Napoleon - An Intimate Portrait

An Education in Napoléon

This section contains a wealth of information about Napoléon for students of many ages. Look for the Activity boxes throughout the section for exercises and learning ventures for younger learners. Activities were developed by Laura Young for the Newspaper in Education supplement, "Napoléon: His Life and Legacy," produced by the Museum of Florida History and the Tallahassee Democrat.

Teachers packet prepared by Oklahoma City Museum of Art (656 KB PDF)

Napoléon: An Enigmatic Leader

Napoléon Bonaparte is an enigma. He rose from obscurity to become one of the greatest military commanders in history, yet his conquests threatened the stability of Europe. Although he supported the ideals of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, fraternity—and enacted laws and policies to ensure civil rights, he was a despotic and power-hungry leader.

Born on the island of Corsica on August 15, 1769, Napoleone Buonaparte was one of eight children. His parents, Carlo and Letizia Buonaparte, were minor Italian nobles. When France purchased Corsica from Italy, Carlo became a French citizen and arranged for a French education for his children. At age nine, Napoléon entered an elite military academy. There he excelled in math and history but was teased because of his accent and small stature. His math skills enabled him to study artillery at the École Militaire in Paris. When he graduated, he joined the French army as a second lieutenant. He was 16.

Napoléon supported the French Revolution when it began in 1789, and his military training served him well. In 1793, Napoléon— by then a captain—was put in charge of the artillery during a siege to reclaim the captured city of Toulon. He devised a clever plan for taking the city’s forts and bombarding the enemy fleet anchored in the harbor. His success as a strategist earned Napoléon a promotion to brigadier general and leadership of the Army of Italy.

Over the next three years, as France endured serious political upheaval, Napoléon continued to rise in the army. He also married Marie- Josèphe-Rose de Beauharnais, whom he called Josephine.

Shortly after marrying Josephine, Napoléon began his conquest of Europe. His victories made him famous and popular, and the spoils of war (land, money, and other resources) greatly benefited
France’s struggling economy.

When Napoléon was ordered to attack Great Britain, France’s longtime foe, he instead proposed establishing a colony in Egypt to challenge British trade in that region. The Egyptian Campaign, which began in 1798, was a military disaster, but it did result in the recording of invaluable information about a poorly known part of the world.

Napoléon left his army in Egypt and returned to France, where he found widespread turmoil, poverty and corruption. He joined a plot to overthrow the government, and the coup was successful. In 1799, after Napoléon was elected First Consul of a three-member Consulate, he declared that the French Revolution was over. Three years later, a new constitution made him First Consul for Life, and in 1804, another constitution established an imperial monarchy with power vested in an emperor. Napoléon was asked by the French senate to fill that role.

As Napoléon was ascending to the highest levels of power, he continued to pursue military victories. He also worked to make France’s government and economy more stable. His long-term efforts to restore order and improve conditions resulted in some of his most meaningful, yet often overlooked legacies.

Although his “Grand Armée” had conquered most of continental Europe, Napoléon still had not subdued Great Britain, whose superior navy controlled the seas. After destroying the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Great Britain organized a coalition of allies in hopes of further victories. But Napoléon’s forces crushed these opponents. This yielded more land for France, more control of seaports and greater power for the emperor. After appointing relatives to head countries now controlled by France, he initiated an embargo on trade with Great Britain, in hopes of ruining its economy.

By 1810, Napoléon had reached the height of his power, but his fortunes were about to change. When Russia refused to honor the embargo, Napoléon launched an invasion. As the French forces pressed forward, the Russians fought but mostly retreated. When Napoléon reached Moscow, the city was empty; residents had fled, taking food and livestock with them and setting Moscow on fire. Faced with a bitter winter, no local provisions, and no chance of victory, Napoléon ordered his army to retreat.

Unfortunately, the weather, starvation, and emboldened Russian soldiers decimated the Grand Army as it withdrew. Of the 440,000 men who marched into Russia for the Emperor, only 30,000 returned. Napoléon’s enemies rejoiced. He was able to raise a new army, but it was outnumbered and outmaneuvered by his allied opponents, who ultimately captured Paris. In 1814, Napoléon abdicated and was exiled to the island of Elba, near Corsica, with the title of Emperor of Elba and a contingent of soldiers and staff. Louis XVIII, a member of the Bourbon dynasty overthrown by the Revolution, ascended to the throne.

