How important was Napoleon Bonaparte’s use of propaganda and censorship in the rise and consolidation of his power in France? (Part 1, by Valentin Boulan)

How important was Napoleon Bonaparte’s use of propaganda and censorship in the rise and consolidation of his power in France? (Part 1, by Valentin Boulan

“To attach no importance to public opinion is a proof you do not merit its suffrage”. Traditionally famous for his military achievements, Napoleon Bonaparte nevertheless realised early on the importance of public opinion, as well as the influence of institutions in shaping it. This article will look at the ways Bonaparte put this conviction into practice, and the value of propaganda and censorship in his rise to power and the consolidation of his regime in France, reaching an overall conclusion on the importance of manipulating public opinions throughout his reign. It will, for instance, try to explain how a fifteen year long government, which has been at war for all but fourteen months, managed to provoke so little public outcry, or at least so successfully prevent it, throughout such an instable period. In doing so, it will consider the different tools Bonaparte used, from his notoriously great understanding of the press to his exploitation of army reports, the fine arts, literature, education and religion for his personal benefit.

Such ambitious project requires looking at a very broad time period, ranging from the years before the Consulate, up until the glorious era of Napoleon’s imperial might. Therefore, it will focus exclusively on Napoleonic propaganda in France, rather than throughout the empire. Such selection is due to practical issues, namely the impossibility to condense a credible analysis of the whole empire within a single essay, as well the struggle to understand and obtain satisfactory primary sources from all around Napoleon’s vast empire. As they cover the whole period, and because they often bear more honesty than many other deceiving sources of the time, Napoleon’s letters are a great insight to his aspirations, and how he planned to achieve them. Hence, I will in part rely on the latter to comprehend how Napoleon used propaganda and censorship to establish a regime which, eventually legitimised both by Bonaparte’s own personal greatness and hereditary, managed to exercise a control over its subjects beyond that any French monarch had ever attained.

How did Napoleon rise to power so quickly? In 1796, he was nothing but one of many politically inexperienced generals leading republican armies into Italian territories, yet 3 years later he had effectively become the head of a modern police state. Such spectacular rise to power largely lies with Napoleon’s great ability to shape his own popularity through a carefully planned manipulation of public opinion. In a letter to the Directory dated the 15th July 1797, Napoleon made a complaint about the critical French newspapers which reached his trooped in Milan, and demanded that the government “break up the presses of the papers which are in English pay”. After handling the issue personally, Bonaparte ensured the censorship of such news, ordering his chief of staff, General Alexandre Berthier, “to prevent the introduction into the army of any newspaper tending to spread discouragement, to incite the soldiers to desert or to lessen [their] enthusiasm for the cause of liberty.”

In addition, he took the initiative to set up his own newspapers to counter the effect of negative propaganda, generally from the royalist political groups then known as Club Clichy. In total, he created as much as 6 newspapers between 1797-8! Those of course reflected the political views of Napoleon, and many of the articles were written by the héro italique himself. For example, an article published in the Courrier de l’Armée d’Italie warned that the Clichyens “[did] not act alone; they [had] their auxiliaries in every department” and that “One vast plan [was] organized” to seize power. Overall, their extreme pro-Napoleon bias is best summed up by the title “Journal de Bonaparte et des hommes vertueux” (Journal of Bonaparte and virtuous men) which one of them carried. This, needless to say, had a very powerful effect in creating the army’s unconditional faith in Napoleon and his will to protect the Republic.

However, what made Napoleon such a powerful figure in France so rapidly was not his influence over the army alone, but rather the ways in which he managed to gain support across all sections of society. Indeed, whilst some of his papers were read in France, it is the publication of Napoleon’s army reports in mainstream French newspapers which first and foremost contributed to his popularity among the masses . Additionally, he managed to win over the support of many intellectuals before and during his Egyptian campaign, on which he embarked strong of 200 mathematicians, astrologists, engineers, architects, painters and other thinkers of various kinds. This, coupled with the creation of two additional newspapers, the “Courrier de l’Egypte” and the “Décade Egyptienne”, created the image that Napoleon was not only a soldier, but an enlightened figure, removed from the corruption of home politics and fit to comprehend intellectual issues.

Particularly important in this respect was Napoleon’s outstanding ability to inspire through his writing, which was particularly apparent in his army reports. Certainly, a contrast can be observed with the other generals, as for example Moreau, who’s report published in Le Moniteur on 9th December 1796, produced a passive, neutral account based on facts and results, portraying his troops as under attack and merely reacting to the enemy’s initiative. On the other hand, Napoleon’s reports made use of the first person to emphasize his personal contribution, and of stylish language to exaggerate the exciting nature and value of his victories, or to distract the reader from negative outcomes by focusing on other achievements, as the case of the stalling siege of Mantua, which Napoleon managed to downplay by discussing other victories like the battle of Lodi. This had a double effect of sparking the enthusiasm of readership, whilst producing reports which appealed to emotion rather than tactical awareness. This, in turn, make reports comprehensive to people of all backgrounds, which meant that propaganda reached a wider readership. Finally, the romantic image Napoleon built for himself had a snowball effect to create what Hanley described as secondary propaganda, that is the exploitation by artists such as biographers, painters and poets of Napoleon’s popularity to make a profit, directly contributing to strengthening his image in French popular culture .

