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Napoleon Bonaparte is still perceived as one of the most influential political figures in history. While many consider his influence on the history of Europe mainly in the light of Napoleonic wars, his role in the French Revolution was nonetheless significant. Although Napoleon was not directly responsible for the unfolding of the Revolution, he had played an instrumental part in bringing the ten-year political struggle to an end. As Lyons notes, the Napoleonic regime was the fulfillment of the French Revolution (295). This essay aims to examine Napoleon’s role in the French Revolution, as well as in its immediate aftermath, by exploring his background, ideology, and actions.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born into a noble family on the 15th August 1769 on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea (Walsh 71). The place of birth was somewhat essential to the later development of his revolutionary character: “the island, indeed, already enjoyed a somewhat lurid reputation for its fiery individualism, its lack of governability, and the people’s propensity to insurrection and rebellion” (Forrest 17).
Violence was characteristic of the Corsican society of the time, with high rates of murders and other violent crimes (Forrest 17). With the help of his father’s connections, Napoleon was enlisted into a military academy, where he was taught and trained to advance his career in the military (Walsh 71). The difficult political situation in Corsica has largely influenced Napoleon’s interest in studying politics and philosophy (Forrest 35).
These disciplines were not part of his military training but served to complement it, later giving him an opportunity to turn his military achievements into political advancements. His writings have also distinguished him from the rest of young noblemen: while they were rather keen to express their royalist beliefs and influenced by the Catholic Church, Napoleon’s views were full of humanist sentiment, enlightened persuasion, and anti-clerical prejudice (Forrest 35).
Young Napoleon argued that the government’s central role was to protect the country’s citizens and actively criticized the clergy for its weakness and indecisiveness (Forrest 36). Napoleon first entered the army as the second lieutenant of artillery at the age of 16, after successfully graduating from the military academy (Walsh 71). The teachers described Napoleon as egoistical and ambitious, which were indeed some of the primary characteristics of his future leadership (Walsh 71).
Napoleon was highly invested in his career in the French Army from the very beginning, despite the humble pay and far from promising future perspectives: “He was unlikely ever to be a general, since he was a foreign noble and an officer of artillery, which in that day was a technical arm whose officers were not expected to command armies” (Connelly 7). Straight after graduation, Napoleon began his service in the Southern France, at one of the most prestigious artillery units in the Army (Connelly 7). He continued his education in 1788-1789, before the events of the French Revolution became to unfold (Connelly 7).
During his studies at Auxonne artillery schools, Napoleon has advanced his knowledge of strategy and tactics and achieved some useful connections in the military, including with General Jean-Pierre du Teil (Connelly 8). Despite the outstanding development, Napoleon stayed in the position of the second lieutenant for six years; it was not until the beginning of the French Revolution that he was able to advance his career in the military (Connelly 9).
Connelly agrees that it was the French Revolution that gave Napoleon a chance to raise in the army ranks, and he seized every opportunity that was offered to him (Connelly 7,9). In an effort to divert the citizen’s attention from the inner turmoil, the government invested much effort and funds in foreign military activities, including wars in Italy and Egypt, which made Napoleon particularly famous.
Another effect of the Revolution on the Army was the scarcity of officers available: “the Revolution had sent the majority, almost all nobles, flying into exile” (Connelly 9). The lack of successful commander made it possible for Napoleon to get several promotions in a row: after becoming a captain in 1792, he was assigned to defend the French-Italian border, where he begged a civilian commissar Saliceti for the artillery command (Connelly 11).
Once he received the position of a temporary major, Napoleon started to argue against the other commanders’ strategies and tactics by proposing risky but promising moves to advance the position of the French Army (Connelly 11). It was his willingness to risk, as well as his revolutionary application of tactics, which earned him the position of a brigadier general at the age of twenty-four (Connelly 12). Having served at the Italian frontiers in 1794-1795, Napoleon had extensive knowledge of the enemy forces, which gained him a serious advantage during the First Italian Campaign in the 1796-1797 (Connelly 19).
His reputation as a strong and reliable leader was partly formed during the campaign in Italy, where he took command of the Army of Italy at Nice on 27 March 1796: “Most accounts emphasize the miracle of leadership by which the twenty-six-year-old prodigy took control of his subordinate generals, all hardened combat veterans and older than he, and set the army moving within days of his arrival” (Connelly 20).
His leadership success was largely due to the fact that he was seen as invincible due to his past campaigns and he had strong protectors including Barras and Carnot, who were among the most powerful members of the Directory, which is why opposing him was dangerous (Connelly 20). After his famous success in Italy, Napoleon was moved to Egypt and to Syria, where his army has achieved several strategically significant wins (Connelly 55-56). Despite the fact that the Egyptian campaign was far from glorious, upon Napoleon’s return to Paris he was approached by the Revolutionists to lead the coup d’etat, aiming to overthrow the remainders of the government (Connelly 57).
The Enlightenment and the French Revolution
Many historians and social scientists have agreed that identifying a single cause that led to the French Revolution is not possible; it was an entire collection of ideas and events that laid the foundations for the turmoil that led to the reformation of the French government and society (Marzagalli 19). The Enlightenment has played one of the central roles in shaping the people’s views on the political system and the need for change.
