The Young Napoleon
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica on August 15, 1769. Although the Bonaparte family had maintained its nobility status even after the French takeover of the Island from the Italian Republic of Genoa in 1768, it was not as financially strong as it once was. For that reason, Charles immediately set out to curry favor with the new French regime. France rewarded his services graciously, and financed a scholarship for the young Napoleon to the military college of Brienne in France. Napoleon left to begin his education there in 1777, at the age of eight. In 1784, he moved on to the Ecole Militaire (the French military academy) to spend a year studying more advanced tactics and strategy. Although remarkably intelligent, Napoleon graduated 42nd in his class of 52.
In 1785, at the age of 16, Napoleon graduated from the Ecole Miliaire and became a Second Lieutenant in the Army for artillery, confident and ambitious. To be commissioned as an officer immediately after graduation was a high honor. However, Napoleon's happiness was diminished when his father Charles died on February 24, 1785.
In November of 1875, Napoleon set out for Valence, where he was to be stationed. It was peacetime, and the post was very boring. If Napoleon could not win honor in battle, however, he determined to improve himself otherwise: he spent his time in Valence furthering his education through a rigorous reading program, with a particular emphasis on history and geography.
In 1789, Revolution was brewing in France. The traditional monarchy (the Ancien Regime) was in trouble. Running out of money, Louis XVI called a meeting of the French Parliament (the "Estates-General") to consider a tax raise. On June 21, however, the Estates-General declared itself a National Assembly, and the French Revolution was underway. On July 14, a Paris mob stormed the Bastille, and on August 28, the new French Republic issued the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights.
Napoleon, on leave from his post during these tumultuous times, returned to Valence in 1791. In the summer of 1792, he decided to head to Paris. On April 2 of that year, France declared war on Austria, and on February 1 it declared war on England. As revolution swept France, an international coalition formed to stop the revolutionary forces from extending across Europe. This coalition included Austria, Britain, Spain, Russia, and the loose confederation of German states and principalities.
On August 10, 1792, a Paris mob overran the royal family's residence at the Tuileries, massacring the Swiss Guard that protected the royalty; Napoleon witnessed it all. This event would have a major impact on young Napoleon, and taught him how powerful the people could be, once mobilized. Napoleon would seek to channel that power in his own conquest of Europe.
Soon after the mob's storming of the Tuileries, the revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy and guillotined Louis XVI, proclaiming a French Republic on September 25, 1792.
Historians often emphasize Napoleon's Corsican background, perhaps to explain his egomaniacal attempt to take over the world; Corsica had fallen to a series of conquering nations for years. However, the young Napoleon was shipped off to France for schooling quite early, and his upbringing, philosophy, and mentality were ultimately much more French than they were Corsican. Every bit a rationalist, Napoleon was a true child of the French Enlightenment.
Like so many significant historical figures, Napoleon was largely self-taught. Napoleon's future ambitions were certainly apparent in his choice of reading: he read history and geography, obsessing over the stories of kings and generals like Alexander the Great and Hannibal. Indeed, he would later take these men as his examples, using their tactics as models for his own: Alexander the Great of Macedonia built a huge empire, as Napoleon would eventually do, and Hannibal (of Carthage) was famous for crossing the Alps with a huge army (another surprise tactic Napoleon would recreate during his own campaigns). Furthermore, even at this early stage in his career, Napoleon read everything he could about England. He was fascinated by England's strategies and spent considerable time studying England's resources. From his reading at this time, it seems reasonable to suppose that Napoleon may already have been dreaming of his future exploits in some form.
Although Napoleon spent hours with his books, Napoleon did not fail to garner important lessons from the events happening around him. Part of the reason for the fall of the Ancien Regime was that it had spent considerable resources supporting the American colonists' revolution against the British. By the 1780s, the royal coffers were drained and the monarchy had few resources. Napoleon would note this, and would stay out of entanglements in the New World that might have diverted resources from his efforts in Europe. (For that reason, he would sell the Louisiana Territory to the U.S.)
What was Napoleon doing during the events of 1789? Actually, he was at home in Corsica with his family, on leave from the Army. News of revolution had not yet reached Corsica. However, while in Corsica, Napoleon wrote a letter on behalf of the entire island to the French Royalty complaining about French neglect of Corsica. After this letter, Corsica was considered pro-Revolution.
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