“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon's Rise to Power
“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power

Alexander Meddings - July 14, 2017

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power
Napoleon addresses the Council of Five Hundred at the coup of 18 Brumaire. Wikipedia Commons

Turning Tragedy into Triumph

Napoleon landed back in France in October 1799. He might have expected an acrimonious response from the Directory (who, if they had been more powerful, would in all likelihood have punished him for desertion). But as it stood Napoleon returned home a hero. To some extent his exploits in Italy still very much carried his reputation. But, as had been the case upon his triumphal procession into Cairo earlier that year, it was more Napoleon’s gift of spin—being able to portray a tragedy as a triumph—that won the day.

The political circumstances surrounding Napoleon’s ascent made power ripe for the taking. The Directory were corrupt and disliked, their incompetency leading to rapid inflation rates which, for those who the revolution was apparently meant to serve, was making life considerably harder than it had been under the rule of the Bourbon monarchs. A string of recent victories against the Second Coalition had done nothing to pacify public opinion and French society, it was felt, was in desperate search for that elusive, intangible concept that all nations strive after: stability. Napoleon believed that he was the one to provide it.

Historical precedent showed Napoleon that he could only provide strong and stable leadership if he was alone at the helm. Just as Augustus had risen from the ashes of the Roman Republic’s most destructive civil wars to usher in a new golden age, so to would Napoleon by establishing himself at the head of French government. To do this, however, he would need support. And so in collusion with his brother Lucien (at this stage the Speaker of the Council of Five Hundred) and a number of directors Napoleon plotted the coup d’état that would overthrow the Directory and establish him in the dictatorial role of First Consul.

The events that followed (known to history as “18 Brumaire”) so closely mirrored a particular episode in Roman history that they almost seem scripted. Augustus’s predecessor Julius Caesar—a figure Napoleon greatly admired—had declared himself dictator in perpetuum (to his ultimate downfall) during the dying days of the Roman Republic. On the Ides of March 44 BC he was struck down in the Senate, stabbed 23 times by senatorial conspirators including Caesar’s nearest and dearest, Brutus. When Napoleon marched into the Council of the Five Hundred with his grenadier guard and demanded they draw up a new constitution, dissolve the Directory, and establish a Consulate, it momentarily looked like he would share the same fate.

But then, at the pivotal moment, his brother Lucien Bonaparte made a dash towards Napoleon, pointing a dagger at his heart, and swearing that if he thought his brother had aspirations of tyranny he would strike the first blow. Whether it was this theatrical display that won the council over or the armed men under Murat’s command who marched in immediately afterwards is debatable. But in the end the council dispersed and Napoleon had won. Far from falling victim to tyrannicide, as his great hero Julius Caesar had done, he instead emanated his office: that of the supreme, autonomously powerful First Consul.

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power
“Napoleon’s Coronation” by Jacques-Louis David. Wikipedia Commons

Emperor of France

At 10 a.m. on Monday 11 November 1799 the 30 year old Napoleon arrived at Luxemburg Palace in the center of Paris to begin with the business of ruling France from the consulate. He had secured the government’s agreement that a new constitution would be drawn up which designated him executive powers. And less than a month later on December 13 it was formally ratified, ensuring Napoleon would keep these powers for 10 years as First Consul. Napoleon claimed to rule by popular vote; in reality he was a dictator, supported by rigged votes. But how he had managed to secure power was of secondary importance to his ability to use it.

Having established his position, what Napoleon needed to do now was secure it. And like the Roman generals of old, he knew that the best way to do this was through doing what he did best and delivering a series of military victories. He campaigned in Austria, Northern Italy, the Austrian-owned Netherlands and Germany. Through waging war, he managed to bring about peace (at least temporarily) with Britain and France signing the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. This enabled him to return to France and focus more on internal politics: reorganizing the educational system, getting himself confirmed as First Consul for life and introducing his civil code. War broke out again in May 1803; the Treaty of Amiens lasting for just over a year. But this wasn’t going to stop Napoleon from fulfilling his ultimate ambition.

Napoleon’s crowning moment came on December 2 1804 in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In the presence of Pope Pius VII and the rich and powerful notables of French society, he had his coronation. It was a remarkable spectacle, combining Carolingian ritual with symbolism from the ancien régime and the Revolutionary Era. And it was given a coating of sumptuous luxury and unrivalled arrogance with Napoleon—in contravention of any previous tradition—actually crowning himself. Then again, such arrogance was merited given his achievements. From modest beginning on the belittled island of Corsica, Napoleon had risen through the ranks. And, entirely on the basis of his own merit, the 35 year old now stood as the France’s first emperor in over 1,000 years.

Napoleon’s rise to power must be contextualized within fortuitous circumstances, but it must also be explained in terms of his personality. He was clearly a man of immense charisma, ambition and self-conviction. But contrary to what most people think, he was also affable, apologetic and had a sharp sense of humor. The following decade would see his fortunes rise and fall, ending with disgrace after his defeat at Waterloo and banishment to Saint Helena in October 1815. But such were his personal qualities that, when he was finally exiled, a far larger personal retinue of his personal staff fought to accompany him than the British would permit; a powerful testament to the charisma and magnetism of a minor noble from Corsica after whom a historical age has been named.