Factors that led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte
© Brian Maregedze & Vincent Chenzi
(1) The French Revolution
Many factors have been attributed to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, and one of the chief causes of Napoleon’s rise to power was the French Revolution. There is a common agreement among scholars that Napoleon was a brainchild (product) of the French revolution, without which he would have died a common person. This remains a historical fact because Napoleon’s rise to power was greatly due to the changes and progressive events of the French revolution. He exploited the opportunities provided by the revolution to rise from a poor Corsican to an Emperor of France. This is why he is called the child of the French revolution. The role of the revolution in Napoleon’s rise to power is as follows:
- i) The revolution abolished the discriminative social class system and offered opportunities for talented men like Napoleon. Before the revolution, people from poor peasantry origin like Napoleon could not be promoted beyond non-commissioned rank or hold a public office. However, the revolution came with the principle of career open to talents where Napoleon was promoted from rank to rank, which gradually increased his popularity, leading to his rise to power in 1799. Therefore, it should be stressed that the French revolution destroyed the discriminative social class system. Napoleon would have remained a common man because of his poor background.
- ii) The revolution led to senior army officers’ exile and death, especially during the reign of terror. It created a scarcity of senior army officers, and that is why Napoleon was recalled in the army in 1792, yet he had earlier on been dismissed. It was also because of this that Napoleon gained quick promotions leading to his rise to power. Besides, the death of senior politicians, including Danton, Mirabeau and Robespierre left a political vacuum that Napoleon occupied. Had these men survived up to 1799, there would have been no political vacuum, and Napoleon’s rise to power would have been a different story.
iii) It was the French revolution that gave Napoleon the chance to display and advertise his abilities. The revolution created internal uprisings through which Napoleon earned rapid promotions and elevated his social status. For example, in 1793, he suppressed the royalist uprisings at port Taulon that earned him the rank of Brigadier General. Again in 1795, he suppressed another royalist uprising in which he was elevated to the status of a General and commander of the army of the interior. Had it not been because of the French revolution, these uprisings would not have occurred, and Napoleon would not have got the opportunity to utilise his abilities. He would therefore not have reached those ranks, which were stepping-stones to his rise to power.
- iv) The need to export the French revolution generated foreign wars, giving Napoleon more opportunities to exploit his abilities. The most famous was the 1796 Italian campaign that increased his popularity amongst Frenchmen and Italians. This was brought about by his success in the war against Austria in Italy. The war increased his self-confidence and ambitions because, for the first time, he was able to sleep in the palace of kings, make treaties and declare his will to the Holy Father, the Pope. This is what earned him the loyalty and confidence of the soldiers that he used in the 1799 Coup, which brought him to power. Besides, the Italian campaign earned France looted works of art (which went to the French museums), more territories and revenue in terms of war indemnity. These achievements made Napoleon’s name a household name to the extent that a street in France was named Napoleon (i.e., Napoleon Street). Moreover, although the Egyptian campaign of 1798 was a failure, Napoleon was welcomed as a hero simply because of his previous military records. The Directory government had failed the Frenchmen, and everybody was crying for a liberator. He addressed the anxious and cheerful crowd in the following words: “it looks as if everybody had been waiting for me, a little while would have been too soon, tomorrow would have been too late I have come at the right moment.” These cleared the way for the 1799 coup that led to his rise to power.
- v) Napoleon used revolutionary ideas within and outside France, which helped him build his popularity as a liberator. He studied and learnt revolutionary literature from the writings of Rousseau and being a close associate of Robespierre. In the struggle to liberate the Oppressed people of Europe, France inclusive, he carried the revolutionary flag and sung the beautiful songs of the revolution. He preached the revolutionary gospel of liberty, fraternity, democracy and equality. This made the Italians and Germans falsely welcome and support him as a “Political messiah.” These revolutionary ideas also made the Frenchmen convinced that Napoleon was the best person who could uphold the revolution’s principles and gained him internal support that facilitated his rise to power.
- vi) The revolutionary army was instrumental in the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The army was re-organised and re-equipped to handle internal and external wars. It was also the same army that he used to suppress the internal uprising and gain promotions. Again, he used the same army in Italy and earned him popularity amongst the Italians, soldiers, and Frenchmen. Most importantly, the military supported the 1799 coup through which he rose to power. One should also note that in as much as the French revolution played a crucial role in Napoleon’s rise to power; other factors supplemented it without which the revolution alone could not have groomed him to power. The fact that the revolution provided equal opportunities for everybody to rise to power meant that one should have special or unique talents or factors on top of the revolution to rise to power.
