The regime change that occurred on 18 and 19 Brumaire, Year VIII (November 9 and 10, 1799) handed Napoleon’s detractors another gold-plated opportunity to damage his reputation through a coarse falsification of history.
So much nonsense has been written about this salutary event. It is the date on which Napoleon is said to have become a freedom-slaying monster. Aware of how futile it is to completely ruin his image, they have split his life in half: Bonaparte the Good until 18 Brumaire, Napoleon the bad afterwards. Some have even gone so far as to write that 18 Brumaire inspired the coups of the 20 th century.
Let’s take a closer look at the events in the light of France’s catastrophic plight in 1799.
1– THE VITAL NEED FOR A
CHANGE OF POLITICAL REGIME
When Bonaparte reached Paris from Egypt on October 16, 1799, he was already a hero in the public mind. Welcomed like a messiah, he was cheered by crowds along the triumphant route that took him across the country from Fréjus.
His journey to the capital sparked increasing enthusiasm every step of the way. A huge throng greeted him in front of his hotel in Avignon. All the houses were lit up and decorated in Lyon, where there was dancing in the streets and fireworks. A play written especially in his honor was performed at the theater. And everywhere, there were shouts of “Long Live Bonaparte!” often followed by “who has come to save the homeland”. And everywhere, there were complaints about the Directory.
Enthusiasm spread throughout France as soon as word came that Napoleon was back. In Nevers, conscripts who had refused to join their regiments changed their minds. In Pontarlier, “republicans wept, thinking they were dreaming,” according to one period account.
In Paris, the celebrating verged on delirium. Theater audiences interrupted performances by bursting into patriotic songs. Regiment bands marched out of their barracks playing military music. The Gazette de France wrote that “nothing equals the joy spread by Bonaparte’s return. This is the first event that has rekindled the people’s enthusiasm in a long time.”
When word reached the Bourbon Palace, the Council of Five Hundred, despite the restiveness that became evident later on, stood up applauding, shouted “long live the Republic!” and adjourned the session singing patriotic songs.
A crowd gathered in front of Napoleon’s home on rue de la Victoire and broke out into a lively rendition of the Marseillaiseinterspersed with cries of “Long live Bonaparte, the nation’s savior” At night, improvised illuminations lit up the streets.
The countless cheers were always the same: “long live Bonaparte, down with the Directory!” An anxious France was sending a clear, double-barreled message: the people unanimously wanted the political regime to change and they wanted Bonaparte to do it. Nobody could contest the democratic legitimacy of his intervention in the country’s affairs. He considered it a sacred duty.
At this crucial point in its history, France had every reason to loathe the weak, morally discredited Directory. The economic outlook was bleak. The public coffers were empty. Civil servants were no longer receiving their salaries. Waste, mismanagement and corruption were rife. Nobody could even say how many men were in the army, which had received no pay or food supplies for months. Anarchy and insecurity prevailed. Organized gangs spread terror everywhere, especially in the countryside. They even stole Bonaparte’s luggage near Aix. The people whom the system had made rich conspicuously flaunted their wealth while most of the population went to bed hungry.
A police report describes the spread of vice: “Moral depravity is extreme and the new generation is in great disorder, which unfortunately will have incalculable consequences on the future generation. Sodomy and Sapphic love are as out in the open as prostitution, and they are making dreadful progress.” The situation was commonly described as a “national mess”.
Thus, in October 1799 France was inexorably sliding towards chaos. The situation was reminiscent of 13 Vendémiaire (October 5, 1795), the first time Bonaparte rescued the republic and civil peace. The political regime had to change as soon as possible to avert an explosion that would have made the blow-up in 1789 look like child’s play.
The need was all the more urgent since the enemy, momentarily stopped by Brune’s and Masséna’s recent victories, was at the borders waiting for civil strife to break out before pouncing on Paris.
All of France’s political leaders agreed on the need for change, but not on the best way to achieve it.
Buoyed by popular support, Bonaparte did his utmost to uphold republican legality.
