I was reading through the 4 Volumes of Paul Barras’ memoirs. Barras was the chief member of the Directory, 1795-99, renown for his corruption, at least in his own time and as most historians have concluded, although a few like Martyn Lyons have disputed the degree of corruption. He was a man of many stripes, who managed to survive every political turn. He was a powerful representative-on-mission under the National Convention, supported the coup of Thermidor, became a founder and leading member of the Directory, while Director organized the coups of Prairial and Fructidor, and then retired safely under the Empire with the confidence of having befriended and aided Napoléon, before flocking to the royalists under the Restoration, who however were less anxious to accept his hand.
In any event, I wanted to read through the accounts with an open mind. Interestingly enough, he presents himself as the foremost of patriots and a strong republican, despite his secret negotiations while Director to sell out France to the Bourbons for some 10 million francs or so. I was starting to rethink Barras’ character, and then I was struck with the startling revelation: he is a habitual liar. Just two points for the moment should demonstrate how I came to this conclusion, apart from my knowledge of his intrigues from other sources. For one, I happened to note every time he mentions his displeasure with Pope Pius VI, who had a bad relationship with the French. Pius had from the very beginning, even before any bloodletting started, opposed not only the Revolution itself, but even the founding principles. He had threatened to excommunicate the entire French nation, and under the Directory had declared war on France (do not forget: at this time the pope was a temporal power as well as spiritual, commanding his own army). Although Napoléon had organized the Treaty of Tolentino with ‘the Pope after the French entered Rome, Barras complains that not only was the pope giving the Directory a hard time about paying up with promised money, but also that he feels that Napoléon did not exact enough from the pope. Barras then multiple times describes how “fanatical” he considers the Church of Rome, how he does not trust the pope with temporal power, and then details his orders for Gen. Berthier to invade Rome, depose the pope and remove him to Portugal, and create a Roman Republic. Several entries detail his orders for specific movement for the pope in that direction. However, once the news hit Paris that the pope died at Valence, Barras suddenly sings a different tune. Now, the entire drama with the pope is Napoléon’s fault. It was Napoléon’s fault for demanding so much from the pope, for ordering Berthier to invade later, and for deposing him. So instead of accepting his actions and either defending himself or claiming he was wrong if he had a change of heart, Barras instead passes off the blame in the most absurd and evidently self-contradictory way imaginable. That was worth a great laugh on my own part.
The other glaring lie he made was that when discussing the French invasion of England in 1797 (and yes indeed the French did land a small force of about 1000 men near Fishguard in early ’97 as I discovered in my Franco-Irish research), he claims he only became aware of the operation’s very existence once reports were printed in the paper when it was underway, and that if he knew about it while it was being planned, he would have opposed it. He even mentions that the other Directors say they had discussed it with him, but he still claims that he had no knowledge and orders a report to look into it. However, I happened to find a report with the exact directions for the English invasion in a letter from the Directory to Gen. Hoche from April ’96, and guess who’s signature is on it? You guessed it: Barras’. He not only knew of the expedition, but he also knew the precise details and approved of it. Although there is much more, that suffices to prove my point. As far as I am concerned, Barras deserves his reputation as a miserably corrupt politician and a habitual liar.