A fascinating footnote of modern history is that perhaps the greastest French leader of all time, Napoleon Bonaparte, as a boy did not speak French and grew up hateing France. He was sent by his father, who has decided to coolaborate with the French invaders, to study in a French military school. Napoleon never really forgave his father for collaborating with the French. It was in these schools, however, where he was dismissed as a foreign nobody that Napoleon virtually slowly became French--although he was unaware of it at the time.
Napoleon's parents were Leticia and Carlo Bonaparte members of a minor but impoversished aristocratic family.
Some Corscicans resisted French rule and fled to the mointains to fight. Carlo instead submitted, sensing that resistance was futile. He began practicing law. He was
elected to the island's French Council. Napoleon never forgave his father and in later life never had a kind word for him.
Napoleon in contrast revered his mother. Leticia was an austere woman with a steely determination. She gave birth 13 times and 8 children survived. She was a
severe determination. She punished her children to teach them sacrifice and determination. He and his brothers would occassionally be sent to bed without dinner to teach discipline.
Napoleon's parents had 13 children and eight survived to adulthood. Their father died in 1785. Napoleon as the eldest son thus became head of his large and demanding family. He assumed this responsibility with some dedication and soon as First Consul and then ruler and eventually emperor he was in a position to provide not only favors, but titles including royal titles to his family. He appointed his four brothers to important positions, making them kings, dukes, and counts. His sisters he married of to established Europeam royalty. History has not been particularly kind to Napoleon's brothers. Lucian is generally see as intelligent and an able administrator. Louis ruled competently in Holland, although irritating his brother. Basically the family seems to have been rather a hinderance and distraction rather than a help to the Emperor.
Napoleon Bonepart was born on the island of Corsica on August 15, 1769. Fascinatingly the most celebrated French leader of all time as a boy and youth hated the French and and France. Corsica for generations had been ruled by Genoa and historically and linguistically Corsica was more Italian than French. A year before Napoleon's birth, the French had ceased Corscia in 1768 and suppressed local resistance with over powering military force. Napoleon's father was part of the local nobility, but had little money. While bitterly resenting the French invasion, decided that it was futile to resist and accepted French. His son never forgave him for this. His father realizing that little opprtunity existed for his son decided to educated him at a French military school and using his position secured a scholarship for him.
Napoleon on March 9, 1796 married Joséphene de Beauharnas. She was a widow with two daughters when Napoleon met her. She was not very loyal when Napoleon was away on his campaigns in Italy and Egypt. He almost divorced her when he returned from tge Egyptian campaign. Napoleon became 1st Consul in 1800 and then Emperor in 1804. The French armies continued a conquest of Europe while Napoleon's power became more and more secure. Napoleon loved Josephine from the beginning. She only gradually came to love him. The love affair between her and Napoleon is one of the great love affairs of history. He reluctanly divorced her when their were no male offspring. Joséphine's grandson, the son of her daughter Hortense and Napoleon's younger brother Louis, Louis Charles would later rule as Napoleon III.
Napoleon for a man of his power and position was remarkably loyal to Josephine There was one major exception--the polish Countess Marie Walewska. Napoleon and the Countess conceived a child--Alexandre. He became the Count Alexandre Florian Joseph Colonna Walewski (1810-68). The Countess had hoped that Napoleon would endorse Polish independence. The defeat of the Grand Armée in Russia (1812), however, ended all hope of indeopendence. The Poles rose in rebellion against the Russians in 1830 and Count Walewska at the age of 20 joined the rebellion. After the Russians defeated the rebellion and Warsaw capitulated, Walewska went to Paris. As his father was French (Napoleon himself nonetheless), he was entitled to French citzenshiop. He pursued a diplomatic career. He went to Egypt on a diplomatic assignment, was appointed to various positions under tge Guizot Ministry, and was appointed chargé de affairs in Argentina (1848), envoy in Flporence and Naples, and Britain (1854). He rose to Foreign Minister (1855) and as head of the French delegation precided iver the Congress oif Paris (1856). He was Minister if Strate (1860-63). He was madeca duke in 1866 and elected president of the Legislative Assesmbly (1866-67). He wrote several books, including L'Alliance Anglaise (1838). His remblence to his father was said to be extrodinary. He had three children. Interestinly, the children became friendly with an American boy, James Roosevelt (Franklin's older brother), whose parents were visiting Europe. His mother remembers a glorious picnic in which they ate cheeries and drank milk while the children played under great trees. [Ward, p. 41.]
