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.

Domestic Policies

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.






















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