About Napoleon
Special Features
Classroom Materials
Site Index
Shop PBS


The Man and the MythNapoleon and JosephinePolitics in Napoleon's TimeNapoleon at War

The French Revolution
Politics and the People
The Fall of Napoleon's Empire
Napoleon's Legacy

The French Revolution

On July 14, 1789 Paris erupted. Angry crowds stormed through the Bastille, setting off the French Revolution. The National Assembly challenged the absolute right of the King and stripped nobles and clergy of their ancient feudal privileges, fracturing a social order that had endured for centuries.

The revolution gained momentum, eventually reaching Bonaparte, who was serving in the army far from Paris. He welcomed the changes transforming the country.

DEBAECQUE: He is certainly not a revolutionary before the beginning of the Revolution. But Bonaparte welcomes the Revolution. He feels that the Revolution is going to open up French society, abolish privileges and hierarchies. Bonaparte was a man of his times and to be 20 years old in 1789 is really important. Napoleon’s destiny and the destiny of the whole country become the same.

In the summer of 1792, Bonaparte journeyed to Paris, and on August 10 witnessed the storming of the Tuilleries Palace. The mob massacred the king's Swiss Guards and King Louis XVI was dethroned. The French Republic was proclaimed that Fall.

On January 21, 1793, the king was executed. The queen and thousands more followed him to the guillotine. A month later, Maximilien Robespierre, the austere, moralizing leader of the French government, vowed to save the Republic from its enemies at any cost. The Revolution turned into the Terror. "Liberty," he said, "cannot be secured unless criminals lose their heads."


Wanting to make his voice heard, Bonaparte wrote in support of Robespierre. He hated the Terror, but he hated chaos even more.

DEBAECQUE: Bonaparte is really a man of order. For him, order has to serve ideals — exactly the idea of Robespierre. It is necessary to suspend liberties in the name of liberty, in order to save liberty. To save the Republic it’s necessary to suspend individual liberties.

In the summer of 1794, Robespierre’s government fell. On July 27, the guillotine he made bloody came down on his own head. The Terror was over. France had a new constitutional government.

By 1795, a fragile peace was established within France. But the armies of the kings of Europe - Austria, Spain, Prussia, Great Britain – were bent on destroying the new French Republic. Pulling together the remnants of the army, France prepared for war, promising to help "all peoples rise against their rulers."