Napoleon I

Napoleon I (1769-1821), emperor of the French, who consolidated and institutionalized many reforms of the French Revolution. One of the greatest military commanders of all time, he conquered the larger part of Europe and did much to modernize the nations he ruled.

Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, Corsica, and was given the name Napoleone (in French his name became Napoleon Bonaparte). He was the second of eight children of Carlo (Charles) Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino Buonaparte, both of the Corsican-Italian gentry. No Buonaparte had ever been a professional soldier. Carlo was a lawyer who had fought for Corsican independence, but after the French occupied the island in 1768, he served as a prosecutor and judge and entered the French aristocracy as a count. Through his father's influence, Napoleon was educated at the expense of King Louis XVI, at Brienne and the École Militaire, in Paris. Napoleon graduated in 1785, at the age of 16, and joined the artillery as a second lieutenant.

After the Revolution began, he became a lieutenant colonel (1791) in the Corsican National Guard. In 1793, however, Corsica declared independence, and Bonaparte, a French patriot and a Republican, fled to France with his family. He was assigned, as a captain, to an army besieging Toulon, a naval base that, aided by a British fleet, was in revolt against the republic. Replacing a wounded artillery general, he seized ground where his guns could drive the British fleet from the harbor, and Toulon fell. As a result Bonaparte was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24. In 1795 he saved the revolutionary government by dispersing an insurgent mob in Paris. In 1796 he married Joséphine de Beauharnais, the widow of an aristocrat guillotined in the Revolution and the mother of two children.

Early Campaigns

Also in 1796, Bonaparte was made commander of the French army in Italy. He defeated four Austrian generals in succession, each with superior numbers, and forced Austria and its allies to make peace. The Treaty of Campo Formio provided that France keep most of its conquests. In northern Italy he founded the Cisalpine (Italian) Republic (later known as the kingdom of Italy) and strengthened his position in France by sending millions of francs worth of treasure to the government. In 1798, to strike at British trade with the East, he led an expedition to Turkish-ruled Egypt, which he conquered. His fleet, however, was destroyed by the British admiral Horatio Nelson, leaving him stranded. Undaunted, he reformed the Egyptian government and law, abolishing serfdom and feudalism and guaranteeing basic rights. The French scholars he had brought with him began the scientific study of ancient Egyptian history. In 1799 he failed to capture Syria, but he won a smashing victory over the Turks at Abu Qìr (Abukir). France, meanwhile, faced a new coalition; Austria, Russia, and lesser powers had allied with Britain.

Napoleonic Rule in France


Bonaparte, no modest soul, decided to leave his army and return to save France. In Paris, he joined a conspiracy against the government. In the coup d'etat of November 9-10, 1799 (18-19 Brumaire), he and his colleagues seized power and established a new regime—the Consulate. Under its constitution, Bonaparte, as first consul, had almost dictatorial powers. The constitution was revised in 1802 to make Bonaparte consul for life and in 1804 to create him emperor. Each change received the overwhelming assent of the electorate. In 1800, he assured his power by crossing the Alps and defeating the Austrians at Marengo. He then negotiated a general European peace that established the Rhine River as the eastern border of France. He also concluded an agreement with the pope (the Concordat of 1801), which contributed to French domestic tranquillity by ending the quarrel with the Roman Catholic church that had arisen during the Revolution. In France the administration was reorganized, the court system was simplified, and all schools were put under centralized control. French law was standardized in the Code Napoléon, or civil code, and six other codes. They guaranteed the rights and liberties won in the Revolution, including equality before the law and freedom of religion.

Wars of Conquest

In April 1803 Britain, provoked by Napoleon's aggressive behavior, resumed war with France on the seas; two years later Russia and Austria joined the British in a new coalition. Napoleon then abandoned plans to invade England and turned his armies against the Austro-Russian forces, defeating them at the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805. In 1806 he seized the kingdom of Naples and made his elder brother Joseph king, converted the Dutch Republic into the kingdom of Holland for his brother Louis, and established the Confederation of the Rhine (most of the German states) of which he was protector. Prussia then allied itself with Russia and attacked the confederation. Napoleon destroyed the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstädt (1806) and the Russian army at Friedland. At Tilsit (July 1807), Napoleon made an ally of Czar Alexander I and greatly reduced the size of Prussia (see Tilsit, Treaty of). He also added new states to the empire: the kingdom of Westphalia, under his brother Jerome, the duchy of Warsaw, and others.

Napoleon had meanwhile established the Continental System, a French-imposed blockade of Europe against British goods, designed to bankrupt what he called the "nation of shopkeepers." In 1807 Napoleon seized Portugal. In 1808, he made his brother Joseph king of Spain, awarding Naples to his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. Joseph's arrival in Spain touched off a rebellion there, which became known as the Peninsular War. Napoleon appeared briefly and scored victories, but after his departure the fighting continued for five years, with the British backing Spanish armies and guerrillas. The Peninsular War cost France 300,000 casualties and untold sums of money and contributed to the eventual weakening of the Napoleonic empire.

