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Napoleon Bonaparte - Nationalist to Republican (Part 2)

Napoleon was a staunch Corsican Nationalist in his early years. He believed that Corsica was the spiritual successor to the Roman Republic, the seat of liberty. These beliefs painted France as the enemy, little more than an imperial bully out to crush his people.

Not that France didn't work hard to earn the resentment of the Corsicans. Their purchase of Corsica in 1768 was followed by a short campaign of brutality aimed at beating the population into submission.

So what changed? How did Napoleon Bonaparte go from hating France, to ruling it? The change came in the form of a riot, and then a revolution.

This is the tale of Napoleon's rise to power. His first steps towards becoming emperor of France.

Debt, Taxes, & Unrest

Napoleon's academic achievement landed him the rank of second-lieutenant in an artillery brigade. Exposed to the growing revolutionary sentiment while stationed with the rest of the soldiers, he found himself resonating with them.

France was standing at the precipice of bankruptcy. King Louis XVI was notoriously bad with money. He heavily invested in the American Revolutionary War, mainly as a way to give the middle finger to England.

Revolutionary sentiment was strong with the French people, who were facing impoverishment.

It turns out that King Louis XVI's policy of taking out international loans and refusing to reform his economy, was bad. His best idea was to increase taxes on the poor, and cut taxes to the rich. Never has there been a more time-honored way to ruin a nation.

Luckily, runaway debt isn't something that any modern nations consider good financial policy. We wouldn't want any revolutions, would we?

Louis called an assembly of the Estates General, les états généraux. Representatives of the clergy, nobility, and middle class were sent out to collect a list of grievances from their constituents. That list would prove to be so long, and the collection of it only served to spread revolutionary urges.

The last time the Estates General were called, was in 1614. Back then, the middle class was tiny in comparison with the clergy and nobility. This had changed by 1789. The middle class now represented 98% of the French people. Unfortunately for them, they would discover that their vote still counted for less in the Estates General.

Middle Class voters wanted their vote to count, considering they were the only estate being taxed. They wanted to have a say in their own lives. Nobles, obviously, didn't want that.

So the Third Estate (middle class), began organizing themselves.

The meeting of the Estates General didn't go well. All three estates became openly hostile, and the public were consumed by the debate. That's when the Third Estate gathered on a tennis court, and announced themselves to be the National Assembly. They took an oath not to disperse until they had reformed the government.

Some nobles and most of the clergy joined them. King Louis XVI had no choice but to accept this new National Assembly into the structure of government. The transition of power turned Paris into a madhouse, as violence and paranoia overtook the citizenry.

Rumors of the military either attacking the king or the people led to riots. None more significant than the Storming of the Bastille.

On June 14, the public stormed the Bastille. They had heard a rumor that the National Assembly was about to be arrested.

900 Parisians charged at the old prison, which was guarded by 82 veterans too old for service, and 32 reinforcements. They demanded the disarmament of the garrison, and for them to hand over their cannons and gunpowder to the mob. The drawbridges were pulled up.

Two men scaled the walls, and cut the chains of the drawbridge. Failing to get out of the way, one man was crushed by the falling bridge. His death spurred the mod to storm across the bridge.

They took the fortress, and lynched several of the guards, as well as the garrison commander. All told, the mob liberated seven inmates. The Bastille, it seems, was no longer the terrible prison of old.

Napoleon had, at this point, come around to the revolutionary rhetoric of the day. Liberty seemed like a good deal. He could not accept the rampant disorder.

Many of his fellow officers fled France after the uprising began. They sought refuge in the surrounding monarchies, where they incited anti-revolutionary movements. France would soon find itself surrounded by enemies who wanted to keep King Louis XVI on the throne.

Napoleon in Corsica

Napoleon went on leave at the start of the Revolution in 1789. He returned to Corsica, where he hoped to spread the ideals of revolution and liberty. There he found allies in his brothers, who were very nationalistic.

Throughout his years training for the military, Napoleon kept on writing. He was working on a history of Corsica. Napoleon also wrote short stories about bloody vengeance against the French during his time in Corsica.

Pasquale Paoli had been invited back to Corsica in the intervening years. His exile was lifted by the rapidly changing government of France. They thought that he would be interested in becoming the governor of a slightly more free Corsica.

Like many avowed 'freedom fighters', Paoli took the appointment begrudgingly. He viewed the idea of Corsica governed by Corsicans under the authority of France as little more than theater to mollify the populace.

The truth was that Paoli had fallen in love with England during his long exile there. He would rather Corsica belonged to them, instead of France.

Corsica was a different place altogether from the one Napoleon had left. Looting of Catholic churches by the French government had left a sour taste in the mouths of the locals.

Napoleon struggled between his fierce Corsican Nationalism, and French Republicanism. He spent his time in on the island spreading Nationalist rhetoric, and espousing the ideal of a free Corsica governed by Corsicans.

He approached Paoli, his childhood hero, to write the dedication for his history of Corsica. Paoli, who associated the Bonaparte children with their turncoat father, rejected him. He never read Napoleon's manuscript, rejecting him simply by writing:

"history is not written in one's youth"

Above all else, Napoleon was shocked by the attitude in Corsica. His people seemed to exist outside the intrigue of the continent. He was expecting them to participate in the revolution, as a way to ensure their own liberty. They seemed paralyzed, stuck in the era of French monarchic domination.

Napoleon took it upon himself to kick Corsica into action. He started a Jacobin political club, handed out the French tricolor cockade on the street, and established a National Guard.

The rulers of Corsica struck back, banning his club and declaring the National Guard as illegitimate. Napoleon countered by starting a riot against the government of the island in 1790.

His brothers joined in, the family hoping to overthrow Paoli's government and rule the island themselves. Napoleonic scholars have struggled to come to a consensus about what exactly happened during the Bonaparte revolution on Corsica. There were violent clashes, Napoleon may have been arrested and rescued in a daring midnight raid.

It was not meant to be. Their hopes were dashed when the insurrection failed, and they were exiled from Corsica.

Paoli sent a letter to the government of France, condemning Napoleon's actions. The letter seems to not have made it, or been missed in all the confusion. France was essentially between governments for an entire decade.

Napoleon fled to France. His Corsican Nationalism firmly replaced by a new belief in the ideals of the French Revolution.

Napoleon the Jacobin

Seals affixed by the Jacobins of Paris atop their manuscripts and publications during the monarchic period.
Seal of the Jacobin Political Faction

Following his failed coup attempt in Corsica, Napoleon returned to active duty in the military. He had essentially taken a violent holiday.

Napoleon's love of writing still had a role to play in his future. He published a pamphlet, “Le Souper de Beaucaire”, which was heavily pro Jacobin. The pamphlet was published, and attracted a lot of attention.

He fell in with the Jacobin crowd. Augustin Robespierre, brother of the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, took a liking to the young Artillery officer. He saw in him a strong republican, loyal to the cause.

In April 1792, France declared war on Austria. The Jacobins opposed this move, Maximilien Robespierre believed that the ideals of liberty could not be forced upon people. His political opponents called him unpatriotic for it.

The war escalated, and soon France found itself surrounded by deadly enemies. Napoleon would soon get a taste for battle, and thanks to a turn of fate, he would see his star rise exponentially.



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