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redcoat12 May 2013 8:54 a.m. PST

Hi all,

Have posters considered this question? Having seemingly embraced Jacobinism during the Revolution, why in 1804 did Napoleon feel the need to jettison his (admittedly tarnished) republican credentials by abandoning the pretence that as First Consul he was no more than 'first among equals' in France?

Were there commonsense and practical reasons of state why he felt a transition was necessary?

For example, I am aware that there were plots against his life during the Consulate, such as the 1800 Xmas Eve 'Infernal Machine' that nearly blew him up, and that in early 1804 he took the step of kidnapping from Baden and shooting the Bourbon Duc D'Enghien on the charge that he was plotting to seize power. Did this have something to do with it?

Did he feel that adopting a crown would make him personally less obnoxious to the royal dynasties that ruled the continental Great Powers and perhaps even with Britain (which was I believe financing Chouan royalist plots against his life)? If so, how realistic was this view? Once he was installed as emperor, did the European rulers cease to view him as a parvenu?

Did he feel that the power that he needed to reform and improve France, for the public good, would be enhanced by making himself emperor? In other words, was he an 'Enlightened Despot' seeking to facilitate benevolent dictatorship within France?

Or was he was simply a self-aggrandiser, seduced by the lure of a gaudy throne and crown? And if so, why did he wait five years till 1804? Was he, over those five years, simply corrupted by power?

Any thoughts or reading recommendations on this issue would be appreciated!

Cheers all!

Personal logo Saber6 Supporting Member of TMP Fezian12 May 2013 9:53 a.m. PST

I think it was because he was looking to "keep it in the Family".

redcoat12 May 2013 10:03 a.m. PST

Thanks Saber. But surely, if that was it, he could have *stayed* First Consul? In 1802 he extended his time in that office from 10 years to *'life'* and gave himself the power to *nominate a successor* – presumably he had in mind his stepson Eugene or, if he got lucky with Josephine, a natural son of his own.

TelesticWarrior12 May 2013 10:08 a.m. PST

The answers to this question are very complex and involve lots of different factors but, to be blunt and keep it brief, I would say the main reason was that Napoleon was obsessed with personal glory and convinced that his destiny was to be one of greatness. You have to remember that even from a quite young age Napoleon was fascinated by the lives of men like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. It was inevitable that he would follow in their footsteps once he realised that he was such a brilliant General and could easily influence the minds of other men. The unusual circumstances of the Revolution offered Napoleon an opportunity that he was not likely to pass up.

I am a bit of a Bonapartist and I'm not trying to suggest that he was all bad, but I think you are quite close to the mark with your comment "he was simply a self-aggrandiser". However, I honestly don't think it was about baubles such as a gaudy throne and crown, but for less tangible things such as personal glory and a burning desire to be remembered as one of Histories great Rulers.

As for exactly when Napoleon started to entertain the idea of being Emperor, again its not easy to say but IMO probably not that long after Egypt. I think Napoleon wanted to set up his own personal Empire in the East (there is some good evidence for this). When this failed it was almost the case of him thinking 'Oh what the heck, if I can't have my Eastern dream I may as well have France & Europe instead'!

Robert Burke12 May 2013 10:58 a.m. PST

Let's face it, being Emperor of the French (not France) carried a lot more status than being First Consul. As emperor, he could bestow titles on his family and loyal followers. Also, as emperor, he could claim the authority to reorganize the German states and promote loyal German vassals to the status of "kings."

Sundance12 May 2013 12:03 p.m. PST

It sounds better than Corporal?

Duc de Limbourg12 May 2013 12:10 p.m. PST

emperor was for life, consul was for a specific period

Personal logo 20thmaine Supporting Member of TMP12 May 2013 12:42 p.m. PST

Once you start thinking about parcelling out the jobs to family members and how it'd be nice to have a kid take over the family business then you've moved beyond "equals".

A more interesting question would be, perhaps, why France allowed him to be Emperor.

Brechtel19812 May 2013 12:53 p.m. PST

I would highly recommend reading Vincent Cronin's biography of Napoleon as it explains the problems facing Napoleon politically and covers the decision to become Emperor of the French. Chapter 16, pages 237-254 covers the subject quite well.

A few things first-First Consul was already for life, so that wasn't an issue.