In 1809 Napoleon beat the Austrians again at Wagram, annexed the Illyrian Provinces (now part of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), and abolished the Papal States. He also divorced Joséphine, and in 1810 he married the Habsburg archduchess Marie Louise, daughter of the Austrian emperor. By thus linking his dynasty with the oldest ruling house in Europe, he hoped that his son, who was born in 1811, would be more readily accepted by established monarchs. In 1810 also, the empire reached its widest extension with the annexation of Bremen, Lübeck, and other parts of north Germany, together with the entire kingdom of Holland, following the forced abdication of Louis Bonaparte.

Napoleonic Rule in Europe

In all the new kingdoms created by the emperor, the Code Napoléon was established as law. Feudalism and serfdom were abolished, and freedom of religion established (except in Spain). Each state was granted a constitution, providing for universal male suffrage and a parliament and containing a bill of rights. French-style administrative and judicial systems were required. Schools were put under centralized administration, and free public schools were envisioned. Higher education was opened to all who qualified, regardless of class or religion. Every state had an academy or institute for the promotion of the arts and sciences. Incomes were provided for eminent scholars, especially scientists. Constitutional government remained only a promise, but progress and increased efficiency were widely realized. Not until after Napoleon's fall did the common people of Europe, alienated from his governments by war taxes and military conscription, fully appreciate the benefits he had given them.

Napoleon's Downfall


In 1812 Napoleon, whose alliance with Alexander I had disintegrated, launched an invasion of Russia that ended in a disastrous retreat from Moscow. Thereafter all Europe united against him, and although he fought on, and brilliantly, the odds were impossible. In April 1814, his marshals refused to continue the struggle. After the allies had rejected his stepping down in favor of his son, Napoleon abdicated unconditionally and was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Marie Louise and his son were put in the custody of her father, the emperor of Austria. Napoleon never saw either of them again. Napoleon himself, however, soon made a dramatic comeback. In March 1815, he escaped from Elba, reached France, and marched on Paris, winning over the troops sent to capture him. In Paris, he promulgated a new and more democratic constitution, and veterans of his old campaigns flocked to his support. Napoleon asked peace of the allies, but they outlawed him, and he decided to strike first. The result was a campaign into Belgium, which ended in defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. In Paris, crowds begged him to fight on, but the politicians withdrew their support. Napoleon fled to Rochefort, where he surrendered to the captain of the British battleship Bellerophon. He was then exiled to Saint Helena, a remote island in the south Atlantic Ocean, where he remained until his death from stomach cancer on May 5, 1821.

The Napoleonic Legend

The cult of Napoleon as the "man of destiny" began during his lifetime. In fact, he had begun to cultivate it during his first Italian campaign by systematically publicizing his victories. As first consul and emperor, he had engaged the best writers and artists of France and Europe to glorify his deeds and had contributed to the cult himself by the elaborate ceremonies with which he celebrated his rule, picturing himself as the architect of France's greatest glory. He maintained that he had preserved the achievements of the Revolution in France and offered their benefits to Europe. His goal, he said, was to found a European state—a "federation of free peoples." Whatever the truth of this, he became the arch-hero of the French and a martyr to the world. In 1840 his remains were returned to Paris at the request of King Louis-Philippe and interred with great pomp and ceremony in the Invalides, where they still lie.



Napoleon's influence is evident in France even today. Reminders of him dot Paris—the most obvious being the Arc de Triomphe, the centerpiece of the city, which was built to commemorate his victories. His spirit pervades the constitution of the Fifth Republic; the country's basic law is still the Code Napoléon, and the administrative and judicial systems are essentially Napoleonic. A uniform state-regulated system of education persists. Napoleon's radical reforms in all parts of Europe cultivated the ground for the revolutions of the 19th century. Today, the impact of the Code Napoléon is apparent in the law of all European countries.

Napoleon was a driven man, never secure, never satisfied. "Power is my mistress," he said. His life was work-centered; even his social activities had a purpose. He could bear amusements or vacations only briefly. His tastes were for coarse food, bad wine, cheap snuff. He could be charming—hypnotically so—for a purpose. He had intense loyalties—to his family and old associates. Nothing and no one, however, were allowed to interfere with his work.

Napoleon was sometimes a tyrant and always an authoritarian, but one who believed in ruling by mandate of the people, expressed in plebiscites. He was also a great enlightened monarch—a civil executive of enormous capacity who changed French institutions and tried to reform the institutions of Europe and give the Continent a common law. Few deny that he was a military genius. At St. Helena, he said, "Waterloo will erase the memory of all my victories." He was wrong; for better or worse, he is best remembered as a general, not for his enlightened government, but the latter must be counted if he is justly to be called Napoleon the Great.

See French Revolution; Napoleonic Wars. See also separate articles on individual battles mentioned.


Contributed by:

Owen Connelly