May 6, 2014
Napoleon’s Rise Tied to the French Revolution
In the late 1780’s, France was the setting of revolution to come. The end of the eighteenth century was a time of radical political and social upheaval that shaped France and the rest of Europe to what it is today. The French Revolution marked the decline of absolute monarchies and the rise of the voice of the people. The revolutionary state of France resulted from the ideals of the Enlightenment and those of John Locke. Those ideals are clearly seen through the new found emphasis on the governed having a voice in the way in which the country was run and the role that the masses would have in the revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power came in the midst of the French Revolution and was made possible by his military career, his popularity among the people of France, and a contrast between his leadership and that of the failing constitutional monarchy and the Jacobin Republic.
It is impossible to investigate the life and rise of Napoleon Bonaparte without also looking at what was occurring in France during the beginning of his life, especially his early military career and his rise to general. The decline of absolutism in France begin in the mid-1780’s, a time where France was in utter financial crises and where the monarchy was feeling pressure from those which it was governing. The following is a description of Louis the sixteenth’s response to the financial crises of France that were a direct response to the period of war France experienced during the eighteenth century.
On 29 December 1786, at the end of a royal Council, Louis XVI announced his intention of ‘assembling people of various conditions and the most qualified in my state, in order to inform them of my views on the relief of my peoples, the ordering of my finances and the reform of various abuses.’1
Louis XVI did not realize that he was by doing so being the catalyst for the events that would be put in motion, leading to a revolution in France and later the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The financial crises forced Louis to call the Estates General for the first time in over one hundred and fifty years. Rapid change in the political structure of France came about in 1789, beginning with the Third Estate of the Estates-General voicing its opinions and eventually Abbe Sieyes leading them to break away. The following accounts the actions of the Third Estate which was comprised of approximately ninety-seven percent of the population.
As from 6 May the Third Estate rechristened itself the ‘Commons’ (Communes), as if the new name washed it clean of old humiliation. Thus, in a single movement, it held firm against the king. For more than a month it refused to undertake the verification of credentials apart from the other two orders; because through sheer numbers it held sway.2
As the Estates General failed, Abbe Sieyes led a political revolt which marked the beginning of a time of great change in France, for as the “commoners and their adherents among the ecclesiastics” acted, they marked the beginning of the Revolution on June 17th, 1789 by declaring themselves the National Assembly of France, becoming and furthermore acting as the representative body of the changing nation.3
Soon to follow was the events of the famous Tennis Court Oath in which the newly formed National Assembly locked itself in an inside tennis court, declaring it would not leave until a constitution had been written for France. To put this in perspective with the life of Napoleon, these events occurred while he was at Auxonne in Burgundy, which will be discussed later. This now was the setting for the period in which the Constitutional Monarchy was born and later the stage that Napoleon would take lead role on. With the writing of a constitution France moved into the period of a Constitutional Monarchy with the forming of the National Constituent Assembly which would last from 1789 to 1791. Within these two years “they completed, as best they knew how, the prodigious task of laying the bases of a new social and political organization. They destroyed much, almost all, that was characteristic of the old France of corporate and class interests, and that destruction was the necessary preparation for the new democratic France that they labored to create.”4 In an essence the monarchy was destroyed for its power was nearly diminished and a constitution had been formed that outlined the rights of man and had a heavy presence of equality. The year 1789 marked the beginning of the French Revolution, and even though a constitution had been written and France’s political structure had all but been obliterated and changed, France was the furthest thing from a peaceful place, as will be seen over the remainder of the eighteenth century. To some extent the lack of peace the France experienced paved the way for Napoleon’s rise to power as he become a hero among the people with his decisive victories and Italian campaign. The French Revolution like the American Revolution was one that was conducted from the bottom up.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s military career started relatively early, impacting his education and life trajectory rather drastically. He was only nine years old when he began his studies at the Royal School of Brienne, which was made possible because Corsica was annexed by France which allowed him to qualify for scholarship enrollment. He was sent to Brienne in 1779 and remained there for the next five and a half years.5 It was here that his immense interest in knowledge developed as he was taught a wide array of subjects, which included but were not limited to French, Latin, geography, history, and mathematics. “It was a well-rounded course of teaching” that slowly began to turn him into a man of France, although he would struggle with staying true to France and not returning to his Corsican nationality.6
Although Napoleon was fairly secluded from the world during this period of five and a half years, he was aware of the world around him, especially the events that were transpiring in France at the time, as it was on the eve of revolution. The leaders of the school kept the students informed of major events in order to not instil ignorance in them. The key aspects of the teaching contained within the program that Napoleon went through was that it was formulated in such a manner that it took ordinary boys, along with those of noble birth, and moulded them to be French officers; Napoleon absorbed it all, which was made clear by his military strategies seen later in his life.7 Napoleon showed much resilience as he overcame language barriers, as upon entering Brienne he knew only the Corsican dialect, and differences of nationality, due to his Corsican birth, to graduate from the Royal School of Brienne in October of 1784.
