Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most written-about figures in history, yet “it is impossible to say what Napoleon might have done. People even have different opinions about what he actually did do”1. Napoleon was a powerful and influential leader from his moments in the French civil war to his years as a political leader. His accomplishments are many, and his position as one of the great leaders of the ancient world is questionable because of his controversial military campaigns. He brought glory to France but he also brought shame. His courage, zeal, ego, and charisma make him a unique leader that all others are compared to. Because of those characteristics, his power in action was unprecedented and his voice in parliament was well heard.
Napoleon’s life would include over sixty battles with many successes and few failures. His time spent in the war would lead him to politics and eventually the throne of France. His time before death would be spent in exile, and his story would be left for the pages of History. Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769, to a Corsican nobleman and his wife. In spite of there being numerous differences between France and Corsica, Napoleon’s father received a job working with the French government. In 1778, Napoleon joined the Military School at Brienne. It was then that his military career began and it was noticeable that he had many leadership skills. Later, in 1778 he was invited to be part of the artillery core at the military school in Paris. It was obvious that he was progressing quickly as “his examination results in one year were so good that he jumped the lower grades and was immediately made Lieutenant.”2 At the young age of 15 he joined his first regiment.
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Although he was proud to fight for France, “when the French Revolution broke out in 1789 Napoleon welcomed it mainly because he thought it would bring freedom for his native island of Corsica.”3 Napoleon found it hard to serve a country he didn’t belong to, but this changed quickly when he was forced to leave for France with his family after a feud was started between them and the former Corsican leader Paoli. Soon after King Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793, war was declared on Britain and Holland. The inexperienced Napoleon was very successful in the first Battle against Britain and was later promoted to brigadier-general and posted in Italy. France was searching for a new general to crush the rebels during the civil war and they found Napoleon. His army was outnumbered 5 to 25 thousand as the rebels tried to take control of Saint Roch Church in Paris. Because of his success in the Vendemiaire crisis, he was once again promoted to major general.
After his latest victory, he met a young lady, which “led to a brief courtship during which Napoleon fell madly in love.”4 On March 9th, 1796 he and Josephine de Beauharnais were married. His feelings for Josephine show how he was an enthusiastic man in life as in battle. Napoleon’s physical appearance was never very appealing. He was thin, pale, had long dark hair and was well below average in height. However, when he arrived in Italy, soldiers were amazed by his influential speeches and they were ready to fight under his command. The French had to face 42,000 enemies from both Austria and Piedmont. They found easy success against the Piedmontese at Mondovi but the Austrians presented more of a challenge since they had taken control of the bridge to Lodi. Napoleon was courageous in this battle and he gained respect from his troops as “he was beginning to realize the hold which unbroken victory was giving him over his troops, and the demands he could make on them when he had their confidence. “5
Success was apparent for Napoleon, as he was victorious against the Austrians several more times after. In fear of a counter-attack, he proposed a peace treaty with the Austrians and it was later confirmed. Not only was he proud of himself, but so was France. He brought much to his country as they gained glory, control of more land and wealth. After his time spent in Italy, Napoleon left for Egypt in order to damage British trade routes, to and from India. He had also planned on making a new territory for France. When the French arrived, they defeated the cavalry of the Turkish rulers of Egypt, but the English answered back quickly and destroyed the French fleet. He then went towards Palestine where he presented his opposing character: On the one hand, he acted like a real leader. When the plague broke out in the army, he bravely mingled with his soldiers to revive their courage.
On the other hand, he showed himself to be quite ruthless. Some 3,000 Turkish prisoners had been captured and Napoleon had them massacred on the grounds that he had no food to feed them. The real reason was probably that he wanted to discourage any others who might be thinking of taking up arms against him.6 Following this, he found resistance from the English so was forced to return to Paris. Upon his return, there were members in the government who were not pleased to see Napoleon again, but after giving convincing speeches in parliament he was given the position of First Consul, which gave him complete power. Napoleon came up with a plan to be victorious at battle once more, then soon after making peace for France. He crossed the Alps and planned an attack on the Austrians.
He ran into unexpected trouble as he could not overtake Austria, but still found the victory he needed to make peace with Britain and gain more land in Belgium, Luxembourg and northern Italy. When Napoleon returned he set his visions on peace at home because he knew that being a good soldier was not enough to please his country. He started by changing the political system so that all the governing would be done in one place and by one person, the first consul, which un-coincidentally was him. Therefore he now had all the councillors and council under his control. Napoleon’s first problem was that France’s treasury was completely empty. He thought up a new system of taxation that would bring more money to the government and in 1800 the Bank of France was founded. Another problem facing the new government was the lack of property laws.
