The House of Bonaparte: A Cautionary Tale

On this day in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowns himself Emperor of France, taking the Charlemagne replica from the hands of Pope Pius VII and placing it on wife Josephine’s head. He also took the titles King of Italy and Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine before reversals of fortune and war found him in retreat, defeat and captivity.

The Corsican-born Napoleon, one of the greatest military strategists in history, rapidly rose in the ranks of the French Revolutionary Army during the late 1790’s. By 1799, with France at war against most of Europe, Napoleon returned home from his Egyptian campaign to take the reigns of the French government and heroically save his nation from collapse.

Napoleon joined others in a coup d’état on November 9, 1799, “the 18th Brumaire” according to the revolutionary calendar, closing down the council of five hundred; he became “first consul” for ten years in February 1800. His elevation to Emperor in 1804 solidified his absolute power, but failed to grow him one inch taller than his diminutive height of five-feet, two-inches.

Consolidating, innovating and, with multiple mistresses, procreating, he had quickly reorganized his armies, then defeated Austria, established a new system of French law, the Napoleonic Code, developed the metric system, invented Bearnaise sauce and founded the French Impressionist school of cinema, all by the tender age of 35.

Beginning in 1812, Napoleon went on the schneid with significant defeats in his military career, suffering through a disastrous invasion of Russia, losing Spain to the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula War, and enduring total defeat against an allied force by 1814. Exiled to the island of Elba, he escaped to France in early 1815 and raised a new Grand Army that enjoyed temporary success, “The Hundred Days,” before its crushing defeat at Waterloo against an allied force, again under Wellington, on June 18, 1815. It appears Wellington brought the beef.

Napoleon was subsequently exiled to the island of Saint Helena off the coast of Africa, where he lived under house arrest with his executive chef and remaining entourage. In May 1821, he died of stomach cancer at 51 years. In 1840, his body was returned to Paris, and a magnificent funeral was held, as Napoleon’s body was conveyed through the Arc de Triomphe and entombed under the dome of the Invalides.

This French fascination with “Nappy,” or “Little Boney” went beyond the the lavish re-interment of his corpse. His son Napoleon II was the titular ruler of France for two weeks back in 1815. Nephew Napoleon III led France to disaster under the Second Republic, with the nation and Paris falling to the Germans in the Franco-Purssian War of 1870. Napoleon III himself was captured and held, or cuck-held, for the duration of the war.

Of Nappy’s rise and fall, 19th century observer Madame de Rémusat, explains “men worn out by the turmoil of the Revolution … looked for the domination of an able ruler . . . people believed quite sincerely that Bonaparte, whether as consul or emperor, would exert his authority and save them from the perils of anarchy.” This view could have a modern US analog, inclusive of pampered offspring ill-suited to service, but for the fact that Madame said “able.” Not boorish, unstable and imbecilic.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.