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Napoleon Bonaparte: Rise to Power and Early Reforms

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  • 0:09 Rise of Napoleon
  • 0:40 Early Life and Military Career
  • 1:50 Further Military Achievements
  • 3:11 First Consul and Emperor
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the rise to power of one of France's greatest rulers, Napoleon Bonaparte, and his subsequent achievements during the first few years of his rule up until he was crowned Emperor in 1804.

Rise of Napoleon

Every so often, throughout history, a character comes along who refuses to be ignored. Movers and shakers like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or (obviously on the opposite side of the spectrum) Adolf Hitler come to mind. In the tumultuous and chaotic period of the French Revolution, many such men have been deemed large enough characters to warrant articles, books, and even whole history courses. None, however, were as large as the man to become Emperor of the French Empire, Napoleon Bonaparte. In this lesson, we will explore Napoleon's rise to greatness.

Early Life & Military Career

We know little about Napoleon's early life. He was born on the island of Corsica in 1769, an island in the Mediterranean north of Sardinia, which had only been acquired by France from Genoa just a year earlier. The son of a poor, Corsican nobleman, Napoleon attended French military school in Paris and was considered a smart student who was also a bit of a loner. However, he also had an insatiable energy and a gift for organization and planning.

At only 16, Napoleon entered the French forces as a second lieutenant, in command of an artillery detachment. During the tumult of the early years of the French Revolution, Napoleon quickly rose through the military ranks, and, through some additional help from his friends in the military, found himself as commander of the French republican forces at the Siege of Toulon in 1793. The city was held jointly by Royalist and British forces within the city, and Napoleon led the successful assault - being shot in the leg in the process - reclaiming the strategic port for France. For his successful raid and his heroism in battle, Napoleon was immediately promoted to the rank of brigadier general, and less than two years later, he was appointed Commander of the Army of the Interior in October of 1795.

Further Military Achievements

Though his victory at the Siege of Toulon first made Napoleon famous, it was his saving of the new French government of 1795, the Directory, which solidified Napoleon's reputation. This was ironically just after he had been removed from command by the same government. When a Parisian mob threatened to overthrow the fledgling Directory, Napoleon jumped to action after being implored by Paul Barras to protect the government. He fired a round of small arms artillery into the crowd, dispersing it.

This act reinvigorated Napoleon's military career, earning him the command of the French army in Italy. There, Napoleon led an underfunded, undersupplied, and underfed force to victory after victory against the Austrians. He continued his campaign westward to the point of threatening Austria itself, at which point the Austrians sued for peace in October of 1797.

Victorious, Napoleon did not stop there. Realizing Britain was France's largest enemy, Napoleon resolved to attack it. With an invasion of the island likely proving disastrous, Napoleon resolved to attack British interests elsewhere, invading Egypt and consolidating control of the territory. However, Lord Nelson's British fleet smashed Napoleon's French warships in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. With his eastward advance checked, Napoleon returned to France - leaving his army in Egypt - in the midst of yet more political turmoil in Paris.

First Consul & Emperor

Once back in France, Napoleon took part in a plot by a few members of the Directory and others to overthrow the existing government. Afterward, Napoleon was named one of the three Consuls of the new ruling Consulate, and Napoleon himself was named First Consul.

With the political disarray in France now somewhat sorted, Napoleon turned his attentions back to France's foreign enemies. The following year, despite initial setbacks, Napoleon defeated the Austrians in Italy, and was able to forge a temporary peace treaty with the British. Additionally, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Purchase to the United States of America, since he realized the hopelessness of trying to defend such a vast territory at such a distance.

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