The Rise of Napoleon

Transcript from a lecture series taught by Professor Thomas Childers, Ph.D.

Napoleon Bonaparte stands as one of the greatest self-made men in the history of the world. But exactly how did the second son of a minor noble on Corsica turn himself into Emperor of France and, arguably, the most influential figure of the 19th century?

Image of Napoleon on his horse in field of battle

In 1795, a young military man by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte was ordered to put down the Parisian mob that was storming the Tuileries Palace. Napoleon, already in 1795, would demonstrate the combination of ambition and ruthlessness that would characterize his entire career. As the mob advanced on the Tuileries, Napoleon, without blinking an eye, ordered his troops to fire into the crowd. The crowd quickly dispersed; this potential threat to the Directory, the then French government, was repulsed. Where had this man come from?

Painting of 23 year old Napoleon Bonaparte as a lieutenant-colonel of a battalion of Corsican Republican volunteers
A 23-year old Napoleon Bonaparte as a lieutenant-colonel of a battalion of Corsican Republican volunteers

He had been born in Corsica, the second son in a gentry family, and following the traditional aristocratic pattern, the second son winds up with a career in the military. He had attended military academies in France. These somewhat humble origins would be one of Napoleon’s great calling cards; Napoleon would become a great champion of the self-made man. He would become the idol of a great many people, commoners who saw in Napoleon the possibilities of what a man of talent, what a man blessed with ability, with ambition, could do if he were unfettered by the structures of the old regime.

portrait of Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's first wife
Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife

He also, however, was a very savvy man politically. He married a politically well-connected widow, Josephine de Beauharnais, whose aristocratic husband had been killed during the terror.

Napoleon’s Early Military Victories

He was best known, however, for a string of very extraordinary military victories in 1796–97. In those years, he conquered all of northern Italy, forcing the Habsburgs to relinquish their territories there, and to seek control of the Netherlands as well. He also headed a military expedition to Egypt, seeking to weaken the British position there, and although his campaign in Egypt did not produce the results that he had hoped, he did achieve a series of very striking military victories. This was given very great coverage in France. This was not only a military expedition; he took, in effect, what we now would think of as a public relations staff that monitored his every move.

Painting of Napoleon on horseback standing in front of the Sphinx during his invasion of Egypt
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These dramatic victories in Egypt and in northern Italy had made Napoleon a household name in France. By 1799, as the Directory continued to lose support and just was absolutely unable to inspire any sort of enthusiasm, Napoleon had become very well known and popular across all the country.

A Coup brings Napoleon to Power

In November of 1799, a number of the members of the Directory turned to Napoleon to help them establish some sort of stable government, capable of withstanding the recurrent threats of renewed radicalism and revived royalism. Two members of the Directory approached Napoleon, plotted with him and his brother Louis, to overthrow the weak government and establish some form of stronger regime capable of charting a new course for France.

Painting of Napoleon leading the Coup of 18 Brumaire
The Coup of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799) first brought Napoleon to power in France

This coup would take place on November 9, 1799. The new government that was established called for power to be shared by three consuls. You already see a kind of terminology that’s not harkening back to the revolution, nor even to the old regime, but consuls harkening back to the Roman Empire. Power was to be shared by a triumvirate, and Napoleon was to be first consul, primus inter pares, first among equals.

Two things were already very clear about him at this point. One was his enormous ambition, and the other was his great charisma. One had seen this in his dealings with the troops—his troops in northern Italy, his troops in Egypt—and also, all sorts of contemporary evidence suggests that in dealing with people individually he exerted an enormous amount of charm, power, and charisma. It was hardly a mystery that he would very quickly outmaneuver his two partners in this triumvirate, as well as the legislative bodies of the regime.

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Napoleon Tightens His Grasp on Power

In 1802, Napoleon had himself elected consul for life. And in a step that was really quite remarkable and was a preview of the way Napoleon wanted to reign, this step was to be ratified by a national plebiscite. The people were now called in to vote to ratify this step taken by the regime, taken by Napoleon. The outcome of the vote was 3,568,885 in favor, 8,374 against. One might suspect that there was a certain amount of manipulation and influence brought to bear on the outcome, but Napoleon was quite clearly very popular in France at this time.

Painting by David illustrating the lavish coronation ceremony of Napoleon
During the coronation ceremony that crowned him Emperor, Napoleon broke with tradition and placed the crown upon his own head, rather than allow the Archbishop of Reims to place the crown on him.

In 1804, he used a trumped up royalist plot to declare himself emperor. He claimed that there was a conspiracy to return the Bourbon monarchy, to overthrow the Revolution. Napoleon constantly talked about the Revolution, even the Republic at times and saw the great danger. But he always tried to present himself on the one hand as a military man, a man of affairs, a pragmatist in some ways, but also as the legitimate heir of the Revolution. Once again, this step was ratified by a plebiscite, and the first line of this new constitutional document read: “The government of the Republic is entrusted to an Emperor.”

What’s interesting here are the resonances of the old Roman Empire. What sort of empire was this? What sort of state was this to be? Was he, as Napoleon claimed, the legitimate heir of the Revolution, or was he, as his critics certainly claimed, simply a military tyrant, reminiscent of the worst aspects of the Roman Empire? Or does his regime represent a really uniquely new political synthesis of both democratic forms and authoritarian control?

To answer these questions, we need to turn to the basic elements of the regime itself: its constitution, its administration, the domestic achievements of the regime. The Constitution of 1791 had been based on universal suffrage. In this sense, it’s consistent with the Revolution, the Great Revolution, but elections were very indirect. There was universal suffrage to elect electors, who would then elect a final legislature. This was the usual kind of compromised solution. The use of the plebiscite was novel; it gave Napoleon’s regime a patina not only of democracy, but of radical democracy, almost the general will speaking through the plebiscites. If one thinks about the period, this is absolutely a remarkable sort of phenomenon, of going directly to the people to say “Yea” or “Nay” to major matters of state.

