The son of Carlo and Letizia Bonaparte (or Buonaparte; see under Bonaparte, family), young Napoleon was sent (1779) to French military schools at Brienne and Paris. He received his commission in the artillery in 1785. After the outbreak of the French Revolution he attempted to join the Corsican patriots led by Pasquale Paoli, but his family was thought to be pro-French. His family was condemned for its opposition to Corsican independence from France and fled the island shortly after the outbreak of civil war in April 1793.
Returning to military duty in France, Bonaparte was associated with the Jacobins and first attracted notice by his distinguished part in dislodging the British from Toulon (1793); he was promoted to brigadier general and sent to the Italian front. Returning to military duty in France, briefly under arrest in the Thermidorian reaction (1794; see Thermidor), he was released but remained out of favor.
A political event was to reopen his career overnight. In Oct., 1795, the Convention was assailed by a royalist Parisian uprising (see Vendémiaire), and Paul Barras persuaded the Convention to place Bonaparte in command of the troops. Napoleon dispersed the mob with what he called “a whiff of grapeshot”—which killed about 100 insurgents. He was given command of the army of the interior. After drawing up a plan for an Italian campaign, he was, again with Barras's help, made commander in chief of the army of Italy.
He left for Italy in March, 1796 after marrying Josephine de Beauharnais (see Josephine). Assuming command of an ill-supplied army, he succeeded within a short time in transforming it into a first-class fighting force. The brilliant success of his Italian campaign was based on three factors: his supply system, which he made virtually independent of the financially exhausted Directory by allowing the troops to live off the land; his reliance on speed and massed surprise attacks by small but compact units against the Austrian forces; and his influence over the morale of his soldiers.
Napoleon swept across N Italy, forcing Sardinia to sign a separate peace in May, 1796. After his victory at Lodi (May 10), he entered Milan (May 14) and laid siege to Mantua (July, 1796). After the great victories of Arcole (Nov., 1796) and Rivoli (Jan., 1797) and the fall of Mantua (Feb., 1797), Bonaparte began to cross the Alps toward Vienna. However, the slow advance of the northern French armies in Germany and the danger of being cut off in the rear caused him to arrange—without instructions from Paris—the truce of Leoben (April, 1797), sealed in October by the Treaty of Campo Formio.
Now the idol of half of Europe, Bonaparte returned to France. His plan for an invasion of Britain across the channel was canceled, and he made alternative plans to crush the British Empire by striking at Egypt and, ultimately, at India. The plan was supported by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand and by the directors. Bonaparte sailed in May, 1798, succeeded in evading Horatio Nelson, and took Malta on the way to Egypt. Shortly after landing at Aboukir (Abu Qir), he won a brilliant victory over the Mamluks in the battle of the Pyramids (July, 1798). His successes, however, were made useless when the French fleet was utterly destroyed (Aug. 1–2) by Nelson in Aboukir Bay.
The Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was a province, declared war on France. A French expedition to Syria was repelled at Acre. Back in Egypt, Napoleon defeated Ottoman forces attempting to land at Aboukir (July, 1799). Meanwhile, in Europe matters were going from bad to worse for the French. They were expelled from Italy by the forces of the Second Coalition (see French Revolutionary Wars), and at home the Directory faced political ruin. Unannounced, Napoleon returned to France, leaving General Kléber in charge of a hopeless situation in Egypt, and joined a conspiracy already hatched by Emmanuel Sieyès, one of the directors.
The Directory was overthrown by the coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9–10, 1799), and the Consulate was established with Bonaparte as first consul. The autocratic constitution of the year VIII was accepted by plebiscite. In effect, the constitution established the dictatorship of Bonaparte. As Consul, Napoleon made a point of ruling as a civilian, but he was more authoritarian than Louis XVI. Napoleon declared that France had finished with the “romance of the revolution.” He centralized the administration, while giving local prefects considerable power in executing the policies of the central government. Officials and military officers were recruited from several strata of society and from all revolutionary factions, including émigrés. However they were appointed, not elected, and strict obedience was enforced.