At the end of his time at Brienne it seemed as if his career was headed in the direction of a naval course, but by some uncertain reasons Bonaparte’s career was redirected to the track of the army, which in the end worked to his benefit as would be seen over the remaining course of his life.8 Within the branch of the army Napoleon “chose the artillery: in that highly technical branch, brains had a better chance” to survive and for advancement.9 Upon graduation and the army artillery track, Napoleon along with a few other students from his class, were sent to Ecole militaire (military school) of Paris. Here “his history master prophesied that ‘with luck he would go far,’” and he was right.10 Napoleon was only at Ecole a year before he passed out, showing dedication to his studies and displaying the knowledge he attained while at Brienne. Now, at the age of sixteen, he was an officer within the French army, specifically he was assigned to the regiment known as La Fere.
Even after his nearly seven years of schooling and his position as officer, he still had much to learn before he was completely the man that scholars now know him as, for he also still longed for home. This home sickness delayed his progression through the ranks as he spent a majority of the next two years at home in Corsica, ignoring his duties to the army as would happen more than just this one time. However, in 1788 he rejoined his troops at the garrison located at Auxonne in Burgundy, which would prove to be vital to Napoleon’s education as this was also the location of an artillery school that was under the command of Baron du Teil.11 Jean-Pierre, Baron du Teil was first Colonel of the Regiment Fere-Artillery and then later Commander of the Royal Artillery School in Auxonne where Napoleon rejoined his troops and stayed for a number of years. It is important to note that he was a high ranking officer of the French artillery and one of the most influential people to Napoleon’s learning and growth during his time in Auxonne. It was here that Napoleon, under the watchful eye of Baron du Teil, received even more training in tactics and artillery as Teil took a special interest in the young mind of Napoleon.
Napoleon spent time reading everything he could and began writing his on discourses on battle strategies, a lot of what would now be known as Napoleonic strategy was born during these years of reading and writing at Auxonne in Burgundy. In brief, “Bonaparte’s intelligence was impressed by certain clear and straightforward counsels: to have a numerical superiority at a given point and to concentrate effort; always to keep one’s strength intact by liaison between every part of one’s army; to surprise the enemy by swiftness of movement.”12 It was just those tactics which he put into practice, winning decisively a number of key battles, including the Siege of Toulon, that later not only made him known for such tactics on the battle field but also allowed him to rise through the ranks of the army at an exponential pace when the time came.
Up to this point Napoleon had not seen the real field of battle, save a minor battle or put down of a small revolt. It was at this point however that Napoleon’s military career shifted from a passive theoretical period to that of actual military experience. Several months later in the earlier months of 1793, Bonaparte’s participation in active service took off and did not take long for him to have the chance to put into practice those tactics which he had been developing in the preceding years as in 1793 the Siege of Toulon transpired, which Napoleon would end up playing a predominant role in the outcome.13 Prior to 1793 and the Siege of Toulon, Napoleon had spent another period of years bouncing between his service to the army and his home of Corsica, however this time at home was spent differently than previous times as he was engaged in a three way struggle between royalists, revolutionaries, and Corsican nationalists. Furthermore, in this period he was promoted to captain in the regular army in 1792.
