The Coup of 18 Brumaire
‘The Constitution? Every dissident invokes it and everybody violates it. It can no longer be a means of salvation for us because nobody respects it anymore.’
-Napoleon Bonaparte to the Council of Ancients
‘Tyrant!’ They bellowed, ‘Outlaw him!’ Who would have thought such things to have been said about Napoleon Bonaparte from how the laudations of the crowds only a few days earlier? How did it come to be that things could turn this ill for him, whom fortune seemed to favor? To all observant eyes, it seemed as if a most bizarre yet fantastic event was underway, which would result in Napoleon’s having virtually complete control of the state of France.
During the time of 1795-99, the Directoire, or Directory, was the ruling body of the French revolutionary government, consisting of five executive members: Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, a vehement revolutionary who voted for the execution of the tyrant Louis XVI and who wrote the pamphlet What Is the Third Estate?; Roger Ducos; Paul Barras, an early supporter and promoter of Napoleon, and a man infamous for his depravity; General Moulin; and Louis-Jérôme Gohier, the acting president. However, as rulers they were most unfit.
Mere speculation alone does not lead me to discredit the Directory; its failure as a governing body of the nation was more than evident during its time. The internal structure of France was in shambles by 1799: civil servants went unpaid, the army was impoverished and unsupplied, inflation practically destroyed the value of money, brigands and highwaymen traversed the countryside (Napoleon’s own luggage was pilfered outside the town of Aix!), and sodomy and prostitution were rampant.
As if that were not bad enough, the French Republic was faced with external threats as well. While Napoleon was campaigning in Egypt, England had organized the second coalition against France, consisting of Austria, Russia, Naples, and the Ottoman Empire. The Russians under General Suvorov and Austrians under General Kray defeated the French in Northern Italy, reversing almost all the gains Napoleon had made during the first Italian Campaign two years previous. In Germany, Austrian Archduke Charles drove French General Jourdan into the Black Forest towards the Rhine River, and then defeated French General Masséna in Switzerland, opening up the mountain passes between Germany and Northern Italy. Finally, Anglo-Russian forces under the Duke of York landed in Holland. France was now surrounded on all sides by enemies that were only too anxious to avail themselves of any opportunity to defeat the newly-christened republic.
When Napoleon returned to France, landing in Fréjus on 8 October 1799 after his return from the Egyptian Campaign, the people were so pleased with his return that, when warned about the sanitary laws regarding their past exposure to the bubonic plague in Egypt, they replied, ‘We prefer the plague to the Austrians!’ During the whole of his journey back to Paris, Napoleon was greeted with hails of ‘Long Live Bonaparte! You alone can save France! She shall perish but for you: it is Heaven that sent you; seize the reins of government!’
As Napoleon was en route on his trip, another person would play a large role in organizing the forthcoming coup: Sieyès. This politically-savvy man had realized long before Napoleon’s return that the Directory could not be sustained. Even if more competent leaders were brought in it would make no difference, for the Directory’s public image had already suffered beyond all reparation; and so he concluded that the time was ripe to plan a coup of his own. He upheld that a sort of tri-consulate was needed, consisting of himself, his fellow director Ducos, and a general, so as to obtain the support of the military for the new government. What may come as a surprise is that Napoleon was not the first choice; instead it was General Joubert, said to be both capable and easily manipulated. However, circumstances caused Sieyès to change his choice of generals, namely Joubert’s death at the Battle of Novi on August 15 (which happens to be Napoleon’s birthday) 1799. Generals Moreau and Macdonald were then approached, but both refused to even listen.
Meanwhile Napoleon, reaching Paris on 16 October, had a cold and awkward meeting with the Directory, where little was discussed. One the one hand they wanted to be seen as supporting this national hero, while on the other they wished to remove the threat he posed to their power. They wanted to have him arrested for deserting his army in Egypt and for breaking the sanitary laws in Fréjus; however, they had no case: they had invited Napoleon to return and the people in Fréjus, having been warned, chose to disregard the sanitary laws. Even if they had real charges against him, public opinion of him was so strong that they could not have done anything against him had they wished to. Napoleon realized by this point that not only did the people want him to act but also they demanded it for the well-being of France. Being an ardent supporter of the republic, he was hesitant to act against it initially, and so he made an attempt to join with the current government and fix it from within. Requesting Gohier, the acting president, for an appointment to the Directory, he was told that the Constitution of Year III required directors to be at least forty years of age, meaning that he was too young, being only thirty at the time. Consequently, he sought to align himself with one of the plethora of conspiracies being concocted.