Napoleon crowned himself Emprorer of the French and created an empire that covered most western and central Europe. He was the greatest military genius of his time. Napoleon's armies crushed one foe after another
until he seemed invincible. For nearly twenty years, many European nations fought him.
Napoleon had an unimpresslve appearance, but he carried himself well. He stood slightly below average height. His courage and short stature led to his early nickname of le Petit Corporal, or the little corporal. He had heavy eyebrows and a weak mouth, but his powerful personality shone in his eyes. His mother encouraged and helped him in his rise to the height of power. His soldiers adored him. He personally directed complicatef milittary maneuvers and at the same time controlled France's press, its police system, its foreign policy, and its home government. He pioneered new strategy and tactics, and became one of the great military commanders in history. Napoleon also proved himself a talented adminstrator. He supervised the work of preparing the system of laws called the Code Napoleon or Napoleonic Code. In addition, he founded the Bank of France, reorganized the French education system, and established a strong centralized government. Napoleon created and juggled kingdoms at will. He placed his relatives and friends on the thrones of Europe. And, finally, he brought about his own downfall. Napoleon's collapse came partly because his pride and stubbornness forced him to go ahead with doubtful plans, and partly because he betrayed the faith of many people.
Josephine was the love of Napoleon's life. But she did not produce an heir that the Emperor so desperately needed. He reluctantly divorced her and on 1810 mairred the Austrian Hapsburg Princess Marie Louise. She regarded him as an ogre. But her father Francis II, whose troops Napoleon had repeately defeated in the battlefield, insisted that she marry him. She was reluctantly sent off to Paris where Napoleon won her over. Within a year the Emperor had a son. After Napolen's abdication, Marie Louise's father refused to let her or her son see him again.
Figure 2.--This postcard is entitled "First Parade". It shows Napoleon surrounded by family members with his son the "King of Rome" and a parade of toy soldiers. It was published V.I. Pollak to benefit poor and homeless children in Moscow, circa 1900s-1910s. Notice the leading strings on the boy's dress.
Francois Charles Joseph Bonaparte (1811-32), as a toddler, was the succesor to his father and titular French Enperor (1814). He was born in Paris. Napoleon I was his father and Marie Louise his mother. He was given the title of King of Rome in infancy. I have noted an early drawing of the boy and he has ringlet curls. Other than that I have no details on his bouhood or the clothes he wore. Napoleon reportedly adored him. After his birth the Eperor who had been a work-aholic began to devote himself to domestic affairs. When his father abdicated in April 1814, he named his son Emperor, but the
coalition partners that had defeated Napoleon refused to acknowledge his son as successor and Napoleon II never actually reigned. After his father's final defeat in 1815, Marie Louise took her son, popularly known as l'Aiglon (the Eaglet), to the Austrian court at Vienna. She writes Napoleon telling him that her father, Austrian Emperor Francis II, refuses to allow her to ever see him again. Napoleon's son was first given the title rince of Parma (1814) and then the Duc de Reichstadt (1818). For the rest of his life he was a virtual prisinor in Vienna, dominated by the Austrian statesman Metternich. He died at the young age of 21 while the Bourbons still rule France.