Toulon would prove to be the true turning point within his career though for as the French recaptured Toulon from the English it was the young Napoleon Bonaparte, recently made an artillery captain, that would draw attention to himself by coming up with the plan to retake the hill overlooking the bay, giving the French the distinct field position advantage and allowing them to bombard the blockade fleet in the bay that was making it rather difficult for the French to seize Toulon; it was then that Napoleon proved himself to be a strategist of rare ability.14 The Siege of Toulon was the defining moment for Napoleon that put him front and center, marking the beginning of his propulsion up the ranks of the army eventually to the position of general, along with the begin of his national popularity, which would occur just a mere two years later.
For mere context, it is now the year 1793, Napoleon has made a name for himself at Toulon and has begun to be recognized for his strategic mind of battle and France is on the brink of turmoil as a new group is seizing power with France. The constitutional monarchy that was established in 1791 is failing and France is moving toward a more radical response and phase of the revolution as a more radical group has risen to control, and is beginning to impose their will by eliminating their competition. It is also key to note that the constitutional monarchy set up in 1791 was met with foreign opposition which should be expected, as the foreign monarchies feared that the people they ruled would see what was happening in France as a chance to request the same change. Thus, France entered into a period where it was not just facing internal resistance but also external. Just like all things, new does not always mean better, and in this case what was about to come to France was definitely not better than what the people had previously been dealing with.
In the spring of 1792 the lower class of France become radicalized even as they had a new constitution in place, they still were not satisfied. As a result violence further ensued. This new group was the Jacobins, who officially took over rule of France with the forming of the Convention. Not long after they seized power and control, France became a republic which it had been reluctant to declare with that notion for it was very much a term from antiquity and did not want any sense of a withstanding past to be a part of the future. The Declaration of a Republic marked the end of any remaining structure of the monarchy governmental system within France in late 1792, only to be followed by the execution of Louis the sixteenth in January of 1793.
Under the Jacobin Republic, France experienced a numerous amount of radical reforms which were really a restriction on the freedoms that the people had long been fight for. The Jacobins were able to restrict freedoms and implement their radical reforms because they were done so strategically under the guise of protecting the French Revolution and the necessity to preserve the Republic. Even within the Jacobin Convention there was division between those that were moderate and those who wanted to take a more radical approach. The moderate group was known as the Girondins which were pushed out of the convention by the group known as the Mountain. From the Mountain group came the Committee of Public Safety whose leader was Maximillien Robespierre, who took enlightenment ideas to their extreme. This is just one continuation of the ideas of the enlightenment. The restriction of liberties went too far though as they would be until France had eliminated all external and internal enemies alike.
The people of France were ready and accepting of the change which would ensue upon Napoleon’s return to France from his Italian and Egyptian campaigns. This time from the late 1793 to the middle of 1794 would become known as the Reign of Terror as France was in utter turmoil as the Law of Suspects was passed under the Committee of Public Safety which, over simplified, gave local authorities the power to imprison anyone who no more than spoke out against the Republic. The Committee of Public Safety was using the idea of necessity to preserve the Republic to appeal to the people. This can clearly been seen in the following excerpt from a speech given by Robespierre:
The goal of the constitutional government is to conserve the Republic; the aim of the revolutionary government is to found it... The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death... These notions would be enough to explain the origin and the nature of laws that we call revolutionary ... If the revolutionary government must be more active in its march and more free in his movements than an ordinary government, is it for that less fair and legitimate? No; it is supported by the most holy of all laws: the Salvation of the People.15
It was rederic like this that resulted in the policy that allowed the state to use violence without any repercussions to repress and crush any resistance to the government. This power did not last forever though. The corrupt Committee of Public Safety lead by Robespierre was met with opposition in late July of 1794, leading to what is now known as the Thermidorian Reaction. This reaction lead to the arrest and execution of Robespierre allow with others, also marking the fall of the Committee of Public Safety.
