A Brief History
On December 24, 1800, The “Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise,” also known as the “Machine Infernale Plot,” failed to kill Napoleon Bonaparte, then the First Consul of France, the de facto dictator of the French Republic. Not the first attempt to kill Bonaparte, on October 10, 1800, another assassination plot against Napoleon called “Conspiration des Poignards” had also failed, nor would it be the last. A man of great personal will and great charisma, Napoleon nonetheless evinced great animosity on the part of those that had previously held much of the power in France, including the Catholic Church, Royalists and Jacobins. Obviously, every plot to kill Napoleon failed, as he became Napoleon I, Emperor of the French in 1804 until his first abdication in 1814, and then again for the “Hundred Days” in 1815 after he had escaped exile on the island of Elba. But what if Napoleon had been cut down in his prime on Christmas Eve of 1800? What historical events would or would not have occurred?
The “Machine Infernale” referenced in the Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise was an allusion to a previous clandestine murder attempt, one that had taken place way back in 1585 when an Italian engineer working for the Spanish who were besieging the city of Antwerp (in modern Belgium) constructed a barrel bomb (filled with gunpowder and bullets) in an attempt to create a remotely detonated bomb, using a shot gun as the method of ignition. The phrase “machine infernale” or “infernal machine” has come to mean any such bomb created to be exploded by surprise in order to kill people. In order to assassinate Napoleon, the plotter, Royalists that wanted to reverse the French Revolution and reinstate the monarchy, schemed to place a large wine cask filled with gunpowder and bound with iron hoops along the expected path of Napoleon’s carriage to blow him up, much like modern (we use the term “modern” loosely) terrorists use IED’s (improvised explosive devices) against Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan today. The spot chosen for the explosion was on the Rue Saint-Nicaise, more or less across from what is now the location of the Place du Théâtre Français in Paris. A lookout was posted to signal the person tasked with lighting the fuse to the bomb as Napoleon’s carriage approached.
On the evening of December 24, 1800, Napoleon was expected to attend an opera and pass by the designated spot for the assassination. Napoleon felt falsely safe as he believed his agents and the police had located those plotting his assassination. As the future emperor’s carriage approached, carrying a sleeping Napoleon, the lookout panicked and fled. The fuse lighter thus saw the carriage too late, but lit the fuse and fled himself, anyway, apparently hoping for “the best.” The bomb went off with the expected blast and shrapnel, but Napoleon and his carriage had already passed the kill zone and the great man was unhurt. Unfortunately, several innocent people were killed in the blast, including a teen age girl. The number of killed and wounded is not known exactly but may have been around 12 killed and an unknown number of people wounded.
The police immediately launched an investigation and found an apparently innocent chemist about 2 weeks later that was accused and executed for providing the explosives. (Oops!) The actual bomb-maker was located, and under torture gave up the names of the other 4 plotters, who were in turn arrested and executed. An additional 130 Jacobins were also arrested and put into exile. Napoleon (probably with good reason) believed plenty of plotters were still out and about planning his demise. Foreign entities, disgruntled officers and politicians, Royalists, Jacobins, Church officials and anyone else he had slighted were suspects. Although there were indeed many that wanted Napoleon dead and/or gone, none of them succeeded until Napoleon was defeated on the battlefield at Waterloo in 1815 and subsequently exiled to St. Helena, an island in the Atlantic Ocean where he ultimately died in 1821.
So, back to the title of the article, “What if the Plot Succeeded?” Napoleon went on to great fame and fortune as Emperor of the French, conquering much of Europe and part of the Middle East. Many of the laws and social reforms enacted during his time as a Consul and as Emperor became the model for much of the modern world. (See Napoleonic Code.) His expedition to Egypt found the Rosetta Stone (1799), and his scientists invented the metric system (1799). Although some of the reforms and scientific contributions came before the date of the Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise, it is entirely possible the lasting effect on history would not have been made if Napoleon had not gone on to his great accomplishments and influence. There is a reason the universal world language was once known as “lingua Franca,” and of course the reign of Napoleon had a lot to do with that. The fact that more books and articles have been written about Napoleon Bonaparte than any other mortal man (exceeded only by Jesus Christ, arguably not a mortal man) is testament to the enormous influence on history L’ Empereur had.
While it is difficult to say the least to predict what may or may not have happened in history in a “what if” scenario, some things can be reasonably assumed. For one thing, we would not have the enormous literary record about Napoleon Bonaparte! Napoleon’s battlefield techniques, including feeding his men pre-packaged soup in wine bottles (a real innovation at the time) and his development of battlefield evacuation of wounded would probably have come about anyway, just later. His first wife, the Empress Josephine, went on to have her descendants become part of the ruling families of a stunning number of Royal Houses in Europe (though not Napoleon’s own biological children). Had Josephine, the widow of a French Army officer, been married to Napoleon, her children may never have been in position to become the forefathers and foremothers of so many crowned heads. Without the nostalgia for the era of Napoleon, it is unlikely Napoleon III would one day become the leader of France as President from 1848 to 1852 and then Emperor from 1852 to 1870. Perhaps the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 might not have occurred, and the French intervention in Mexico may not have happened. Perhaps other wars at other times would have happened instead of the ones that actually did.
In 1803, Napoleon sold New France (what was left of it) to the United States, a deal we call The Louisiana Purchase. If Napoleon had died in 1800, perhaps France could have hung onto her North American territory, but being absorbed with European wars, Napoleon saw fit to sell the land and raise some money instead. In 1794, France had outlawed slavery, but Napoleon reinstituted the shameful practice allegedly at the behest of his wife, Josephine, but only in the colonies of France and not in Europe. Perhaps the Haitian Revolution would not have been successful without the rallying of blacks against the policies of Napoleon.
In the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), over a million French soldiers died (800,000 of disease) and another 600,000 French civilians died. The countries allied against the French lost even more soldiers and civilians, for a total of over 3.7 million people dead. A number of people that considerable being erased from the Earth before their natural time must have had a serious impact on history, although we can never know what contributions, good or bad, some of those that were killed may have made to history and to mankind.
Many “what if” type books and essays have been written, and many alternative history movies and television shows (such as The Man in the High Castle) have been produced, but of course all this is only conjecture. The practice is fun and is tempting to dally in, though many historians find the opining about the unknowable to be worse than a waste of time. Certainly the audacity of pretending to “know” what would or would not have happened given various scenarios is somewhat egotistical and any conclusions drawn are open to debate. Still, what if the assassins had been successful on Christmas Eve, 1800?
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever read a “what if” type book? Have you ever seen a “what if” type movie or television show? What is your favorite “what if” scenario? Are you familiar with Napoleon Bonaparte? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Cowley, Robert, ed. The Collected What If? Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006.
Markham, J. David. Napoleon for Dummies. For Dummies, 2005.
Markham, J. David and Matthew Zarzeczny. Simply Napoleon. Simply Charly, 2017.
Markham, J. David and Mike Resnick, eds. History Revisited: The Great Battles, Eminent Historians Take on the Great Works of Alternative History. BenBella Books, 2008.
North, Jonathan, ed. The Napoleon Options: Alternate Decisions of the Napoleonic Wars. Greenhill Books/Lionel Leventhal, 2000.
Zarzeczny, Matthew. Meteors That Enlighten the Earth: Napoleon and the Cult of Great Men. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a watercolor on cardboard by an unknown engraver of the plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise, an assassination attempt on the life of the First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, in Paris on 24 December 1800, comes from Gallica Digital Library and is available under the digital ID btv1b8413005b/f1 and is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.