The summer of 1793 found France in a state of absolute turmoil. The lower and middle classes were getting restless, sick of the unfair treatment imposed upon them by the nobles and aristocracy. There was administrative instability and financial insecurity, due to the extravagant spending of the monarchy. Along with increasing taxes on the Third Estate, there was a shortage of food supplies. Peasants were outraged at their deteriorating standards of life and that the fact they were expected to support the clergy and the nobles’ wasteful expenditures through their hard-earned income. The middle class were at the end of their rope, tethered to their place in society due to their familial restrictions. Bitter and resentful of these limitations, these two classes were desperate for some change; desperate for a world where your wealth was not based on your family tree, but a world where if you had merit, you could succeed. It is only fitting that the man to head these changes would be Napoleon Bonaparte.
Born in Ajacco, on the small island of Corsica in 1769 , Napoleon was the second son of a large family which did not have much money. Corsica was a small part of the French empire, shunted off to the side, and looked down upon by the French. Corsica had recently been taken over by France after Genoese rule, so Napoleon was French by all means. Even though he was Corsican, he and his family were later exiled. As Robespierre put it, “I add to the names of patriots I have already mentioned citizen Bonaparte, general in command artillery, a man of transcendent merit. He is Corsican, and brings me the simple guarantee of a man of that country who resisted the blandishments of Paoli, and whose property has been destroyed by that traitor.” This shows he no longer had any attachment to Corsica, and was fully supportive of France. His family also changed the spelling of their surname to Bonaparte to sound more French.
As a boy, he was absolutely enthralled by the military. When he was younger, his siblings would paint puppets but Napoleon would paint soldiers. However, when he arrived at military school in France, it was clear from his clothes and rough accent that he was not as privileged as the rest of them. He was quite indignant how even if he was smarter than these boys, he would not be given a chance because of his social class. Continuously shunned, he strove to prove himself with his intelligence. He went through military school with flying colors. A gifted mathematician, he devoted himself to learning about previous battles and tactics that would have prevailed more successfully. After finishing school, he chose to become an artillery specialist. This field was based on skill rather than family connections. Through intensive studying, he quickly became an artillery expert. Usually, someone of his birth would not become very influential within the army, but due to a succession of fortunate (for him) events, Napoleon quickly rose to power. In 1793, France declared war on Britain, Holland and Spain. Toulon was to launch his military career. General Du Teil was astounded, recommending him to his superiors, “I lack words to list Bonaparte’s merits: much science, and equal intelligence, and perhaps even too much courage. You, the Ministers, must consecrate him to the glory of the Republic.” Napoleon quickly took the world by storm after his victory at Toulon.
By 1796, France had subdued most of its attackers and had only to deal with Austria. Napoleon was placed in charge of this campaign to invade Italy and Piedmont. He was hopeful of another chance to prove his worth, but was disappointed with these 37,000 bedraggled, hopeless soldiers who all lacked supplies. He brought around an incredible change of spirit through rousing speeches: “All of you are consumed with a desire to extend the glory of the French people; all of you long to humiliate those arrogant kings who dare to contemplate placing us in fetters; you desire to dictate a glorious peace, one which will indemnify the Patrie for the immense sacrifices it has made; all of you wish to be able to say with pride as you return to your villages, “I was with the victorious army of Italy!” He instilled in these soldiers a craving to prove themselves, to prove they were good enough for their motherland. Napoleon uses the ideology of nationalism to perfection. He effectively united this frenzied nation so they could be proud as a whole of its accomplishments.
After his astounding success at Toulon, he was placed in charge of an army of 50,000 to invade Egypt. Soldiers began to become afflicted by the plague–There is even a painting of him visiting soldiers with Black Death. Due to images like these, which one may even call propaganda; Napoleon is remembered as a commander who went above and beyond for his troops. However, it is said that Napoleon ordered a fatal dose of opium for those too sick to travel, so they would not slow others down. This type of secret and decisive maneuvering shows the means Napoleon took to save France from foreign threats. Also, an effective leader is willing to take harsh measures in order to save his people as a whole. Not only that, but Napoleon was compassionate to the people he conquered. “Do not contradict them [Egyptians]. Behave towards them as we dealt with the Jews, or with the Italians. Respect their muftis and their imams, as you have respected rabbis and bishops. Be tolerant towards ceremonies prescribed by the Koran, as you were tolerant to the convents, the synagogues, the religion of Moses and of Jesus Christ…Here you will encounter ways which are different from those of Europe. You must get accustomed to them.” He was by all means an effective an accepting leader. He knew what it took to placate conquered peoples. Napoleon was the perfect mixture of compassion and justice; he knew what it took to get ahead, while still minding the feelings of those who were vital in his plans. To the people of France, Napoleon was the man who pulled them from the dark depths the French Revolution had dragged them into. They were overjoyed at having an adept ruler who was able to protect and fortify France. Napoleon was now seen as even stronger than the Directory, the regime in France at the time. Extremely shaky, the Directory only survived as long as it did because of Napoleon’s consistent military victories.
In 1789, there was a successful coup d’état and the Directory was overthrown. France was constantly evolving, and it needed a leader that was capable and flexible enough to deal with them. After disposing of the Directory, he declared himself first consul and imposed a new constitution. In 1804, he named himself emperor. Yet, people did not revolt. In fact, he asked the people of France vote on it. Life under Napoleon was much better than of years past. He undertook many reforms. Napoleon encouraged more production in factories and started many new government programs. He improved roadways and bridges by having them repaired and lengthened, centralizing everything. Providing jobs, he also had the tunnels and canals renovated. Many French cities underwent new changes, with sewer systems being renovated and many impressive structures being built. Not only that, Napoleon created lycées which consolidated learning in France. This creation allowed for pupils to learn and be educated regardless of social status.
One of his most important reforms was the Civil Code. The Civil Code was a body of laws which applied to all of France. The Civil Code effectively ended feudal privilege, and made things much more secular and not as dependent on the clergy. These laws applied to anyone, regardless of their social status. There was no special treatment and everyone was truly equal. One vital part of the Code stated an individual had all rights to his property and it could not be taken away. While this Code focused on strengthening patriarchal society, it also gave women the power to divorce and inheritance. And considering the times, Napoleon’s France was egalitarian. Women had much more rights than before, and social status began to count for less and less. The Code was an effective way of spreading Enlightenment ideals and unify the country.
History sees Napoleon as a ruthless tyrant and dictator; however, he did what was best for France at the time. He was their liberator; a decisive and effective ruler who ensured France’s rise to power after the French Revolution. Not only that, he was loved by the people because he truly loved France and did everything possible for it. Napoleon Bonaparte spread the ideals of the Enlightenment more effectively than the philosophes. So how did this diminutive man standing at a mere 5’2” become the ruler of France? By effectively taking advantage of the chaotic state of France. He took this almost ruined country off its knees and gave it something to live for. He was the hero everybody admired. An incredible rags-to-riches story, Napoleon was the poster child of meritocracy. Based on his skills alone, he had to risen to the position of emperor. Napoleon truly cared, “I had but one goal: to reunite all, reconcile all, have all hatreds forgotten, bring everyone together, gather together so many divergent elements and compose tem anew in one whole: one France and one Patrie.” Napoleon Bonaparte was not a tyrant, just Machiavellian. Modern society looks down upon Napoleon because he had a dictatorship but when asked why he did not re-establish the Republic or the Consulate when he came back into power, he answered, “Because the Empire was more popular than the Republic.” And that is what makes the difference between a dictator and one of the most popular leaders of all time. He was loved. He was treasured. He saw France through its most prosperous and powerful eras.
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