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The Napoleonic Code

Frontispiece of the Napoleonic Code
The Napoleonic Code, created with the goal of being clearly written and accessible is considered one of the most influential documents ever written.

Napoleon insisted upon the codification of law; the Napoleonic Code would become one of the great achievements of his regime, implemented not only in France, but also  in the countries of Europe occupied by the  French armies. That new code imposed upon France a uniform system of justice. It called for equality before the law. This was a major step. One thing that equality before the law meant to the Napoleonic regime was that no one would be tax-exempt. All French citizens were now going to bear the financial burdens of state. Freedom of religion was guaranteed under the new constitution; Protestants would be able to practice their religion, and Napoleon took steps to emancipate the Jews. This had been done initially during the Revolution itself in the first constitution. Napoleon would take additional steps in this direction.

The new constitution also called for freedom of profession. This doesn’t sound very revolutionary, but it was. It dealt the final deathblow to the old guilds, and it was a bow toward the new forces of commercial capitalism and industrialization in France. What it did was to signal to liberal economic elements that this was going to be a regime that would adopt policies that were favorable to business, favorable to trade, to commerce, to break whatever residual powers lingered of the old guild system in France.

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What’s also very significant about this is that Napoleon bothered at all even to have a constitution. For Napoleon, it was quite clear the genie could not be put back in the bottle; the Revolution had happened. Still, Napoleon believed you could not have a legitimate government, post-Revolution, without a constitution. His regime was built on a claim to popular sovereignty, embedded in the Constitution, embedded in the elections, embedded in the plebiscites, all of which gave to this Napoleonic regime a very radical progressive bent.

Napoleon also would continue a policy that had really been emphasized during the Revolution: an emphasis on education. Napoleon would create the system of lycées under close government supervision, and this emphasis was on educating people so they could read, so they could participate, so they could be citizens. This was also part of one of the other great social claims of the Napoleonic regime. This was to be a regime in which careers were open to talent. It wasn’t heredity, it wasn’t connections, it was none of that. What really mattered was the man of talent, the man of ability, willing to take chances and to achieve.

Administrational Reforms and Peace with the Vatican

The regime also instituted a reform of the French administration. A rational centralized administration was created under Napoleon. He created a very efficient system of taxation, not a very exciting sort of reform, but obviously, considering the history of France in the 18th century, it was absolutely essential. He returned France to a system of centralized administration, where local officials were appointed from Paris. In fact, under Napoleon, one sees the most centralized of all of the various French regimes of the 18th century and into the 19th century. In addition to these initiatives, though, and possibly one of the most important, if not the most important, in terms of sealing Napoleon’s popularity at home, was his establishment of peace with the Church.

Drawing showing Catholic leaders in Napoleonic France signing a civil oath to the Government
The Concordat of 1801, which acknowledged Catholicism as the religion of the majority of French people, also required that Catholic leaders in France take a civil oath to the government.

After a decade in which relations between the various French revolutionaries and the Church were strained (to put it mildly), Napoleon was determined to restore good relations with the papacy, to bring the Church back into the mainstream of French political life. In 1801, he signed a concordant with the Vatican, with Pius VII, in which the Napoleonic regime recognized Catholicism as “the religion of the majority of French people.” It was not to be the state religion; the constitution that would be drafted called for freedom of religion—but it acknowledged that Catholicism was the religion of the majority of the French people. This concordant with the Vatican was enormously popular in France.

Oppressive but Popular

These aspects of the regime certainly solidified Napoleon’s hold on the population. But if these factors were consistent with the Revolution, other aspects of this Napoleonic regime were not. His opponents claimed that Napoleon was really a dictator, if one with great popular support. Certainly the system was maintained by secret police and very strict censorship. The number of newspapers in Paris shrank from 73 in 1799 to 13, and then down to four. They were closely censored by the regime. Secret agents supervised the press and the arts under Napoleon. Surveillance of enemies was common, and arrest of enemies or potential enemies was also commonplace. One also sees a somewhat chilling development here, which was that some opponents or potential opponents of Napoleon were arrested or taken into a kind of protective custody, and then sent off to mental institutions—not prisons, but mental institutions.

Still, for whatever oppressive qualities this Napoleonic regime displayed, the Napoleonic Empire was enormously popular in France, certainly down to 1812–1813. Most of the population clearly believed that the regime had consolidated the most positive gains made during the Revolution. In addition to this Napoleon had restored grandeur to France. Paris had once again become the center of Western civilization. The grandeur of empire, the military glory of French armies marching over the breadth of the European continent—all of these things cemented Napoleon’s popularity in France.

From the lecture series Europe and Western Civilization in the Modern Age
Taught by Professor Thomas Childers, University of Pennsylvania



  1. What a wonderful synopsis of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life. Something we moderns need be aware of is the world of politics and conflict moved a lot slower during his lifetime (the beginning of it at least – maybe not so much in Corsica). Perhaps Napoleon can be accredited with quickening the pace. Given the way in which Napoleon was able to work his armies through and around various alliances between principalities and and nations has left me wondering if he can be seen as a factor in terms of the setting of the table for the Great War – World War I. I suspect the spaghetti-like alliances which were formed prior to World War I occurred as an attempt to prevent the rise of another war monger like Napoleon. Unfortunately the alliances were often somewhat cross-purposed and thus not very workable from the start.
    Thank you for the article.

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