Napoleon and the French Revolution

From the lecture series: Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon

By Suzanne Desan, PhD, University of Wisconsin, Madison

When the French Revolution came, Napoleon was ready. He got as much military leave time as he could get, and he plunged into revolutionary politics in Corsica…

Bonaparte at the Pont d'Arcole (Detail) , by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, ca. 1801
(Image: By Antoine-Jean Gros/Public domain)

Young Napoleon: The Corsican Experience

Bonaparte was optimistic about bringing French revolutionary politics to Corsica. We see him there handing out cockades, and he helped found a political club. As mentioned in the first article in this series, the Bonapartes worked as a family, so he supported his older brother Joseph for political office. His family bought nationalized church lands. By 1792, Napoleon got himself elected as the lieutenant colonel of the National Guard.

But there was a problem. Napoleon and the Bonaparte family clashed with Pasquale Paoli, the leading Corsican politician. Paoli had led independent Corsica back in the day, from 1755 to 1769. Now he had returned from exile and won back his old power and prestige on the island, but he didn’t get along with the Bonapartes. They were more tightly allied with the pro-French factions, and Paoli increasingly resented and mistrusted France. The politics were extremely messy, but a couple of points stand out.

This is a transcript from the video series Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon. Watch it now, Wondrium.

First, Paoli broke with France and kicked out the Bonapartes. He targeted them as enemies, pro-French, and anti-Corsican. They were condemned to “perpetual infamy.” Their home was sacked, their property ruined. In response, Napoleon packed up his mother, his three sisters, and three of his brothers. They fled as refugees across the Mediterranean to southern France to make a new start.

Napoleon Bonaparte Portrait by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux 1835
Napoleon Bonaparte, aged 23, lieutenant-colonel of a battalion of Corsican Republican volunteers. (Image: By Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux/Public domain)

Napoleon: A Young Revolutionary Enters Politics

A second key point stands out: Napoleon came of age politically in Corsican politics. The truth is, he didn’t maneuver well in Corsica—he was naïve and unrealistic. After all, he was only 20 in 1789. He was headlong in his approach and he underestimated resistance to radical, revolutionary reforms. But then he grew savvier, more cynical, and more pragmatic. In 1793, he wrote about politics, “It is better to eat than be eaten.” Simply put, Bonaparte couldn’t have become such a brilliant, hardnosed, and pragmatic politician without his Corsican apprenticeship and this moment of disillusionment.

Learn more about the famous Corsican who would one day crown himself emperor of France, Young Napolean

One more point on the Corsican experience. Some historians see his flight from Corsica as the moment when Bonaparte became French. But in a way, this moment cemented his status as an outsider. He surrendered his Corsican ties and dreams, but he couldn’t truly be wholly French. This status as an outsider drove him and enabled him to reinvent himself continuously, and so strikingly, as an outsider who could become more than French. He would later claim, with stunning success, that as a self-created outsider, he stood above politics.

By chance, he happened to be in Paris in the summer of 1792 and witnessed the August 10 uprising and the fall of the king. An old classmate who was with him that day recounted that Bonaparte walked the streets, angry at the violence of the crowd. Napoleon wasn’t a man to glorify “the people.” In a letter to his brother Joseph after August 10, he made two revealing observations: “When you get right down to it, the crowd is hardly worth the great effort one takes to curry its favor.” And just as revealing, he also wrote, “If Louis XVI had climbed on a horse, victory would have been his.” But there were things about the Revolution that drew the young soldier. He became a Jacobin and a backer of Robespierre. In 1793, he wrote a pro-Jacobin pamphlet attacking the Federalists of Marseille.

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Napoleon and the French Revolution

What appealed to him about the French Revolution? Its energy and its forcefulness; its ideology of possibility; the toughness and hardcore style of the Jacobins. The Revolution glorified war and honored successful soldiers, but it also made it possible, as never before, for a bold soldier to rise through the ranks based on merit. Lots of elite officers had emigrated, leaving openings in the officer corps. The army had a new structure—more open and egalitarian.

