Bonaparte Is Crowned Napoleon I

Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation as emperor of France marked a fundamental symbolic break with the republican and egalitarian forces of revolution that had brought him to power, while visibly confirming his absolute control of France.

Summary of Event

The coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as French emperor Napoleon I on December 2, 1804, marked the official beginning of France’s First Empire; however, the actual establishment of his regime dated from the coup d’état of November 9, 1799 (commonly referred to as 18 Brumaire, the date according to the revolutionary calendar). In that coup, a group of conspirators including Napoleon, Lucien Bonaparte, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, and Talleyrand Talleyrand had overthrown the Directory (the executive body of the nation). Within a month, a consulate had been established. Under the Constitution Constitutions;French of Year VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte was named first consul and, in effect, given dictatorial powers for ten years. Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];coronation of
France;First Empire
[kw]Bonaparte Is Crowned Napoleon I (Dec. 2, 1804)
[kw]Crowned Napoleon I, Bonaparte Is (Dec. 2, 1804)
[kw]Napoleon I, Bonaparte Is Crowned (Dec. 2, 1804)
Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];coronation of
France;First Empire
[g]France;Dec. 2, 1804: Bonaparte Is Crowned Napoleon I[0260]
[c]Government and politics;Dec. 2, 1804: Bonaparte Is Crowned Napoleon I[0260]
Sieyès, Emmanuel-Joseph
Bonaparte, Joséephine
Bonaparte, Letizia
Bonaparte, Lucien
Enghien, duc d’
Pius VII

This constitution, France;constitutions originally a complicated system of checks and balances, was the work of the political theorist Sieyès. It was altered by Bonaparte to concentrate far-reaching powers in the office of first consul, while maintaining the trappings of republicanism. After some disagreements and political maneuvering, Sieyès and his fellow consul, Pierre-Roger Ducos, retired to the senate. They were replaced by Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès and Charles François Lebrun, second and third consuls who had very limited responsibilities.

Bonaparte made much of the fact that the new constitution restored universal manhood suffrage. All male citizens age twenty-one or above did have the right to vote if they met the residence requirement, but there was no direct representation in either of the two houses of the legislature, whose members were chosen by the first consul from national lists. The electorate voted only for candidates whose names would be put on such lists. Thus Napoleon, who had once declared that “a constitution should be short and obscure,” controlled the legislature to a large extent. Coupled with the executive powers he possessed as first consul, he virtually consolidated all power in his own person. In February, 1800, a majority of nearly three million voters accepted the new government, endorsing Napoleon’s usurpation of power.

During the first years of the Consulate, France;Consulate Bonaparte used his power to solve five major problems facing France. Through a combination of concessions and toughness, he put an end to a civil war in the conservative Vendée region that had been raging with varying intensity since early in 1793. Freedom of worship was restored, and royalists were encouraged to make their peace with the government. To eliminate factionalism, Napoleon invited able men of all political persuasions to join the consular civil service, and a number of former monarchists, Girondins, and Jacobins Jacobinism;and Napoleon I[Napoleon 01] accepted. Napoleon’s second Italian campaign destroyed the Second Coalition at the Battle of Marengo Marengo, Battle of (1800) (June 14, 1800) and led to the Treaty of Lunéville Lunéville, Treaty of (1801) in 1801. There followed the Treaty of Amiens Amiens, Treaty of (1802) with Great Britain in 1802. For the first time in nine years, France was at peace with all other nations.

During the summer of 1801, Napoleon signed a concordat with Pope Pius VII Pius VII . The agreement ended the breach that had been initiated by the revolutionary government’s nationalization of lands belonging to the Roman Catholic Church France;Roman Catholics
Roman Catholic Church;and Napoleon I[Napoleon 01] in 1789 and that had continued with the adoption of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1791. Although probably a Deist or even an agnostic himself, Napoleon recognized the centrality of the Catholic faith to the majority of France’s peasant farmers, who had never accepted the Jacobin Jacobinism;and religion[Religion] cult of reason.

France’s financial problems, which had been a major cause of the revolution, were also put in better order, partly through the elimination of corruption in government contracts (which had been widespread during the Directory), the establishment of the Bank of France, and the appointment of more competent officials to oversee the Treasury. Law and order were restored at both local and national levels, and a recodification of the Civil Code—renamed the Napoleonic Code Napoleonic Code
France;Napoleonic Code (Code Napoléon) in 1807—was initiated in 1801.

Napoleon crowning Josephine empress immediately after he was crowned emperor of France.

(The S. S. McClure Company)

These measures seemed to justify the trust and power that the vast majority of French people had placed in their first consul. To them, Napoleon had become the man who had built peace and harmony out of revolutionary chaos. His popularity grew, and in August, 1802, an overwhelming majority of French citizens voted to offer him the title of first consul for life with the power to nominate his successor. In May of 1804, despite a renewal of war with Great Britain, the senate voted to give Napoleon the title of emperor and to establish the succession to the throne through the male line of the Bonaparte family.