(2) Marriage to Josephine
Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine also contributed to his rise to power. In 1796, Napoleon married Josephine, the daughter of Baras, one of the directors within the Directory government. The marriage gave Napoleon greater privileges and powerful connections with leaders of the Directory government. It should be stressed that it was the influence of Napoleon’s father in law – that is to say, Baras that gave him the privilege to command the French troops in the Italian campaign, yet there were many other senior and experienced officers than Napoleon. This was because Barras diverted the command of the French forces from any of the senior commanders to Napoleon just because he favoured him as his son in law. Besides, the marriage made Napoleon a fully mature and responsible man who gained more respect and popularity in France.
However, although Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine gained him aristocratic connection and thus contributed to his rise to power, it should be emphasised that the marriage was possible only because the revolution had elevated his status from a mere corporal to a general by 1796. Otherwise, Josephine being the daughter of a principal director, could not have lowered herself to the extent of marrying a corporal from a peasant family background. Even Napoleon himself would not have got the courage and wealth to marry her if the revolution had not raised his French society status.
(3) Close association with Revolutionary Leaders
Napoleon’s rise to power was also due to his closer personal relationship with leaders of the French revolution. His involvement in the French revolution brought him closer to revolutionary leaders and politicians such as Robespierre, Barras, Abbey Sieyes and Duccas. This allowed him to exploit their weaknesses and gain experience in French politics, which became a cornerstone for his rise to power. His close connections also gave him opportunities to attend most revolutionary public rallies from where he acquired the skills of organising and addressing public rallies. This equipped him with the skills needed to dominate French politics and rise to power after the death of some of the senior revolutionary leaders and politicians, especially Robespierre.
(4)The Weaknesses of the Directory
The directory government was the last government within the revolutionary period (1795-1799). Its weaknesses and hence unpopularity paved the way for Napoleon’s rise to power in several ways. First of all, it had failed to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Frenchmen. More so, there was widespread corruption, bribery, and embezzlement, leading to inflation, unemployment, famine, and starvation. These desperate conditions put the Frenchmen to be in a high mood for change. It explains why Napoleon’s coup received a blessing rather than opposition from the Frenchmen.
Secondly, the government had failed to maintain law and order. This alone led to winning glory for France abroad. Internally, there was insecurity caused by the royalists, Jacobins and highway robbers. Externally, the French forces were being defeated on almost every front. Napoleon’s gains from the 1797 treaty of Campo formio had been lost, and France had been driven out of Switzerland, Italy and German states by the second coalition. All these created a widespread outcry for a solid and capable military officer who would liberate the people from such internal and external threats. This is what made Napoleon to be supported in his rise to power since he was the most successful military General of the time.
Furthermore, the Directors of the directory government relied on Napoleon in suppressing internal uprisings and fighting foreign wars. Therefore, it gave him opportunities to utilise his abilities and become popular amongst the French masses and soldiers. Worst of all, it was the directors who promoted Napoleon from rank to rank such that by 1799, he had risen to the rank of a Brigadier. All these made Napoleon become more ambitious and stage the coup of 1799 since he had noted the weaknesses of the Directory Government. Added to that, the directors were disorganised and divided by ideological differences. For instance, Abbey Sieyes and Duccus opposed the war against the second coalition and wanted peace. Abbey Sieyes also had the ambition to change the constitution and bring an end to the Directory Government. However, he could not do so without the support of the army. This made him use Napoleon to organise the 18th of November (Brumier) Coup from which Napoleon conspired and emerged as the 1st consul in France in 1799.
To this end, one can plausibly argue that the weaknesses of the directory government significantly elevated Napoleon and made his rise to power inevitable by 1799. Otherwise, had the directory been strong enough to meet the Frenchmen’s socio-economic, political and military expectations, Napoleon’s rise to power would have been impossible in 1799 even if he was competent (strong) and ambitious.
