On 10 November 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte stormed into the chambers at the Château de Saint-Cloud in the suburbs of Paris and set in train a military coup. “The republic no longer has a government,” he declared to the assembled members of one of France’s two ruling councils. “Together let us save the cause of liberty and equality.”


The coup represented an enormous gamble for Bonaparte but it paid off spectacularly: within a matter of days, he had been declared First Consul of his nation. He was now the most powerful figure in France – and hardly anybody had seen it coming. But one man had, and his name was Maximilien Robespierre. When revolutionary France had embarked on a war with its royalist neighbours in April 1792, Robespierre warned of the dangers that would follow. A military leader could, the leading Jacobin revolutionary counselled, take the opportunity to seize political power in Paris, becoming another Julius Caesar, another Oliver Cromwell.

Robespierre’s warnings were disregarded, but they proved prescient. The ensuing war would last a generation. It brought to prominence several talented young generals with the potential to become a second Caesar. In the end the man who came out ahead was the young Corsican general who burst into the Château de Saint Cloud in November 1799: Bonaparte.

For many historians, the coup of 1799 signalled the end of one of the great step-changes in European history: the French Revolution. Erupting in 1789, the revolution had shaken the old order based on the authority of king, nobles and clergy to its core. It also brought into being a raft of new political ideals, such as individual liberty, equality before the law, freedom of speech and religious toleration. The revolution was the first of its kind anywhere in the world, and would have an unfathomable impact on modern history.

But what would be the fate of these revolutionary ideals under the Napoleonic regime that took shape after his rise to power? Would the man himself go on to champion them or dismantle them? Was he their greatest ally, or an implacable foe? If Bonaparte himself is to believed, the answer is clear: the revolution was safe in his hands. “The French Revolution need fear nothing,” he declared, “since the throne of the Bourbons is occupied by a soldier!”

Bonaparte later presented himself as having been the mediator between the old world of the kings and the new world of the revolution: “The [great battle] of the century had been won,” he intoned, “and the revolution accomplished.” However, a close examination of what Bonaparte did, as opposed to what he said, during his extraordinary time in power tells an entirely different story.

A man of “transcendental merit”

As a young man, Bonaparte’s revolutionary credentials were impressive. Robespierre’s younger brother, Augustin, had encountered Bonaparte, then a young artillery officer, at the siege to retake Toulon from the British in 1793. Augustin was impressed by his expertise and his radicalism – laid out in Bonaparte’s pamphlet, Le Souper de Beaucaire, written in support of the Jacobins, among revolutionary France’s most powerful political forces. The Corsican was, Augustin confided to Maximilien, a man of “transcendental merit”.

Neither brother would live to see that potential realised. On 28 July 1794, both lost their lives to the guillotine, the latest victims of waves of revolutionary bloodletting that we now know as the Terror. Many more Jacobin sympathisers would be executed, and more still arrested. Among the latter was Bonaparte himself, who spent a short time imprisoned at the fort of Antibes in France’s south-eastern corner.

He was in prison for less than two weeks, and was released after writing a statement that emphasised his republican allegiances, while distancing himself from the Robespierre brothers and Jacobinism. Such radical politics could no longer serve Bonaparte’s ambition: ever the pragmatist, he promptly ditched them.

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As Maximilien Robespierre had predicted, the revolution offered young soldiers of talent the opportunity to rise through the ranks. Some of these men had the potential to make the transition to the political sphere had they so wished. They included Lazare Hoche, whose father had been a servant tending the king’s horses in the stables of Versailles. Yet Hoche, seen by many as a more talented man, died young of consumption in 1797.

Another rising star was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, son of an enslaved black woman and a French nobleman, her legal owner. More than 6ft, strikingly handsome, a staunch Republican (and father of the author of The Three Musketeers), Dumas cut a much more impressive figure than the diminutive Bonaparte. During the French invasion of Egypt (1798–1801), locals who saw Dumas on horseback “all believed that he was the leader of the expedition” rather than Bonaparte.

When he heard that Dumas had conferred with other generals about his ineptitude in Egypt, Bonaparte threatened to shoot him. En route back to France, Dumas was captured by royalist forces in the Kingdom of Naples, imprisoned in grim conditions, and left to languish by Bonaparte, who refused to intervene. Though Dumas was eventually released, his health was irretrievably damaged. The fates of both Hoche and Dumas prove that, while Bonaparte was one of the most able of the new generals, he was also lucky that his main rivals had been eliminated.

Napoleon showed exceptional skill in presenting the invasion of Egypt as a success, and himself as a hero. He left his soldiers bogged down in the desert sands and returned before news of the extent of the disaster had reached France

Bonaparte was the leading proponent of the French invasion of Egypt, so when the campaign descended into a bloody debacle, it was he who had most to lose. Yet he showed exceptional skill in presenting it as a success, and himself as a hero. He left his soldiers bogged down in the desert sands and returned before news of the extent of the disaster had reached France. In doing so, he was able to turn a potentially career-ending fiasco into a bid for power

After arranging for the despatch of looted treasures from Egypt’s ancient past, which would eventually find their way into the Louvre, Bonaparte cut a deal with the leading political theorist of the revolution, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès. Lured by the prospect of a regime based on militarism – and the big money to be made from lucrative contracts to supply the armies – Bonaparte and Sieyès conspired to overthrow the republic that they claimed to cherish. The result was the coup of November 1799.

