Empire of Liberty: 18 Brumaire

“You are a volcano! The Republic no longer has a government; the Directorie has been dissolved, the factions are agitating; the time to make a decision has arrived. You have summoned me and my companions-at-arms to aid your wisdom, but time is precious. We must decide. I know that we speak of Caesar, of Cromwell, as if the present time could be compared to past times. No, I only want the safety of the Republic, and to support the decisions that you are going to take.” 

– Napoleon Bonaparte to the Council of Elders

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

Napoléon triumphantly entered Paris in early October of 1799.

He arrived to a desperate situation. He knew that the best army in France was essentially lost in Egypt. He knew that the economic and political situation in France kept the Directorie in a constant state of near-collapse. Despite unexpected successes in Switzerland and Spain, a Coalition army remained in Holland and the Austrians continued to control much of northern Italy. Further military failures, or one bad election, could usher in a renewed Reign of Terror at any given moment. At least some moderation and accommodation for conservatives would be necessary for France to truly move ahead but any attempts at such would ruin the precarious balance of power in Paris, threaten Jacobin instability or wreck what little was left of the economy.

The best policy answers the Directorie had to offer were all in the realm of foreign adventures. The Directorie tried (unsuccessfully) to propagate the revolution and international wars overseas. A system of sister republics was set up to provide tribute to Paris, export the revolution and create buffer states between Paris and the constant threats in Vienne and Berlin. These included the Batavian Republic (made from the former Dutch Republic), Cisalpine Republic (centered on Milan), the Ligurian Republic (centered on Genoa), the Piedmontese Republic (centered on Turin), the Helvetian Republic (created from conquered Swiss cantons), the Roman Republic (after Duphot’s conquest of the Papal States), the Parthenopean Republic (centered on Naples), the Catalonian Republic (center on Barcelona) and the Aragonese Republic (centered on Zaragoza). Some conquered territory was directly attached to France but these small states had at least some local support and provided a degree of strategic and economic value. The rich treasuries of Bern and Amsterdam even helped to finance Napoléon’s Egyptian campaign. A large number of valuable paintings, literary works, sculptures, and other items of historic, natural and artistic value were hauled back to Paris and placed in the Louvre.

Napoléon also knew how tenuous France’s situation was in the War of the Second Coalition. Spain (for the moment) still dominated the Mediterranean, the Royal Navy still controlled the Atlantic and enemies on all sides surrounded France. The British, American, Russian, Austrian, Spanish and Ottoman forces that currently opposed France could put 350,000 men in the fields of Europe and had a military capacity to field upwards of nearly a million men. These were unprecedented numbers in those days and France, even with mass conscription, could barely keep up. Napoléon did know that it was not just a numbers game. He had successfully controlled a territory of nearly 40 million with an army of 40,000 while also countering Ottoman forces twice his size in the span of a few months. France’s military commanders were some of the best in the world and their tactical innovation and use of artillery was the best in the world. Despite early setbacks in the war, the French had recently rallied over the summer and fall of 1799. France possessed victories in Spain, Italy, Switzerland, the Germanies and Holland. The kings of Savoy and Naples found themselves exiled on islands, separated from their mainland territories. France possessed Rome and the Pope’s self-imposed exile stood as a simultaneous triumph for Paris and friction point for Europe’s millions of devoted Catholics. Despite brilliant campaigns by Austrian Archduke Charles and Russian General Suvorov, France had endured.

But these policies of foreign adventurism made the popularity of the Directorie dependent on foreign success. The spring 1799 elections, before the war had turned in Paris’ favor, saw the final defeat for the Girondins and sweeping successes for the Jacobins. Unlike the previous few years, the Directorie did not immediately begin cleansing itself of radical influence. A shuffling of directors occurred and there was some backroom hope that yet another constitution would save the day. Instead, Jacobins immediately began meddling with the composition of the Directorie and pressing radical legislation. At the reopening of a Jacobin Club, General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan proposed an ominous toast:

“To the return of the pikes.”

The moderate minister of the police closed the club in the summer of 1799, just as the war situation was at its most dire. On August 15 the first message that the American navy had taken the Indian port of Mahé arrived in Paris. By all accounts, the empire was gone. A riot broke out in eastern Paris, which the police brutally put down. The Jacobins began demanding directorial reform. The directors tabled their motion until the crisis in the Batavian Republic (where the British and Russians landed an invasion force) had passed. Ironically, the only thing saving the Directorie was the public demand for a unified government due to the imminent threat of several thousand Russians marching down the road from Brussels. Many expected some kind of showdown that fall.

It was into this situation that Napoléon returned to France.

In a way, Napoléon’s mere arrival helped to reduce the heat of the situation. His victory march to Paris was a much-needed public distraction and the treasures and scientific discoveries he brought back with him gave Paris something new to the talk about for the first time in years. Both Girondins and Jacobins also welcomed him. Bonaparte’s minor noble heritage and Corsican upbringing made him popular with the royalists and girdondins while his defense of the Directorie against the royalist uprising several years before had become Jacobin legend. He also had a key ally in the legislature, his 24-year-old brother Lucien was a leader within the Council of 500. This popularity fed Napoléon’s ambition and he had not returned to Paris for rest.