Bonaparte's administrative reforms established an efficient modern state that was capable of effectively mobilizing its resources and afforded him vast patronage powers. He established the Bank of France. He also made peace with the Roman Catholic Church by the Concordat of 1801, which reestablished the church in France, but bound it to the success of his regime. He thereby neutralized the antirevolutionary priests who had encouraged peasant unrest (see Chouans) since 1793. Church property was not restored, but church unity and status were reestablished in return for stricter submission to civil authorities. The legal system was reformed with the Code Napoléon, which was begun before Bonaparte's consulate but was marked by his priorities.
While establishing the regime at home, Napoleon also dealt with France's enemies (1800), crossing the St. Bernard pass and defeating (June 14) the Austrians at Marengo, Italy. With the Treaty of Lunéville (1801) with Austria and the Treaty of Amiens (1802) with Great Britain, the Second Coalition was ended and France became paramount on the Continent. Napoleon's ambition did not rest. In Aug., 1802, a plebiscite approved his becoming first consul for life; a modified constitution, that of the year X, came into force. In the same year he incorporated Piedmont into France.
His continued intervention in Italy, Germany, the Helvetic Republic (Switzerland), and the Netherlands as well as his refusal to arrange a commercial treaty with Great Britain aroused British distrust. Britain failed to restore Malta to the Knights Hospitalers, as the Treaty of Amiens had stipulated. In May, 1803 Britain again declared war on France. Napoleon built up his army, apparently preparing to invade England, but the invasion fleet he assembled (1803–5) was repeatedly struck by storms, and a major part of the French fleet was engaged in the disastrous expedition of Charles Leclerc to Haiti.
While warfare languished, Napoleon took advantage of the plot of Georges Cadoudal against his life, seized and executed the duc d'Enghien, and had himself proclaimed emperor of the French by a subservient senate and tribunate (May, 1804). Confirmation by a plebiscite was a foregone conclusion, and on Dec. 2, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Napoleon took the crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII and set it on his own head. An imperial court and a nobility were created.
The constitution of the year XII retained the features of the previous two constitutions, but its liberal provisions were gradually restricted. When Napoleon, in 1805, proclaimed himself king of Italy and annexed Genoa to France, a Third Coalition was formed against him by Great Britain, Austria, Russia, and Sweden. Napoleon crushed the Austrians at Ulm, occupied Vienna, and won (Dec. 2, 1805) his most brilliant victory over the combined Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz.
Austria, with the harsh Treaty of Pressburg (Dec. 26), was forced out of the coalition. Prussia, which entered the coalition late in 1806, was thoroughly defeated (Oct. 14) at Jena, and Napoleon entered Berlin in triumph. British sea power, however, had grown stronger than ever through Nelson's victory at Trafalgar (1805), and Napoleon resolved to defeat Britain by economic warfare. His Continental System was answered by the British orders in council.
On land, warfare with Russia continued. The indecisive battle at Eylau (Feb. 8, 1807; now Bagrationovsk) was made good by Napoleon at Friedland (June 14), and Russia submitted. By the treaties of Tilsit (July, 1807; see Sovetsk), King Frederick William III of Prussia lost half of his territories and became a vassal to France; Russia recognized the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, created from Prussian Poland, and other territorial changes. Sweden was defeated in 1808 with the help of Russia.
With only Britain left in the field, Napoleon was now master of the Continent. The whole map of Europe was rearranged. The states of Germany had already been altered by the Confederation of the Rhine; Napoleon's allies, the electors of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Saxony, were made kings; the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved (1806); the kingdoms of Holland and Westphalia were created (1806 and 1807), with Napoleon's brothers Louis and Jérôme Bonaparte (see under Bonaparte, family) occupying the thrones.
