October 27, 2006 cameron

The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast #12 – Emperor of the French

Napoleon crowned himself “Emperor Of The French” (as opposed to “Emperor of France”, an important distinction) on 2 December 1804 at Notre Dame de Paris. In this episode, we discuss in detail the events leading up to the Coronation, the reasons for it, the arguments against it, the actual coronation itself, and the reaction to it in France. We also discuss why Napoleon’s mother didn’t attend and why Pope Pius VII left early.
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Comments (18)

  1. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron and David,

    Thanks again for the great podcast, I liked the way you covered the entire story about the Coronation, it was very clear and interesting as always…Thanks!

    You said that David took charge of the decoration of the Notre Dame, but weren’t that Percier and Fontaine, the famous architects? And Isabey was in charge of the costumes…I think that David was mainly ‘concerned’ with the painting(s) which is already a great job of course…

    If you read the original documents of the time, you will see that the pope gave Napoleon all the crown jewels, like the scepter, hand of justice, globe and so on…but that Napoleon went himself to the altar and took the crown (the one with the laurels) himself from the altar and placed it on his own head…He didn’t take it out of the hands of the pope and all this was agreed with the Holy Father.

    I am looking forward to the podcast about AUSTERLITZ!

    Best Regards,

    Tim Van Dyck

  2. Josh

    I’ve only just tuned in but I love the podcast and have been plugging it to some friends 🙂

    Thanks Cameron and David 🙂

    I’m 22 and about to study History at University of Wollongong in Australia next year. Despite my love of many periods in history I was nonetheless disappointed to realise there seemed to be zero opportunity to study Napoleon in the syllabus. The topic of the French Revolution is present however.

    Hopefully I can do a thesis on Napoleon as part of honours or a post graduate degree. I’m beginning to collect Napoleonic literature also.

    My interest in Napoleon was only peeked a year or 2 ago when I saw the 2003 French miniseries ‘Napoleon’ starring Christian Claviar. A series I enjoyed immensely and really portrayed the gallantry and pageantry of the era well. The miniseries was of course based on Max Gallo’s ‘Napoleon’ novels which I am now reading with great interest.

    Also Cameron I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of how to contact the Australian Napoleonic Society. I googled it but to no avail.
    Thanks again.

  3. Hey Josh welcome to the show! I think the best way to contact the ANS is to email Daniel Duldig at did @ pacific.net.au .

    Good luck with your studies and I hope you manage to do your thesis on Napoleon!

  4. Marcus

    At the risk of sounding a bit of a killjoy, I just don’t buy the “Emperor of the French” thing. Pure propaganda in my opinion. The French people were ” Asked.”…” it was logical “??????? bull*cough*shit…

    Just a couple of points:

    Why become Emperor? Why didn’t Napoleon become Prime Minister, have a cabinet, answer to Parliament et.al… Just like the warlike British… à la 1688 and all that?

    Cameron, mate, you live in a country that has only ever known monarchical parliamentary democracy???? Get real.

    Just my opinions.

  5. Cameron Reilly

    Yeah I can dig where you are coming from Marcus, but I can also see the other side of the story. Let’s remember that in 1804, “democracy” was a new concept to most people and the since the Revolution the French had seen plenty of bloodshed happen at home and abroad. I can understand that the idea of the return monarchy might have seemed like a return to stability. A “Prime Minister” is what Napoleon already was! He was the First Consul, same thing. And yet they (the forces working for a return of the Bourbons) were still trying to assassinate him. A lot of people thought that they needed a lineage, so killing Napoleon wouldn’t work

    Of course, I find the whole idea of monarchy in the 21st century to be morally reprehensible and horrifying. I am sickened that Australia still recognizes such a corrupt and irrelevant and immoral figurehead as the Queen of England.

    And part of me also wishes Napoleon never went there as well. But he did. And it’s yet another one of the factors behing his rise and fall which make it such a great tale.

  6. I absolutely agree Marcus.
    The emperor thing was bullshit through and through.
    The French were a republic and one would have thought they would wish to model themselves on the most famous republic of all. That being the Roman Republic.
    Napoleon, it seems, preferred Caesars or Ocatavians version of the republic.
    The decision to be emperor may have been just about acceptable but the decision to make it hereditary changes it into a monarchy. Napoleon had earned the right and had the credentials to lead his country but any offspring of his would not have earned that right.
    Cameron
    A monarchy is usually despicable for misuse of power, misuse of tax levies being unnacountable and that power being in the hands of one or very few.
    Why would a monarchy with no power sicken you?

    Congrats on the podcast.
    I’m enjoying it thoroughly despite the overload of Brit bashing.

  7. hehe well we asked for feedback! Thanks for your insights Jim. Glad you’re enjoying the show. Brit bashing? Puhleeeze. We just call it as we sees it. 🙂

    I think the whole concept of a Monarchy is despicable because it suggest that some people are born superior to others. I’m not talking about superior in terms of privelege – I’ve got no problem with Bill Gates’ kids having more money or opportunities. No problem with success in a meritocracy.

