Empire of Liberty: The Directorie

Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

North of Paris, in January of 1795, the revolutionary forces invaded Holland and many Dutchmen joined them in support. The Dutch Republic fell, the stadtholder fled to Britain and the revolutionaries proclaimed the Batavian Republic. The failure in the lowlands and distractions elsewhere caused Prussia and Spain to sue for peace. Prussia and France ended their conflict in May. Prussia ceded the west bank of the Rhine to France and withdrew its forces east to finish other operations in Poland. With French forces in Catalonia and occupying Bilbao, Spain sued for peace as well. Negotiators returned the borders to status quo antebellum but Spain recognized the revolutionary government and ceded Trinidad and Santo Domingo, giving France all of Hispaniola [1]. This peace freed up French soldiers to join operations in the Alps. By the end of 1795, French forces defeated the Savoyards and took the Piedmont, sending the king to the island of Sardinia for the first time in the long history of the House of Savoy. The conquest opened the entire Italian Peninsula to invasion as 1796 began.

In London, the loss of the lowlands forced a complete reexamination of the war. Parliament refused to recognize the new Batavian Republic and informed the Admiralty that Dutch colonies were up for grabs. In the fall of 1795, the Royal Navy successfully captured the Dutch Antilles. Continental operations were greatly reduced but London gave into one final scheme to end the war, which would inadvertently have widespread consequences. For years, the British had provided passive support to rebels in the Vendée. The revolutionary government quickly put down these various uprisings and organized revolts but the support and manpower existed for one final offensive towards Paris. Supplying the rebels with 1,000 royalist supporters, 2,000 British troops and tens of thousands of weapons, a sizeable army, led by Charles Philippe de Bourbon, Comte d’Artois and younger brother of Louis XVI, was suddenly roaming the western coast of France. In September, this army marched on Paris. Royalist and moderate supporters, exhausted by the excesses of the Jacobins, buzzed with excitement and a rumor circulated that the defection of the National Guard to the Comte was imminent. Uprisings occurred in Paris and the ranks of the incoming Royalist army swelled to nearly 30,000 men.

For a moment, it appeared the revolution, and all of its bloodshed and excesses, was at an end.

On October 1, the Convention resolved that it would remain in Paris and continue its meetings. The Convention raised 5,000 patriot troops to defend the capital. On October 4, the National Guard began to put down insurrections in royalist sections of Paris. This dealt a major blow to the Comte d’Artois who was hoping for the arrival and defection of the Guard at any minute. Had that actually happened, it is likely Paris would have fallen with little bloodshed and the monarchy restored by the end of the year. Instead, their loyalty to the Convention assured a battle.

The royalist army arrived in northwest Paris the night of October 4, as the royalist uprisings were squaring off against the Guard in the narrow streets of Paris. Soldiers and officers were scrambling to their positions as the commotion and chaos grew. One of these was the young general Napoléon Bonaparte who went to the Convention late in the evening on the fourth. He was ordered to assist in the defense of Paris and accepted on the condition that he be given freedom of movement. Their hands tied, and needing all of the good officers they could muster, the Convention gave Bonaparte the freedom he requested. Instead of consolidating forces with other leaders of the defense, Bonaparte ordered a lieutenant, Joachim Murat, to gather a number of cannons that were in the imminent path of the marching royalists. Murat reached the cannons and returned them to the revolutionary forces only four hours before the royalist force would have encountered them (and surely taken them for their own use). Bonaparte began arranging his forces, and the cannons, and awaited the arrival of the royalist forces.

Throughout the morning of October 5, the royalist army attacked Paris. They had the revolutionaries outnumbered six to one but Napoléon’s initiative gave the revolutionaries the advantage. The French artillery fired devastating barrages of grapeshot into the charging royalists as the narrow Parisian streets funneled their movements. At the end of the battle, the revolutionary forces had claimed a decisive victory, the royalists had been soundly defeated, the Bourbon Comte fled to the coast and towards Britain, and Napoléon was a national hero. Within five months, he would be leading the French Armée d’Italie and quickly became the Republic’s most able commander.

