Empire of Liberty: The Consulate

Excerpt from Christopher Littleton’s “Bonaparte”, Random House Publishing, 2012. 

No singular event encompasses the transition from the 18th century to the 19th like the coup of 18 Brumaire and the sudden rise of Napoléon Bonaparte. The American annexation of Haiti, completed on April 3, 1800 has a good claim to this title but, by that point, most of the diplomatic and legal legwork was complete. The fact stands that in the summer of 1799 the French Revolution remained in full swing while by the summer of 1800 Napoléon had effectively installed himself as dictator.

Napoléon’s rapid rise was not without controversy. He had to bridge the gap between being the leader of a military coup and the leader of a country still grasping with its own revolution. He simultaneously had to bridge a geopolitical gap as the commander of the ongoing War of the Second Coalition but also as a hopeful peacemaker who desired an end to the conflict so he could consolidate his own rule at home.

An in-depth examination of the heady days of late 1799, 1800 and 1801 is warranted as France quickly shifted from the era of The Directorie to the era of The Consulate.

Napoléon worked overdrive in the immediate aftermath of the coup so his narrative of events would predominate. He called for national unity and painted the delegates who accosted him as bloodthirsty assassins. He downplayed the roles of Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Roger Ducos, his critical co-conspirators, so as to elevate his own legacy. This propaganda played a key role as Napoléon moved from tackling the directory to tackling the new threat of a revised constitution.

Sieyès and Boulay de la Meurthe, the chair of a subcommittee from the interim commission left over from the assembly, charged with drafting a new constitution, fashioned a draft constitution that would have snubbed out Napoléon’s ambition. The proposed constitution would have created an office of “Grand Elector” to oversee the work of the other two consuls: one responsible for foreign issues; the other responsible for the domestic. A delegation of “notables” would control the Senate with the power to dismiss the Grand Elector. In Sieyès mind, Napoléon made sense as the foreign affairs consul, Ducos as the domestic affairs consul and himself as the detached elector. Napoléon, his brother Lucien and his allies worked diligently over the next few weeks to outmaneuver Sieyès.

The successful legislative maneuvering mirrored Napoléon’s battlefield tenacity. The interim committee nixed the Grand Elector idea and opted to create a First Consul position (with Napoléon in mind as its officer-holder) that would be overseen by a Conseil d’Etat to act as advisors. All laws would come from the First Consul. In the end, Article 41 of the revised constitution reads like a hybrid of republican philosophy and traditional absolutism:

“The First Consul promulgates laws; he names and dismisses at his pleasure members of the Conseil d’Etat, ministers and ambassadors and other foreign agents, officers of the army and navy, the members of local administrations and government commissioners attached to the courts”.

By the time the legalities were finalized, the First Consul possessed treaty-making power, would reside at the Tuileries and would receive a 500,000 franc salary (the Second and Third Consuls would receive 150,000 each).

In true Napoléonic fashion, this accumulation of power blended with republican mythos. Versailles was given to wounded soldiers, the harsh anti-émigré laws were repealed, hostages were freed from the Bastille, and the storming of the Bastille and 1 Vendemiaire (the Republican calendar’s New Year’s Day) were made national holidays. Wounded soldiers received pensions; Napoléon reinvigorated the national police force, and reformed over 3,000 rural judgeships and legal positions in an effort to finally bring peace to the lawless countryside. Napoléon immediately pursued ends to the various wars France in which remained mired. The Treaty of Lisbon, signed in January of 1800, ended hostilities between the United States and France, granted Haiti its independence, and ceded the empire to the Americans for a price. Napoléon harbored no ill will to the Americans and blamed the disastrous war on the incompetence of the Directory. Instead, he promoted friendship with the Adams Administration and subsequent Jefferson Administration and even ordered ten days of mourning when the death of George Washington reached Paris in the spring of 1801. “A newly born government must dazzle and astonish,” Napoléon is reported to have said. “When it ceases to do that it fails.”

