Napoleon Becomes a Man of Destiny

Grade level: 7-12
Subjects: History, Language Arts
Estimated Time of Completion: 3 to 5 class periods

I. Objectives
II. Standards
III. Materials Needed
IV. Procedure
V. Assessment Suggestions
VI. Extensions/Adaptations
VII. Web Resources


  • To help students analyze the forces that shape character development, including the role of historical events.
  • To help students contrast the ethos of the Ancien Regime with the new ideals awakened by the French Revolution.

This lesson correlates to the following national standards for history, established by the National Center for History in the Schools at

  • Explain how the French Revolution developed from constitutional monarchy to democratic despotism to the Napoleonic Empire.
  • Analyze leading ideas of the revolution concerning social equality, democracy, human rights, constitutionalism, and nationalism and assess the importance of these ideas for democratic thought and institutions in the 20th century.
  • Explain how the revolution affected French society, including religious institutions, social relations, education, marriage, family life, and the legal and political position of women
This lesson correlates to the following national standards for language arts, established by MCREL at
  • Demonstrates competency in the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
  • Uses grammar and mechanical conventions in written composition.
  • Gathers and uses information for research purposes.
  • A copy of Part One of the PBS video "Napoleon"
  • Computers with Internet access


This lesson is based on Episode One "To Destiny" of the four-part PBS series "Napoleon." It is suggested you show the hour-long video in 5 viewing segments (see below). Before viewing the video, students are asked to consider what has influenced their own lives and whether or not they believe in "destiny." At the end of the program they must assess what have been the most significant factors in shaping Napoleon's early life, including historical events of the period. The class, working in small groups (each group assigned to one of the 5 segments of the video), creates a "ladder" of the steps Napoleon took towards his destiny, analyzing what propelled his ascent at each step. At the conclusion of the lesson, students role play various people in Napoleon's formative years and hold a discussion about him.

For each segment of Episode One, discussion and teaching activities are also suggested. You can use these to enhance the ladder and role-play activities mentioned above, skip them altogether, or even use several of them in their own right if you only have time to show a few of the segments of the video.

All 5 viewing segments are listed below. If you are limited for time and cannot show all 5, choose segments 2, 3 and 5.

Segment 1: Napoleon's upbringing on Corsica, his mother and father, the move to France (approximately the first 13 minutes).

Segment 2: The family's move to France through Napoleon's training at the Ecole Militaire (from approximately 13 to 20 minutes into the film. This segment begins with the image of trees in winter).

Segment 3: The outbreak of the Revolution, Napoleon's return to Corsica, exile and return to France, the Battle of Toulon, promotion to full General. (from approximately 20 minutes to 38 minutes into the film. This segment begins with fighting scenes and booming cannon).

Segment 4: Napoleon falls in love with Josephine (from approximately 38 minutes to 44 minutes into the video. This segment begins with gentle scenes of Paris, a portrait of Napoleon and harp music).

Segment 5: Napoleon wins major battles against Austria and her ally, ending with the crossing of Lodi Bridge (from 44 minutes into the film until the end. This segment begins with images of the mountains).

Introductory Class Discussion:

Part I: What is Destiny?

Episode One of "Napoleon" begins with Napoleon as a young man searching, like any other young person, for a sense of identity, and ends with Napoleon's conviction that he is a man of destiny—someone who would change the face of Europe. Once students can identify with the young Napoleon and his stormy adolescence, following his trajectory into history becomes much more spellbinding.

Ask students if they believe they have a destiny. If so, how will they find it, or will it find them? Distribute the three quotes below, or write them on the blackboard. Discuss how each one represents a different view of what destiny means. Ask students to look up the word in a dictionary. As you view Episode One with your students, return to the theme of destiny. Did Napoleon create his destiny by virtue of the fact that he believed he had one? What role did his individual talents and force of character play? What effect did the unfolding events of history play in shaping his life? How did he impose his will on the destiny of Europe?

"The longest journey
Is the journey inwards
Of him who has chosen his destiny"
—Dag Hammarskjold (1905-1961)

"Sow a habit, and you reap a character,
Sow a character, and you reap a destiny"

"'Tis all a Checkerboard of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces Plays."
—Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883)

Part II: What Factors Have Influenced Your Own Life? What Factors Influenced Napoleon's?

