May 18, 2022

Napoleon Becomes Emperor of the French

Napoleon Becomes Emperor of the French

May 18, 1804. Rising from obscurity to become a national hero, Napoleon Bonaparte seizes power in France and declares himself Emperor.

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Cold Open

It’s deep winter 1784 at a military school in northern France.

Snow falls, dusting a fresh layer of white on the thick drifts that already coat the school grounds.

A 14-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte trudges through the whirling ice. His dark hair is matted with snow, and the freezing wind cuts through his coat. But the boy keeps walking until… a snowball splats against his coat, then another… and another.

Napoleon stops. Mocking laughter rings across the schoolyard. A pug-nosed cadet and a group of older students have made a fortification out of banked snow. All winter, they’ve been firing snowballs and mockery at any younger student who comes in range. But this time, Napoleon stands his ground. He stares back at the bully and his guffawing hangers-on. Then he shouts: “Charge!”

Suddenly, an army of young boys race forward past Napoleon toward the fortification. The older cadets seem momentarily stunned at the young boys’ impertinence, before scrambling to man the defenses and pummel the charging youngsters with snowballs.

But with the enemy distracted, Napoleon puts the next part of his plan into action. He raises his arm and signals to his ‘artillery’ - another group of boys standing behind him with piles of prepared snowballs.

When Napoleon drops his arm, they fling missile after missile toward the enemy over the heads of the charging vanguard.

Napoleon reaches down to his feet and packs together a missile of his own. And from his pocket, he pulls out a small stone and presses it into the snowball. He takes careful aim and then lets fly…

There’s a flash of blood on the snow as the pug-nosed cadet, the boy who laughed at Napoleon, falls back in pain, grabbing his face. Seeing the blood of their whimpering leader, the older students break, running for the cover of the school building, slipping and sliding across the icy ground.

Napoleon and his classmates rush forward to claim their prize. The younger boys chant Napoleon’s name as he clambers up the abandoned fortress and stands on top of the piled snow, the triumphant conqueror of the schoolyard.

For the young Napoleon, this is the first of what will be many battles to come. Born on the island of Corsica to Italian parents, and mocked through his school days for his strange accent, Napoleon Bonaparte will go on to join the French Army, he will rise to become a great general and, twenty years after that schoolboy battle in the snow, he will be declared Emperor of the French on May 18th, 1804.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 18th: Napoleon becomes Emperor of the French.

Act One: The General

It’s November 9th, 1799, four and a half years before Napoleon is declared Emperor.

It’s early morning in Paris at the chamber of the Council of Elders, part of the French legislature. A bleary-eyed politician slides into his seat. Other council members around him whisper to one another in confusion. Nobody seems to know what’s going on or why they’ve been called from their beds at six o’clock in the morning to this emergency meeting.

Then a hush descends on the chamber as the President of the Council steps forward. He tells them of a plot to overthrow the government. Paris is not safe, he says, and all the members of the Council are in danger.

He suggests they leave at once and meet instead at a castle on the outskirts of the city. There, they will be under the protection of a hero of the French Republic, a general who has just returned from a long campaign overseas and who commands the loyalty of the army: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon has come a long way from his days of outwitting schoolyard bullies. After leaving the military school in northern France, he became an officer in the Army. But soon after Napoleon began his military career, the French Revolution erupted.

The King, Louis XVI, was overthrown and then executed in 1793. The years that followed were bloody and chaotic. And while the Revolutionaries fought for power among themselves, European rivals sought to take advantage. Armies from Austria, Prussia, and Great Britain invaded France by land and sea.

But if the Revolution and the subsequent wars caused hardship for many, for others they brought opportunity. And for the ambitious young Napoleon, it was the perfect chance to show his quality and rise through the ranks.

Napoleon won eye-catching victories over the enemies of the Revolution both in France and overseas. And in March 1796, Napoleon was promoted to the rank of General. At just 26 years old, he was given command of the French army in Italy.

