Few men in western history can be considered as daring as Napoleon Bonaparte. A statesman, military strategist, and emperor, Napoleon achieved victories that made him master of Europe at a very young age. Like many of the most remarkable men and women in history, Napoleon is a divisive character. Many consider him as a despot whose insatiable greed for power turned Europe into a bloody battlefield. Just as many regard him as a great leader who modernized France and left a lasting legacy to the world. The debate rages on, from the hallowed corridors of the academe to the discussions of history papers. Who is Napoleon? What makes him famous? Is he a cruel dictator or a magnificent leader? History shows that answers to such questions are often irreducible to a simple yes or no; rather, there are nuances that must be considered if Napoleon is to be judged. While Napoleon certainly plunged Europe into chaos for many years, there is no denying his brilliance and his lasting contributions that exist to this day. The consequences of his conquests brought about changes that can be likened to the impact the Renaissance had on the Western world or the effects that resulted from the root causes of World War I.Who is Napoleon Bonaparte?
Who is Napoleon Bonaparte?
Early Life and Rise to Power
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the island of Corsica on the 15th of August 1769 to Carlo and Letizia (Ramolino) Buonaparte, who were members of Corsica’s minor nobility. At the time, Corsica was recently acquired by France from Genoa, thus making the Buonaparte family subjects of the French crown and prompting them to change the family name to Bonaparte. The young Napoleon was sent to military school in mainland France where he graduated in 1785 (Roberts xvi). Napoleon’s prospects for greatness when he graduated were largely slim. Not only was he from the minor nobility, but he was also Corsican, which made him more or less an outsider in Paris’ political arena. He would have been relegated to play a minor role in French history if it were not for certain events that gave him the opportunity he needed to succeed.
In 1789, the French people overthrew the monarchy and abolished the old political system. King Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette were executed. Amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, Napoleon found himself in charge of suppressing royalist forcers in Paris in 1795 (Godechot). Napoleon decisively crushed the royalists, which earned him the fame and respect that he had wanted for a long time. Thus began Napoleon’s rise to power.
Brilliant Military Strategist
Following successfully halting the return of the royalists to power in 1795, Napoleon was made the Army of the Interior’s commander. This put him in a position of influence and power. As commander, he was responsible for advising the Directory, which was the governing body in the newly established French Republic. The following year, Napoleon was made commander of the Army of Italy. His military campaigns throughout the Italian peninsula resulted in the capitulation of one Italian state after another. Napoleon also successfully drove Austrians away from Italy many times. The Austrians eventually sued for peace, which resulted in France gaining territories. For the first in years France was gaining victories over its foreign rivals. Napoleon became wildly popular among the people. After his campaigns in Italy, Napoleon turned to Egypt in an attempt to block British trade routes. The campaigns in the Middle East were of limited success and Napoleon decided to return to France in 1799 (Godechot). A new chapter was about to unfold that would make Napoleon master of the European continent.
Master of Europe
In an event now known as 18 Brumaire, Napoleon and his loyal allies overthrew the Directory in a coup d’état and established the Consulate, which was composed of three consuls. True power, however, was solely in Napoleon’s hands as First Consul. In June 1800, Napoleon’s forces defeated the Austrians in the Battle of Marengo, thus expelling Austrian forces from Italy. A constitutional amendment in 1802 allowed him to become First Consul for the rest of his life. Two years later in 1804, Napoleon crowned himself emperor in Paris (Godechot). Now the absolute ruler of France, Napoleon went about with his plans to expand his empire.
In 1805, France’s intention to conquer Great Britain was halted by its navy’s defeat in the Battle of Trafalgar. Later that year, however, Napoleon gained his greatest victory. In a stunning display of military skill, Napoleon crushed the combined forces of Austrians and Russians in Austerlitz despite being outnumbered (Godechot). The succeeding years was marked by the Napoleonic Wars which saw France defeating coalitions of European nations. Napoleon’s military brilliance paid off. Not only had he expanded the territories of France, but he also brought many European nations to heel, which essentially made him master of Europe. The only formidable force blocking his way to total dominion was Great Britain. Knowing that he could never capture Great Britain without a powerful navy, Napoleon opted instead to isolate the nation. He established the Continental System, which forbid countries allied with and client states of France from trading with Great Britain. This system, however, became Napoleon’s own undoing.
The Continental System was designed to isolate Great Britain from the large European economy. But the prohibition of trade with the British was met with resistance by other countries. Decreased trade had a negative economic impact and that gave the other countries reason to violate it. Russia withdrew from the Continental System in 1810. Napoleon decided to invade the country in retaliation. But the campaign was massively disastrous. The Russians withdrew eastward, which meant that chasing them drew the French deeper into Russian territory. When Napoleon finally arrived in Moscow, he found the capital burned and nearly deserted. Napoleon knew he could not stay in Moscow where supplies were scarce and so he chose to retreat. But the march back to France was even more disastrous. Napoleon’s forces suffered from starvation and the bitter cold of an early Russian winter. It is estimated that out of over 600,000 men, only around 100,000 made it out of Russia (McLynn 501-541).
Trouble was also brewing back in Western Europe. Portugal and Spain revolted against French rule and with the help of the British drove the French out of the Iberian Peninsula. Napoleon’s empire was crumbling. In 1813 his army was defeated by the combined forces of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden in the Battle of Leipzig. The victorious forces captured Paris in 1814. Napoleon was forced to abdicate the throne and was exiled to the island of Elba near the west coast of Italy (Godechot). Before being sent away, he delivered a speech to his troops that was utterly moving it can be considered as one of the best speeches in history.
In February of 1815, Napoleon escaped Elba and returned to Paris where he was eagerly received by the public. Amassing his army once again, Napoleon commenced the Hundred Days campaign. Napoleon marched on Belgium in June of that year, intent on taking down British and Prussian troops before they could join Russian and Austrian forces. Despite an initial victory in the Battle of Ligny, Napoleon was finally defeated in the Battle of Waterloo on the 18th of June 1815. Forced once again to abdicate, he was exiled to the far-flung islands of Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, where he died in 1521 at the age of 51 years (Godechot).
There is no denying that Napoleon’s wars caused massive death and destruction in Europe. But it also cannot be denied that his rule also left a lasting legacy not only for France but for the rest of the world. When Napoleon seized power, he took over a France ravaged by revolution and internal strife. The French economy was in shambles and governance was weak as factions squabbled for power. Napoleon restored the stability of the country. He established a strong central government and encouraged education, the arts, and sciences. Napoleon also promulgated the Napoleonic Code, which eventually served as a model for laws not only in countries he conquered but for much of the world (McLynn 255).
His rule also oversaw important events in world history. For one, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States, which resulted in the latter expanding its territory. Napoleon also dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and established the Confederation of the Rhine in 1806, which eventually served as precursor to German unification. The unification of the Italian states can also be traced to the Napoleonic years (Astarita 264).
History is perhaps yet to produce a definitive verdict for Napoleon. The debate will rage on for many years to come. But despite the question of whether Napoleon is a hero or villain, what is clear is his role in shaping the modern world. There is also no denying his brilliance. From his humble origins in the island of Corsica, Napoleon rose to become one of the greatest military leaders in history, on a part with the likes of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Seldom does a man known for his short stature cast such a long shadow.
Astarita, Tommaso. Between Salt and Holy Water: A History of Southern Italy. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
Godechot, Jacques. “Napoleon I: Emperor of France.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Napoleon-I/The-Directory. Accessed 1 October 2020.
McLynn, Frank. Napoleon: A Biography. London, Pimlico, 1997.
Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life. Penguin Group, 2014