The events of the 18-19 Brumaire of the Year VIII (9-10 November 1799) saw General Napoleon Bonaparte seize power from the Directory and establish the Consulate. The Councils of Five Hundred and of Ancients signed away the time of the Directory and paved the way towards Napoleon’s becoming. But these events were certainly no matter of coincidence, and a large number of factors played a part in the coup being a success and also Napoleon being the main beneficiary.
For the Directory to be overthrown, it must be considered that it possessed some inherent weakness that made them both possible to overthrow and deserving of being removed for a foreseen greater good. And there were certainly signs of this weakness. For years, the Directory had been using the army to maintain itself. It was heavily reliant on foreign excursions, and the plunder they yielded, to buoy its failing finances. France was virtually bankrupt thanks to economic downturn and the Directory’s repeated use of the army to prevent any small challenge to their power was making them increasingly unpopular with the people. They were proving unable to dampen any of the extreme opposition against them (from the royalists on the right and Jacobins on the left) and this failure left them weak. The time of the Directory has been seen as something of a nothing period, caught between two monumental episodes (the Revolution and Napoleon’s Empire).
However it did provide some less well known, but still very significant, benefits to France at the time. The economic downturn I have already mentioned was by no means exclusive to France, It was, in fact, continent wide and, relative to other countries, the Directory ensured France did not suffer too badly out of it. It also made great efforts to better the administrative and financial systems of the country, often using finances that didn’t really exist, and in doing so greatly improved the long term effectiveness of French government. They also served a constitution based on a broad male franchise and yearly elections and laid the foundations for competitive politics in future years.
Napoleon himself of course played a large role in the coup, and gave it more chance of success than any other general could have. This was mainly due to the prestige that he brought as being the great man who had conquered Italy and Egypt. Although the latter was, in reality, far less true, effective propaganda had pushed Napoleon to celebrity status and made him incredibly popular with the French public who, as a result, made no objective when he seized power. Napoleons own personal traits also aided him, particularly his bold ambition, which would ultimately see him as leader of France and not simply a member the three man executive Sieyes had envisioned. He was a poor public speaker and impatient, but these shortcomings were more than offset by his army connections. On one occasion Napoleon was literally saved from his impatience and poor oratory skills by the army.
During a speech to the Council of Five Hundred, after he has stormed in, angry at their lack of speed in deliberating the creation of the Consulate, he was shouted down and then set upon, and needed to be rescued by four grenadiers. The ‘spin’ that was put upon this incident by Napoleon’s brother Lucien that an assassination attempt had been made on his brother’s life further strengthened Napoleon’s appeal to the French people and marked the start of a second phase of the coup in which Napoleon, not Sieyes, was in control. The army was very loyal to Napoleon. He had brought them victory and prestige, as well as crucially paying half of their wages in silver and gold rather than in depreciating paper currency. It was also the army who moved the Council of Five Hundred out of Paris to St Cloud to allow them to be more intimidated and who, upon the orders of Lucien, cleared the chamber of the Five Hundred after the ‘attack’ on Napoleon.
It was fashionable among the public at the time to consider France to be in something of a rut, but it was the imminent threat of invasion that really frightened the public. While Napoleon had been in Egypt, Europe’s other major continental powers had formed a Second Coalition of Turkey, Austria, Russia, Naples and England and were proceeding to reverse French gains from the previous decade and threaten the lands of ‘old’ France, her traditional territories, via an invasion at Provence. Threatened militarily, many people began turning to the idea of a strong, decisive, military man to rescue France.4 Additionally, the middle-classes supported Napoleon as they saw him as the best man to protect their lands from possible Bourbon or Jacobin revival. They trusted Napoleon to keep the extreme groups down and also to work to improve the economy, using his armies to fight off foreign competition if necessary.
The work of Sieyes, and to a lesser extent Ducos, to bring down the Directory from within also played a part. Sieyes had been working tirelessly since joining the executive to win support for the coup from top politicians for the cause. This helped ensure the new government was to be well supported and also helped throw a cloak of legality over proceedings, making sure there would be fewer objections from the most powerful players in French society during the coup.
Being the two legislative bodies of Directory-era France, it is natural to assume that the Council of Five Hundred and Council of Ancients would play similar roles in the coup de Brumaire. This, however, was not the case. A general view is acceptable that the Council of Five Hundred resisted the coup while Ancients, though not necessarily supporting it, did not go openly against it to any significant extent, making its success all the more likely. While the Five Hundred, as I have mentioned before, twice needed to be controlled with military intervention (the move to St Cloud and the protection of Napoleon) the Ancients seemed far more compliant. They needed no armed persuasion to send them to St Cloud and only a few shouts of defiance were heard when Napoleon made a speech to them compared to the veritable riot that interrupted his talking to the Five Hundred. This could be put down to the smaller number of Ancients, or perhaps to their age, being older and more realistic as to what was happening. For certain though, is the fact that it was the Ancients who agreed to abolish the Directory, drawing the coup de Brumaire to a close.
So, in conclusion, while a (rather unfairly) unpopular Directory made the coup desirable to the people, it was Napoleon himself and the military power at his disposal, with more than a little help from his brother, that made it possible. Although France was in fact recovering from a worrying period, things were actually improving, but the people who wanted change were not prepared to wait any longer and moved to seize their chance while the French still felt threatened by foreign powers. As soon as the military became the main instrument in the establishment of the Consulate, Napoleon was the man in control and hence it’s main beneficiary.
Although he did little to make the coup any more likely, Lucien did play a big role in making sure that it was Napoleon and not Sieyes who was the main player. Lucien was president of the Council of Five Hundred and it was his quick thinking that turned a very negative incident into a potentially positive one following Napoleon’s ill advised speech to the Five Hundred at St Cloud. His show of support for his brother also convinced many of the Council to drop their objection against Napoleon.7
The work of Sieyes prior to 18 Brumaire, while useful in helping reduce objection to the coup, in fact did little to give the coup a greater chance of actually succeeding. Sieyes knew full well that he would need military support to maintain security while he was busy trying to persuade the two Councils to agree to his plans, and without it the coup would have had no chance of success.
While the Ancients technically brought the coup to its successful conclusion when they signed France over to the three-man executive of Napoleon, Sieyes and Ducos, they, by that time, had very little choice in the matter. With the Five Hundred essentially removed and the military at Napoleon’s command, the Ancients’ action was little more than a formality, albeit it a significant one.
1 M. Lyons, France under the Directory (Cambridge 1975)
2 M.Crook, Elections in the French Revolution: An Apprenticeship in Democracy, 1789-1799 (Cambridge 1996) pp. 131-57
3 A. Stiles and D. Rees, Napoleon, France and Europe (Hodder and Stoughton 2004) p.17
4 D.G. Wright, Napoleon and Europe (Longman 1996) p.16
5 A. Stiles and D. Rees, Napoleon, France and Europe (Hodder and Stoughton 2004) p.19
6 M. Crook, The Resistible Rise Napoleon Bonaparte
7 G. Ellis, Napoleon: Profiles in Power (Pearson 1997) p.32