Emperor of the French - Conqueror of Europeby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Napoleon Bonaparte: a rather uncommon name that evokes a variety of reactions
from those who hear it. Some say he was a French hero; others say he was the
greatest soldier of all time; some say he was a scoundrel who left Europe in
shambles; others say he was a warmonger with no regard for human life; and some
go so far as to claim that he was an antichrist. But what is the truth about
Napoleon? Although grenade thrown into a kitchen in France might result in Linoleum
Blownapart, this much is certain: Napoleon exploded over the face of Europe, and impacted the entire world.
Napoleon was born Napoleone Buonoparte on August 15, 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica. "Napoleon Bonaparte" was the French pronunciation of his name. France had bought Corsica from Italy in 1768 making him the first French member of his previously Italian family (his oldest brother, Joseph, was born only months before France obtained Corsica). Carlo Buonoparte, Napoleon's father, was a lawyer who was able to enter French aristocracy as a count one year before Napoleon was born. Thanks to the influence of his father, King Louise XVI paid for Napoleon's education. Napoleon was educated and trained at a military academy in Paris. He was an awkward boy who was often teased for his thick Corsican accent and his comparatively small stature. Nevertheless, he did well and was nicknamed "the Little Corporal." He graduated at age 16 and joined the French artillery. It was around this time that he exhibited a strong interest in both history and philosophy. He formed strong opinions about both of these subjects. It's possible that these opinions and beliefs shaped nearly all that he did.
In 1791, after the French revolution had begun, Napoleon became a part of the Corsican National Guard. By the time Corsica gained independence in 1793, Napoleon, having become a French patriot, moved all of the Bonaparte family to France. At the age of 24 Napoleon succeeded at driving the British Fleet from the harbor of Toulon. He was made a brigadier general and successfully protected the revolutionary government from a mob of Parisians. While in Paris he met Josephine de Beauharnais, the widow of a guillotined aristocrat. They fell in love and were married in 1796. Napoleon continued to strike at British trade but in 1799, he found himself in Egypt pitted against the Turks (who were allies of Britain). He successfully defeated the Turks but became stranded when British Admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed his fleet. Napoleon, not being one to pass up an opportunity, reformed Egypt's feudal system and granted all citizens basic rights. Because he was interested in Egypt's history and culture, he had brought with him a group of French scholars. These same scholars are the ones who uncovered the Rosetta stone. The serious study of ancient Egyptian history was in effect started by Napoleon.
Later in 1799, Austria and Russia allied with Britain to attack France. Napoleon left his army in Egypt and returned to defend his country. He was welcomed back as a hero. Napoleon joined a conspiracy against the government in Paris. By the end of 1799, the conspiracy overthrew the government and formed what was known as the Consulate. Although it was first believed he would not become a leader, Napoleon took measures to assure the constitution of this new government made him first consul. Over the next four years, the constitution was revised to make Napoleon consul for life, then emperor. Napoleon asserted his power by swiftly defeating the Austrians and drawing up an international peace treaty that assured France's borders. But peace did not last for very long.
France had been in disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church since the revolution. But in 1801, Napoleon and Pope Pius VII signed the Concordat of 1801. With this agreement the pope recognized the revolution and France recognized the Church. Napoleon did not care for the Roman Catholic Church, but he recognized that some agreement was necessary. What annoyed him the most was the amount of political power the Roman Catholic Church held. He had once written, "Christianity declares that its kingdom is not of this world; how then can it stimulate affection for one's native land, how can it inspire any feelings but skepticism, indifference and coldness for human affairs and government?" Anyone wishing to argue "separation of church and state" would be wiser to look to Napoleon, rather than misquote Thomas Jefferson.
Although he did not like the Roman Catholic Church and was often irreverent, Napoleon himself was no atheist. His studies in Corsica led him to belief in God and admiration (but not imitation) of Jesus. Although Napoleon did not follow Christ's (or anyone else's) teachings, he once said, "A society without religion is like a ship without a compass; there is no good morality without religion." He later claimed he was anointed by the Lord to be a leader. His views on theology were very complex and it is difficult to say what his true beliefs were (perhaps even he did not know). What reverence he did have was toward God, but never toward Church officials.
