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Napoléon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, Corsica, to a noble family of modest means, the second of eight children of Carlo and Letizia Buonaparte. He studied at a military school at Brienne in France, then at the École Militaire in Paris, and became a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment (1785). Following the outbreak of the French Revolution, he returned to Corsica and served in the Corsican National Guard. Sharp disagreements with Pasquale Paoli, the elder Corsican leader, forced him to flee to France with his family in 1793. The revolution opened the higher military ranks to talent, allowing Napoléon to advance rapidly. France also needed new officers to fight the revolutionary wars after numerous noble officers had fled the country. In 1793, Napoléon participated in the siege of the port of Toulon, which had revolted against the Republic with the help of the British fleet. Napoléon’s artillery expelled the enemy fleet, and he was promoted to general. In 1795, his guns dispersed a royalist insurrection against the government in Paris; subsequently, he rose to major-general and was appointed commander of the interior. In March 1796, Napoléon married Josephine de Beauharnais.
Soon, Napoléon invaded northern Italy, where he defeated the Austrians in numerous battles, including Lodi, Arcole, and Rivoli (1796–1797), and forced them beyond the Alps. He then negotiated the Treaty of Campo Formio with Austria, which left most of northern Italy under France and ended the War of the First Coalition. Only Britain remained at war, and so Napoléon sailed to Egypt to strike at British trade. He defeated the Mamelukes and occupied Egypt (1798) but was left stranded after the British admiral Nelson destroyed his fleet at Abukir. Meanwhile, scholars who accompanied him explored Egypt and in effect launched the field of Egyptology. Napoléon returned to France, and with the help of Abbé Sieyès and Lucien Bonaparte, he overthrew the corrupt and unpopular Directory in the coup of Brumaire (November 9–10, 1799) and became First Consul.
The new Constitution of Year VIII, approved by a plebiscite, endowed Napoléon with extensive power. In 1800, he secured his position by defeating Austria at Marengo and signing the Treaty of Luneville (1801), thereby ending the War of the Second Coalition. In 1802, he signed the Treaty of Amiens with Britain. Soon, he became consul for life.
Napoléon betrayed the original ideals of the French Revolution by establishing a dictatorship. He eliminated free speech and outlawed any form of opposition. He created the first modern police state, forming a powerful police force under Joseph Fouché to secure law and order and suppress criticism of his government. Fouché set up a network of spies to suppress dissent. An attempt on Napoléon’s life in December 1800, the “machine infernal,” gave him an excuse to crush the remaining Jacobins. Pro-Bourbon royalist revolts were also suppressed and their leaders executed. Napoléon purged the legislative branch of liberal critics and emptied it of any power. He established strict censorship, closing down numerous newspapers.
During the same years, Napoléon also launched significant reforms designed to consolidate his power and create a more efficient state. He established a more effective state bureaucracy and appointed the prefects, subprefects, and mayors who ran its eighty-three departments and cities. He continued the revolution’s principle of making careers “open to talent” by appointing officials based on merit rather than birth. Napoléon increased public revenues by adding new taxes and improving tax collection.
Napoléon signed the Concordat of 1801 with Pope Pius VII, which shored up Catholic support and sanctioned continuing state control over the French church. Catholicism was recognized as “the religion of the vast majority of French citizens” but not as the state religion. Napoléon nominated new bishops, while the pope invested them with spiritual authority. The pope also acknowledged the new owners of pre-1789 church properties.
In 1804, Napoléon’s most important legacy, the Civil Code, known also as the Code Napoléon, took effect. Possessing a simple, concise, and coherent style, it laid the foundations of France’s legal unity. It confirmed important revolutionary principles, such as legal equality, freedom of occupation, and the right of private property. It also sanctioned a strong, patriarchal family structure and subordinated the wife to the husband. Napoléon believed that obedience to the father would extend to submission to the head of state. The code allowed divorce on three grounds: ill treatment, criminal conviction, and adultery.
Napoléon constructed a system of national education characterized by uniformity, hierarchy, and state control. He aimed at turning students into loyal citizens and training them as efficient bureaucrats. His most lasting legacy was a system of secondary schools, the lycées, with a standardized curriculum and strong discipline. A new administrative body, the Imperial University, ran the national education system and licensed teachers.
In 1804, Napoléon crowned himself emperor at the Notre Dame Cathedral, with Pope Pius VII present, thus terminating the Republic. He created an imperial court and nobility, appointed his relatives as top military officers and civil servants as nobles, and endowed them with fiefs and privileges, although most of his nobility was based on merit. Napoléon wished to imitate great Greek and Roman leaders such as Alexander, Caesar, and Augustus. Imperial Rome fascinated him and was his point of reference. He assumed the title of consul, adopted the eagle as one of his symbols, built the Arc de Triomphe to celebrate his victories, and gave his son the title of King of Rome. Jacques-Louis David, the main exponent of neoclassical art and Napoléon’s court painter, glorified him in some unforgettable paintings, most notably Napoléon Crossing the Great Saint Bernard and Sacre de Joséphine, which recorded the coronation ceremony.
Napoléon also reversed the revolutionary laws on slavery. In 1794, the Convention had ended slavery, following a massive slave insurrection in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), France’s most profitable colony. Toussaint Louverture, an ex-slave, emerged as the leader of that revolt. Following emancipation, he joined the French army and, in 1801, became the colony’s governor. In
1802, however, in response to demands of plantation owners, Napoléon restored slavery and dispatched General Charles Leclerc to reoccupy Saint-Domingue. The French faced stiff resistance, however. Leclerc summoned Toussaint to a meeting, arrested him, and dispatched him to France, where he died in jail in April 1803. Still, the French failed to defeat the rebels, and in January 1804, leaders of the rebellion established an independent state, which they named Haiti. The loss of Haiti convinced Napoléon to abandon his colonial plans and sell Louisiana to the United States (1803).
