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Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleone Buonaparte

also known as Napoleon I


Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the latter stages of the French Revolution and its associated wars in Europe. His Imperial and Royal Majesty Napoleon I, By the Grace of God and the Constitutions of the Republic, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine, Mediator of the Helvetic Confederation.


Bonaparte, Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica. Son of Carlo Maria and Letizia (or Laetitia) (Romolino) de Buonaparte.


When Louis XVI offered free education to the children of impoverished noble families, the Corsicans were included, and several of Carlo's sons and daughters, including Napoleon, were educated at the King's expense. In 1779, after a few months' schooling at Autun to improve his French, Napoleon entered the military academy at Brienne, which was run by a religious order. He remained there for five years. Taunted by his schoolmates as being provincial and uncouth, a pauper even among the aristocratic poor, he professed an intense Corsican patriotism and hatred of the French "oppressors."

He had first selected the navy for his future career, then shifted to the army, choosing the artillery as his specialty. In 1784 he was selected to attend the Ecole Militaire in Paris. There Napoleon lived for a year with other noble cadets in luxury such as he had never known before. He neither disgraced nor distinguished himself and graduated forty-second in a class of 130. Commissioned as second lieutenant of artillery, he was sent to Valence in southern France.


Napoleon had to serve a rigorous apprenticeship in the ranks, during which he read widely and tried his hand at writing. There was revolution in the air, and though Napoleon was an ardent disciple of Rousseau he had from the first an aristocratic and soldierly hatred of mob violence. During his ten years as an obscure officer he envisaged a politico-military career in Corsica, with Paoli or against him, and so was active in Corsican affairs. Hence he was repeatedly on prolonged leave, failed to report back at the appointed time, and was time and again on the verge of dismissal. But once the Revolution had begun, so many of the officers turned against the Revolutionary government that the army showed desperate indulgence toward those who remained even nominally loyal. Instead of being cashiered, Napoleon was twice reinstated, promoted, and allowed to collect his back pay. In June 1793 the die was cast: defeated by the Paolists, Napoleon fled from Corsica and once more reported for duty with the French colors. The local patriotism of all the Buonapartes vanished completely.

Napoleon was in Paris on August 10 when Louis XVI was dethroned, and in September when the mob slaughtered the "suspects" in the Paris jails. He finally secured an assignment: he joined government troops who were attempting to recapture Toulon, where anti-Revolutionary elements had turned over the great naval base to the British and Spanish fleets on August 28. Napoleon was in charge of the artillery and picked out the crucial position for his batteries. Toulon was captured on December 19 and a terrible orgy of retaliation followed for which Napoleon, still in a subordinate position, bore no responsibility. He was now, at the age of 24, promoted to brigadier general. This was not as exceptional as it would be today: generals Louis Hoche and François Marceau held high commands at the same age.

Napoleon's career, like his character, had hitherto been somewhat erratic, but he seemed now to have a clear road ahead. He was sent to the army of Italy and entrusted with a secret mission to Genoa. But a new peril appeared. Though Napoleon had no profound political convictions, he had been on friendly terms with the ruling Jacobins, who proclaimed themselves the disciples of Rousseau. He had struck up a friendship with Augustin Robespierre, brother of the dictator Maximilien. When the latter fell from power, Napoleon's career was in jeopardy. He was suspended and even arrested. But on August 20 he was reinstated once again and sent on an expedition to Corsica, which Paoli had placed under the protection of George III of Great Britain. The British fleet shattered the half-hearted effort to dislodge them, and Napoleon was again jobless.

Napoleon returned to Paris and fought the weary and all-too-familiar "battle of the War Office," in the effort to obtain another assignment. He was offered a command in the Army of the West, created to suppress the insurrection of the Chouans in La Vendée in the west of France. This cruel and sporadic warfare, from which no prestige could be expected, did not appeal to him and he declined on the plea of ill-health. He remained available, although in disfavor, with a nominal job in the army's map department. He considered an offer to reorganize the artillery of the sultan of Turkey; the fabulous East as his field of action had always been, and was to remain, his secret dream. Meanwhile he hovered about Paris, a down-at-heel, sickly looking hero in semi-disgrace, and mingled in the lurid society of the Thermidorians, the profiteers who on 9 Thermidor had brought down Robespierre.

