On this day, May 5, the great French statesman and ruler Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena in 1821. Napoleon, a successful French general who had defeated the Austrians in Italy and conquered Egypt from the Ottomans, seized power in 1799 in the wake of the French Revolution. Subsequently, Europe quaked in both admiration and fear of Bonaparte, who crowned himself Emperor in 1804, going on to win major battles against the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians.
While Napoleon was a brilliant battlefield commander, he was ultimately unable to control Europe, despite initial successes. His invasion of Russia, his failure to neutralize Britain, and a guerrilla war in Spain weakened his forces and ultimately lead to his first exile in 1814 on the island of Elba, near Italy. After his brilliant escape, the “100 days” of Napoleon’s restored rule commenced until his famous defeat at Waterloo and his second exile, where he remained until his death.
Napoleon’s impact on the course of world history cannot be overstated. His military tactics were studied and replicated throughout the next hundred years, promoted by figures such as Jomini, whose works influenced the U.S. military during the Civil War.
Bonapartism, or the political ideology associated with Napoleon, represented a middle way for many Europeans. While Napoleon spread enlightened political practices, promoting meritocracy and a rational law code (the Code Napoleon), he also realized the limits of liberalism and democratic practices, having witnessed the excesses of the French Revolution, and so promoted a strong central government and an enlightened aristocracy. In the realm of culture, Napoleon’s expeditions led in particular to the imitation of Egyptian architecture in the West.
Editor’s note: A typo in the first paragraph has been corrected.