To fix this problem, Napoleon finished writing the civil code in which the Revolutionary Governments had started. This code ensured that everyone would be treated equally but it tended to favour the middle class. Finally, he made changes in both education and religion but they were both to be more beneficial to the state, not the people. After his successes, the senate wished to give Napoleon Consulship for the following ten years but when the country voted it was obvious that they felt he deserved more. They voted that he should be the First Consul for life. This gave him absolute power but he still felt threatened by French royalists and what was left of the royal family. In order to ensure his position, he needed to become a monarch himself. In May 1804, he received the Imperial crown from the senate and on December 2nd the Imperial Coronation Took Place. He was now the Emperor of France and “with the Imperial crown, Napoleon had added glitter to what was in fact a dictatorship.”7
Being Emperor was not enough for Napoleon. He wanted to conquer Europe but this came with many dilemmas, as England was much too powerful for France and Napoleon’s naval fleets were defeated in the battle of Trafalgar. However, he was glorious in other places. He was crowned King of Italy in 1805, he made Genoa part of France and he also made alliances with Germany. This was only a start for the Emperor, as “it seemed that nothing would stop Napoleon from becoming a world conqueror…”8 As he continued he defeated Austria, Prussia and gained a victory against Russia. After Napoleon made peace with the Russians, the Tsar of Russia made plans to join the French against the English. He devised a sort of blockade around England that would not allow them to trade their products and his strategy seemed to have crippled the British.
As culture was flourishing back home in France, Napoleon set to conquer the rest of Europe. In 1808, French troops marched into Spain where he forced the Spanish royal family to give up their throne to Napoleon’s brother Joseph. Napoleon was ready to make Spain part of his empire until the British interrupted his plans and forced him out of Spain. During this time the French felt unwanted pressure from Pope Pius VII, which led to him being imprisoned while Napoleon took control of the Papal States. In addition to these problems, Napoleon divorced Josephine in 1809 and later married an Austrian noble named Marie Louis. Upon his return from Spain, Napoleon found out that Tsar Alexander of Russia was not complying with their treaty. Alexander did not wish to continue the blockade against England because much of their trade took place with them.
This angered Napoleon and so he planned a Russian invasion that included half a million French troops. As they marched toward Moscow, Russian soldiers strategically retreated over and over again. Their plan had worked, as the French army had been lessened by two-thirds because of hunger and fatigue. Napoleon’s army finally arrived in Moscow only to find a deserted city that was engulfed with flames. Temperatures dropped and the French had no shelter so they decided to return home. When they arrived in France only ten thousand men had survived from the original grand army of five hundred thousand. The Russian campaign left Napoleon’s military weak and his country demoralized. Napoleon’s empire seemed to have been falling apart as the Austrians defeated them once more and the allies took control of Paris as he went into exile for several months. During this time Louis XVIII was named king.
The people of France were not satisfied with the new monarch so Napoleon returned from his Island to reinstate himself. He believed that he would need to continue his military campaign to ensure his leadership. The Battle of Waterloo began on June 18th. During this battle, Napoleon’s presence was a week, as he had been feeling ill. He ordered several attacks against the British but the Duke of Wellington stayed in a defensive mode until Napoleon was left with no army. After the British and Prussians defeated him at Waterloo in 1815 he realized it was over; “He returned to Paris but the French would not take him back as ruler. Eventually, he gave himself up.”9 He was forced into exile on the island of St. Helena where he wrote his famous memoirs and fought his last battle, a battle with cancer, which he eventually lost on May 5, 1821.
Napoleon Bonaparte is probably most remembered for his military leadership but he has many other accomplishments that make him a great leader of the ancient world. He also was responsible for making France’s economy prosper again after the revolution, and he was able to create the Code Napoleon that changed the entire justice system in his country. Napoleon is without a doubt a great leader because of his military, economic, judicial, religious and political leadership. One of the many reasons for Napoleon being such an influential military leader is because of his conduct with his soldiers. He would work hard to make sure the soldiers thought he knew them individually: When he was going to review troops he would ask one of his aides-de-camp to find out from the colonel of one of the regiments whether he had a man who had served in one of the campaigns in Italy, Egypt, or Germany, what his name was, where he was born, the details of his family and what he had done.
He would also find out which company he belonged to and his precise position in the ranks. Then Napoleon could at a single glance pick out the man who had been described to him. He would go up to him as if he recognized him, address him by his name and say ‘Oh! So you are here! You are a brave fellow- I saw you at Aboukir- how is your old father?10 This would make soldiers feel important and that their leader knows them personally. Soldiers would do anything for such a great leader and that is why his army was successful so often. Napoleon’s leadership at war was essential for France’s victories. Even his enemies have pointed out his greatness, “The Duke of Wellington claimed that Napoleon’s presence on the battlefield was worth forty thousand troops.”11 Him being regarded so well by even his enemy shows that Napoleon possessed a talent at war that very few leaders have. Without his military leadership, Europe would be shaped much differently today.
Another reason for Napoleon’s successes on the battlefield was because he was obsessed with war. He enjoyed the scene of battle, as “he was happiest when he saw masses of men moving at his will into actions that changed the map and decided history.”12 Napoleon’s excitement for battle must have helped him in gaining so many victories. He was in love with his army, and in love with war, which could have only made him a stronger military leader. When Napoleon gained power, the French Revolution had ended and his country began to prosper. He watched his money and spent wisely, “As money began to flow in, Napoleon was careful not to overspend. ‘No one,’ he declared, ‘should sanction his own expenditure or allot money to himself.'”13 He was not willing to waste money and didn’t allow others to do so either. He felt that the money was to be for the country and that is exactly where most of it went.
