The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte

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Podcast Transcript

In 1804, one of the most significant individuals of the 19th century placed a crown upon his head in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and declared himself Emperor of the French. 

He went on to revolutionize France and French society and profoundly affected all of Europe. 

His influence was so great the era and the wars of the period were all named after him. 

Learn more about Napoleon Bonaparte, his life, and his accomplishments on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

One of the areas in history that I haven’t done many episodes on is the Napoleonic Era. I recently began trying to compile a list of all of the possible topics from this period, and the list was getting pretty long. 

I began to think about what order I should tackle the topics and how much I should zoom in or out for each one.

Then I realized before getting into these topics it might be best to do an overview episode on the life of Napoleon, as he is the unifying element to almost all of these stories. 

So, this episode will simply try to provide a very brief thumbnail biography of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. There is no way you can do the entire life of Napoleon justice, given the time constraints of this podcast. There are entire podcasts that cover the life of Napoleon that have over 100 hours of content.

Rather than saying, “…and this will be a future episode”, let me just say upfront that there are probably somewhere between 10 to 15 future episodes that will be referenced in this episode. Different episodes from his rise and fall, reforms he implemented, battles he fought, and how the rest of Europe reacted. 

So, with that, Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, the largest city and capital of the island of Corsica.

The thing to know about Napoleon and his family from this period of his life is that they were actually Italian, not French. The spelling of his first and last name was different and only changed once he was well into his 20s. It was originally Napoleone Buonaparte.

The island was under the control of the city of Genoa for centuries, and it wasn’t conquered by France until 1769, just three months before Napoleon was born. 

Napoleon’s family came from Tuscany in Italy, and Napoleon grew up speaking Corsican as his first language, as well as Italian, but he didn’t speak French. He came from a large family with seven brothers and sisters, many of whom were appointed to high-ranking positions when Napoleon rose to power.

At the age of 9, he was sent to school in France, where he quickly learned to speak French. He was often bullied for speaking French in his thick Corsican accent, which led him to spend time alone reading and on his studies. 

He attended a military academy at Brienne-le-Château and then transferred to the École Militaire in Paris, where he graduated in 1785, completing two years of study in just one year and becoming the first Corsican to graduate.

Upon graduating, he was given a commission in the French Army as an artillery officer with the rank of second lieutenant at the age of 16.

During his early years, he was an outspoken Corsican nationalist who advocated for the independence of Corsica. 

However, he eventually became committed to the French Revolution. He was promoted to captain in 1792 and then to colonel in 1793 when he was given command of the French Republican forces in the city of Toulon, which the British were besieging. 

He organized a daring raid on a hill overlooking the harbor, which allowed the French guns to drive the British out. 

It was his first major action as a military leader, which drew the attention of higher-ups in the French Republican government.

Just weeks later, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General at the age of 24.

Napoleon had been allied with the Robespierre brothers, who led the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. After their downfall in July 1794, his prospects diminished, and he was eventually removed from the list of generals in the army.

However, his talents and competence were eventually called upon in October 1795 when royalist supporters rose up and threatened the Tuileries Palace, where the National Convention was in session.

Napoleon, using artillery, managed to clear the streets of protesters using what he described as a “a whiff of grapeshot“. Grapeshot is a cluster of smaller shots, similar to a shotgun, rather than a single cannonball. 

The “whiff of grapeshot” killed 1400” royalists. 

His defense of the National Convention made his fortunes rise once again and made him into a celebrity. He was promoted to Commander of the Interior and given command of the Army of Italy.

In March 1796, he also married a widow by the name of Joséphine de Beauharnais. 

Immediately after getting married, he left for Italy to take command of the French Army.

It was in Italy that he was able to exercise his abilities as a field general for the first time, and he recorded a series of victories in rapid succession. I’m lumping together a lot of history here, but his success increased his fame and also brought him into French politics.  

On September 4, 1797, he backed what was known as the Coup of 18 Fructidor, using the French Republican calendar, which removed elected royalists from the legislature. 

In December, he returned to Paris, where he began plotting an invasion of England with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. 

Napoleon realized that France couldn’t compete with the British Navy, so he proposed an expedition to take Egypt, which would significantly hamper British trade with India and possibly then lead to an alliance with the princes of India, which could oust Britain from their greatest colony. 

Napoleon took Malta, which was a British fortification, and won a series of battles in Egypt. 

However, in August 1798, the British, under Admiral Horatio Nelson, devastated the French navy at the Battle of the Nile, which cut off French reinforcements by sea. 

He and his army worked their way up the coast to Syria, conquering towns along the way, but eventually had to retreat back to Egypt.

While all of this was happening, things were not going well back in Europe. A group of European powers known as the Second Coalition had issued an series of stinging defeats to the French Army. There was concern that the French Republic might fall to the Second Coalition, which wanted to restore the French monarchy.

On his own volition, without receiving any orders, Napoleon left Egypt for France on August 24, 1799, taking advantage of a brief period when British ships pulled away from the French coast.

Unbeknownst to him, orders had been sent for his return, but he had never received them.

The republic was not in good shape when he arrived in Paris, and the ruling five-person council, known as the Directory, had become very unpopular. 

As arguably the most popular man in France and the one who commanded the greatest loyalty in the French Army, he was called upon by a small group of French leaders to take over the country.

