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 essay 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
, reaching an overall conclusion on the importance of manipulating public opinions throughout his reign.
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
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 17978! 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 proNapoleon 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
, 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’
” 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,