Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), a general during the French Revolution, rose to power by first declaring himself First Consul from 1800 to 1804, and then Emperor of France from 1804 to 1815. When his efforts in Italy and Egypt proved successful, he gained widespread support and eventually used the Coup of 18 Brumaire to put a stop to the Revolution. Napoleon began reforming French institutions, including the government, the economy, the public schools, and the Civil Code. At the same time, Napoleon spent most of his time on the battlefield, where he achieved ultimate successes that he became the undisputed ruler of Europe. First in 1814, following the loss of the French Invasion of Russia, and again in 1815, with the defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was forced to abdicate. St. Helena, a little island off the coast of Africa, was where he spent the rest of his life after being exiled there.
From diligent student to formidable leader: Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, on the island of Corsica, in 1769 to his father Carlo Maria Buonaparte, a lawyer for the Superior Council of Corsica, and his mother Maria Letizia Ramolino. Napoleon had twelve siblings. However, only seven of them survived childhood. Joseph, Lucien, Elisa, Louis, Pauline, Caroline, and Jerome were among them.
A year before his birth, the Italian Genoese had given this island to France. And there was more Italian blood in Napoleon’s ancestry than French. At the age of 9, Napoleon, nicknamed Nabulio, moved to the mainland of France with the assistance of a family acquaintance, Count Marbeuf, the governor of Corsica, where he was transferred to a school and learned French.
He spent five full years at the Brienne Military Academy. Little Napoleon spent much of his leisure time writing, reading (especially the tragedies by Corneille and Racine, and the books on law and military history), and gardening since he was shunned by his aristocratic peers due to his background and accent.
In an April 1781 letter addressed to his father, Napoleon outlined his difficulties and requested either financial aid or permission to leave school:
“My father, if you or my protectors cannot give me the means of sustaining myself more honorably in the house where I am, please let me return home as soon as possible. I am tired of poverty and of the jeers of insolent scholars who are superior to me only in their fortune, for there is not one among them who feels one hundredth part of the noble sentiment which animates me.“
In October 1784, at the age of 15, Napoleon was accepted to the Military School of Paris, where he studied artillery. But he had a great interest and aptitude in both history and mathematics and was particularly skilled in these subjects. He completed the program in one year rather than two and was immediately promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the General Artillery. Napoleon became a Jacobin during the French Revolution and rose to the rank of Brigadier General following a successful recapture of Toulon from the British in 1793. His career could have ended with Robespierre’s downfall in 1794. He served time in jail, but the governing French committee called the Directory soon saw the potential in his military genius and released him.
On March 9, 1796, at the age of 25, Bonaparte married Josephine de Beauharnais, but he left for the Italian campaign less than 48 hours later. In 1795, he was at the cultural social salon when he first met Josephine. We learn how deeply in love he was from a letter he wrote to his future wife in December 1795: “I wake filled with thoughts of you. Your portrait and the intoxicating evening which we spent yesterday have left my senses in turmoil. Sweet, incomparable Josephine, what a strange effect you have on my heart!” But, since she was six years younger than Napoleon, she appeared not to feel the same way, as she responded to him with unusually cold letters, at least in Napoleon’s eyes. No words, no expressions could satisfy Napoleon’s fervent love for her as he complains to her about how cold her letters are.
One of the biggest triumphs in Napoleon’s career was the French victory in the Italian campaigns against Piedmont and Austria, which led to the Treaty of Campo Formio, signed in 1797. Napoleon’s plan to simultaneously assault two opposing troops ultimately succeeded. As a cultural vulture, he had Italian artwork shipped to France. Following his victory in the Battle of the Pyramids in 1798–99, General Bonaparte returned from Egypt with the Rosetta Stone, which was later decoded by French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion in 1822.
From Napoleon Bonaparte to Napoleon I
In the Coup of 18 Brumaire (9–10 November 1799), a legislative coup led by Sieyès and assisted by Bonaparte overthrew the Directory. This led to the formation of the French Consulate. Napoleon Bonaparte, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, and Roger Ducos were its leaders. On December 13th, a new constitution was created, ensuring Bonaparte’s absolute power over the executive branch and giving the two chambers very little wiggle room. After campaigning for three years, Napoleon was elected Consul for life in the 1802 French constitutional referendum with 3,550,000 votes to 8,400 against him. On March 25 of that year, Napoleon achieved a diplomatic victory by negotiating and signing the Treaty of Amiens with the United Kingdom, thereby ending the War of the Second Coalition against France.
Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor by Pope Pius VII at Notre Dame de Paris on December 2, 1804, after the First French Empire was declared by him previously on May 18. The classic painting by Jacques Louis David depicting this moment is called “The Coronation of Napoleon,” and it is on display at the Louvre Palace. The French Emperor Napoleon was crowned King of Italy on May 26, 1805, in Milan.
In 1805, as Napoleon readied his invasion of England, British Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. Napoleon responded to this crushing defeat by imposing a Continental Blockade, which attempted to cripple the economy of the scheming English.
Then, Napoleon proved his worth in a decisive battle that ultimately ended the coalition’s third major conflict. Napoleon Bonaparte’s most renowned victory came on December 2, 1805, in the Battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon’s skills as a military tactician were on full display in this victory, which earned the apt moniker “Battle of the Three Emperors” due to the participation of Russia’s Tsar and Austria’s Emperor. The French were outnumbered, yet Napoleon managed to achieve victory by inviting the enemy to attack and then strategically hiding some of his own men.
Reforms of Napoleon I and the role of the House of Bonaparte
The reforms during Napoleon Bonaparte’s time were widespread. In his role as First Consul, he consolidated the government by placing prefects in charge of all divisions. In 1800, he established the Bank of France; by 1802, he established the Legion of Honor; and by 1803, he established the franc germinal (the French currency), which would remain in circulation until 1814. Because of the disparity between regional legal systems in France, he penned the civil code in 1804, called the Napoleonic Code, to standardize legal procedures nationwide.
This completed civil code has 36 laws and 2,281 articles and took four years to complete. In doing so, it promoted personal liberty and the secularization of society while also putting an end to the feudal system. For instance, Article 213 reads: “The husband owes protection to his wife; the wife owes obedience to her husband,” establishing the husband’s power over the wife and children. Napoleon then established the Imperial University in 1808 and standardized the curriculum for all colleges and secondary schools by instituting the Baccalaureate that same year.
It took a matter of bloodlines to rule Europe. In 1810, Napoleon and his siblings split the Empire’s 2.1 million square kilometers of land across 130 departments and the Kingdom of Italy. For the brothers, Joseph became King of Naples and subsequently King of Spain, Lucien was appointed Ambassador to Spain, Louis, a former aide-de-camp, acquired the Kingdom of Holland, and Jerome, a former aide-de-camp, gained the Kingdom of Westphalia. Elisa was the Duchess of Tuscany, Pauline the Princess of Italy, and Caroline the Queen of Naples.
He often sent governmental instructions to his brother Joseph in a steady stream of letters. A quote from the letter dated September 6, 1807 attests to the following:
“My Brother, I have received your letter of the 2nd of August. I do not believe that M. Nardon can discharge the functions of Prefect of Police at Naples, because you want for that place a man who has worked several months in the department, because the office of Prefect of Police is to be learned only by practice, and because nothing which is written upon the subject gives a clear idea of the duties. Besides, M. Nardon is difficult to get on with, and very ambitious; he is zealous, but hasty in his views; however, he is not without merit.“
Napoleon divorced Josephine on December 15, 1809, because of her infertility, since he was eager to create a family of his own and particularly to have a legal successor. He sent her a letter two days later in which he reiterated his immutable feelings. “You cannot question my constant and tender friendship, and you would not know well all the feelings I have for you, if you assumed that I could be happy if you were not happy, and content if you did not calm down. Farewell, my friend; sleep well; remember that I want you to.” On April 2, 1810, Napoleon married the daughter of Emperor François II. Napoleon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, also known as L’Aiglon (the Eaglet), was born to her on March 20, 1811. He was crowned King of Rome the following day.
Napoleon abdicates the throne
In only five years, Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule went from its peak to its twilight. The casualties were getting heavy in his battles, and older victories were easily forgotten. During the reign of Napoleon, Russia changed sides and allied with Austria in 1810. And then Tsar Alexander I began taxing French goods and welcoming English ships into his ports.
In response, Napoleon launched a campaign against Russia, called the French Invasion of Russia, in the summer of 1812, with more than 600,000 men. This large army was due to the coalition formed to stop Napoleon, consisting of 20 countries. When he arrived in Moscow in September, instead of an army waiting to confront him, Napoleon found the city on fire after the governor of Moscow authorized a voluntary conflagration. And later, he faced the infamous Russian winter. Only a few thousand men were able to escape the region.