In 1804, Napoleon was made emperor, a title that was traditionally conferred by the Pope. But during the ceremony, Napoleon took the crown from the pope's hands and crowned himself emperor and his wife, Josephine, empress. This sent the cold and clear message that he, unlike Holy Roman Emperors of the past, would not share his power with the pope. The citizens of Paris were oddly unfazed by all of this, but as Napoleon irreverently claimed, "I could marry [the Virgin Mary] without shocking the Parisians." The pope left Paris very displeased with his former friend.
Since Napoleon was the ruler of France, he was in control of Louisiana (which was many times larger than present day Louisiana). He originally intended to use Louisiana as a "breadbasket," but decided it would be better to sell it. While he was in the bathtub, of all places, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States of America. The Napoleonic Code governs the State of Louisiana to this day.
Even before he became emperor, Napoleon had already started his wars of conquest. He started by conquering every country surrounding France except Britain. Napoleon's conquest of Spain greatly disrupted her holdings in the new world and allowed many South American countries to rebel. Despite the fact that his government was centralized, Napoleon managed to do quite well at improving the areas he conquered. He granted basic rights and freedom of religion through his Napoleonic Code. Freedom of religion displeased the Roman Catholic Church even further since most of the areas granted this freedom were originally Catholic.
Napoleon had been in control of Italy for some time, but when he ordered that the Papal State be annexed to his empire, Pope Pius VII excommunicated those who were sent to carry out the annexation. Napoleon responded by arresting the Pope and throwing him in prison, where he died. Between his conquests of Europe and imprisonment of the Pope, the Emperor Napoleon was quickly gaining enemies.
Napoleon was disappointed by the fact that he had no heir, but since Josephine had two children by her previous marriage, Napoleon believed that it was his own fault. Over the course of their marriage, Napoleon had affairs with two other women. The fact that both these women gave birth to male children convinced Napoleon to divorce Josephine. He then proceeded to marry Marie Louise, the daughter of the emperor of Austria. Marie Louise was a member of the oldest ruling house of Europe. This placed Napoleon in direct relation with the monarchy the French had revolted against to begin with. In 1811, Francois Charles Joseph a.k.a. Napoleon II was born. Napoleon II died at age 20 without ever having ruled France. Napoleon had hoped that since his son was a blood member of the ruling family, he would be readily accepted as a leader.
In 1812, Napoleon marched on Russia and met with disaster. He initially gained minor success, but when he entered the presumed to be abandoned city of Moscow, the Russian troops set it on fire. The Russians attacked head on and Napoleon was forced to abandon his army. He made it back to Paris safely, but all of Europe picked this moment to attack. Despite being hopelessly outnumbered, Napoleon fought on brilliantly. When his army refused to continue, Napoleon was forced to surrender and abdicate his throne. He placed his wife and son in the care of Austria and bid them farewell for the last time. In 1814, Napoleon was exiled to the Island of St. Elba. In 1815, he escaped from Elba and actually gained the support of the soldiers that were sent to recapture him. His old supporters returned to his side as he resumed rule in Paris for what is known as the "100 Days." He sought peace with the Allies, but when they proclaimed him an outlaw, he went for the preemptive strike. He was swiftly defeated at the battle of Waterloo on June 8, 1815. He was exiled to the remote south-Atlantic island of St. Helena. He wrote his memoirs between numerous escape attempts. He grew very sick in his last days and died on May 5, 1821. Stomach cancer was first believed to be the cause of his death, though there has been much speculation of poisoning and medical malpractice.
Napoleon's legacy is a mixed one. When he was exiled to St. Helena, Napoleon was easily the most despised person in the world. When his body was returned to Paris 50 years after his death, he was made a hero. He did indeed caused a great deal of bloodshed, but he believed it was all for a good cause. In his memoirs he reveals his belief that he was a pawn of history. He believed that there was a great deal of good left for him to accomplish. He may not have respected the Church, but he didn't persecute it either. He may have conquered many nations, but he did bring about some change for the good. Napoleon was a very complex man and even to this day historians are hesitant to draw any conclusions.
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