Before viewing the film, ask students what factors they think have influenced them most in their formative years. Distribute Activity Sheet I. Tell students that the personal responses filled in on these sheets will not have to be turned in or shown to other students.

After students have filled in their charts, ask students to volunteer some of their observations about themselves. You might start by asking students what they wrote in the center of their charts and what they listed in the outermost peripheries. Ask students to compare how their charts reflect life in the 20th century, as opposed to life in the 18th or 19th centuries. As students watch Episode One and compare their lives to Napoleon's, ask them what differences or similarities they see.

Tell students that after viewing Episode One of "Napoleon" they will be asked to fill in Activity Sheet 2 for Napoleon's life, justifying their choices for what they believe influenced him most.

Visualizing and Analyzing Napoleon's Ascent "To Destiny"

If you plan to show all 5 segments of the video and to complete the ladder activity, place students in one of 5 groups, each group corresponding to one of the 5 segments of Episode One. Members of each group have the task of taking notes on the steps that moved Napoleon up his ladder of success "to destiny" when you show that segment of the film. Students can also research other events that took place in Napoleon's life at this time, using the timeline on the PBS Napoleon Web site, as well as other sources on the Internet. If in addition you plan to implement the suggested discussion questions and activities after a particular segment, the students assigned to that segment may be exempted from those questions and activities while they work on their portion of the ladder.

After viewing their segment of Episode One, group members should meet and compare notes. How many "steps" did they find in their segment of the program? For each "step" the group must produce three index cards. (They can divide the work, or you can assign various tasks to group members.) These include:

  1. A factual index card giving concise details of the step and the events leading up to it
  2. A bold symbolic graphic to represent the step.
  3. An analysis card which explains what moved Napoleon up a step.
They should consider the following as they analyze each step: Did Napoleon advance because of
  • his birth or station in life
  • his talents
  • chance or luck
  • his strategic use of historical events
  • his connections to important people
  • his own ambition
Help more advanced students contrast how Napoleon's life would have been different if he had lived all of it before the French Revolution. Older students can also research Napoleon's life in greater depth, adding in "steps" that may not have appeared in the video.

An example of a step might be as follows:

Card 1: Napoleon is promoted from acting Lieutenant-Colonel to Brigadier-General after the Battle of Toulon (1793).

Toulon, an important naval base in France, had welcomed the British into their city, turning their backs on the leaders of the French Revolution. Napoleon was sent to help wrest the city from the British after the artillery captain was wounded. There Napoleon devised a plan to seize the heights from which the French could bombard the British. He convinced his superiors that the plan would work, and it did. In the battle Napoleon was wounded in the thigh by an English bayonette.

Card 2: Napoleon with a bayonet thrust in his thigh, or a map of the Toulon harbor.

Card 3: Napoleon was promoted after this battle for several reasons. Luck played a role because he was called to fill in for someone else who was injured. However, Napoleon seized the opportunity fate gave him and demonstrated both his good strategic thinking and his own courage in the battlefield. His rapid promotion was aided by the fact that many of the French aristocrats in the army had fled France, making way for younger and less well-connected men to advance.

Viewing the Video: Suggested Questions and Activities

Watch the video in 5 segments, allowing time in between each for discussion, reflection and note-taking.

Segment 1: Napoleon's upbringing on Corsica, his mother and father, the move to France (approximately the first 13 minutes).


  1. Historians have argued over the importance of Napoleon's Corsican heritage. What do you feel it explains about Napoleon?
  2. Napoleon so hated having his native country conquered by the French, yet in the name of France he went on to be the greatest conqueror of other European countries the world had ever seen. How do you explain this paradox?
  3. Napoleon loved his mother and disliked his father. Does this necessarily mean that she influenced him more? How did each parent influence Napoleon? What two sides of Napoleon can we see through the effect of each parent?
  4. Do you think Napoleon's family did the right thing by deserting Corsica for France?
Segment 2: The family's move to France through Napoleon's training at the Ecole Militaire (from approximately 13 to 20 minutes into the film. This segment begins with the image of trees in winter).


