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Napoleon's rise to power was a result of his military genius, luck, and timing. While he was a student at the military academy at Brienne, Napoleon was often mocked by other students because of his strong Corsican accent. Most scholars believe this humiliation made him determined to succeed. He demonstrated brilliance at an early age, and completed the military academy in one year, where he excelled in artillery training.
During the French Revolution, Napoleon was a Jacobin, who would probably have been guillotined; however he had political connections which helped save his head. He freed the village of Toulon from British control, and won a number of supporters. By remaining away from political conflicts, he managed to see his star rise while the heads of his friends rolled.
In 1795, he put down a royalist revolt which threatened the General Assembly with his famous "whiff of grapeshot." He also married well, marrying a widow, Josephine Beauharnais, whose husband had been guillotined.
Sent to Egypt to intercept the British there, Napoleon acted virtually on his own. He had a unique ability to keep the loyalty of his troops, even though he often treated them brutally. With the army behind him, Napoleon was unstoppable.
The first answer concentrates on Napoleon's own characteristics. This is typical of an approach to history that emphasizes "great men." This approach holds that the actions of great men are what affect history -- Napoleon rises to power based mainly on his own characteristics.
I would argue against this view of history. To me, greater historical forces are what brought Napoleon to power. If it had not been Napoleon, someone else would have taken power in a similar way because the historical context made it likely.
When Napoleon rose to power, France was no longer a monarchy but was not ready for democracy. There was a vacuum in power because the monarchy and aristocracy had been eliminated. But France did not really have a democratic tradition that would have demanded an elected government. Because of this, it was easy for a Napoleon, a dictator, to take power. The people were still used to obeying those placed over them rather than having a voice in choosing those people.
So I would argue that Napoleon rose to power based largely on two factors -- the fact that the traditional French leaders were gone and the fact that the French were not ready for democracy. These factors allowed a dictator to rise to power and Napoleon was the one who happened to fill the position.
With all due respect to the learned response of # 2; I'm not sure that the French situation was so volatile that the first dictator who came along would win the day. Granted the French had problems, and their struggle to establish a Republic had met with obstacles; but I'm not sure that this would not have been accomplished sooner had not Napoleon come to the forefront. If nothing else, Napoleon was ambitious and power hungry. He had both the military genius and the determination to take over.
My own opinion that, had Napoleon not come to the forefront as he did; France would have eventually found its way to Democracy. It would not have been a straight line journey; but then neither was the journey of the United States a straight line. This country managed to avoid a dictatorship; I simply do not believe that the French were that volative. To me the credit does not belong to the people, but to the man himself.
This may seem like common sense, but I'm going to put it out there. I think, as is usually true in life, Napoleon's rise to power was not the result of one cause or factor but the combination of factors. #1 Deals with the "right person" angle, while #2 deals with the "right place, right time" angle. I think it is all of these, the "perfect storm" of conditions that allowed such an unusual rise to power. It is very rare historically and statistically that there is one cause for any given event or outcome. It is most often the combination of existing factors that allow an event to occur and if one of those factors is removed, the event doesn't happen.
I think that history itself recognizes or perhaps corroborates that it was a combination of the two. If it were just Napoleon, his return after his first exile would not have been possible. It is clear that the French as a people were looking for his type.
And if it were true that it was entirely his military genius, why couldn't he learn from his own mistakes and adjust (something he is given quite a bit of credit for in his early career) when the English finally figured out how to defeat his columns? If he was such a genius, why the litany of mistakes tactically and strategically at Waterloo?
So I too think it is really a combination of the various historical factors and his own smarts and tendencies that combined to help him rise to the top.
Posts 5 and 6 both make excellent points. Having read your posts, it seems plausible that it was indeed a "perfect storm" that led Napoleon to the top. He was literally the right man in the right place at the right time. While I am inclined to think that Napoleon's genius was a factor, he only was successful because he found fertile soil from which his ideas would bear fruit. I'm glad this issue was moved to the discussion board; the posts have been quite enlightening.
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