First Consul Bonaparte
Bonaparte First Consul
Now let us see how France came to be entrusted to Bonaparte. The usual explanation is that he seized power by organizing the coup d’état of 18 brumaire (November 9-10, 1799). This is totally false; the coup was organized by the Abbé Sieyès, one of the members of the Directory. Moreover, it is absurd in the extreme to suggest that Napoleon, who had returned from Egypt and had only arrived in Paris on October 17, practically alone and with very few friends in the capital, could have organized in only three weeks the coup that was destined to save the Republic and France.
Sieyès knew that it was absolutely vital to establish a strong executive as a first step toward pulling France out of the abyss into which it had been had plunged by 10 years of Revolution. The administration was in chaos, there was not a sou remaining in the coffers, the justice system had gone utterly awry, and education was non-existent. Civil War still raged in Vendée and Brittany, and the Second Coalition was threatening the borders. Lawlessness reigned everywhere: gangs of rioters, thieves and rapists terrorized the villages and the countryside and their crimes went unpunished. Public morality had descended to the lowest level of decadence; Paris had become a kind of Sodom where perverts, even those of the very highest ranks of society, proudly displayed their vices and their depravity in public.
The Directory, of which Sieyès was a member along with Barras, Ducos, Gohier and Moulin, was so divided that it could not make any decisions on the most urgent issues of the day. This powerlessness was aggravated by the fact that the Directory had lost the support of the majority of the Council of Five Hundred.
Sieyès thus decided to change the Constitution, which could only be accomplished by a coup d’État, an idea that he had been contemplating over for several months. He wanted to replace the Directory with a council composed of a first Consul and two assistants, one for internal affairs, the other for the defence of the borders. This is where he needed a general, since naturally, he saw himself as first Consul. His first choice for his “sword,” as he called him, was General Joubert; unfortunately, that general had been killed in the battle of Novi, in Italy, on August 15, 1799.
Now let us take a closer look at the events that had unfolded since Napoleon landed at Fréjus-St Raphael on October 9, 1799.
The detachment that arrived from Egypt was not placed in quarantine, even though everyone was aware that the plague had stricken part of the Army there. In their enthusiasm over Bonaparte’s return, people shouted: "Better the possibility of plague than the certainty of occupation by the Austrians!"
All along the road to Paris, the inhabitants of towns and villages ran out to see him, to acclaim him and call out, "Long live Bonaparte, long live our saviour and the saviour of our country!" Whenever anyone attempted to persuade him to support their own parties and help them to victory, he would invariably reply: "I would never be of any party, as I am for the union of all; I am a member of the great party of the French people."
His actual intention was to offer his services towards the effort to restore vitality to the French nation and return to its people their enthusiasm, their taste for work, and their joie de vivre. He knew perfectly that the Celts, whom the Romans had baptized Gauls, made up the great mass of the population, and that these people had extraordinary qualities of courage, hard work, family spirit and probity. They were also strongly attached to their religion.
“Just as there are no bad soldiers with good generals,” he said, “there is no bad people with a good government." In order to get the machine working again, all that was needed was to allow each citizen the possibility of working freely; first of all to re-establish public safety and eradicate exploitation by the large landowners. The next priority was to re-institute freedom of worship. Bonaparte felt that he was capable of accomplishing this task, but when he arrived in Paris on October 17, he had not the faintest idea how he might make himself useful.
When he returned to his home on the rue de la Victoire, he had the disagreeable surprise of realizing that Josephine was not there. She had gone off to meet him, but had taken the wrong road. On her return, Napoleon reproached her bitterly for her infidelity during his absence. It is true that Josephine had caught the eye of a handsome captain by the name of Hippolyte Charles. But love was triumphant and by the next day, everything was as before.
As evidence of the perils that reigned on the highways, it is worth mentioning that the carriage transporting Napoleon's luggage was attacked and robbed; this incident drew the remark from Mameluke Roustam that French Bedouins had much in common with Egyptian Bedouins.
