Napoleon Bonaparte was a child of the Enlightenment, the time when free thinking thought of banishing monarchy and religion in order to create a more perfect, fair society. And he was to become its greatest adventurer, and its despot.
Born in 1769, the son of a Corsican lawyer, his father died when he was 15, leaving him to look after his mother and many siblings. Times were hard for the young Napoleon, and in 1785 he took a commission in the artillery, joining a revolutionary and active French army.
He thrived in this army, scoring many victories and rising quickly up the ranks. When a Royalist mob attacked the National Convention in 1795, he rose to the occasion by dispersing them with ‘a whiff of grapeshot.’ Finding favour, he was given command of the army in Italy. It was a good move. Napoleon had earned the name ‘the little corporal’ for seeing to the welfare of
his men. His reorganisation, devising the independent Corps, was a masterstroke, and his ability to inflict a crippling surprise attack led to his many victories.
His army then went to Egypt, to attack British interests overseas. However, he fell foul to the British navy, eventually abandoning his army in Egypt and returning to France where he joined a plot to overthrow the Directory. In November 1799 he became First Consul of France. This was good for Napoleon, but bad for everyone else. The French Revolution had lost its way, initially devised to guarantee freedom through the General Will of the people. Napoleon decided this really meant subordinating individual rights to the efficiency of the State. In 1803 he virtually declared war on the whole of Europe, and in 1804 declared himself Emperor.
Defeating army after army, he entered a deserted Moscow in 1812 and suffered reverse due to the Russian winter, just as the British under Wellington began to drive him out of the Iberian Peninsula. However, prior to these reversals, he had placed family members on foreign thrones. Seeing himself as the successor of Charlemagne, he was fearless, charismatic and totally vane, divorcing his first wife to marry a Habsburg, thus giving him the same social standing of the traditional monarchy of Europe.
An absolute egoist – he even cheated playing cards – he had numerous affairs, even though he wasn’t particularly good at sex. Other than this, his tastes were simple and his codification of French law, whilst creating a despotic bureauocracy, laid the foundations of much modern law.
In 1814, Allied armies took Paris and Napoleon was abdicated in Elba. However, he grew resentful over not being able to see his wife and son. Hence, in 1815 he landed in France with 1500 men and marched on Paris, beginning his Hundred Days Rule, finally ended in his decisive defeat at Waterloo. Banished to St Helena, he died in 1821, having created the modern army, modern law, and the modern political face of Europe.
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