When last we left our boy, he had been named one of three Consuls overseeing French affairs post-monarchy. In reality though, there was only one man calling the shots. That man was Napoleon. His sights were set sky high and the best way to achieve his goals was to continue what had made him successful in the first place – military victory. And more importantly, bringing peace to a country that had experienced 10+ years of turmoil at home and abroad. In February of 1801, France and Austria signed a peace treaty and the following year France and Great Britain did the same (spoiler alert, they were back at war a year later). These achievements bolstered Napoleon’s reputation and he took advantage of his newfound popularity in the most humble of ways – by holding a vote that would make him “consul for life”. Unsurprisingly, the vote passed with overwhelming support and there was no going back for Bonaparte. He was on a mission.
The S0n King
Napoleon may have been popular at home at this point, but he was certainly not loved by France’s enemies. In the spring of 1804, an assassination attempt (widely believed to be orchestrated by Great Britain) against Bonaparte failed to kill its mark, hence why they were back at war a year after making peace. Like any good failed assassination attempt, sympathy and support swelled for Napoleon and he once again aimed to take advantage of it. This time, his hype-men encouraged Bonaparte to make his biggest and boldest move yet – declare himself Emperor of France. And furthermore, it would be a hereditary empire, meaning that it would be handed down through Napoleon’s children. If this is sounding like just a new version of a king, then you would be correct. All of that blood had been shed to rid France of its monarchy and it appeared that Napoleon had brought it right back with a new name (worst rebrand since Facebook and Meta). He even went so far as to stage a coronation ceremony, complete with the current Pope, as well as granting his family members classic noble titles. In 1805, he was made King of Italy after he conquered it, so there was no question at that point that Napoleon had reached the pinnacle of his goal – total and absolute power.
The problem was, it was hard to continue a hereditary empire if the ruler had no sons (Henry VIII knows what I’m talking about). Napoleon and Josephine’s marriage had continued to break down, and in 1806 Napoleon fathered a bastard son with his mistress. But illegitimate kids don’t solve the problem (again, @HenryVIII). So whether it was for this reason, or because Napoleon had fallen in love with another woman, or saw the opportunity for a new strategic marriage, or all 3, Bonaparte divorced Josephine and married Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma and the daughter of the Emperor of Austria. It was an important marriage because Austria and France had been fluctuating between allies and enemies for years. It was also important because in 1811, Marie Louise gave birth to her new husband’s coveted male heir. It seemed as if everything was coming up roses for Napoleon…but every rose has its thorn. Just like every dark has its dawn… Ok sorry, I hate me too.
None of Napoleon’s recent acts – the establishment of the French Empire, his coronation, a legitimate son – mattered if he didn’t have an Empire to run. And France’s enemies were dead set on raining on Napoleon’s expansion parade. For the first two decades of the 19th century, Great Britain and a number of other European countries traded victories and losses with Napoleon’s armies. As a result of France’s victories, Napoleon’s Empire continued to grow. The turning point for Bonaparte came in June 1812 when it became clear just how large Napoleon’s ego had grown – he marched an army of 500,000 men into the giant-ass country of Russia, losing 300,000 men in a matter of six months. As you can imagine, when what was left of the army returned home, the welcome was less than enthusiastic. Support for France’s Emperor had dwindled drastically and a subsequent defeat in Germany made things even worse. His reputation would never recover from this devastating series of events.
As the tides of opinion were changing, a man named Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, a government minister, took the opportunity to gather a group of men in favor of replacing Napoleon with a relative of the deposed King Louis XVI. So in other words, back to square one! Obviously Napoleon was not a fan of this plan, but at some point, it was clear he did not have the support he needed to remain Emperor. In April of 1814, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated the throne and the crown was offered to Louis XVI’s brother, the new King Louis XVII of France. Napoleon was sent to the island of Elba off the coast of Italy and was made its ruler, perhaps as a sort of consolation prize for having lost an entire European empire. He was 45 at the time and sentenced to live out the rest of his life on Elba. But Napoleon had other plans.
After a whopping 9 months in exile, Bonaparte decided that his services were needed back in France. Though most people had wanted Napoleon gone, they hadn’t wanted a restoration of the monarch, so he was able to gather enough supporters to run Louis XVII out of town and reinstate himself as Emperor. What a comeback story! Or was it? Emperor Napoleon 2.0 lasted a mere 100 days, ending, once again, in a military defeat. This time at the Battle of Waterloo against the British in 1815. He was exiled for a second time, but he wouldn’t have the titles and freedom on Saint Helena, a tiny British island off the west coast of Africa, that he did on Elba. He died there in 1821 at the age of 51, most likely from stomach cancer, the same disease that had taken his father.
Rosé Colored Glasses
So now we have come to the question I am sure everyone has been thinking – sure, Napoleon was a brilliant military leader who took a hard fall from the pinnacle of power, but why include him in Uneasy Lies the Crown? To achieve what Napoleon was able to achieve at such a young age, having come from essentially nothing, he had to have been built differently. Bonaparte’s contemporaries described him as socially awkward and so obsessed with work that he barely slept more than a couple of hours a day. One popular French writer at the time, Madame de Staël, who was exiled several times by Napoleon because of her negative takes, expressed that “he was a ruthless tyrant who regarded individuals as pawns on a chessboard which he controlled” and “no emotion of the heart could act upon him.” In other words, he lacked a major thing called empathy. He also lacked something called humility, increasingly coming to believe that he was God’s gift to Earth (and even perhaps that he was a god himself). The consequences of his inflated ego were seen in the massive failure of the invasion of Russia. The French Minister of Justice and future Prime Minister Louis-Mathieu Molé said that “on encountering an obstacle, Napoleon would look no further than surmounting it, seeing in the process a test for his will, and thinking only of the present, not the future” (Zamoyski). Perhaps that is how he ended up sacrificing 300,000 of his men for nothing. Most people would have been knocked down a peg or two after being sent to the small Island of Elba, but Napoleon didn’t even miss a beat before turning it into his new kingdom. In letters from his brief stay, “he referred to his 18 marines as ‘My Guard’ and to his small boats as ‘the Navy ” (TIME). His sense of superiority was astounding and draws chilling parallels to a modern day leader willing to bomb maternity wards to capture a sovereign nation he has no right to – yes Putin I am looking at you.
The narrative of Napoleon Bonaparte has greatly fluctuated over the centuries, and as with most things, the more years that pass the more we tend to romanticize the man. Immediately following his removal from the throne, the new monarchy attempted to wipe Napoleon from the hearts and minds of every French citizen. While he was alive he was still a threat – as evidenced by his escape from Elba. After he died, however, a burst of published works and public theatrical performances began to build Napoleon’s legend. He was often portrayed as a caring and empathetic figure, and while he did seem to take a special interest in those less fortunate than him, his contemporaries certainly did not describe him as such. Historian Clare Siviter writes that “historians now recognize that Napoleon played a key role in the development of his own mythology by associating himself with the victories of the army, the rulers of the ancient world and, somewhat paradoxically, former French kings.” Whatever influence he had in the creation of his own reputation, the fact remains that Napoleon’s impact can still be seen throughout the world today. Traces of his Napoleonic Codes are reflected in current European laws, militaries and academia can point to Napoleon for the “origins of their discipline” (Washington Post). Last year on the 200th anniversary of his death, French President Emmanuel Macron laid flowers on Napoleon’s tomb. Hell, we even created a term for short men with big egos – Napoleon complex. And next week Riley will dive into Bonaparte’s influence on how we approach and distinguish between those with strong personalities and something much more pathological.
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