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The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was not born into power. Life for him began in August of 1769. Born to Corsican aristocrat parents his beginning was founded on a hatred for the country he would later reside over. Not quite nobility, one would assume that Bonaparte’s chance to rise was somewhat slim. He spent his early years in a military school in France and was considered an outsider, because most of the other students came from rich French families. It wasn’t until the French Revolution, when France was in dire straits, that Napoleon burst onto the scene. Some might say that France’s social and economic decline alone paved a clear path for Napoleon to rise to power. I beg to differ, citing many different reasons and circumstances as to why Bonaparte was able to pull off the power climb that he did. In this essay I will describe, evaluate and analyze the instances that enabled Napoleon to become Emperor.

Before Bonaparte became involved, France was in a war that divided many of its citizens. Although the war was not particularly protested, the basis for war was something that no one could agree on. Right royalists wanted war in hopes of reviving the rule of Louis XVI, the republican left’s ideas were strongly conflicting as they hoped the war would present a chance to overthrow the King and form a republic. The beginning of this revolution left France in a terrible state. Its army was not up to par as it had once been. People were not encouraged and willing to fight. On August 23rd a total mobilization of France was ordered, which meant that every able-bodied person would have some place in the army. All men would fight. Married men would forge weapons, even women and children would be given responsibilities such as serving in hospitals and tearing rags into lint respectively. This in fact helped improve the moral of the country. Soldiers for once had in their minds a valid reason to fight. In 1793 Louis XVI was beheaded and France became a republic, led by Robespierre and also ensued was The Reign of Terror. Just a year later, he was executed and France had even more troubles seeing as Austria, Spain, Prussia and Great Britain did not agree with the politics of the republic.

In times such as these, where France needed a “hero” so to speak, the country almost beckoned someone to come and inspire them. Someone who would be able to encourage the French people. Napoleon fit that criteria. In my opinion, I don’t think it was just a matter of circumstance which allowed Napoleon to spring onto the political scene. Of course, the state of France was a good platform for him to use, but one can not over look the obvious and outstanding characteristics of Napoleon himself. Those very close to him feared him, yet the majority of the population seemed to welcome his uprising. He represented all the promises the French people wanted to hear. After years of suffering they looked to him for hope of finally restoring peace and a unified nation. It is amazing that a single person as cunning as Bonaparte could have an entire nation fooled. While I don’t believe all of Napoleons intentions were misguided, I do assert that almost everything he did was self motivated to somehow increase his own self worth. If he were alive today I am sure any psychiatrist would classify him as being a text book narcissist. His own wife even feared him greatly. If not for her deteriorating financial situation, she probably would have never married him.

At the siege of Toulan, Bonaparte was promoted to commander of the artillery of the Army of Italy (which was the French army positioned in Italy at the time). With them he planned battles and acquired approval of Robespierre’s younger brother, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Many did not take a liking to the idea of anyone supporting Robespierre’s views and subsequently in July of 1794, Bonaparte was treated as a terrorist and detained. When he was released he returned to the Army of Italy. In 1795 he was stationed in Paris and he received a job in the Topographical Bureau. It was there that he met many people that would come to influence him. One such person was Paul Francois Barras and his mistress Josephine Beaharnais. Barras would become someone very close to Napoleon and Josephine, even closer, would become his wife. It’s the small things such as Bonaparte’s denial to be located with the military in Turkey that could attribute to his rise. Could it be said that had he been accepted to fight in Turkey, that he never would have crossed paths with Barras? Maybe or maybe not, but regardless he did and his relationship with Barras would prove to be a strong one.

When on October 4th many of the members of the Commune of Paris lined the streets, Napoleon took advantage of the situation. He immediately went to the Convention and it was there that some proposed Bonaparte to be the one to help save the republic. With Barras named the commander in chief of the Committee of Public Safety, Napoleon was put in charge of operations. Again, his politically influential friendships obviously helped him acquire this position. The following day in the afternoon Napoleon took full advantage of his new title, went to the streets and did away with the mobs of rebel royalists. While any other person in a situation such as this might have taken the time to think of a proper plan, Napoleon’s level headed impulsiveness clearly worked to his benefit, for shortly after this victory he was appointed commander of the Army of the Interior. A few months after that another promotion to commander in chief of the Army of Italy. There are a few guesses as to why Bonaparte was promoted. The popular one is that he had received a promise from Barras to lead an army if he could in fact defeat the royalists. Another colorful theory suggests that his title was a gift from Barras for taking his mistress, Josephine, off of his hands. Seeing how Napoleon was viewed as an intelligent man, I don’t understand why his quick rise was such a shock. After losing many battles and having a country at it’s wits end, it must have been a refreshing resurgence of patriotism to see someone take charge and use such swift action.

