How did a young Corsican from a minor noble family, whose native language was not even French, become supreme ruler of one of the most important countries in Europe? The answer has to be sought in the impact of an expanding war on revolutionary politics. From 1792 to 1794, the French armies struggled to save the Republic from its foreign and internal enemies. In 1794 the tide turned, enabling France to go on the offensive and to carry the war to its neighbors rather than desperately fight to save itself. But war was expensive, and the Directory government (1795–99) encouraged its generals to exact tribute from the local populations they "liberated" in order to pay for the maintenance of the armies. While fighting far from France, the generals acted more and more on their own, paying their armies out of local treasure and overseeing the administration of conquered territories.
Like the other generals, Napoleon Bonaparte benefited from this system, but he stood out from them because of his remarkable talent for seizing every military opportunity. In 1796 he took a ragtag army of 40,000 soldiers and swept the Austrian armies out of their possessions in Italy. When he returned to Paris in November 1797 bearing the treaty that he himself had negotiated with the Austrians, giving France control over much of Italy, Belgium, and the Rhineland, the French welcomed him as a hero. His taste of power and glory in Italy inspired him with great ambitions for the future. "I saw the world spin beneath me," he exulted, "as if I were flying through the air."
He invaded Egypt next and though trapped when the English destroyed his fleet, he escaped to France in October 1799 at a critical moment in the political affairs of the Republic. Leading members of the government secretly sought a constitutional overhaul and they needed a general to make their plot work. Napoleon appeared at just the right moment, but his arrogance and bluster nearly lost the day. He forced his way into a meeting of the deputies, who threatened to outlaw him as a would-be dictator. He and his brother Lucien, rallying some troops waiting outside, broke up the session by armed force. Napoleon was then named First Consul. The plotters in the legislature expected to control the young general (he was not old enough to hold office under the Constitution of 1795), but they soon found themselves outmaneuvered.
Napoleon steadily gained support for the new regime by promising a regime of law and order and by making peace with the Catholic Church and its head, the pope.
Although probably not motivated by personal religious conviction, he did believe that good relations with the Catholic Church were essential to maintaining order and guaranteeing his own legitimacy. Some conflicts over religion continued, but the pope had granted Napoleon more or less everything he wanted in exchange for bringing France back into the Catholic fold. Napoleon reaffirmed the principle of religious toleration for Protestants, who were organized in a number of consistories under state control. After 1804 the state paid the salaries of Protestant pastors, just as it paid those of Catholic priests. In 1806 Napoleon organized French Jews into a system of government-supervised consistories like those that regulated Protestant worship. He did everything possible to encourage Jewish assimilation to French ways. As was typical of Napoleon, he hoped to guarantee law and order by organizing all the groups in society under state control.
At the same time that these important restructurings of the state and its relations with France's main religions were taking place, Napoleon won great prestige by coming to terms first with Austria in 1801, which had resumed the struggle in 1799, and then making peace with Britain, Spain, and the Dutch Republic in 1802, ending a decade of nearly nonstop war. Peace gave him the breathing room to send an army to Saint Domingue to reestablish slavery in the colonies and capture Toussaint L'Ouverture; even though the army captured Toussaint and sent him to die in a French prison, Napoleon's army succumbed to yellow fever and to the tenacity of the former slaves, who established the Republic of Haiti and severed all connections with France. Although the peace in Europe proved short-lived too, it gave Napoleon time to have himself declared Consul for Life in a referendum in 1802.
By the end of 1802, the Republic had essentially ceased to exist and a new authoritarian state was taking shape. Elections no longer had much meaning. Napoleon set up a Legion of Honor to reward military and bureaucratic service to his state. It was the embryo of a new nobility. Newspapers were suppressed, unruly theaters closed, and critical authors sent into exile. Finally, the new direction became clear: on 2 December 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor with the pope watching. A new civil code consolidated revolutionary legislation by confirming all the sales of property undertaken since 1789 and guaranteeing equality under the law. But the Napoleonic Code also installed a more paternalistic legal system than that envisioned by the revolutionaries: husbands and fathers gained nearly complete control over their wives and children, and employers wielded great authority over their workers. Even while confirming some of the legal gains of the revolutionary decade, Napoleon labored assiduously to cultivate the loyalties of those who had suffered during the Revolution such as the old regime nobility. In some large measure, he succeeded.
Emperor Napoleon I had created a new kind of hybrid state in which certain revolutionary ideas (equality under the law, careers open to merit rather than birth, the abolition of the remains of feudalism) were combined with an authoritarian state structure and a new nobility open to those who served the state well. As time passed, Napoleon increasingly emulated the court of the old regime monarchy. He hoped to take his place among the legitimate monarchs of Europe and even married a Habsburg to establish his credentials. Although this hybrid state enjoyed broad support among the French people, neither the state nor the popular support survived defeat in war.