Barras was one of the first people he made indirect advances on, since that man had been so crucial to his early career and he wanted to help in turn; however, Barras’s pretentiousness prevented him from working under someone he felt was beneath him, not to mention that he was already involved with his own odious plan, the apex of greed. He had made a deal with the abhorred Bourbons to relinquish control of France for an estimated sum of 12 million francs. It had been suggested to Napoleon early on that he should work with Sieyès, but personal animosity between the two men made such an arrangement impossible.
Next, Napoleon considered a Jacobin plot by Generals Jourdan and Augereau, but his distaste for Jacobin politics and fear of a slide into Robespierrism caused him to abandon this plot. Finally, he convinced himself that his best chance was to work with Sieyès, and so he sacrificed his personal feelings for the better of France. A meeting between the two men was arranged by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Lucien Bonaparte, one of Napoleon’s younger brothers who was recently appointed (26 October) president of the Council of Five Hundred for 1 November (10 Brumaire in the French Revolutionary calendar). Napoleon clearly stated that he wanted a part in the new government, and so it was agreed to. Into the plot joined Fouché, the Minister of Police; Cambacérès, the Minister of Justice, and Roederer, a politician and publisher.
It was not long before a plan was formed. First, Sieyès would employ recent Jacobin extremist threats of rioting as justification to motion to the Council of Ancients that they relocate the legislative body (consisting of the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred) to the nearby Château de Saint-Cloud, where they would discuss establishing a provisional tri-consulate, with the goal of thus establishing Napoleon, Sieyès, and Ducos. Next, Napoleon would be appointed to take charge of the troops to safeguard the members during the moving and deliberation. Then Sieyès and Ducos would voluntarily resign from the Directory, and convince the remaining directors to do likewise. With the Directors removed and the legislative body out of Paris, a power vacuum would be declared and the consulate would be approved, shortly thereafter naming a legislative commission to draft a new constitution.
During the next few days, the party attempted to gain more support. As popular as Napoleon was with his soldiers, generals were a different matter, and in order to ensure a smooth transaction he needed their backing. Generals Macdonald and Beurnonville joined the effort easily enough, but more importantly they managed to persuade the commander of the Paris garrison, General Lefebvre, whom Napoleon offered his Egyptian saber to as a gift, the same saber that was sold for $6.5 million on 10 June 2007. Perhaps equally as important, Napoleon rallied General Moreau, described by Bourrienne [one of Napoleon’s secretaries] as ‘a slave to military discipline,’ who was nearly as highly publicly esteemed as himself. Beyond generals, he achieved the support of Charles-François Lebrun, who according to Bourrienne was wanted because his conservative views would work with Cambacérès more radical views to obtain the support of everyone.
Not everyone, however, was so eager to follow him. His brother-in-law, General Bernadotte, who would later become a traitor to Napoleon and France, refused to join, and although not acting against him at this point, he threatened, “I will remain quiet as a citizen; but if the Directory order me to act, I will march against all disturbers.”
When morning dawned on 9 November (18 Brumaire), Napoleon, at his home on Rue de la Victoire surrounded by his fellow generals, received the predicted decree from the Council of Ancients, announcing the move to the Château de Saint-Cloud along with stipulating the following clauses: ‘Article 3: General Bonaparte is in charge of executing the present Decree. He will take all the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the nation’s representatives. Article 4: General Bonaparte is admitted to the Council of Ancients to receive an authenticated copy of the present Decree and take the oath of office.’ Immediately the collaborators assumed their places: Talleyrand departed for the home of Barras to bribe him into resigning directorship; General Moreau, accompanied by three hundred soldiers, placed Directors Moulin and Gohier under house arrest at Luxemburg; General Murat rode to the Château de Saint-Cloud; and Napoleon went to the Tuileries to receive the decree from the House of Ancients.
