Napoleon’s chance: why the French Revolution was Bonaparte’s big break

The ending of privilege in France gave the young Napoleon the opportunity to shine in his military career, says Marisa Linton, but what really allowed him to rise to the top was his astute exploitation of the political instability and years of war that followed the French Revolution

The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789, as depicted by artist Charles Thévenin

The French Revolution of 1789 brought down the centuries-old regime of absolute monarchy and privileged nobility. In its place the revolutionaries founded a new regime based on principles of individual liberty, equal rights, and popular sovereignty. Yet the ensuing 10 years of political instability would be exploited by Bonaparte to seize power in a militarist regime which was, in some ways, more autocratic than that of Louis XVI and, in terms of the millions of casualties of the Napoleonic Wars, much more lethal.

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The Revolution smashed the stranglehold of hereditary privilege and venality, hitherto endemic in all parts of old regime society. Many young men profited from the ending of privilege to forge careers in the higher ranks of the army. Bonaparte was one of them. Although his family were minor nobility, they were also Corsican, and of Italian origin (France had conquered Corsica in 1769), the kind of people who, before the Revolution, were looked down upon as foreigners and outsiders.

The disastrous decision of the revolutionary leaders to go to war against the European powers opposed to the Revolution set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the revolutionary government becoming ever more dependent on the armies and their generals. Tensions were inflamed by the émigrés – French opponents of the Revolution who had fled abroad and agitated for the foreign powers to invade France and overturn the Revolution.

The move to war was spearheaded by Jacques-Pierre Brissot, leader of the ‘Girondin’ revolutionaries, who declared that France must wage “a crusade for universal liberty”, exporting the Revolution abroad. Brissot assumed that the people of western Europe would welcome French soldiers bringing ‘liberty’. Brissot was opposed by a very different revolutionary, Maximilien Robespierre. The Revolution, Robespierre warned, could not and should not be spread by invading armies at the point of bayonets. He gave the prescient warning: “No one welcomes armed liberators”. Brissot’s strategy, said Robespierre, would put France – and the Revolution – at the mercy of the military elite whose loyalty to the Revolution was far from certain.

But Brissot’s belligerent rhetoric caught the popular mood. Robespierre’s opposition to war was denounced as ‘unpatriotic’. In April 1792 France declared war on Austria, setting in motion a conflict that would last (with two short-lived breaks in 1802 and 1814) for a generation, ending only with the final overthrow of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815. Contrary to the warmongers’ optimistic expectations, the initial war went badly for France. Paris was for a time in danger of falling to invading armies. The resultant crisis polarised tensions and brought about a second revolution, in August 1792, that overthrew the constitutional monarchy and installed a republic.

War intensified, and by the spring of 1793 France was confronted by enemies on all sides, with Britain joining the conflict after the execution of the French king in January 1793. It was against the backdrop of war that the revolutionaries formed a government led by Jacobins – radical revolutionaries – who resorted to the use of terror, including that new invention, the guillotine.

In the crisis of 1793–94, Robespierre, once an opponent of the death penalty, became, like many other revolutionaries, an advocate of terror. Yet he remained deeply uneasy at the militarisation of the Revolution. He warned that military expansion put unprecedented power into the hands of generals, pointing at historical figures, such as Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell, who had used their ascendancy over their armies to seize personal power, toppling republican or revolutionary regimes. Already two revolutionary generals, Lafayette and Dumouriez, had tried to lead their armies against the revolutionary government. Fearful of further betrayals, revolutionary leaders used terror to control and eliminate generals whose ambitions, loyalty and competence were suspect. They took no chances. During 1793 to 1794 many generals were arrested, and several executed.

In June 1794 the French armies won a major victory at Fleurus against a coalition army led by the Habsburg field marshal Prince Josias of Coburg, which ended the danger of invasion and thus the need for terror, paving the way for the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobins. Robespierre was retrospectively stigmatised as having been the mastermind behind a regime of terror in which, in reality, many revolutionaries had been deeply involved.

After the fall of the Jacobin government, the Revolutionary Wars changed track from defensive to expansionist. Military success became about exploiting the resources of other countries, and shoring up the survival of the new political regime, the Directory.

Napoleon breaks from the Jacobins

Napoleon, always deeply ambitious, was alive to the new opportunities on offer. He abandoned his brief flirtation with Jacobinism (he had been imprisoned for a time after the fall of Robespierre, being suspected of Jacobin sympathies), and a chance to rescue his military career soon arrived in October 1795 when he was entrusted with the suppression of the Vendémiaire uprising, a royalist revolt in Paris.

But his big break came in 1796 when he was nominated by Paul Barras, one of the Directors, to lead the French army in an invasion of northern Italy. His troops won some spectacular victories against the Austrians, and he established a Cisalpine Republic, with equality under the law. But he also sent back looted art treasures and plenty of cash – 15 million francs worth in 1796, and a further 35 million the following spring.

Bonaparte returned to Paris full of a new, still more ambitious plan, to mount a French invasion of Egypt. It would be France’s first foray into establishing itself as a colonial power in North Africa. Bonaparte hoped to use Egypt as a route to India to challenge British colonial power there.

