“I found the crown of France in the gutter, and I picked it up.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
The word revolution literally means a full 360-degree turn, but when talking of revolutions in a historical context, the definition of revolution dramatically changes; a stark departure from the political scene that was, to the messy, and often violent, embrace of a new world.
The French Revolution was, in different ways, both kinds of revolution. In the end, an absolutist government replaced an absolutist government, but the change that sprung from the revolution was genuine and enduring. It helped usher in a world where people saw themselves as citizens of a wider community rather than subjects of a king. Eventually, a rising military man of unfathomable drive and ambition would prove that being the son of the king of France was not the only way to become ruler of France.
In the Spring of 1769, the tiny nation island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean Sea, was under siege from the French military. A tiny band of Corsican patriots were determined to repel the invaders, but they never stood a chance and were defeated after a year of fighting. One opponent of the French occupation was a trainee attorney, Carlo Buonaparte, whose wife, Letizia, gave birth to the couple’s second surviving child, Napoleon, on 15 August 1769. Carlo would soon come to realise and appreciate the benefit of French rule.
Napoleon grew up on the island and loved reading and his father was able to secure him a scholarship to the Royal Military College at Brienne. The young Napoleon first set foot on the French mainland in the winter 1778. As a child he had spoken Italian and Corsican and did not begin learning French until he was 10 years old (his mother never even bothered to learn the language). Whilst at Brienne, Napoleon was ridiculed for his accent; but contrary to popular belief he was not bullied for his shortness, as the man grew up to be around 5’ 7” which was around average height for an eighteenth century man.
At the age of 16 Napoleon served as a second lieutenant with one of the country’s most elite artillery units and he began to gradually rise through the ranks of the army through the early years of the tumultuous French Revolution, which erupted in 1789 in Paris. At the age of just 24 in 1793 Napoleon was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, after proving himself against the British at Toulon, working under the Committee for Public Safety which ironically ended up killing a lot of people in the name of public safety.
In the spring of 1795 Napoleon visited Paris, his ambitions burning brighter than ever. Whilst there he was charged with subjugating the Parisian mobs by any means necessary. Gathering cannon and muskets to equip his poorly armed forces, Napoleon set his guns up in the Tuileries Palace in positions that made it pretty much impregnable. When the attack came, Napoleon ordered his mean to hold their fire until the whites of the aggressors’ eyes could be seen before unleashing a hail of merciless fire upon them. The artillerymen’s grapeshot decimated the attacking mob. Napoleon wrote to his brother, “The enemy attacked us. We killed a great many of them. Now, all is quiet. I could not be happier.” After this action, the triumphant Napoleon Bonaparte was elevated to the rank of full general and at the age of 26 was made the Commander of the Army of the Interior. Soon, he was given command of French armies in Italy and was tasked with defeating the Austrians along with their Italian allies.
Meanwhile, other European powers had become increasingly worried about the political situation in France. The execution of their king and queen led to fears that the French experiment in democracy would spill over into their territories and threaten their own kingdoms. They moved against the new French government which led to a series of wars between Revolutionary France and most of the European major powers.
Young General Bonaparte had built his army into the most efficient conquering force on the European mainland, and over the next three years he brought stunning victory after stunning victory; not just in Italy but also in Austria and as far as North Africa and the Middle-East. His 1798 North African campaign was a calculated move against the British, who used Egypt as a trading route. In addition to an army, Napoleon also brought many scientists, linguists, and other scholars to advance knowledge as well as carry off Egyptian riches. The Egyptians were impressed by the openness of these scholars, but generally the French completely appalled the local populace with their crude ways and drunkenness. Even as Napoleon flattered Egyptians by declaring himself as a worshipper of Islam, he ultimately stole and desecrated many Egyptian artefacts.
Napoleon was forced to return to France in 1799 as his army and navy were defeated by British and Egyptian forces and disease. This timing turned out to be perfect: The Directory, which was a five-person committee governing France after the collapse of Maximilien Robespierre’s Committee for Public Safety, was overseeing a still-floundering economy, and fighting wars on multiple fronts. Napoleon assisted in overthrowing The Directory and helped establish a three-person Consulship; himself being one of the Consuls. He quickly became the “First Consul”, and then mended relations with the Catholic Church as one of his first tasks.
He agreed to the Concordant of 1801, which recognised Catholicism as the primary French religion (religion had been frowned upon during the revolutionary governments). It also validated the sale of Church lands and the state’s payment of clergymen’s salaries if they agreed to uphold the French government. This was important to Napoleon as it ensured him the support of one of France’s most important institutions. However, it is also worth noting that Napoleon would eventually be excommunicated by the Catholic Church for annexing Papal lands for France.
