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Napoleon: Being a Hero in a Troubled Nation

After military successes in Egypt, Napoleon was treated as a returning hero of mythic proportions in 1799. To the French people, he was Caesar and Alexander rolled into one. The streets were full of his admirers. The Council of Ancients (one of France's legislative bodies) gave him a standing ovation when he appeared before them.

Behind all the public show was a floundering government. Various political factions, ranging from radical Revolutionaries on one side to royalists on the other, were vying for power. Military success in the field, most especially by General André Masséna, had at least temporarily stymied the efforts of the Second Coalition (the alliance of Austria, Russia, and England to overthrow the French government), but domestic problems loomed. Some of the problems included the following:

  • Some areas, such as the Vendée, were again considering secession from France.
  • Chouan rebels, conservative Catholic royalists supported by the clergy and whose leaders were paid by the British, were threatening civil war.
  • The highways were as unsafe as they had been in the years leading up to the Revolution. (Even Napoleon's baggage had been broken into on the trip to Paris.)
  • Armed groups of hoodlums, some quite large, terrorized the populace.

Napoleon wondered out loud what had happened to his country, and it was a good question. The government and citizens understood that something needed to be done, but few could agree on what that something was.

Napoleon knew he was very popular, but he also understood the fleeting nature of popularity. The question What have you done for me lately? has sunk many a political career, and Napoleon was determined not to let it happen to him. Everywhere he looked, he saw incompetence and threats to his beloved French Republic, and he was determined to play a major role in protecting the gains of the Revolution.

At first, he considered becoming a member of the Directory. This step would have been simple enough but for the fact that he was only 30 and the constitution required Directory members to be at least 40. There was little support for changing a constitution to put a general on the Directory, so Napoleon had to dig deeper.

Analyzing the political situation

The French political situation was chaotic at best. The legislative branch had come under the strong influence of a strong royalist faction, and there was a possibility that royalists would soon control that branch of the government.

The executive wing, the Directory, was a major defender of the Revolution. Yes, it was corrupt and mainly interested in staying in power long enough to get rich (which didn't actually take that long, as it happens), but it was also more in tune with the wishes and needs of the people than was the legislative branch.

Another, perhaps surprising, supporter of the Revolution (and hence part of the "liberal" wing of government) was the army. In the old days, the army had been run by the nobility, but now there was scarcely a noble to be found in or out of the army. Made up largely of the very common people the Revolution was designed to protect, the army was, by and large, interested in protecting the Revolution. It had become a strong political force, and anyone who sought to change the government would need the support of the army.

Unveiling conspiracies

Against this backdrop, a major plot was under way to replace the government. Well, actually, there were at least two major plots. Paul Barras, a member of the Directory who had helped bring Napoleon to the forefront, was involved in a major effort to bring back a Bourbon monarchy. A corrupt womanizer to his very core, Barras was less a royalist than a man seeking additional power and wealth, in this case perhaps as many as 12 million francs.

In addition to Barras on the right, the minister of war, General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a strong supporter of Jacobin causes, was considering leading a coup of his own. Bernadotte had married Napoleon's first girlfriend, Désirée Clary, and though he would serve in Napoleon's army, he would always be his rival and ultimately turn on him.

Barras and Bernadotte were not the only people involved in conspiracies. One of the major players in the third significant plot was none other than Napoleon's youngest brother, Lucien Bonaparte. Long active in Revolutionary politics, he had been elected to the Council of Five Hundred (the other legislative branch) and, just months earlier, had become its president.

Lucien was supporting a plot by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Roger Ducos, both of whom he had helped become members of the Directory. Sieyès had been a major player in the very earliest days of the Revolution and now believed it was his job to give France a more stable and effective government, as well as to protect it from any royalist plots. To do that, Sieyès and his supporters believed they needed to replace the Directory with a three-man Consulate that would run France more or less as a dictatorship.

Sieyès and Lucien Bonaparte had enlisted the support of several other powerful politicians in Paris, including Joseph Fouché, Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, better known simply as Talleyrand. Talleyrand had previously failed to alert the Turks of the French expedition to Egypt and had thus caused Napoleon a great deal of difficulty.

This group had the support of a number of other politicians, but all recognized that they needed the support of the army. To get that, they needed their "sword," a general who would support them and who could bring support of the army with him. Hmmmm. Who do you suppose will end up with that job?

Actually, Sieyès originally had someone else in mind. General Barthelemy Joubert was born in the same year as Napoleon and had established a good name for himself, largely in Italy. Sieyès thought he could control Joubert, which made him an ideal candidate. Unfortunately for these plans, to say nothing of the young Joubert, he was killed at the Battle of Novi in Italy on Napoleon's 30th birthday, August 15, 1799.

Providing a sword

Sieyès then turned to plan B. That would be B as in Bonaparte. Napoleon had far more to offer than any other general. For starters, he was a national hero. Any enterprise that involved him would have instant credibility and popularity, at least at the beginning. Napoleon was also one of the most competent people around. Not only was he an excellent and successful general, but he had already shown his administrative abilities in Italy, Malta, and Egypt. Moreover — and this was very important to Sieyès — Napoleon had well-established republican beliefs; he would be an excellent shield against any royalist efforts. Of course, Sieyès wasn't too happy with Napoleon's obvious ambition, but he figured he could keep that under control.

