History of Napoleon Bonaparte for Kids

In history, there are heroes and villains. What makes someone a hero? Maybe they helped make the world a fairer place. Or they stood up when somebody was being hurt. Heroes inspire us. We love to root for them. We want to be like them.

What makes somebody a villain? Sometimes, it was because they were violent. Or they were mean and ruthless. History is full of famous villains. 

But sometimes, it isn’t that simple. A lot of the people we read about in history books are both. Most people aren’t entirely good or entirely bad. Napoleon Bonaparte is a perfect example.

Napoleon is a very famous person from history. Many people would call him infamous. Infamous people are usually remembered for being a villain. But that’s not really fair. Napoleon’s life is a lot more complex than that. Sure, he did some terrible things. But he did some heroic things, too. In fact, he spent his whole life constantly jumping back and forth over the line that defines heroes and villains. 

History has pretty much decided Napoleon was a villain. But how about you? How will you judge him?

Napoleon Bonaparte was born about 250 years ago in 1769 on an island called Corsica in Europe. When he was born, the island was ruled by the King of France. This meant that Napoleon was born French. 

He left home to attend schools in France. This helped him learn to speak French. It also meant he could go to the best military schools. He must have done well, too, because he became an officer in the French army when he was only 16 years old. 

There was a lot going on in France at this time. In 1789, there was a big revolution. The French people did not like their king. He was living an extravagant life filled with food, wine, and gold, while they were starving in the dirty streets. Most people were angry that he wasn’t taking care of them like somebody in charge should do, so they overthrew him. 

Napoleon wasn’t in France while this was happening. He was taking a break from his career in the military and living back home in Corsica. But he was still paying attention. He listened to all of the political discussions going on around him. He started to agree with those who hated the king. He adopted their radical, revolutionary ideals. 

Eventually, Napoleon returned to Paris which was the center of the French government. The new leader of France, Maximilien Robespierre, needed Napoleon’s clever mind to lead his troops. You see, while France had been busy the past few years with their king, other countries saw this as an opportunity to invade. 

Under its new leader, France needed to prove to the world they were strong, that they were not a country to mess with. Napoleon was just the guy to send that message.

Maximilien Robespierre put Napoleon in charge of protecting France and its people from invasions. But there was a slight problem. The French army wasn’t in the best shape. In fact, it was pretty pathetic.

But Napoleon wasn’t worried. He knew he could lead them to victory. And he did. Not only did he defend France, he expanded it. In 1793, while he was fighting different battles around Europe, Napoleon was promoted three ranks in the French army within 4 months. 

He was proving to be a fierce leader. He was winning impressive battles. He became famous for his military tactics. Robespierre, the leader of France at the time, made sure everybody knew how much he appreciated Napoleon. He was fast becoming a hero to France.

However, while Napoleon was away fighting wars with other countries, things weren’t so great back home in France. Robespierre was turning out to be even worse than the king he’d replaced. He created some strict laws, and anybody who broke them was publicly executed. It was horrible. Overall, more than 17,000 French people lost their lives during his short period of rule. In fact, his rule from September 1793 to July 1794 was named the Reign of Terror because people were pretty much terrified of him. 

So history is pretty clear with this one: Robespierre was definitely more of a villain. 

But the French had just ditched a king that had been a lousy ruler. They knew what had to be done and how to do it. So they overthrew Robespierre, too. This was great for the French people but not so great for Napoleon. 

He had done all that work building strong troops, winning tough battles, and planning attacks. Unfortunately, he had done it all for Robespierre. And the whole country was now very unhappy with Robespierre.

Napoleon was now labeled as a villain, too, and he was put on house arrest. After about a year of being stuck at home, Napoleon was freed. Now he needed to earn back the trust of the new people in charge of France. 

Another new government was being set up in Paris. This time, they wanted a group of people in charge and a constitution, like the one we have in the United States. This would be a set of fair rules and laws to keep all French people safe. They planned a convention where the new leaders would meet to write the constitution.

Not everybody agreed with this, though. Some people even wanted a king back. These people were getting ready to attack the new government. 

Napoleon saw this as his opportunity to show all the new leaders of France how valuable he was. He showed up at the convention ready to protect anybody who wanted to attack it. And he did a great job. He thwarted the rebels outside and saved the new government of France. 

Once again, Napoleon was back on the hero list. He was given new positions and power in the military. He had control of French armies. Instead of staying back to help with the government, Napoleon knew that he belonged out on the front lines helping fight battles against other countries. 

Napoleon was pretty much a genius on the battlefield. He knew how to organize and rally troops brilliantly. He used smart tactics to turn a small, weak army into a powerful and victorious one. 

Napoleon was also very clever in deciding where and when to attack. He and his troops even went all the way to Egypt in order to prove just how strong they were. 

Even though he’d spent a lot of time away, the people back at home were celebrating Napoleon as a hero for all of his victories against their enemies. Napoleon was earning territory for his country and respect for himself. But outside of France, his popularity wasn’t soaring. The people and places he was conquering saw him more as a villain. They were victims of his violent and large-scale attacks.