- Napoleon’s Abilities and Character
- i) Military abilities (as a soldier)
Napoleon’s abilities were very instrumental in his rise to power. Grant and Temperley claim that Napoleon was without question a man of extraordinary force of brain and character who would have won himself a high position under all circumstances and in all countries. Wellington, the British commander, equated Napoleon’s presence on the battlefield to be worth 40,000 troops. This claim cannot be disputed because Napoleon was a courageous professional soldier with a powerful sense of judgement and insight. That is to say, he planned and won his battles in his mind before winning them in the field. Moreover, Napoleon’s abilities made him succeed in suppressing internal revolts and fighting external wars out of which he gained popularity, promotions and power. These were the 1793 uprising, the 1795 revolt and the Italian campaign of 1796. If Napoleon were not a man of exceptional abilities, he would have lost his life while suppressing such uprisings or fighting the second coalition of 1798, and this would have been the end of the road for him. https://i2.wp.com/www.militaer-wissen.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Napoleone-Buonaparte.jpg
Moreover, his tactful escape from Egypt in 1798 was due to his extraordinary judgement and skills. This is because he had realised the strength of the British forces under Wellington and therefore decided to quit Egypt before he was crushed to death. Thus, Napoleon’s skills and organisational abilities explain why Abbey Sieyes chose him to execute the 1799 coup, out of which he rose to power. Had somebody else (other than Napoleon) proved more capable, Abbey Sieyes would have used that person and not Napoleon. Napoleon was used, and not anyone else was precise because he was the most skilled French military officer during the directory government.
- ii) Napoleon’s political abilities.
He preached the revolutionary gospel of liberty, equality and fraternity to the Frenchmen and the conquered states. This increased his popularity at the expense of the Directory Government. He also promised several reforms in the socio-economic and political structures of France and the conquered states. Additionally, he spoke with an air of calmness, dignity and tolerance that convinced everybody who heard him that he was a “political messiah.” As such, Napoleon is argued to have noted that; “My army, follow me, here you are badly fed and almost naked, I am going to feed you, cloth and lead you to the most fertile plains of the world, where you will find glory, honour and wealth…” This was a political statement that made the soldiers more loyal and trusted in Napoleon than the Directory Government itself. These politicised soldiers were later used in destroying the Directory Government in 1799.
iii) Napoleon’s power of foresight
Napoleon had the abilities to assess situations and understand how he could manipulate them to his advantage. A case in point, after the French revolution, he abandoned his ambition to liberate the Island of Corsica chose to become a loyal French citizen. He did this because he had rightfully foreseen that the revolution had come with great opportunities that he would use to rise to power. He also refused to command the Paris forces when Robespierre commissioned him during the reign of terror. He declined the offer because he was aware that Paris was secure for anybody since being there risked one being guillotined anytime.
On the other hand, Napoleon ventured into the Italian campaign after realising that it could gain him glory and popularity, which he earned precisely afterwards. Lastly, he executed the 1799 coup when the directory government was at its weakest whilst contrastingly, he himself was at the height of his popularity in Paris. All these choices proved successful because he was a foresighted man with a powerful sense of judgement and imagination.
Napoleon’s rise to power can also be attributed to his education. That is to say, from his early childhood, military institutions educated him. In particular, the Academies of Brienne and Paris at a time when 60% of the population of Europe was illiterate. He read and studied history, mathematics, the writings of philosophers, the campaigns of Fredrick the great and the constitutions of England, Switzerland, and Turkey, among others. These widened his reasoning capacity and leadership skills. He also graduated as a second lieutenant, which meant that he was rising to power. Napoleon came out with a theory of speed, diplomacy and force as a solution to human problems. This theory made him successful in suppressing internal revolts and fighting foreign wars, which later gained him popularity, promotions, and power by 1799. Moreover, he utilised the skills he acquired from the military academies to plan and organise the successful Coup of 1799 through which he became the master of France.
- Overwhelming ambitions
Napoleon was by nature and orientation an ambitious man. He revealed this to a friend when he postulated, “My ambition is so natural like the blood that flows in my veins and a cat’s claws, which are designed to climb upwards not downwards.” Napoleon’s ambitions were witnessed right from his infancy. Since childhood, he was fond of listening to stories about wars and heroic exploits by soldiers and man of war. He also used to wear military uniforms and carried mock battles with his fellow kids. He would tell them that he would become a soldier and win all battles. Therefore, this ambition made him risk the Italian and Egyptian campaigns even though he was still a young and junior military officer. The same ambition drove him to the 1799 coup, which became a stepping-stone for his rise to power. Even because of ambition, he violated the constitution and declared an empire with himself as the “life emperor of Europe”. Therefore, in brief, ambition made Napoleon so keen and skilful in whatever he did, such as in the royalist uprisings of 1793 and 1795, the Italian and Egyptian campaigns and the 1799 coup that brought him to power. Unfortunately, although overwhelming ambition contributed to his rise to power, it eventually contributed to his downfall by 1815. It made him conquer and control several European states like Italy, Germany and Belgium. This attracted the hostility and hence intervention of other powers, which finally ousted him from power in 1815.
