French General, First Consul and Emperor, b. 15 August 1769 (Ajaccio (Corsica), France), d. 5 May 1821 (St. Helena Island).
Napoleon's father Carlo Buonaparte and his mother Letizia Ramolino came from ancient nobility of the Italian region of Tuscany. The family had emigrated to Corsica in the 16th century, when the island was under the control of the Italian city-state of Genoa.
When Napoleone Buonaparte was born in Corsica the island had been handed over to France only recently, and the Corse population did not consider itself French. Napoleone's father initially joined the resistance against French administration but eventually arranged himself. In 1771 he was appointed assessor for the judicial district of Ajaccio; in 1778 he obtained permission to send his eldest two sons Joseph and Napoleone to the Collège d'Autun in France.
Napoleone's main education was at the military college of Brienne and then at the military academy in Paris. When he graduated in 1785 he ranked 42nd in a class of 58.
The first years of the French Revolution between 1789 and 1791 saw Napoleone moving back and forth between Corsica, where he sympathized with the independence movement, and France, where he read the current revolutionary authors. During another visit to Corsica he joined the Corsican Jacobins, who opposed separation from France. When civil war broke out in Corsica in 1793 the entire Buonaparte family was declared destined for "perpetual execration and infamy" and fled to France, where it adopted the spelling Bonaparte, and Napoleone became Napoléon.
During the following years Napoleon distinguished himself in the service of the French republican government. At the age of 24 he was promoted to brigadier general; by late 1795 he was commander of the army of the interior. He defended the bourgeois republic against supporters of the monarchy as well as against activities of communistic groups, who wanted to expand the influence of the working class against the rising bourgeoisie.
In 1796 Napoleon was made commander of 30,00 ill-fed, ill-equipped and lowly paid men stationed in Nice as the "the Army of Italy." His address before the troop's departure to Italy was indicative of things to come: "Soldiers, you are naked, badly fed ... Rich provinces and great towns will be in your power, and in them you will find honour, glory and wealth."
Occupied with the installation of republican governments in the Italian provinces Napoleon got concerned about the size of the royalist vote in the French elections of 1797 and sent some of his officers to organize a coup d'état, which eliminated the royalists from power.
The European monarchies regarded the French republic as a great danger and used the French royalists to undermine the republic. When the republican government considered a military attack against Great Britain, Napoleon advised that France lacked the sea power for an occupation of Britain and suggested an attack on the colonial flanks to gain control of Britain's trade routes. The campaign into Egypt began with the occupation of Malta and the taking of Alexandria and the Nile delta from Turkey in 1798. But the French fleet was destroyed, and Napoleon found himself marooned in Africa. He spent the time introducing European institutions, administration and technical expertise.
In 1799 the republic was again under royalist attack. Napoleon decided to leave his troops and return with a handful of men on two ships to France to assist in another coup d'état. The old legislative structure was dissolved, and a "Consulate" consisting of Napoleon and two members of the previous government (Emmanuel Sieyès and Pierre-Roger Ducos) established as the new centre of power.
The new constitution gave the power to appoint ministers, generals, civil servants and magistrates to the first consul Bonaparte and established in fact a military dictatorship. A period of extensive reforms began. The administration was organized in départements, judges were no longer elected but appointed for life, tax collection was centralized and the Banque de France established. Civil law was completely reorganized into what has become known as the Code Napoléon, to guarantee many fruits of the Revolution: individual liberty, freedom of work, freedom of conscience, equality before the law, separation of church and state.
In 1799 Great Britain, Austria, Russia and Turkey had formed a coalition against France, but a year later only Great Britain and Austria still declared their military hostility. In 1801 a defeated Austria signed a peace treaty that defined the French-German border along the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees (the same Julius Caesar had drawn for Gaul 1900 years earlier). A treaty with Great Britain established general peace in Europe in 1802 - an excellent opportunity to organize a referendum "Shall Napoleon Bonaparte be consul for life?" The result was an overwhelming "Yes!"
Peace did not last long as the British became increasingly concerned with Napoleon's support for republican democratization of Europe, which strengthened his influence on the continent. Britain again began to finance royalist agitation in France and declared war in 1803. When a British plot to assassinate Napoleon was discovered in 1804 it was suggested that a hereditary empire would make any further assassination attempts futile. The new Empire of France was proclaimed on 24 May 1804.
The next years witnessed a return to monarchist symbols and forms. Napoleon insisted on a coronation by the pope. In 1804 princely titles were revived for Napoleon's family, and 1808 saw the return of an imperial mobility. Beethoven was not the only one who was outraged and disgusted by these developments. In 1805 Napoleon declared himself king of Italy.
In an attempt to gain some navy balance against the British fleet Napoleon managed to arrange an alliance with Spain. The combined French and Spanish navies were defeated in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. But the continental alliance between Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Sweden and Naples could still not defeat Napoleon, and Prussia, which entered the war in 1806, was defeated immediately. By 1806 Napoleon and the Russian emperor Alexander I agreed on dividing Europe between them.
Russia's reluctance to support France against Great Britain led Napoleon into the disastrous campaign of 1812. He crossed the border into Russia with 453,000 soldiers and followed the ever retreating Russian army across a deliberately scorched land to Moscow, which he occupied in September. When most of the town was destroyed by fire and Alexander I refused all discussions, the only option was retreat - in the middle of winter. Less than 10,000 soldiers returned from this campaign.
Napoleon's defeat in Russia proved to be his downfall. The people of Europe, who had greeted Napoleon as the incarnation of the liberation from feudalism and had been shocked by his new empire were heartened to see that he could be defeated, and nationalist movements sprang up everywhere. Napoleon's own troops, many of them foreign mercenaries, began to switch sides and join the fight for their own nations.
The "Battle of the Nations" of 1813 near Leipzig in Germany marked the end of Napoleon's army. In his absence the French government negotiated a settlement, and Napoleon was forced to resign in 1814. He was granted the island of Elba as a sovereign principality, allowed to retain his title as emperor and given an annual income of 2,000,000 francs and a guard of 400 volunteers.
From Elba Napoleon watched how the return of the old French monarchy posed a threat to all achievements of the revolution and how the people soon began to organize resistance. On 1 March 1815 he returned to Paris, where he was welcomed as the incarnation of the revolutionary spirit and brought back to power. But his new empire was scarcely different from the old one, and his support disappeared fast. His defeat against the British at the Battle of Waterloo on 16 June 1815 marked the end of Napoleon's "100 days." He was forced to abdicate a second time and banned to the South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he lived for seven years. His last five years were marked by ever deteriorating health, many believe as a result of slow arsenic poisoning.
Napoleon was a man of the European 18th century Enlightenment; he believed in the power of reason but despised the masses and did not share the idea of the sovereignty of the people that formed the basis of the French Revolution. But he safeguarded many of its achievements through the introduction of lasting reforms. His administration and particularly his Code Napoléon are achievements that still define the France of today. Although not a revolutionary himself, he instilled in the people of Europe the sense of unity in national borders and the will to overcome feudalism.
Portrait: detail from a painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1812; public domain (Wikipedia)