Napoleon was an extremely successful leader in France and held a great amount of power on the world stage throughout his time as consul and emperor. He conquered many nations and formed his very own empire that consisted of most of Europe. He had the potential to stay in power for many years, but it fell apart almost as quickly as it had begun. Only fifteen passed between his rise to first consul and his final exile. Napoleon may have been a great military strategist, but his personality and overconfidence led to his downfall. Although his great military and political abilities allowed him to pull together a broken nation and assert his dominance in a quickly evolving political theatre, he ultimately destroyed his own empire due to his over-eager attitude, his inability to be satisfied with peace, his ruthless machine-like personality, and his arrogant nature. He is known for statements such as “A man like me cares little for the lives of a million.” This apathetic view of human lives reveals the true nature that led him to neglect his own people and troops, fight battles that were too costly, fight countries that did not need to be enemies, and keep warring until his achievements were largely wiped away.
Before the legendary emperor came to power, he was born on a Mediterranean island called Corsica in the year 1769. A French controlled island, Corsica ceded to France only one year earlier, after having been under the control of Genoa for nearly five hundred years. Many Corsicans harbored bad feelings towards France for controlling their land, and this caused many rebellious thinkers. His father sided with France in order to protect his family after the revolutionary Paoli was forced to flee from the island. During this time, Napoleon went to the Brienne military college and discovered he was a very talented thinker both in mathematics and literature. Many historians speculate how drastically the course of history would have changed had this aspiring writer remained in the field of academia. This was not to happen, however, as Napoleon used his mathematical prowess to return to Corsica as second lieutenant of artillery in 1786. He sided with the Corsican revolutionaries, including his father’s old ally Paoli. After Corsica erupted in civil war, Paoli grew to hate Napoleon, and the Bonaparte family was forced to flee to France in 1793.
In France, Napoleon rejoined the military and proved his capabilities. This period of rapid transitions and betrayals may have been a factor in the creation of his machine-like personality. Having been abandoned by his own people and allies, it is likely that he found himself at home in the military surrounded by loyal comrades. In his rise to power, he proved to be very loyal to his men in the military and seems to almost care about them. In a stroke of luck, the French brigadier general was struck in battle and Napoleon was chosen to take his place. Using brilliant military strategies, he found great success as brigadier general and, through the use of propaganda, began crafting an almost mythical image.
Rising to the position of commander of the army of Italy in 1796, his desires were coming to fruition. He quickly changed the army from a group of underfed, unskilled men into a successful military force that could face up to the power of Austria. He used his new army and his great military strategies to push Austria out of the Italian peninsula. Napoleon’s reputation and ego were boosted to new heights due to his numerous victories against what was seen as a very powerful country. Already, his arrogance began to show in such statements such as “What I am, I owe to strength of will, character, application, and daring.” It seems this attitude helped him in his rise and did not hinder him until later. He continued his advances in Egypt in order to secure trade routes. During his time there, he captured Jaffa and ordered the execution or massacre of anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 surrendered soldiers and even abandoned his own soldiers after they caught a plague and were unable to fight. His disdain for human life started to become evident during his successful campaigns. Unfortunately, his successes were soon to be wiped away after a series of defeats in Egypt and the Middle East emboldened a coalition of countries to take back Italy. During this time, Napoleon wrote a letter to his brother in which he said “I’m tired of human nature. I need solitude and isolation. Greatness has damaged me, my feelings have hardened.” An egotistical kind of nature can be seen in this as he believes that human nature itself has tried to thwart him because he has become so great. It could also point towards a bipolar attitude that appears in his writings and letters to his family indicating the very unstable and conflicting personality that led to his defeat.
