Why was Napoleon so successful?

Why was Napoleon so successful?

by Louise

Updated May 10, 2022

If you like history, politics and French, chances are you have heard about Napoleon. Let’s be honest, we’re sure you have once wondered how tall Napoleon was. Well, he was apparently 169cm tall (5’6 for the imperial system users out there), slightly below average for the period. 

Napoleon is a complex and contradictory person, and he also was one of the greatest generals in history.

To understand why Napoleon was so successful in his time, we will look at the historical context when he came to power, his accomplishments but also some of his controversial decisions. 

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Historical context: France during Napoleon’s time

To understand why Napoleon was so successful, we need to understand what was going on at that time in France. 

In 1789, the divine right of kings (monarchie absolue de droit divin) was criticized by the Enlightenment (les Lumières) and there was an important economical and social crisis. On July ,1789, the National Assembly (l’Assemblée nationale) was created and gave power to the people. Louis XVI was not  happy to have his power limited and planned an overthrow against the Assembly. The city of Paris revolted and took the Bastille, a prison symbol of the absolute monarchy.

On August 26, the Assembly passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (la Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen). It’s the end of feudalism.

And they lived happily ever after, right? Well, not exactly. And especially not Louis XVI because he ended up losing his head. 

The other European monarchies did not look favorably upon the Revolution and its spread. In 1792, France was at war against Prussia and Austria and lost many battles. 300,000 volunteers enlisted to fight and on September 22, 1792, the Republic was announced.

However, not everybody agreed on the way France was governed and from 1793 to 1799, the country lived in chaos. Multiple groups of revolutionaries tried to take over the power, and the year 1794 is officially called the Terror (la Terreur). The government, named the Directory (le Directoire) and hated by the people, could not solve the political and economic difficulties and France was still at war. Not a fun time! That’s when Napoleon comes in.

Napoleon coming to power, the coup d’état

In October 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte was a General of the Republican army. While the economical and political situation in France was not the best (to say the least!) its armies were extremely successful. Among them, Napoleon! He had already won multiple battles, had led the Italian campaign, and had become very popular. 

Indeed, the Corsican commander was showing concern for his men which made them very loyal to him. Napoleon had a true gift for tactics and wide military knowledge. 

The Directory was not as taken with Napoleon and feared his popularity. In 1798, to keep him away from politics, the Directory sent Napoleon to Egypt. The expedition is a military disaster but its leader has a real talent for propaganda and made it look like a success. Furthermore, during Napoleon’s time away, his brother Lucien looked after his popularity among politicians and kept him informed of the political difficulties of France.

When Napoleon came back to Paris, on October 16th 1799, Lucien was President of the Assembly and Napoleon was welcomed as a hero. Things were looking good for the Bonaparte brothers!

The well-known coup d’état happened in two folds: on November 9 and 10 of 1799. 

On November 9, the coup d’état participants explained to the deputies of the Assembly that they need to be protected from an attack and that they need to be moved outside of Paris. 

When they arrived at Saint-Cloud (a few kilometers West of Paris), the deputies realized they were being handled by General Bonaparte’s troops and that he wanted them to vote for a change of regime. However, the deputies were not convinced that easily!

The next day, on November 10, Napoleon made a speech to the deputies to profess his respect for the République. His speech is said to have been quite clumsy! Eh, you can’t be good at everything.

The deputies understood then that a coup d’état was in progress and rebelled. Bonaparte’s troops had to intervene to protect him.

In the evening, a number of deputies voted for a change of regime and the end of the Directory. Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed himself First Consul (Premier Consul). At thirty years old, Bonaparte is the new head of state.

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Napoleon’s accomplishments and controversial decisions

After that, you might wonder if the French people liked Napoleon. Let’s keep in mind that France had been in a difficult situation for a few years already, and that Napoleon had offered to bring revolutionary reforms to the citizens of France.

