Skip over navigation

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon's Years as First Consul

The Egyptian Campaign and Napoleon's Rise

Napoleon Becomes Emperor


Becoming First Consul at 30 years of age, Napoleon now cut his hair short. The French people quickly forgot about his disastrous Egyptian campaign and remembered his stunning victories in the Italian one. In December of 1799, Napoleon pushed for peace, but England and Austria rejected his proposals. So in 1800, Napoleon did the unexpected: restaging Hannibal's crossing of the Alps, he marched his army through the still-snowy Great Saint Bernard Pass to attack Austria's forces in Italy. Napoleon took the Austrian army by surprise and defeated them at the Battle of Marengo on June 14th, 1800. As a result, Napoleon was able to strong-arm Austrian Emperor Francis II into signing the Treaty of Luneville on February 9, 1801. Intimidated by this show of power, the British signed a peace agreement with France, the Peace of Amiens, on March 27, 1802.

As First Consul, Napoleon was clearly the highest power in the land, and a fairly absolutist ruler. However, he was still careful to set up what were largely imaginary representative institutions in order to preserve the illusion of a republic. These included a legislative body and a council of notables, neither of which held much power. Napoleon also sold the Louisiana Territory to the newly independent U.S. on April 30, 1803, for 80 million francs, or about 15 million dollars. In the U.S., this event is referred to as the "Louisiana Purchase."

In France, Napoleon showed considerable organizational genius as he worked to restore peace, order, and unity to post-Revolution France. He worked very hard to obtain the support of the Royalist factions, and he also worked to improve French relations with the Catholic Church, since Catholicism was the majority religion in France and thus a major force among the people. On July 15, 1801, he signed a Concordat with Pope Pius VII. In this agreement, the Church officially recognized the French Republic and gave back property it had appropriated during the chaos of the Revolution. In exchange, Napoleon, in a carefully worded agreement, pronounced that Catholicism was the religion of "most French", and thus the official religion of the Republic, though he still tolerated the practice of all religions in France.

Around 1800, when Napoleon was most popular, he worked hard to centralize French government agencies, which suffered from an overly complex system of organization. He created a "Bank of France" to improve French financial stability, and in May 1802 he created the first French lycees, or secondary schools, based on the military educational system. His immediate motive in doing so was to provide better training for government employees, but the lycees were ultimately to serve as the basis for the current French secondary-school system. He also completely overhauled French law, beginning in 1800, and instituting the Napoleonic Code in 1804.

In August 1802, Napoleon proclaimed himself First Consul for Life. A new constitution of his own devising legislated a succession to rule for his son, even though he had not yet fathered any children; although Josephine had two children from her previous marriage, she had not borne Napoleon any heirs.

But Napoleon's power did not go unchecked: in 1803, the British violated the Peace of Amiens, by backing a royalist plot to reinstate a Bourbon Prince on the French throne. The plot failed, however, and Napoleon's forces captured Louis de Bourbon-Conde on March 15, 1804, trying him as a criminal and executing him.


Although seen as a "son of the Revolution," Napoleon believed that reason, and not the desires of the masses, was the most important thing to follow. In this sense, Napoleon was an "enlightened despot": the best possible system of government, he thought, was absolutist–or "despotic"–rule by a wise–or "enlightened"–ruler; the ruler knew what was best for the people, while the people themselves often did not. In order to rule all the more wisely and rationally, then, he surrounded himself with intelligent and skilled advisors: mathematicians, scientists and statesmen.

Moreover, for Napoleon, enlightened despotism was not just an ideal; the man was indeed wise. Although he had a profound sense of a mystical destiny, claiming that he followed his "star," the quick-witted Napoleon was unusually shrewd and rational, unlike many European rulers of the day. Upon visiting him, leading intellectuals from around Europe were almost all impressed with the quality of his mind and speech. Although the Revolution's ideal of self-government withered under Napoleon, he was not a bad replacement for it.

Why was Napoleon so quick to sell the valuable Louisiana Territory to the U.S.? For one, his government needed the money. However, Napoleon was worried about getting involved in a conflict with the U.S. He knew such a conflict would divert needed resources away from his military efforts in Europe, and he also knew that a war with the U.S. would be an invitation for the British Navy, which dominated the seas, to harass his supply ships crossing the Atlantic. Although France appeared strong at the time, it was still recovering from the chaos of the Revolution years, and Napoleon knew this. Thus Napoleon's sale was far from a hasty moneymaking method; it was a carefully calculated instance of strategy.

The Concordat with Rome was a purely political move on Napoleon's part. A child of the Enlightenment, Napoleon was not religious. Still, he had no qualms about doing what was politically necessary, and he did not want the French clergy, who could influence the opinion of the people, to be against him. The Concordat was thus a masterpiece of political maneuvering.

The Napoleonic Code was the most famous law code since the Roman code or Hammurabi's Code. It was made up of five main branches, or codes, each referring to a different aspect of law. The Napoleonic Code unified and simplified the French legal system, and, with a few exceptions, it basically gave all citizens the same basic rights, justly regulating property, contracts, debts, stock company formation, and the like. However, the Code did not eliminate all mistreatment of French citizens: for instance, it banned labor unions and punished criminals extremely harshly; while the guiding assumption in U.S. criminal law is "innocent until proven guilty," under the Napoleonic Code, the burden of proof rested more with the accused. Furthermore, French women under the Code had very little power over their own property once married. Yet the Napoleonic Code remains one of Napoleon's greatest legacies; its simplicity and clarity lent it reliability and durability, and, with the advent of the Napoleonic conquests in later years, it was introduced into a number of European countries. While the Code did not remain in force in all of these (as it did in Belgium), it did serve as the basis for the modern legal systems of the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain, as well as for those of Quebec, parts of Latin America, and Louisiana.

Napoleon brought the definitive end of the Revolution. While the Third Estate (the common people) no longer held any real power under his dictatorship, Napoleon did consolidate and cement many of the changes for which they had fought, most notably equality for all. Moreover, his reign marked France's resurgence as a stable and strong nation, a nation free of internal strife and ready to forge a place for itself in international politics.

More Help

Previous Next
Wrong date.

by kbbaby224, November 18, 2013

It wasn't in 1814 that he abdicated this throne. He abdicated his throne in 1815

response to abdication

by brianohhh, November 22, 2013

To the comment above.
Actually - Napoleon did sign an abdication on April 4, 1814, after the Allies ganged up on him and invaded France successfully. In 1815 he was sent to St.Helena after he had escaped from Elba and was defeated at Waterloo.


1 out of 1 people found this helpful

Waterloo Error

by brianohhh, November 22, 2013

The article makes a massive and typical blunder in stating Napoleon fought 'the British army' at Waterloo. In fact Wellington's army was made up of various nationalities; British, Dutch, Belgian, various German states. Of the 68,000 strong army of Wellington, just over 24,000 were actually British.


1 out of 1 people found this helpful

See all 6 readers' notes   →

Follow Us