Napoleon’s Revolutionary Crown: The Unapologetic Rehabilitation of Hereditary Power

By Richard J. Siegler III

While in exile on Saint Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte famously remarked to Charles Tristan, marquis de Montholon, “I have dethroned no one.  I found the crown in the gutter.  I picked it up and the people put it on my head.”[1]  Napoleon was, of course, referring to the crown of France, which had not been donned since the National Convention’s abolition of the Bourbon monarchy on 21 September 1792 that ended Louis XVI’s reign as King of France.  Indeed, the French revolutionaries abolished both monarchy and nobility, two of the central pillars of the so-called Ancien Régime. But had the crown, both the literal symbol of kingship and the metonymical term used to denote the institution of monarchy, truly been languishing in the “gutter” before Napoleon placed it on his head as Emperor of the French? How could a man who was seen by many contemporaries to be the heir of the Revolution have rehabilitated and reestablished the institution of monarchy by 1804, a little over a decade after the execution of Louis XVI?   Even more provocatively, to what extent can monarchy be revolutionary?

One way to get at these questions is through the Gazette nationale ou le Moniteur universel, which was privileged as the official journal of the French state throughout Napoleon’s reign as First Consul and then as Emperor.  As the official mouthpiece of the state from 1799 to 1815, Le Moniteur acted extensively as an instrument to justify a number of significant shifts in domestic policy, none more so than the creation of the French Empire on 18 May 1804.  On the whole, the extensive preparation for this change in the press highlights how Napoleon and his state bureaucrats intentionally cast monarchy and the principle of heredity as conducive with the ideals and aims of the French Revolution.

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Beginning in February of 1804, the political staff of Le Moniteur began to prepare public opinion for the shift from the Consulate to the Empire.  One of the central components of this effort in the official newspaper was the publication of a series of speeches in the Tribunat as to whether the principle of heredity was in line with the goals of 1789 and the French Revolution.  Nearly all of the tribunes answered in the affirmative, with the exception of Lazare Carnot, drawing upon an assortment of historical examples, political theory, and practical arguments.  One tribune, in fact, went so far as to argue that the National Constituent Assembly, “would have been at the height of their vows,” if Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes, “had led them to found a new dynasty.”[2]  The same tribune concluded his speech, stating “It is by the same reasons that we desire today heredity of the supreme power; we have not ceased to be the French of 1790 that history will not accuse of a single servile concession,”[3] with the implicit understanding that they had found a man worthy of the title. 

Jacques-Louis_David,_The_Coronation_of_Napoleon_edit
Coronation of Napoleon, by Jacques-Louis David

To another tribune, the people of France sought the “ancient warranty” of hereditary monarchy, which was “melded in its political system and institutions…that gives great states, not the promise of a few years, but the permanence of centuries.”[4]  In refuting the dissonance between the Revolution and the reinstitution of monarchy, he argued that the French people of 1789 simply wanted a “hereditary leader, institutions guaranteeing public freedom and inviolable laws…Today we demand the solemn pact requested and promised in 1789.”[5]  The return to heredity in the nominal form of an empire was the culmination of the French Revolution, according to these tribunes whose justifications of the new Napoleonic monarchy dominated the pages of Le Moniteur throughout the first two weeks of May 1804.

In light of the rhetorical emphasis placed on Napoleon’s reign as an extension of the Revolution, could monarchy really have been in the political gutter for only about a decade before being revived in ostentatious and unapologetic imperial pomp?  If we take some of the recent work on the French Revolution as an invitation to “turn our attention (at least sometimes) from the entrance of the new to the far slower and more laborious exit of the old,”[6] then we can better appreciate how a revolution can at different times be a drastic change, a negotiation, and a redefinition; how a revolution can be just as much a break as a continuity, if for instance, we look at the relatively swift rehabilitation of the institution of monarchy under Napoleon and its persistence up to 1848, or even during the Second Empire.  Indeed, in the “political, cultural, and social instability that was the Revolution,” the revolutionaries efforts in “vowing to efface ‘all signs of the past regime’ would always prove faster and easier than actually doing so.”[7]  Monarchy was no different.

A revolution can be an exhilarating process full of hope and possibilities, but it can also be a period of wild unpredictability. Perhaps it was not a monarch, a fallible human being as Louis XVI proved per se that the French desired, but monarchy and all the associations with long-term stability, trust, security, prestige, and international power that the French wanted most of all. In the post-Terror climate, the pursuit of stability was a political necessity. Napoleon was able to revive monarchy in the politically vital verbiage of an empire, while harnessing the images, associations, and apparatuses of the monarchical Old Regime. Moreover, monarchy’s return in 1804 points towards the social capital and power that the institution maintained after the Terror. The speeches from the Tribunate published in Le Moniteur indicate Napoleon’s desire to reunite the Revolution with the crown.  If Napoleon did find the French crown lying in the gutter, maybe it was not as tarnished as we might think.

Richard J. Siegler III is a doctoral student at Florida State University in the Institute on the French Revolution and NapoleonYou can contact him at rsiegler@fsu.edu.

Title image: Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

[1] Philip Mansel, Monarchy and Exile: the Politics of Legitimacy from Marie de Médicis to Wilhelm II (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 221.

[2] Discours du c. Fréville, le Moniteur universel, no 222, mercredi, 12 Floréal an 12 de la république française, 2 Mai, 1804.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Discours du c. Duveyrier, le Moniteur universel, no 222, mercredi, 12 Floréal an 12 de la république française, 2 Mai, 1804.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rebecca L. Spang, Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 17.

[7] Ibid., 18.

Recommended Readings:

Lyons, Martyn. Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Price, Munro. The Road from Versailles: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Fall of the French Monarchy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014.

Spang, Rebecca L. Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Tackett, Timothy. When the King Took Flight. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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