- Annexation of Corsica Island from Genoa (Italy) to France (1768)
The annexation of Corsica Island to France in l768 was a blessing in disguise for Napoleon I. It may be interpreted as lucky on the part of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1768, Corsica the Mediterranean Island of the Genoa Republic, was annexed to France. It resulted in Napoleon being born a Frenchman rather than an Italian and thus eligible to hold any public office in France. In this regard, the annexation partly enabled him to benefit from the military academies of Brienne and Paris, from which he graduated as a second lieutenant. It also entitled him to join the French army, from which he was promoted up to the rank of General and made commander of the interior army. He also freely participated in the 1789 revolution and associated with revolutionary leaders since the annexation made him a Frenchman. One can therefore say that without the annexation of the Island of Corsica by France in 1768, Napoleon would have been born an Italian who perhaps would not have risen to power in France.
- Role of his Father Charles Bonaparte
The role of Napoleon’s father, Charles Bonaparte, was also influential in his rise to power. His father inspired him to work very hard and promote his career as a professional soldier. To this end, his father went as far as to forge documents claiming that he was a noble for Napoleon to be admitted in the military academies of Brienne and Paris. He would perhaps have died as an illiterate and ignorant common Corsican peasant had it not been for the fluked education.
- Role of his brother Lucien Bonaparte
Napoleon’s brother Lucien Bonaparte, the president of the council of 500, played a very instrumental role in his rise to power. It should be noted that Napoleon’s coup flopped when he approached the council, which rejected the coup and shouted at him saying, “Down with the tyrant.” They then arrested and flogged him severely to a near-death point. It was Lucien Bonaparte who saved him by openly threatening to kill him while at the same time he ordered the army to disperse hostile members of the council. Afterwards, he officially introduced Napoleon to the few members who favoured him and remained behind, saying: “Here is the man you have been waiting for. He will respect you. He will respect the revolutionary gains. He is my brother. If he fails, I will stab him in the chest.” This made them accept the coup and vote for a revision of the constitution, making Napoleon the first consul with full powers over France. One can therefore conclude that if it were not for the timely intervention of Lucien Bonaparte, the coup of 1799 would have boomeranged and caused Napoleon’s own death as a wanted fugitive.
- His Family Background
Napoleon’s humble family background was a blessing in disguise, which propelled him to power by 1799. Napoleon originated from a discriminated, poverty-stricken peasant family background. Napoleon was segregated and abused at school; as a commoner and foreigner (because of his Italian accent) by the wealthy sons of the nobles. This experience made him develop a burning hatred against segregation in France and a desire to work hard to liberate himself and the whole country from such injustice. Consequently, he became a professional battle-hardened soldier who enjoyed walking and fighting over long distances without much food, water, and rest among comforts. Because of some of these qualities, Napoleon became a hero and the most successful military officer in France by 1799.
- Scientific and Military Innovations
The role of scientific and military advancements was crucial in the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte. Scientific and technological innovations brought in better maps, roads, weapons and mobile artillery. These innovations made it easier to organise swifter campaigns, the rapid concentration of troops and surprise attacks. Napoleon utilised such innovations in his military campaigns, including the 1799 coup through which he rose to power. These made Napoleon’s “whiff of grapeshot” and surprise attacks quickly succeed, which earned him the promotion, popularity and power.
Unique opportunities and favours significantly contributed to the rise of Napoleon to prominence by 1799. There were some events and opportunities which Napoleon did not plan but favoured his rise to power. He was lucky that the Island of Corsica was annexed to France a year prior to his birth, which provided him with the opportunity to exploit the benefits brought forth by the French revolution. His other luck was that his father forged a noble status and fluked to educate him in the military academies of Brienne and Paris. The outbreak of the French revolution and revolutionary changes was an element of luck, for it even occurred when he was a soldier specialised in artillery. In 1792, Napoleon was dismissed for overstaying his leave, but he was lucky that there was a shortage of artillery officers. Thus, he was once again reinstated to active military service. During the reign of terror, Napoleon’s survival can also be attributed more to luck than to his abilities. That is to say; he was at once arrested in 1794 with Robespierre, including 92 other supporters of Robespierre. However, he was lucky enough to spend a week in prison and was released while the rest of his colleagues were all guillotined. Napoleon was also fortunate that he was a son in law to Barras, which explains why he was favoured to assume command of the Italian campaign.