His force though was small and poorly equipped, and they were vastly outnumbered by the combined enemy forces of the Italians and their Austrian allies. But in a glorious year-long campaign, Napoleon won victory after victory. Such was his success in Italy that he was able to turn his troops north toward Vienna, the capital of Austria. This panicked the Austrians into suing for peace with France.

The Italian campaign transformed Napoleon into a French hero and he was quick to turn his military victories abroad into political power at home. In France, elections in 1897 saw a surge of support for Royalist candidates. They wanted to reverse the Revolution and restore the French monarchy. This was unacceptable to Napoleon. He didn’t want his own ambitions thwarted by a new King, so he sent a detachment of his troops to Paris. They helped purge the Royalists and ensured there would be no return for the French monarchy.

This wouldn’t be the last time Napoleon flexed his political muscles.

In 1799, after another successful military campaign, this time in Egypt, the young general returned to a hero’s welcome in France. The country was unhappy, however. Its government was bankrupt, its leaders unpopular, and its people were growing restless; ideal conditions for a coup.

On November 10th, 1799, one day after the emergency session of the Council of Elders in Paris, the French legislature decamps to a castle just outside the capital. But the politicians gathered there quickly realize that Napoleon is not protecting them from a coup; he’s perpetrating one.

Backed up by his troops, Napoleon wants the politicians to effectively dissolve the constitution and appoint him as one of three consuls to rule France.

Some of the politicians resist. When the young general tries to address the Council, he is shouted down with cries of “traitor!” and “tyrant!”. For a moment, it seems that Napoleon’s whole scheme might fall apart and that the Council will vote to declare him an outlaw rather than a savior of the republic. But then, Napoleon’s troops march into the chamber with bayonets fixed. There’s pandemonium as the soldiers haul away the most vocal dissenters. The rest of the Council quickly falls into line.

They pass a vote of thanks to Napoleon and his men for saving them from the rabble-rousers who would have led them astray. Then they nominate the general as a Consul and issue a declaration that liberty and the Republic of France have been saved.

But in fact, they’ve just created a dictator.

Officially, Napoleon is now one of three consuls appointed to rule France, but it will quickly become obvious where the real power lies. Soon, he will become First Consul and grant himself the power to appoint his two deputies.

But even that will not be enough for Napoleon. Before long, he will have another ambition in his sights: to seize absolute and sole power in France, and to be crowned Emperor.

Act Two: The First Consul

It’s before dawn on March 15th, 1804, in Ettenheim, a small town in southern Germany, just across the border from France.

In a grand townhouse, a young French nobleman is asleep when there’s a pounding at the front door. The 31-year-old Duke of Enghien barely has time to sit up in bed before there’s a crash of footsteps on the stairs. Then the door to his room bursts open.

A squad of elite French soldiers, their armor gleaming, pull the protesting duke out of bed and order him to get dressed. A few minutes later, they bundle the young man down the stairs and out into the street where a carriage with barred windows is waiting. The duke is thrust inside, and the carriage lurches off escorted by mounted soldiers. It rattles through the streets of Ettenheim toward France.

There, the duke will face trial, accused of plotting to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon has ruled France for almost five years. After seizing power in the coup of 1799, Napoleon’s grip over the country was precarious for a time. France was divided between the political factions that had been squabbling over power for years. And the French armies were still at war with much of Europe.

To secure Napoleon’s rule, the new regime organized a referendum on the revised constitution that brought him to power. Then the government fixed the results to suggest overwhelming public support.

Meanwhile, Napoleon continued to use success on the battlefield to strengthen his political position. Victories over France’s European rivals led to new peace talks, first with Austria in 1801 and then with Great Britain the following year.

For the first time since the Revolution began more than a decade earlier, France enjoyed peace. As unemployment fell and bread became cheaper, Napoleon’s popularity grew. Emboldened, in 1802, he pushed forward with another new Constitution to further cement his power. It transformed his role as First Consul into a permanent, lifetime appointment.

But in spite of his growing popularity, Napoleon still had enemies. There were the hardline Revolutionaries who resented Napoleon’s increasingly autocratic rule. And there were also the Royalists, who yearned to restore the French monarchy.

