Who was Napoleon Bonaparte? The Early Years

From a lecture series taught by Professor Suzanne M. Desan, Ph.D.

Who was Napoleon Bonaparte? We all have the same popularized images in our mind. We imagine him on a dashing white horse—a stunning military leader. We envision him also as a political leader—standing in that trademark pose, with his hand reaching into his jacket, parked against his stomach.

But here, we’ll look at the younger Bonaparte—from childhood, to military man, and the politician. We will also examine another less well-known version of Napoleon as a romantic, a sentimental man of his times.

Who was Napoleon Bonaparte? Image of Bonaparte at the great Sphinx in Egypt
Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, (ca. 1868) by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Napoleon as a Child

Napoleone Buonaparte (later to be renamed as the more recognized, and more French “Napoleon Bonaparte“) came from a minor noble family. They weren’t rich. His father Carlo Buonaparte was a lawyer and a social scrambler. He tried out lots of different business ventures with varying success. He would end up dying early in 1785, in debt—he was a big spender and his latest venture, a mulberry plantation to produce silk worms, went belly up.

Learn more about Young Napoleon

Image of Napoleon's father Carlo Buonaparte for the article on who was Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon’s father Carlo Buonaparte

As a father he was apparently indulgent, but he was also away a lot. He wasn’t a strong presence in Bonaparte’s later memories of his childhood. But Napoleon clearly paid attention to his father’s ambition and inventiveness. Much later, in 1804, when he crowned himself emperor, Bonaparte muttered an aside to his older brother: “Joseph! If only our father could see us now!”

His mother, Letizia, was a formidable woman. She was at the heart of the boy’s emotional world. She was spirited, energetic; she asked a lot of her children. She passed these dynamic traits on to the young Napoleon. She needed her energy because she gave birth 12 times, and eight of those children survived to adulthood.

Little Napoleone grew up side by side mostly with his older brother, Giuseppe (or Joseph). He was a mild-mannered kid, very different from the lively and assertive Napoleon. It would be six years before the birth of the next surviving sibling, so Joseph and Napoleon were tight friends. We can imagine them tumbling across the Corsican hills together, rivals and playmates.

Learn more: Bonaparte Seizes Power

A Military Education

Now let’s begin to trace the military strand within Napoleon’s life. Corsica was a part of France. If noble families, like the Buonaparte, were loyal to France, they could get a leg up by sending their sons to France for school and then a career. Carlo and Letizia wanted the best for their family. In December 1778, Carlo took the two boys to France so that Joseph could train for the priesthood and Napoleon for the military. He was nine years old and didn’t see Corsica again for almost eight years.

Image Brienne-le-Château in France
Brienne-le-Château, where Napoleon would study military and political history

By all accounts, Napoleon had a hard time during his six years at a military academy at Brienne in Champagne. The lifestyle was spartan and they studied a lot. Napoleon was a scholarship student; he was an outsider. He spoke French with an accent. According to one story, his classmates teased him; they said his sallow, yellow skin color came from being “suckled on olive oil.” It’s hard to know exactly what to believe from accounts and stories written by his classmates much later on. What would you say about one of your grade-school friends if he had conquered Europe?

But the memoirs consistently paint a picture of a willful kid, a loner, stubborn, maybe a little gloomy, rough around the edges. But in these accounts, he also has a feisty streak. In one of my favorite stories (whether it’s true or not) Napoleon led his fellow students in throwing their mattresses out the window. Anything to irritate the monks who were their teachers.

He was great at math, and even earned a prize in that subject. About history, later on he wrote, “History I conquered rather than studied.” Maybe he said that to provoke and delight historians like me, because in fact he loved ancient history and geography.

Learn more about Bonaparte in Egypt

An Early Obsession With Reading and Politics

Napoleon studied next at the elite Military Academy in Paris. He was the first Corsican to graduate from there, and he was ranked 42nd out of the class of 58. He was given a position as an officer in the artillery in 1785.

Image of The central building of the École Militaire Complex
The central building of the École Militaire Complex which accepted the young Napoleon Bonaparte in 1784.

As a young officer stationed in the south of France, he had plenty of practical training: how to fire a cannon, how to position a battery. But he also read avidly. Apparently, he would skimp on money for food to buy enough books. He read all kinds of things. The Enlightenment produced military theoreticians, and after France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War, the French military was working to reform itself. For example, Jean-Baptiste Gribeauval had figured out how to make artillery more mobile. The Comte de Guibert wrote on flexible and mobile tactics and on the need for citizen armies. Bonaparte devoured authors like these.

Learn more: Napoleon Becomes Emperor

But beside his fascination with military authors, his letters also reveal that he was frustrated about his career possibilities. In the late Old Regime, no one from such a low noble background could ever make it very far up the officer ranks. The Revolution would change all that.

At this early stage of his life, the young military man had another side: He was intrigued by politics. He wolfed down works by Enlightenment political thinkers. Napoleon thought about politics through the lens of his homeland, Corisca. To understand how he learned about politics, and how he became a French revolutionary, we have to take a detour back to Corsica.

In 1769, just months before Napoleon was born, the French had annexed Corsica and crushed its independence movement. Napoleon’s own father had fought in that independence movement, so Napoleon grew up hearing stories of Corsican heroism. As a student and young soldier, he was obsessed with Corsican politics. In his youthful writings, he waxed poetic and patriotic about his homeland. He ranted against despotic government in general, but especially in France: “Tyranny, oppression, and injustice are devastating the earth.” That’s the young Napoleon.

Read about the next stage in Napoleon’s early political and military career in our article: Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution.

From the lecture series Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon, taught by Professor Suzanne Desan, Ph.D.
DXR / Daniel Vorndran [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons