Rise of Napoleon

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13593

After the French Revolution had upended the government of the country, the newly democratic nation was keen to enforce its sovereignty in Europe. During this fight for autonomy, a dictator was born.


People and Their Environment, World

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Auditory, Visual
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Grade Level
High School (9-12)
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Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

This was the slogan of the French Revolution, during which people overthrew a centuries-old monarchy in favor of popular rule.

However, within just a few short years, the country would again be ruled by a tyrant.

  • How did this happen so quickly?

The Directory

French Constitution 1795

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

During the French Revolution, France fought a coalition of nearly every major European power. Within this chaos, the debate in Paris was tearing the new government apart.

Pay attention to what the Directory was while watching 2nd November 1795: The Directory established in France from HistoryPod:

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As the central authority in Paris began to splinter, military power grew. The Directory was established to diffuse a central authority across multiple individuals.

This tactic might have worked if it weren't for one complication -- France was still at war.

By 1795, the anti-French alliance had dissolved, and the only countries fighting were Britain and Austria. Having fought all of Europe for years, French citizens were tired of war and of having to sacrifice in the name of independence.


  • Why were Britain and Austria so determined to stop French independence?

The French Revolution was the first time a European monarch had been overthrown by the people. This served as a massive referendum on the idea of absolute monarchy.

Despite monarchies across the continent granting varying degrees of democracy, the royal class depended on maintaining the status quo. If this revolution spread across the western world, all the families in power and aristocrats who profited from their positions would lose their favor and wealth.

General Napoleon


In 1795, Napoleon was promoted to Second-in-Command in Paris. As his first act, he quelled a royalist uprising that was attempting to restore the monarchy.

A return to the monarchy was supported by many wealthy aristocrats who profited from the system. However, the chaos occurring also had many peasants longing for the stability that had existed under Louis XVI.

Quelling this uprising secured the Directory as the new executive, and its governing body was indebted to Napoleon. Because General Napoleon demonstrated strategic ability, the Directory promoted him further to commander of the army in Italy.

The Directory put Napoleon in command here because France sought to make a deal with Austria for Belgium, which it controlled. If northern Italy could be captured from Austria, the territory could be used to trade for Belgium. This would expand French borders while still maintaining a sense of order.

The Directory did not want to overextend French borders and make the democratic body seem war-hungry. They feared that taking too much land would further encourage European powers to form a coalition against them.

  • So what did Napoleon do?

Napoleon captured northern Italy and immediately went to Campo Formio to sign a peace treaty with Austria.


However, two problems existed with the Treaty of Campo Formio:

  1. Napoleon initiated the treaty without talking to the Directory. He acted independently without their consent or guidance.
  2. Napoleon exchanged no territory. He took northern Italy and demanded Belgium.

Through these two actions, Napoleon showed that, although he kept the Directory in existence, he did not respect its authority.

However much the executive body of the Directory may have despised General Napoleon, they could not do anything about it. Paris was still in a struggle against royalist factions, and the only unifying figure at the time was Napoleon.

The executives may not have been popular to everyone or even known, but all French citizens came to know General Napoleon as the man who was restoring French power and pride.

The Bloodless Coup

Napolean in the 1799 coup, 1840

Image by François Bouchot, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

By 1799, the Directory was still struggling. Many believed it did not have enough power to govern effectively.

As a result, several politicians were persuaded to overthrow the Directory in favor of a strong central government. Napoleon was a part of this coup, but he had even larger plans than the other participants.

As you watch Napoleon's Bloodless Coup | History, pay attention to the way Napoleon uses his fame as a general to get what he wants:

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Napoleon was by no means Emperor by 1799, but he had become the First Consul of France. This coup within a coup was the culmination of years of chaos, and many in France believed stability was finally on the horizon.

Continue on to the Got It? section to make sure you understand the conditions that led to the rise of Napoleon's power.

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