The Age of Napoleon

Youth | Egypt | Takes Power | Accomplishments | vs. Britain | Wars | Continental System | The Russian Campaign | Fall | Significance

Napoleon was a military adventurer, but he was also an idealist. He believed in government by meritocracy, but also made his brothers and sister royalty throughout Europe. His coming to power marked the end of the French Revolution, but at the same time it spelled the end of the old regime and guaranteed that the ideals of the French Revolution would be spread to every corner of the continent and through much of the world.

Napoleon's Youth

Napoleon Buonaparte was born in Ajaccio, Corsica in 1769. One year prior, the Italianate island had been annexed by France. His father applied for and got status as a minor French noble. This meant that Napoleon and his brothers and sisters qualified to be admitted to the best French schools. He went to a military school at Brienne. He was made an officer of artillery at a very young age (1785). He was influenced by the writings of the Enlightenment. Napoleon was about 20 years old when the French Revolution began.

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During the early years of the revolution many of the officers who had been nobles left the country, leaving a wide avenue of advancement for ambitious young men. Napoleon began a quick rise. He gained prominence, first by showing his military brilliance at the Siege of Toulon, where the British had taken over the port and were holding it for the French Royalist cause. He was instrumental in driving the British out by advantageously placing the French artillery as well as showing astute leadership. After returning to Paris, he married a beautiful socialite, Josephine Beauharnais. Her connections in the government got him command of the French army of Italy which was currently fighting the Austrians in the War of the First Coalition. He was a stunning success, destroying the Austrian forces, and confiscating the rich treasuries of northern Italy, helping pay for the costly war. Without even consulting the French Government, he made peace with the Austrians, the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797). Napoleon had made a name for himself both as a military leader and as a statesman. He was 27 years old.

Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign

Napoleon returned to Paris in Triumph. The men in the government feared his ambition. When he proposed an expedition to Egypt to disrupt the British control of the Eastern Mediterranean and to threaten the British grip on India, the government readily approved. He gathered a large fleet and an army and sailed for Egypt. He won the Battle of the Pyramids against the Mamelukes, effectively taking control of the country. However, his communications with France were severed when a British fleet commanded by the brilliant Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile.

Napoleon returned to France clandestinely. Although his return to France could have been viewed as abandoning his army, he remained widely popular among the people who saw in this dynamic young man a strong leader and, paradoxically, a stabilizing influence.

Overthrow of the Directory

The Directory had ruled France since the overthrow of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror. Yet it was still plagued by all of the problems that had perplexed previous governments. There was still much unrest in the streets of Paris. There was considerable discord between the government and the Catholic church. The government still spent far more than it took in revenues. Corruption and incompetence was still endemic. The chaos of the revolution had left France unsettled. The people were ready for stability. Napoleon proclaimed that he was just the man to give the nation what it wanted. Stability and security, but without a return to the ancien regime. Napoleon, with the help of his brother Lucien Bonaparte overthrew the government. They set up Napoleon as First Consul, and two years later Consul for life.

Napoleonic Reforms and Accomplishments

With Napoleon as Consul and later Emperor, the French state was given energetic leadership and astute generalship between 1799 and 1815. This was a mixed blessing. France received a new code of laws, to be known ever after as the Code Napoleon. Napoleon instituted the Concordat, which reconciled the church and state, allowing freedom of worship, but at the same time confirming the place of Catholicism in the culture of the French nation. He rooted out corruption, centralized finance, and improved the schools. Advancement in France would come to depend on merit and not birth. But on the bad side, France was almost constantly at war.

Napoleon Bonaparte Sketch

In 1804 Napoleon made himself Emperor of the French. In a strange twist the Pope was present at the coronation ceremony. He lifted the crown to place it on Napoleon's brow. Napoleon took the crown and placed it on his own head. He had included the church in the ceremony, but he would have everyone know that he was Emperor, not by the grace of God, but by dint of his own efforts. It seems strange that such an event would be greeted with applause in France, especially since it had been barely a decade since Louis XVI had lost his head. But Napoleon represented for Frenchmen not just the gloire of military adventurism, but a cementing of many of the most important aspects of the revolution. The nobility had lost all of its priveleges. There was now equality under the law, and perhaps most importantly, the peasants had gained land from the dissolution of the church and the dispossession of the nobility. The reign of Napoleon meant that Louis and his Bourbon family could not return to set things back to the way they had been before the revolution.

Britain: the Implacable Enemy of Napoleon

Napoleon's generalship brought nearly all of Europe under the control of France. Britain could not tolerate this. For all but a brief period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Britain under Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and his successors, waged war with France. Pitt was a firm believer in an idea known as the Balance of Power. This was the notion that it was best for Britain if no single power dominated the continent of Europe. A balance of power made war and tyranny less likely, helped to keep trade trade free, and prevent invasions of England.

Britain fielded great generals, efficient armies, and perhaps most importantly a powerful fleet. The Duke of Wellington would oppose the French in Spain, helping to bleed French resources, and Lord Nelson with the British Navy, besides defeating the French and the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, would keep the French bottled up on the continent. The long continuous struggle on the part of Britain was a major factor in ending French and Napoleonic hegemony in Europe.