Napoléon was not content merely to rule Elba. In 1815, he and 1,000 followers escaped by ship, landed on the French coast and marched toward Paris, picking up supporters along the way. Louis XVIII sent an army to stop him, but it joined him instead. With this force Napoléon took the capital and again assumed power. But Napoléon’s old enemies joined forces again and soundly defeated him at the Battle of Waterloo. He abdicated again, after ruling only 100 days.

For his second exile, Napoléon was sent farther away, to the Britishheld island of St. Helena, off Africa in the south Atlantic. He and his small staff lived there for nearly six years until the former emperor died on May 5, 1821.

KC Smith
Museum of Florida History

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Napoléon and Josephine’s Ill-fated Love

Letters written by Napoléon to his wife Josephine suggest that their love was deep and enduring. In fact, their relationship was bittersweet and often stormy. During their thirteen-year marriage, both were unfaithful, especially Josephine when her husband was away on military campaigns. When Napoléon learned of this, his love for her was crushed. When it became clear that Josephine could not produce a male heir, Napoléon ended their marriage in 1809. A year
later, he married Austrian Archduchess Marie Louise, who soon gave birth to a son named Napoléon, King of Rome.

Excerpts from Napoléon’s love letters to Josephine
“Sweet, incomparable Josephine, what a strange effect you have on my heart.” (1795)

“Oh, my adorable wife! I don't know what fate has in store for me, but if it keeps me apart from you any longer, it will be unbearable! My courage is not enough for that.” (1796)

“I have not spent a day without loving you; I have not spent a night without embracing you; I have not so much as drunk a single cup of tea without cursing the pride and ambition which force me to remain separated from the moving spirit of my life.” (1796)

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Words of Wisdom from the Famed Emperor

Although he is recognized primarily for his accomplishments as a soldier and statesman, Napoléon also is known for his many pithy observations about life. For example:

"A picture is worth a thousand words."

"A true man hates no one."

"Ability is nothing without opportunity."

"An army marches on its stomach."

"History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."

"If you want a thing well done, do it yourself."

"Imagination rules the world."

"Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools."

"In politics, stupidity is not a handicap."

"Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."

To discover more of Napoléon’s notable comments, go to:

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Napoléon's Contributions

Napoléon Bonaparte was one of the most brilliant leaders in military history. Yet he also made decisions that had a lasting impact in many other fields.

Archaeology. He authorized a study of ancient Egypt that led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. To learn more click here.

Art. He inspired what we now call the 1st Empire art and design movement, which replaced the more frivolous Rococo style of the monarchy. Can you find examples of different art styles throughout this website?

Construction. He ordered the building of more than 30,000 miles of roads and 1,000 miles of canals, and the dredging of many harbors and ports. He beautified Paris with new boulevards, bridges, and monuments.

Education. He created the Imperial University to administer French education. He also started engineering and technical schools, a professional school of midwifery, the first school of obstetrics, and a more professional school of veterinary science.

Finance. He chartered the Bank of France, the French bourse (stock exchange), and the National and Departmental Tax Boards to ensure equitable taxation for all.

Imagination. He envisioned a European common market and a tunnel from England to France.

Law. His new laws gave French citizens equality before the law, emphasized the sanctity of the family, and assured the legal gains of the Revolution. To learn more about the Code Napoléon, click here.

Military Science. He pioneered “principles of war” relating to battle tactics that are studied today at military academies. The organization he created for his Grand Army has been used by armies ever since. For more about Napoléon’s military feats, click here.

Museums. He expanded the Louvre and established important museums in fifteen other European cities. He gave the National Archives a permanent home.

National Awards. He established awards such as the “Legion of Honour.” In this way, he rewarded soldiers, legislators, scientists, composers, writers, and clergymen who served their nation well.