On October 19, 1799, the Directory invited Bonaparte to report on his campaign in Egypt. The interview lasted three hours, and although the Directors deigned to congratulate him, their reception was nothing compared to the popular adulation that accompanied his every move. On October 22, he went to the Luxembourg Palace again. This time, the Directory was receiving all the members of the Institute. Bonaparte was highly sought after; everyone wanted to engage him in conversation; he avoided the company of the Directors, preferring that of his fellow members of the Institute.
On October 24 destiny stepped in. Sieyès and Ducos arrived, in the early morning at the rue de la Victoire. They had come to propose to Bonaparte to help them carry off the coup d’État that they considered essential to save France and the Republic. "We need a new Constitution," they said, "with a powerful executive." This corresponded perfectly with Napoleon’s own opinion, and he gave his consent immediately. Sieyès went over the details of his plan, both for the coup and for the Constitution. Bonaparte made no objections, insisting only that the people be consulted on the validity of the new Constitution.
On November 8, 1799, after giving Bonaparte command of the troops in Paris, Sieyès issued orders to the deputies and the Senators to assemble the next day at St. Cloud, under the pretext of suppressing a fictitious Jacobin plot. On November 9, he sent Barras to his country estate under escort and put Gohier and Moulin under the guard of General Moreau. Sieyès had also expressed an intention of arresting forty of the most inflamed Jacobin members, but Bonaparte was able to convince him to do nothing, as this would have stained an operation whose avowed aim was to save the Republic.
At St. Cloud, the Ancients assembled in the Salon de Mars, and the Five Hundred in the orangerie. The opening of the Council session took place November 10th at 1:30 p.m. Deputy Gaudin, who was in on the plot, evoked the catastrophic situation that the country found itself in and argued for the need to change the Constitution. The Jacobins immediately rose up against this proposal and circulated a petition to get the deputies to swear that they would defend the Constitution. Some signed, others did not. The discussion and insults gradually intensified until the orangerie was in utter chaos despite of President Lucien Bonaparte’s appeals for order.
At 3:30 p.m., the President of the Ancients, Lemercier, announced that he just received the resignation of the three Directors, Sieyès, Ducos and Barras.
At 4 p.m., Bonaparte entered the orangerie and attempted to quieten things down and restore a climate of calm, serious debate. He was greeted by a general outcry from the Jacobins. Hands were laid upon him. Someone claimed to have seen daggers. Then Sieyès asked Murat to evacuate the room. The deputies exited by the French windows.
At 8 p.m. Sieyès succeeded in assembling about 300 members in the orangerie. Lucien Bonaparte managed to resume the proceedings. At 11, Député Cassell made a proposal that was accepted: "That the Directory be suppressed and replaced by a three-member Consulate. The three provisional consuls were Sieyès, Ducos and Bonaparte. The legislative body was suspended until February 20, 1800.
At midnight, the three Consuls swore allegiance to the sovereignty of the people after the President, Lucien Bonaparte declared to them: "Citizen consuls, the greatest people on earth entrust their destinies to you."
When, on November 11, the three Consuls met again to decide upon the most pressing matters, it became immediately apparent that Bonaparte dominated the debate and stood head and shoulders above the others in every respect. Ducos said to Sieyès: "Our reign is finished. Experience should have taught us; we are no longer in any state to rule. It is clear that the nation must be commanded by Bonaparte. There is nothing to be done; the choice is justified by the danger we face; our only salvation today is through him. We must back him up with everything in our power."
This is how Sieyès himself decided to confide to Bonaparte the responsibility of First Consul. To justify his choice, he said simply, "He knows everything, he does everything, he is capable of everything." The people were called upon to vote on the validity of the new constitution and the nomination of the Consuls. The results of the vote were Yes: 3,011,007, No: 1562.
As soon as he was nominated, Bonaparte set about working 20 hours a day, 140 hours a week. This was the regimen he imposed on himself in the first five months of the Consulate.
And he performed miracles that have never been equaled anywhere in the world, before or since. In 1802, France was once more prosperous, law-abiding and at peace. United, the French people had regained their enthusiasm, hope, desire to work and joie de vivre. This was the "Golden Age of the Consulate." Napoleon would have liked this age to last forever. He would have wished all the nations of Europe, particularly England and France, to work peacefully hand in hand toward improving the lot of their respective populations.