Napoleon during this time of turmoil in France was making the Siege of Toulon a possible success, as previously discussed, while also laying the ground work for what was about to become one of the most famous military careers and series of campaigns in history. It is interesting to take into consideration that Napoleon was a mere twenty-three years old when the Siege of Toulon occurred and from that point was very much on the fast track to military greatness. He had a mind for it. Throughout his schooling and early days it has been noted how much he read of military history and strategy. The young Napoleon took time to learn his craft and over the course of the years it is clear that it paid off for him. Before Napoleon’s career came center stage to stay he would return to France. While he was home in France the government shifted from that of the Jacobin Republic to its final stage before Napoleon would seize power for himself. As the Jacobin Republic fell, the idea of France being a republic stayed, leading to what would be known as the Directory controlling the power of France.
The Directory, like all other governmental changes over the past seven years was met with some resistance from those who wished for the Jacobin Convention to remain in power and not give way to the Directory. Napoleon was charged with putting down a revolt that stemmed from the Thermidorian Reaction and the shift from the Convention to the Directory. From the Memoirs of Barras, a member of the Directory, we have a detailed account of Napoleon saving the day during one interaction between the radicals and military. Barras says of Napoleon here that he showed battle field awareness in saving his life.
I have not left out, however, the fact that he gave indication of a quick military perception when, pulling me by the coat and drawing me a few paces away from a position which would have exposed me to the first discharge, he said to me in an outburst of animation which was the product of the circumstances: ‘All would be lost if you were killed. The drama hinges on you alone; there is no one who could take your place. What action are you going to take?’ It was then that I ordered Brune to fire his cannon, and Bonaparte, pressing my hand, exclaimed: ‘The republic is saved.’16
Napoleon shows respect for his commanding officer above, mentioning that if he were to die it would be a great trouble as he is without replacement. The Directory which Napoleon fought to preserve in this time France would rule over France from 1795 to 1799 when Napoleon would return to France once more, however this time he would not be protecting the government but seizing power for himself instead, to rule as a military leader over France. This would be made possible by his Italian campaign which is about to occur, making him rather popular among the people of France and the military.
After Napoleon helped put down the revolt and ensured the defeat of the Convention, he fell into sudden fame among the people and the new Directory, earning him a promotion to Commander of the Interior and was given command of the Army of Italy. Thus begins his famous campaign of Italy. His time in Italy proved to be when he truly made a name for himself, winning battles decisively before they even began as his army preformed such battlefield maneuvers that his opponents did not ever truly have the odds over him. At one point during the campaigns he led his army into Austria and forcefully demanded that they negotiate peace. Napoleon at this point in his life was only twenty-seven years old, but he had achieved the status of being known as the young ambitious general. André François Miot de Melito, a special minister from the French government to Piedmont, tells of his impressions of the young General Bonaparte and conversations with Napoleon in his memoirs stating that:
Bonaparte took us for a walk in the extensive gardens of his beautiful residence. The promenade lasted toward two hours, during which the general talked almost continuously. . . . ‘What I have done so far is nothing,’ he said to us; ‘I am but at the opening of the career I am to run. Do you suppose that I have gained my victories in Italy in order to advance the lawyers of the Directory, the Carnots and the Barras? Do you think, either, that my object is to establish a Republic?
continuing later to say that Napoleon told him:
‘The nation must have a head, a head rendered illustrious by glory and not by theories of government, fine phrases, or the talk of idealists, of which the French understand not a whit. Let them have their toys and they will be satisfied. They will amuse themselves and allow themselves to be led, provided the goal is cleverly disguised.’17
It is interesting to see that Napoleon did not fall into power by chance but he knew what he wanted, formulated a plan, waited for the right time, and then implemented his disguised plan. He would make his big return to France when the opportunity presented itself. Napoleon was a calculating man.