London was disappointed but the scheme had not been overly costly. What was costly, however, was the ongoing disaster that was the British invasion of the French colony of Saint Domingue. The cost of maintaining a flat European war effort, or an ongoing costly and deadly invasion of a large tropical island, could no longer be justified. Instead, London opted to consolidate its new Caribbean gains, reevaluate its increasingly disastrous fiscal situation (which had never been in great shape since the loss of the American colonies) and passively support Austrian operations on the continent. The Republic was not willing to let Britain walk all over them so shortly after their direct support of an attack on Paris. Britain returned the Indian ports to Paris and “purchased” Guadeloupe and St. Lucia from France [2].

The downfall of Robespierre combined with the royalist revolt in the Vendée, and subsequent march on Paris, to reorganize the Republic’s government. On August 22, 1795, the Convention approved yet another constitution, which a national vote then confirmed. The 1795 constitution took effect in late September and created the new Directorie with a bicameral legislature. The lower chamber (the Council of 500) created laws, which the upper chamber (the Council of Elders) would then be approve or disapprove. Five “directors” combined to handle executive functions.

The Directorie repealed the large-scale excesses of the Reign of Terror but it was hardly a perfect system. The government continued to oppress the church and crush departmental revolts with great bloodshed. All the while, the economy continued to sputter and the cost of food remained extravagant. By this point, the French Treasury only functioned through conquests in the lowlands, Rhineland and Piedmont. This created a dangerous self-sustaining war machine. If widespread peace occurred, the treasury would dry up, the economy would worsen, hundreds of thousands of soldiers would suddenly be made unemployed and dozens of ambitious generals would be let loose upon Paris. Corruption began to run rampant and the leadership of France grew ever more ineffective. A new political faction, the Constitutionnalistes merged the old interests of royalists, moderates and Girondins with the hope of slowly creating an effective administration that reflected that of the United States but the controlling powers refused their reforms. In 1796, the value of the French Assignat finally fell to the point where the currency was worth less than the value of the paper it was printed on. Way back in 1789 the revolution began over a fiscal crisis and large state debts, in 1796 France essentially lacked a functional economy. For all of the changes and fluctuations in France over nearly a decade, no faction or leader had effectively sorted out the root cause of all the problems.

Historians have mixed opinions on the Reign of Terror but the opinions and interpretations of the Directorie are mostly uniform. The Directorie, too many, was the inevitable byproduct of a country in chaos, controlled by dominant personalities and exhausted with radical excess. By the time of Robespierre’s execution, almost any system of government would have been welcomed by the populace over the Jacobin controlled Convention. Indeed, the backlash against the Reign of Terror led to the popular support of the royalist uprising in the Vendée and its march on Paris. Had Napoléon been elsewhere that day the Republic might have only lasted a few short years. In the end a patchwork government that combined moderates, Girondins, local personalities, radical elements and even some royalists replaced the Terror. It moderated from the radical peak of the Terror but it was hardly a centrist government. The inherent problems of France that the Committee of Public Safety had never addressed were also coming back to haunt Paris. By 1796, France could not work towards international peace without causing further violence at home. There were no good options on the table to fix the economy that also would not have ended in bloodshed. This byzantine system of conflicting interests, ancient traditions, radical changes and national pigeon-holing only led to further corruption and problems that eventually resulted in an angry population and its downfall. As Gonzalez stated:

“The monarchy was unpopular with the common people but it had powerful supporters on its side and the benefit of tradition. The supporters of the 1791 Constitution should have won the day had they not been the victims of a series of unfortunate events. The excesses of the Terror eventually cost the Convention its mandate (and Robespierre his head) but at least for a time they had tremendous public support. However, from the start, the Directory had nothing going in its favor. Few enthusiastically supported it, it was never based on solid legal foundations, and its direction and goals were difficult to discern. Of all the systems in place in France over the course of the revolutionary decade it would make sense that the Directory would be the system fragile enough to be usurped by a dictator.”

The unpopularity and instability of the Directorie led to two key trends from 1795 to its eventual downfall in 1799. The first was military adventurism. The second was the repeated attempts to retake control of the revolution by overthrowing the Directorie itself.

For all of the economic and political reasons described above, the Directorie found itself forced to continue the revolutionary wars. In 1796, with most of the allies of the coalition having dropped out, France put all of its resources against Austria. Generals Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, Jean Victor Marie Moreau and Bonaparte prepared three armies that would push towards Vienna on multiple fronts. Jourdan and Moureau would push north of the Alps from the Rhine while Napoléon would push south of the Alps from the Piedmont, across the Po River Valley and attack Vienna from Italy. The offensive went well at first and the French armies reached the edge of Tyrol but in September, Archduke Charles of Austria defeated them at the Battles of Amberg and Würzburg in Bavaria. Austrian forces pursued the French back across the Rhine and north of the Alps. Territory thus returned to the pre-invasion status quo.