Famous Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte
Even in Napoleon’s military campaigns, there were elements of luck besides his abilities. For example, the Egyptian campaign was a complete disaster for him, yet the Frenchmen welcomed him as a hero. Had it not been because of luck, he would have died in the battle, hanged or even imprisoned in Egypt. Instead, he succeeded in leaving his troops, and reaching France safe was more to luck than anything else. Napoleon was also lucky that the failures and weaknesses of the Directory Government had created the mood for change in France, which made his coup smoother than usual. The divisions and mistrusts amongst the directors that made Abbey Sieyes and Duccus support him during the 1799 coup were precisely due to luck. More importantly, Napoleon’s brother Lucian was the president of the council of 500 and used his position to save him from death after the initial failure of the coup. This was when he was arrested and was being beaten for having organised the coup. His brother indirectly enabled the coup to succeed by aiding him secretly. Lastly, Napoleon was lucky that the French king granted him and his father a general amnesty that made him and his father return to France as free citizens.
- The Brumaire Coup d’etat, 18th November 1799
The Brumaire coup d’etat of the 18th of November l799 was the most immediate event that marked the rise of Napoleon to power. Napoleon conspired with other Directors, especially Barras and Abbey Sieyes, to organise the coup and overthrow the directory government. The coup succeeded, and the Directory government was overthrow. This created a political vacuum through which Napoleon rose to power. He accomplished his great ambition by manipulating the constitutional making committee to enact laws that provided him with a grip over France.
Debates Surrounding Napoleon’s Rise to Power
Scholars disagree on what led to the rise of Napoleon to power. One school of thought primarily concentrates on Napoleon’s characteristics. This is typical of an approach to history that emphasises “great men.” This approach holds that the actions of great men are what affect history – Napoleon’s rise to power was based mainly on his characteristics than anything else.
However, other scholars argue against this view of history and posit that greater historical forces brought Napoleon to power. If it had not been Napoleon, someone else would have similarly taken power because the historical context made it likely. When Napoleon rose to power, France was no longer a monarchy but was not ready for democracy. Therefore, there was a power vacuum in France because the monarchy and aristocracy had been eliminated. But France did not have a democratic tradition that would have demanded an elected government. Because of these disparities, it was easy for Napoleon, a dictator, to assume the leadership of France.
The other school of thought argues that the French people were still used to obeying those placed over them rather than having a voice in choosing those people. To this end, this school of thought broadly argues that Napoleon’s rise to power was primarily based on two factors. That is to say, the fact that the traditional French leaders were gone, and the French were not ready for democracy. These factors allowed a dictator to rise to power, and Napoleon was the one who happened to fill the position.
However, there is also a group of scholars who argue that Napoleon’s rise to power resulted from his military genius, luck, and timing. While he was a student at the military academy at Brienne, Napoleon was often mocked by other students because of his solid Corsican accent. Most scholars believe this humiliation made him determined to succeed. He demonstrated brilliance at an early age and completed the military academy in one year, where he excelled in artillery training. During the French Revolution, Napoleon was a Jacobin who would probably have been guillotined. However, he had political connections, which saved his life. He freed the village of Toulon from British control and won some supporters. By remaining away from political conflicts, he managed to see his star rise while the heads of his friends rolled. In 1795, he prevented a royalist revolt that threatened the General Assembly with his famous “whiff of grapeshot.” He also married well, marrying a widow, Josephine Beauharnais, whose husband had been guillotined. Sent to Egypt to intercept the British there, Napoleon acted virtually on his own. He had a unique ability to keep the loyalty of his troops, even though he often treated them brutally. With the army behind him, Napoleon was unstoppable.
Other scholars believe that had Napoleon not come to the forefront as he did, France would have eventually found its way to democracy. It would not have been a straightforward journey, but neither was the journey of other nations directly either. Some scholars also believe that it was a combination of the two (Napoleon and the French people). If it were just Napoleon, his return after his first exile would not have been possible. The French as a people were looking for his type. Moreover, if it were true that it was entirely his military genius, why couldn’t he learn from his own mistakes and adjust. In a nutshell, Napoleon’s rise was due to a combination of the various historical factors and his smarts and tendencies that combined to help him rise to the top.
This may seem like common sense, but Napoleon’s rise to power was not the result of one cause or factor but the combination of factors. The first factor deals with the “right person” angle while factoring number two deals with the “right place, right time” angle. Thus, it was a combination of these factors that created the “perfect storm” of conditions that allowed such an unusual rise to power. It is sporadic historically and statistically that there is one cause for any given event or outcome. It is often the combination of existing factors that allow an event to occur, and if one of those factors is removed, the event doesn’t happen.
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