In the so-called Opera Plot of 1800 Opera Plot (1800)
France;Opera Plot
Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Opera Plot[Opera Plot] , a wagon full of explosives was set off prematurely when Napoleon and Joséphine Bonaparte, Joséphine Bonaparte Joséphine were on their way to the opera Opera;The Creation[Creation] to hear Joseph Haydn’s The Creation. Napoleon used the incident as an excuse to eliminate the remains of the Jacobin Jacobinism faction, although the police determined that it was actually the work of Royalists subsidized by the British government. Napoleon had attempted to neutralize the Royalist opposition by granting an amnesty to all but approximately one thousand émigrés who would settle for nothing less than a Bourbon restoration. Convinced by information from Joseph Fouché, the minister of police, that a Bourbon prince was at the heart of the conspiracy, Napoleon authorized the kidnapping from Baden and execution by firing squad of the duc d’Enghien, Enghien, duc d’ a cousin of Louis XVI. The execution, achieved in March of 1804, shocked Europe, because Enghien apparently had nothing to do with plots to assassinate Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];assassination plots against Bonaparte. Despite public condemnation, Napoleon remained determined to establish a hereditary monarchy, and the overall success of his domestic and foreign policies seemed to prove that an empire would fulfill the needs of France.

Events surrounding the coronation were a curious mixture of dignity and farce. The site was moved from the Hôtel des Invalides to Notre-Dame de Paris Paris;coronation of Napoleon I to accommodate the crowds and the large number of participants. The pope agreed to participate in the ceremony and that Napoleon would crown himself and Joséphine, but he refused to recognize the Bonapartes’ civil marriage, insisting they must first be remarried according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church.

Napoleon’s brothers Lucien Bonaparte, Lucien and Jérôme Bonaparte, Jérôme were not present at the coronation, because each had married a woman whom their brother considered unsuitable. Letizia Bonaparte Bonaparte, Letizia deliberately remained in Italy with Lucien, attempting to effect a reconciliation between him and Napoleon. Hurt and annoyed, Napoleon ordered that his formidable mother be included in the official coronation painting by Jaques-Louis David. While his brothers sulked, Napoleon’s sisters Elisa, Pauline, and Caroline quarreled over their titles and about having to help bear the train of their hated sister-in-law. Amazingly, the ceremony took place without serious incident.


Although personally of simple tastes, Napoleon viewed elaborate ceremonials and titles as means of binding subordinates to his regime. Perhaps he also hoped that the creation of a monarchical system would make him more acceptable to the monarchs whose armies he had so often defeated. This reasoning was mistaken. Napoleon had underestimated the damage to his reputation resulting from Enghien’s Enghien, duc d’ execution. Europe’s hereditary kings and emperors continued to regard Napoleon as an upstart and a product of revolution.

In the decade to come, the emperor’s actions would largely confirm Europe’s opinion of him. Having achieved absolute power in France, the only logical next step as far as Napoleon was concerned was to extend his power to cover the continent. He began a series of wars of imperial conquest that, despite his eventual defeat, would permanently alter the map of Europe.

Further Reading

  • Bonaparte, Napoleon. Napoleon on Napoleon: An Autobiography of the Emperor. Edited by Somerset de Chair. London: Cassell, 1992. Edited from Napoleon’s various autobiographical writings, this work provides the emperor’s account of events leading up to his coronation, particularly the Enghien incident.
  • Holtman, Robert B. The Napoleonic Revolution. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1967. Emphasizes Napoleon’s innovations in a number of specific areas, including the law, education, religion, and nationalism, as well as his military achievements.
  • Johnson, Paul. Napoleon. New York: Viking Press, 2002. Concise biography, providing an overview of Napoleon’s life and career. Johnson portrays Napoleon as an opportunist, whose militarism and style of governance planted the seeds for warfare and totalitarianism in the twentieth century.
  • Lefebvre, Georges. Napoleon: From 18 Brumaire to Tilsit, 1799-1807. Translated by Henry F. Stockhold. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. Lefebvre considers Napoleon’s rule to have been a logical result of the events of the French Revolution. Creation of an empire did not consolidate Napoleon’s power but rather (in Lefebvre’s view) widened the gulf between the emperor and the nation.
  • Markham, Felix. The Bonapartes. New York: Taplinger, 1975. Describes the complex and frequently stormy relations among the Bonapartes, a family in which the women, particularly Napoleon’s mother Letizia and his wife Joséphine, played more meaningful parts than did several of his brothers.
  • _______. Napoleon. New York: New American Library, 1964. Provides a succinct and balanced account of the emperor’s private and public lives.
  • Méneval, Claude-François. Napoleon: An Intimate Account of the Years of Supremacy, 1800-1814. Edited by Proctor Jones, with assistance by Charles-Otto Zieseniss. New York: Random House, 1992. Drawn from the memoirs of Napoleon’s secretary, the Baron de Méneval, and his valet Constant, this lavishly illustrated book pays particular attention to the personal aspects of life at the consular and later imperial court.
  • Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Scholarly, detailed biography covering all facets of Napoleon’s life and career. Schom is unusually candid about his subject’s character flaws and failures.
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon G. Sieyès: His Life and His Nationalism. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1968. Focuses on Sieyès’s intellectual contributions to the revolutionary process and his motivation for helping to bring Napoleon to power.

Battle of Trafalgar

Peninsular War in Spain

Napoleon Invades Russia

France’s Bourbon Dynasty Is Restored

Congress of Vienna

Battle of Waterloo

Second Peace of Paris

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of France

Third French Republic Is Established

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[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];coronation of
France;First Empire