Real Estate. He sold the Louisiana Territory to President Thomas Jefferson. This doubled the size of the United States and changed the destiny of the nation. For more about his impact in the Americas, click here.

Religion. He ended the schism between Protestants and Catholics in France and restored the Catholic Church to France. He also declared France the homeland of the Jews, after it became obvious he could not establish their national home in Palestine. To learn more, see page 6.

Research. He created French “think tanks” and research centers where work on projects vital for the national economy took place. He organized an Industrial Board to provide data and information to French industry.

Adapted from Napoléon: Man of Peace by Ben Weider,

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Power Nouns for Napoléon

Brigadier: a military rank above colonel and below major general (from the French word brigade, which comes from Old Italian brigata, to fight)

Consul: a government official who presides in a foreign country, a magistrate of the French Republic 1799-1804 (from the Latin consul)

Despot: a ruler with absolute power (from the French word despote, which can be traced to the Greek word for master, despotes)

Emperor: a sole male ruler of extensive territories (from Old French empereor, which comes from the Latin word imperare, to command)

Enigma: a puzzling person (traced from the Greek word for riddle, ainigma)

Noble: a person with hereditary rank dating back to a country’s feudal period (from the Latin, nobilis)

Strategist: one skilled in the science and art of military planning and combat operations (from the French word stratégie, from the Greek word for general, strategos)

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La Marseillaise

The song that became the national anthem of France has an interesting history. An army engineer and amateur musician named Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle was asked to write a marching song. A supporter of the monarchy during the French Revolution, he composed Chant de guerre de l’armeé du Rhin (War Song of the Army of the Rhine) in April 1792. Ironically, revolutionary forces in Marseilles (a town in southern France) adopted the song before marching on Paris. They sang it with such gusto as they entered the city that it became known as La Marseillaise, or the Marseilles song. It was adopted as the national anthem in 1795 because of its association with revolution. Curiously, it was banned during several periods in French history, including Napoléon’s Empire. Today, the French typically sing only the first of the seven verses.

Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé.
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé,
L’étendard sanglant est levé.
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque nos bras
Égorger nos fils, nos compagnes.

Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve no sillons!

Let us go, children of the fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived.
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody battle flag is raised,
Bloody battle flag is raised.
Do you hear in the countryside
The roar of these savage soldiers?
They come right into our arms
To cut the throat of our sons, our wives.

To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions!
Let us march, let us march!
Let the impure blood (of our enemies)
Soak the furrows (of our fields)!

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Achille & Catherine Murat: Tallahassee's Napoléon Connection

Did you know that Napoléon’s nephew once lived near Tallahassee? Prince Achille Murat and his American bride Catherine Willis brought together, in one family, direct blood ties to heads of government across Europe and in America.

Catherine Willis was born near Fredericksburg, Virginia, on August 17, 1803. Her mother was the granddaughter of Betty Washington, sister of George Washington, and her grandfather, Fielding Lewis, was also related to the Washingtons.

In the early 1820s, the Willis family left Virginia for the new Territory of Florida. Young Catherine, having lost both a husband and a baby before she was out of her teens, came south with her family.

Prince Achille Murat, Napoléon’s nephew, came to America after the downfall of the Bonapartes in Europe. His father, Joachim Murat, the King of Naples, had been executed and the family exiled. His mother lived in Austria as the Countess of “Lipona,” an anagram for Napoli (Naples).

Achille first visited his uncle, the former King of Spain, in New Jersey, then traveled south to Florida. In St. Augustine, he rented a small house (still standing) and experimented with crops and cattle on acreage outside the city. By 1825, Middle Florida seemed to offer prospects for a quick fortune, so he formed a land partnership with Colonel James Gadsden, establishing Lipona Plantation about fifteen miles east of Tallahassee.

In 1826, Catherine and Achille married. It was to Lipona, a series of four one-room log houses built around a garden, that Achille took his bride. The interiors were whitewashed logs, but guests used golden teaspoons and fine damask napkins woven with the Napoléonic crest. There were even linens embroidered in silk with the crown and coat of arms of the King of Naples and a marble bust of Achille’s mother, Queen Caroline.