On December 25, 1799, the new constitution came into force. The First Consul (already agreed by the powerbrokers of the time to be Napoléon) would hold political and administrative power for ten years while the other two consuls and his Conseil d’Etat would advise him. A sixty-man Senate would serve for life (with the ability to expand to an 80-man body) and select the consuls and deputies to a 300-man legislative body and a 100-man tribunate from national lists to be produced as a result of four rounds of elections. The Tribunate would discuss draft laws proposed by the First Consul but they lacked veto power while the legislative body could vote based on those discussions but not discuss themselves. Only the Senate could amend the constitution but none of the three chambers could instigate legislation. It was convoluted but served its purpose for it allowed the First Consul to exercise broad powers and the First Consul position was deliberately designed for Napoléon. Furthermore, to sooth republican sentiments amongst the general population drafters added a series of provisions one can describe as “Bill of Rightsesque”: authorities could not enter the homes of Frenchmen without invitation; citizens could not be held for more than ten days without trial; and ‘harshness used in arrests’ would be considered a crime.

Make no mistake, while the constitution intentionally concentrated power in the First Consul, Napoléon did not rule as a tyrannical dictator. Debate and discussion in the various chambers was often robust and free and petitioners always received a hearing. Perhaps most importantly, Napoléon’s regime did not immediately begin persecuting particular political factions. He desired Frenchmen to rally around France, not Jacobins to rally against Royalists or vice versa.

“I want you all to rally around the mass of the people. The simple title of French citizen is worth far more than that of Royalist, Chouan, Jacobin, Feuillant, or any of those thousand-and-one denominations which have sprung, during these past ten years, from the spirit of faction, and which are hurling the nation into an abyss from which the time has at last come to rescue it, once and for all.”

These were not pretty words and Napoléon heeded his own advice. He filled his government with men of varying political backgrounds. The Second Consul, Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès had conspired to execute Louis XVI, his future minister of justice, Louis-Mathieu Molé was a royalist whose own father had been guillotined, his military administrator General Jean-Girard Lacuée was a moderate and his treasury minister, Nicolas François Mollien had been in Louis XVI’s finance ministry.

Napoléon styled his efforts as “finishing the revolution” and France seemed to agree with his decisions. The value of the franc rose to levels it had not seen in years and on February 7, 1800, a national plebiscite confirmed the new constitutional set up by a ludicrous margin of 3,011,007 “for” to 1,562 “against”. Archives clearly show falsification of votes, some in Lucien Bonaparte’s own handwriting, and in Lucien’s hurry to announce results the Interior Ministry “estimated” the votes of large swathes of southwestern France. That said, the records do demonstrate that the new system would have won approval anyways, though the margin probably would have been 1.5 million “fors” to several thousand “againsts”. In the end, Lucien’s fudging of numbers despite the assurance of victory speaks less of Napoléon’s hunger for power and more for his hunger for control of the narrative. Napoléon would routinely underestimate his own casualties and overstate casualties inflicted on his enemy combatants. The Bonapartist regime became legendary for propaganda whether it occur via falsified documents or paintings such as Napoléon’s horse rearing up while crossing the Alps.

All of this is not to paint Napoléon as a philosopher-king/peacemaker. He was a pragmatist first and foremost. When the rebels in the Vendée (operating since 1793) refused to lay down their arms, Napoléon instructed General Gabriel Marie Joseph, comte d’Hedouville to deal with them “robustly”. By the start of 1801, the Vendée lay quiet for the first time in nearly a decade. On January 17, 1800 Napoléon closed 60 of France’s 73 newspapers (in fairness to Napoléon many of these ‘newspapers’ were mere tabloids, some of which insinuated that Napoléon was sleeping with his own sister). The decree sent shockwaves through France’s journalist community and one can immediately see a more pro-Bonapartist tune in the survivor’s publications. Soon after the plebiscite, Napoléon promulgated a law retracting the democratic reforms made to local department rule in 1790 and replacing it with a centralized department-arrondissment-commune system with many prefects directly appointed from Paris. Local elected boards acted as part-time advisers to these prefects. In true Napoléonic fashion, however, considerable effort went into selection and training of these prefects and, in the end, the system proved more efficient and reliable than what existed in the depth of the revolution. A classic Bonapartist blend of subtle control mixed with a keen eye for talent.

With spring looming, so did a return to the campaign season. The Treaty of Lisbon ended France’s overseas war and Russia withdrew from the conflict after the retreat of Suvorov over the Alps. This left Spain, Austria and Britain as France’s chief adversaries. Napoléon penned a letter to George III seeking an end to the war. Remarkably, this hail-mary diplomatic attempt worked and a peace commission went to London to work with the new Portlandite government and seek an end to the ongoing war. This allowed Napoléon to focus his efforts on Madrid and Vienna [1].