The idea of making some of his family heads of state was not a consideration upon becoming Emperor.

Napoleon had never been a Jacobin and was revolted by the crimes perpetuated by the Revolutionary government during the Terror.

Napoleon was a republican in sentiment and in his politics, but he was also not an ideologue.

What was the issue was how to perpetuate in France the reforms Napoleon had given France and to maintain the social and political gains of the Revolution.

The Bourbons and the British government were the catalysts of Napoleon becoming Emperor. They were because of the assassination attempts on Napoleon's person by those two 'groups.'

Napoleon was declared consul for life in 1802. But the fear in the government was that if Napoleon died too soon, either in combat or by an assassin, the Republic might collapse and either the Bourbons would return, which no one wanted, a military dictatorship might ensue (and Napoleon did not maintain a military dictatorship-he ruled as a civilian head of state), or the Jacobins might take power and use the guillotine again to enforce their will instead of the rule of law which Napoleon had brought.

So the idea of becoming a hereditary Emperor, but Emperor of the French, not Emperor of France, was a decision that was arrived at not just by Napoleon (and apparently he was not the instigator of the original idea) but by some of his subordinates and his government.

For a much better perspective of the problem I again refer all to Cronin.


Gazzola12 May 2013 1:13 p.m. PST


Excellent post

Personal logo Whirlwind Supporting Member of TMP12 May 2013 1:13 p.m. PST


Do you know any books with detailed information on the assassination attempts/plots against Napoleon?


Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP12 May 2013 1:32 p.m. PST

Just to repeat I guess what others have put far better, above. He wanted to found a dynasty, ensure a family succession. It's not just arrogance; there is less point in assasination if it leads to, not a vacuum, but instead a preordained takeover, automatically. It is personally protective in a strange way. Less incentive to kill him if all you get is his lad instead.

and the Imperial Guard must have felt a bit odd without an Emperor to Guard maybe….perhaps…..

Brechtel19812 May 2013 2:30 p.m. PST


I don't have any, but Phillip Dwyer is coming out with his new volume on Napoleon entitled Citizen Emperor and it might cover the issue.

Cronin lists Hortense Beauharnais' Memoirs, Rapp's Memoirs (which are available I think in English) and La Machine Infernale de la Rue Nicaise by J Loredan.

It was the assassination attempts that led to d'Enghien being arrested, tried for treason and executed.


Brechtel19812 May 2013 2:31 p.m. PST

'…the Imperial Guard must have felt a bit odd without an Emperor to Guard maybe….perhaps….'


They were the Consular Guard before that and merely had a name and button change after the transformation from First Consul to Emperor.


Brechtel19812 May 2013 2:32 p.m. PST

Thanks, John, I appreciate the compliment, especially coming from you.


Sparker12 May 2013 7:29 p.m. PST

Cos he though the Pope might drop the crown?

138SquadronRAF12 May 2013 8:06 p.m. PST

Emperor, but Emperor of the French, not Emperor of France

I'm sorry, I don't understand the distinction.

It was probably the same in 1804.

Rudysnelson12 May 2013 8:20 p.m. PST

A political move of pure control.
His position as Emperor would would make him an equal at the political bargaining table with his arch-enemies the Austrain Emperor, the Russian Emperor and the Prussian Emperor. This was crucial for many reasons including influence among the germans as was being HRE..
It gave himcontrol over the assets of the Holy Roman Empire even if it was mainly for the German influence.

It placed him above all of his allied 'kings'. It would allow him to appont lesser kings and create the Viceroy of North Italy and Duchy of Warsaw.

Gustav12 May 2013 9:58 p.m. PST

Curse those dastardly British for making Napoleon give up his republican sympathies….

basileus6612 May 2013 11:08 p.m. PST

My guess? Legitimacy. Napoleon was a conservative at heart. He wanted for his regime the legitimacy that would come from being "officially" crowned by the Pope. There were also dynastic considerations. Consul for Life wasn't inheritable. It was a title that him and only him could bear; but a crown was hereditary.

Oddly, by becoming Emperor instead of king, he was making a tacit concession to French republican sentiment, accepting the idea that France wouldn't have kings any more. For us, it can be seem as a moot point, but at the time it was important.