Shortly after this letter was written, he returns to France to remedy the problem by trying to gather more power to himself. He quickly formed a new constitution and held an election for the first consul. Interestingly enough, only 1.5 million men voted out of an available 5 million; however, his brother used propaganda to tell the people that over 3 million French voted for their new consul. Constant use of propaganda was one of the ways he managed to gain such high positions so quickly even on trivial items such as the number of voters. It may not have changed the results of the election, but Napoleon was brilliant when it came to managing his image both politically and militarily. He brilliantly used propaganda for other purposes as well. In his “account of the internal situation of France,” he created an almost fairy tale sounding version of France under him where everything ran smoothly, the economy was booming, and there was complete peace. He spoke to a conference saying,
The internal situation of France is today as calm as it has ever been in the most peaceful periods. There is no agitation to disturb the public tranquillity, no suggestion of those crimes which recall the Revolution. Everywhere useful enterprises are in progress, and the general improvements, both public and private, attest the universal confidence and sense of security.
This use of propaganda elevated him in the minds of the people and likely his own mind as well. Styles of propaganda such as this account of the situation of France as well as the “landslide” election show the tactical genius Napoleon could use at times. The election allowed him to secure the position of consul for life and shortly after, the position of emperor. He was crowned emperor in Notre Dame much like Charlemagne years before except Napoleon took the crown and placed it on his own head. This remarkable rise to power would soon be mirrored by a remarkable fall from power as the problems he created continued into his reign.
Although he was not as cruel as dictators in the past, the new emperor’s arrogance led him to be disdainful of those under him and those who would not follow him. In one of his writings, he said “I have opened up a vast road. He who marches straight ahead shall be safe. He who strays to the right or to the left shall be punished.” Writings like these were very common during his reign, however, this was not the image he gave to his people. Napoleon had a very mercurial personality and no two people were likely to see the same him. Using his political wit, he managed to be seen as both a great savior and a close friend to the people of France. This was a very useful skill when trying to gain popularity among voters; however, this kind of personality persisted during his time as emperor and made it very difficult to control an empire with an emperor who was not even sure of his own intentions. More problems began plaguing his reign when other countries in his empire began using economics to fight Napoleon.
In economic warfare, the French emperor was completely outclassed, but that did not stop him from trying. Much to the chagrin of his advisors, he had such a high view of himself that he refused to take guidance from others who may have handled the situation more tactfully. As written by a contemporary from Ireland Charles Phillips, “He knew no friend but the sword and no fortune but his own talents… He knew no motive but interest—he acknowledged no criterion but success—he worshiped no God but ambition.” Charles Phillips seemed to be very accurate when speaking of Napoleon because rather than listen to the words of his advisors, he chose instead to settle his problems with warfare. In 1810, when Russia began taxing French goods and essentially left the continental system, the arrogant emperor made the fateful decision to go to war. Continually talking about pacifism, Napoleon often when to war with any country that may have offended him. In many letters to foreign countries, he would talk about the greatness of peace and that civilized nations shouldn’t war with each other. This may seem hypocritical, but it really stemmed from his continuing arrogance. The more power he amassed, the more his pugnacious personality emerged. In a letter written to the king of Britain in 1799 he said, “Your majesty will see in this overture my sincere desire to contribute… to a general pacification.” As Consul, he did not yet have full power, so he had to play the role required of him for the time being while trying to sue for peace with Britain. However, once he attained the full power of being emperor, his more quarrelsome nature became very evident.
Within a year of his ascension to the role of Emperor, his attitude began to shift to become more arrogant and willing to fight nations in order to maintain his honor. In a memoir kept by Napoleon’s personal secretary, he records the complaint of the British king when he was made aware of the new French emperor. The British king was furious and wrote against Napoleon. In response, he said “Well, well, all in good time. I hold my right by the voice of the French nation, and while I wear a sword, I will maintain it.” This is a sharp contrast to his previous letters where he wrote that civil nations do not quarrel and fight and that he only wants peace. It is possible the power made him too headstrong, but it seems more likely that it merely pulled back the curtain on who he really was. Power was always his goal and in correspondences, he did not hide this fact. He wrote in a letter to his brother saying “Power is my mistress. I’ve done too much for her conquest to let anyone abduct or even covet her.” His hunger for power was one huge flaw that helped cause his downfall. While he was growing in the rans and yearning for more power, he made many good decisions and allowed France to become more powerful and wealthy; however, once he reached the peak of power with nowhere left to grow in France, his goals expanded.
