephine, a widow, had two children with her previous husband Alexandre, who had fairly recently been executed, only five days before Robespierre himself was executed. Rose had been imprisoned, but was freed after the Thermidorian reaction. The next year on the 9th of March, Napoleon and Josephine were married. Josephine was liked by many—Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, a friend of Napoleon, wrote in his Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte that he was ‘convinced that all who were acquainted with her must have felt bound to speak well of her,’ and that ‘to few, indeed, did she ever give cause for complaint. In the time of her power she did not lose any of her friends, because she forgot none of them.’

Napoleon, now Commander-in-Chief, had launched a military campaign against Italy in 1796. This campaign was a clear success, and resulted in France gaining control of much of Italy, and the First Coalition being broken (Hobsbawm 86). In 1798, however, Napoleon went on an expedition to Egypt, Malta, and Syria, with the goal of securing an advantage over the British (McLynn ch. 9). His army initially enjoyed great success in their land battles there, but faced heavy losses against British fleets. This strained the army’s supply, and in December the bubonic plague began claiming victims. During Napoleon’s absence, the Second Coalition had taken Italy back from France. Morale had sharply dropped.

After Napoleon’s return to mainland France in 1799, his younger brother Lucien had begun to scheme. He was President of the Council of Five Hundred, one of the two components of the legislature. On 18 Brumaire, or November the 9th, h e had persuaded the other members of government that there was a Jacobin plot, which prompted the majority of the five members of the Directory to resign. The remaining two Directors were arrested. The following day, Napoleon and Joachim Murat, who had in 1795 crushed the royalist rebellion in Paris, used their military authority to intimidate the Councils which essentially dissolved them and destroyed the French Directory (Rapport 17), ending the French Revolution. Soon after, Bonaparte was appointed First Consul.

In 1801, Napoleon signed the Concordat with Pope Pius VII (Rapport 12). This reversed many of the reforms of the French Revolution, which confiscated land and decreased the role of the Roman Catholic Church. The Treaty of Amiens was signed on March 25th of 1802, and ended the current military conflict between Britain and France. This treaty marked the end of the French Revolutionary Wars. In 1803, Britain broke the treaty, which led to the start of the Napoleonic Wars. Later that year, Napoleon sold their largest overseas territory, Louisiana, to the United States. In 1804, the Napoleonic Code was introduced, which was one of Napoleon’s most lasting contributions.

The French Directory was not particularly popular, but there still was opposition to the new French Consulate on both the left and the right, involving assassination plots against Napoleon (McLynn 243). This gave him and the Consulate opportunities and justification to consolidate power and crack down on dissent. Eventually, on May 18th, 1804, the senate elected Napoleon the Emperor of the French. He fancied himself as a sort of successor to Charlemagne, and his coronation combined elements of Roman and ancient French tradition (de Bourrienne ch. 29).

Napoleon then appointed Murat and several others as Marshals of the Empire. Lucien, despite being the chief architect of the coup of 18th Brumaire, was not given any special titles other than that of a senator. De Bourienne wrote in his memoirs that the brothers were no longer on good terms, and that Lucien objected to Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. Lucien did not want to be a part of the new regime. Many of Napoleon’s other siblings, like Jerome Bonaparte, would become kings or be granted other similar royal titles (de Bourrienne, ch. 12). His older brother Joseph would become King of Naples, and later King of Spain, although he had to fight the house of Bourbon for control over the entire country in what is referred to as the Peninsular War. Louis (not to be confused his son also named Louis, who would later become emperor of the Second French Empire) would become King of Holland, although he would soon desire independence. As a result, he fell out of favor with Napoleon. Louis was forced by Napoleon to abdicate, who would then annex Holland. Louis’ other son, named Napoleon, was King of Holland for several days in the meantime.