Napoleon's stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, was made (1805) viceroy of Italy, and a third brother, Joseph Bonaparte (see under Bonaparte, family), became (1806) king of Naples. In 1808 Napoleon made Joseph king of Spain after obtaining the abdication of Charles IV and his son Ferdinand VII; in Naples, Joseph was replaced with Marshal Joachim Murat, who was married to Napoleon's sister Caroline. Another Napoleonic marshal, Jean Bernadotte, became heir to the Swedish throne in 1810 (see Charles XIV).
An attempt (1809) by Austria to reopen war against France was defeated at Wagram (July 6, 1809) and resulted in the cession of Illyria to France by the Treaty of Schönbrunn. The Papal States were declared annexed to France (1809), and when Pope Pius VII replied with an excommunication, he was imprisoned and later was forced to sign an additional concordat. Napoleon secured an annulment of his marriage with Josephine, who was unable to bear him a child, and was married in March, 1810 to Marie Louise, the daughter of the Austrian emperor Francis I (formerly Holy Roman Emperor Francis II). A son was born to them (the “king of Rome,” later known as the duke of Reichstadt or Napoleon II ), thus insuring the imperial succession.
Decline and Fall
Great Britain had never submitted, and the Continental System proved difficult to enforce. Napoleon's first signs of weakness appeared early in the Peninsular War (1808–14). The victory of 1809 over Austria had been costly, and the victory of Archduke Charles at Aspern (May, 1809) showed that the emperor was not invincible. Everywhere forces were gathering to cast off the Napoleonic yoke.
Napoleon's decision to invade Russia marked the turning point of his career. His alliance with Czar Alexander I, dating from the treaties of Tilsit and extended at the Congress of Erfurt (1808), was tenuous. When the czar rejected the Continental System, which was ruinous to Russia's economy, Napoleon gathered the largest army Europe had ever seen. The Grande Armée, some 500,000 strong, including troops of all the vassal and allied states, entered Russia in June, 1812. The Russian troops, under Mikhail Kutuzov, fell back, systematically devastating the land.
After the indecisive battle of Borodino (Sept. 7), in which both sides suffered terrible losses, Napoleon entered Moscow (Sept. 14), where only a few thousand civilians had stayed behind. On Sept. 15, fires broke out all over Moscow; they ceased only on Sept. 19, leaving the city virtually uninhabitable. With his troops decimated, his prospective winter quarters burned down, his supply line overextended, and the Russian countryside and grain stores empty, Napoleon, after sending an unsuccessful feeler to the czar for peace, began his fateful retreat on Oct. 19. Stalked by hunger, the Grande Armée, now only a fifth of its original strength, reached the Berezina River late in November. After the passage of that river, secured at a terrible sacrifice, the retreat became a rout.
In December Napoleon left his army, returning to Paris to bolster French forces. Of his allies, Prussia was the first to desert; a Prussian truce with the czar (Dec. 30) was followed by an alliance in Feb., 1813. Great Britain and Sweden joined the coalition, followed (Aug., 1813) by Austria, and the “War of Liberation” began. At the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig (Oct. 16–19), Napoleon was forced to retreat. In November the allies offered Napoleon peace if France would return to her natural boundaries, the Rhine and the Alps. Napoleon rejected the offer, and the allies continued their advance. They closed in on Paris, which fell to them on March 31, 1814.
Napoleon abdicated, first in favor of his son and then unconditionally (April 11). He was exiled to Elba, which the allies gave him as a sovereign principality. His victors were still deliberating at the Congress of Vienna (see Vienna, Congress of) when Napoleon, with a handful of followers, landed near Cannes (March 1, 1815). In the course of a triumphant march northward he once more rallied France behind him. King Louis XVIII fled, and Napoleon entered Paris (March 20), beginning his ephemeral rule of the Hundred Days.
See Pieter Geyl, Napoleon: For and Against (1949); studies of Napoleon and his era by J. C. Herold (1955), Louis Bergeron (1981), Jean Tulard (1971), Owen Connelly (1985, 1987), and Georges Lefebvre (2 vol., tr. 1969). See also Napoleon's own memoirs, dictated to Emmanuel de Las Cases and others; and his correspondence.