That opportune time came when he was able to sail home to France safely, avoiding the British fleet which had temporarily retreated from the Mediterranean Sea. Little did Napoleon know though, that the Directory had sent for him to return in order that he might prepare the home front from a British invasion. During this time of his absence from France his popularity among the people had grown far more than he could have imagined. So much so that when his ship approached the shore the nearby population flocked to it, so excited to catch a glimpse of the General Napoleon that they climbed on board, hoping to get closer a look.18 It was this very popularity among the people that would allow him to take power for himself as the country was once more suffering from a number of issues and the people were looking for change, for something different that would work better. Napoleon wished to improve France, to end all the turmoil that it had suffered. In his young ages he was not anything more than a displaced Corsican but had now become a man of France. The army and the population of France saw a different solution to their issues, that is not another constitution which they believed would fail like all those that had come before it, but a man: one who Reginer declared was a
hero whom France holds dear, not so much for the number of his victories as for the desire he has so patently expressed to become the peace-maker of the world: a man who will know how to rule as he has known how to fight and to win.19
The people of France did not want another constitution that would not change anything, they believed in a single man, that he might bring peace to their beloved country.
In November of 1799 after he had returned to France, Napoleon staged a coup that led to the installment of the Consulate, which would also lead the way to his later declaration in 1804 that he was Emperor. In an address made the following day to these actions, Napoleon speaks of what he has done, representing himself as a soldier of liberty for the people. He ends this address calling to the people saying, “Frenchmen, you will doubtless recognize in this conduct the zeal of a soldier of liberty, a citizen devoted to the Republic. Conservative, tutelary, and liberal ideas have been restored to their rights through the dispersal of the rebels who oppressed the Councils.”20
Napoleon Bonaparte’s Coup dE’tat was one that was made possible by his popularity among the people for which he would be governing over. This abundant amount of popularity to some extent was a direct result of his military career which gave the people a sense that he was a hero they could lean on and rely on in times of need. They believed that he, unlike the constitutions and government institutions before him, would not fail but that he would be able to restore peace both within France, which it has not seen since the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, but also peace in the foreign sense as well. Napoleon was very much a product of his military schooling and beginning his active service during the heart of the Revolution. He became an icon the people could look to for stability and leadership, something that was an extreme contrast to the Jacobin Republic which brought with its rule the Reign of Terror and the constitutional monarchy which was still in a sense too much of a monarchy to bring about real, stable change. Napoleon’s rise to power was made possible by the events of the French Revolution and was not an unwanted change of political structure among the French people for they longed for stability and leadership that they had not received from the various number of government institutions of the French Revolution, thus making it impossible to investigate Napoleon without also taking into consideration the French Revolution for he would in the end, put an end to the Revolution and in some manner restore order to France.
Bainville, Jacques. Napoleon. Translated by Hamish Miles. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1933.
Chandler, David. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: The MacMillian Company, 1966.
Furet, Francois. Revolutionary France 1770-1880. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1988.
Gershoy, Leo. The French Revolution and Napoleon. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, inc., 1933.
Guerard, Albert. Napoleon I: A Great Life in Brief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.
Heynen, Jacques M.C. Murders Without Assassins.
Thompson, J.M. Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
“Bonaparte Saves the Day” cited on http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/451/ from the original source: Paul-François-Jean-Nicolas Barras, Memoirs of Barras: Member of the Directorate, trans. and ed. George Duruy, 4 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1895. Accessed May 5, 2014.
“Napoleon as an Ambitious Young General in 1796-97” cited on http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/501/ from the original source: James H. Robinson, ed., Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, vol II, no. 2: The Napoleonic Period. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1902. Accessed May 5, 2014.
“Napoleon’s Own Account of His Coup d’Etat (10 November 1799)” cited on http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/502/ from the original source: John Hall Stewart, ed., A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution. New York: Macmillan, 1951. Accessed May 5, 2014.