A motley collection of malcontents, staged an uprising in Paris against the Thermidorians and the latter's obvious determination to perpetuate themselves in power. The Comte de Barras, the chief of the Thermidorian clique, had enough training as an army officer to be aware of his limitations. Casting around for a professional soldier to counter this threat, he thought of the shabby young general without a post whom he had met socially and whose achievement in Toulon he knew about. Once he was given the job Napoleon again showed his strategic genius and swiftness of decision: he seized the available artillery before the rebels were able to do so and placed his troops at the critical points. The insurrection was not crushed by a single "whiff of grapeshot" on the steps of St. Roch church, as Thomas Carlyle has depicted it; it collapsed.

Napoleon might have had some sympathy with the feelings of the insurgents, but for the fact that they had one irredeemable weakness: looseness of purpose. And so Napoleon chose to "save Society," even though it was Thermidorian society. To the end of his career Napoleon was to remain the sword and shield of those middle-of-the-road, middle-class elements whose goals were "order" and "profit." He despised them, as he despised all humankind. But he was committed to them and not to the memories of the old order, or to the revolutionary aspirations of what would some day be the new order. Henceforth Napoleone Buonaparte signed himself Napoléon Bonaparte. He had become French; soon he came to think that he was France.

Rise to Power. Napoleon was amply rewarded by the Thermidorians, now ensconced in power under the new regime of the Directory. He was given command of the army of Italy and the hand of Joséphine de Beauharnais, one of the merry widows of Thermidorian society, and an ex-mistress of Barras. The young officer, starved for elegance and tenderness, fell deeply in love with the shallow, fading beauty who was six years his senior and married her on Mar. 9, 1796. He loved her to the end, even though she proved unfaithful as well as extravagant, though he soared beyond her birdlike intellect, and despite the fact that he had to divorce her for dynastic reasons. This is the most human and appealing trait in his character.

Italian Campaign. The director in charge of the war against the Holy Roman Empire, Lazare Carnot, had planned the Italian campaign to be a secondary theater of war. The chief blows against Austria were to be delivered north of the Alps, by two armies converging on Vienna, under generals Jourdan and Moreau. But Jourdan's defeat, which forced Moreau to a masterly retreat, made the Italian campaign the principal one. It was one of the three great achievements in Napoleon's military career. Between March 1796 and April 1797 the Italian campaign produced a dazzling series of victories, including Lodi, Castiglione, Arcola, Rivoli-names which still sound glorious in French ears. Napoleon imposed armistices upon the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont, the Papal States, Parma, Modena, and Naples; he sent back the purchase price of these armistices-cash and art treasures-to the impoverished government of the Directory. The campaign was a great epic, complete with Napoleon's ringing addresses to his soldiers, which were masterpieces of martial eloquence. Still, there was a dark side: Napoleon entered Milan both as a conqueror of the Austrians and as a liberator of the Italians from their Austrian masters; yet, a week later, Lombardy was in revolt against the French and had to be ruthlessly forced into submission.

Napoleon was now the indispensable man and he knew it: he bluntly refused to share his command and to take advice. In civil administration and in diplomacy he acted as a sovereign, not as a general who served the Directory. When generals Louis Hoche and Jean Moreau started a lightning campaign north of the Alps, Napoleon hastened to sign an armistice with Austria at Leoben which foreshadowed the Treaty of Campo Formio. His headquarters at Mombello had taken on the characteristics of a royal court, and in his own mind Napoleon had already been crowned.