Bonaparte at the Siege of Toulon, 1793 , canvas by Edouard Detaille, Army Museum.
Bonaparte at the Siege of Toulon (Image: By Édouard Detaille/Public domain)

In the fall of 1793, Napoleon got his chance to make his name in this new system. On the Mediterranean coast sat the town of Toulon. In August 1793, the inhabitants had surrendered the town to the British. The French then laid siege to Toulon and its British occupiers. Napoleon had the backing of a Corsican patron who had power, so he was put in charge of the artillery of the French siege of Toulon. First, he spent a few weeks rounding up and requisitioning equipment: Horses, oxen, cannons from the surrounding area, and blacksmiths. He got 5,000 sacks of dirt every day from Marseille to build up his ramparts for his batteries.

Napoleon had the backing of a Corsican patron who had power, so he was put in charge of the artillery of the French siege of Toulon.

He also worked hard convincing his superiors to try his battle plan. He saw that the key to retaking the harbor rested on seizing one particular point of high ground to the south: a high point known as L’Eguillette, “the Needle.” From there, Bonaparte knew that he could bombard ships in the harbor and also the city of Toulon across the way. Bonaparte carefully chose the locations for building 11 new batteries of cannon to attack key British forts, especially Fort Mulgrave that had protected L’Eguillette.

On the 17th of December 1793, 6,000 infantrymen stormed the key British Fort Mulgrave. Bonaparte’s batteries rained down crossfire as cover. In the fighting, Bonaparte himself had his horse shot out from under him and he was wounded in the thigh by a bayonet. But within hours, he had captured two important high points, including L’Eguillette. Bonaparte had barely begun to open fire when the British admiral Lord Hood ordered his ships out of the inner harbor. Some 7,500 occupants of Toulon fled on British ships.

The armed coalition against France evacuating the port of Toulon in 1793. Painting Between 1793 and 1830-1840.
The British evacuation of Toulon in December 1793. (Image: By Forand A/Public domain)

Bonaparte had commanded only the artillery. He hadn’t been in charge of the operation, but he had been the mastermind behind it. His persistence and his tactical clarity of vision had made the difference. Just a few days later, he was promoted to brigadier general. He was only 24 years old. That spring, Robespierre’s brother, Augustin, was on a mission in the south. He wrote to Maximilien: “I add to the list of patriots the name of the citizen Buonaparte … an officer of transcendent merit.” Important people had begun to notice this Corsican artilleryman.

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Napoleon’s Big Break

Bonaparte moved in Jacobin circles that year in the south. Shortly after Robespierre’s fall on the 9th of Thermidor, Napoleon was even imprisoned as a Robespierrist suspect, but he was let out of prison in a little less than two weeks. Soon he went to Paris, where he hung around the edges of the high salon society during the Thermidorian era. Here, in early October 1795, he got his next big political and military break.

The gilded youth led thousands of royalists to surround the Convention to protest certain parts of the plan for the Directory. The future director, Paul Barras, decided to do something that revolutionary leaders had never done: Call in the army against Parisian demonstrators; the demonstrators were royalists this time. Barras chose General Bonaparte to bring in the artillery. Napoleon turned his cannons onto the crowd. He fired what he famously called a “whiff of grapeshot.” But the fighting continued for over six hours. Several hundred lay dead. Bonaparte had helped to put down the royalist insurrection and he secured a promotion to Major General.

Napoleon turned his cannons onto the crowd. He fired what he famously called a “whiff of grapeshot.” But the fighting actually continued for over six hours.

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Over the next few weeks, he wrote excitedly to his brother Joseph about how their younger brothers would benefit from his moment of glory: Lucien would get a valuable government position; Louis could become his aide-de-camp, his military assistant; and Jérôme, the youngest, could win entry to a fine school.

