“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’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.