Naploeon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, Corsica, France in 1769. He died in exile on Saint Helena Island–a part of the British Empire–in 1821. His cause of death is disputed, with some claiming stomach cancer and others claiming he was murdered by cyanide poisoning.

Napoleon was baptized a Catholic in Ajaccio at the Ajaccio Cathedral.1 His sentiments toward religion are seemingly contradictory. He was prone to commenting on religion and its roles, saying things like:

Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.2

And:

All religions have been made by men.3

However, some claim Bonaparte had a deep faith and belief in God.4 And during his years in exile, Bonaparte mused about his admiration for Jesus Christ. Having conquered nations by force and won allegiances with impressive rhetorical and political power, Bonaparte was impressed with Christ’s ability to have won the hearts of men with his message of love.5

Either way, it seems that religion was a tool for Bonaparte, and he used it wisely, allowing the peoples of his conquered land to continue practicing whatever faith was inherent in their culture. In this way, Bonaparte took a page from the Roman empire-building playbook. He once said:

It is by making myself Catholic that I brought peace to Brittany and Vendée. It is by making myself Italian that I won minds in Italy. It is by making myself a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt. If I governed a nation of Jews, I should reestablish the Temple of Solomon.6

It was tolerance, but tolerance with a power-centered agenda.

Nevertheless, we are best to call Napoleon a Catholic. He did receive a Catholic education, was French, and was given his last rights on his deathbed.7

The true nature of politics

Bonaparte was politics–the pursuit and acquisition of power. His ambition knew no bounds and by the end of his career (resulting in exile), he had either conquered or forced alliances with most of Europe.8 He once said:

I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies.9

In the end, Napoleon was no match for the Russians, and his armies suffered heavy causalities just outside of Moscow. Encouraged by his defeat, various European powers including the British, the Austrians, The Russians and the Prussians formed an alliance against him, ultimately defeating him and exiling him to an island called Elba off the west coast of Italy.

But Napoleon escaped, made his way to the French mainland where he met with an army of loyalists, and marched back to retake Paris. However, his return to power was short lived and he met with a coalition army at Waterloo in modern-day Belgium, where he was soundly defeated.10 Afterwards, he was sent to live out his days on the remote Saint Helena Island in the South Atlantic.

As the French Emperor, Napoleon instituted many reforms. He believed in a strong central government, and this even resulted in a formal political philosophy called Bonapartism. Beyond that, in a way, he was a child of the Enlightenment. Napoleon passed laws making all French males equal in the eyes of the law, established property rights and guaranteed religious liberty for all creeds, among other things11

And yet, his ego prevented him from allowing his people total freedom. For example, Napoleon’s regime exercised strict control over the press and would not allow any public criticism of the Emperor.12

Napoleon Bonaparte is one of history’s most studied and fascinating characters. An article like this could never do him or his legacy enough justice. Check out the Wikipedia page to start a more in-depth inquiry.

  1. Cathedral – Ajaccio. Napoleon. []
  2. Napoleon Bonaparte Quotes. Brainy Quote. []
  3. Napoleon Banaparte Quotes. Brainy Quote. []
  4. The religion of Napoleon Bonaparte, military, political leader. Adherents. []
  5. The religion of Napoleon Bonaparte, military, political leader. Adherents. []
  6. Napoleon: Man of Peace. The International Napoleonic Society. []
  7. Because Napoleon Died a Catholic Death. Patheos. []
  8. Maps. Teacherweb. []
  9. Napoleon Banaparte Quotes. Brainy Quote. []
  10. Napoleon: Napoleon at War. PBS. []
  11. Napoleon: Charts on domestic and foreign policies. AP Europe. []
  12. Napoleon: Charts on domestic and foreign policies. AP Europe. []