2 – A SCRUPULOUSLY LEGAL PROCESS
From the outset, Bonaparte rejected the idea of staging a military coup. Regime change had to meet two democratic conditions: it had to be carried out with approval from a majority of the nation’s population and without bloodshed.
Speed should not be mistaken for haste. Political battles, like military ones, require a thorough examination of the situation beforehand.
Napoleon had three options. He quickly discarded the idea of allying with the corrupt clan led by the old crook Barras, deciding instead to neutralize it.
The second option would have involved joining forces with the Jacobins, among whom Generals Jourdan and Augereau carried a certain amount of clout. He met with them. Aware that the balance of power was tipped against them, they agreed to let him play the lead part, at least for now. But Napoleon distrusted them. There was always a risk they would slide towards Robespierrism. Careful not to mix up authority and authoritarianism, he politely turned down their offer, reassuring them of his republican convictions, which had been put to the test in Vendémiaire and Fructidor. Napoleon was wary of their activism and decided to take the initiative after finding out they were hatching a plot for 20 Brumaire. The notorious brewer Santerre was threatening to stir up agitation in the faubourgs. In addition, Napoleon knew they had a strong, rowdy minority in the Council of Five Hundred, who did not take long to make their voices heard. Meanwhile, he had Salicetti reassure them.
But regime change had to be carried out democratically and at the Directory’s own initiative. That is the option Napoleon settled on, because it combined respect for the Constitution and the people’s will. And to show that he had only the country’s higher interests at heart, he proclaimed loud and clear, “I belong to no coterie other than the great coterie of the French People.” Fouché, Talleyrand, Cambacérès and the banker Collot gave him their backing. Everybody who mattered in politics wanted to see Bonaparte.
He still had to convince the five Directors: Gohier, acting president of the Directory; the ex-abbot Sieyès; Ducos; Barras; and General Moulin, who was very ill-disposed towards him. When Moulin naively advised his colleagues to have Napoleon tried and convicted as a deserter for leaving Egypt as a neat way of getting rid of the troublesome general, they promptly reminded him that they are the ones who had recalled the “deserter”. It is a wonder how this pitiful general who had never seen combat ever rose to the position of Director. For now, he was Gohier’s shadow.
Despite the skills of Josephine, whom he was wooing, the Directory president balked at change. That was understandable; his presidential sinecure would not be carried over to a new regime. His personal interests made him forget the country’s, which he could not care less about anyway.
Corrupt through and through, Barras was not an obstacle. A hefty sum of money, handed over by Talleyrand, sufficed to keep him quiet.
The insignificant Ducos was devoted to Sieyès, the man of the situation.
Sieyès was a seasoned veteran of the Revolution. He had voted for the king’s death, was experienced at writing constitutions and unscathed by the ambient scandals and immorality. He had the authority and political intelligence to play a key role, especially in the Council of Ancients, where he had a lot of sway. Well before Bonaparte, his incontestable good citizenship convinced him of the need for regime change. But he demanded to play the leading part, with the help of a “sword not too long”.
He approached Generals Jourdan, Joubert and Moreau but made no headway.
Bonaparte’s unexpected return upset their plans. The first contacts between them were glacial, but sharing the same political goal condemned them to join forces.
Bonaparte surely would have thought of regime change differently if he knew he could obtain a Directorship. Expecting no for an answer, he verbally asked the Directory for one. A grinning Gohier replied that according to the Constitution a Director had be at least 40 years old, whereas Bonaparte was only 31. But he could have the military command of his choice. What better way to gently push him aside? But the ploy was so obvious Bonaparte turned down the offer. Now he had to improve his relationship with Sieyès as quickly as possible.
Talleyrand and Fouché had been urging him to do that for quite some time. Roederer and many other, less important figures felt the same way. Bonaparte’s brother, Lucien, would act as a go-between. His accession to the presidency of the Council of Five Hundred on October 26 was an encouraging sign.