  1. Napoleon is sent off to school at Brienne at the age of 9. It was five years before he saw his parents again. How would he have felt in this situation? How do you think it might have affected Napoleon's character and personality?
  2. List all the factors that made Napoleon an "outsider" at both Brienne and the Ecole Militaire. In what way(s) can you identify with Napoleon's feelings in this role?
  3. Why, under the Ancien Regime was there no possibility for Napoleon to reach the top ranks of his profession? What is it like to have a dream which seems impossible to fulfil because of society's strictures?
  4. What about Napoleon's experiences at this time, as well as his reading and education, might have made him sympathetic to the ideals of the Revolution?
  5. Isolated and withdrawn, Napoleon does not seem to be a "leader" of his classmates. What about his situation might have been preparing him for leadership nonetheless?
  1. Ask students to assume the role of a teacher and to write a school report for Napoleon at either Brienne or the Ecole Militaire. They should create a grading system, categories, and fill them in. As a teacher, they should write their impressions of this young man.
  2. Assign students to write a letter home as an aristocratic student at the Ecole Militaire in which they describe this young Corsican.
  3. Choose 5 class members to role-play students at the Ecole Militaire. Give to each one an index card on which you have written his or her French name and a brief "report card" you have created. The French students should range from a top student to a mediocre student.

    Ask the "French" students to give a brief oral report on their academic and military careers thus far, elaborating a bit on what you have written for them. Then ask the class: Which of these students should receive the best commission upon graduating?

    Next give to each "French" student a card on which you have described their "Family Background." These should range from a relative of the king, to minor nobility, to a commoner. Ask the "French" students to read them aloud.

    Now give the highest commission and most preferred position to the relative of the king, no matter that he is the poorest student with the poorest accomplishments in the field.

    Ask students in what ways the French Revolution will change this system.

Segment 3: The outbreak of the Revolution, Napoleon's return to Corsica, exile and return to France, the Battle of Toulon, promotion to full General (from approximately 20 minutes to 38 minutes into the film. This segment begins with fighting scenes and booming cannon).


  1. Ask students to watch Segment 3 with this overriding question in mind: Does Napoleon support the ideals of the French Revolution or is he merely an opportunist, using events to further his own career?
  2. It is not until Napoleon returns to Corsica that he settles his "identity crisis." Sociologists study the many roles we all play in life simultaneously which sometimes come into conflict.

    Ask students how the following dual roles, in certain situations, can create conflicting loyalties. For example a student might have an exam to study for on the same night that a friend in crisis needs counseling.


    In what way was Napoleon forced to choose between being French and being a Corsican? What were some of the penalties he had to pay?

  3. Why does the Battle of Toulon bring Napoleon to the attention of the French public for the first time?
  4. How do you feel about the rising of Vendemiaire when Napoleon fires cannon into a mob that wishes to restore the monarchy in Paris? Were his actions justified or not? What do they tell us about Napoleon?
  5. Dorothy Carrington, one of the historians in this segment says, "Ambition swallowed up his childhood hopes and failures." What does she mean by this statement? Can you imagine something similar happening to you? How might Napoleon's fierce ambition and his sense of his "destiny" relate?
  1. Using the PBS Napoleon Web site "The French Revolution," make a chart which contrasts France under the Ancien Regime and France after the Revolution. Have students access the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen ( What rights do the citizens of France have after the Revolution that they did not have before? How might these changes affect Napoleon's opportunities to rise in the army? What has happened to many of the aristocrats who used to lead the army?
Segment 4: Napoleon falls in love with Josephine (from approximately 38 minutes to 44 minutes into the video. This segment begins with gentle scenes of Paris, a portrait of Napoleon and harp music).


  1. Return to the theme of destiny by asking students if they believe two people can be "destined" for one another. What does it show about Napoleon's view of his life that he inscribed Josephine's wedding gift with the words "To Destiny." What do you think he meant by this and why did he write it to her?
  2. Divide the chalk board into three sections with the following headings:
    • What Napoleon and Josephine share in common (character traits, background, ambitions,etc.).
    • What Napoleon gains through an alliance with Josephine.
    • What Josephine gains through an alliance with Napoleon.
  1. As either Napoleon or Josephine, ask students to write a letter to a friend. How would each describe their ensuing romance? Or ask two students to role-play the parts of the lovers in a "cinema verite" style interview.
Segment 5: Napoleon wins major battles against Austria and her ally, ending with the crossing of Lodi Bridge (from 44 minutes into the film until the end. This segment begins with images of the mountains).