Bonaparte wrote to the leaders of the Directory: “The time is not far when we will think that in order to truly destroy England, we have to take Egypt”. Bonaparte’s strategy was supported by the foreign minister, Talleyrand, former old regime bishop and blue-blooded noble, who had turned revolutionary before taking fright at the radical Jacobin regime. Now a key player in the Directory, Talleyrand was a political survivor and cunning strategist. Bonaparte would make full use of Talleyrand’s diplomatic skills, even while dubbing him a “shit in a silk stocking”. Bonaparte also had secret personal motives for fixing on Egypt, stemming from his belief in his own ‘great man’ destiny. He was consciously walking in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, hoping to replicate Alexander’s conquest of Egypt.

The French armies arrived in Egypt in July 1798. Bonaparte presented himself to the Egyptians as the bringer of liberty. He declared his aim was to help them throw off their Mamluk oppressors, while respecting their religious beliefs and cultural customs. In a proclamation to the Egyptians he stated: “I am come to restore your rights, punish your usurpers, and raise the true worship of Mohammed… I venerate, more than do the Mamluks, God, His prophet, and the Koran”. He also presented his invasion of Egypt as a force for scientific progress and European Enlightenment; along with the armies he brought scientists and artists.

From one crisis to another

After victory at the battle of the Pyramids near Cairo, events soon took a dire turn for the French. They were heavily defeated in Aboukir Bay by the British naval fleet, led by Horatio Nelson, in what became known as the battle of the Nile. British ships then blockaded the French, trapping them in a hostile environment among an increasingly hostile population. The French soldiers were ill-equipped for a campaign in the heat of the desert: lack of water, lack of food, and spreading sickness decimated their ranks. Bonaparte ordered an extension of the invasion into the western edges of what is now the Middle East. His soldiers took the city of Jaffa, massacring thousands of its civilian inhabitants, before many of the French in their turn fell victim to the plague.

Seeing the scale of the debacle and hearing that a renewed political crisis in France was offering the opportunity he had been seeking, Bonaparte slipped away in secret, abandoning the soldiers and evading the British blockade. He arrived back in France in October 1799, before news could spread of the extent of his military disasters. Always an astute propagandist, and never more so than at this critical moment, Bonaparte presented himself as a victor, with large crowds turning out to welcome him as France’s potential saviour.

Meanwhile, the Directory was lurching from one crisis to another, its leaders determined to avoid any return to the political radicalism and violence of 1793–94, and becoming ever more reliant on the military to stave off the threat posed by royalists on the right and Jacobins on the left. Corruption was rife, and individuals made vast sums from the political and social crisis, particularly out of the lucrative contracts to supply the armies.

A group of leaders, including Talleyrand, and the Director, Sieyès, another former revolutionary, determined to initiate a coup to bring down the Directory and install a strong military leader in its place. One of the Directors, Barras, was notoriously corrupt and it was a simple, if expensive, matter to buy his silence and acquiescence. Even so, it was nearly not Bonaparte who was the beneficiary of the last crisis of the Republic. Sieyès personally disliked Bonaparte, and turned to him only when Sieyès’s first choice for a military leader, general Barthélemy Joubert, died fighting in Italy in August.

Napoleon comes to power

The coup of 18 Brumaire (the date according to the revolutionary calendar), 9 November 1799, that brought Bonaparte to power became an object lesson in how to destroy an elected government. With the executive power of the Directory nullified, it remained only to bring down the legislative parliamentary body. Bonaparte’s brother, Lucien, succeeded in getting himself elected as president of the Council of Five-Hundred, the main parliamentary body, thus giving himself a deciding voice.

A lie was concocted that the Jacobins were planning a conspiracy to attack the deputies. The Council of Five-Hundred was moved out of Paris to Saint-Cloud, supposedly for its own safety, but in fact making the deputies more vulnerable to a military takeover.

The plan was that Bonaparte would enter the debating chamber to address the deputies directly, and explain the rationale leading him to assume power. When Bonaparte later recalled his part in the coup he presented himself as the master of events, the heroic saviour, rising above party faction, to bring order and security out of chaos. The reality was far different: he was no public speaker, and when he met with furious opposition from some of the deputies who shouted, “Down with the dictator!” he stammered and was barely coherent. Eventually he fainted, then fled from the chamber.

It was his brother, Lucien, who saved the day for the Bonapartes by going outside to the soldiers guarding the Council and telling them that his brother was being threatened by ‘assassins’. Lucien assured the troops that his brother’s sole desire was to defend sacred liberty, and produced a sword which, in a theatrical gesture, he held to his brother’s breast, vowing to kill his brother should he prove to be a liar. The ploy worked. Soldiers entered the Council’s chamber and used fixed bayonets to disperse the deputies, who fled for their lives through the windows out into the park of Saint-Cloud, where twilight had fallen and darkness was gathering.

Bonaparte made many promises and assurances – that he would protect and maintain the Republic; that he would defend the principles of the Revolution; that he would stay in power just so long as it took to resolve the political crisis and ensure the security of the state. He kept none of them.

One of Bonaparte’s greatest tactical assets as a leader would be his ability to cement his popularity through plausible lies skilfully delivered to a public that was ready to believe him. For those who remained unconvinced, he would be equally ready to employ coercion and ruthless repression. Bonaparte’s regime was not a naked military dictatorship.

He was careful to maintain the appearance, at least, of a consultative regime, with elected assemblies and plebiscites (referendums). Real power would rest firmly in Napoleon’s hands, but he knew that his popularity and his acceptance by the French people would depend on the continuance of his military successes as his armies marched through Europe.

Marisa Linton is professor emerita of history at Kingston University and the author of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2013)

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This content first appeared in BBC History Magazine‘s The Story of the Napoleonic Wars special edition