In 1801, he signed The Concordat, an agreement with the Pope Pius VII, which meant to reconcile Catholics and the revolutionaries. It brought peace and restored power to the papacy but it also clearly gave power to Napoleon who was able to select bishops and supervised the finances of the Church.

In 1804, Napoleon was elected Emperor of France, though the referendum is believed to have been rigged in his favor, thus establishing the First French Empire.

Throughout his reign, Napoleon continued to lead armies but started to encounter significant defeats. The Emperor and his troops suffered through a disastrous invasion of Russia and the loss of Spain to the Duke of Wellington. Exiled to the island of Elba, Napoleon escaped to France in early 1815 and set up a new regime.

With allied troops, Napoleon marched into Belgium, intending to defeat the allied armies.

He was defeated by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, in Belgium. French casualties were 25,000 men killed and 9,000 captured. This defeat brings an end to the Napoleonic era of European history, as Napoleon returned to Paris and abdicated in favor of his son.

Napoleon was exiled for the second time on St Helena island where he died, on May 5, 1821, from a long battle against stomach cancer.

So, do French people like Napoleon?

This question was brought back in May 2021, 200 years after his death. On this anniversary, Emmanuel Macron placed a wreath at his tomb and gave a speech, mentioning the “complex being” Napoleon was. And complex, he was.

Napoleon centralized the French administration; corruption and embezzlement were strongly dealt with. The outdated law and order system was revised and the Napoleonic Code was created. 

Napoleon was particularly proud of it and said “”My true glory is not to have won forty battles. Waterloo will erase the memory of so many victories. But what will live forever, is my Civil Code”.

It codified several branches of law and made clearer laws about property and family. It was revolutionary at the time and was then used by many nations.

Sounds good, right? Well, not for everybody. Among other elements, the Napoleonic Code strengthened the authority of men over their family, deprived women of individual rights, and illegitimate children’s rights were reduced. All male citizens were granted equal rights but, at the same time, colonial slavery was reintroduced. 

He reestablished slavery in 1802, eight years after its abolishion. In 1815, when he was back in power, he asked for its abolishion again and tried to emancipate slaves who lived on Saint Helena Island. In his speech in 2021, Emmanuel Macron said that “slavery was an abomination, including in the time’s context.”. Macron affirms he wants to face French history, whether it’s about Napoleon or other sensitive subjects like the action of France in Algeria or Rwanda.

Napoleon was very keen to improve the French education system. He founded many state secondary schools (les lycées) in an attempt to standardize education across the country. He wanted to focus on science, math, military and political science and created the University of France in 1808.

Napoleon used propaganda to rise to power and was also very controlling of the press. Here’s a quote from a letter he sent to the Ministry of Justice in 1805: 

“Tell the journalists that I will soon abolish newspapers and will only allow one. Call the most-read newspaper editors to tell them that if they keep alarming the public opinion, I will abolish them. Tell them the time of the Revolution is over. That only one party remains in France. That I will not allow journalists to write against me. That I will keep them quiet.”

The historian Frédéric Régent rightly pointed out “Commemorating something means remembering together, but not honoring it.”


A controversial figure of French history

Napoleon Bonaparte is undoubtedly one of the most famous figures of French history in the world and one of the most studied. While he liked to introduce himself as a worthy successor of the Revolution, he sometimes looked down on its values. In his quest for military glory, Napoleon set fire to Europe while also trying to implement new rules to improve the lives of his people. His regime stifled liberties while also pacifying the country and establishing solid institutions such as state schools, prefects or the Civil code. 

Napoleon truly is complex and contradictory.

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Louise is a French teacher who lives in the UK. She is a keen traveller (she lived in Europe, the United States and Australia) and loves meeting people from all over the world. She is also passionate about how learning a new language opens doors to so many different cultures, and this is what she wants to share with her students. She comes from Burgundy-Franche-Comté, a region in the East of France, and loves everything there is about it, from the Macvin to the cancoillotte!