In 1796 when Napoleon did head to Italy, he was faced with a group of discouraged and malnourished soldiers. Other commanders had failed before him. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he failed too. Yet Bonaparte was energetic and optimistic. He greeted his new army with welcoming words, “Soldiers! You are ill-fed and almost naked. The government owes you a great deal, but it can do nothing for you. Your patience and courage do you honor but give you neither worldly goods nor glory. I shall lead you into the most fertile plains on earth. There you shall find great cities and rich provinces. There you shall find honor, glory, riches. Soldiers of the Army of Italy! Could courage and constancy possibly fail you?” This empowering speech almost makes me want to pick up arms and head out into the Alps. It was with this kind of determination that he won many of his wars. The fact that not only did he give inspiring talks, but he had strong physical demands of his army as well. They marched fast, long and with great endurance. After a year and a half of being in Italy, he nearly conquered most of the land. Even though most victories were not large, in the minds of his soldiers and France they were. This was the first time in a while they could bask in the glory of their triumph.

He fought many battles while with the Army of Italy including Montenotte, Millesimo, Dego, and Mondovi. Most of the people in Italy looked upon Napoleon as someone who had set them free from Austrian rule, even though he looted their artwork and fortunes to pay his soldiers and himself. It was at this time it had been said that Napoleon truly found his inner calling. He had decided that he was destined to rise, to become a great leader. His fascination with becoming King of France bordered on insane, although his aspirations might not have been quite so high at the time. He said after his army defeated their adversaries at Lodi, “From that moment, I foresaw what I might be. Already I felt the earth flee from beneath me, as if I were being carried into the sky.” Returning to France only heightened his self assurance. His fellow Frenchmen looked up to him with admiration. Even though his knowledge in math wasn’t that great, he was still chosen as a member for the National Institute in the Mathematical Section. The treatment he endured surely only strengthened his ego, but this wasn’t enough. Napoleon never seemed to be satisfied, as if constantly pushing himself to the limits, believing that he could achieve so much more. This dissatisfaction led him to conjure up the not so new idea of taking over Egypt.

What the foreign minister to Louis XV had thought about, Napoleon now sought out to do himself. Since it was widely known that Egypt belonged to no one, he thought that is was best to gain control over this land before anyone else could get their hands on it. Not to mention what victory in Egypt could do for his political career. This deployment was an attempt at secrecy, even though the British knew something was going on and decided to send Sir Nelson and his convoy on a mission to find the French and destroy them where ever they may be heading. His ship was sailing twice as fast as Napoleon’s fleet. One foggy night he passed the French convoy unintentionally. Had the environment been different that evening would the two countries engaged in battle then? Would the outcome have been different? Regardless, Nelson’s ships ported in Alexandria only to find it empty so the British left. A couple days later Napoleon and his massive army arrived. They proceeded to over take Alexandria rather quickly then headed on ward towards Cairo. Bonaparte believed that he was coming under the Sultans authority to free the people of Egypt, but that was not the case. Turkey had already embarked on a war against France unbeknownst to Napoleon. While he fought his way to Cairo, the rest of Bonaparte’s fleet was met with a rude awakening at Abukir Bay. Nelson had learned of the French there and immediately ordered an attack. It was a battle that destroyed many ships and sailors, but possibly even more devastating was the fact that now Napoleon had no way back to his homeland. This battle, the Battle of The Nile, was the main cause the Sultan went to war with France. Even though it could easily be categorized as a defeat, these events proved to be empowering for Napoleon. Showing that his over inflated ego was still growing, grandiose ideas enveloped in his mind. The fallacy of victory, the bulletins he sent out proclaiming faulty casualty numbers; Did he truly believe himself to be a victor? The people of France fell under this belligerent general’s spell.