The key meeting with Sieyès took place at Lucien’s home on 10 Brumaire (November 1). To drive home the point that he was his superior, Bonaparte immediately took the initiative and went straight to the point. In fact, he shook up his interlocutor, much to Lucien’s dismay. In Sieyès’ plan, he would have only military power. Bonaparte demanded a position in the interim government. Sieyès acquiesced, clever enough to realize that he could not have done otherwise: Bonaparte was holding the better hand. They eventually agreed on the following plan:
- all or most of the Directory will resign;
- the Council of Ancients, which was already won over, will issue a legal decree ordering the legislative body (the Council of Ancients and Council of Five Hundred) to move to the château of Saint-Cloud, where it would declare a power vacuum, appoint a provisional government of three Consuls and name a Legislative Commission in charge of drafting a new Constitution to be submitted to a vote by the people;
- the Ancients’ decree will appoint General Bonaparte commander of the troops in charge of maintaining security during the chambers’ move and deliberations, poised to quell unrest from any quarter. Indeed, there were fears that Jacobin extremists might foment riots, which accounts for the decision to move the assemblies to Saint Cloud, outside Paris, where they would be out of harm’s way.
The President of the Directory’s countersignature was necessary for the decree to be valid. Gohier held out several hours before giving in, enigmatically adding “All will be settled in Saint Cloud tomorrow”.
Everything occurred legally. Now it was time to swiftly carry out the plan.
Sieyès, Ducos and Barras resigned as expected, but Gohier resisted and waited until the last minute before stepping down. As soon as he did, the Directory ceased to exist. There was a power vacuum. The door to peaceful regime change was open.
Bonaparte made sure he had the backing of General Lefebvre, who commanded the Paris garrison, before the Ancients’ decree was released, and swore to throw “those lawyers, who are the cause of all the trouble, into the river” if need be. In a burst of generosity, he offered him his Egypt saber as a gift. The army, mainly comprising veterans of the Italian campaign, was on his side. However, he had to keep an eye on the grenadiers of the Legislative Guard, who were civil servants.
But Bonaparte failed to convince General Bernadotte, a close friend who was married to his ex-fiancée Désirée Clary, to join him. Generals Moreau, Macdonald and Beurnonville rallied to his side without any difficulty.
The play was about to begin. After a smooth first act, it unexpectedly turned into a tragicomedy.
3- THE LEGISLATIVE BODY’S
FARCICAL CONSERVATIVE REACTION
The Ancients’ decree reached Bonaparte at home on rue de la Victoire at eight-thirty in the morning on 18 Brumaire. He had been impatiently waiting since dawn, surrounded by his most faithful associates, whom he had summoned to assist him.
The linchpin of the operation’s legality: it was drafted exactly in accordance with what had been planned:
“Article 1: the Legislative Body is transferred to the town of Saint Cloud. Each of the two councils will sit in one the of the palace’s two wings.
Article 2: they will meet there at noon tomorrow, 19 Brumaire. Continuation of all functions and deliberations is prohibited until then.
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.”
Bonaparte is said to have leapt on a somewhat restive big black horse with a white head that Admiral Bruix loaned him. Surrounded by a large escort of officers, he rode with great pomp and ceremony to the Hall of the Ancients in the Tuileries Palace, where he addressed the honorable parliamentarians with the words they had been expecting to hear:
“The Republic was dying. You have acknowledged it. You have issued a Decree that will save it. With help from all the friends of Liberty, from those who founded it and those who have defended it, I will support it. The brave men under my orders share my feelings. You have issued the Law that will save public order, our brave men will execute it. We want a Republic based on Liberty, Equality and the sacred principles of national representation. We shall have it! I swear it!”
His general staff shouted “We swear it” and the hall shook with deafening cheers and applause.
Bonaparte left the Council of Ancients’ hall to inspect the 10,000 soldiers assembled in the garden. Generals Moreau, Macdonald and Beurnonville went with him. He was preparing to address the troops when he noticed Bottot, whom Barras had once sent to spy on him in Italy. He shoved him in front of the troops and, with an eye towards public opinion, leveled as series of accusations. “What have you done with the brilliant France I had left you?,” he exclaimed. “Theft has been elevated into a system! The soldier has been left defenseless! I left you peace, I found war! I left you victories, I found setbacks! I left you millions from Italy, I found confiscatory laws and poverty everywhere! This state of affairs could not go on. It would have led us to despotism. We want a Republic based on Equality, Morality, Civil Liberty and political tolerance!…”
The soldiers raised their muskets and cheers rang out from all sides. Bonaparte mounted his horse to review the troops as poor Bottot sheepishly scurried away.
