The Emperor of the French: Who Was Napoleon Bonaparte?

Who was Napoleon Bonaparte? How did he manage to re-ignite imperial France within a decade of its revolution? Read on to learn about France’s infamous emperor.

Feb 28, 2021By Alexander Standjofski, BA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian Ideology
napoleon bonaparte
Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by Francesco Cossia, c. 1797; with Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1801; and The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1812


Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1769 on the island of Corsica – situated between the coasts of southern France and northwestern Italy – a few months after the French annexed it. Born Napoleone di Buonaparte and descended from a Corsican/Italian family, French imposition on the island yielded his name change. Though he would come to rule as Emperor of the French, the emperor never managed to grasp the French language as he did his Corsican mother tongue.


The Prince Of The French: Napoleon Bonaparte In His Youth

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by Francesco Cossia, c. 1797, via Sir John Soane Museum, London


Despite his ineptitude in French, Napoleon Bonaparte served the people of France during the French Revolution (1789-1799). Napoleon served as an artillery officer; his capable performance and brilliant strategic mind quickly rose through the ranks. By the time he was 24, Napoleon Bonaparte had become a general and notable commander of the newly formed Army of the First Republic.


By the time he was 26, Napoleon was issued the command of the French forces against an Austrian and Italian coalition under the Habsburgs in the War of the First Coalition. The young Corsican was undefeated – imposing French dominance on Italy and winning French hearts in the process.


At the age of 29, Napoleon Bonaparte led a French campaign into the east to undermine British interests in the region. The eastern campaign in Egypt was unsuccessful. The 30-year-old returned to France and orchestrated a coup – the bookend of France’s Revolutionary Era in 1799.


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Napoleon’s coup established France as a Consulate and Napoleon himself as First Consul – reminiscent of Roman Republican political terminology. The new position, though under a republican guise, endowed him power by decree.


A New Player In European International Politics

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1804, via The Louvre, Paris


Napoleon Bonaparte captured the attention not only of France but of the world around him. In the public eye, the French people adored Napoleon as a war hero. The turn of the century between Napoleon’s coup in 1799 and his official coronation in 1804 was a busy one for France and its new leader.


Napoleon oversaw the Louisiana Purchase (1802), selling France’s colonial holdings in the continental New World to then-American president Thomas Jefferson. The $15 million transaction – bartered down from Napoleon’s initial demand of $22 million – transferred control of approximately 828,000 square miles to the Americans. The purchased territory cost approximately $18 per square mile and would become fifteen new American states. The land was predominantly inhabited by native populations.


Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1801, via Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


In 1804 the ever-ambitious Napoleon became the First Emperor of the French – a title diligently chosen due to its populist sound as opposed to “Emperor of France.” Napoleon was displaying that he ruled for the people rather than as some landed possessor of a state. By it, the political connotations of the decade of the Revolution were not erased.


On December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of the French by Pope Pius VII. The 35-year-old Corsican actually took the crown out of the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head. In terms of metaphorical religious philosophy, a secular authority quite literally snatched a crown out of the hands of God and claimed the title on his own.


Emperor Of The French And The Napoleonic Wars

Portrait of Napoleon I in his Coronation Robes by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1807, via Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge


Napoleon Bonaparte had now grasped a country that had just shaken its yoke of imperialism and installed it once more. The young sovereign had also established a title for himself never obtained by the French kings. Napoleon was emulating the Roman Emperors of antiquity’s imperialism – a common practice for early modern sovereigns, who often saw themselves as the heirs of Rome.


The quick rise of the military emperor concerned the Great Powers of Europe. Between 1803 and 1806, Europe mustered a Third Coalition against the young Emperor of the French. Britain, whose incomparable navy kept Napoleon out of the seas, was joined by the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, and the Russian Empire. Napoleon soundly defeated the coalition, expanding further east and gaining more German client states in the process – effectively crumbling the Holy Roman Empire after 1006 years of existence.


Between 1806 and 1807, Europe threw a Fourth Coalition at Napoleon – Prussia, Russia, and Britain – which was also quickly defeated. In 1809, the British, Austrians, Spanish and Portuguese rallied into a Fifth Coalition against Napoleon and were defeated once again. By 1810, Napoleon had control of the majority of western and central Europe: all of Spain (save for Portugal) and as far north as the German border to Denmark.


Napoleon Bonaparte issued a continental trade blockade on his British rivals with so much land under his control.


The Turning Point Of Napoleon Bonaparte

The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1812, via the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


With much of continental Europe subdued, Napoleon Bonaparte had control over the economics and trade of most of the continent. The worst affected were the British and the Russians – the two states on the periphery of Europe. The grander plan was to choke out the British from trade.


The Russians, though they initially agreed to Napoleon’s plans of choking the British, began to violate the new Napoleonic trade system since it was decimating their economy. Doing so disrupted Napoleon’s grander economic strategy, and it eventually led him to commit the gravest mistake of his career: invading Russia in 1812.