    But monarchy is a throw back to a period of human history when we accepted that some people ruled over others because of the grace of God. They were superior, had superior rights and opportunities, because of their lineage. Surely that’s a concept we should completely eliminate from any democratic, civilised society in the 21st century?

    The Queen, in theory, wields enormous political power, whether she chooses to use it or not. And I have a serious issue with that.

    It’s worth noting that the Queen currenly serves as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which when combined with her role in Parliament, is a clearly a concern for any people who believe in a division of Church and State.
    From an Australian perspective, the Queen’s representative sacked our Prime Minister in the early 70s, and when the Head of State of one country can dismiss the democratically elected leader of another country at her whim, in the late 20th century, it’s proof that she is willing to use her power when she chooses.

    The Queen’s personal wealth has been estimated from between US$500 million to US$10 Billion. According to Wikipedia:

    The Queen, as Head of State, has the power to declare war, to make peace, to recognise foreign states, to conclude treaties, and to take over, or give up, territory, on behalf of the United Kingdom.

    This is someone who was not democratically elected by the people. You don’t have an issue with that set-up?

  8. Gentlemen!!
    Great to hear your latest offerings. It was as riveting and as informative as the last 10 have been!!!.
    You have now entered the phase in Napoleon’s life that I find the most fascinating – that of the Empire! So keep the podcasts rolling fast and furious!!
    One thing I believe I can help set straight is the reason ‘Madame’ the Emperors mother did not attend the coronation.
    Gilbert Martineau in his biography on Madame Mere touches on the subject and it was nothing to do with her dislike of Josephine, which was well known, but her anger at all her siblings receiving titles but no mention being made as to what she would officially be called. To show her anger at this she set out for Lucca to ‘Take the Waters’ intending to say away until notified of her title. Napoleon sent for her to return to Paris for the coronation, but as his message again mentioned no title she deliberately made a slow progress back, not arriving until 19 December. It wasn’t until March 23, 1805 that she was offically given the tile of ‘Son Altesse Impériale, Madame, Mère de sa Majesté l’Empereur’. I believe the reason it took so long was that Napoleon didn’t believe she was doing enough in the negotiations with Lucien and Jerome on the subject of dissolving their marriages. And it wasn’t until she made a declaration before a notary, on February 22, 1805 stating she did not agree to Jerome’s marriage that Napoleon agreed to her having a tile.
    So, even thought he held his mother in great respect, he still wasn’t past using her to get his way with the rest of the family!
    Cameron, I see you are getting quite a bit of feedback from listeners within Australia. What about getting a register going for those that would be interested in forming a group for a bit of a ‘gathering’. I am based in Sydney and would be happy to arrange something and would also be more than happy to show my collection to those interested. I’ve also updated my web site if you want to have a look! http://www.frenchempirecollection.com
    Again, thanks to you both for helping to spread the word on one of the most fascinating people in recent history.
    Ken Richards
    Sydney, Australia.

  9. Duncan

    In earlier episodes, I’ve been amused how J. David always finds a way to defend Napoleon’s questionable actions – e.g., saying Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt was simply a general following the orders of the Directory (when he had, in the past, refused other assignments) or that the duc d’Enghien’s execution was really the fault of Talleyrand more than Napoleon, etc., etc. – but in this episode, J.David takes his apologist act to new heights.

    Napoleon becoming Emperor or the restoration of the Bourbons as the only choices facing this young republic? I suppose if you limit yourself to those two choices, then Napoleon’s actions might look acceptable. However, there were other options – one only has to look across the Atlantic Ocean at a leader from that period who chose to give up power to protect another young republic’s integrity. I am, of course, referring to Washington’s decision not to run for a third term. Napoleon could have stood down and remained general of the armies. There could have been many other options – it was not only Emperor or King.

    The fact is, Napoleon desired that power, and whether he called himself Emperor or King doesn’t really matter. You know the saying, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…”

    I think that one of the reasons Napoleon is the most written-about historical figure is because he was a tremendously complex individual. He did both great and terrible things. To reduce him to devil, as Alan Schom did in “NB: A Life”, or to lift him up as a faultless saint, as J. David does in seemingly every episode, only serves to reduce the man and his life.

  10. Cameron

    Come on Duncan, that’s hardly fair. We have often stated on the show that Napoleon was no saint. Especially now that we’re post-1812. David and I would agree with you that Napoleon was extremely complex and that is the main reason for our endless fascination with him. The comparison with Washington is interesting but pretty flawed. Washington was leading a new country, not one of the oldest empires on the planet that had traditions of kings dating back thousands of years and was one of the intellectual and cultural centres of the world for much of that time. You really cannot compare a nascent country like the United States and France in the early 19th century. Just look at the disaster that post-Revolutionary France was under the Directory. Napoleon was trying to create a hybrid between the old and the new. Was it perfect? Far from it. Was he ambitious? Yes. Is that a crime? You tell me.

