Napoleon Invades America

Article excerpt

From paintings and sculpture to period furnishings, the treasures on exhibition at the Memphis Cook Convention Center capture the military and imperial nature of the man who left his mark on civilization.

Few figures in history have inscribed their names as indelibly in the annals of mankind as Napoleon Bonaparte. A magnificent warrior and master diplomat, he bestored Europe like a Colossus and, in little over two decades, changed the face of that continent, as well as those of North America and Africa. Feared by his enemies and revered by his countrymen, Napoleon dominated his time as but a handful have before or since.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica on Aug. 15, 1769. Although the island had been controlled by the Republic of Genoa since the 13th century, its strategic location in the Mediterranean - off both the Italian and French coasts - made other nations covet this prize possession. The previous year, according to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, Genoa ceded its rights to Corsica to France.

To foster the development of a French faction, the King of France sought to gain the support of the island's nobles, whom he incorporated into his kingdom's aristocracy. Napoleon's family, although originally from Tuscany, had been on Corsica since the 15th century. On Sept. 13, 1771, Charles Buonaparte, the father of the future emperor, had his family officially declared "nobles whose nobility can be proven to be more than 200 years old." (Napoleon adopted the French spelling of his last name-bonaparte-after becoming a captain in the army.)

Taking advantage of the privileges their status as French aristocrats afforded them, Charles obtained a royal scholarship for Napoleon to the Royal Military Academy in Brienne (Champagne) in 1777. Napoleon was a student there until October, 1784, when he was admitted to Paris' prestigious military college, the Ecole Militaire, founded by Louis XV to train young men to be officers and gentlemen. Attaining the rank of second lieutenant of artillery in the La Fere regiment in 1785, he began his career as a soldier.

In 1789, financial crisis led to the downfall of the absolute monarchy. Frances support of the American cause during the War of Independence cost more than the Royal Treasury could afford, making it necessary to borrow money since it was impossible to raise taxes. The imminent specter of bankruptcy obliged Louis XVI to convoke a meeting in May of elected representatives of the three orders of the realm - nobility, clergy, and commoners. The determination of the deputies of the Third Estate, which represented the people, to demand fiscal equality was met by the absolute and uncompromising refusal of the privileged classes - the nobles and the clergy - who were supported by the King.

The final break came on June 21, when the representatives declared themselves a National Assembly. The Revolution had begun, and Louis XVI could not stop the impetus. On July 14, in defiance of royal power, the population of Paris stormed the Bastiue, a government prison that was partly closed, but symbolized the arbitrary justice of the absolute monarchy. During the nights of Aug. 4 and 5, the National Assembly abolished all privileges and, on Aug. 26, adopted the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights, inspired by the American Declaration of Independence.

At the request of his fellow Corsicans, Napoleon wrote the National Assembly to complain of the attitude of the King's representative: "You who are the protectors of freedom deign to pay us some attention from time to time, for we were formerly its most zealous defenders." Napoleon had anchored his native island firmly in the revolutionary camp.

France declared war on Austria on April 20, 1792, and on England on Feb. 1, 1793. Prussia, the German states, Russia, Spain, Naples, and Sardinia joined the coalition against the French. Louis XVI tried to thwart the Revolution, but his attempt to flee abroad left him suspected of treason. …