To finance the war, Napoléon needed to replenish the empty treasury. Instructing his ministers to borrow 12 million francs from Parisian bankers, they reported that all they could muster was three million. Napoléon’s subsequent arrest of Gabriel Ouvrard, the most powerful banker in France (and notably someone who refused to assist in the 18 Brumaire coup), helped loosen the purse strings amongst the rest of the finance community. Napoléonic intervention in France’s treasury and economy would be both a blessing and curse for years to come.

Napoléon wrote no less than 43 memos to Louis-Alexandre Berthier over six weeks on the subject of the wars with Spain and Austria. An additional 20,000 troops crossed the Pyrenees to reinforce General Louis Lazare Hoche in Spain. Napoléon secretly raised a 30,000 troop force and deployed them to Dijon with the intention of sending them to Italy as early as January 7, 1800. The secrecy of this army was key, for not even Napoléon’s own generals knew that the Consul would take control of this army himself [2].

Napoléon’s first victory as consul came not at his own hands, but rather when his 20,000 reinforcements took the last outpost of the Spanish Bourbons in the Basque Country. The February 8, 1800 Battle of San Sebastian allowed General Pierre Augereau to proclaim the formation of a new Basque Republic the next day. France’s frontier with Spain now stood lined with three republican creations, and Hoche and Augereau were marching to unite and take Madrid.

The situation in Spain well in hand, Napoléon moved his attention to Italy. The French had regained some initiative against the Austrians in the region but the events of 1799 had left them stretched thin. Austrian General Karl von Ott had bottled up General André Masséna in the city of Genoa, aided in his siege by a Royal Navy blockade. Across northern Italy, Austrian General Paul Davidovich equally bottled General Léonard Mathurin Duphot in the fortress of Mantua. Austrian forces held free reign over the northern Italian countryside and threatened to push down the peninsula as soon as they eliminated the French threats to the north.

The events of April gave the French the decisive strategic edge in Italy. On April 1, just before Napoléon set off for Italy, the peace commission reached an accord with Britain and a draft of the Treaty of London raced toward Paris. Not wanting a three front war, Napoléon accepted the treaty even though it confirmed the stripping of the Dutch Empire. Correspondence tends to show that Napoléon had accepted the end of an overseas empire even before the Treaty of Lisbon ended the ancien regieme’s empire at the hands of the Americans. To the insult of Dutch pride, (interesting that Napoléon would miss such nationalist sentiment given the nationalist reforms he was making in France) Napoléon accepted the loss of their empire in exchange to remove Britain from his immediate concerns. We should note that a letter to Talleyrand reveals some of his initial thoughts at courting the United States as an overseas foil to Britain. From the Treaty of London on, Napoléon would become a great advocate for restoring the “Friendship of Washington and Lafayette”. The Treaty of London was generous to Britain, mainly at the expense of the Batavian Republic. Britain gained Dutch Guyana and the Antilles, the Cape Colony, the Dutch East Indies, Ceylon, Dutch India not designated, and the Gold Coast. France retained its West African colonies while Amsterdam retained the designated Indian ports of Bharuch, Cannanore, Trincomalee, Sadras, Balasore, Syriam and the Japanese lodge at Dejima. France also recognized the Kingdom of Corsica (arguably the most painful acquiescence for Napoléon) and both parties agreed to a free “Duchy of Malta” which would be in personal union with the Neapolitan Bourbons (a concession to French Royalists, the British and the Neapolitans).

To the great dismay of the Austrians at Genoa, the Royal Navy departed in late April and Massena’s beleaguered troops began receiving French ships and supplies. The relief was a salvation. Supplies had run low to Massena’s force in the weeks before the siege began and the Austrians seized much of the army’s baggage train in the retreat to Genoa. The city was low on supplies as well. Both the French soldiers and the Genoese populace were living on a “bread” substance comprised of bad flour, sawdust, starch, hair powder, oatmeal, rancid nuts and, to make the unctuous concoction somewhat tolerable, a touch of cocoa. All of the dogs and cats were eaten and rats “fetched a high price”. Starvation set in along with disease. Whenever more than four Genoans gathered together, the French had orders to fire upon them out of fear that they might give up the port. When Captain Louis Alexis Baudoin docked the Fougueux and unloaded a supply of beets and radishes (along with gunpowder and other munitions), he forever earned the moniker “le captaine d’radis”. Later Napoléon jokingly gifted the captain a fine gold pocket watch in the distinctive cutout of a beet [3].