Egyptian Campaign. Britain alone now remained at war with France, and early in 1798 Napoleon surveyed the French coast opposite England but declined to undertake an invasion. The idea of attacking Britain through Egypt may have originated with the Comte de Talleyrand; but though he is renowned as a realist, the idea was preposterous. France's possession of Egypt would not affect England's trade with India, which went entirely by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Part of the idea was that Egypt was a stepping stone toward India, whose rajahs (native rulers) were not resigned to British rule and might be encouraged to revolt. But Egypt was separated from India by 2,000 m. of semi-desert country. The most powerful objection was that such an operation demanded equality with the British fleet. The French fleet that left Toulon on May 19, 1798 was impressive, but it was no match for Lord Nelson's. Moreover, the naval officers had deserted the country almost in a body and there was no one to plan naval strategy.

The French had luck: Nelson missed them twice.

With the French fleet gone, a stalemate ensued. The British and the Turks could not oust the French, but the French were hemmed in. Although Bonaparte flirted with Islam to the extent of hinting that he might become a convert, a fierce insurrection against the French broke out in Cairo and had to be repressed with Napoleonic energy. In despair Napoleon sought a way out through Syria. He took Jaffa in Palestine by storm but was checked at Acre. On May 20 he began a retreat which became a succession of horrors. He was still able to defeat the Turks who had landed at Aboukir, but he had to acknowledge that he was a caged victor.

This fantastic adventure had three results which enhanced the prestige of Napoleon. The Directory had sent with him a large scientific mission, and as a result the French remained for centuries leaders in Egyptology. Secondly, since Napoleon was entirely cut off from his government, he took on the appearance of an independent sovereign. Finally, as things went from bad to worse for the Directory, the distant hero became a romantic figure, the last hope of a distracted nation.


  • When Napoleon died, there was not a flicker of emotion to be observed in Europe. But his posthumous message reached France and Europe at the right time. The Holy Alliance and the conservative policies which it sought to impose on all of Europe, as well as the Bourbon Restoration in France, had all lost their glamour. Europe was turning to liberal ideas again. The result was that Napoleon's image was transformed into that of a martyr to the reactionary monarchs. Culturally, it was the age of Romanticism, and Napoleon was transmuted into one of the gigantic myths of the time, along with Faust, Don Juan, and Prometheus. In the France of the 1830's his legend grew luxuriantly, fostered by the stodgy bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe. When that King ordered the return of Napoleon's remains to Paris, which took place on December 15, 1840, it was the apotheosis of the Emperor and the Empire. In Paris monuments like the column in the Place Vendôme, the Arch of Triumph, the great gilded dome of the Hôtel des Invalides, became shrines to the new idol. To the present day, sober historians, investigating the details of his dizzying career, are overpowered by the magic of his romantic legend. Of his conquests nothing survived, but he lives on as a hero of folklore.


  • pro-republican pamphlet

    • Le souper de Beaucaire


His religious opportunism is epitomized in his famous quote: "It is by making myself Catholic that I brought peace to Brittany and Vendée. It is by making myself Italian that I won minds in Italy. It is by making myself a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt. If I governed a nation of Jews, I should reestablish the Temple of Solomon."


Napoleone Buonaparte was the second son of Carlo Buonaparte, a lawyer with some claim to noble rank, and Letizia Ramolino. Only fifteen months before Napoleon's birth, the Genoese, unable to repress an insurrection of the Corsicans, had sold their shadowy ownership of the island to France. Carlo Buonaparte had fought for Corsican independence under Pasquale Paoli, but he now became a supporter of the French regime. As a reward, he secured from Louis XV in 1771 formal recognition of his noble rank. Yet the family never became really French: Napoleon's mother was never at home in the French language, and when any member of the family lost his temper he lapsed into the Corsican dialect.

Carlo Maria Bonaparte - lawyer

Letizia (or Laetitia) (Romolino) Bonaparte

Josephine de Beauharnais

Maria Louise

Augustin Robespierre