The Napoleonic Revolution Spreads Abroad

French Forces in Cologne 1794
French forces raise the cap of liberty in the Neumarkt, Cologne, 1794. (Image: By Unknown author – Scan / Cutout and optimized from illustration by HOWI, Public Domain)

By 1795, things were looking pretty good for the French Republic. Spain had been defeated and had agreed to switch sides and ally with France, and the Prussians had also made peace with France. Way to the east, Russia had put down a revolt in Poland that was inspired in part by the French Revolution. Following this, Prussia wanted to concentrate its full attention on dividing up Poland with Russia, again. French armies had also kicked the Austrians out of the Austrian Netherlands, modern-day Belgium. Now the French were knocking on the door of the Dutch Republic. Their success raised the old question, the Girondin idea: Would France spread Revolution abroad?

It’s worth looking at the Dutch case; there, the French and the Dutch created the first of eight sister republics. In Italy, Bonaparte would launch some of these sister republics. In every case, these republics grew out of an uneasy combination of French invaders and local patriots and their activism.

The Netherlands already was a Republic, but the powerful noble House of Orange dominated the politics. Dutch patriots had rebelled against this system in the 1780s, and some of these rebels had fled into exile in Paris when that revolt failed. They begged the French to ignite Revolution in their land.

When the French marched north in 1794–95, talk of democratic politics ignited in the Netherlands. Pamphlets were flying off the presses and people founded political clubs all over the place; there were 34 in Amsterdam alone. When the French marched into Amsterdam, the Prince of Orange left immediately for England. Dutch revolutionaries proclaimed the Batavian Republic. They named it after the Roman name for their land, Batavia.

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This was the first French sister republic. Back in Paris, no doubt Bonaparte was paying attention. The Dutch wrote a new Constitution, with the French watching and sometimes pushing them onward. It took the Dutch three years to agree on their new constitutional system, but it marked a turning point and a model for the future. Its declaration of rights is the basis of the current Dutch Constitution. It promised various social rights and laid the foundation for a much more centralized and more democratic political system.

It took the Dutch three years to agree on their new constitutional system. But it marked a turning point and a model for the future.

French forces had chased out the House of Orange. They created the opening for the Dutch to build the Batavian Republic. But France also demanded reparations from the defeated Dutch in the new sister republic. The Dutch had to pay 100 million florins to their French liberators (liberators, so to speak).

Napoleon Creating Sister Republics

Step back and think about what happened here with the creation of the first sister republic, as certain patterns will reemerge again, and Napoleon would play a role in creating those patterns. By the mid-1790s, revolutionary warfare and ideology had combined to destabilize old power structures in Europe. Local patriots in the Netherlands and other places jumped into the opening. They seized the opportunity for making independent Republics within the cauldron of revolutionary contestation.

The French wanted to make client states and expand their territory and influence, and if they were going to make republics, those republics should pay for the services of the French armies

But when the French helped set up these republics, they did not act purely out of revolutionary idealism. Those idealistic goals gave way to traditional geopolitics, the quest for raw power, and the hunt for booty.

The French wanted to make client states and expand their territory and influence, and if they were going to make republics, those republics should pay for the services of the French armies. As one Italian revolutionary put it a few years later: “Revolutions are prepared by philosophers and decided by bayonets.”

Common Questions About Napoleon and the French Revolution

Q: How did Napoleon support the French Revolution?

Napoleon created the lycée system of schools for universal education, built many colleges, and introduced new civic codes that gave vastly more freedom to the French than during the Monarchy, thus supporting the Revolution.

Q: How did Napoleon hurt the French Revolution?

Napoleon could be seen as betraying the French Revolution by becoming a dictator, but the overwhelming good he did in the process and the freedoms he instituted far outshine this fact.

Q: What was the central idea of the French Revolution?

The central ideals of the French Revolution were liberty, equality, and fraternity. The French wanted basic human rights and freedom, and they got them.

Q: Did Napoleon stop the French Revolution?

Napoleon essentially rode the wave of the Revolution and put an end to the chaos of the beginning after crowning himself Emperor.

This article was updated on November 9, 2020

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