England was Napoleon's obsession. It was the Russians, however, who finally defeated him. Napoleon in 1811 was at the height of his power. Czar Alexander refused to comply with the terms of their treaty and participate in Napoleon's Continental System. Napoleon assembles a huge army of 600,000 men and invades. The Russians refuse to give battle until the brusing battle of Boradino before Moscow. After occupying Moscow he is eventually forced to withdraw. On the retreat his Army is desimated by the Russian wnter and harrying tactics. He assembles another army, but is defeated by a coalition which eventually includes his father-in-law, Francis II. The Allies enter Paris on March 31, 1814. Napoleon abdicated on April 6 and is installed on Elba. The Bourbon Louis XVIII was installed as King of France by the Allies.
Louis XVIII proves to be an unispired leader. The year 1815 saw the famous 100 hundred days. Napoleon slips away from Elba and is enthusiastically received by the French people, He enters Paris on March 20. The allies began to descend on France. In a premtive stroke he gathered an army an attempted to defeat the British and Prussians in Belgium before the Austrians and Russians arrived. He was defeated at Waterloo on 18 June. Wellington was to say that it was the clost thing you could imagine. But even if Napoleon had won at Waterloo he would almost cetainly have been eventually defeated by the power of the Allies. He abdicated for the second time on June 22 and was exiled to St Helena, virtully the most isolated spot on earth.
It is said with justifiction that history is written by the victors. Napoleon throughout his reign was depicted as a monster by the European monarchies. The Allies after their vicory at Waterloo continued this practice. Modern depictions are more even handed, but often Napoleon is included in a list of meglomanics despots like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao and a forerunner of 20th century totalitarianism. The wars with the French Republic initiated by the European monarchies were iwell under way several years Napoleon emerged as first general and the Emperor. Wars waged by monarchiests seize territory were of course nothing new to Europe. Here it is difficult to see Napoleon as a particularly evil monarch out of the ordinary in historical terms. Nor was he responsible for the execution of the King and Queen. Certainly his military and political skills cointinued the conflict btween European nations to an unusually long periods, bring death to hundreds of thousands. His real sin of course was that he was not of a legitimte royal family. Napoleon's reign while bringing disastrous wars with huge costs in men and treasure, also instituted important reforms. Perhaps the most important was the legal reforms of the Code Napoleon. And this is a why some authors place Napoleon in a different plane than the megolmaniac dictators of the 20th century. We note none of the inhumanity of mass murder as conducted by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao--although Napoleon does not seem to have been greatly concerned with the casualties resulting from his endless wars. Napoleon had no sympathy for democracy, but perhaps most significanty he believed in the rule of law. Nor was he even as Emperor a absolutist. There were constitutionanal checks on his power. Historians have argued if Napoleon represented the end of Revolution or its continuation. Napoleon certainly believed in civic equality. Unlike the Bourboms, he saw soverignity as flowing from the people enshirned with the principles of the Revolution. [Englund]
The monarchies of Europe and the Prime Minister of Austria, the Count Meternich restores the Bourbons to the French throne after the fall of Napoleon.
We have received some inquiries from readers, epecially in America, about possible descendents. One reader concerning Napoleon reports, "A story was told to me about a Lewis Richendoll/Richendollar born 1812 in France. This man or boy at the time stow away on a boat to America. He was said to be the son of Boneparte who later changed his last name to Richendoll. (Lewis Richendoll) Have you heard of this story? He first married a Frances Black, which they had 4 children: Stephen, Chance, Ann & Henry Lewis. He later married a
Catherine Miller-Rhodes. They in turn had 4 children: George Washington, William Lewis, John Thomas & Cynthis Ann. I noted accounts about this from historical sources in Lawrence County, Ohio." HBC has no information on this, but of curse would be interested in any additional information readers may have.
Englund, Steven. Napoleon: A Political Life (Scribner, 2004), 575p.
Seward, Desmond. Napoleon's Family (New York, N.Y.: Viking, 1986).
Ward, Geoffrey. Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882-1905 (Harper and Row: New York, 1985), 390p.
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