Achille was restless, always ready to seek his elusive fortune in a new quarter. In 1835, the couple left Lipona and moved to Louisiana. The Prince, apparently never short of charm or credit, bought not only a house on the fashionable Esplanade in New Orleans but also a sugar plantation as well—Magnolia Mound near Baton Rouge. Neither Achille’s law practice nor his sugar venture was successful; subsequently, both Louisiana properties and Lipona were lost. The couple moved to a smaller plantation, Econchatti, in Jefferson County, Florida.

At every favorable rumor of Bonaparte successes in Europe, Achille and Catherine set sail to chase his inheritance. They stayed for several months in Belgium and in England, visiting and counseling with Achille’s cousin, Louis Napoléon.

Achille died in 1847 at Econchatti. Catherine found herself left with a mountain of debts and memories of a life that perhaps had not always been happy, but could never have been dull.

In 1852, Louis Napoléon declared himself Napoleon III, Emperor of France. He sent Catherine 125,000 francs ($40,000) and received her at court as a Princess of France.

Living at Econchatti, Catherine settled debts and put her finances in order. In 1854, she bought a Tallahassee residence, Bellevue. Catherine lived at Bellevue part of each year, entertaining friends and leading an active public life.

As Florida’s first vice-regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, she helped raise $3,000 toward the purchase and preservation of George Washington’s home. Catherine fired the cannon announcing Florida’s secession from the Union and supported the Confederate cause with her funds, food, and energy.

After the war, Napoléon III assisted her with an annuity. In 1867, Catherine gave property adjoining Bellevue to three of her former slaves. She died of typhoid fever on August 6, 1867, at Econchatti and is buried in St. John’s Episcopal Cemetery in Tallahassee beside her Prince.

Bellevue is now located on the grounds of the Tallahassee Museum and is open to the public as a house museum. The Tallahassee Museum will display the exhibition Napoléon and His Contemporaries in the Phipps Gallery from February 1 to April 30, 2006.

Linda Deaton
Tallahassee Museum

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Marquis de Lafayette: The Absent Landlord Frenchtown

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Montier, the Marquis de Lafayette, was born in France in 1757. He came to the United States in 1777 to fight in the American Revolution against the British. Lafayette served as a member of George Washington’s staff and so distinguished himself in the war that the U.S. Congress rewarded him with a monetary grant and 36 square miles of land in Tallahassee. After the war, he returned to France and became involved in politics and the military, although his views during the French Revolution led to his exile, imprisonment, and eventual retirement. Lafayette later returned to politics and worked for Napoléon’s abdication after the Battle of Waterloo.

Although the Marquis never visited his property in Florida, he sent people to grow limes and olives and to produce silk from moths. However, the colony failed, and most of the residents went to New Orleans or to France. Those who remained lived in an area of Tallahassee that still is called Frenchtown. Lafayette eventually sold his property.

KC Smith
Museum of Florida History

According to local historical tradition, the French who settled in the northwest quarter of Tallahassee actually were sent to colonize the northeast quarter of Tallahassee, a land grant given to the Marquis de Lafayette by Congress in 1824. Their colony did not succeed, and it is believed that some returned to France, moved to New Orleans, or resettled in the northwest quarter (Frenchtown).

Thus, Frenchtown had its beginnings in the late 1820s. The 1987 report, “Historical and Architectural Survey of the Frenchtown Neighborhood,” by Sharyn Thompson and Darlene Bowers states, “There were several persons from France residing in Tallahassee soon after it was established as the Territorial capital, and prior to 1831 when the Lafayette colony supposedly arrived.” By the 1840s, French merchants and laborers owned one-third of the property in the area, hence the name “Frenchtown.” The 1850 Census indicates only a few French remained. After the Civil War, records show freedmen moved into the area.

Jennifer Golden
Tallahassee Museum

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Experimenting with Women’s Rights During Napoléon’s Time

During the French Revolution, the role of women in society, politics, the workplace, and the family had been discussed and debated. By 1799, when Napoléon assumed power, the revolution had dramatically changed women’s status. Women had been declared citoyennes (citizens) by the government of France, and, in some cases, their options in life were greater.