Napoléon was not yet 40, the required age to serve as a director so that avenue remained closed to him. However, the directors were terrified of an imminent push by the Jacobins to return to the Reign of Terror. Several propositioned Napoléon to cooperate in a coup attempt. Napoléon rebuffed these attempts but a meeting between himself and Director Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès led to the initial plotting of an attempt. That Napoleon became the ultimate choice for participation was a bit of happenstance. Sieyès’ preferred military selections were either too republican or off fighting on the fronts (rumor abounded for months that if there were to be an anti-Directorie coup, it would come via Hoche, not Bonaparte).

The secret inner circle of the coup would be Sieyés, Napoléon, Lucien, the foreign minister Talleyrand, the police minister Joseph Fouche and the Commissioner of the Directory, Pierre François Réal. Three directors would suddenly resign, leaving France without an executive body. The various ruling councils would be informed that a Jacobin uprising was imminent and they would be moved several miles west of Paris “for their safety”. Napoléon would be named the head of the government to defend from the radical conspiracy. The councils would be dissolved and a new constitution would be written. Fouche and Réal would ensure that the Paris police did not interfere. Lucien would manage the Council of 500. The leader of the Council of Ancients was brought in at the last minute. Many of Napoléon’s closest subordinates and the top French commanders were also informed. Some supported him but, more importantly, those who did not assured him they would not oppose him either.

The night before the coup, Napoléon attended a dinner party. Normally extremely sociable and warm, he was distant and excused himself early [1].

On the morning of November 8, military forces began encircling Paris. Soldiers roused sleeping members of the Council of Ancients and told to head to the Tuileries for an emergency meeting. There, the members learned of the false Jacobin plot and voted to move their operations outside Paris and give command of the military in the city to Napoléon. A similar meeting occurred several hours later with the Council of 500. That afternoon, three members of the Directorie resigned their positions. Two did so knowing the events that were occurring and the third, Paul Barras allegedly received a massive bribe by Talleyrand and assurances that he could keep the massive wealth he had accumulated for himself through his corruption. The military arrested the two remaining Jacobin directors.

The next day with the entire bodies of the Council of Ancients and Council of 500 moved to Chateau de Saint-Cloud, Napoléon addressed them and informed them that the Directorie was no more. By some accounts, the Ancients were not enthused, but did not oppose the move. Other, more flamboyant accounts recall a screaming match. Napoléon declared “the Revolution is over.” One ancient asked, “And the Constitution?” to which Napoleon replied, referring to earlier parliamentary coups:

“The Constitution! You yourselves have destroyed it. You violated it on 18 Fructidor; you violated it on 22 Floreal; you violated it on 30 Prairial. It no longer has the respect of anyone.”

Napoléon found even more hostility in the Council of 500. Lucien was presiding but upon informing the Council about the directors, Napoléon was insulted and jeered as the council members began to realize what was occurring. Jacobin council members demanded a vote to declare Napoléon outside the law, which would legally allow his immediate arrest and execution. Some accounts say that council members assaulted Napoléon, and perhaps even punched him out cold. Flanked by grenadiers, the soldiers loyal to Napoléon were informed that the Council had just “attempted to assassinate Napoleon with their pens”. The soldiers entered the chamber and scattered the Council of 500. This dispersal traditionally marks the end of the Directorie.

A short time later the Ancients passed a decree that adjourned the Councils for three months and appointed Napoleon, Sieyès, and Roger Ducos provisional consuls. A smattering of deputies from the Council of 500 that supported the coup gathered and gave a nominal approval to the decree.

For a small amount of time, Napoléon served as consul on an equal basis as Sieyès, and Ducos but the use the military force combined with public approval, and Napoléon’s popularity, to clearly indicate that Napoléon was in charge going forward. The Franco-Dutch defeat of the sloppy Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland further solidified Napoléon‘s reputation in the minds of the French people (despite having very little role in that victory).

Napoléon deeply influenced the new French constitution that became law on December 24, 1799. It created the position of First Consul, a position he was sure to hold. As First Consul, it was Napoléon’s duty to appoint the Senate who would in turn interpret the constitution. They allowed Napoléon to rule by decree. One of the reasons the 1799 constitution is so obscure and so unclear is because no one ever intended it to be a real constitution. It was a makeshift vehicle to give Napoléon total control and bridge the gap between the revolution, which was now truly finished, and the First French Empire [2].

————- Author’s Notes ————–

[1]: I’ve also seen accounts that he was concerned he would be poisoned. Either way he was distant the night before the coup.

[2]: These last three paragraphs really gloss over some of the technical legal challenges Napoleon faced from 18 Brumaire until he crowned himself emperor. Suffice it to say, the coup didn’t really end over the course of two days but they were the most dangerous part Napoleon and the conspirators faced.

Source Material

Chisholm, Hugh, ed. “Barras, Paul François Nicolas, Comte de“. Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th ed. Cambridge University Press, 1911.

Roberts, Andrew. “Napoleon: A Life.” Penguins Books, 2014.

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