Besides, time was of the essence. Barras and Bernadotte were not going to dawdle forever; there was no time like the present to get things underway. Napoleon was offered the chance to play his role, and after some consideration, he accepted. He knew that something had to be done to improve France's government, and he wanted to be the one to do it.

The plot thickens

The conspirators began to take action, and at first all went well. On November 9, 1799, the Council of Ancients put Napoleon in charge of the troops in Paris and its outlying areas, and then it decreed that the legislative bodies would move to the suburbs, to a town called St. Cloud, for their own security. This move was really intended just to get them out of Paris proper and away from the prying eyes of Parisian citizens. Meanwhile, Talleyrand was sent to bribe Barras to resign from the Directory. The bribe was eagerly accepted.

The stage was set, but one of the actors did not behave as well as he could have. That would be none other than Napoleon. On November 10th, Napoleon first went to the Council of Ancients to convince them of the need for change. According to at least some eyewitnesses, Napoleon lost his cool and may even have become somewhat incoherent. He seemed, to some, to be threatening force. He was roundly booed and left the hall in disgrace.

Napoleon then went to the Council of Five Hundred, where Lucien was presiding, to seek their support for change. This encounter should have been a cakewalk, but again Napoleon found himself facing increasingly angry politicians. Curses were shouted, and Napoleon was actually physically attacked. Several soldiers came in and escorted him to safety. The members of the Council then turned on Lucien, demanding that he declare his brother an outlaw. He refused but was able to calm the crowd down somewhat. He sent a note to Napoleon indicating that he had but a few minutes to act.

Napoleon's first thought was his brother's safety, so he sent a group of soldiers in to rescue Lucien. Ever the loyal brother, Lucien then addressed the soldiers who were assembled outside the Council's meeting hall — soldiers who were thoroughly confused as to what was going on — and told them that armed royalists were attempting to seize control and it was up to them to take action to protect the republic. Holding his sword up, Lucien promised to run it through Napoleon himself if necessary in the republic's defense.

Napoleon then spoke to his soldiers. He had really hoped not to have to use force in this coup, but force was clearly needed now, else he be declared an outlaw and shot. His composure now back in full order, he told his soldiers that he had attempted to speak to the Council and had been instead attacked with daggers. The soldiers were outraged; the drums sounded, and the grenadiers, bayonets fixed, marched into the hall. Many of the members of the Council took the opportunity to discover the joys of a quick exit through the windows.

Remaining members of the two branches of the legislature immediately met and appointed Napoleon, Sieyès, and Ducos as Consuls in a new provisional government. It was a bloodless coup; that, at least, had gone according to plan.

The days of November 9th and 10th fall into the Revolutionary calendar month of Brumaire, so Napoleon's rise to power is usually referred to as the Coup d'état de Brumaire.

Consolidating power

Napoleon was only one of three provisional Consuls and, in theory, not necessarily any more powerful than the other two. This fiction must have lasted all of a few minutes. Napoleon very quickly took charge, leading discussions about everything imaginable. Sieyès is said to have remarked that Napoleon was a man who knew how to do everything, was able to do everything, and wanted to do everything. He was exactly right. Napoleon and his new allies quickly appointed their supporters to important positions and began to write a constitution.

Napoleon was determined that the new constitution would be progressive and give new rights to the people. So the constitution included universal male suffrage at age 21 and a system of plebiscites (public votes) to confirm the new constitution and its new government. A legislative branch was established, but it was clear to one and all that the real power rested in the executive branch, embodied by the three Consuls.

Sieyès tried to marginalize Napoleon's power, but in the end the First Consul had the real power in the government, and Napoleon was to be First Consul. Sieyès was convinced to resign and accept the presidency of the Senate. Ducos also resigned and accepted a series of relatively minor political positions.

Napoleon then appointed Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, a respected lawyer, as Second Consul and Charles François Lebrun, a moderate known for his expertise in finances, as Third Consul.

The French people adopted the new constitution on December 14, 1799. At the ripe old age of 30, Napoleon was the leader of France. A lot of things had contributed to his rise to power, including

  • Personal characteristics such as his intelligence, determination, and force of will
  • Family support
  • Powerful and influential friends
  • His willingness to take risks
  • The opportunities afforded by the French Revolution and its aftermath
  • His luck
  • Most importantly, his sheer ability

Europe was about to find out just how important the events of late 1799 had been.

Securing domestic peace

Napoleon's first order of business as First Consul was to eliminate some of the internal threats to the public order. The previous government had been reluctant to send the army after the rebel bands, but Napoleon, aware that domestic peace was crucial to the success of his new government, had no such qualms. He sent soldiers in with a vengeance, along with proclamations that warned citizens that they would be shot on sight if caught collaborating with rebel groups.

Adding the carrot to the stick, Napoleon offered generous terms to those rebels who would renounce their efforts. He offered to allow nobles who had left during the Revolution, called émigrés, to return peacefully, though without having their lands restored. Priests, who had also suffered under the Revolution, were also given fair terms without actually restoring their powers.

By February 1800, most of France's internal disorder had been eliminated, and Napoleon could turn to other matters.

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