The Napoleonic Experience

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The Napoleonic Experience

The bare facts of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte stagger the imagination and rival the plots of the most fantastic novels. Born in 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica, just as that island was passing from the hands of the Republic of Genoa to those of France, Bonaparte attended a French military school for impoverished sons of the nobility. Unlike many French nobles, he supported the Revolution, and thanks to a combination of skill, luck, and patronage, he was given command of the Italian campaign in 1796 (at the ripe old age of 27!). He invaded Egypt in 1798, took charge of a new government in 1799, had himself named First Consul for Life in 1802, and crowned himself Emperor in 1804.

His fall from the pinnacle of power was almost as startling as his rise. In 1812 he invaded Russia, where he won most of the battles but lost an army in the process. Within two years the powers allied against him had captured Paris. Forced into exile on the island of Elba, Napoleon escaped to fight one last time. When he lost his final battle at Waterloo in Belgium in 1815, the victors sent him to the faraway island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821. The eagle (his preferred symbol) had taken its last flight.

Napoleon created a new form of government in France, reshaped the boundaries of Europe, and influenced revolutionaries and nationalists the world over. Since his first days in power he aroused controversies that continue today. Was he a true son of the Enlightenment who modernized French government and brought the message of equality under the law wherever he went? Or was he an authoritarian military dictator who fought incessant wars and conquered territory in order to maintain his egomaniacal grip on power? There is abundant evidence for both views. The evidence is presented here under three main headings: domestic policies; foreign policies and wars; and his legacy.

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