Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul, image c.1810

The regal rise of le petit caporal

Napoleon believed his glorious destiny was to terminate the Revolution


This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

With retrospect, Napoleon claimed that there was a specific moment when he first realised he was superior to other men. It was just after the Battle of Lodi (10 May 1796), when he was leading the French revolutionary army in Italy and his soldiers had affectionately named him the Little Corporal: “I said to myself: I am the one who will end the Revolution.” 

Napoleon at Peace: How to End a Revolution, William Doyle (Reaktion, £15.99)

Inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville, William Doyle offers not a history, but a study of the Consulate, the government of France from 1799 to 1804, that Napoleon dominated as First Consul. Doyle considers Napoleon’s success in healing three major wounds inflicted by the Revolution: war, religious chaos, and the absence of stable and effective executive power. Napoleon, Doyle argues, knew that it was not enough to proclaim the Revolution over without addressing its intractable legacies. 

When the Revolution began, Napoleone Buonaparte was a 20-year-old soldier from Corsica with an uncertain future ahead of him. The Revolution was the context in which, little by little, he refined his name and grew his ambitions. Without the Revolution, like Maximilien Robespierre and many others, he would very likely have led a provincial and conventional life. Ten years on, Napoleon believed his glorious destiny was to terminate the disruptions launched in 1789. 

After the bloodless coup of Brumaire in 1799, Napoleon characterised himself as the only person in France standing between order and anarchy. As Doyle explains, he claimed to be “a man above parties, the liberator of the legislature, the defender of the law, a soldier of liberty and a devoted citizen of the Republic”. It was soon clear to the other two triumvirs — Roger Ducos and the Abbé Sieyès — that Napoleon was in charge under the new constitution. 

French deputies taking the Tennis Court Oath (Serment du Jeu de paume). Aquatint by Janinet, 1789

Sieyès, whom Napoleon sneeringly referred to as the “High Priest”, had envisaged a largely ceremonial head of state, a “Grand Elector” who would appoint two consuls, one for domestic and one for foreign affairs, but otherwise have no power. When he offered the position to Napoleon (still known as Bonaparte) it was vehemently rejected as suited to a mere “fatted pig”. 

“So you want to be king?” Sieyès challenged him. Doyle argues that “there seems little doubt that he did”, but Napoleon’s monarchical ambitions were disguised as support for a strong republic until “the pear” or crown was ripe. 

By 1799, revolutionary France had been at war with Europe for nine years. At the beginning, Robespierre had warned that a successful general might turn out to be a Caesar or a Cromwell and end the fledgling revolution. After the coup of Brumaire, there was some speculation that Napoleon might play the part of General Monck, who used his power to restore Charles II to the English throne in 1660. 

He turned down the offer of help from the king in exile

Louis XVII even wrote to Napoleon as First Consul in 1800, suggesting that the victorious general facilitate a Bourbon restoration: “General, Europe is watching you, glory awaits you, and I cannot wait to give peace back to my people.” Napoleon did not reply for six months. Then he firmly turned down the offer of help from the king in exile. He had a competing definition of glory, one that resonated with Robespierre’s worst nightmare: he would give peace to the French people himself and thereby become their king. 

By 1802, Britain was France’s only unvanquished enemy. The two countries had been at war since the execution of Louis XVI and the start of the Terror early in 1793. The Treaty of Amiens, under which Britain finally recognised the French Republic, ended hostilities, but lasted little more than a year. It was signed on 25 March 1802 and fell apart on 18 May 1803. In England, George III called it “an experimental Peace”. In France, the First Consul appeared in public in civilian dress for the first time since the Battle of Marengo in 1800. 

A Trip to Paris or John Bull and his Spouse invited to the Honors of the sitting!! When the brief Peace Treaty of Amiens was signed on 25 March 1802, English visitors flocked to France, providing caricaturists with a rich supply of material

He received the people’s congratulations and his tenure as First Consul was extended, first for a further ten years, then for life. The English tourists, who flooded to France after wartime travel restrictions were lifted, commented on the courtly rituals that now surrounded the First Consul. “By God,” one over-excited visitor exclaimed, “this man deserves to govern the world.” 

On her travels in France during the Peace of Amiens, Fanny Burney commented on the gratitude of ordinary French people for the First Consul’s restoration of pre-revolutionary religious practice. From the beginning of the Revolution, Edmund Burke had predicted that every priest who refused to sign the controversial Civil Constitution of the Clergy, would act as a galvanising force for the counter-revolution. Burke, as usual, had been proved right. 

Napoleon ordered the arrest of all British subjects in France

Napoleon thought Robespierre was more sensible than the rest of his revolutionary colleagues in at least attempting to address the persistent religious instincts of the French by establishing the Cult of the Supreme Being in the midst of the Terror. But the new cult, always risible to some, had not survived the fall of Robespierre. The First Consul regarded the Concordat of 1801, which reconciled French and Roman Catholicism, his personal achievement. “It’s a vaccine for religion,” he told the atheist physiologist Pierre Cabanis. 

Under the Consulate, international peace lasted just over a year and French harmony with the Roman Catholic Church not much longer. After the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens, Napoleon ordered the arrest of all British subjects in France between the ages of 18 and 60 as prisoners of war. There was a rush for Calais, but an estimated 700 Brits were detained in France until Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo. 

Doyle’s study of Napoleon at peace vividly evokes the pivotal period, between the end of the revolutionary wars and the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars, when the First Consul who would be king, briefly sheathed his sword before returning to the fray in pursuit of glory. “When I was young,” he told the Austrian ambassador Klemens von Metternich, “I was revolutionary from ignorance and ambition. At the age of reason, I have followed its counsels and my own instinct, and I have crushed the Revolution.”

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