How Napoleon Bonaparte Became the Most Powerful Man in France

In 1799, a young General from Corsica led a coup that would make him the most powerful man in France. The young man was Napoleon Bonaparte. His actions changed the course of history forever.

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A revolution in decline

By the last year of the 18th century, the French Revolution had drifted a long way from the heady days of 1789. Though the King was dead and France’s external enemies mostly defeated, it had largely devolved into an orgy of violence, known afterwards as the Great Terror.

Between 1793 and 1794, Robespierre’s France guillotined and summarily executed thousands of potential political opponents before the orchestrator himself lost his head in July 1794.

The fall of Robespierre ushered in a new, more conservative form of government known as the Directory. The Directory purged the former leader’s radical supporters – the ‘Jacobins’ – and resorted to extreme repression to keep the country under Parisian control.

Napoleon I of France, as painted by Andrea Appiani.
Credit: Commons.

The Directory

Historians have not been kind to the Directory, calling it unrepresentative and repressive.

The Directory was made up of five directors. The voting system at the time denied almost all Frenchmen any real say in who these Directors were. The regime was not a popular one.

It clung onto power over the last years of the 1790s. But when the brilliant young General Napoleon Bonaparte returned to France in October 1799, many saw him as a potential saviour.

Napoleon may only have been thirty at the time of the coup but he was already a famous soldier and regarded by many as the greatest son of the revolution. The chaos generated by the revolution had granted this gifted young man opportunities that would have been denied to him under the old regime.

Run on the Tuileries on 10. Aug. 1792 during the French Revolution, as painted by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux in 1793. Credit:
Commons.

Military career

Napoleon began his military career as an artillery officer. He played an integral role in defeating a British Royalist force at the battle of Toulon in 1793.

Promotions quickly followed. Despite having been imprisoned for his connections to Robespierre, and his descent from a very minor noble family on the remote Italian-speaking island of Corsica, Napoleon was given command of a ragtag army in Nice in 1796.

Over the next year, he lead this army on a stunning campaign, defeating the Italians and the Austrians and forcing both to sign humiliating peace treaties. His next step was to take his armies to Egypt in a roundabout attempt to menace the growing British Empire in India.

The glamour of this campaign, though it was less successful than the first, enhanced the growing fame of the young soldier.

In the Autumn of 1799 he sensed an opportunity and returned to France (leaving his loyal and devoted troops behind to be defeated and captured by the British).

An offer he couldn’t refuse

This opportunity came at the hands of Director Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès. Though a member of the government, Sieyès was as bitterly disappointed with it as everyone else and had been planning a coup for some time.

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But a coup needed popular support. Sieyès noted the adulation with which Napoleon was greeted when he returned home. He realised that this was the man to legitimise and defend his new regime.

Napoleon had other ideas. Far from being Sieyès’ puppet, he began planning to seize power for himself.

The uprising

A series of recent uprisings meant thousands of troops were conveniently stationed around Paris. The plan was to use these men to intimidate the upper and lower chambers of the government into resigning and permit a new more centralised regime to replace it.

The Storming of the Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houël. Credit: National Library of France / Commons.

Sensing that something was wrong, the Directors resigned and their system collapsed. But the upper and lower chambers remained defiant.

On 9 November, with Sieyès occupied in Paris, Napoleon took matters into his own hands. He marched proudly into the upper chamber – the Council of Ancients – surrounded by battle-scarred grenadiers.

The Ancients resisted, but a show of military muscle and an effective speech allowed Napoleon to escape unscathed. The lower chamber – the Council of the 500 – proved more difficult.

These men threatened Napoleon, many with daggers in their hands. According to some reports, Napoleon was paralysed with fear and came close to fainting.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, currently located in the Charlottenburg Palace, painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1801. Credit: Commons.

Fortunately for Napleon, his brother Lucien was President of the lower chamber. In the midst of the unrest, Lucien drew his sword and pointed it at his brother’s heart, roaring to the councillors that if his brother was a traitor he would kill him himself.

This ostentatious display gave control of the situation back to Napoleon, who then forced the 500 to sign a new constitution.

First Consul

With thousands of soldiers behind him, Napoleon intimidated Sieyès into changing the new constitution to give one man, “First Consul”, absolute power.

This man, of course, would be Napoleon. With this move, the French Revolution was over.

France had a new absolute ruler, and in 1804 he would dispense with the pretence of democracy by declaring himself Emperor.

Header image credit: Commons.