Napoleon: the revolutionary who made himself an emperor

  • Themes: France

This concise and impressive work details the ruler’s ultimate triumph against, and betrayal of, the French Revolution.

A print of Napoleon. Credit: Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
A print of Napoleon. Credit: Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo.

Napoleon at Peace: How to End a Revolution by William Doyle; Reaktion Books; 232pp; £15.99

William Doyle’s new history of Napoleon’s ascendency will come as a great delight to enthusiasts of both Revolutionary and Imperial French history. His Origins of the French Revolution (1980) and Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989) were met — rightly — with great acclaim. Doyle’s Napoleon at Peace: How to End a Revolution concludes a triptych, and demonstrates the author’s vast knowledge of the Revolutionary state. Large swathes of the book carefully illustrate the exact context in which Napoleon was to appear and conquer: in other words, he does not appear for dozens of pages at a time.

Napoleon’s emotional reaction to certain events and excesses of the Revolution meant a raw disgust at the early horrors he witnessed stayed with him until his death on St. Helena. By the time he returned from Egypt in 1799, two things were apparent: the Revolution was living, but had failed. Those seeking to rectify its mistakes while extending its life were mistaken. Just on the outskirts of domestic power — commanding increasingly successful military operations against a growing coalition of enemies, Napoleon saw it as his duty to strangle the Revolution once and for all.

Doyle’s tight, intelligent prose assumes a decent knowledge of Revolutionary history from the reader, who is expected to be familiar with the consular system of the Roman Republic, the rough workings of the French Kings’ relationship to his quasi (then total) captors, and the composition and most notable members of the political bodies of Revolutionary France. What results is a short, engaging, and impressive book. Doyle has a clear grasp of the period, and discusses the wonders of Napoleon’s rise without ever dipping into tempting hagiography, so easy to slip into when writing about the impressive young general fated to become an emperor. The contradictions of the Revolution (and the man who ended it) are detailed with a clear dispassion, as are the aims and personalities of conflicting players. Doyle makes few obvious moral calls, leading the reader to assess the (often damning) evidence he presents.

So just what did Napoleon have to do in order to engender peace in France? Central to the author’s thesis is that Napoleon rectified three great wounds the Revolution had imposed upon its people: a costly war with a great coalition that had benefited none but Napoleon; a total schism with the Catholic Church that had alienated the French public and led to widespread martyrdom; and the continual embers of support for the monarchy that threatened repeatedly to ignite, disturbing a Directory seeking to implement peace whilst unprepared to deal with the realities of pluralism. The Church in particular proved a thorn in the side of the Revolution. At the Revolution’s outset in 1789, around half of French priests were tempted to pledge allegiance to the state. By 1794, Catholic priests and nuns who refused to subscribe were drowned en masse in the Loire on the orders of Jean-Baptiste Carrier, who referred to the murders as ‘vertical deportations’ in the ‘national bathtub.’ Though water had destroyed their body, in their flesh they would see God. By 1798, papal Rome had been captured, and the pope taken prisoner.

Napoleon sought to rectify this state of affairs. ‘The blood of victims puts down no roots,’ he later stated. ‘It kills them. It was terror that killed the Republic.’ Nevertheless, Napoleon never truly understood religion. ‘I want to treat the pope,’ he once proudly told a cardinal, ‘with as much regard as if he had four hundred thousand men.’

Louis XVIII had hoped that the general who had seized power in France would unite him with his throne. Writing to the Consul in February of 1800, Louis sought assurance that Napoleon would reject mere ‘vain celebrity’ for the true glory of reinstating the Bourbons as French rulers: ‘We can bring peace to France, I say we, because I need Bonaparte for that and he could not do it without me. General, Europe is watching you, glory awaits you, and I cannot wait to give peace back to my people.’ He was woefully misguided to think Napoleon could not bring France peace alone. ‘I have received, Sir, your letter,’ he eventually replied to the pretender king, six months later. ‘I thank you for the decent things you say. You must not hope to return to France; you would have to walk over 100,000 corpses […] Give up your interest to the ease and happiness of France. History will reward you for it. I am not insensitive to your family’s misfortunes […] I shall contribute with pleasure to the comfort and tranquillity of your retirement.’

All the while, Napoleon became more distant, demanded more respect, and threw those he did not deign to speak to on to his brother, Lucien. When Napoleon became First Consul for Life, the remaining servants of the monarchy were pestered with questions around how court was best organised — down to how splendorous the dress of the courtiers should be. As early as 1801, Napoleon was using the royal ‘we’.

It was a bold move for a leader with no obvious successor. Royalist schemes to assassinate the consul had been in the works since 1800. He and Josephine had no children, and Napoleon confessed once that his greatest fear was that one of his brothers might succeed him. It was out of the question that a political ally might succeed him. By the dawn of the nineteenth century, a very great deal rested on Napoleon continuing to live. What would happen should he be killed — and did it matter whether it happened on the battlefield or the streets of Paris?

When the French people were asked if Napoleon should be made First Consul for life, 3,568,885 voted in favour, and 8,374 against. ‘From this moment,’ he told politician and ally Antoine Claire Thibaudeau, ‘I am on the same level as other sovereigns; because in the end they too are only there for their lifetime.’ Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s grotesquely cruel minister of police, recalled in his own memoirs that most of those who voted in favour of extending Napoleon’s term to his remaining lifespan ‘believed that they were bringing the monarchical system back to France, and with him rest and stability.’ Napoleon’s ultimate triumph against — and betrayal of — the Revolution was that, in bridging the gap between the monarchists and the revolutionaries, he brought the monarchical system back — with himself as its head.

In 1803, France’s Senate (purposefully designed by Napoleon a few years prior to be as useless as possible) would beg him to declare himself an even greater figure. ‘Great man,’ they beseeched, ‘finish your work by making it as immortal as your glory […] You have rescued us from past chaos, you have vouchsafed us our present benefits, give us a guarantee for the future.’ The Privy Council, Doyle notes, surely thought that their First Consul should be given a title far above that of a mere king. More fitting was that of a new Charlemagne. He would be — nay, deserved to be — nothing less than emperor. ‘I have done better than I hoped,’ the royalist Georges Cadoudal despaired. ‘I wanted to give France a king, and I have given her an Emperor.’

Napoleon loved war, contained and strategic as it was, but loathed lawlessness and revolution. In placing himself as the only man who could overcome and transcend the Revolution, Napoleon synthesised the monarchy and revolution. ‘When I was young,’ he later told Austrian foreign minister Klemens Von Metternich, ‘I was revolutionary from ignorance and ambition. At the age of reason, I have followed its counsels and my own instinct, and I have crushed the Revolution.’

As William Doyle notes simply: ‘Napoleon’s vanity knew no limits.’ At that point in time, neither did his ability.


Katherine Bayford