4.4: Napoleon Bonaparte: Restoring the Monarchy?

The common misconception about Napoleon was that he was vertically-challenged. As the original measurement was 5’3” in French feet (not “English feet”), Napoleon was actually of average if not slightly-above average height for his time. Also, he chose his “imperial guard” (those who walked next to him at parades and public functions) for their above-average height—hoping to prevent snipers from taking him out. Therefore, in public he looked quite short by contrast.

Regardless of his height, Napoleon Bonaparte stands as one of modern history’s significant figures: the one-man embodiment of the French Revolution—both its idealistic strengths and its power-hungry weaknesses. Starting out as an artillery officer, Napoleon first emerged into public fame in 1795: he prevented a group of conservatives (in favor of reinstating the king) from taking over the National Convention.

He continued fighting for the French Republic in its wars overseas, famously commanding armies over the Alps and into the Italian peninsula. In an attempt to prevent Britain’s trade with its colony of India, Napoleon led a French invasion of Egypt (yet another colony of Britain). However, this campaign led to a much lesser degree of success, and Napoleon retreated back to Europe. In order to maintain his own celebrity as a “hero of the republic,” he kept his most embarrassing military failures out of the French newspapers.

When Napoleon returned in 1799, he was greeted with warmth and cheers. His friends persuaded him to take political office. The Directory was back in power, and was not well-respected by the people. Napoleon surrounded the Directory building with troops; the Directory members (who did not run away) voted to dissolve the current government and set up a system of consuls (head representatives) who would lead the society. Napoleon took the title of “first consul” and his coup d’etat was successful and successfully received by the French people.

Soon afterwards, thanks to Napoleon’s firm command of the military and the government, he secured peace agreements with many enemies of France, including Prussia, Russia, and Britain. It was the first time Europe had been at peace for a decade.

Napoleon was not through with war, however: in 1801, he invaded the former French colony of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti). Responding to the French Revolution’s ideals, the island’s African-American population rebelled against France and declared its own independence. However, Napoleon was determined to re-claim Saint Domingue as the basis for a new French empire in the Americas. Nonetheless, like his campaign in Egypt, this attempt to gain control of territory outside of Europe ended in disaster. His troops suffered from the combination of a freed slave population (who had “home court advantage”) and widespread disease in the subtropical climate.

“The Home Front”: Napoleon Unites France, then Unites Europe

While denying the slaves their liberties, Napoleon (at least on the surface) wanted to demonstrate that he was the chosen leader of the French people, and not their dictator. In 1800, an election was held to approve the new constitution and Napoleon’s all-powerful position of “first consul”; the constitution passed by a significant majority.

Napoleon as leader did not want to return the country to the days of Louis XVI. At the same time he ran a more moderate course, contrasted with Robespierre and other leaders of the Revolution of the past decade. Napoleon’s banking, tax, and education systems made France more stable, while requiring that government officials were those best qualified for the job rather than those who had the most personal connections. At the same time, First Consul Bonaparte restored the position of the Church with an agreement signed with the pope. No longer would the Church be run under the state, but neither would the Church be allowed to run the state.

First Consul Bonaparte also found the “middle ground” in reforming the law system of the new constitution, what is called “the Napoleonic Code.” Napoleon prided himself on fairness, and yet, for the sake of order in the wake of the bloody phase of the Revolution, he limited many freedoms such as freedom of speech and of the press (just as he did after his Egyptian campaign).

In 1804, Napoleon felt that the time had come for a new title and so, with voters’ support again, he became the first “Emperor of France” in a ceremony in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris very similar to the crowning of the French monarchs in the past. However, as opposed to kneeling for the pope and being crowned by him, Bonaparte took the crown from the pope’s hands and crowned himself. The crowd went nuts.

Having solidified the “home front,” Emperor Bonaparte turned his attention once again to the battlefields of Europe. Though Napoleon was virtually unstoppable due to his superb tactics on land, his naval skills were weaker, as shown by the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain in 1805. In defeating Napoleon’s navy, Britain secured dominance of the seas and forced Napoleon to call off plans for the invasion of his arch-rival island: Great Britain.

Nonetheless, Napoleon’s ceaseless victories, strategic diplomacy, and personal popularity enabled him to build the largest empire since ancient times: by 1812, only Britain, Portugal, and Sweden were free from Napoleon’s control or influence. All other countries in western Europe had been either conquered by Napoleon, were allied with Napoleon, or were ruled through “puppet leaders,” in some cases by his own relatives.


However, three key decisions led Napoleon to downfall: the decision to blockade Britain in 1806, the decision to invade Spain in 1808, and the decision to attack Russia in 1812. All three of these military decisions were the result of the ultimate dream of Napoleon’s: a Continental System, uniting the whole continent of Europe under one economic model, free from the trading dominance of Great Britain. The system was far from perfect, particularly considering Britain’s powerful navy, Napoleon’s weaker one, and the lack of consistent enforcement. Portugal continued trading with Britain, as did Napoleon’s ally Czar Alexander I of Russia.

So, Napoleon sent his troops through Spain on the way to Portugal, which caused the Spanish citizens to fear that the French Revolution and its anti-Catholic ways were spreading. The Spanish quickly launched unorganized attacks against the invading troops. These attacks and the citizens who led them were called guerrillas (“little wars” in Spanish).

Napoleon was so displeased that he removed the king of Spain and put his own brother, Joseph, on the throne. The Peninsular War (fought on the Iberian Peninsula, which contains Spain and Portugal) was a failure: Napoleon was an excellent strategist against standing armies, but guerrilla attacks were another matter.

Similarly, when Napoleon began his march to Russia in summer 1812, he likely did not expect the very untraditional style of fighting from the Russians: they would practice a “scorched-earth policy” to ensure that the French troops would not be able to sustain their forces on the road. After the “tie” of the Battle of Borodino in September, the Russians showed how determined they were in their use of this policy: they burned their own city of Moscow to the ground to ensure that Napoleon would not have a base-camp over the brutal Russian winter. Napoleon’s original summer force, which had been 420,000 marching into Russian territory, only numbered 10,000 when crossing back before Christmas.

These mistakes cost Napoleon his empire: pouncing on his now-weakened territory, Austria, Russia, Britain, Prussia, and Sweden joined forces and met Napoleon’s armies outside of Leipzig (present-day Germany) in late 1813. Even after this disastrous loss and the enemy marching into Paris itself, the emperor still refused to give up. Nonetheless, his generals and armies did give up, and the allied forces banished (kicked out) Napoleon to the Mediterranean island of Elba in 1814.