  11. Duncan

    You say that France had a tradition of kings dating back thousands of years. True enough, but how many of those king went under the guillotine before Louis XVI? It seems to me that 1789 cleaned (bloodied?) the slate, and France no longer had to be tied down by that long royal history.

    I brought Washington up as only one example of how things could have gone.
    What I was trying to suggest is that there could have been other options besides Napoleon crowning himself emperor or restoring the Bourbons. J. David seems to suggest that there weren’t any other choices. I don’t know if I buy that – it seems to me that Napoleon put personal ambition ahead of republican ideals.

    I’m no expert in this area like you or J. David, but I do know that, at least in part, the American Revolution was an inspiration for the French Revolution. Do you know if something like the American system of government was ever seriously considered by Napoleon? How aware were they in France of what was going on in America at the time? Napoleon may have been progressive by the standards of the day, but did he ever think about taking it a step or two further, ie, transferring power to some sort of elected head instead of trying to create an hereditary empire, and so avoid becoming the very thing he stood against? Or did the discord of post-Revolutionary France make him think that something along those lines was impossible?

    BTW, despite the reservations I expressed in my last post, I am enjoying the series quite a bit and appreciate the work you two have done on the podcast and website. I’ve listened to the first dozen episodes in the last two weeks, so I guess I’m not too put off but what I sometimes consider a bit of cheerleading! Look forward to hearing the rest of this tale…

  12. Cameron

    When Napoleon took power in France, the Revolution was on a very weak foundation and the royalists were trying to assert that the authority of a King was what was needed to bring France back to order. I don’t recall David ever suggesting there wasn’t any other choice (however I havent re-listened to the show) but it is true that many of Napoleon’s advisors were recommending he take the throne as the best solution of bringing stability to the Empire after the various assassination attempts on his life. The idea being that it wouldn’t make any sense for the conspirators to assassinate him as the throne would be passed onto his next of kin, hopefully his yet-to-be-born son. There is no other solution that would have assured a succession plan like that. However, personally, I hardly think Napoleon wasn’t also involved in the plan. Who wouldn’t want to be known as an Emperor? He was human. He had a massive ego. He was also a brilliant leader, he knew it, and he was also the best man for the job. The other reason being an Emperor made sense was that he would then be on even footing, title-wise, with the other monarchs of Europe. They could no longer refer to him as an ‘usurper’. In theory, anyway.

    Anyway Duncan, debate around these issues is great! I don’t think there is a single right perspective. As you said earlier, he was complex as were the issues. Is there ever a completely right decision? We make the best one we can. Whether or not we, two hundred years later, agree with Napoleon’s decision, is part of the fun of history. When I first read about Napoleon I was as shocked as you are about his decision to build a new Monarchy. These days I appreciate his reasoning a little better but it still doesn’t mean I would 100% agree with it either.

    In the same way, I understand the rationale behind the Brits still having royalty but I think it’s disgusting that in the 21st century, we still recognize castes of people. When Australia had a vote about the issue ten years ago, I voted for a Republic. Unfortunately, the majority of Australian’s didn’t agree.

  13. Thanks for the excellent podcast.

    I know you can’t cover everything however I was surprised that you could spend a lot of time in #9 about all the great reforms but in #11 and #12 you skipped over “the Law of 20 May 1802” in which “Bonaparte re-established slavery in France’s colonial possessions, where it had been banned following the Revolution.”

    That seems like a significant enough event that you would have wanted to cover it. Is it covered in one of the later podcasts?

    I look forward to each episode. Thanks for you work to educate us about one of histories most fascinating figures. What will I do when I finish episode #49? Do you have another project planned?

  14. Cameron

    Hi Bradley! I know we discussed slavery in Tahiti at some stage. Can’t remember which episode it was though! Let me know when you get to that one.

    David and I co-host the Biography Show on TPN (http://biography.thepodcastnetwork.com) and we keep talking about doing a whole series on Caesar but haven’t made much progress on it yet.

  15. I was re-reading Rousseau’s masterpiece “The Social Contract,” and I came across something relevant here. Rousseau, the philosopher of the Revolution, had actually opposed the idea of calling a leader the ruled “of a people,” arguing that the king could not “own” the people, but only rule over a territory. So he has a different interpretation of it altogether, which I wonder if any of the Revolutionaries in Napoleon’s time remembered or even cared about.

    • Cameron

      Interesting stuff, Nicholas. I don’t think by “Emperor of the French” Napoleon meant that he OWNED the people, just that he represented the people.

  16. Ah, Napoleon; France’s Cromwell. A man whose ambition caused the death of 5-7 million people, caused the widespread devastation of Europe, caused the restoration of the Ancien Regime and held back global social and economic progress.

    I really don’t thiink the code napoleon makes up for that somehow.

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