Today he is a household name and an outright celebrity of Western and European history, and an enduring icon of French culture: Napoleon Bonaparte. The gutsy, shrewd, and ambitious young general rose through the ranks of the French military, eventually seizing political power and naming himself the very first Emperor of France. He was one of the greatest conquerors of modern history, expanding the French Empire and dominating European affairs in the years following the French Revolution. Undoubtedly, French history – and world history - would be written quite differently without the legacy of Napoleon. Historians have studied Napoleon and the Napoleonic era for countless years to understand his leadership and revolutionary ideals. Napoleon has been used as the subject for many different aspects of French art and culture, with many French impressionist artists, French painters, and French storytellers using his rule and conquests as inspiration to tell interesting art stories.
The story of Napoleon’s downfall and his exile on Saint Helena is nearly as well-known as that of his reign. Yet, his lasting legacy, personified by his son, Napoleon II, and his nephew and eventual heir, Louis-Napoleon, is less known. Sharing much more than just a name and family blood, these figures also each occupy a place in history.
How did this man, born to minor nobility, so profoundly change the course of Western and European history? Leading up to the 250th anniversary of Napoleon's birth on August 15, we reflect on his life, his revolutionary ideals, and his lasting impact on the world. Read on to learn more about one of history's greatest military leaders.
Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which was a recently acquired city-state of France and, therefore, under the rule of King Louis XV. Born to Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino, his family, although not wealthy, descended from minor Italian nobility - a fact Napoleon took pride in. He often reminded people throughout his life, “I am of the race that founds empires.”
At age 9, he was enrolled in a religious school in Autun on the French mainland and, after a short time, transferred to a military academy at Brienne-le-Chateau, where he did especially well in mathematics and history. Upon completion of his studies there, he was admitted to the École Militaire in Paris. He trained to become an artillery officer and was the very first Corsican to graduate from the military school and became a second lieutenant.
From birth, Napoleon’s personality was centered on his fiercely patriotic attitude towards his homeland. He was a verdant Corsican nationalist and outspoken advocate for the island’s independence from France and would carry this fighting spirit throughout his life.
The General's Rise to Power
Joining the military at a young age, Napoleon was incredibly driven and desired militaristic dominance and supremacy of the French republic. His dream was simple: for France to be the greatest country in the world and a model for all other countries to follow. Within an astonishingly short amount of time, Napoleon did exactly that. Crowning himself French Emperor in 1804 after a successful coup d’état and ruling as First Consul, Napoleon stood as the sole reigning figure of the French Empire, raising the state to the grandeur of the Roman Empire.
Napoleon was largely on leave in Corsica, where he aligned himself with the Jacobins during the French Revolution, but he began to make a name for himself immediately after the execution of King Louis XVI. After returning to France from Corsica in 1793, Napoleon helped to defeat the troops from Great Britain at Toulon and regain that territory for the French and received a promotion. Then, in 1795, he helped suppress an insurrection led by loyalists to the king against the revolutionary government and was promoted yet again by the French Directory to major general and given command of the Army of Italy. After becoming a leader, Napoleon quickly gained power, fame, and wealth. All of these qualities are evident in many of his famous portrait paintings and fine art sculptures.
After campaigns in Italy, Egypt and Syria, he returned to France in 1799 a hero and began scheming his coup d’état. He gathered an alliance, and together they overthrew the Directory (the five-man governing body of France after the revolution) and replaced it with the French Consulate and was named the first consul, which came with almost unlimited power.
The Napoleonic Code
Perhaps Napoleon’s most lasting contribution to French society and Western civilization was his Napoleonic Code. Enacted on March 21, 1804, the code Napoleon put in place is still in place today (albeit with some revisions), and has served as inspiration for European governments and civil law codes around the world. The Code replaced the patchwork of pre-Revolution French laws and was a total reform of the French legal system.
This new civil code ensured a clear, consistent, widely promulgated set of laws that eliminated the confusion of feudal law, which was largely dependent on local customs and the whims of kings or other feudal lords.
The Code recognized the principles of civil liberty, equality before the law (although not for women in the same sense as for men), and the secular character of the state. It reformed property laws, in particular inheritance laws that favored one child above another, and it standardized the court system. All judges were now appointed by the national governing body in Paris.
The Code was adopted by many European countries during the Napoleonic Wars, and it eventually would be enacted in many countries over the decades as old governments fell.
Napoleon in Exile
As the first Emperor of France, Napoleon reorganized education, established the long-lasting Concordat with the Pope, and revolutionized military organization. Such a rise to power could not come without some major costs, however. After numerous military defeats, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba in 1814. Shrewd and cunning as he always was, Napoleon found his way back. Escaping the island in 1815, Napoleon stumbled into Paris with open arms awaiting him, leading France back into battle and beginning his 100 days campaign. However, his last days were soon upon him.
While Napoleon did enjoy many victories during his time, he also suffered many losses. Once again, Napoleon saw defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and was forced to abdicate in June 1815. He had led an army into Belgium in an attempt to defeat the Prussians, but was defeated by Prussian and British troops at the Battle of Waterloo. Waterloo was a humiliating loss for Napoleon, but in a last-ditch effort to preserve his legacy, he lobbied for his son Napoleon II who was only four at the time to be named Emperor, but this was rejected.
Napoleon was sent to the remote island of Saint Helena in the southern Atlantic this time, as the British government wanted to prevent another escape. He would die during his final exile in Saint Helena in 1821 of stomach cancer.
Return of the Once Emperor
"I wish my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of that French people which I have loved so much."
Napoleon would eventually get his wish to be laid to rest in France, but not until 1840 - 19 years after his death. His return was met with great fanfare. He had remained a hero in France and received the largest state funeral in France’s history on December 15th, 1840. He was interred in a crypt at Dôme des Invalides in Paris, which once served as a royal chapel but was converted to a military infirmary under Napoleon. Other French military leaders are entombed there, as well as his son, Napoleon II, and his brothers, Joseph and Jérôme Bonaparte.
The Emperor's Heirs
As mentioned earlier, Napoleon did unsuccessfully attempt to have his one and only child, Napoleon II, recognized as Emperor of France before his last exile. The child was seen by many as the last hope for France, but instead, he and his mother, Marie Louis, fled to her homeland of Austria, and he never saw his father again. His mother would also eventually take off, leaving him under his grandfather’s guardianship. His grandfather gave him the new title of Duke of Reichstadt, dismissed all of his French attendants, and would not allow him to be called Napoleon. He instead went by Franz or Francis, all in an attempt to create distance from his disgraced father.
Although this aspect of Napoleon’s legacy would not come to fruition, another would. Born in 1808, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis-Napoleon, also known as Napoleon III, had been determined from adolescence to regain the French throne and Empire. He wrote and published his various military and political ideas, and word spread of his motivation and ideologies. Aligning himself with his uncle, Louis-Napoleon attempted a coup d’etat in 1836. Though unsuccessful, he was elected in 1850 as president of the Second Republic in France, continuing the Bonaparte family legacy. But much like his uncle, Louis-Napoleon desired more - he wanted to be Emperor. Desire fulfilled, he reigned as Emperor Napoleon III from 1852-1870.
Louis-Napoleon’s rise to power strengthened the Bonaparte legacy. While his reign eventually came to a close after a disastrous defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, his rule has lived on as one of the most cunning and successful rises to power in history, much like his uncle, known simply as Napoleon.
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