Earlier in 1803, Great Britain had broken the Treaty of Amiens by declaring war on France, and began constructing the Third Coalition. Alongside Britain, this coalition would involve Sweden, Russia, and Austria (Rapport 12). In turn, Napoleon began constructing the Grande Armée, which would grow to an even larger size than the levée en masse of the early French Revolutionary Wars (Hobsbawm 93). His opponents’ armies were much smaller individually, and could not compete with the superior French military.

The Napoleonic wars would claim many lives on both sides, and would result in many social and political changes across Europe. France directly annexed some conquered territories and turned others into client states, often with his relatives on the throne. He consolidated much of the small German states into larger states, when he formed the Confederation of the Rhine in 1806 (Hobsbawm 85). This angered Prussia, and was the main cause of the formation of the Fourth Coalition. In the territories directly controlled by France, the institutions of the French Empire were put into effect and changed life in these territories considerably.

Napoleon as a ruler put into practice many of the ideas envisioned by the revolutionaries, with a more conservative and authoritarian bent (Hobsbawm 75). Bonapartism became an ideology with significant influence until around the end of the Second French Empire, led by Louis Napoleon, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew. Louis had taken power after a coup d’etat in 1851. He had previously attempted to seize power in a failed coup in 1836, and a second failed coup in 1840 (de Bourrienne, ch. 12).

In 1809, the Fifth Coalition was formed, again involving Austria and Great Britain, and also Spain, who had been part of the ongoing conflict between the parts of Spain controlled by the house of Bourbon and the house of Bonaparte. This coalition once again resulted in a victory for the French Empire, which had Napoleon controlling more territory previously belonging to Austria. The “Illyrian Provinces” in what is now part of Croatia were now under direct French control, and other Austrian territories were transferred to Bavaria, which was a member state of Napoleon’s client state, the Confederation of the Rhine. The year after, in 1810, Napoleon and Josephine agreed to a divorce, because Napoleon needed an heir and Josephine was unable to give him one.

In 1812, Napoleon had launched an invasion of Russia (Hobsbawm 93). This prompted another coalition, the Sixth Coalition. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was famously a failure. Napoleon had an opportunity to accept a peace treaty in 1813 and remain Emperor, but this entailed giving up a significant amount of territory, so he refused. He was given another offer in 1814, which required he give up even more land, and he was not willing to accept these terms. On March 30th 1814, the coalition powers entered Paris, and soon after, Napoleon officially abdicated. The War of the Sixth Coalition had formally ended (McLynn 585). The new conditions of the peace were even more unmerciful. The Bourbon dynasty returned to the throne with Louis XVIII in 1814, and Napoleon was exiled to the small island of Elba off the coast of Italy.

During his time on the island, he developed Elba and passed several reforms as the sovereign ruler of the island (McLynn 597). On the 26th of February, 1815, he escaped the island and soon landed on the French coast. This started yet another coalition. Napoleon had returned to Paris and ruled for 111 days. The coalition had once again been victorious, and the war concluded with the Battle of Waterloo where Napoleon was finally defeated and exiled once again, this time to Saint Helena. King Louis XVIII of the house of Bourbon was restored to the throne once again. The Napoleonic Wars ended on 20 November 1815, which formally ended the Napoleonic Wars.

During Napoleon’s time at Saint Helena he was guarded by British soldiers, and his access to material from outside the island was minimal. Conditions were poor in his house on the island, and he and his entourage often complained. After dealing with poor health, Napoleon died on May 5th 1821, and the precise cause of his death is uncertain. Napoleon’s doctor claimed he died of stomach cancer (McLynn 656), although this has been disputed. His mother, Letizia, outlived Napoleon, and died on the 2nd of February, 1836.

Napoleon has had a strong legacy as one of the most important figures in European history, and likely world history. His time as emperor brought many positive reforms to the large portion of Europe he conquered. He was exceptionally influential general, and made significant contributions to military tactics. On the other hand, he led Europe into a series of wars of unprecedented devastation and cost, and was responsible for destroying what led to his rise: the French Revolution.


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