But in 1799, Napoleon returned home to Paris triumphant. He was the man who couldn’t lose. He hoped to secure his place on the Hero List of History. But there was a slight problem.

Remember all the fighting and arguing about who should be in charge of France? Well, it was still happening when Napoleon got back. The leaders who had created a Constitution with Napoleon’s help were losing power and control. 

What should he do? Support the government that he’d backed three years ago? Or once again, side with the people.

Napoleon decided the time was right to really show everyone he was boss. And well, that he was ready to be the boss. Everybody loved him. They celebrated all of his brilliant victories. So, with the help of some close friends, Napoleon overthrew the French government…again. And he put himself in charge.

At first, he called himself the First Consul of France. This basically meant that he was a dictator. A dictator is somebody who rules over a country, kind of like a King, but they have all the power. No one has the ability to make decisions other than the dictator. 

A dictator is usually not a well-liked person because they have so much power over everybody. But Napoleon wanted to use his power to help the people in France. Most importantly, he wanted to make the country stronger than it had ever been. After all they’d been through, Napoleon wanted to make France better. 

Napoleon’s first actions as dictator were very positive. He made peace with the countries he’d been battling with. He also created a set of rules called the Napoleonic Code. Many of the things that Napoleon set up are still used in many parts of Europe today. 

Napoleon created public education, so that young people in France could go to school even if they had no money. He gave people religious freedom. Systems for businesses, banks, laws, and police were created. Napoleon was doing a lot of good! He was doing the kind of stuff heroes do. 

The rules in the Napoleonic Code promised some hints of democracy across Europe! Napoleon wanted the best people in charge. He wanted power to go to those with experience and ability instead of those with money or popularity. 

These reforms were good. People liked them. They liked Napoleon. In fact, Napoleon was starting to crave more and more power. He wanted to control everything happening in France. 

Eventually, Napoleon wasn’t happy with being just First Consul of France. Five years later, in 1804, Napoleon crowned himself as the Emperor of France. And he made sure to put his own crown on himself!

Like a king or a dictator, emperors have total power and control. However, by making himself an emperor, Napoleon changed two things. First, it meant that his children would inherit his power whenever he died. Second, it meant that Napoleon was most likely planning on invading surrounding countries to turn France into an empire. 

Napoleon was ready to get back on the battlefield and put his tactical mastermind to the test. He went up against the Austrians, the Russians, and the British in different battles across Europe. And most of the time, he won.

These battles are known as the Napoleonic Wars because his armies were fighting and invading many of the countries around them. At one point, Napoleon’s French empire spread across almost all of Europe. 

For close to ten years, Napoleon ruled successfully over a growing French empire. At this time, he was becoming known as both a hero and a villain. French people loved him, but all the other leaders in countries around France feared him. 

Then he made one really bad decision. He decided to invade Russia during the winter. His army was prepared for battle, but they were not so prepared for freezing cold temperatures. Many of them starved to death in the cold before they even met the enemy. 

Eventually, Napoleon and his army were outsmarted by the Russians, who were much more prepared for their own winter storms than he was. With no food, no supplies, and a depleting amount of men, Napoleon was forced to return home. 

Napoleon had lost many of his loyal men to the Russian winter. That wasn’t such a popular thing back home in France. There was nobody left to defend him within his own country. And the world outside of France already considered him a villain.

Those countries saw this as their chance to take him down once and for all. They invaded France. Napoleon had no army left. He was helpless to defend himself.

Napoleon’s enemies exiled him to a tiny island called Elba. Instead of an empire, now all Napoleon had was a small island. Of course, this wasn’t enough for him. About a year into his exile, Napoleon decided he would try once again to get back on that Hero List.

He escaped the island and sailed back to France with some of the supporters he still had. He marched into Paris. Crowds lined the streets, cheering for him to welcome him back. They missed his great success as emperor of France. Maybe he could still be a hero.

Napoleon easily took back control of the country and started building a new army for France. Though, this time, his enemies were prepared for him. They had all teamed up against him.

Napoleon’s great return to France only lasted 100 days before he was once again defeated by enemies and placed back into exile. He was exiled to a British controlled island much further away, so they could make sure he wouldn’t escape anymore. 

This time Napoleon stayed in exile. He died only six years later at age 51.

Napoleon did quite a lot in his short life. He was a general, a commander, a dictator, an emperor, a hero, and a villain. 

Next time you’re learning about all the people from history, think of Napoleon. Think of all the different things that he did. Think about how a French person would have written about him, and think of how one of his enemies would have written about him. Depending on who’s telling it, the story of a person can change a lot. 

So, what do you think? Was Napoleon a hero or a villain? Or maybe he was both? Either way there’s a lot we can learn from him. He saw the value of public education. He advocated (at times) for a fair government. But maybe the most important lesson? Never invade Russia during the winter!