To the east, the situation in Mantua was even more desperate. Duphot maintained a thin salient between French occupied Romagna and Mantua for over a month but the Austrians closed the salient in January and finally laid siege to the French in February. Duphot had been careful to pack the fortress city with as many supplies as he could but, with no port for potential relief, everything hinged on a new French offensive. In such a perilous situation, many of Duphot’s officers encouraged surrender but having fought with Napoléon before in the earlier Italian Campaign several years before, Duphot gambled that the new Consul would come to the rescue.

True to Duphot’s intuition, Napoléon was itching to act. The only reason Napoléon delayed as long as he did was to maintain appearances, strengthen his still new government, and allow the Treaty of London to finalize. He likely also wanted to keep an eye on Jean Victor Marie Moreau. By this point, he knew that Moreau and Hoche had been potential suitors for the 18 Brumaire’s conspirators and he must have known that their absence on the Spanish and German fronts, combined his blatant flight from Egypt, counterintuitively played into his hands [4]. With Hoche safely in Spain and Moreau deployed across the Rhine on April 25, he finally had the space he needed to let his inner-soldier out. Napoléon repeatedly reviewed troops in Paris (in plain view of the public and Austrian spies) and even attended the opera on the night of May 5.

However, Napoléon never came home.

At two in the morning on May 6, still in his finery from the night at the opera, Napoléon and his entourage thundered out of Paris. They were in Dijon the next morning and by three in the morning on May 9, he was in Geneva. Following his plans from April, the army that had gathered in Dijon was already ascending the Great St. Bernard Pass. Napoléon followed the army most of the time (the painting of him on his rearing horse being a complete fabrication) while micromanaging all manner of logistics. Amazingly, the weather cooperated with Napoléon and he and his army snuck through the Alps in between two fierce storms spread apart by a mere ten days. In total, 48,300 men, 9,000 horses and 680 mules crossed the Alps and entered the Piedmont.

Following the Dora Baltea River, Napoléon took the Hungarian-occupied Fort Bard in early June (after nearly two weeks of delay much to the Consul’s consternation). Occupying Aosta in late May, Napoléon had a decision to make. To his west, Austrian General Michael von Melas had invaded France-proper and taken the city of Nice. Massena still lay under siege in Genoa, surrender only being held off thank to the French navy. To the extreme east, Duphot remained holed up in Mantua.

The pragmatic decision would have been to march south, lift the siege, combine forces and then attack Melas from the rear.

The politically savvy decision would have been to expel the Austrians from France before handling Italy.

The Napoléonic decision was to head east.

Napoléon captured Milan and its huge supply depot in early June, also cutting off Melas’ retreat to Mantua across the Mincio River. Melas angrily wheeled his army around to try to counter Napoléon’s harsh logic. Melas had a choice to make now himself. He could go to Genoa and join Ott in attempting on the city, or at least ensuring that Napoléon did not march down at some point to combine forces with Massena. Alternatively, Melas could rely on the Ligurian Alps (and Napoléon’s own harsh behavior) to maintain the siege while moving to Piacenza to get around Napoléon and stand between the French and lifting the siege of Mantua. We do not know the logic, but Melas opted to proceed to Piacenza [5].

Meanwhile in Milan, Napoléon was at play. He freed political prisoners, set up a city government, and attended the Milanese Opera where he struck up a brief intimate relationship with the star singer Giuseppina Grassini. After his mistress left the next morning, he hosted 200 priests and held a conclave on philosophy discussing how Catholicism was particularly favorable to republican institutions. Interestingly, Napoléon dismissed their concerns about the occupation of Rome as he indicated that he favored the religious views of the new pope (Cardinal Barnaba Chiaramonti became Pope Pius VII that spring in Sardinia) and intended to end the feud with the church, a very earlier indicator at the coming Concordat [6]. As in Egypt when Napoléon adopted Islam for his strategic benefit, the Consul fully embraced the Roman church in this devoutly catholic theater of war.