The ideas promoted by the new philosophical, social, and political theories pointed at the weaknesses of the contemporary government and emphasized the need for reform, as the people began to openly discuss “the moral and political virtues of past and contemporary societies [and] to argue on the consequences of warfare, economic policies, and colonization” (Marzagalli 10). The people were becoming more critical of their government, finding more and more weaknesses in it and arguing for the necessity of governmental changes (Rothenberg 771). The trends of the Enlightenment did not pass by Napoleon, who was skeptical of the contemporary clerical government from a young age.
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His Corsican origin gave him an opportunity to exercise his revolutionary political influence when he returned to the Island shortly after the fall of the Bastille (Forrest 45). As he continued his military career, he understood the potential power of the military in shaping the new nation: “He was a convinced believer in the benefits of meritocracy and applauded the boldness of the revolutionaries in abolishing nobility, selling church lands, and reforming a society rooted in privilege” (Forrest 48).
In the opposition between the French aristocracy and monarchy, the military gained more power than ever before, a notion that did not escape Napoleon’s attention. While people were growing distrust towards the political leaders, the famous victories of the French military made the army reliable and trustworthy in the eyes of the people, especially in contrast with the weak and indecisive clergy. While quickly rising through the army ranks, Napoleon continued to write letters expressing his criticism of the government and favorable views of the rebels (Forrest 55). Printed images of Napoleon in the heart of the battle were distributed to the masses by the revolutionist forces (Hunt 13).
The critical role of Napoleon in the French Revolution became evident as it was a combination of his education, views, and military fame that became a solid reason for the revolutionists to select him as the leader of the coup d’etat in 1799.
Napoleon and the Revolution
Napoleon’s popularity and his character offered a solution to the years of revolution that had torn apart the French society, as one of the most fundamental reasons for the never-ending turmoil was the revolutionists’ inability to select a reliable leader who would become the face of the revolution. Napoleon shaped the Revolution to the same extent as it shaped him, and he expressed his view of this complex connection in saying “I am the Revolution” (Walsh 71).
The leading position of Napoleon affected the revolution in three distinct ways. First, it acknowledged the critical role of the military in governing the society. Through his successful military career, Napoleon has managed to collect most of the country’s military powers in his hands, which ultimately helped him in performing the coup d’etat in 1799. His commanding style has prompted a shift from the traditional army approach to operations to relying on risky strategies and enthusiasm, which eventually helped him to seize power from the contemporary government.
Secondly, Napoleon has created a clear vision of what the role of the new, reformed government should be. From the very beginning of his studies, he expressed a solid belief that the government’s main function was the protection of the citizens (Forrest 36). The new vision proposed by Napoleon offered the revolutionists a certain standard to aspire to, which aided them in promoting the new ideals of leadership and governance. Lastly, Napoleon’s rise to power prompted for the beginning of the new era of leadership, which contrasted the previous clerical style.
The Napoleonic Era
Napoleon’s role in the French Revolution allowed him to become the ultimate leader of the new government and to execute his vision of the government and its function. Napoleon became the founder of the modern state of France, a secular state which was largely based on a conscripted army and professional bureaucracy (Lyons 295). He promoted a change in all areas of the ruling, particularly by establishing new laws and regulations: “The affairs of all citizens were dealt with in principle on a basis of equality and according to fixed regulations, instead of being at the mercy of a monarch’s whim” (Lyons 295-296).
Such changes, however, also led to the development of dictatorship: despite adhering to the principles of equality and effective governance, Napoleon’s regime exhibited contempt of the liberal intellectual and democratic movements, thus proving unable to solve the issues outlined by the revolutionists (Lyons 297). Nevertheless, the Napoleonic rule has managed to preserve the social gains of the Revolution, which earned him the support of the reformed nobility, the Notables, consisting of the successful revolutionary bourgeoisie, professional, administrators, and commercial elites (Lyons 298).
Overall, even though Napoleon did not enter the political scene of the French Revolution until 1799, his influence on the overall flow of the Revolution was still critical. Napoleon promoted the ideas of equality, military governance, and strict regulation of all aspects of people’s lives, which offered people the security that the previous government failed to grant. In essence, it was Napoleon’s background, education, and military career that shaped the ending of the French Revolution and its aftermath, forming a new society and a reformed nation.
The exploration of Napoleon’s role in the French Revolution shows that his influence was critical in establishing the new standards of governance by which the Revolution shaped the new state of France.
Connelly, Owen. Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.
Forrest, Alan. Napoleon: Life, Legacy, and Image: A Biography. Macmillan, 2012.
Hunt, Lynn. “The Problem of Politics in the French Revolution.” Chinese Studies in History, vol. 43, no. 3, 2010, pp. 6-16.
Lyons, Martyn. Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution. Macmillan, 1994.
Marzagalli, Silvia. “Economic and Demographic Developments.” The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution, edited by David Andres, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 3-20.
Rothenberg, Gunther E. “The Origins, Causes, and Extension of the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 18, no. 4, 1988, pp. 771-793.
Walsh, Patrick J. “Napoleon after 200 Years.” Modern Age, vol. 57, no. 3, 2015, pp. 71-73.