Napoleon Bonaparte leads a military coup in November 1799, claiming he acted in the interests of the revolution (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Napoleon Bonaparte leads a military coup in November 1799, claiming he acted in the interests of the revolution (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The Coup of 18 Brumaire

Though this revolt – widely known as the Coup of 18 Brumaire, the name of its date in the short-lived French revolutionary calendar – ultimately catapulted Bonaparte into power, it very nearly went wrong. In short, Bonaparte met with more opposition than he had expected.

“What about the constitution?” declared a defiant deputy in response to the Corsican’s dramatic entrance to the Château de Saint-Cloud. According to the political commentator Madame de Staël, conciliatory and judicious speech did not come naturally to Bonaparte. He was “eloquent only in abuse” and what he really wanted to say, she speculated, was: “You are a miserable bunch and I will have you shot if you do not do as I say.” Bonaparte also met with fury and cries of “Down with the dictator!” Half-fainting, he was rescued by two grenadiers.

His position was saved by his younger brother, Lucien, who put on a theatrical display for the grenadiers waiting outside the palace, swearing to stab his brother if he proved a traitor to the republic. The soldiers marched into the council’s assembly hall and with fixed bayonets drove out the unarmed deputies. Within hours, Bonaparte issued a proclamation presenting himself as having acted as “a citizen devoted to the Republic”, motivated by his sense of public duty to take office. “I believed it my duty to my fellow citizens, to the soldiers perishing in our armies, to the national glory bought with their blood to accept the command,” he later declared.

A few days later, a new constitution was devised, inaugurating a regime that, for all Bonaparte’s words, was only nominally republican. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the statement of the founding principles of the revolution, which had served as the preface to the three previous constitutions, was omitted.

Sieyès had envisioned buying off Bonaparte by making him “Great Elector”, a title full of pomp, but with little power. Bonaparte would have none of it, enquiring if Sieyès imagined a man such as himself “would consent to be no more than a pig manured with millions, luxuriating in the royal palace at Versailles”.

Bonaparte had out-manoeuvred the man who had installed him and planned to control him. He would serve as First Consul, on a salary of 500,000 francs a year (Robespierre had lived on the equivalent of 6,570). There were two additional consuls, and the appearance of consultation, with three legislative bodies and a series of referendums, but the legislatures were talking shops, referendum results falsified.

Clamp down on press “free reign”

One of the first casualties of Bonaparte’s rise to power was freedom of the press. In 1789 the revolutionaries had legalised freedom of speech, stating that “the free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man”. While this principle came under considerable stress after the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793, Bonaparte’s regime was far more systematic in destroying press freedom. “If I give it free reign,” he said, “I shall not remain in power for three months.”

In 1800 a decree suppressed 60 of the 73 newspapers in Paris. In 1811 the number of permitted newspapers was reduced to four. The theatres of Paris had long been a place where opposition to the government was voiced: in 1807, 25 theatres were ordered to be closed, leaving just eight open. A secret police enforced censorship and arrested vocal opponents. It operated under the sinister Joseph Fouché, another Jacobin who had long since renounced his radical beliefs. For his services he was awarded the title of Duke of Otranto.

Much of the population, exhausted by years of revolution and instability, was prepared to accept Bonaparte. His principal opponents were people with strong political convictions: Jacobins and others who retained their republican beliefs; and royalists, who wanted a return to the old regime. Bonaparte was ruthless in exterminating opposition. When, in 1804, royalists launched the Cadou dal Plot, an attempt to assassinate Bonaparte and restore the Bourbon monarchy, Napoleon used it as an opportunity to decimate Jacobins who had no involvement, along with the actual conspirators.

What many ordinary people did want was a reconciliation with the Catholic church, which throughout the revolutionary years had been divided from France. In a tactical manoeuvre, Bonaparte obliged. On Easter Sunday 1802, a Concordat signed the previous year in Rome was published. It recognised that Catholicism, if not the state church of France, at least was “the religion of the great majority of Frenchmen”.

Bonaparte himself gave little sign of caring about religious belief. He was quick, however, to acknowledge its utility in reinforcing his position. In 1806, a new Catholic catechism was devised, article 7 of which involved pledging to, “Napoleon I, our emperor, love, respect, obedience, loyalty, military service… because God… whether for peace or for war, has made him the minister of His power and His image upon Earth.”

Napoleon commissioned the artist Anne-Louis Girodet to paint this glorification of those who had died fighting for republican liberty (Photo by akg-images / Erich Lessing)
Napoleon commissioned the artist Anne-Louis Girodet to paint this glorification of those who had died fighting for republican liberty (Photo by akg-images / Erich Lessing)

Napoleon as emperor of France

Two years earlier, in 1804, Bonaparte had crowned him self Emperor Napoleon. From that moment the republic had not even a notional existence. “The government of the republic is confided to an emperor,” he said, but the words were hollow. When Beethoven heard that Bonaparte had betrayed the ideals of the revolution by making himself emperor, he slashed out the dedication to the French leader on the title page of his Third Symphony, the Eroica.

