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Napoleon Bonaparte: History, Politics & Rise to Power

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  • 0:02 Early Life
  • 1:15 A Military Man
  • 2:43 The Politics of the Day
  • 4:15 A Coup & a Consulate
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will meet the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. We will examine Napoleon's early life, his military career, the politics of his age, and his rise to power.

Napoleon's Early Life

Napoleon Bonaparte, the future general of the French army and emperor of France, was born on August 15, 1769, on the island of Corsica to Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino. Napoleon was far more Italian than French in his family heritage. Until the year before his birth, Corsica had belonged to the Italian city of Genoa. In fact, Napoleon's father had actively resisted French occupation, at least at first. His defiance quickly faded when the new French regime appointed him as an assessor for one of Corsica's judicial districts.

Napoleon attended military school in France with only moderate success and entered the French army as an artilleryman. After only a few years, his father died, and Napoleon returned to Corsica to join the anti-France opposition. A disagreement with the leader of the Corsican resistance changed Napoleon's mind and loyalties, and in April of 1793, he moved his family to France and adopted the French version of his last name. Napoleon Bonaparte was ready to be a Frenchman.

A Military Man

After getting settled in France, Napoleon rejoined the military. This time he met with success in his chosen career. Victory over the British in 1793 earned him a promotion to brigadier general, and by 1796, the French government appointed him commanding general of the French army in Italy. The soldiers were rebellious, underfed, and disgruntled, but Napoleon turned them around, and pretty soon, led by their charismatic general, the French army was winning victories and capturing territory. In 1797, France made peace with several European countries thanks to Napoleon's success.

France did, however, remain at war with Britain, and Napoleon seriously considered invading his island enemy. After carefully analyzing the matter, he decided it would be too much of a risk to face Britain's naval strength. Napoleon knew his limits. Instead, he turned his attention to Egypt in 1798 with the hope of disrupting Britain's communication and trade with her colonies to the east.

Although Napoleon won some initial victories, the French fleet was eventually defeated by the British. The general suffered another loss in Syria in 1799. The disgusted Napoleon decided to make a change. He had greater possibilities on his mind. It was time to return to France.

The Politics of Napoleon's Day

While Napoleon was furthering his military career, France was locked in the throes of the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror, in which thousands of French citizens met their deaths on the guillotine, was just beginning when Napoleon moved his family to France. Wisely, the new Frenchman decided to align himself with the radical revolutionaries currently in control. Napoleon knew how to get in the good with the right people.

Even though he was briefly imprisoned when the radical government fell in 1795, Napoleon soon made allies with the new five-man executive body, the Directory, which recognized his military prowess and launched him to the apex of his career as a general. The Directory, however, was weak, corrupt, and unpopular. Without the support of the French people, it turned to the military for protection, and its reliance on Napoleon and his troops grew as the years passed.

In early 1799, a shrewd statesman by the name of Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès joined the Directory. He firmly believed that the current leadership was failing miserably and that France needed a new government. In other words, Sieyès took his seat on the Directory with the intention of overthrowing the Directory, and he turned to Napoleon for help. The general knew an opportunity for advancement when he saw one and quickly agreed to assist Sieyès with his coup d'état.

A Coup and a Consulate

On November 9, 1799, Sieyès and Napoleon set their plan into motion. Sieyès and some of his co-conspirators had begun spreading rumors that France was threatened by an anarchist plot. The Directory hurried to appoint Napoleon as commander of the army in Paris in hopes of saving the Republic. Then Sieyès and two other members of the Directory resigned. The other two members were arrested. So far everything was going as planned. Napoleon was in position to take control. All he needed was support from the two houses of the legislature.

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