Napoleon Bonaparte formally rejected French republicanism and embraced the title of Emperor with his coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral on Dec. 2, 1804.
The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 eventually led to the establishment of the First French Republic three years later. The act of overthrowing a legitimate monarch and the establishment of such a radical form of government in the heart of Europe sent shock waves through the continent. Soon, most European monarchs were at war with the fledgling republic.
The French republicans proved better able to marshal their manpower and national resources, however, and waged war successfully for years. The period between 1793-94 became known as the “Reign of Terror,” a period in which thousands of French citizens, many aristocrats and other perceived enemies of the republic, went to the guillotine. For a time the Committee of Public Safety ruled France as a sort of executive body, though its leader, the Machiavellian Maximilien de Robespierre, soon lost his head as well.
In many ways, the French Revolution was the victim of its own success. Prior to the revolution, King Louis XVI ruled as an absolute monarch. Now, near-anarchy reigned. Several experiments in the organization of republican government were tried, all meeting with little success. Meanwhile, the ideals of French republicanism were spreading and gaining popularity among many of the peoples of Europe, much to the distress of their monarchs.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, at that time a charismatic republican general with a mixed military record, stepped in to solve the republic's crucial problem — how to create an effective executive body without succumbing to another tyranny? The result was the Consulate, three executive officers who rotated authority and power. Napoleon became the First Consul, who theoretically would step aside after a fixed term.
To expect Napoleon to willingly hand over power was to underestimate his ambition, however. Within a short time Napoleon's position as First Consul for life was confirmed, and though France theoretically remained a republic, it had in fact morphed into a military dictatorship. By early 1804, Napoleon no longer cared for even the fiction of republicanism. In May, the fateful step was taken — the republic was to be replaced with a French Empire.
In his biography “Napoleon,” Felix Markham writes: “This step was the logical culmination of the Life Consulate not only because it accorded with Napoleon’s ambition, but it safeguarded the gains of the Revolution... It was the renewal of plots against his life that hastened on the hereditary Empire...”
Napoleon's power had become so concentrated that his death could throw the many changes made since the Revolution into chaos. Those with a stake in these changes embraced the new Empire as an institution that could legitimize their positions. The redistribution of land and wealth that had occurred during the Revolution would be confirmed.
It was not until December, however, that Napoleon held his coronation. All of the stops were pulled out for this ceremony, which was designed to make the illegitimate emperor appear legitimate. Even Pope Pius VII was invited from Rome, much to the chagrin of many anti-Catholic French revolutionaries.
In his book “The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte,” Robert Asprey writes: “Napoleon wore a formal red velvet coat richly hemmed with gold and partially covered by a short cloak decorated with embroidered bees and topped by the insignia of the Legion of Honor in diamonds, his head covered by a white plumed hat, hanging from his side a sword with a huge diamond mounted on the hilt... (Napoleon) then proceeded up the altar steps and to the general astonishment picked up the imperial crown and placed it on his head....”
No temporal or spiritual leader would give to Napoleon what he believed he had taken for himself.
Asprey writes of the consequences of Napoleon's imperial creation: “European rulers in general, including the English king, cautiously welcomed the move as indicating an end to the danger of revolution... Liberals everywhere were dismayed and saddened. Upon learning the news, composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who had just dedicated a new symphony to his hero, furiously tore up the dedication, retitled the work “Eroica” and dedicated it to “the memory of a great man.”
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For the next century-and-a-half, France continued to wrestle with the idea of an executive — subsequent republics were too unwieldy and prone to factionalism, while the Second Empire of Napoleon III ultimately proved too centralized and fragile. It was not until 1958, when Charles de Gaulle demanded more presidential power, that the Fifth Republic was established and France finally solved the problem of a powerful and responsive executive.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org