Looking to maintain his control on other nations, he decided to take the fight to Russia. Blinded by his arrogance, he ignored the previous catastrophes of nations invading Russia. In addition to this mistake, the Tsar was expecting an attack and began preparing two years in advance, tripled their spending on the military, and the military was renowned for its legendary commanders. In preparing for war, he did the planning for his invasion which was limited to four months due to the harsh weather in Russia’s winters. The emperor increasingly refused to listen to advisors much to their chagrin. Many likely would have advised avoiding the war at all because Russia was capable, prepared, powerful, and would have required a quick thorough victory. During the catastrophe that followed, Napoleon lost one third of his 650,000 men solely to disease and straggling. By the end of the war and the retreat from Russia, which was one of the greatest military failures of all time, less than 85,000 French survived. After the war he is credited with saying “I was born on the battlefield. A man like me does not give a shit about the lives of a million men.” He gave this statement when he was asked if he was willing to continue his war with Russia even after this crushing blow. Other nations saw how harsh and power hungry he was and began to become concerned about their own nations. A man this indifferent to life could cause the deaths of millions of people over the smallest grievance. Napoleon went from a chameleon of a person who could fit in almost any role while maintaining the people’s approval into a cold-hearted dictator. It seemed rising to the position of emperor caused him to shed the last restraints on his personality and allowed him to reveal the darkness inside him. Europe noticed this change and realized that in order to reorganize the balance of power, they would have to act.
The European nations made their move and managed to finally defeat the power hungry emperor. Even after a coalition of countries put an end to his reign and exiled him on Elba, he remained arrogant, but it was dampened by the return of depression that plagued him in his younger years. He wrote about killing himself, but largely put that idea out of mind when he remarked “To kill myself would be a gambler’s death. I am condemned to live. Besides, only the dead do not return.” He wrote this in a letter during his exile on Elba almost a year before he did indeed return for 100 days. Even though he dreamt of dying or killing himself, he remained supremely confident in himself and his abilities. It seems his personality and arrogance helped him rise to power, but once he gained power, he could not be satisfied with it. He returned from exile and managed to gain control for a time called the 100 days. His charisma and former propaganda worked and his former army rallied to his side when he asked them to. This was not to last long. The countries that had beaten him knew that even in his fragile situation, he could be a grave threat, so another coalition of countries rallied together
and defeated him. They were very cautious of his abilities. They underestimated him the first time, but after they defeated him once again, he was sent into exile but this time he would remain there until his death.
Throughout Napoleon’s life, his skills and abilities helped him rise to remarkable heights and conquer many countries; however, his arrogance, cold heartedness, and machine-like ruthlessness caused his power to collapse from within because he could not fully appreciate his people and could never be satisfied. He masqueraded as a man for the people while he grew his power. Using his own people’s favor, he became a ruling elite much like those he claimed to fight against. His mercurial personality and propaganda lured an entire nation into bending to his will. Once he reached power, he shed his skin to reveal the war mongering, cold-hearted man underneath. He was a man born for the battlefield and could not keep away from it during his reign. In his rise to power, he acted as a man solely devoted to peace, but it was revealed as a means to stay in power. As he gained power he was revealed as very arrogant, quarrelsome person. This hypocrisy caused him to fight when he could have maintained peace and eventually it ripped apart his empire. Although his great military and political abilities allowed him to pull together a broken nation and assert his dominance in a quickly evolving political theatre, he ultimately destroyed his own empire due to his over-eager attitude, his inability to be satisfied with peace, his ruthless machine-like personality, and his arrogant nature.
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