The Rise of Napoleon
The Rise of Napoleon
Born in Ajaccio, Corsica, in 1769, Napoleon had been educated at a French military academy. His extraordinary ability in mathematics and geography made him excellent officer material. In 1794, Captain Bonaparte led a successful attack against the Austrians that led to his immediate promotion to the rank of general. Charged with controlling the mob in Paris in 1794, Napoleon decided to threaten it with grapeshot—clusters of small musket-balls fired from cannons at point-blank range. The ensuing incident, known to history as a “whiff of grapeshot,” wounded and killed many people and effectively ended the threat against the Convention. This efficient handling of the emergency marked Napoleon as a figure of major importance in France. He was soon leading the army to victorious campaigns in Italy and Austria. Despite a failed campaign in Egypt, he returned to Paris in 1799 to loud popular acclaim.
By the time of Napoleon’s return, the Convention had given way to the Directory—yet another attempt at creating a strong, functional legislature. The Directory had five hundred deputies, of which two-thirds were elected or appointed from among the Convention members and the rest elected by the local assemblies of France. The Directory was a muddle just as the Convention had been; it had no strong leader and no internal agreement about how to shape a new government. Many ideas that had ruined the Convention returned in the Directory. It took all political rights away from members of the Second Estate who had returned to France after the Terror. It arrested and deported hundreds of members of the old First Estate. Rather than permitting religious freedom, it tried to do away with religion altogether by suppressing the Catholic Church. The Directory found itself unable to agree on provisions for a constitution, and its leaders soon realized they would have to try again to form a workable legislative assembly.
Because Napoleon was the acknowledged head of the military forces, the Directory turned to him again for help in controlling the mobs of Paris as it tried to form a new government. Over November 9 and 10, the Directory fell and was replaced by a body of three consuls, one of whom was Napoleon. He quickly became First Consul, the only one with any real power.
Napoleon Rules France
Napoleon had spent his youth and all his adult life in the military, which was famed for its organization, its clear rules, and its chain of command. He began his rule of France by organizing its government along these lines, from the local to the national level. Under Napoleon, France acquired its first national bank and public school system. Napoleon also improved the division of France into administrative departments (similar to British or American counties) and reestablished the Catholic Church by concordat with the pope in 1801. The concordat reorganized the Church in France administratively and gave the government greater control over it. To Napoleon, this was strictly a practical matter; he had no religious convictions of his own, but he perceived that their Catholic faith and heritage was too important to his subjects to jettison.
The Convention had attempted to write a new law code as early as 1793. Using its work as a basis, Napoleon revised and finalized what became known as the Code Napoleon or Napoleonic Code, which went into effect in 1804. The Code Napoleon set forth the basic rights of the citizens and clarified the fact that in the Republic, the laws would apply equally to all.
In August 1802, in an election of sorts, Napoleon was chosen First Consul for life. He was now a military dictator in all but name. It did not take long before he demanded another vote, this time over whether he could pass his title on to his sons. In 1804, Napoleon declared himself hereditary emperor of the French for life. In effect, France had exchanged one absolute ruler for another.
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