Bonaparte was not an absolute dictator, in that he gave people things they wanted: stability, after years of uncertainty; reconciliation with the Catholic church; and military successes for France. His popular support depended on victories on the battlefield, and an economic system that fed France with tributes and recruits.

Yet Bonaparte’s military successes came at a cost – above all, in human lives. Around 50,000 people lost their lives in the Terror, 2,639 of whom were guillotined in Paris. Many thousands more died both in a civil war that erupted across the Vendée, and the revolutionary wars. These figures are dwarfed by the number of casualties – French and non-French, soldiers and civilians – in the so-called Napoleonic Wars. No one has ever clearly established the death toll, especially for civilians, but it numbers several million.

Around 50,000 people lost their lives in the Terror, and many thousands more died both in the civil and revolutionary wars. These figures are dwarfed by the number of casualties in the Napoleonic Wars. No one has ever clearly established the death toll, but it numbers several million

In 1790, the revolutionaries had abolished nobility, along with all privileges founded on heredity. Bonaparte made it clear that he did not care about a person’s political past – Jacobin, royalist, moderate – provided that they were now loyal to him and were prepared to drop their principles in his service. To encourage obedience, he awarded those who served him well with honours and titles; he encouraged emigrés to return to France, provided they would give him their allegiance; and in 1808 he set up a new imperial nobility. It was honorific, without the fiscal and legal privileges that had made the old regime nobles such a powerful force.

With the new nobility, the emphasis lay more explicitly on the creation of wealth. And like many rich and powerful men, Bonaparte used his status to cultivate a well-deserved reputation as a womaniser. But the truth was that he feared the kind of women he could not control – strong, intelligent women, such as Madame de Staël. The novelist and liberal theorist was no Jacobin, yet her intellectual salon and political criticisms infuriated him, and he reacted by banishing her from Paris, and banning her writings.

His mother, who had singlehandedly brought up eight children, remained for Napoleon the ideal of womanhood. “In France,” he said, “women are considered too highly. They should not be regarded as on equality with men… they are nothing more than machines for producing children.”

Established in 1804, the Napoleonic Code built on the legal achievements of the revolutionaries in some ways, while undermining them in others. Legal and civil rights for women, including equality of children’s inheritance rights regardless of gender, were partially or entirely rescinded. The revolutionary right to divorce, to which men and women had equal access on grounds of incompatibility, was limited under Napoleon’s code. While “the husband may demand divorce on cause of adultery on the part of his wife”, a woman could only obtain a divorce if, in addition to adultery, her husband “shall have kept his concubine in their common house”.

“war of extermination”

In February 1794, the revolutionaries had decreed an end to all slavery in France’s territories. The decree aligned with the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, though the revolutionaries’ immediate reasons were rather more pragmatic, and were passed in the wake of Toussaint Louverture’s successful slave revolt in Saint-Domingue. Bonaparte changed course completely, setting out to reimpose slavery throughout France’s colonies, forcing formerly enslaved people back onto the plantations, and restoring the slave trade.

He sent 20,000 soldiers to the Caribbean under the command of his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc to wage what Leclerc called a “war of extermination”. Despite fierce resistance, slavery was reinstalled in Guadeloupe. Saint-Domingue was another matter. Napoleon’s forces failed to retake the colony from the formerly enslaved who fought ferociously for their freedom. “Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies!” was Bonaparte’s response. Saint-Domingue declared itself the Republic of Haiti. But Louverture was captured and imprisoned in a fortress in the Jura mountains. Within a year he was dead, seen by many as a martyr for the cause of black liberty.

Foreign territories that came under Bonaparte’s rule saw some of the benefits of the revolution – among them equality before the law and the abolition of feudal practices. But other peoples saw the imposition of French nationalism as a foreign invasion. In Spain, French soldiers met with fierce resistance, fanned by Bonaparte’s decision to install his brother Joseph as Spanish king.

As emperor, he placed relatives on thrones across Europe, and married the Hapsburg archduchess Marie-Louise. Their son was made King of Rome. When Bonaparte was forced to abdicate in 1814 he attempted to make his son his successor.

For many commentators, Bonaparte remains the heir of the revolution. Yet his determination to secure a family dynasty was just one example of the myriad ways in which he left the political radicalism of the 1780s and 90s far behind. He was a populist and militarist dictator, who used the revolution to climb to the pinnacle of power. When the coalition forces defeated him for the second time, at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, they put a Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, on the throne, a man who acted as though the revolution had never taken place.

For a while, the ideals of the French Revolution appeared to be all but extinguished. But it would fight back through the long and tumultuous 19th century. In fact, such was the strength of its resurgence that today its principles are seen as a foundation of modern democracy. For more than a decade, Napoleon Bonaparte had, it seems, strained every sinew to consign the revolution to the dustbin of history. He almost succeeded, but not quite.


This article was first published in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine


Marisa LintonHistorian

Marisa Linton is professor emerita in history at Kingston University London, specialising in the French Revolution. Her books include Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2013)