The coalition launched a new onslaught against Napoleon Bonaparte in February 1813. Despite earlier wins at Lutzen, Bautzen, and Wurschen, the decisive Battle of Leipzig, fought from October 16–19, 1813, was a defeat where France surrendered the land east of the Rhine. At the same moment that the Senate and the legislature decided to dismiss him, Emperor Napoleon fled to the town of Fontainebleau. He was exiled to the island of Elba for 11 months, where he eventually managed to establish himself as the ruler of France again in 1815 (“the Hundred Days”).
Although only around 13,000 people were living in Elba at the time, Napoleon first set up a new administration and judicial system, much like what happened in France when Louis XVIII reinstated the House of Bourbons with the exile of Napoleon. And then he left for France in February of 1815, marking the start of the Hundred Days. On March 1, 1815, he landed at Golf Juan and marched on Paris with the support of the people and the army who had rallied to his cause. After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, at the hands of the coalition (British, Germans, and Dutch), he moved back into Paris on March 20 and began preparing for the final battle with the coalition.
Napoleon’s exile and death
The ultimate defeat at the Battle of Waterloo led to his abdication and submission to the English in search of exile there. Once he was deemed a prisoner, he was deported to Saint Helena, where he was watched over by 2,000 troops and two vessels. Napoleon, a criminal, was subjected to a miserable environment and the petty, pointless annoyances of the English governor, Hudson Lowe, on this desolate island in the South Atlantic.
Napoleon spent his final years in complete isolation and spiritual impoverishment at his Longwood home, where he was visited by his few remaining devoted friends (Bertrand, Gourgaud, Montholon, and Las Cases). Napoleon Bonaparte, at the age of 51, passed away here on this island from hepato-gastric illness on May 5, 1821.
Impacts of Napoleon’s reign
Finance and government
Napoleon glorified many of the ideals of the Bourgeois Revolution of 1789, including individual freedom, meritocracy in advancement, private property, and the idea of a nation-state. Similarly, he sanctified the legal status of institutions and maintained laws that are still in effect today, such as the Council of State, the Senate, the Civil Code, etc. A highly centralized and authoritarian executive was the backbone of Napoleon’s France.
The press was restrained, free speech was suppressed, and the so-called “checks and balances” failed to exert their influence. Napoleon acted swiftly as Emperor to reinstate a noble nobility, turn the sister republics into kingdoms, and install the not-always-very-inspiring members of his family as rulers, all while establishing a new absolute and hereditary authority. It was far from the French revolutionary ideal. Louis XVIII was a Republican monarch compared to Napoleon, according to his constitutional charter.
Napoleon’s economic legacy was largely attributable to his support for free enterprise and finance, his promotion of private initiative and industrial innovation, the establishment of a strong government apparatus staffed by capable officials, and his decision to open France to the European market to mitigate the effects of the Continental Blockade on the British Empire.
However, following Napoleon’s downfall in 1815, France was in shambles. The debt was enormous, and government finances were a mess because of the expense of the Napoleonic Wars. After Napoleon’s defeat, France was forced to keep an occupying army and pay hefty war reparations to the allies. The country’s economy fell into a tailspin, and it took roughly two decades to get back on its feet.
Diplomatic weakening and territorial losses
Napoleon Bonaparte shrank France’s territory in 1815 compared to what it was in 1799, when he assumed control. France’s Revolutionary victories in Savoy, Belgium, and the left bank of the Rhine were all lost between 1814 and 1815. These losses in 1814 did pave the way for the Germanic neighbor Prussia to invade France three times (in 1870, 1914, and 1940), as history shows.
As a result of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat, France lost not only territory on the European and African continents but also many colonies, including the vast but sparsely populated Louisiana in North America (which Bonaparte sold to the United States in 1803), as well as many sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean and the Seychelles.
France’s first colonial empire vanished in favor of England after it had already been severely dismembered by the catastrophic Treaty of Paris in 1763. After a long struggle with Napoleon, the British Empire won the power struggle, became the only colonial power, and supplanted France as Europe’s preeminent superpower.
The diplomatic influence of France was greatly diminished after Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat. There was already a precarious situation in France before Napoleon’s return from Elba and the Hundred Days. The restored Bourbon monarchy, led by Talleyrand, a skilled and extremely opportunistic politician, almost avoided total collapse at the Congress of Vienna.
While European monarchs plotted to divide France to destroy its revolutionary and annexationist aspirations, the Congress’ final decision did not call for penalties against France but rather the formation of a multitude of buffer states. France, hemmed in by the “Holy Alliance,” needed to keep a low profile to help forget this Napoleonic upheaval that had occurred. After Napoleon’s final defeat, France was never able to wage war alone on the European continent again.