Napoleon’s Grande Armée (Great Army) invaded western Russia in June 1812 with the hopes of annihilating the Russian forces. Despite a few minor skirmishes and engagements, the Russian Army was simply instructed to keep withdrawing further east into their territory. As they withdrew, the Russians employed scorched earth tactics: abandoning and burning down their own villages and towns (including their capital of Moscow) so the French had no local resources as they pressed on eastward chasing the Russians.


The French massively miscalculated the Russian weather conditions. As time went on and Russian winter set in, the French found themselves dug into cities and towns that had been burnt, offering little to no protection from the elements. Many French troops abandoned winter gear as well, with the hope of looting Russia as they marched.


The weather conditions ravaged Napoleon’s army: he left Russia with a fraction of the forces he entered with. Emperor Alexander I of Russia (r. 1801-1825) brilliantly weaponized his own climate against Europe’s enemy.


The Decline And Fall Of the Emperor Of The French

The French Retreat in 1812 by Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov, c. 1874


The gravest mistake ever made by Napoleon Bonaparte was invading Russia in the winter, miscalculating the weather conditions. Ironically, this would be an identical career-ending mistake made by Adolf Hitler – who was well versed in history and should have known better – 139 years later. Just as Alexander met Napoleon with scorched earth tactics, Stalin met Hitler’s Wehrmacht with the same strategy.


The Grande Armée of Napoleon Bonaparte peaked at an estimated one million troops at the beginning of 1812. Approximately 685,000 marched into Russia. Only around 120,000 troops left. Those who did not die of starvation, disease, or hypothermia were harassed and picked off during the retreat by Cossacks – a Slavic speaking, highly militarized, self-governing culture of elite light cavalrymen faithful to the Russian crown. Of the Cossacks, Napoleon famously claimed: “if I had them [the Cossacks] in my army, I would go through all the world with them.”


The weakened state of the Grande Armée was an opportunity presented to the oppressed European coalition, headed by the British. The declining mental health of George III of England resulted in a regency by his son and successor George IV, who had been funding and supporting armed Spanish revolts to Napoleon since 1808. With Napoleon’s forces in a depleted state, the European powers formed the Sixth Coalition – Prussia, Russia, Britain, Austria, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, and some Italian Kingdoms – in 1813.


The Defeat, Return, and Defeat of France’s Emperor

The Battle of Waterloo 1815 by William Sadler, in Pyms Gallery, London


The European powers finally managed to throw enough of their weight at Napoleon Bonaparte to defeat him on the battlefield after six attempts. In Leipzig, Germany, from October 16-19, 1813, a force of Russian, Prussian, Austrian, and Swedish troops defeated Napoleon, forcing him to retreat to Paris. The battle liberated the German Rhine from French control. It should be noted that the Coalition was commanded personally by Russian Tsar Alexander I (alongside the Swedish heir) and that the British were not present.


Despite managing to carve a safe return for himself to Paris, the Coalition invaded France in early 1814. As they marched, Napoleon struck strategically massive blows to the allied forces. Still, they reached Paris in late March 1814and forced the Emperor of the French to abdicate. The Russian punch through enemy territory straight to the capital (albeit with the help of her allies) is again another coincidental historical echo from the Second World War. Stalin’s Red Army marched straight into Berlin 131 years later in 1945.


Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, and the Bourbon Dynasty was restored to France’s throne one generation after it was overthrown. In 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from Elba, returned to France, and took control of the country once more. Europe met Napoleon again with a Seventh Coalition, which, as fans of ABBA might know, yielded a British delivery of Napoleon’s final blow at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The Emperor of the French returned and was exiled once more to Saint Helena within a span of 111 days.


The Legacy Of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte

Equestrian Portrait of Alexander I of Russia by Franz Krüger, c. 1837, via the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


The Napoleonic Wars (which encapsulate all seven allied attempts to crush the Emperor) dramatically changed European geopolitics. Though the British claim to have defeated the genius-emperor at Waterloo, it was mainly thanks to the thinning of his ranks by Russia – both the weather conditions of the country itself as well as its army. Scholars speculate that the above posthumous portrait of Russian Emperor Alexander I was issued as a mockery to Napoleon given the dress (and hat) of the sovereign.


Napoleon Bonaparte died of stomach cancer on the island of Saint Helena six years after his exile there at the age of 51. His remains have since been returned to France, where he was given a state burial. Thanks to the Romantic Era, which swept Europe in the mid 19th century, Napoleon’s character and death have been heavily romanticized: the tortured, flawed, lonely genius in exile condemned for his love of his country.

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By Alexander StandjofskiBA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian IdeologyAlexander holds a BA in history and political theory from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has studied the historical narrative of the western world as well as pre and post-Christian political thought and ideology spanning from 500 BCE to 1800 CE.