The Napoleonic Wars

The Napoleonic Wars were numerous. Napoleon and France faced one coalition after another. Part of the reason for the continuous struggle was a carry-over from the French Revolution. In spite of having a totalitarian regime come to power in France, the ideals of Republicanism were still alive and well, and were still being exported in a subversive manner to the old regimes of Europe. The other reason was the nature of Napoleon himself. Although he was a superb politician, he also was quick to resort to military force, perhaps because he was so successful on the battlefield.

Names of battles such as Austerlitz, Ulm, and Marengo still resound down the annals of history. Some say that Napoleon was simply lucky in his generalship. Indeed, he once said that he would rather have a lucky general than a good one. Yet it is difficult to imagine he could have been so successful for so long without exhibiting an extraordinary degree of talent. He certainly knew how to inspire people. Though many of his bulletins and proclamations sound bombastic today, they found enthusiastic eyes and ears in his day. He was a master of logistics. He knew how to feed and clothe an army. He had more than a basic understanding of war, especially the war of maneuver. He understood how to use tactics to the best effect, including the columnar attack and use and positioning of artillery. Until about 1812 he exhibited exceptionally good judgement on the battlefield and on the march, even knowing when to quit and make peace. He also had a facility for choosing commanders.

The Continental System

By 1806 France had control over much of Europe. But as usual, her ever-present rival, Britain, remained in the field and on the seas against her. Britain had long been called a "Nation of Shopkeepers". Napoleon, though he could build great fleets, could not match the superb seamen of the British Navy. It was impossible to train sailors, when every time they left port they were faced with the British blockading ships. Napoleon decided that the best way to defeat England was not with military force but by outlawing all trade from the continent. The idea was to break the merchants and manufacturers of Britain, which would force the government to sue for peace.

This plan took the form of the Continental System. Napoleon's decree that no trade be allowed with England would, however, cause him more trouble than it would Britain. It forced many previously honest and law abiding people to become smugglers. (He actually removed his brother from the throne of Holland for allowing trade with Britain.) Ominously, it would also be the causus belli for the war which would initiate his downfall.

The Russian Campaign

The biggest violator of the Continental System was Russia. Tsar Alexander found it profitable for his nation to trade with Britain. When Napoleon demanded that Alexander cease and desist, Alexander refused. Napoleon felt that this defiance of his dictates justified war, or at least a threat of war. Truthfully, with the power of most of Europe on his side, Napoleon probably believed that he could cow the Russian state into acceding to his demands. However, once he began to mobilize his forces, the Russian Campaign seemed to take on an inexorable life of its own. The Russians refused to bow, and Napoleon, at the head of an army of around a million men, entered Russia in 1812.

It was a long, bitter, and very cold campaign. The allied armies under the Emperor of France were drawn in to the interior of Russia by the Fabian tactics of the Russian generals Bagration and Kutuzov. Although he won victory after victory, the Russians remained in the field and simply retreated, destroying anything the French could use as they went. By the time Napoleon captured Moscow, his troops were exhausted, ill-supplied, and poorly fed, a mere fraction of the original force. Napoleon decided to retreat to a more tenable position, but the retreat turned into a route, and when 1813 came only a handful (about 10,000 men) reached the starting point on the Russian border in any kind of order. Napoleon's greatest army had been destroyed by the fortitude of the Russians, the fierce Russian weather, and the grand strategic mistake of invading in the first place.

The Fall of Napoleon

The Russian campaign was the beginning of the end for Napoleon. It showed that even the master of war could be defeated. The destruction of the vast grande armée left him highly vulnerable. At the same time, the British under Wellington had been steadily drawing French resources in the Iberian Peninsula. All of the states of Europe decided it was time to join forces in another great coalition in order to oust the man whom they all feared. Meanwhile, Napoleon rushed back to Paris to raise new forces. The people of France responded to his call, but it was not enough. After several battles, the French were overwhelmed. Napoleon was forced to surrender. He was exiled to the island of Elba in the Western Mediterranean near Italy.

He swore never to leave the island. However, ever the opportunist, within a year, he returned to France to joyous crowds, raised a new army, and determined to defeat his enemies. He marched north to face his most bitter foe. The Duke of Wellington at the head of an Anglo Dutch Army working in concert with a Prussian Army under Marshal Blucher came to meet him on a battlefield near a small town in Belgium called Waterloo. Napoleon was finally defeated and sent to an island under British control in the South Atlantic called St. Helena. Napoleon died in bed in 1821.

The Significance of Napoleon

Napoleon is often called the first modern dictator because of the way he seemed to mobilize all of the resources of the state. Yet Napoleon was also a product of his time and the previous age. He had been much influenced by the philosophes of the Enlightenment. He believed that society, indeed, worked better when certain human rights were respected. His great accomplishments were not just victories in battle after battle. He attempted to rule justly, and scientifically. His legacy in law and culture lasted far beyond anything he ever did on the battlefield. Yet in a sense all of those battlefield victories helped to spread the ideals of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité throughout much of crusty old Europe. He was instrumental in ushering in a new age where people all over Europe could speak of human rights and not just the rights of a particular class. Did Napoleon make colossal mistakes? Certainly. But even his mistakes would help to bring about a new understanding in Europe that Europeans were much better working together than fighting among themselves. Long after Napoleon had left the scene there was agreement in Europe that peace was much better than the alternative. This time of peace would be called The Concert of Europe.

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The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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