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The corporal from Corsica who became Napoleon I, Emperor of France

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Friday, 20 December 2013

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This edited article about France first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Coronation of Napoleon, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon crowns himself Emperor of France; (inset) Napoleon watches Moscow burn before his ignominious retreat; pictures by Andrew Howat

The great hall looked more like a disturbed ant-heap than a council chamber of the new Republic of France. It was difficult to believe that these angrily shouting men, rushing hither and thither, were solemn councillors meeting to debate the affairs of the country.

It had all begun when a short, dark little man, speaking French with a foreign accent, had arisen to make certain suggestions about a change of government. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte and he had entered the council chamber believing himself to be a kind of national hero. Over the past four years he had fought a number of brilliant battles against the enemies of the new-born Republic but though the French were grateful, and accorded him high honour, they were deeply suspicious of any attempt to alter their government.

Napoleon had made a mistake, the first serious mistake in a highly successful career. The government at that time was composed of five men, called the Directors. They were good men, worthy men, said Napoleon, but they knew nothing about military matters. What was needed was a strong man who could defend France and provide a firm government.

He got no further than that. The councillors exploded with rage.

“Outlaw!” they yelled. “Down with the dictator!” Those nearest to him leaped up and grasped him by the collar. The future Emperor of France was bundled outside like a vagabond.

All this time the soldiers guarding the hall were looking on with surprise and dismay. They, too, had taken part in the revolution: they too were good republicans who did not have the slightest desire to see a king on the throne again. But they had fought with Napoleon in many bitter battles and worshipped him not only as a brilliant general but also as a commander who always looked after his men.

It was Napoleon’s brother Lucien who saved the day. He was the President of the Council and in an impassioned speech he told the soldiers that Napoleon did not threaten their liberties. He drew his sword, brandishing it in the air, and swore that he would stab his brother with his own hand if Napoleon ever looked like becoming a dictator. “Clear the hall,” he cried. “The enemies of the people are before you.” Convinced that he was speaking the truth the soldiers did as they were told. Later that night, Lucien collected together some of the councillors. They now knew that the army was behind Napoleon and agreed to a change of government. Napoleon Bonaparte was made First Consul of France.

There were, in fact, two other consuls and Napoleon was supposed to work with them. But this meant little to the First Consul.

At first he did well: even his enemies had to admit that. He drew up a completely new system of law, reorganised the government of all the provinces and cities and sternly crushed all new attempts at revolution. Trade flourished, good money circulated again and France’s neighbours began to think that the great country was at last returning to normal. Even some of the exiled royalists returned, to the horror of the old revolutionaries.

But now that he was in a position of supreme authority Napoleon began to change. He was not really a revolutionary: he did not really believe that all men were equal. The revolutionaries had abolished all ranks and titles, addressing each other simply as “citizen.” Napoleon restored the titles. The revolutionaries had even changed the name of the months to show that a new age had begun: Napoleon changed them all back again. The revolutionaries had abolished the Church because it had always seemed to be on the side of the king: Napoleon brought it back, under firm control.

But it was not enough for him to be monarch in all but name: he wanted all the ceremony of power as well as the power itself. He pretended that there was a plot afoot to bring back the old monarchy and the only way to avoid it was to make him Emperor of France. It seems incredible that the French, who had shed so much blood to make their republic, should agree to such an idea. But they did. Almost anything seemed better than a return to civil war and Napoleon had, in any case, brought much glory to France. On 18th May, 1804, the general from Corsica became Napoleon I, Emperor of France, and a new era began for all Europe. By the time he was forced to abdicate ten years later, tens of thousands of men had died in the wars he waged for the sake of his own glory.

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