How Napoleon Became Emperor

The Arrival of Napoleon at Amsterdam, 1812-13, by Mattheus Ignatius van Bree (1773-1839)

Dennis Jarvis/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Napoleon Bonaparte first took political power in France through a coup against the old government, but he had not instigated it: that had principally been the plotting of Sieyes. What Napoleon did was to capitalize on the situation in order to dominate the new ruling Consulate and gain control of France by creating a constitution which bound his interests to many of the most powerful people in France: the landowners. He was then able to use this to leverage his support into being declared Emperor. The passage of a leading general through the end of a revolutionary series of governments and into an emperor was not clear and could have failed, but Napoleon showed as much skill in this area of politics as he did on the battlefield.

Why the Landowners Supported Napoleon

The revolution had stripped the land and wealth from the churches and much of the aristocracy and sold it to landowners who were now terrified that royalists, or some sort of comprise government, would strip them of it, in turn, and restore it. There were calls for the return of the crown (small at this point, but present), and a new monarch would surely rebuild the church and aristocracy. Napoleon thus created a constitution which gave many of these landowners power, and as he said they should retain the land (and allowed them to block any movement of land), ensured that they would, in turn, support him as leader of France.

Why Landowners Wanted an Emperor

However, the constitution only made Napoleon First Consul for ten years, and people began to fear what would happen when Napoleon left. This allowed him to secure the nomination of the consulship for life in 1802: if Napoleon didn’t have to be replaced after a decade, land was safe for longer. Napoleon also used this period to pack more of his men into government while debasing the other structures, further increasing his support. The result was, by 1804, a ruling class which was loyal to Napoleon, but now worrying what would happen on his death, a situation exacerbated by an assassination attempt and their First Consul’s habit of leading armies (he'd already nearly been killed in battle and would later wish he had been). The expelled French monarchy was still waiting outside the nation, threatening to return all ‘stolen’ property: could they ever come back, such as had happened in England? The result, enflamed by Napoleon’s propaganda and his family, was the idea that Napoleon’s government must be made hereditary so hopefully, on Napoleon’s death, an heir who thought like his father would inherit and safeguard land.

Emperor of France

Consequently, on May 18th, 1804, the Senate – who had all been chosen by Napoleon — passed a law making him Emperor of the French (he had rejected 'king' as both too close to the old royal government and not ambitious enough) and his family was made hereditary heirs. A plebiscite was held, worded so that if Napoleon had no children – as he hadn’t at that point – either another Bonaparte would be selected or he could adopt an heir. The result of the vote looked convincing on paper (3.5 million for, 2500 against), but it had been massaged at all levels, such as automatically casting yes votes for everyone in the military.

On December 2, 1804, the Pope was present as Napoleon was crowned: as agreed beforehand, he placed the crown on his own head. Over the next few years, the Senate and Napoleon’s Council of State dominated the government of France – which in effect meant just Napoleon – and the other bodies withered away. Although the constitution didn’t require Napoleon to have a son, he wanted one, and so divorced his first wife and married Marie-Louise of Austria. They swiftly had a son: Napoleon II, King of Rome. He would never rule France, as his father would be defeated in 1814 and 1815, and the monarchy would return but he would be forced to compromise.

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Wilde, Robert. "How Napoleon Became Emperor." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). How Napoleon Became Emperor. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "How Napoleon Became Emperor." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).