Bonaparte had the decree read out to the troops before haranguing them with one of his customary speeches. “Soldiers,” he said, “the extraordinary Decree of the Council of Ancients is in compliance with articles 102 and 103 of the Constitution. It has given me command of the city and the army. I agree to back the steps it is going to take and which are entirely in favor of the people. The Republic has been poorly governed for two years. You hoped that my return would put an end to many woes. You celebrated it with a unity that imposes duties on me that I shall fulfill. You shall fulfill yours and you shall back your general with the energy, firmness and trust that I have always seen in you.”
Loud shouts of “Long live Bonaparte!” went up, echoing far and wide.
At noon on 18 Brumaire, everything was going smoothly. To prepare Parisians for the event, posters made by Roederer and Regnault went up on the capital’s walls overnight. Unforgiving towards the Directory, they proclaimed the need to elevate General Bonaparte to the highest office in the land.
Napoleon spent the afternoon in the Tuileries making military plans for the next day, which would be decisive, with his general staff. To nip any potential unrest in the bud, he had his troops line the entire route to Saint Cloud. Military force would be omnipresent at the château in order to deal with any eventuality.
Late in the afternoon Bonaparte assessed the situation with the main players. He saw anxiety on their faces, which was shared by Cambacérès. Police Minister Fouché told him that it was necessary “to lower the barriers around Paris,” in other words to cut off the city. Though a moderate, Sieyès advised him to order the arrest of around 50 Jacobin ringleaders. Bonaparte categorically refused, insisting that the operation had to remain legal and uphold freedom of expression and movement. Fouché was surprised at all the jitteriness. The people were on their side and the plans had been legally made. Although the Directory’s president was reluctant, everything was to take place under its aegis, and nobody was under any pressure. The regime change was a peaceful, legal process carried out by republican leaders aware of their responsibility to keep France out of imminent danger.
Bonaparte was still inexperienced at political scheming and seemed quite naïve. Unlike his associates, he disliked the opposition he was going to meet. He could not conceive of the idea that ensuring France’s survival was every political leader’s duty.
Furthermore, Bonaparte did not realize that the affair would pull the rug out from under the Jacobins and, above all, threaten the parliament’s selfish corporatism. Well-heeled, well-fed and stuffed into their carnival uniforms, many deputies preferred their sinecures, prebends and privileges to rescuing the republic and the country.
It did not take long for those two opposition forces to join forces. Giving them the whole night to confer with each other before leaving for Saint Cloud was a tactical error, but the alternative would have left Napoleon open to accusations of a coup d’état.
Those praiseworthy democratic scruples were a weak point that eventually ruined everything.
As planned, both legislative assemblies traveled to Saint Cloud in the morning of 19 Brumaire (November 10) under the army’s protection. The deputies could be made out by their uniforms, or rather their accoutrements: blue robes, red belts, red hats and white coats for the Ancients, and white robes, blue belts and red hats and coats for the Five Hundred.
When they arrived, the meeting rooms they were supposed to use were not ready. The Ancients did not enter the Grand Salon until around one o’clock, and the Five Hundred did not take their seats in the Orangery until two hours later.
The delay was unfortunate. It made the deputies’ bad mood worse; the impressive show of force had already annoyed them. It also gave them an opportunity to stir each other up. It was clear that many deputies, probably duly influencedsince the previous night, tried to get their colleagues excited. Agitators were obviously at work.
Bonaparte sensed the unexpected tension as soon as he arrived. All the political leaders were imagining a possible Jacobin riot, but nobody expected a parliamentary rebellion. He quickly glanced at the military forces around the château. The grenadiers of the Legislative Guard were scattered around the first courtyard, in charge of forming the honor guard. The other troops stood around them. Murat occupied the strategic centre: the château’s esplanade.