On the other hand, it would be reductionist to deduce that early Napoleonic propaganda was so masterful it alone granted Bonaparte First Consulship. One essential factor to acknowledge is that whilst propaganda could greatly exaggerate Napoleon’s military achievements, or even downplay his setbacks, it could not create his reputation altogether. Hence, much of his popularity, particularly with the army, lies with the respect he earned from his talents as a military tactician. Alexander for instance points out Napoleon’s talent for “predicting his adversary’s responses”, and the advantages of his active rather than passive tactics on battlefields, which meant that he was able to convey his confidence and aggression to his troops, which enabled him to make best use of the assets of the Revolutionary Army and the technical advances from which it benefited, particularly in the field of artillery . Also significant was the fact that on a comparative basis, Napoleon’s incredible successes, which allowed him to win 6 battles in his first 10 days whilst capturing 12,000 men with an army only 35,000 strong, contrasted with the failures of the other French generals, particularly Jourdan and Moreau who experience much difficulty at the same time on the Rhine. This overall weakness of the army was pointed out by Bonaparte himself in a letter to the Executive Directory on the 14th August 1796, in which he listed and criticised most of the generals in his army, complaining that “very few of them [were] of any use to [him]”, for instance describing general Abbatucci as “not fit to command fifty men” and general Serurier as “an invalid” .A most direct way in which victories helped feed propaganda was that part of the considerable wealth Bonparte acquired through conquest was redirected to finance his personal press . Hence, Napoleon cannot be regarded as a single talented leader, and his unquestionable military genius should not be overlooked when attempting to understand his rise to power.

It would be equally misleading to ignore the many decisive situational factors which played a part and facilitated Napoleon’s schemes. In an attempt to continue the creation of his legend and justify his dictatorial actions, Napoleon claimed in his memoirs (1815) that during his reign, France was 96% illiterate, and suggests his tough yet enlightened leadership was necessary. However, evidence supports the contrary . First of all, it would have made little sense for Napoleon to dedicate so much effort to press propaganda in such circumstances. In reality, it has been suggested that whilst marital records suggest that only 21% of the population could write their name in the 1680s, by the 1780s the rate had gone up to at least 37%, with important variations depending on gender and geographic location. This has led some historians to argue that by the time Napoleon came to power, the northern third of France had a literacy rate of over two thirds . It is also important to point out that Napoleonic propaganda would not have been as effective without the existence of the political press, which found its origins in the Revolution. According to Jack Richard Censer, during this period Paris had as many as 515 newspapers, a very high figure for a city of only 600,000, especially considering politics were banned altogether from the press under the Ancien Regime . Hence, circumstances of France at the time were indeed very favourable to the development of propaganda in its written form, which constitutes most of Napoleon’s releases before the years of the Consulate.

Equally importantly a factor was the weakness of the political system put in place by the Directory which, concerned with democratic representation, divided power between the Conseil des Cinq-Cents and the Conseil des Anciens. This in effect meant that any conflict between the two assemblies could not be solved but by force, which rendered decisive policy making almost impossible. In addition, it was also often suggested that the government had little power over its generals, who often disobeyed orders and kept their war treasures to themselves, as indeed did Napoleon, who ironically was often exempt from accusations . This poor reputation created a dependency of the Directory on Napoleon in the course of his military and propagandist campaigns. Indeed, at a time when the government was regarded as weak and corrupt, the Directory welcomed the rise of a strong figure to promote and protect the Republic, as well as show it successful on the battlefields. This suggests that poor reputation the Republican government suffered in that time was a key factor in Napoleon’s rise to power, essentially cornering its members into nominating Bonaparte to power. Whilst this is a valid point, it is important to acknowledge that the situation was partly worsened by Napoleon himself who, again through propaganda, used his influence to spread suggestions that the government was indeed corrupt, and also, as pointed out before, portrayed himself as a contrastingly pure, incorruptible figure above the dishonesty of Paris. Hence, it is evident that propaganda played an essential part in creating Napoleon’s image as a republican hero, which would enable him to gain much support from all sections of French society before and after the coup d’état of 18th Brumaire.

Whilst propaganda arguably can be identified as the main factor of Napoleon’s success, it is important to bear in mind that it functioned hand-in-hand with a multitude of indispensible factors, such as the outstanding military talent Napoleon showed on the battlefields, and the very favourable social and political circumstances of France in his time. However, whilst successfully carrying out a coup d’état was one thing, conserving power, and indeed increasing it towards imperialism was another, wholly more difficult task, especially given the fact that it contradicted the very principles of the Revolution which Napoleon had promised to defend. Therefore, in order to achieve full control of France and establish the empire, it was essential that Napoleon continued his propaganda and censorship campaigns after 1799, and made the most of his new powers as First Consul to ensure the more prominent place he now occupied in French politics did not attract more criticism.

End of Part 1


4 thoughts on “How important was Napoleon Bonaparte’s use of propaganda and censorship in the rise and consolidation of his power in France? (Part 1, by Valentin Boulan)

  1. Even though we are aware that propaganda flows through our societies today, we are often ignorant as to how much influence it has on contemporary events. This is brought out by your retrospective article about Bonaparte. We need more awareness about our daily information sources.

  2. Thank you very much for your positive feedback, it’s appreciated! swabby – I totally agree, and this will be highlighted even more blatantly in the second part which I will publish soon, and which focuses not only on information sources, but also on the role of the arts and education in the propaganda process 🙂

  3. I think that was quite important. If you consider the massive memorabilia produced about him and his times. See for instance the exhibitions of this late year about the Battle of Waterloo.
    One of the best, cause is permanent, is “Seventy images for hundrred days” (try it Amazon, of course).
    Fantastic, the book explains the last effort of Boney using few but wise text an 70 images of different engravings, maps, military figurines etc…
    Highly recommendable!!

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