Now that France was out of debt they began to reap the benefits. People began to show more respect to one another and all classes were being represented at social events and in the workforce. Citizens were returning to church on Sundays and parties took place for the people to enjoy. A form of the aristocracy was formed as Napoleon appointed princes, dukes, counts, barons and knights. Fashion also changed for the French as their dress became more elegant but comfortable. Hairstyles were kept simple and women were encouraged to wear makeup to meet the standards in appearance set by Empress Josephine. Material riches were brought back to France as the Louvre was filled with beautiful pieces from around Europe. Construction was constantly taking place in Paris as bridges were being built and buildings were spread out to make the capital more spacious. However, the city remained very dirty as the streets were unpaved and the Seine River was polluted.
Napoleon fixed this problem by constructing reservoirs filled with safe drinking water. He made sure those citizens had jobs and that farmers had crops to feed the people. The quality of life was greatly improved for the people of France and it was due to Napoleon and his strong, viable economic leadership. Napoleon felt that there was a need for new laws, especially property laws, in France. He developed the Code Napoleon that was an important milestone in civil law, “This code was so impressive that by 1960 over 70 different states either modelled their own laws after them or adopted them verbatim.”14 The code revolutionized law in France and the rest of the world. It had many positive aspects within it; like equality in law and freedom of religion, but it still held some disadvantages as women could not vote and minors had little rights. However, France was grateful for the Code Napoleon because it protected the rights of most citizens, especially those of the middle class.
The Church had been destroyed and forgotten during the French Revolution but Napoleon planned to reverse that. The Pope and wrote and signed the agreement called the Concordat, which indicated that the French government would recognize the Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish churches. This agreement would allow Napoleon to take control of the church in France. Napoleon was able to choose the bishops and the government would pay them. Many people did not agree with the Concordat but Napoleon felt that “he had given back to France the religion whish most Frenchmen wanted.”15 Napoleon never set out to be a politician or a ruler but as fate took its toll, he became one of France’s greatest rulers. Napoleon speaks about being a ruler, saying, “‘from my first entrance into [public] life I was accustomed to exercise command; circumstances and the force of my character were such that as soon as I possessed power I acknowledged no master and obeyed no laws except those of my own creating.'”16
He often ruled his country as he would maneuver his army because that is what he was taught when he was young. He was never educated to be the ruler of an empire but he still managed to do so successfully. Finally, Napoleon, despite all his battles and campaigns of the war, envisioned a peaceful country where the French could live without fear. He was often trying to impose peace but war was often being imposed on him. In many cases he spoke about having peace with his enemies: ‘Frenchmen,’ he declared, ‘ you want peace; your Government wants it even more than you.’ He sent a Christmas message to King George III, proposing peace. ‘Why should the two most enlightened nations of Europe… go on sacrificing their trade, their prosperity, and their domestic happiness to false ideas of grandeur?’17 After King George III received the letter he declared that he did not want peace and so the war continued. This shows us that Napoleon was searching for peace and he would have rather avoided war but his enemy could not agree with him.
Through looking at his life and his career as a great leader we can see why Napoleon Bonaparte has been written about so much. It is very obvious that such a character would be a great leader. He has so many accomplishments and his passion for leadership is so strong that it almost seems like he was born to be a great soldier, ruler, and leader. Possibly one of the biggest reasons for his success in leadership is because he studied and modelled himself from the previous leaders like Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar. He was able to learn from their mistakes and re-enact their movements. Napoleon will always be remembered and perhaps that is what makes him great for he will never be forgotten or left out of any history books. He describes his greatness best as he explains, “the herd seek out the great, not for their sake but for their influence; and the great welcome them out of vanity or need.”18
- David Sylvester, Napoleon and the French Empire p.89
- David Sylvester, Napoleon and the French Empire p.6
- David Sylvester, Napoleon and the French Empire p.6
- David Sylvester, Napoleon and the French Empire p.9
- Felix Markham, Napoleon p.42
- David Sylvester, Napoleon and the French Empire p.15
- David Sylvester, Napoleon and the French Empire p.36
- David Sylvester, Napoleon and the French Empire p.44
- David Sylvester, Napoleon and the French Empire p.88
- David Sylvester, Napoleon and the French Empire p.57
- M. Dale Davis, Civilizations in History p.386
- Will & Ariel Durant, The age of Napoleon p.249
- Vincent Cronin, Napoleon p.195
- www.napoleonseries.org/faq/code.cfm, FAQs: The Code Napoleon
- David Sylvester, Napoleon and the French Empire p.29
- Will & Ariel Durant, The age of Napoleon p.250
- Vincent Cronin, Napoleon p.225