Today he is a household name, an outright celebrity of Western history, and an enduring icon of French culture: Napoleon Bonaparte. The gutsy, shrewd, and ambitious young general rose through the ranks of the French military, eventually seizing political power and naming himself the very first emperor of France. He was one of the greatest conquerors of modern history, expanding the French Empire and dominating European affairs in the years following the French Revolution. Undoubtedly, the history of France – and the world – would be written quite differently without Napoleon.
The story of Napoleon’s downfall and his exile on Saint Helena is nearly as well-known as that of his reign. Yet, his lasting legacy, personified by his nephew and eventual heir, Louis-Napoleon, is less known. Sharing much more than just a name and family blood, these two figures each occupy significant place in history. Each of their stories are lessons in unfailing ambition, fierce determination, and tenacity to the throne.
How did these two men, one born to minor nobility and the other born in exile, so profoundly change the course of Western history? Let’s begin with the first, Napoleon Bonaparte. Interestingly, he was born in Corsica in 1769, a recently acquired city-state of the French empire. From birth, Napoleon’s personality during his adolescence was centered on his fiercely patriotic attitude towards his homeland. Journeying to France for schooling at the age of 9, however, Napoleon’s eyes opened up to what would soon be his oyster.
Joining the military at a young age, Napoleon was driven for militaristic dominance and French supremacy. His dream was simple: for French to be the best in the world, and a model for all other countries to follow. Within an astonishingly short amount of time, Napoleon did exactly that. Crowning himself Emperor in 1804 after a successful coup d’état and ruling as First Consul, Napoleon stood as the sole reining figure of the French Empire, raising the state to the grandeur of the Roman Empire.
As the first Emperor of France, Napoleon reorganized education, established the long-lasting Concordat with the Pope, and revolutionized military organization. Such a heightened rise to power could not come about with some major costs, however. After numerous military defeats, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba in 1814. Shrewd and cunning as he always was, Napoleon found his way back. Escaping the island in 1815, Napoleon stumbled into Paris with open arms awaiting him, leading France back into battle and beginning his 100 days campaign. However, his last days were soon upon him. Once again, Napoleon saw defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and his forced abdication occurred in June 1815; he would die during his final exile in Saint Helena in 1821.
Born in 1808, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis-Napoleon, known also as Napoleon III, was determined to regain the French throne since his adolescence. Writing and publishing his various militaristic and political ideas, word spread of his motivation and ideologies. Aligning himself greatly with his uncle, Louis-Napoleon attempted a coup d’etat in 1836. Though unsuccessful, he was elected in 1850 as president of the Second Republic in France. Much like his uncle, Louis Napoleon desired more: he wanted to be Emperor. Desire fulfilled, he reigned as Emperor Napoleon III from 1852-1870.
With Louis-Napoleon’s rise to power, the Bonaparte legacy was strengthened in every way possible. While his reign came to a close after a disastrous defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, the legacy of his rule has lived on as one of the most cunning and successful rises to power in history, much like his uncle, known simply as Napoleon.