Napoleon also proved to be extremely popular with the people. After all, he offered a solution to years of political upheaval and economic decline. He won majorities when he had his candidacy for office and other decisions approved by plebiscite cast by men over the age of 21.
In 1802, he had himself declared Consul for life. Soon after, on 2 December 1804 Napoleon was crowned as Emperor of the French at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In all but name and place, it was just like the coronations of the kings of old, with one key difference. Napoleon, the controller of his own destiny, placed the crown upon his own head. At 35 years of age, Napoleon Bonaparte had risen from his humble Corsican background to become the most powerful man in all of Europe.
The leaders of the French Revolution had promoted the ancient Roman idea of virtus: the sacrifice of personal interest for the good of the republic. Napoleon continued the Roman imagery but switched from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. This can be seen in his journey from Consul to Emperor; he is portrayed in paintings wearing lavish costumes and crowned with the laurel leaves of a conquering hero.
Napoleon also viewed himself as a modern Justinian, the famed lawgiver of the Eastern Roman Empire. He employed the most celebrated jurists, under his guidance, to produce a rational code of laws. Completed in 1804, the Napoleonic Code standardised the laws of citizenship, family, and property. The Code also set the rules for financial transfers, mortgages and for other legal transactions concerning property standards across France instead of differing from province to province. And legal standardisation facilitated modern economic development. But the other two sections, on family and citizenship, proved rather regressive for women and curtailed many of their rights. Under the Napoleonic Code, women had no right to own their own property once they were married; not even any wages that they earned themselves. They were barred from serving as witnesses in court and did not even have control over the guardianship of their own children. If they committed adultery, they were to be jailed, but men, in contrast, would only be charged of the crime if they brought a sexual partner into their family home.
The regressive nature of Napoleonic family law aside, by creating laws that specifically targeted the economy, the empire was paving the way for modernisation. Other institutions followed suit: individual schools were founded for higher education in engineering, science, and technology. Napoleon also sponsored the creation of lycées, or high schools, and countries across Europe and across the globe imitated the French legal and educational systems as they strove to modernise too. This brought many new opportunities in France, but it is worth remembering that half of the population – women – were not only being denied these opportunities but had also lost many of the rights that they had previously enjoyed.
Napoleon had initially succeeded in France because he quelled the political chaos by making himself an emblem of authority and order (just like any other opportunistic dictator worth their salt). He also created a sort of police state with strict censorship and spies operating in everyday life. The monarchical system of aristocratic titles was also restored, even giving back the pre-revolution titles to some of the old aristocracy who Napoleon believed could help revive the appearance of ceremonial grandeur. In all these ways, Napoleon was reverting to the absolutism power, previously held by the Bourbons. The French Revolution had turned all the way around, ending where it had started.
Whilst members of Napoleon’s family and his friends often became fantastically wealthy and titled, including monarchs of conquered countries, his enemies were frequently exiled from France. One of his most famous political enemies was Germaine de Stael, one of the wealthiest and most accomplished women in all of Europe at the time. De Stael never stopped criticising the dictator and was one of the first to uncover his brutish nature. Her constant criticism of him, forced Napoleon to drive her from France; Napoleon preferred people to like him and Germain de Stael made it clear that she neither liked nor respected him. When de Stael’s son, Auguste, asked Napoleon to allow his mother back into Paris, Napoleon replied, “Paris is… where I live. I don’t want anyone there who doesn’t like me.”
Napoleon did not just have designs on France, he wanted to conquer the whole of Europe and the British Isles. He amassed a huge army by drafting men between the ages of 20 and 24, then he earned their complete devotion by fighting alongside them in over sixty battles. As he conquered German and Austrian territory, he drafted men from those areas into his armies too. By 1806, he had ended the 1,000-year-old Holy Roman Empire after defeating the Austrians in several battles, most thoroughly at Austerlitz in 1805. On the first anniversary of his imperial coronation, 2 December 1805, Napoleon’s 68,000 strong army crushed the combined forces of Austria and Russia, killing, wounding, or capturing around 36,000 of the enemy and taking over 180 artillery pieces. He then went on to defeat the Prussians in 1806 and Russia in 1807 after they declared war on France in succession.
Napoleon then forced or inspired reforms such as the end of serfdom, legislating religious tolerance and creating schools to advance scientific and technological study within the subjugated territories. He unified the German territories, excluding Austria, into the Confederation of the Rhine, and he imposed the Napoleonic Code, the metric system, and other foundations of standardisation that helped to unify Europe and solidify French authority.
