Chapter 16

The Head of State

Napoleon and Joséphine visit a factory


Now that we have witnessed Napoleon's military prowess at Toulon and during the Italian and Egyptian campaigns, and before we examine on his career as head of state, let us reflect on the following statements by three people who are highly qualified to pass judgment on him. They will afford a vital insight into the personality of the First Consul and Emperor.


  • President of the Republic, Georges Pompidou: "Napoleon attained such heights of grandeur and accustomed the French people to so much glory that  ever since, they have never been resigned to mediocrity and have always responded to the call of duty."
  • A conversation between André Malraux and De Gaulle. Malraux: "Of course, Napoleon was a colossus, and he also had a very great mind. But a soul?" De Gaulle: Be careful when you talk about his soul; he didn't have time. But do you know one place in the world where the crowd feels the thrill of grandeur more keenly than before his tomb?" Every year a greater number of visitors -- over one million in 2000 -- come to see the Emperor's tomb in the Invalides. More than half of these are foreigners.
  • Arthur Levy in 1893: "Above all else, Napoleon was a tireless worker; both great and small questions occupied, so to speak, the same importance in his mind; he never forgot them, either in the joy of victory or in the dejection of defeat. As a direct consequence of his skills and his great moral rigour, he was at the same time the most skilful, most active soldier in the Army and the most expert, most hard-working citizen in the Empire. However far his destiny carried him, Napoleon never forgot that he was born for a life of hard work and tribulations. When he found himself in the highest position, the place that for so many others has been the invitation to a life of idleness and sensual pleasure, he was always the first to set to work. Every day he devoted himself to the kind of ceaseless, painful effort that on this earth is the lot of the disinherited rather than the powerful. It was precisely the simplicity of his conduct that seemed so phenomenal to most people, who no doubt had a totally different conception of the statesman. He became a kind of superhuman prodigy who united, within one brain, transcendent genius and solid common sense. The awesome results obtained by the sheer will of this one man of poor and humble origin, with no inheritance beyond his family virtues of organization, economy and hard work, inspired the average French citizen to feel stronger and surer about his own future. In times of great misfortune, one can always dream that a man or woman will come along who will have the ability to save the situation."

The Constitution of Year VIII Ė The most urgent task was to set up a new government with a new constitution. Under the direction of Sieyès, a commission composed of ten members, five senators and five deputies was charged with preparing and writing the new texts. In the first draft, Sieyès envisioned a First Consul who would have the role of Grand Elector, grandly ensconced in the Palace of Versailles, and whose role would be limited to that of a national emblem and arbiter in the event of conflict between the other two consuls or between consuls and ministers. Bonaparte rejected this, saying that he did not wish to become "a fattened pig" and that he had accepted the role of First Consul with the intention of working every day, with all his energy, towards the restitution of France. This recalls the remark made by President de Gaulle when he said that he didn't want to be a President in charge of "inaugurating chrysanthemums" and that of Ronald Reagan during the Irangate trial, "Iím not a decorative vase over a fireplace."


On December 4, 1799 a meeting of the Consuls and the ten members of the commission took place in order to put the final touches to the Constitution. Each article was studied, and after debate, was adopted and formally recorded. The Constitution, dated December 13, was tabled on the 15th and came into force on December 25, Christmas Day. The constitutional law had eight principles enshrined within it: the sovereignty of the French people, the republic as a form of government, the representative system, the division of power, and the respect of liberty, equality, public safety and ownership.


This is a summary of the Constitution of Year VIII (1799):


  • Government was entrusted to three Consuls who were appointed for 10 years and were eligible for reappointment. Power essentially resided in the First Consul, who had the authority to propose all laws.
  • The Senate (80 members) saw to the respect of the Constitution and had the power to revise it by sénatus-consulte.
  • The Council of State (29 members, assisted by maîtres de requêtes (counsels) and junior members auditeurs) gave form to the laws proposed by the First Consul.
  • The Tribunat (100 members) discussed and proposed modifications to the laws
  • The Legislative Body (300 members) voted for or against laws.