Bonaparte met Sieyès and Ducos, who looked uncomfortable, in the spartan private office that had been set aside for them. Their unease confirmed that things were going less smoothly than planned. They waited, chatting, for the assemblies to start deliberating. The anxiety was palpable. Bonaparte was discreetly informed that Sieyès had had a coach and horses hidden in the woods, ready to make a run for it, while Talleyrand preferred waiting outside the château with Collot. The future regime’s leaders were bold but not exactly fearless!
The takeover was off to a bad start. The Ancients, thought to have been entirely on Bonaparte’s side, were dithering over whether the regime change respected the Constitution, but things eventually sorted themselves out as far as that was concerned. The Five Hundred were immediately in turmoil, with their president, Lucien, Napoleon’s brother, unable to control them. A minority of overexcited deputies imposed their aggressive attitude on everybody else. Some of them had obviously been lingering in the open-air taverns around the château. Amidst the clamor and shouting, the parliamentarians eventually backed a deputy’s proposal to swear loyalty to the Constitution of the Year III , which had nothing to do with the meeting’s purpose. The matter at hand was to obtain the Directory’s resignation. The Five Hundred committed their first irregularity. Despite Lucien’s calls to return to the agenda, he failed to keep the assembly from adopting the proposal. Now he could only hope that things would settle down a bit. But each deputy was to take the oath individually in a theatrical process that would last at least five hours. Bonaparte’s aide-de-camp, Lavalette, told him about all this in front of Sieyès. Both of them agreed that enough was enough.
As usual whenever fate wavered, Bonaparte decided to personally step in. The moderate Sieyès approved. He started with the Ancients, the upper chamber, expecting them to bring the Five Hundred around. On the way there he passed a grenadiers’ unit that began beating its drums and spontaneously shouting “Long live Bonaparte!” That fortuitous encounter boosted his morale. Accompanied by a few grenadiers and his secretary, Bourrienne, he confidently strode into the room. Later, Bourrienne, embittered by subsequent events, gave a tendentious account of the scene that followed, which Napoleon’s detractors swallowed hook, line and sinker.
Anxious to set the record straight, Bonaparte addressed the Ancients. “Representatives of the people,” he said, “if I had wanted to usurp the highest authority, I would have disobeyed your orders, I would not have needed to receive that authority from the Senate. Representatives of the people, I swear to you the Nation has no more zealous defender than me. I am entirely devoted to carrying out your orders. But its salvation depends on you alone, for the Directory no longer exists. Four of its members have resigned and the fifth has been put under surveillance for his safety. The threats are pressing, the danger is growing…!”
Some deputies, invoking respect for the Constitution, suddenly cut him off. The people’s elected officials, contaminated by the Five Hundred’s corporatism, were openly going back on their word. To save their privileges as elected officials, they could care less about the people’s misery and the country’s salvation, hypocritically hiding behind the fiction of respect for a unanimously condemned and blatantly flouted Constitution.
Annoyed at being interrupted, Bonaparte raised his tone. “The Constitution?”, he asked sharply. “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…”
All hell broke loose at those provocative, divisive words. The debate turned into a fierce clash, throwing the room into utter confusion. In this overheated atmosphere, Bonaparte spoke before thinking. Beside himself with anger at the chamber’s unspeakable behavior, he let some clumsy remarks slip out and called for his faithful grenadiers.
It was pointless and even unhealthy to continue. Bonaparte managed to get in one last exhortation “I implore you to take the salutary steps that the urgency of the dangers facing us require. You will always find me ready to execute your resolutions,” he said before walking out and slamming the door behind him . The Ancients quickly calmed down and regained their composure.
Now it was the Council of Five Hundred’s turn. Bonaparte’s entourage advised him to stay away from them. The general was perfectly aware that he had even more opponents there than among the Ancients. But despite the risks, he wanted to exhaust all the avenues of democratic debate before being compelled to use the force of the law.
On his way to the Orangery he passed the writer Arnault, who was arriving from Paris and told him that the capital was quiet. He gave him Fouché’s recommendation, backed by Talleyrand, to “rush” things in Saint-Cloud.