One unintended consequence of Napoleon’s European ambitions was that it inspired nationalism among his new subjects, who mostly opposed his dictatorial regime. Most of these newly conquered lands were being run by one of Napoleon’s brothers serving as a surrogate monarch, and this is important as some people began to think of themselves as, for example Italian or German for the first time because they did not want to think of themselves as French. This would play a massive role in European and world history later in the nineteenth century with the creation of both Italy and Germany as one nation rather than many principalities and city-states.
Napoleon’s goal had been to conquer the entire continent, and he largely succeeded, but Spain and Portugal remained unconquered and thwarting his plans of a Continental System (Napoleon’s foreign policy for denying European trade with the United Kingdom). In 1807 Napoleon crossed the Pyrenees with 100,000 men, and both the Spanish and Portuguese royal families fled their capitals and headed for their colonial territories. Napoleon installed his older brother, Joseph, on the throne of Spain and resistance for this usurper swelled. With help from British and Portuguese soldiers led by Sir Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, the Spanish Guerreros terrorised the occupying French forces, forcing Napoleon to commit tens of thousands of troops to occupy the conquered kingdom.
Despite ongoing problems, Napoleon became determined to conquer and absorb Russia into his sphere of influence, particularly as it had decided to opt out of his Continental System. He built a massive army of some 685,000 men from across his empire and began the invasion in June 1812.
Having marched for hundreds of miles, the soldiers were exhausted and overwhelmed by the heat, and the Russians refused to engage in battle. Instead they continued to retreat, practising “scorched-earth tactics”, so called because they burned and destroyed all resources that could have been of use to the advancing French army, including food and livestock.
Finally, near Borodino, less than 130 kilometres from Moscow, the two sides engaged in the bloodiest single day of combat in military history until the First Battle of the Marne in 1914. The Battle of Borodino ultimately proved to be a costly victory for the French, who lost around 30,000 men compared to Russia’s roughly 45,000 casualties. The French were thousands of miles from home territory along difficult resupply lines and non-French soldiers, who were not as loyal to Napoleon, began to melt away as winter approached and conditions within Napoleon’s Grande Armee worsened. The massively depleted army marched to Moscow, but upon reaching their destination found the city in flames, and once again shelter and supplies proved scarce.
Napoleon waited for Tsar Alexander I to surrender and come to terms now that he had captured the Russian capital. However, the Tsar failed to acknowledge defeat, and Napoleon was forced to lead his depleted, starving, demoralised and freezing army westward to friendly Poland. Many had died and many more had deserted, and the retreating French force was harassed all the way to Poland by Russian cavalry.
Smelling blood in the water, the European powers formed a coalition that included Russia, Austria, Prussia, and Sweden and in 1813 their armies, backed by British financing, defeated the French forces at the Battle of Leipzig. This battle was waged because Napoleon refused to accept the allies’ terms which, initially, would have allowed Napoleon to continue ruling a much-weakened France. Simultaneously, as the allies were advancing from the east, the British, Portuguese and Spanish pushed the French in the Iberian Peninsula back over the Pyrenees.
In early 1814, Napoleon abdicated and headed for exile on the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba. However, a year later on 26 February 1815, Napoleon somehow managed to sneak past his guards and set sail for France in a small boat with loyal supporters, avoiding Britain’s Royal Navy who patrolled the area. After six days, he and his small company of supporters were halted by an infantry regiment under strict orders to detain him. Napoleon stood in their midst and declared, “Soldiers, if there is one among you who wants to kill your general and emperor, here I am.” Once again, his charisma shown through and instead of taking him prisoner, the infantry broke out into rapturous applause and joined him. As he zeroed in on Paris, he drew more support as troops defected to the rebel army and the restored Bourbon king Louis XVIII fled his capital. Bonaparte was welcomed into Paris as a redeemed hero.
Across Europe the allies were in shock and disbelief and forced to unite once again to stop this upstart general. This time, however, they knew they would have to destroy the French Emperor utterly. On 18 June 1815, a French army of 72,000 soldiers faced a 68,000 strong allied force under the now Duke of Wellington. Napoleon made several uncharacteristic tactical errors, including waiting until midday to order the attack. This provided Prussian forces, under Marshal Gebhard von Blucher, enough time to arrive and smash into Napoleon’s right flank and the battle was lost.
Four days later, Napoleon, once again, abdicated and this time he was sent into exile on the remote British colony of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic under close guard. At 46, Napoleon was simply a man with no future. The man of unstoppable ambition and action was reduced to reading the newspapers and gardening.
On 5 May 1821, exactly 32 years to the day since the meeting of the Estates General that set the French Revolution into motion, Napoleon died at 51 years of age, most likely from stomach cancer. When you consider all that had happened in those short 32 years, you will understand why this period of French history is so important to world history.
The Rest is History