South of the Alps, Napoleon fared considerably better. By May, Napoleon’s brilliant victories during the initial invasion forced the Savoyards to sign an armistice leaving Austria on its own. Napoléon took Milan late that spring and laid siege to the Austrian stronghold of Mantua that summer. Repeated Austrian counterattacks led to vicious fighting but Napoléon slowly pushed them back. By August, the Austrians had retreated to the Tyrolian foothills. Napoléon won a decisive victory at the Battle of Arcole in mid-November giving them the advantage in northeast Italy and allowing them to continue to Siege of Mantua and capture Venice [3].

The next year as hostilities broke out again in Italy, elections were held across France and resulted in considerable gains by the royalists. This frightened republican directors who staged a coup on September 4, which nullified the victors and sent 57 royalist leaders into exile to Guiana. This coup led to a renewed effort to promote republican ideals and other philosophies that were in the spirit of the revolution. The Directorie once again pushed the unpopular republican calendar and cracked down yet again on the church. Many départments, it should be noted, simply refused to enforce the decisions of the Directorie in a clear display of contempt against yet another year of instability from Paris.

On February 2, Mantua surrendered and gave Napoléon decisive control over northern Italy. That spring, Napoléon drove into Tyrol and began directly threatening Vienna. French armies along the Rhine once more pushed towards Bavaria. With Vienna in imminent danger of capture, Archduke Charles sued for peace. The Treaty of Campo Formio effectively ended the War of the First Coalition. Vienna formally ceded the Austrian Netherlands to France, recognized the revolutionary government, and recognized the Rhine as the eastern border of France. Austria and France partitioned Venice ending nearly 1100 years of Venetian independence.

The end of the war was celebrated across France but it raised significant questions in the backrooms of Paris. Few in the unpopular Directorie wanted national heroes like Napoléon or Louis Lazare Hoche milling around Paris in boredom. The evaporation of wartime plunder was a quiet matter of greater concern for French economists. The departmental rebellions had finally been quieted and no one wanted thousands of heavily armed, well-trained and suddenly unemployed French troops returning to the former hotbeds of revolt.

For the Directorie the answer, as always, lie in war. That summer in 1797, two conflicts threatened to embroil France and a third had been ongoing since the start of the revolution.

——————- Author’s Notes ——————-

[1]: Santo Domingo was the long-standing colonial name for the portion of Hispaniola that we now know as the Dominican Republic. In addition, while the treaty with Spain gave France the entire island that reality was never really reflected on the ground in the Caribbean for a wide variety of reasons. In fact, continued Spanish control of the eastern half of the island played a significant role in the coming Haitian Revolution.

[2]: If you’re wondering why this account of the French Revolution reads similar to our timeline’s history that is because it largely has been. The reasoning here is that the changes to the timeline are only about 20 years old and have been largely confined to the Americas and the loss of colonial wealth’s impact on the British Empire. Just because Britain lost Canada and the Caribbean in this timeline does not mean London is suddenly weak and unable to be a foil to France. The financial loss of the islands though, does have an impact. In our timeline, Britain was the arguably the most stubborn of the various coalition members against the revolution and then Napoleon. From the start of the First Coalition until Waterloo, Britain only had roughly four combined years of peace with France. The war pushed Britain to its financial brink but it could afford to hold on because the wars allowed the British to become the dominant global imperial power. Not only did Britain retain Canada and the Caribbean in our timeline but they also seized many French and Dutch colonies to augment their empire. Here, that power is diminished due to the overwhelming defeat in this timeline’s American Revolutionary War. Now we are beginning to see the crack’s in British military and economic dominance such as suing for peace in 1795 or reduced naval spending.

[3]: This is a good place to mention something in this timeline that did not happen in late 1796 that did happen in our own. In December 1796 of our timeline the Directory launched the ill-fated expedition against Ireland that cost the French nearly 4,000 troops and 12 ships. Because France and Britain are at peace by the end of 1795, there is no need for this expedition.

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