Bonaparte burst into the Orangery, immediately triggering an indescribable uproar. Shouts of “down with the dictator!” and “the tyrant is an outlaw!” greeted him, although a few cries of “long live Bonaparte” could also be made out above the general din. Fistfights broke out between overexcited deputies and the grenadier escort. One of the people’s representatives even pulled a stiletto out from under his robe, but a grenadier named Thomé quickly neutralized him. (As a reward, Josephine asked him to sit at her table with his colleague Pourrée, who had helped him, and gave him a diamond worth 200 écus). He was sickened by the lamentable spectacle of those plumed deputies tangled up in their fancy robes, hats and coats. The well-heeled, overfed parliamentarians, oblivious to the people’s suffering and unaware of the country’s critical plight, could think only of selfishly defending their privileges.
To pull Bonaparte out of their steel claws, his grenadiers had to pick him up and carry him out of the chamber, where Lucien did his best to continue defending his brother with courage, lucidity, dignity and even panache.
Bonaparte threatened by the Five Hundred
Bonaparte met Sieyès in their office, where he could start thinking straight again. They shared the same assessment of the situation. By attacking the Ancients’ representative and wanting to outlaw him, the Five Hundred had just made their second mistake, after their first, which was refusing to follow the agreed-upon agenda. But this time it was more serious. By manhandling Bonaparte in the normal exercise of the functions with which the Ancients decree had invested him, they quite simply violated the very Constitution they were claiming to uphold.
Sieyès’ appraisal of the situation, which has gone down in history, was unequivocal. “The Five Hundred have just put themselves outside the law,” he remarked. “It is up to you to put them out of the chamber.”
It was nearly five o’clock. Dusk was fast approaching. Everything had to be over with by nightfall. Lucien, who had troubles of his own, managed to send his brother a note urging him to act. What mattered most to Napoleon was Lucien’s safety. He sent a squad of grenadiers to the meeting room to escort him out. The situation was so confusing by then that Lucien thought they had come to arrest him.
The brothers met on the esplanade in front of the troops that General Sérurier was starting to prepare for action. “The Ancients have sided with Bonaparte, the Five Hundred want to assassinate him!”, he told them. It seems that even part of the army was confused. Shouts from the Orangery announced that Bonaparte would immediately be declared an outlaw.
This is when Lucien stepped into history. Reacting faster than his brother, he jumped on his horse and delivered a solemn address to the troops in his capacity as head of one of the republic’s legislative bodies. “Soldier-citizens!”, he boomed. “The President of the Council of Five Hundred declares to you that right now the overwhelming majority of that Council is being terrorized by a handful of stiletto-wielding people’s representatives who are storming the floor, threatening to kill their fellow deputies and uttering the most appalling statements. I declare to you that these audacious bandits, undoubtedly in the pay of England, have rebelled against the Council of Ancients and dared to talk about outlawing the general in charge of executing its decree... I declare to you that this small number of furious men are themselves outside the law because of their attacks on the liberty of that Council… I am entrusting you warriors with the mission of delivering the majority of the representatives so that, released from the threat of knives and bayonets, they may deliberate on the fate of the Republic. General, you and your soldiers, and all you citizens, you will only recognize those who join me at my side as legislators of France. As for those who remain in the Orangery, may they be expelled by force!”
This was a legal requisition in due form by a qualified official.
Shouts of “Long live Bonaparte!” rang out. Lucien’s indisputable argument and the conviction with which he voiced it tipped the scales. But Bonaparte gave the finishing touches when he said, “Soldiers, I have led you to victory, now can I count on you?” Exclamations of “yes!” and “Long live Bonaparte!” went up from the ranks, becoming louder and louder.
Napoleon went on, frequently interrupted by “Long live Bonaparte!” “Agitators are seeking to turn the Council of Five Hundred against me,” he said. “Well, I shall make them listen to reason! For too long, the Nation has been tormented, looted and ransacked. For too long, its so-called defenders have debased and sacrificed it!… Factions speak of restoring their bloodthirsty domination. I wanted to speak to them, they answered me with daggers!... Three times I opened the doors of the Republic, and three times they were slammed shut…”
The cheers became even louder. Lucien signaled to him to stop speaking. Drawing his sword and pointing it at his brother’s chest, he uttered an oath worthy of an ancient tragedy: “I swear to pierce the breast of my own brother if ever he tramples upon the liberty of the French people!” The ranks went wild.