While his colonial plans failed, Napoléon repeatedly defeated his enemies in Europe and established a large empire there. He achieved these goals by means of a formidable Grande Armée based on an improved conscription system initiated by the revolutionary regime and introduced throughout his empire. The Grande Armée was, in effect, a European army, consisting of Poles, Italians, Germans, and people of other nationalities aside from French. The emperor stressed effective organization, training, discipline, morale, and good use of weapons, most notably artillery, and he promoted officers on the basis of merit. Napoléon introduced no innovations in weapons and tactics, inheriting these from the Old Regime and the revolution, respectively. Napoléon’s principal military innovation was making the corps the standard unit, replacing the division, which became subordinate to the corps. A corps numbered 20,000– 30,000 troops, comprising infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers, and support units. It was usually commanded by a marshal and able to wage a battle on its own.
Napoléon’s aggressive foreign policy caused the resumption of hostilities with Britain in 1803. At Boulogne, he prepared an army to invade his archenemy but never carried out that attack. In 1805, Russia and Austria joined Britain, forming the Third Coalition. However, Napoléon defeated the Austrians at Ulm and an Austrian-Russian army at Austerlitz, his greatest victory, later that year. In the Treaty of Pressburg, Austria ceded substantial territories to France and her German allies. In early 1806, the French occupied southern Italy and expelled the Bourbons from Naples; they then routed Prussia at Jena and Auerstädt. In Berlin Napoléon declared the Continental Blockade, intended to seal off Britain from trade with Europe and force its surrender. In 1807, he inflicted a severe defeat on the Russian army at the Battle of Friedland. In the subsequent Treaty of Tilsit, Tsar Alexander I recognized Napoléon’s domination in western and central Europe and the newly created Duchy of Warsaw, and agreed to join the blockade. Napoléon’s only defeat during these years came at sea, when the British navy under Nelson destroyed the French navy at Trafalgar (October 1805), eliminating any hopes Napoléon had of invading Britain.
In 1807, Napoléon occupied Portugal briefly before being expelled by the British. In 1808, he toppled the Spanish Bourbons, replacing them with his brother Joseph. The Spanish revolted, and Napoléon led an army to quell it. But Spanish armies and guerrillas, with sizable British military support, persisted in their resistance, and after five years forced Joseph to evacuate Iberia. The “Spanish Ulcer” exacted a huge price in human lives and expense, contributing to Napoléon’s downfall.
In 1809, the Austrians suffered their fourth defeat by Napoléon, this time at Wagram. In the Treaty of Schönbrunn, they surrendered still more lands, which became the Illyrian Provinces. In 1810, Napoléon married Marie-Louise, an Austrian princess, after divorcing Joséphine, who had borne him no heir. Marie-Louise soon gave birth to a son, who never rose to power, however. Meanwhile, Pope Pius VII refused to join the blockade of Britain, and Napoléon annexed Rome and the Papal State to his empire and exiled him to France (1809).
Napoléon expanded his empire continuously. Aside from his imperial title, he assumed other titles: the Mediator of the Swiss Confederation (1803), the King of Italy (1805), and the Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine (1806). He appointed his brothers as rulers of his satellite kingdoms: Joseph in Naples and later Spain, Louis in Holland, and Jerome in Westphalia. Eugène de Beauharnais, his stepson, became viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy, and Murat, his brother-in-law, received the Kingdom of Naples after Joseph left. Napoléon also annexed lands to France, which by the end of 1810 spread over an area of 293,000 square miles and consisted of 130 departments. Among these territories were Piedmont, Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, the Rhineland, the Netherlands, Hamburg, and Lübeck.
Napoléon’s imperial rule possessed a Janus face, combining reforms, modeled on the French system, with exploitation. In his subject states he introduced constitutions, efficient bureaucracies based on merit, legal equality, property rights, termination of the seigneurial system, reduction of church power, and an advanced school system. At the same time, Napoléon exploited the fiscal resources of these lands and drafted their young men into his army.
The Continental Blockade failed to force the British to capitulate, and in 1810 Russia resumed trade with Britain. Napoléon’s Grande Armée, 600,000 strong and comprising at least ten nationalities, invaded Russia to force Alexander I to return to the blockade. Napoléon reached Moscow, but the tsar refused to negotiate with him. Napoléon had no choice but to retreat in disarray, losing most of his troops.
He now faced a formidable European coalition as Austria and Prussia resumed hostilities. His defeat at the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig in October 1813 forced him out of Germany; shortly thereafter, he lost the rest of his empire. In April 1814, he abdicated and was exiled to Elba, while Louis XVIII assumed the throne.
In March 1815, Napoléon escaped from Elba, landed in southern France, and marched unopposed to Paris. This time he ruled for only 100 days, proclaiming a new constitution and gathering a new army to fight against the European powers. In June 1815, his last campaign ended at Waterloo, where he was defeated by the British and Prussian armies led by Wellington and Blücher.
Waterloo marked the end of the Napoleonic Era. The British exiled Napoléon to the remote island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic. At St. Helena, Napoléon dictated his memoirs to Emmanuel de Las Cases and talked with other persons who recorded their conversations, thereby helping to create the myth of an emperor who governed for the benefit of the French and other European nationalities. Napoléon died in May 1821.
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