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How Napoleon became Emperor

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Napoleon Bonaparte first took political power in France through a coup, 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.

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. Napoleon thus created a constitution which gave many of these landowners power, and as he said they should retain the land, ensured that they would in turn support him in turn 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. 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 the Napoleon’s government must be made hereditary so hopefully, on Napoleon’s death, an heir who thought like his father would inherit.

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 were 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 2nd 1804 the Pope was present as Napoleon was crowned: as agreed beforehand, he placed the crown on his own head (and on his wife Josephine’s as Empress.) 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.

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