Then Bonaparte ordered General Leclerc to evacuate the Orangery. The drums beat the charge. Leclerc walked through the door and asked the deputies to leave. One or two of them uttered half-hearted protests, but as soon as Murat shouted “throw everybody out!” it was every man for himself. Casting all decency aside, the once-swaggering Five Hundred fled out the doors and windows as fast as their legs could carry them, shedding their robes to run faster. Red hats and coats, white gowns and blue belts littered the château’s Orangery, halls, esplanade, avenues and groves.
It was eight o’clock. The farce was over.
Expulsion and flight of the Five Hundred
Shortly afterwards, Bonaparte’s aide-de-camp Lavalette brought him the Council of Ancients’ victory decree. “The Council of Ancients,” it said, “given the withdrawal of the Council of Five Hundred, decrees the following: four of the members of the Executive Directory having handed in their resignations, and the fifth being under surveillance, a provisional executive commission made up of three members shall be appointed.”
To comply with the Constitution, it was now important to obtain the Five Hundred’s approval. Dispatch riders went just about everywhere to round up as many of them as possible in the château. A sizeable quorum showed up, looking sheepish. Lucien had them gather in the Orangery and, on a motion by Deputy Chazal, they adopted the final decree, which he read to Bonaparte, Sieyès and Ducos in their office around midnight: “The Legislative Body creates a provisional executive consular commission comprising Citizens Sieyès, Ducos and General Bonaparte, who will be called the Consuls of the Republic.”
The clever Chazal had previously had a financial measure unanimously passed consisting of ensuring that the deputies would be paid indemnities for the time the Parliament was in abeyance. If that had been step one, perhaps the Orangery farce could have been avoided!
Money talks. The most hard-line deputies suddenly began groveling and seeking forgiveness. They proclaimed that “Bonaparte, Murat, Lefebvre, Gardanne and other generals have been worthy of the Nation!”
Heaving a sigh of relief, Sieyès, Ducos and Bonaparte swore an oath of “Inviolable loyalty to the sovereignty of the people, to the one and indivisible French Republic, to equality, to liberty and to the representative system.” This was the last formality.
The man of the hour, Lucien Bonaparte, should have the last word. “Hear the sublime cry of posterity,” he said in his final speech to the Five Hundred. “Liberty was born in the Jeu de Paume at Versailles, but it was strengthened in the Orangery at Saint-Cloud. The Constituents of ‘89 were the fathers of the Revolution, but the legislators of the year VIII are the fathers and the pacifiers of the Nation.”
Meanwhile, before returning to Paris Bonaparte drafted an address to the people in the style so peculiar to him, which is quoted in extenso below:
“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.”
This text is a faithful account of the event and shows Napoleon’s desire to remain above the fray as a uniter of the Nation whose sole concern were the interests of France.
It was a close call. The country had narrowly averted another revolutionary explosion, to which the Directory’s decay inevitably would have led. The ensuing civil war would surely have triggered a foreign invasion. The entire nation enthusiastically welcomed the event, leaving no doubt as to its salutary character.
Was 18 Brumaire a putsch, a pronunciamiento, a conspiracy, a plot or a coup d’Etat, as Napoleon’s stubborn denigrators take pleasure in insisting? None of the above. A handful of courageous men rescued the republic and saved the civil and military peace. They did what had to be done to pull the country out of a perilous situation. The true definition of 18 Brumaire is that it was a vital institutional change.
On the night of 19 to 20 Brumaire, year VIII (November 10 to 11, 1799), the unparalleled chapter of Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign opened in the great book of the history of France. The Revolution was over at last. On it ashes he founded modern France and accomplished tremendous achievements in the civil sphere, overshadowed by his incomparable military glory. The magnificent Consulate paved the way for the fabulous Empire.
First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte
Casaperta, october 2005