With the collaborators in position, Napoleon inspected the force he was now at the head of, consisting of some 10,000 soldiers, all of whom were very pleased to be serving under him. The remainder of the day was passed drafting posters denouncing the Directory and proclaiming the need for Napoleon to seize the reins of government. Sieyès suggested that Napoleon should order the arrest of about fifty Jacobin leaders as a precaution, but Napoleon refused, preferring the whole ordeal to be as legal and, moreover, bloodless as possible. Everything was occurring according to plan, but no one could have guessed how it would end.
When the next day arrived (10 November, or 19 Brumaire), the transfer from Paris to the Château de Saint-Cloud was well underway, although already Jacobin conspirators were at work spreading rumors of a plot on the delegates’ lives. Upon reaching their destination, the members of the Council of Ancients, being relatively few in number, were easily settled in and began meeting at 1 o’clock in the afternoon; unfortunately, there was a problem in accommodating the Five Hundred, who were not able to convene until 3 o’clock. By that point, they were rather agitated mood, further agitated by their resentment of the large number of soldiers and the urgings of the Jacobins. Subsequently, the Council of Ancients received a letter from Barras stating:
… The glory which accompanies the return of the illustrious warrior to
whom I had the honour of opening the path of glory, the striking
marks of confidence given him by the legislative body, and the
decree of the National Convention, convince me that, to whatever
post he may henceforth be called, the dangers to liberty will be
averted, and the interests of the army ensured.
I cheerfully return to the rank of a private citizen: happy, after
so many storms, to resign, unimpaired, and even more glorious than
ever, the destiny of the Republic, which has been, in part,
committed to my care.
One thing was clear: the Directory was no more. The constitution stated that two directors could not act alone, and in light of the resignation of Sieyès, Ducos, and Barras, the remaining Moulin and Gohier were powerless. This did not seem to trouble the Council of Ancients, which immediately began debating how they should respond. After waiting outside the hall for some time with Sieyès, Napoleon grew anxious about how things would conclude. Why were they taking so long to debate? The Ancients were on his side just the other day; why would they delay now unless something has happened? Just then Lavalette, whom Napoleon ordered to bring reports on the state of the Five Hundred, came with news that the members, recognizing that the situation bore signs of a coup d’état, were taking turns swearing allegiance to the Constitution of Year III. Upon hearing this, Napoleon replied, “To swear to a part of the Constitution may be right, but to the whole Constitution- that is too much!” By the time all the members were finished, it would be time to disband for the evening, giving the Jacobins, under Generals Jourdan and Augereau, time to launch their own plot, ruining everything.
In the heat of the moment, Napoleon decided to enter the hall of the Ancients and deliver a speech to assure their support; regrettably, it did not turn out well. As Napoleon began arguing for a need for change and the dissolving of the Directory, several of the ancients, fearing that they were going to lose their privileges and the sickeningly-haughty lifestyle to which they had grown accustomed to, cried out support for the Constitution of Year III over Napoleon’s speech, to which he replied, “The Constitution? Every dissident invokes it and everybody violates it. It can no longer be a means of salvation for us because nobody respects it anymore. The Constitution? You have allowed tyranny to reign in its name. And today you are conspiring in its name.” At this the room broke out in shouting, some even shouting, “Caesar-Cromwell-tyrant!” Unable to continue through this uproar, he left the room, slamming the doors behind him. It was not long before the ancients calmed down, from which point they continued their debating.
Napoleon soon regained his wits as well, returning to the courtyard where his soldiers cried, “Vive Bonaparte!” With all due haste he proceeded to the Five Hundred, where Lucien Bonaparte [the president] had just read them Barras’s resignation, which unnerved them. Why would Barras tell them that everything was safe and under control when they had changed their accommodations due impending danger? Something did not sound right. Amidst their confusion came the entrance of Napoleon, surrounded by grenadiers who left him at the door, into the chambers, triggering an aggressive response with several members crying out, “The sanctuary of the laws is violated. Down with the tyrant!–down with Cromwell!–down with the Dictator!” With those comments the room turned into a giant brawl, and at least one person drew a dagger, but a grenadier, by the name of Thomé, intercepted the man. Napoleon stepped back and examined the disgusting sight before him, a horde of flamboyantly dressed peacocks living at the expense of their impecunious countryman, motivated not out of love for France and the Republic but rather out of personal greed and a desire to cling onto their privileges at all costs.