On Christmas Eve 1800, a group of these men made an attempt on Napoleon’s life.

Royalist conspirators in Paris filled a wine cask with gunpowder and shrapnel. They loaded it onto a cart which they positioned on the route they knew Napoleon would take on his way to the opera house. When they saw his carriage passing, they detonated the bomb. But the plotters mistimed the attack. The massive explosion killed over a dozen people and injured many more. But Napoleon himself was unharmed.

This near miss wouldn’t be the last Royalist conspiracy against Napoleon. Earlier this year of 1804, French police learned of an advanced plot to murder the First Consul and reinstate the monarchy. A French noble with Royal blood was identified as the man behind the scheme - a young duke who lived just across the border in the town of Ettenheim. 

Napoleon came to believe the Duke of Enghien orchestrated a wide-ranging plot against him, involving old rivals from the French military, exiled Royalists, and even the British Government. On March 10th, 1804, Napoleon gave the order for the Duke to be arrested.

Five days later, a carriage with barred windows carried the young nobleman into France. He’s taken to a fortress outside Paris and immediately put on trial, charged with bearing arms against France, being in the pay of the British, and of conspiring to overthrow the government.

After he pleads guilty, the punishment is swift. In the dead of night, just hours after the duke arrived at the fortress, soldiers march the young man outside. A grave has already been dug for him and a firing squad stands at the ready. There is soon the flash of gunpowder in the darkness, a volley of bullets and the young duke is dead.

But the ruthless execution sparks outrage among the aristocracy of Europe. But for Napoleon, the duke’s death is simply the price of stability in France. He believes he’s shown the Royalists and the British that he will no longer tolerate their disruptive schemes.

But the fear of assassination gnaws at Napoleon. As long as his enemies think his new order can be overturned with his death, he will remain at risk. So, to see off the threats to his reign, he decides to show the world that this Napoleonic age won’t die with him. He’ll found a dynasty, a new ruling family for France. But they will not be Kings; after all, the last King of France was executed in the Revolution. Instead, Napoleon and his descendants will be Emperors.

Act Three: The Emperor

It’s the morning of May 18th, 1804, in the French capital of Paris.

Once again, a bleary-eyed politician slides into his seat in the chamber of what was once the Council of Elders. Now, it’s called the Senate. But its members are not voted on by the people, they’re appointed by Napoleon, and he decides when they meet and what they discuss.

Today, the dictator has summoned them to formally approve a new constitution. The first few lines make it clear who wields power in France. They read: ‘The Government of the Republic is entrusted to an Emperor, who takes the title Emperor of the French’. The document decrees that Napoleon is master of the nation and that his male descendants will rule France after him.

The appointed senators quickly pass the new constitution. Then they climb into their carriages and ride out to the palace of the new Emperor of the French, Napoleon I.

Addressing them, Napoleon accepts the title graciously as if it was not his idea at all. He says, ‘Anything that can contribute to the good of the motherland is bound up with my own happiness. I accept this title which you believe to be in the interests of the nation.’

It’s taken less than 20 years for the boy who was bullied at school to become Emperor.

Napoleon’s ambition had carried him to supreme power in France and it will drive him toward ever greater dreams of conquest abroad. At its height, Napoleon’s empire in Europe will stretch from Spain in the west to Italy in the south and as far east as Poland. But this vast French Empire will not last long. A disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 will shatter Napoleon’s reputation as an invincible military commander. His final downfall will come just three years later at the Battle of Waterloo, when the armies of the Dutch, the British, and the Prussians will combine forces to finally defeat the Emperor.

Almost four decades of peace will follow in Europe. But Napoleon won’t live to see the bulk of this harmonious era. Instead, he will die in prison on a tiny and remote island in the Atlantic Ocean, seventeen years after he declared himself Emperor of the French on May 18th, 1804.


Next on History Daily. May 19th, 1536. After being accused of treason, adultery, and incest, Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, is publicly executed.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.