On November 19, 1799, he conducted the Coup of 18th Brumaire, which overthrew the Directory and legislature and established himself as the First Consul of France. Napoleon appointed two other consuls, but they were only advisors. 

He wrote up a document known as the Constitution of Year VIII, which was put up for a vote via a plebiscite to the French people.  It passed overwhelmingly, with 3,011,007 in favor and 1,562 against, but over half the electorate didn’t vote, and most people think the results were rigged. 

Napoleon now had all the powers of a dictator, and the Coup of 18th Brumaire is the point at which most historians mark the end of the French Revolution. 

In 1800, Napoleon led his troops across the Alps to expel the Austrians from Northern Italy, something he managed to do in a shockingly short amount of time. This included several brilliant battles, including the Battle of Marengo, where outnumbered French forces defeated a numerically superior Austrian force. 

After the invasion of Italy, there was a lull in conflict in Europe, and Napoleon also engaged in overseas affairs. After attempting to reinstitute slavery in the colony of Saint-Domingue, aka Haiti, and sending troops to re-establish French control, he eventually gave up, and Haiti declared itself independent in 1804. 

In 1803, he sold the Territory of Louisiana to the United States to raise money. 

He experienced resistance from both the right and the left within France, including several assassination plots. In 1802, he had himself declared Consul for Life in another rigged election. Then, in 1804, with another rigged plebiscite, he was declared Emperor of the French.

Not Emperor of France, mind you, but Emperor of the French.

He was coronated on December 2, 1804, in Notre Dame in the presence of the pope, and he, not the pope, put the crown upon his head.

By 1805, European relations had gotten worse, and a third coalition formed against France, consisting of the United Kingdom, the Austrian Empire, the Russian Empire, Naples, Sicily, and Sweden.

Again, Napoleon led the French in a series of victories. The most notable was the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, which resulted in Austria leaving the coalition. 

The next several years saw a fourth and fifth coalition, with war expanding to the Iberian Peninsula.

He installed his brothers as rulers in multiple countries. Louis was appointed King of Holland in 1806, Joseph was King of Naples in 1806, and King of Spain in 1808, and Jerome became King of Westphalia in 1807. His sister Elisa was appointed Grand Duchess of Tuscany in 1809 as well. 

The war in Spain took a huge toll in terms of money and men, but by 1810, Napoleon ruled directly or indirectly about 40% of Europe.

That year, he annulled his marriage to Josephine, who was unable to produce him an heir, and he married the daughter of the Austrian Emperor, Marie Louise. She bore him a son, Napoleon II, in 1811. 

For those of you familiar with this time period, I just glossed over a whole lot of history that took place from 1805 to 1811, but suffice it to say future episodes. 

1812 saw the beginning of the end for Napoleon. After actions against French shipping and an alliance with the British, Napoleon felt it was necessary to invade Russia. 

Russia is a long way from France, and the supply lines grew very thin the further away the French troops went. The Russians were able to continually retreat into the Russian hinterland, destroying crops along the way to prevent the French from living off the land.  They even burned Moscow so Napoleon couldn’t take it. 

The winter was exceptionally cold, with temperatures reaching -40, which is the same in Fahrenheit and Celcius.

Napoleon lost 300,000 of his own men, and the total number of deaths from the Russian campaign on both sides, including civilians, was approximately one million.

With France weakened by the Russian Campaign, a Sixth Coalition was formed, which ultimately proved successful. The coalition offered peace terms that allowed Napoleon to remain emperor within the traditional borders of France, but he refused, which resulted in further French losses, culminating with his abdication on April 14, 1814. 

The Bourbon was reinstated in France with King Louis XVIII.

He was exiled to the tiny island of Elba in the Mediterranean, where he was allowed to retain the title of emperor….of Elba. 

He arrived in Elba in May 1814, but he didn’t remain there long. In February 1815, he and 700 men escaped and arrived in Frace. 

He was confronted with the 5th Regiment, which had been sent to stop him. In what has to be one of the greatest moments in history, he got off his horse, walked up to them alone within gunshot range, and said, “Here I am. Kill your Emperor if you wish.”

The entire regiment shouted, “Vive L’Empereur!” and switched sides to join Napoleon.

Napoleon marched to Paris with an ever-growing army and began a period of rule known as the Hundred Days. 

Napoleon decided to go on the offensive to split the coalition and marched into Belgium, where he fought the combined British and Prussian armies at the Battle of Waterloo. The British forces fought most of the day until the Prussians arrived and defeated the French.

Napoleon was finally done. 

The British wanted to execute him, but the other European powers agreed to have him exiled again, this time to the very remote island of St. Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Africa. 

He arrived there in October 1815 and remained there until his death on May 5, 1821, at the age of just 51.

The story of Napoleon Bonaparte is the story of Europe in the first two decades of the 19th century. 

Love him or hate him, and there are people in both camps still today; you can’t deny that he left an indelible mark on history. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener Wilkinsongs on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Thanks Gary!

Wonderful podcast! It didn’t take me long to exhaust all unplayed episodes, and now I’m fully into Round 2. I’ve learned a great deal and humbly feel enlightened relative to my pre-EED self. My thanks again, and keep “em coming!

Greg (from the Gales Ferry, CT Completion Club—population potentially just me).

Thanks, Greg! Many experts agree that to truly learn something, you probably have to go over it several times. I know that several members of the completionist club have told me that they have gone through the catalog two or even three times.

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show