Napoleon was escorted out by the grenadiers, but the council did not calm down. People were clamoring for Lucien to declare his brother an outlaw, and as Lavalette later recounted about the scene, “The terrible word of outlaw (hors la loi) still possessed all its magic force [from the revolution]” Fortunately for Napoleon, they became so caught up in launching threats and arguing that no definitive measures were taken. Fearing that his brother might be in trouble, he dispatched soldiers to extricate Lucien. Once Lucien was outside the chambers, he addressed the soldiers in the courtyard:
CITIZENS! SOLDIERS!–The President of the Council of the Five Hundred declares to you that the majority of that Council is at this moment held in terror by a few representatives of the people, who are armed with stilettos, and who surround the tribune, threatening their colleagues with death, and maintaining most atrocious discussions… I declare to you that these madmen have outlawed themselves by their attempts upon the liberty of the Council… I consign to you the charge of rescuing the majority of their representatives; so that, delivered from stilettos by bayonets, they may deliberate on the fate of the Republic… General, and you, soldiers, and you, citizens, you will not acknowledge, as legislators of France, any but those who rally round me. As for those who remain in the orangery, let force expel them. They are not the representatives of the people, but the representatives of the poniard. Let that be their title, and let it follow them everywhere; and whenever they dare show themselves to the people, let every finger point at them, and every tongue designate them by the well-merited title of representatives of the poniard! Vive la République!
Those soldiers not thoroughly won over by this were made so by Lucien’s next move. With his sword drawn, he exclaimed, “I swear that I will stab my own brother to the heart if he ever attempt anything against the liberty of Frenchmen.” At the height of the excitement, Napoleon added, “Soldiers, I have led you to victory, now can I count on you?” Cries of “Yes!” and “Long live Bonaparte!” rang out amongst every man as they were infused with fervor for their beloved general and the Republic.
With a single notion from Napoleon, General Murat led the grenadiers into the chambers of the Five Hundred, and what a sight it was! The members, all dressed like ancient Roman senators, were climbing out of the windows (fortunately for them the windows emptied into the gardens which were at the same level, so no injuries resulted), and shedding their grandiose robes to run faster, leaving the floor littered with rich hats, coats, and other apparel.
By attacking Napoleon, to whom the Council of Ancients entrusted their decree, the Five Hundred acted against the law and the Constitution that they had sworn to uphold; their expulsion was within all legality. Lavalette brought news that the Council of Ancients had approved of the creation of a provisional tri-consulate. All that remained was for the Five Hundred to approve it. After a few hours most of the delegates were rallied, and the decree was finalized. Napoleon, Sieyès, and Ducos were established as the new leaders of the nation.
The next day the whole of France was enlightened of the events of the previous evening, as well as of the constitution that came out of it. The Constitution of Year VIII was overwhelmingly approved in a plebiscite by a vote of three million to one thousand, five hundred. In addition to the consulate, three legislative bodies were created: the Senate, Tribunate, and Legislative Corps, although nobody doubted that the real power lied in the Consulate itself; however, the Consulate would not be composed of the same members for long. In Sieyès’s own words about Napoleon, ‘Il sait tout, il peut tout, il fait tout.’ This was not simply flattery, but rather an assessment of the situation. Napoleon took charge of most of the discussions regarding the new constitution and the reforms of government, working nearly all day long every day.
Realizing that they were useless where they were, both Sieyès and Ducos exchanged their positions in the Consulate for nice homes and positions elsewhere in the government; Sieyès became president of the Senate, and Ducos the vice-president. Here it would be pertinent to add that Napoleon became known as First Consul only when the consuls changed. Originally the three consuls were equal in power and position, with no distinction made between them. In their stead came Cambacérès as Second Consul and Lebrun as Third Consul. Under Napoleon’s leadership, France would now enter a period of economic growth and prosperity unprecedented in almost all of history. Virtually single-handedly, Napoleon would rebuild France and leave his everlasting mark on the world.
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