FC106A: The Rise of Napoleon (1795-1808)


Napoleon's rise to power

Napoleon's career largely resulted from the military innovations he inherited from the French Revolution, such as mass conscription which made possible the use of block tactics in order to attack in column and eliminated the need for supply lines, thus making French armies much more mobile. The Revolution also provided him with young officers who had largely developed these new tactics and were willing and able to successfully implement them on the battlefield. Therefore, the two characteristics of Napoleonic warfare, massed firepower and mobility were already present when he started his career. 

Napoleon Bonaparte himself was barely French, his homeland Corsica having just become part of France two years before his birth in 1769. He attended a French military school and, while not a great student, picked things up quickly and finished a three-year program in one year. His Corsican accent and wild appearance set him apart from his classmates. Although sociable, he liked to be alone a lot. At an early age he exhibited the qualities that would earn him and France an empire: remarkable intellect, puritanical self discipline, a virtually inexhaustible energy level, and a willingness to plan things out in such detail as to leave nothing to chance. He admired Caesar, Alexander and Charlemagne and, like them, exhibited the quick decisive manner that made them all great leaders.

At age sixteen, Napoleon became a second lieutenant in the royal artillery, but his non-noble and Corsican origins left him little chance of promotion. All that changed with the French Revolution. In 1789, he went back to Corsica to fight for its independence. After quarrelling with the leader of the revolt, he returned to France and joined the Jacobins. In 1793, the young Bonaparte became a national hero by leading the recapture of the French port of Toulon from the British. The next year Napoleon's ties with the Jacobins and their fall in the Thermidorean Reaction landed him in jail for several months.

It was in 1795 that Napoleon got his big break when his famous "whiff of grapeshot" mowed down rebels in the streets of Paris and saved the new government, the Directory, from counter-revolution. This event catapulted Napoleon into the command of the Army of Italy, a ragtag army without enough shoes or even pants for its men. Nevertheless, he led this army against the Austrians in a lightning campaign that showed all the hallmarks of Napoleonic generalship: rapid movement, the ability to outnumber the enemy at strategic points with men and massed firepower, and a knack for doing the unexpected to keep his enemy constantly off balance. Napoleon drove with characteristic speed through northern Italy and then into Austria, forcing it to sign the Treaty of Campo Formio. However, this victory and the prospect of renewed French offensives alarmed kings all over Europe who formed the Second Coalition of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia against France.

Napoleon saw Britain as his main enemy, because it funded France's other enemies and also had a powerful navy protecting its coasts. As a result, Napoleon came up with a bold, if ill conceived, plan: conquer Egypt and use it as a stepping-stone to invade British-held India. At first, all went well. Napoleon's fleet eluded the great British admiral, Lord Nelson and landed in Egypt in 1798. The French decisively beat the Mamluke army and soon ruled Egypt. Then things fell apart. Lord Nelson found the French fleet and demolished it in the Battle of the Nile, thus stranding the French army in Egypt. Napoleon tried a daring march to Istanbul by way of Syria, but his artillery was captured and he had to return to Egypt with his sick and demoralized army. While the French languished in Egypt, Napoleon got word of political turmoil in France. He thereby abandoned his army (which later surrendered to the British) and slipped across to France. He then took part in a daring plot to overthrow the government. The conspiracy succeeded and Napoleon became First Consul of France in 1799.

Consolidating his power

The government that Napoleon and his allies set up, the Consulate, was a mockery of democracy and aptly reflected the above quotation. People elected delegates who chose other delegates who chose other delegates from whom were appointed legislators who had no power anyway. So much for the legislature. As for Napoleon's fellow conspirators, Ducos and Sieyes, they were shoved into the background and forgotten within a month, leaving Napoleon firmly in charge of France. However, his position was far from secure, because France was still ringed by the Second Coalition.

Napoleon first attacked Austrian forces in northern Italy, which he barely defeated at the Battle of Marengo (1800). This victory allowed Napoleon to return to France in triumph and further consolidate his position there. Meanwhile, his generals finished up the war against Austria, taking the Austrian Netherlands, northern Italy, and the left bank of the Rhine for France.

That left Britain to face France. Since Britain's navy and France's army were virtually unbeatable by the other side, and several neutral nations including the United States and Sweden had armed themselves against both Britain and France, the two big powers made peace in 1802. Prussia and Russia soon followed suit. Peace settled over Europe, at least temporarily.

Napoleon next turned his attention to Germany in order to settle a number of land disputes. Germany was still a patchwork of secular principalities, free cities, and church states. Since the Church tended to favor Catholic Austria against revolutionary France, Napoleon eliminated all but one church state and 44 out of 50 free cities, giving their lands to various German princes who now saw Napoleon as their benefactor.

Having fought his enemies to a standstill and made France the most feared and respected power in Europe, Napoleon could now pursue his next goal: becoming emperor of France. This was a tricky situation, since the French people might not take kindly to getting a new king so soon after getting rid of the old one. Using the title of emperor rather than king would partly ease people's misgiving and also give them a sense of France's imperial superiority over the rest of Europe. Napoleon approached the title in stages, first getting himself elected consul for ten years, then for life, and then, after a fake assassination plot to make people realize how much they loved him, emperor.

