Napoleon in His Study (1812) Jacques-Louis David (Oil on Canvas)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
I ascend the throne to which the . . . votes of the Senate, the People and the Army have called me, my heart full of the destinies of a Nation which I, from the midst of camps, first proclaimed great.Napoléon I, 1 December 1804. (From R.M. Johnson, P.J.Haythornthwaite, eds, In the Words of Napoleon, Greenhill, 2002).
Today is the 239th anniversary of the birth of Napoléon I, Emperor of the French, King of Italy.
Born Napoleone (or Nabolione) diBuonaparte, in Ajaccio, Corsica, he just missed being Genoese, as Corsica was only transferred to France in 1768, the year before his birth. Child of a prominent, but retiring local lawyer (Carlo) and a strong-willed mother (Letizia Ramolino) – an amazing woman in her own right, she had the preponderant parental influence on him, Napoleone was sent away, alone, to boarding school at Brienne in France at the age of nine, eventually winning admission to the Ecole Militaire at Paris.
Despite his obvious talent and intelligence, Buonaparte was still a minor noble from a backwater province: he would have done well to have ended his life as an obscure field-grade officer in the Royal Army. But life had other plans. The nobody officer cadet from Ajaccio, poorer than his classmates, laughed at by his fellows for his Italian-accented French and the holes in his shoes, rose out of the chaos of the French Revolution and its wars all the way to the throne.
Today, the (fifth) French Republic has an uneasy official relationship with the memory of Napoléon, and prefers to remember General Bonaparte of the French Republic, and not Emperor Napoléon I, founder of the French Empire. For his own part, Napoléon was at the least ambivalent if not downright uneasy about aspects of the French Revolution, and his orderly mind saw the (first) French Republic as a chaotic madhouse.
The Emperor's extraordinary career would not have been possible without the Revolution, which swept away an entire political system and its ruling elite (which would have barred him from real power), and opened opportunities for achievement, position and power to new men with talent, such as himself. But Napoléon found (among other things) the mob-violence, social change and disorder that came with such wide-spread upheaval profoundly disturbing; and (even though Napoléon was very aware of his debt to the Revolution and to circumstances) as soon as he was able to do so, he set about terminating the Revolution.
As First Consul and then Emperor, Napoléon ended the corruption, chaos and brigandage of the French Revolution and restored order, financial sanity and religion. Napoléon correctly divined that the French missed the monarchy destroyed by the Revolution, and restored it, to popular acclaim, in the person of himself. His choice of the title: "Emperor of the French" drew on both the legacy of the Holy Roman Empire, and the earlier Rome of the Caesars which Napoléon and many of his contemporaries so greatly admired. The Pope himself came from Rome to preside at his coronation, at Notre Dame de Paris, 2 December 1804.
Napoléon is justly famous as a soldier, but he was a far greater ruler than he was a general. The Emperor proved to be one of the greatest lawgivers in history, and the modern French state is his creation. Napoléon's laws and administrative system still govern France today, and have had worldwide influence, as far afield as the United States and Japan. Napoléon was a great builder, and filled the country with universities, libraries, roads and other useful public works. The French educational system, and those of several other European countries were his creations.
Napoléon is mostly remembered for his wars. He made his reputation as a general in the wars of the French Revolution, and he inherited responsibility for the wars when he seized power from the corrupt French Republic in November of 1799. As soon as was diplomatically possible, he concluded a series of advantageous peace treaties, culminating in peace with Great Britain in March of 1802.
Peace was short-lived, however, and France and Britain, along with much of the rest of Europe, were soon at war again, on and off, from 1803 forward. Five great victories by Napoléon: Austerlitz (1805), over Austria; Jena (1806), over Prussia; Eylau and Friedland (1807), over Russia and Prussia; and Wagram (1809), over Austria again -- cemented French dominance of central and western Europe. Napoléon’s siblings were given thrones.
The Corsican gunner from Ajaccio took as a second wife a Habsburg Archduchess (Marie Louise), and their child was a King from the moment of his birth. “Roll up that map of Europe” said British Prime Minister William Pitt, after Austerlitz, “it will not be needed again in our time.”
But Napoléon was unable to consolidate his rule. Despite his victories in central Europe, his greatest enemy, Britain, remained, implacable and untouchable across the English Channel, always able to field good little armies, and provide financial support to his enemies. In the west, a guerrilla war in Spain bled Napoléon's armies; although he probably would have prevailed on this front had central Europe remained quiet. But on the east, Russia, although ostensibly an ally, more or less openly subverted Napoléon's attempts to shut British commerce out of the continent and otherwise generally intrigued with Napoléon's covert and overt enemies.
The Emperor overreached himself trying to resolve this latter problem, by invading Russia, in 1812. The space, logistical and communications problems were insoluble for Napoléon's pre-industrial military machine, and the French were beaten even before they reached Moscow. The retreat from Russia led eventually to defeat, the collapse of the Empire, exile and a lonely death on St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Still, after the fall of his regime in 1815, his successors in France found things in such good order that little actually changed, beyond the names on the office doors.
In today's more republican, egalitarian and pacifist times he is often blamed for the bloody wars of his era, but he did not start most of them (the Russian and Spanish wars being the great exceptions), although he certainly took advantage of the opportunities they presented for the aggrandizement of his empire. Greatest general of his age, and possibly ever, Napoléon's meteoric political and military career, and all of the monumental change which came in its train, was effectively finished by the time he was 45. Like Julius Caesar, the historical personality he most resembles, Napoléon transcended mere mortal existence and passed into legend.