On the morning of June 10, Napoléon left Milan for Pavia, which he reached that afternoon. His forces crossed the Po River that evening and encamped at Stradella, a small town wedged between the Po and the Ligurian Alps. The two armies ran into each other on the main road near the town of Casteggio on June 12. Melas had hoped he could skirt by this narrow point before Napoléon arrived. Instead, he ran right into well-positioned and entrenched Frenchmen.

Despite the numerical superiority of the Austrians, we remember the Battle of Casteggio was a hallmark of Napoléon’s patience and ability to combine cavalry, infantry and artillery to perfection. Allowing the Austrians to grind his forces slowly back throughout the afternoon, Napoléon would time and time again deploy a reserve force to retake the field from exhausted Austrian battalions. When Austrian cavalry charged their positions, a quick maneuver by the French opened the enemy to an artillery barrage only to close ranks before the enemy could organize a counter-charge. A last push by the Austrians that came close to breaking the French lines was broken when Napoléon  combined a charge from his Consular Guard with a perfectly time cavalry charge led by François Étienne de Kellermann. Psychologically broken and unable to move the French, the Austrians retreated, disorganized, and back to Alessandria. The exhausted French stood victorious having killed 793 Austrians, wounded 4,982, captured 2,301 and seized eight guns with a further 12 dumped into the Po. Napoléon had lost 750 Frenchmen, 2,800 wounded and 300 missing. A desperate attempt by Melas to reorganize at Alessandria and move south to combine with Ott at Genoa failed when Napoléon deftly moved his force to Tortona, allowing him the ability to strike directly at Alessandira, move south to block a march towards Genoa or move back north if the Austrians attempted to cross the Po. On June 14, Melas sued for an armistice and Napoléon gained the Piedmont, Lombardy, 12 fortresses, 1,500 guns, tons of munitions and supplies, and besieged Genoa found salvation.

Yet, northern Italy had not yet been won. In his armistice, Melas had been able to hand over what he controlled to Napoléon but Mantua was still under siege by Davidovich. Holding the Austrian army in custody, Napoléon rode east with Melas and his Consular Guard where a parlay occurred at Bozzolo. Unfortunately, for Napoléon, an army of 15,000 Austrians surrounded Duphot in Mantua. With Massena’s force still recovering from the siege, occupation of the surrendered territories underway, and a sizeable guard needed to keep Melas’ army in custody, Napoléon likely lacked the troops to break the siege. Luckily, for the Consul, Melas, Ott and plenty of other captured officers were high-ranking commanders and, among the Austrian captured, included the Archduke Joseph, Archduke Charles’ younger brother. While not technically hostages, General Davidovich knew what was best for him and agreed to end the siege and take over custody of Melas’ army as they retreated towards Vienna.

———— Author’s Notes —————-

[0]: There is a lot of historical fact in this chapter. I have fudged some numbers to account for multiple fronts, differing accounts of troop strength/supplies/etc., but for the most part, I think Napoleon would have responded to his rise to power very similarly to our timeline.

[1]: Here is the first big divergence in Napoléon’s consulate rule. Obviously, in our timeline Britain continues its war effort. Here the collapse of Pitt’s government due to financial strain and battlefield losses allows a quicker and longer lasting peace.

[2]: In our timeline Napoléon only sent the secret force to Dijon and wrote half the memos to Berthier, the wider scope of the war given the fronts in Spain doubles his efforts.

[3]: Your mind isn’t playing tricks on you, this is an Onion Knight reference.

[4]: Until Hoche’s untimely death in our timeline he was the decided “hero of France” and Moreau was the hoped for military candidate amongst the conspirators. Napoleon only placed himself in the right position by leaving Egypt without permission, his popularity, his connections with Lucien (president of the Assembly) and a good bit of luck. In this timline, Moreau and Hoche are still very much active threats to his reign.

[5]: In our timeline Melas opted for Genoa hoping for an evacuation by the Royal Navy, the earlier peace wrecks that option and forces him overland.

[6]: Remember that in this timeline, Duphot occupied Rome, created the Roman Republic and sent the Pope fleeing to Sardinia.

Source Material

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

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