Napoleon & Empire

Key Dates
18 Brumaire Year VIII (November 9, 1799)

After his oriental dream was thwarted before the gates of Saint-Jean d'Acre in Israel, the news of the catastrophic situation in France in the spring of 1799 convinced Napoleon Bonaparte that it was time to return to metropolitan France. Following the defeat of Jean-Baptiste Jourdan at Stockach and that of Jean Victor Moreau at Cassano, Italy was lost and the French armies in Germany retreated as far as the Rhine. Inside the country, anarchy reigned.

18 brumaire Year VIII, by James Gillray
18 brumaire Year VIII, english caricature by James Gillray
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The situation was serious. The road to power, though out of the question after the triumphant Italian campaign, was now a reasonable option. Bonaparte left Egypt aboard the Muiron on August 23, 1799.

An Unstable Situation

When he arrived in Paris on October 16, he found a city brimming with plots against the Directory. The economic situation was catastrophic: the country was ruined, civil servants were no longer being paid, famine was rampant in the capital, and the countryside was once again infested with gangs of thieves. Despite the military successes that had averted the threat of a foreign invasion in the autumn of 1799 (the Battles of Zurich and the capitulation at Alkmaar), the government was discredited. Without a moment's hesitation, Bonaparte began to prepare for the role he would play in the events that many felt were now inevitable. After sounding out the deputies who were likely to support a regime change - Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Benjamin Constant, Cabanis and Madame de Staël were among those who welcomed his overtures - he became close with the Abbé Siéyès in his search for a foil.

The Perfect Accomplice: Siéyès

The Abbé Siéyès, who had recently become the strong man of the regime, was committed to changing its structure. However, this could not be accomplished without a coup d'état. Siéyès was ready to allow this, as long as he was the mastermind. But he needed the support of the army before he could act. His intention was to bring an officer into the plot to assure its success. The ever-ambitious Bonaparte was not the ideal candidate to play second fiddle in the way Siéyès expected of his accomplice. Bonaparte had previously demonstrated his political talents first in Italy and then in Egypt. Unfortunately for Siéyès, his first choice, Joubert, died at Novi and Moreau rejected his proposition. On 8 Brumaire after considerable hesitation, Sieyès finally accepted to receive Bonaparte whose plans were already in motion.

Given the immense prestige he enjoyed in the army, Bonaparte knew that he could count on the support of his soldiers and on that of the majority of generals then present in Paris. He was joined by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who quickly proved his usefulness when he convinced Siéyes to remove Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte - a potential opponent - from the Ministry of War. Within the government itself, Cambacérès, Minister of Justice, was devoted to Bonaparte; Fouché, Minister of Police, also supported him; and the Council of Five Hundred, which housed only a weak opposition - the Jacobin group - had recently elected Napoléon's youngest brother, Lucien, as its President.

The Best Laid Plans

During their meeting, Bonaparte and Sieyes agreed on a strategy: convince the Directors to resign, convene the Councils - the Five Hundred and the Ancients - to name in their place a Triumvirate (with Siéyès, Ducos and Bonaparte as its three members) which would govern until the proclamation of a new constitution. It was understood that the principal author of this new constitution would be the Abbé. It was also decided that the Councils should be removed from Paris to shield them from any popular movement. As a Director, Sieyes was given the task of moving the assemblies, which, according to the Constitution, should not provoke suspicion. Lastly, the date of the coup d'état was fixed for 18 Brumaire.

On the 17th, Bonaparte ensured the support of François Joseph Lefebvre, the Military Governor of Paris. He then met with Bernadotte who was one of the few to refuse to take part in the plot, even menacing to oppose it.

A Risky Execution

On the 18th however, everything went as planned. In the early hours of the morning, the President of the Ancients informed the members of his assembly of a dangerous anarchist plot. In swift succession, motions were passed to move the assemblies to Saint-Cloud and to name Bonaparte in command of the forces in Paris. Ahead of the assembly, Bonaparte departed with a quasi-triumphal retinue emphasizing his desire to save the Republic. By this time, three of the five Directors (Barras, Siéyès and Ducos) had resigned. The two hold-outs (Gohier and Moulin) were arrested and delivered into Moreau's custody.

However, the opponents of the coup, especially the Jacobins, took advantage of the delay caused by the move to Saint-Cloud to regroup. On the 19th, when the sessions resumed, the ponderous parliamentary motions began to threaten the operation with serious delays. While the Ancients were supportive, the Five Hundred called for further details of the supposed plot and proclaimed their devotion to the Constitution. Bonaparte's response was to attempt to reverse their decision. However, the speech he gave before the Ancients was at best maladroit and at worst incoherent. Next, he went to the Five Hundred in the Orangerie accompanied by his grenadiers. This time, his reception was stormy. The deputies, indignant at the sudden arrival of soldiers in their midst, shouted down Bonaparte with taunts and projectiles, crying: "Down with the Dictator! Down with the tyrant! Bonaparte: Outlaw!" The soldiers had to physically remove their livid commander from the room as he was in the grip of a fit of hysterics.

Lucien's Ingenious Improvisation

The plot seemed doomed to failure. Yet Lucien Bonaparte was able to save the situation. Throwing onto the rostrum the symbols of his presidency, he left the room, leapt onto a horse and shouted to the troupes to denounce the "daggers of the people's representatives". Galvanized into action and encouraged by Joachim Murat, the grenadiers stormed into the assembly. Their instructions, of a military simplicity - "Throw out this rabble!" - became even easier to execute when the deputies began to flee of their own accord at the sound of the drums. By this time, it was five o'clock in the evening.

In order to conserve a semblance of legality, the "countryside was scoured" to reassemble the Five Hundred as they had not ventured far and the session was resumed. Meanwhile, the Ancients had remained quietly together. At one o'clock in the morning, a law establishing the basis of the new regime was adopted. This law excluded some 60 deputies (including Jourdan) from further representing the nation and established two commissions of 25 members each to revise the Constitution as well as a Consular Commission of three where the executive power would reside. It was composed of Bonaparte, Sieyes and Roger-Ducos as planned.

A Partial Success

Even though the desired result had been achieved, the situation had something of a failure about it as the new power structure seemed to be founded on force rather than on the consent of the legislative bodies concerned. This was indeed the view Bonaparte confided to Bourienne: "I would rather speak to soldiers than to lawyers. Those imbeciles intimidated me. I do not have experience before assemblies. But that will come."

That very evening, he drafted a personal account of the day's events.

Proclamation of General-in-Chief Bonaparte

19 Brumaire, eleven o'clock at night:

When I returned to Paris, I found division in all the Authorities' ranks. They could only agree on one truth, that the Constitution was half destroyed and could not save liberty.

All the parties came to me, confiding their plans, unveiling their secrets and asking for my support. I refused to be the man of one party .

The Council of Ancients called me; I answered them. Men in whom the Nation is accustomed to seeing the defenders of liberty, equality and property had devised a general restoration plan. That plan required free and calm examination, free of all influence and all fear. Consequently, the Council of Ancients resolved to transfer the Legislative Body to Saint-Cloud; they put me in charge of the military force necessary for its independence. I believed I owed it to my fellow citizens, to the soldiers perishing in our armies, to the national glory acquired with their blood, to accept the command.

The Councils met at Saint-Cloud; the republican troops guaranteed their safety outside. But assassins sowed terror inside; several Deputies of the Council of Five Hundred, armed with stilettos and firearms, circulated death threats around them.

The carefully-laid plans went awry, the majority was disorganized, the most intrepid orators were disconcerted and the futility of a wise proposal became patently obvious.

I brought my pain and indignation to the Council of Ancients; I asked them to execute their general plans; I depicted the dangers threatening the Nation that caused them to draw them up in the first place: they joined me with new testimonials of their steadfast will.

I presented myself to the Council of Five Hundred, alone, unarmed, bare-headed, as the Ancients had received and applauded me; I went there to remind the majority of its wishes and assure it of its power.

The stilettos that threatened the Deputies were immediately raised up against their liberator; twenty assassins rushed towards me seeking my chest: the Grenadiers of the Legislative Body, whom I had left at the door, ran over, putting themselves in between the assassins and me. One of those brave Grenadiers (Thomé) was struck by a stiletto that pierced his clothes. They took me away.

At the same time, shouts of “outlaw!” were heard against the defender of “the law”. That was the assassins’ fierce cry against the forces that had come to repress them.

They thronged around the president, threats on their lips and weapons in their hands; they ordered him to declare me outside the law; I was warned; I gave the order to tear him out of their furious clutches, and six Grenadiers of the Legislative Body took hold of him. Immediately afterwards, the Grenadiers of the Legislative Body charged into the room and evacuated it.

The frightened dissidents scattered and ran away. The majority, which had been subjected to their violence, freely and peacefully went back into the meeting room, heard the proposals for restoring public safety and prepared the salutary resolution that must become the new and provisional law of the Republic.

Frenchmen, in this conduct you undoubtedly recognize the zeal of a soldier of liberty and a citizen devoted to the Republic. Conservative, liberal, tutelary ideas exercised their right to disperse the dissidents oppressing the Councils, who, becoming the most loathsome of men, will always be the most despicable.

Signed BONAPARTE

For true copy: Alex. BERTHIER

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