Probably, he also wanted to give stability to his rule: being an emperor was something that spoke of stability, while "Consul for life" had a weakness on its own.

Also, as others have pointed, by being an Emperor (and with the added legitimacy given to the title by being crowned by the Pope, as the Emperors of old) he would be in place to negotiate as an equal with other European crowned heads (see his correspondence with Tsar Alexander and the Austrian emperor, Joseph).

Finally, I think that by being crowned Emperor he was making a political statement: France was entitled to intervene in Germany, as legitimate heir of Charlemagne. Again, the symbolism of being crowned by the Pope instead just declaring himself emperor, would serve as a clue of Napoleon's intentions.

Very good question, by the way, redcoat.

Keraunos13 May 2013 2:17 a.m. PST

I think brechtel has reported the most convincing reason.

Gazzola13 May 2013 3:11 a.m. PST

Legitimacy is a very good reason, which is why Francis 2nd of the Holy Roman Empire, which was dissolved in 1806, took on the title of Francis 1st, Emperor or Austria. He needed to be up there with the big boys and he did not take on the title king he took the title of emperor and I think he may have been a double emperor for a year or two.

Titles are important for world leaders, more so in those days.

Brechtel19813 May 2013 3:13 a.m. PST

'I'm sorry, I don't understand the distinction. It was probably the same in 1804.'

The title Emperor of the French gives the impression that he ruled with the acceptance of the French people and not by 'divine right.'

At that period, it was important because of the Revolution and throwing the 'kings of France' out.


Gazzola13 May 2013 3:14 a.m. PST


Two accounts of assinataion are described in the memoirs of General Jean Rapp -Rapp The Last Victor. (Chapters 4 & 19). A great book by the way and well worth reading.

Gustav13 May 2013 4:22 a.m. PST

On a more serious note, I think that legitimacy was a likely raison d'etre but not just in a political sense.

Possibly it also enables further control of the military, in that he can legitimately control the army directly rather than through any state mechanism that could be subverted by possible rivals.

ie the military swear allegiance directly to the Crown/him and not to the state / the people and potentially any such representative.

Plus in effect he is also then Emperor by military acclamation (as per the Caesar's).

ochoin ceithir13 May 2013 4:38 a.m. PST

As Basileus66 wrote in his excellent response, Napoleon was a conservative who hated/feared the mob. His experiences with the corrupt Directory would not give him much loyalty to what was a moribund system of government.

I would also add we should remember the Buonapartes were minor nobility. Is it so unlikely that a man from such a background would want to climb the pole to become an emperor?

Nasty Canasta13 May 2013 5:27 a.m. PST

Because "First Consul" sucks on top of your resume'. I think Napoleon just got sick and tired of answering the question: "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" and Emperor of France pretty much covers it all.

redcoat13 May 2013 8:21 a.m. PST

This has been brilliant – many thanks to all contributors.

It seems clear that, among other motives, Napoleon *did* expect that his promotion to emperor *would* facilitate acceptance of his regime by the other continental crowned heads (Austria, Russia, Prussia).

How far did this work with Britain? British governments were certainly implicated in Chouan plots to kill Napoleon during the Consulate. But am I right in thinking that this ceased under the Empire? In fact, am I right in thinking that the British government (Pitt's?) famously wrote to Napoleon to advise him that a certain lunatic had been apprehended and imprisoned in England, to prevent him from travelling to France to kill the French leader?

Any thoughts?

Spreewaldgurken13 May 2013 8:28 a.m. PST

Don't forget the creation of the new aristocracy, by the use of confiscated lands from conquered territories. It's not really feasible for a "Consul" to create a new loyal military and civil aristocracy. One needs some sort of monarchical system for that to make sense, otherwise it's just confiscation and the dispossessed wil always have a body of pre-existing law and tradition upon which to base a legal argument for their restoration. The confiscations will always be considered illegitimate. By ennobling himself and his loyal deputies, Napoleon can attempt to legitimize that system.

Personal logo Whirlwind Supporting Member of TMP13 May 2013 12:05 p.m. PST

Thanks Kevin and Gazzola,

Rapp's Memoirs are here: link

There are interesting details in the Wikipedia entry too: link

Napoleon doesn't come across that well in the wiki entry, but hey, it's Wiki.

