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Chapter 15. “Little“ Guy Named Napoleon, a Big Wig Named Metternich

In This Chapter

Napoleon climbs the ranks in the military

• Europe stands against Napoleon

• France gets a king again

The Allies try to prevent another Napoleon

Two dangerous political philosophies challenge the conservatives

• The Age of Metternich

The years 1795 to 1799 proved long and difficult for the Directory. Corruption, failing efforts abroad, and waning popularity caused the Directory to be less and less effective. Deserters from the French army protested the conscription laws, and the Netherlands were revolting. Finally, in 1799, France scored a series of victories against the Second Coalition, but the republic faced financial ruin and the Directory’s popularity was at an all-time low. The French people no longer possessed the zeal that led to the revolution.

In October 1799, a fiery young general named Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) returned to France from a campaign in Africa. Upon his return, Emannuel Joseph Sieyès (see Chapter 14) informed Napoleon of his plot to overthrow the corrupt Directory. The others involved were Charles Talleyrand, another of the Directors named Roger Ducos, and Napoleon’s brother, Lucien. France, in turmoil once again, needed strong leadership and Sieyès hoped to provide it. Napoleon agreed to participate.

The Little Man with Big Plans

On November 9, 1799, or 18 Brumaire Year VIII, by the Revolutionary Calendar, Napoleon led troops that dispersed the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients. Only a rump legislature stayed behind to name Ducos, Sieyès, and Napoleon as consuls to run the government. The coup was supposed to leave Sieyès with the most power but Napoleon outdid him. Sieyès had his own carefully considered constitution that he hoped to install in the new government. Napoleon, however, created a new version of that constitution that made him First Consul in a new French government called the Consulate. He followed that up with another constitution that made himself First Consul for life.

Define Your Terms

The term consul was taken from the classical Roman government. The position of consul in Rome was the highest elected position in the government.

In a sudden turn of events, Napoleon had basically taken control of France. In one month, he enjoyed a meteoric rise from Corsica on his way to becoming the most powerful man in the world.

The Kid from Corsica

An understanding of Napoleon’s early life and background is vital to appreciate who he was and what he accomplished. Napoleon Bonaparte was born into a noble family on the island of Corsica in 1769. His father served as a delegate from Corsica to the court of Louis XVI. At the age of 10, Napoleon began his education at a military school in France. He did well in math and geography; his performance in other subjects was not impressive. Upon completion of his first military school, Napoleon attended an elite military school in Paris called the Ecole Militaire, founded by Louis XV. There he studied and excelled in artillery. He graduated faster than most cadets and earned a commission in the military. At 16, Napoleon began his career. He served his first years in the military in France in rather uneventful and unmemorable fashion. That changed with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 (see Chapter 14).

Would You Believe?

Napoleon is often remembered as a short person, yet his height was not far below the average for Frenchmen of his day. His nickname la petit caporal referred to his relationship with common soldiers and not his physical stature.

Napoleon's Military Career

After spending some time in Corsica while on leave, Napoleon fled to France in 1793 after a conflict developed between him and a nationalist leader in Corsica. Upon his return to France he earned a position as an artillery commander. Napoleon was a brilliant military strategist and a master at using the artillery to his advantage. He also proved to be a clever adversary who employed spies and intelligence information to use the element of surprise against his enemies. He first won national recognition in the daring and brilliant capture of the French city of Toulon, which had risen up against Robespierre and then been occupied by British troops aiding the resistance. Napoleon again garnered acclaim in 1795 when he successfully defended the National Convention against waves of attacks by an angry mob. His maneuvers, using pieces of seized artillery, earned him particular favor from the Directory.

Would You Believe?

Napoleon's expedition to Egypt included numerous scientists who discovered a tablet, named for the nearby town of Rosetta, that later unlocked the secret of Egyptian hieroglyphics. A popular myth, which is completely unfounded, blames Napoleon's expedition for the Sphinx's missing nose.

Napoleon followed those victories with a successful campaign into Italy and Austria in 1796 and 1797. City after city and region after region capitulated as he marched through. Napoleon grew powerful and influential in French politics. To get him out of the limelight, the Directory sent him to Egypt in 1798, ostensibly to protect French trade in the region. He met with mixed results; he defeated numerous armies, but he lost his fleet to the British. Just as things looked bad for Napoleon, he slipped out of Egypt and back to France.

First Consul, Then Emperor

In 1799, after the coup of 18 Brumaire, France adopted a new constitution known as the Constitution of Year XVIII. By the terms of the constitution, Napoleon became the First Consul, with numerous powers resembling those of a dictator. Two years later, in 1801 or year X of the Revolutionary calendar, France adopted an updated Constitution of Year X, which made Napoleon First Consul for life. In each case, France adopted the constitutions by plebiscite. Clearly, the people wanted Napoleon.

Three years later, Napoleon’s men discovered a Bourbon plot against him. Using this plot as justification, along with heightened worries caused by war with the English, Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor in 1804. A popular myth has it that Napoleon took the crown from the pope and crowned himself, but that story remains just a myth.

Define Your Terms

plebiscite is a national election in which the citizens accept or reject a proposal.

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