Napoleon I (1769-1821), emperor of the France, who made reforms after the French Revolution. One of the greatest military commanders of all time, he conquered the larger part of Europe and did much to modernize the nations he conquered. Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, Corsica, and was given the name Napoleon. He was the second of eight children of Carlo Bonaparte and Letizia Ramolino Buonaparte, both of the Corsican-Italian ancestry.
Napoleans father was a lawyer who had fought for Corsican independence, but after the French occupied the island in 1768, he served as a prosecutor and a judge and entered the French nobility as a count. Through his fathers influence, Napoleon was educated at the expense of King Louis XVI, in Paris. Napoleon graduated in 1785, at the age of 16, and joined the artillery as a second lieutenant. After the Revolution began, he became a lieutenant colonel. In 1793, however, Corsica declared independence, and Bonaparte, a French patriot and a Republican, fled to France with his family.
He was assigned, as a captain, to an army besieging Toulon, a naval base that, aided by a British fleet, was in revolt against the republic. Replacing wounded artillery general, he seized ground where his guns could drive the British fleet from the harbor, and the port fell. As a result Napoleon was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24. In 1795 he saved the revolutionary government by dispersing an insurgent mob in Paris. In 1796 he married Josephine de Beauharnais, the widow of an aristocrat murdered in the Revolution. Also in 1796, Napoleon was made commander of the French army in Italy.
He defeated four Austrian generals, each with superior numbers, and forced Austria and its allies to make peace. In northern Italy he founded the Cisalpine Republic (later known as Italy) and strengthened his position in France by sending millions of francs worth of treasure to the government. In 1798, to strike at British trade with the East, he led an expedition to Turkish-ruled Egypt, which he conquered. The British admiral Horatio Nelson, leaving him stranded, however, destroyed his fleet. Undaunted, he reformed the Egyptian government and law, abolishing serfdom and feudalism and guaranteeing basic rights.
The French scholars he had brought with him began the scientific study of ancient Egyptian history. In 1799 he failed to capture Syria, but he won a smashing victory over the Turks. France, meanwhile, faced a new army; Austria, Russia, and lesser powers had allied with Britain. Napoleon, was no meek soul, he decided to leave his army and return to save France. In Paris, he joined a conspiracy against the government. November 9-10, 1799, he and his friends seized power and established a new regime. Under its constitution, Napolean, as first consul, had almost completely dictatorial powers.
The constitution was revised in 1802 to make Bonaparte consul for life and in 1804 to create him emperor. Each change received the overwhelming assent of the French electorate. In 1800, he assured his power by crossing the Alps and defeating the Austrians. He then negotiated a general European peace that established the Rhine River as the eastern border of France. He also concluded an agreement with the pope, which contributed to French domestic tranquillity by ending the quarrel with the Roman Catholic Church that had arisen during the Revolution.
In France the administration was reorganized, the court system was simplified, and all schools were put under centralized control. French law was standardized in the Code of Napoleon. They guaranteed the rights and liberties won in the Revolution, including equality before the law and freedom of religion. In April 1803 Britain, provoked by Napoleons aggressive behavior, resumed war with France on the seas; two years later Russia and Austria joined the British in a new coalition. Napoleon then abandoned plans to invade England and turned his armies against the Russian forces.
In 1806 he seized the kingdom of Naples and made his elder brother Joseph king, converted the Dutch Republic into the kingdom of Holland for his brother Louis, and established the Confederation of the Rhine of which he was the protector. Napoleon had meanwhile established the Continental System; a French-imposed blockade of Europe against British goods, designed to bankrupt what he called the “nation of shopkeepers. ” In 1807 Napoleon seized Portugal. In 1808, he made his brother Joseph king of Spain, awarding Naples to his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat.
Josephs arrival in Spain touched off a rebellion there, which became known as the Peninsular War. Napoleon appeared briefly and scored victories, but after his departure the fighting continued for five years, with the British backing Spanish armies and guerrillas. The Peninsular War cost France 300,000 casualties and lots of money and contributed to the eventual destruction of the Napoleons Empire. In all the new kingdoms created by Napolean, the Code Napoleon was established as law. Feudalism and serfdom were abolished, and freedom of religion.
Each state was given a constitution, providing for the right for a male vote and a parliament and a bill of rights. French-style administrative and judicial systems were required. Schools were put under centralized government, and free public schools were thought of. Higher education was opened to all that qualified, regardless of class or religion. Every state had an academy or institute for the promotion of the arts and sciences. Incomes were provided for scholars, especially scientists.
Constitutional government remained only a promise, but progress and increased efficiency were widely realized. Not until after Napoleons fall did the common people of Europe, alienated from his governments by war taxes fully appreciate the benefits he had given them. In 1812 Napoleon, whose alliance with Alexander I had disintegrated, launched an invasion into Russia that ended in a disastrous retreat from Moscow. After that all Europe united against him, and although he fought on, and brilliantly, the odds were impossible to beat.
After the allies had rejected his stepping down in favor of his son, Napoleon unconditionally surrendered and was exiled to a Mediterranean island. Marie Louise and his son were put in the custody of her father, the emperor of Austria. Napoleon never saw either of them again. Napoleon himself, however, soon made a dramatic comeback. In March 1815, he escaped from Elba, reached France, and marched on Paris, winning over the troops sent to capture him. In Paris, he promulgated a new and more democratic constitution, and veterans of his old campaigns flocked to his support.
Napoleon asked peace of the allies, but they outlawed him, and he decided to strike first. The result was a campaign into Belgium, which ended in defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. In Paris, crowds begged him to fight on, but the politicians withdrew their support. Napoleon fled to Rochefort, where he surrendered to the captain of the British battleship. He was then exiled to a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean, where he remained until his death from stomach cancer on May 5, 1821.