Does anyone else have any good information on Britain's responsibility for any assassination plots against Napoleon – particularly British primary sources?


Musketier14 May 2013 9:25 a.m. PST

Because he could

(and for all the reasons mentioned above)

spontoon14 May 2013 4:11 p.m. PST

Good answer Musketier! Why not? I would, and I don't even speak French!

ochoin ceithir14 May 2013 4:20 p.m. PST

"I don't even speak French!"

Evidently neither did Napoleon. 87)

"He studied French at a religious school and military tactics in the Brienne-le-Château Military Academy. Napoleon used to be derided by other students for his Corsican accent. "
Read more at Buzzle: link

Bandit15 May 2013 6:41 a.m. PST

Emperor, but Emperor of the French, not Emperor of France

I'm sorry, I don't understand the distinction.

It was probably the same in 1804.

One speaks of representing the state while the other speaks of representing the populous. Considering the French Revolution the state and the populous were obviously considered different sets of interests.

Motivation to become Emperor of the French would include at its core consolidation of power. Without such his government could not hope to accomplish its various goals.


The Bandit

Brechtel19816 May 2013 5:41 a.m. PST

Interestingly, most of Napoleon's great civil reforms were done or begun as First Consul such as the Code Civile, bringing back the Church, education, and other civil works that greatly improved, and largely remade France.

Seems to me that the country was more unified and the social gains of the Revolution solidified before Napoleon became Emperor.

'Moderation is the basis of morality and man's most important virtue…without it, a faction can exist but never a national government.'-Napoleon, 1800.

'I have never seen him distracted from the matter at hand to think of what he has just dealt with or what he is going to deal with next.'-Roederer

'From the fact that the First Consul always presided over the Council of State, certain people have inferred that it was servile and obeyed him in everything. On the contrary, I can state that the most enlightened men in France…deliberated there in complete freedom and that nothing ever shackled their discussions. Bonaparte was much more concerned to profit from their wisdom than to scrutinize their political opinions.'-Comte de Plancy

'Do let's keep awake, citizens. It's only two o'clock. We must earn our salaries.'-Napoleon to the Council of State during an all-night session.

'God made Bonaparte, and then rested.'-La Chaise

'God should have rested a little earlier.'-Comte de Narbonne in reply.

'No one should sanction his own expenditure or allot money to himself…My budget serves to keep the Ministry of Finance in a constant state of war with the Treasury. One says to me: 'I promised so much, and so much is due;' the other: 'So much has been collected.' By putting them in opposition I achieve security.'-Napoleon

'A general has no civil function unless specially invested with one ad hoc. When he has no mission, he cannot exercise any influence on the courts, on the municipality or on the police. I consider your behavior madness.'-Napoleon to General Cervoni when the latter ordered the population in the 8th Division to turn in their private firearms, 7 March 1807.

'The Prussian army used to insult and ill-treat burghers, who were later delighted when it suffered defeat. That army, once crushed, disappeared and nothing replaced it, because it did not have the nation behind it. The French army is so excellent only because it is one with the nation.'-Napoleon to the cadets of the artillery school at Metz when they insulted the townspeople.

'Equality must be the first element in education.'-Napoleon

The following is a comparison of the situation in France immediately before Brumaire and in 1805:

'Of the Seine Inferieure a government official had written on the eve of Brumaire: 'Crime with impunity, desertion encouraged, republicanism debased, laws an empty letter, banditry protected', and went on the describe how the Le Havre-Rouen stagecoach was regularly halted and pillaged. In 1805 the prefect Beugnot, a level-headed man, was able to paint quite another picture. People paid their taxes; the law was enforced, children attended school, highway robbery was unheard of, farmers were applying new methods, people had real money to spend. 'Fifteen years ago there was only one theater in Rouen open three times a week, now there are two, open daily…A play by Moliere draws bigger crowds in Rouen then in Paris.' The wheels, in short, were turning, the machine worked. And Frenchmen-as far as their critical faculty ever allows them to be-were thankful. In 1799 there had been 'disgust with the government'; in 1805 Beugnot found 'an excellent public spirit.'-Vincent Cronin, Napoleon Bonaparte, 208-209.