Exorbitant human cost
Finally, the human cost of Napoleon’s frenzied drive was insane. The sources estimate that throughout these 15 years, 1 million people died in France and 3 million people died across Europe. These numbers have been the subject of intense debate, although they are roughly comparable to the casualties sustained during World War I, between 1914 and 1918. More people died in the French Invasion of Russia (1812) than in any other single conflict of World War II. A lot of people died as Napoleon’s forces marched through Spain and other nations in the Peninsular War (1808–1815).
Compared to the effects of World War I on France’s demographics, these death rates had less of an impact on the country due to the long-term trend of falling death rates and increasing birth control awareness since the end of the 18th century. France did not begin to see a population loss relative to other European nations until the middle of the 19th century. Nonetheless, a sizeable portion of the country’s working-age male population vanished during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815).
When Napoleon Bonaparte finally retreated in 1815, he left behind an occupied and diminished France, one that was bankrupt and had fewer borders—a very contrasting ledger that the post-revolutionary successes would have trouble obscuring. Napoleon and the French literature of the 19th century, however, knew just how to turn this adventure into a national legend, and the French people would soon become intoxicated by it.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s legacy
During his lifetime, Napoleon Bonaparte used propaganda to build and maintain his fame. He used the press and art to build his reputation around his military successes. Most notably, he issued two military publications, “Le Courrier de l’armée d’Italie” (“The Courier of the Army of Italy”) and “La France vue de l’armée d’Italie” (“France Seen from the Army of Italy”). The second newspaper read, “Bonaparte flies like lightning and hits like lightning.” Through his “Bulletin de la grande Armée” (Bulletin of the Grand Army) newspaper, he downplayed civilian casualties and exaggerated his military successes.
By 1793, 400 newspapers had been launched in France thanks to the free press, including 150 in Paris. During the Directory era (1794–1799), newspapers dropped in significance. When Napoleon took power in 1799, he closed all but 13 of Paris’ 72 newspapers. In 1810, Napoleon permitted just four newspapers to exist in Paris, which he closely censored. Books and paintings, in addition to the press, contributed to the creation and sustenance of the Napoleonic legend.
To evoke France’s previous glories, in 1823, Las Cases published a book titled “The Memorial of St. Helena,” which he had written at Napoleon’s direction. In twenty years, it saw eight further printings. Numerous monuments, first-hand accounts from former soldiers, and the works of Balzac, Musset, and thinkers like Hegel all served to bring Emperor Napoleon back to life. It’s estimated that there are around 300,000 works that mention Napoleon.
Napoleon’s body rests at Les Invalides in Paris, next to the Museum of the Army in the Church of the Dome. In 1840, King Louis Philippe of France ordered the transfer of Napoleon’s body, and his corpse was taken back to France aboard the ship “La Belle Poule.” On December 15 of that year, Napoleon was moved to the Invalides, and the next day, a national burial was held in his honor. On April 2, 1861, architect Visconti completed the Napoleon Bonaparte Tomb. His two brothers, Jerome and Joseph, are also buried in the church, as is his son, Napoleon II.
The words “It is my wish that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom I have loved so well,” are engraved in bronze on the door in front of the stairs that lead to Napoleon’s tomb, fulfilling his request.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s influence on France can be seen in the written laws, the physical buildings he commissioned, and the ideas that he popularized. Napoleonic Civil Code Many were adopted by many nations. Today, there are still functioning versions of the Court of Accounts, the Prefecture Court, the Court of Cassation, the Council of State, and the Legion of Honor, among many others. The Paris Stock Exchange, the Luxor Obelisk that Napoleon brought back from Egypt and placed in the Place de la Concorde, and many bridges in Paris all owe their existence to Napoleon. His life is the subject of several tourist attractions.
Museums and monuments honoring Napoleon can be seen all across his birthplace, Ajaccio, on Corsica Island. It is possible to visit Napoleon’s birthplace and see the actual room he was born in. Art, cinema, and museum reconstructions all depict his major fights. At the Army Museum in Les Invalides, visitors can watch a reenactment of the Battle of Austerlitz, complete with an explanation of the various strategies he used. There are pictures and mementos of Napoleon Bonaparte, such as his bicorn hat and sword, on display.
- Alexander Grab, 2003) “Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe.“
- Andre Tunc (1917-1999), “Husband and Wife Under French Law: Past, Present, Future).”
- Michael Broers, 2011, “The Napoleonic Empire and the New European Political Culture.”
- Andrew Roberts, 2016, “Napoleon the Great.”
- G. Fremont-Barnes, and Todd Fisher, 2004, “The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise And Fall Of An Empire.”