French revolutionaries found the querelle des femmes (or the “woman question”) interesting, intriguing, and often baffling. What did citizenship really mean? Two philosophies guided the debate on women in France. On the one hand, liberals like the Marquis de Condorcet recognized women as the mental equals of men. He recommended, therefore, that women be granted the right to vote (civic rights).

On the other hand, social philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau said that society must have strict order to prosper. He thought men should govern public affairs and make significant societal decisions, while women should create an “empire” of softness and warmth within the family. To Rousseau, public space was for men and private space for women.

Early writings during the Revolution generally took the liberal position. Women demanded divorce, job protection, job training, a minimum standard of living for all families, custody of their children, and even the right to wear trousers. Actress Olympe de Gouges penned the now famous “Declaration of the Rights of Woman.” It demanded that women be allowed to participate in the government since they already could be put to death by the government. She is famous for saying, “If women can mount to the guillotine, they should be able to mount to the tribune (government).” When the republican government completed its major legislation, it granted many of the demands. Divorce was confirmed, illegitimate children were recognized, and women received guardianship of their infants. Women also joined the military, demonstrated (sometimes violently) with men for further change, and formed political associations.

Even before Napoléon came to power, France’s republican government came to believe that the revolution had brought change too quickly in some arenas, including women’s rights. Women’s rights had been uncharted territory for the French. What was happening appeared to be weakening the social order.

As Napoléon became First Consul of France, he confirmed the Rousseauist position on women. He would bring “order out of chaos,” as he stated. Women, he remarked, were outrageously dressed in off-theshoulder garments and flesh-colored tights. They spoke out on matters that did not concern them, and Napoléon feared that they were ignoring their families and their singular profession to be mothers. “Who is the greatest woman?” he had been asked. He replied that it was the woman who had borne the most children, just like his mother who had thirteen pregnancies with eight surviving children.

With the Civil Code that Napoléon personally oversaw, he severely restricted divorce, radically narrowed women’s legal identities, and took the remaining meaning from the status of citoyenne that the Revolution had granted women. The military already had excluded women in combat and restricted their employment in the supply train. Order was paramount. Napoléon believed in a strong system of family values that placed the male at the head of the public sphere (politics and the workplace) and the household.

But Napoléon was not immune to some of women’s needs. With a firm commitment to women’s training in the domestic arts, he established schools to teach cooking, the needle trades, and religion. He also wanted to lessen infant mortality and safeguard the health of mothers as they delivered their children. To that end, he created schools for midwifery training. His first wife Joséphine was certainly an ornament at the Napoléonic court where she was not allowed to speak about political or public affairs, but he turned to her for confidences and advice throughout her life.

Napoléon simply could not reconcile his military state with broadly based women’s rights. “I have always loved to analyze,” he wrote. In his analysis, the government was paramount, order had to be preserved, and a strict hierarchy of the sexes undergirded social order. As structured as he was as a military commander and as judicious as he was as a head of state, women ultimately baffled him his entire life.

Dr. Susan P. Conner
Department of History, Florida Southern College

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Napoléonic Women and the Intellectual Salon

The Brogan Museum will host an exhibition about women from the Napoléonic era and the intellectual salons of the day. The word salon first appears in French in 1664 (from the Italian word sala, or room). A salon is a gathering of stimulating people of intellectual curiosity. Meetings frequently took place in the home of an inspiring hostess. Guests came partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings. Salons commonly are associated with French literary and philosophical salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, but have been carried on to the present day in urban settings among like-minded people.

The 18th-century Paris salons brought together people from Parisian society and the progressive thinkers, or philosophes, who were producing the first encyclopedia.

The following describes one woman’s famous salon in French culture:

"The circle was formed of persons who were not bound together. She had taken them here and there in society, but so well assorted were they that once there they fell into harmony like the strings of an instrument touched by an able hand."

Such a woman in German circles, inspiring to writers and artists, perhaps without an artistic bent herself, was called a "muse."

Cynthia Hollis
The Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science

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Activities by

Images © Chalençon
A Traveling Exhibition from Russell Etling Company (c) 2011