  1. What are some of the military strategies for which Napoleon would become famous? In what ways do Napoleon's tactics mark the end of the rules of warfare as played by the Ancien Regime, and usher in modern warfare?
  2. What are some of the ways that Napoleon inspires loyalty in his troops? What makes him a charismatic general?
  3. Is the Napoleon we see at Lodi Bridge the same Napoleon we have known up until now, or has a new side of the man emerged at this point?
  4. Why do you think that Napoleon says that at Lodi Bridge "I foresaw what I might be?" How or why has he become a man of Destiny?
  1. Ask students to write an illustrated diary entry for a French soldier who met Napoleon at Lodi. Ask them to get information and illustrations for their diaries from the "Campaigns and Battles" section of the PBS Napoleon Web Site.
Concluding Activities

Tell students to complete their Activity 2 Sheets. You may choose to have students write an essay as well, analyzing what they believe were the most formative influences on the young Napoleon. Hold a discussion in which students share and defend their choices.

Put together the ladder of Napoleon's ascent on a classroom wall. Each "step" will be composed of 3 index cards placed side by side. The next 3-card step will be placed above the first. You can design this as either a ladder or a staircase. At the top it should say "Destiny." Beginning with the Segment One team ask each group to give a brief oral report to the class explaining their choice of "steps" and their analysis of Napoleon's advancement. You could also assign a concluding essay on this topic.

Return to the three quotes at the beginning of this unit. Which view of destiny do students feel most applies to Napoleon? With which of these three quotes do they think Napoleon himself would have most agreed?

Optional Role Play: Assign students to play the following roles:

  • Napoleon's mother, Letizia
  • Napoleon's father, Joseph
  • A school teacher from Brienne
  • A classmate from Brienne
  • A teacher from Ecole Militaire
  • A classmate from Ecole Militaire
  • The Corsican leader General Pauli
  • Josephine Beauharnais
  • Napoleon's brother, Jerome
  • A soldier who fought with Napoleon at Toulon
  • A soldier who fought with Napoleon at Lodi
A small group of moderators should be asked to prepare questions to ask the interviewees. After the panel has made its presentation to the class, other class members can pose questions as well.

The moderators' questions can include questions like:

  • What was your impression of Napoleon in his formative years? Could you tell he was destined for greatness?
  • What, if any, influence did you have on Napoleon? How did he influence you?
  • What effect do you think the French Revolution made on Napoleon? Did it change his life, and if so how?
An alternative role-play could include Napoleon himself, with the other participants posing questions directly to him.


  1. Students can be assessed on how thoroughly and thoughtfully they completed the Activity 2 Sheet "What Influenced Napoleon" and an accompanying essay if you assign one.
  2. Students can be assessed for their participation in the ladder project, the teamwork they demonstrated, and the "steps" they completed, as well as an essay if you assign one.
  3. Students can be assessed for their participation in the discussions and activities you may have implemented after viewing each segment of the film.
  1. Consider completing the ladder by adding more "steps" up Napoleon's ascent to destiny as the class completes its study of the entire Napoleonic Era.
  2. Ask students to research the formative years of another major figure from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. In a chart or in an essay, ask students to compare how character development and history intersected in the life of Napoleon as compared to the person they are researching.
  3. Ask students to compare and contrast the rise of Napoleon to the rise of a leader in the 20th century. What role did destiny play? (Roosevelt's "rendezvous with destiny" speech comes to mind.) How important were birth and family connections, chance, the turn of historical events? Students could devise a chart of categories and fill them in for both characters, or write an essay.
(Note: these links will take you away from PBS Online.)

For pictures of the Napoleonic Era:

Napoleonic Gallery

For maps and charts:

Royal Navy During the Napoleonic Era

For additional articles on the Napoleonic Wars:

Napoleonic War Series

About the Author
Joan Brodsky Schur teaches Social Studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. She is the co-author of In A New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature and a frequent contributor to Social Education. Other online lessons by Joan can be found at the National Archives Web Site.


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