The coronation in 1804 was a splendid affair with even the pope coming to crown Napoleon. (Napoleon actually decided to crown himself and just let the pope watch.) The next day the emperor gave bronze eagles to his regiments as standards reminiscent of the Roman Empire. He even created a new nobility of dukes and counts from his officers in order to make a court that rivaled the splendor of other European courts.

The rest of Europe saw Napoleon's imperial crown as part of a plan to rule all of Europe. This triggered the war of the Third Coalition of Austria, Britain, and Russia against France and Spain (1803-1807). Once again, Napoleon was faced with his old nemesis, Britain, that "nation of shopkeepers" (to quote Adam Smith) whose navy shielded them from his military might. If only the British navy could be removed, Napoleon could slip across the Channel with his army and bring Britain to its knees. His plan for removing the British fleet was to lure it to the West Indies with the combined French and Spanish fleets. This would leave the Channel open for the French to cross. However, the British commander, Nelson, guessed this plan and managed to blockade the French and Spanish fleets in the Spanish port of Cadiz. When they tried to break out, the British crushed them in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Britain remained safe as its navy still ruled the waves.

Seeing his failure at sea, Napoleon marched his army eastward where he met the much larger combined armies of Austria and Russia at Austerlitz. Concentrating his forces in the center, he drove through and split the Russian and Austrian armies, winning possibly the most brilliant victory of his career (1805).

Austerlitz gave Napoleon the power to declare the Holy Roman Empire defunct, making him the heir apparent of Rome's imperial grandeur. He also used this opportunity to form the Confederation of the Rhine from the German princes grateful to him for the lands he had given them before. The Confederation consisted of about half of Germany and formed a large buffer zone on France's eastern border. This upset Prussia who had been sitting on the sidelines, but now decided to join the war. However as quickly as Prussia entered the war, its forces were shattered by Napoleon's blitzkrieg (1806).

Finally, there was Russia. After a bloody indecisive battle in the snow at Eylau, Napoleon won a decisive victory at Friedland. Now he could impose his kind of peace on Europe. Negotiations between Napoleon and Czar Alexander I were conducted on a raft in the middle of the Nieman River while Frederick William III of Prussia had to await his fate along the shore. The settlement for Prussia was not kind, taking nearly half of its land and population to help carve out the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, a revived Poland that owed its existence and lasting loyalty to Napoleon. France and Russia recognized each other's spheres of influence, but France certainly emerged as the dominant power in Europe. Besides France, Napoleon directly ruled Belgium, Holland, the West Bank of the Rhine, the Papal States, and Venice. Then there were the states that were nominally free but lived under French law, administration, and usually French rulers who happened to be Napoleon's relatives: the kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of Italy, Switzerland, the Confederation of the Rhine, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, and Spain (after 1808). Finally, there were Napoleon's allies who had to follow him in war: Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Only Hitler ever came this close to ruling all of Europe.

The Napoleonic state

While Napoleon is mainly remembered for his military campaigns and conquests, much of his importance lies in his government of France and how it consolidated the gains of the Revolution. For one thing, he kept the Revolution's administrative reform of dividing France into 83 departements whose governors ( prefects) he appointed centrally. He centralized the tax system (still used today) and established the Bank of France to stabilize the economy of France. The Revolution's system of free but mandatory education was kept and expanded with military uniforms and discipline being imposed. Napoleon also consolidated many of the Revolution's social and legal advances into five law codes. His civil code maintained the equality of all men before the law, but reasserted the power of the husband over the wife, thus negating some of the influence women had exerted during the Revolution.

Although not a religious man, Napoleon recognized the attachment of most French people to the Catholic Church and how the Revolution's policies against the Church had caused discontent and revolts. Therefore, in 1801 he made peace with the Church, recognizing it as the religion of the majority of Frenchmen and giving the clergy the right to practice their religion within the "police regulations" of France. Those regulations kept confiscated Church lands for the state and still paid the clergy their salaries. Regardless of that, Napoleon gained a great deal of popularity through his Church policy without giving up anything of essence.

Napoleon may have consolidated some gains of the Revolution, but he repressed others, for his "police regulations" in many ways amounted to a police state. Such civil rights as freedom of speech and press were now things of the past as 62 of 73 newspapers were repressed, and all plays, posters, and public conversations had to meet strict standards of what Napoleon thought was proper. Enforcing all this was Napoleon's minister of police, Joseph Fouche, formerly one of the Jacobins' representatives on mission during the Terror. He was a slippery character who had survived the Thermidorean Reaction and attached his fortunes to those of Napoleon. Fouche's spy network (one of four in France) kept him informed on just about everyone of importance in France (including Napoleon's own personal life). Fouche himself claimed that wherever three or more people were talking, one of them was reporting to him. By 1814 he had an estimated 2500 political prisoners locked away. Napoleonic rule certainly had its darker side.

By 1808, Napoleon was at the pinnacle of power. He controlled most of Europe to some degree or other. France was tightly under control and efficiently run. But forces were converging that would bring the Napoleonic regime crashing down in ruins.