5.6 Napoleon's Rise, Dominance, and Defeat

5 min readjanuary 24, 2023

Jillian Holbrook

Jillian Holbrook

AP European History 🇪🇺

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From the chaos of the French Revolution, a new leader rose in France to take Europe and the world by storm: Napoleon Bonaparte. (On a side note, he wasn’t really that short.)

Napoleon's Ascendence

Napoleon Bonaparte was celebrated as a national hero after almost single-handedly getting Austria to surrender and sign a peace treaty. In addition, he also stopped a royalist revolt during the Thermidorian Reaction
He found himself becoming incredibly popular with the people during a time when the weak and corrupt Thermidorians were. . . not. Under the pretense of supporting revolutionary ideas, Napoleon acted to assert himself in a position of power.
A politician by the name of Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes helped Napoleon conduct a military coup d’état. He intimidated the government into creating yet another new constitution. This one, however, made Napoleon effectively the dictator of France under the title of First Consul.

Napoleon's Reign

Napoleon was able to stabilize French society in ways that the Thermidorians never could, particularly through extensive domestic reform. However, his efforts to retain authority often curtailed rights and manipulated popular impulses behind a façade of representative institutions.

Domestic Reform

Religious Reform

Napoleon reinstated the Christian calendar and restored the Catholic Church to its former glory. Through the Concordat of 1801, also known as the Concordat of Paris, Napoleon formed an agreement with Pope Pius VII to reconcile the Catholic Church with the state. This agreement recognized the Catholic Church as the official religion of France while also granting the state some control over the Church, such as the appointment of bishops and high-ranking officials.
Previously, the Church had been largely independent. Under the Concordat, the government achieved significant control.

The Napoleonic Code

The Napoleonic Code, also known as the French Civil Code, made everyone equal in the eyes of the law, separated the Church and the state, guaranteed civil liberties, and ensured freedom of religion. By abolishing feudal privileges and legal distinctions between classes, the Napoleonic Code became a model for many other countries. It included provisions for marriage and divorce, inheritance, and the rights and obligations of parents and children, even establishing the principle of freedom of contract, which allowed individuals to enter into agreements with one another without interference from the government.

Military Strength

Despite being First Consul, he was hungry for power. Napoleon made himself the Emperor of the French Empire. His appetite for expansion eventually resulted in a series of conflicts known as the Napoleonic Wars.
Napoleon was able to use new military tactics, which allowed him to take direct or indirect control over a significant portion of the European continent, spreading French Revolution ideals. In particular, he created a more efficient and professional army, introduced conscription, and formed military schools to train officers for combat.

Suppressing Dissent

Under Napoleon Bonaparte's rule, censorship and secret police maintained control and suppressed political opposition.


Napoleon implemented strict censorship laws to control the flow of information and prevent the spread of ideas threatening to his regime. The government controlled the press and established a system of censorship that eliminated criticism of the government or the military. Books, newspapers, and other publications were heavily censored, and those deemed critical of the government were banned.

Secret Police

Additionally, Napoleon established a secret police force, known as the "Fouché police," which was responsible for monitoring and suppressing political dissent. The secret police were given wide-ranging powers, including the authority to arrest and detain individuals without trial, to intercept correspondence, and to conduct surveillance of suspected dissenters. Moreover, the secret police infiltrated and disrupted political organizations to silence voices of opposition.
The secret police were often criticized for their brutality and seen as a symbol of oppression and repression.
While these measures were used to maintain control and suppress political dissent, they also had a chilling effect on freedom of speech and the press, and they were not well received by the French people!

Napoleon's Fall

The Invasion of Russia and the War of the Sixth Coalition

Napoleon and the French Empire launched a massive invasion of Russia in the summer of 1812. Although they were able to destroy several Russian cities, much of the Grand Army collapsed. The War of the Sixth Coalition saw the combined forces of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Great Britain challenge Napoleon and his remaining forces. Napoleon's armies were defeated in several major battles, and by early 1814, the coalition forces had entered Paris, forcing Napoleon to abdicate the throne.
Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy. The coalition powers then re-established the Bourbon monarchy under King Louis XVIII.

The Hundred Days' War

Napoleon escaped from Elba in February of 1815. He was able to return to France, mass his supporters, and take control of France once again. The Bourbon monarchy, which had been established after his abdication in 1814, was quickly overthrown, and Napoleon resumed his role as Emperor of France.
The coalition of European powers, led by Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, which had defeated Napoleon in 1814 and exiled him to Elba, responded by forming a new coalition and declaring war on France yet again in the Hundred Days' War or War of the Seventh Coalition. Although Napoleon's forces were able to score some early victories, they were ultimately defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Napoleon abdicated the throne again, and he was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, where he later died.
The Hundred Days' War marked the end of Napoleon's rule and the final defeat of the French Empire. It also led to the Congress of Vienna, which redrew the political boundaries of Europe and helped to restore the pre-revolutionary monarchies, which resulted in the weakening of France.

Napoleon's second exile, this time to the remote island of St. Helena, is where Napoleon lived out the remainder of his life until passing in May of 1821.

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