TelesticWarrior16 May 2013 6:26 a.m. PST

'God made Bonaparte, and then rested.'-La Chaise

'God should have rested a little earlier.'-Comte de Narbonne in reply.

That is just brilliant.

Brechtel19816 May 2013 6:37 a.m. PST

I thought you might like it. ;-)

Savary once asked Napoleon if he wanted to be God. Napoleon looked at Savary, thought a minute, and then replied, 'No-it's a dead-end job.'

While First Consul, Napoleon was asked if he would step down after he considered his work finished. Napoleon replied, 'Who do you think I am? George Washington?'

Napoleon did admire Washington and when Washington died Napoleon put the French army into mourning for six months.


Mithmee16 May 2013 6:29 p.m. PST

Because he was thinking ahead about all of us Napoleonic gamers.

If he didn't crowm himself what would we be doing.

Chouan22 May 2013 6:31 a.m. PST

Rather than rely on Cronin link who is clearly a Bonapartist, try Corelli Barnett link and Alan Forrest link as well.

Chouan22 May 2013 6:46 a.m. PST

The review here: link
is quite telling……

TelesticWarrior22 May 2013 7:03 a.m. PST

Corelli Barnett is the worst, and most one-sided, author on the Napoleonic Wars I have ever read. I wouldn't read him again if it was the last link left on the Internet.

Chouan22 May 2013 9:18 a.m. PST

Rather like Cronin, but with a different viewpoint.

Brechtel19822 May 2013 10:47 a.m. PST

The difference between Barnett and Cronin is that Cronin is accurate and Barnett is not only grossly biased, but inaccurate.


Brechtel19822 May 2013 10:48 a.m. PST

Cronin is a 'Bonapartist?' Why because the biography is sympathetic to Napoloeon?

Do you actually understand what a Bonapartist is?


Brechtel19822 May 2013 10:50 a.m. PST

The review referred to by Chouan is both biased and inaccurate as to Cronin's biography.


Brechtel19822 May 2013 10:53 a.m. PST

By the way, Chouan, you don't mention the other six reviews on the site for Cronin's book.

Why is that?

You actually picked the worst one and of the seven, five of them give the book five stars, and the other not mentioned gives it three.



Gazzola22 May 2013 1:58 p.m. PST


Chouan has shown in all the threads that he is anti-Napoleon. He blames him for everything and sees him as THE bad guy of the period. Throwing the blame on one person and wanting to believe everything in history is black and white, I suppose, makes life simpler and prevents some people from questioning their own viewpoints. Of course, he has a right to his biased viewpoints and we have to accept that. He's not the first and probably won't be the last.

Chouan23 May 2013 3:41 a.m. PST

"By the way, Chouan, you don't mention the other six reviews on the site for Cronin's book.

Why is that?

You actually picked the worst one and of the seven, five of them give the book five stars, and the other not mentioned gives it three.



Perhaps. Aren't we all? But read the reviews and see how well written they are, or not, and tell me how reliable/valuable they are. Here's an extract from one of them: "It would seem that Vincent Cronin is Napoleons biggest fan.He presents Napoleons life and actions in a totally uncritical manner.
Cronin doesn't see anything wrong with the fact that Napoleon leads his armies into neighbouring countries "for the glory of France".
When Napoleon becomes a total egomaniac and sets himself up as the arbiter of artistic,musical and operatic taste for the country again Cronin seems to think that is fine.
Cronin never points out that Napoleons victories were gained at the massive loss of mens lives.
As a book it is OK as long as you realise that Cronin is so uncritical which for an historian is a major failing I believe. "

Gazzola23 May 2013 3:56 a.m. PST


If I remember rightly, Cronin's book is not a book about Napoleon'c many military victories, it is about Napoleon's life. If you want to know more about how many men were killed during the various battles and campaign, you know, those led by Napoleon and the thousands led to their deaths by the Allied leaders, there are plenty of titles describing them.

Gazzola23 May 2013 4:10 a.m. PST

Here's one 5 star review that sums the book up quite well, obviously missed by Chouan

'Cronin presents Napoleon as the man he was, not the myth, not the legend, not the 'Anti-Christ'. Unlike other authors, Cronin does not appear to take side.'

Makes me wonder if Chouan has actually read it, other than the early part he may have looked at for his dissertation which he claims makes him an expert!

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