By the close of 1795 only Britain and Austria remained officially at war with France. To lead the attack against Habsburg forces in northern Italy, the French Directory picked a youthful general who was something of a philosophe and revolutionary, as well as a ruthless, ambitious adventurer.
He was born Napoleone Buonaparte on Corsica in 1769, soon after the French acquisition of that Mediterranean island from Genoa, and he retained throughout his life an intense family loyalty and a view of public affairs that was essentially anti-French.
As a boy of nine Napoleon began to attend military school in France and, though he now spelled his name in the French style, was snubbed as a foreigner by some of his fellow cadets. He immersed himself in reading Rousseau and dreamed of the day when he might liberate Corsica from French control.
When the Revolution broke out, the young artillery officer helped to overthrow the Old Regime in Corsica and then returned to France to resume his military career. He commanded the artillery in December 1793, when the forces of the Convention recaptured the Mediterranean port of Toulon, which had fallen to the British earlier in the year. After Thermidor he fell under a cloud as a suspected “terrorist” and settled for a desk job in Paris. He was available to rescue the Thermidorean Convention in Vendemiaire. He married Josephine de Beauharnais, a widow who was an intimate of the ruling clique of the Directory. The combination of Josephine’s connections and Napoleon’s talent gained him the Italian command in 1796.
In the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797), ending the Italian campaign, Austria acknowledged the loss of Belgium and recognized two puppet states that Napoleon set up in northwestern Italy: the Ligurian Republic (Genoa) and the Cisalpine Republic (the former Austrian possession of Lombardy). In return, the Habsburgs received the Italian territories of the Venetian Republic.
Only Britain remained at war with France. Napoleon decided to attack it indirectly through Malta and Egypt, the latter a semi-independent vassal of the Ottoman Empire. He invited more than a hundred archaeologists, geographers, and other scholars to accompany his army and thereby helped to found the study of Egyptology. Napoleon’s experts established in Egypt an outpost of French culture that lasted into the twentieth century. From the military standpoint, however, the campaign failed.
Having eluded the British Mediterranean fleet commanded by Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), Napoleon landed in Egypt in July 1798 and routed the Mamluks, the ruling oligarchy. Then disaster struck. On August 1, 1798, Nelson discovered the French fleet moored at Abukir Bay along the Egyptian coast and destroyed it before its captains could weigh anchor. Nelson’s victory deprived the French of both supplies and reinforcements. After a year of futile campaigning in the Near East, Napoleon suddenly left Egypt in August 1799 and returned to France.
Napoleon found the situation in France ripe for a decisive political move, for the Directory was shaken by a strong revival of Jacobinism. Several hundred deputies in the legislative councils belonged to the Society of the Friends of Liberty and Equality, essentially the old Jacobin club. Under their influence, the councils in 1799 decreed a forced loan from the rich and passed a Law of Hostages, designed to make the emigres stop plotting against the Directory by threatening their relatives in France with reprisals.
Abroad, the Directory had established four new satellite republics with classical names: the Batavian (Holland), the Helvetian (Switzerland), the Roman, and the Parthenopean (Naples). But this new success of French imperialism provoked the formation of the second coalition, headed by Britain, Austria, and Russia.
Czar Paul I (r. 1796-1801) was head of the Knights of Malta, which Napoleon had expelled from its headquarters on the island of Malta. In the campaign of 1799 Russian troops fought in Italy and Switzerland, and the Russian general Alexander Suvorov (1729-1800), who defeated the French repeatedly, became the hero of western Europe. By August 1799 the French had been expelled from Italy.
In these circumstances, Napoleon was given a rousing reception on his return from Egypt. Soon he was plotting to overthrow the Directory, with the complicity of two of the five directors. On November 9 and 10, 1799 (18 and 19 Brumaire by the revolutionary calendar), the plot was executed. The three directors not in the plot resigned, and the two legislative councils named Napoleon military commander of Paris. He then barely persuaded the councils to entrust to the two remaining directors and himself the task of drafting a new constitution, and a detachment of troops loyal to Napoleon expelled the hostile deputies.