During the last month of the year 1799, Napoleon took it open himself to draft a new constitution. There was a process that usually ensued when doing this sort of thing, but Bonaparte could not wait. His desire was to conquer everything. In his mind it was the only possible way. Most people could not govern themselves. On December 25th the Constitution of the Year VIII was law and it named Napoleon as First Consul which gave him his first spot in politics. Generally he appointed ministers for every thing imaginable, basically giving him limited control over it all. He also is responsible for creating The Council of State, which its ideas were later used in forming some American politics.

Napoleon seemed at this time to be in his peak. By 1801 he had begun negotiations with Pope Pius VII in Italy to reinstate Catholicism in France, which led to the Concordat. It stated that the Church would not be given back property that was taken during the Revolution, that the First Consul would assign bishops and that clergy would be paid by the government. While it confused others, this was all part of Napoleon’s plan of having French rule in Italy. Around that same time a peace treaty was signed between England and France, stopping war for the first time in ten years. During this reform, the Louisiana Purchase was signed and the United States received its 18th state. Another reason one could assume this was the peak for Napoleon was that he created the Civil Code. This code changed the civility of France. Men grew stronger, while women grew weaker. But with this code came many others, which proved beneficial. The Code of Civil Procedure, which essentially unified law and under it every man was equal. I believe this was Napoleon’s last outstanding accomplishment before his downfall. Of course, he did go on to win many more battles, but before then his exterior began to crack and the ruthlessness and greed that corrupted his mind was evident.

The Napoleonic era coexisted with the Romanticism that swept through Europe. Napoleons once favorable public opinion, could now be tarnished by the words of authors and poets. One such writer, Madame de Staelwrote la Grande National which in essence offered that one nation could benefit from another. This displeased Napoleon and he had written to the Madame, “We have not yet reached the point where we have to model ourselves on the nations you admire. Your last work is un-French.” Later upon spending some time near Bonaparte she mentioned that the terror he inspired was inconceivable.

The harsh and unjust punishment demanded by Napoleon after an assassination attempt upon him proves my opinion of his character. He made the decision in haste that the Jacobins were responsible and subsequently had them deported or executed. The fact that some had credible evidence to disprove this theory did not matter. His judgement was impulsive and swift. Some of the qualities that helped him rise in the beginning now were traits of his overall apathetic demeanor. His delusions now ranked quite high. First Consul was not enough for him, he was still considered equal to his generals. Even though he was not exactly of noble birth, (he was hardly a Frenchman, his town had been taken over by France just three months before his birth) he still set his ambitions on the Crown and would stop at nothing to get it, including war. He met with a British ambassador to have a discussion and this once calculated mad lost his cool and was seething with rage. On May 18th 1803, England declared war on France.

Bonaparte’s political position was fragile. He learned of a royalist plot to do away with republicanism from Joseph Fouce. Of course this idea did not fit into Napoleon’s plans. His anxious suspicion got the best of him as he scoured to find out who could possibly be of royal blood to replace him. It almost seemed a random guess when he came up with duc d’Enghien, since there was literally no evidence to support Napoleon’s claims. Out of sheer greed for the throne and in my opinion jealousy, he had the young man kidnaped and murdered. Duc d’Enghien’s ultimate demise is depicted in The Age of Napoleon with the essence of a Shakespear tragedy. Fouche, who was a cohort in the kidnaping of the young royal, was quoted as saying, “It was worse than a crime-it’s a mistake.” When a Cardinal properly married Bonaparte and his wife, and he became Emperor. It was this point in my belief, that Bonaparte began his decline.

They say all genius borders on insanity, to which I firmly agree. It can not be contested that Napoleon was a calculating and intelligent man who brought France through a much needed revolution, but one has to wonder if his selfishly delusional ambition got in the way of what he could have become. Through his later actions he showed that he was not the “hero” France needed, but that France was the pawn in his scheme of getting to the top. I think the last line in J. Christopher Heralds historical novel sums it up best and to quote him, “There is nothing the dictators of the twentieth century could have taught [Napoleon], except perhaps the lesson that a dictator must never try to be emperor.”