The administration of Paris and the departments was also totally reformed, in a system that has remained practically unchanged until this day:


  • Paris: One Prefect of the Seine and a Prefect of Police. Borough mayors appointed (today they are elected), a General Council of the Seine. At the legal level, a Chief Justice, court of cassation, appeals courts.
  • Department: Prefect appointed, general council, criminal court.
  • Borough: Sub-prefect appointed, borough council, court of first instance, correctional court.
  • Commune: Mayor appointed (today they are elected), municipal council. Police under the orders of the mayor.

Consuls and Ministers are designated:

First Consul: Napoléon Bonaparte, Second Consul: Jean-Jacques Régis Cambacérès, Third Consul: Charles François Lebrun. In choosing the latter, Bonaparte, who did not know him, sought Roedererís advice. This was their conversation:

  • Bonaparte: I donít know who to make Consul along with Cambacérès. Do you know Lebrun and Cretet?
  • Roederer: Very well, Lebrun is a man of the very highest calibre; Cretet is third-rate.
  • B: What did Lebrun do before?
  • R: He started off as a secretary for Chancellor Maupéou, then became a distinguished man of letters, a member of the constituent assembly, head of administration at Versailles, and a member of the legislature.
  • B: What did he do as a man of letters?
  • R: He translated Homer and Tasso.
  • R: What reputation does he have?
  • R: He is reputed to be a royalist, but he has always justly earned the confidence of patriots. Once he begins with a party, he remains faithful to it, and there is no surer man.
  • B: Isn't he keen on the idea of a constitutional jury?
  • R: The only idea he is keen on is that of a strong government like the one we are going to have.
  • B: I must have perfect peace of mind concerning my two Consuls; they must never lead me to suspect that they are entertaining any prospects for the return of the king. What will Cambacérès think of the choice of Lebrun? He has a bit of a penchant for the terrorists, that one.
  • R: He will tell you that Lebrun has royalist leanings, which is one reason why you should take him; in the publicís mind, that will offset the reproach that could be made against Cambacérès; a member of the Constituent Assembly will go very well beside a member of the National Convention. Moreover, people would like to see a 60-year-old man sitting beside you. You are young, and people want to believe that your colleague will have a moderating influence. The choice is perfect. I am jealous of whoever gave you the idea.
  • B: Nobody gave it to me, I dreamed it last night; I had thought of Canteleu.
  • R: Canteleu would not dishonour your Consulate, but Lebrun will raise it very high.
  • B: Is he easy to get along with?
  • R: Excellent. He is a modest, peaceful man, with a gentle, conciliatory nature.
  • B: Send to me his works, I want to see his style.
  • R: What? His speeches to the constituent and legislative assemblies?
  • B: No; his literary works.
  • R: And what will you see there that is relevant to the post of consul?
  • B: I would like to see his dedicatory epistles. Questions about men and things to studying a handful of sand grain by grain with the aid of a magnifying glass; Lebrunís dedications are the last grain of sand on the pile.
  • B: (laughing): Itís two oíclock; I should be at the Consulate; come and dine with me.

As Consul, Lebrun undertook the financial reorganization with great success. In 1822, he wrote: "I await historyís judgment on Napoleon: it will have much to say about the soldier, but far more about the statesman."



  • War: General Berthier
  • Justice: Cambacérès
  • Interior: Laplace
  • Foreign Affairs: Talleyrand
  • Police: Fouché
  • Finance: Gaudin
  • Navy: Forfait
  • Secretary of the Consuls: Maret.

Without losing a moment, Bonaparte set to work. The very day that the government was formed, he addressed a letter to the King of England and to the Emperor of Austria, inviting them "not to deny themselves the happiness of bringing peace to the peoples of Europe"; England did not trouble to answer and the Austrian army stepped up its efforts in Italy to drive out the French and invade the Riviera. He also drafted a proclamation: "... Heinous and covetous factions divide the Republic. France is in a state of general disorder... men and women of France, the place of the Republic in Europe shall be strengthened and restored to the rank that it never should have lost, and soon we shall see all the hopes of its citizens fulfilled... ."


To get an idea of the pitiful state of France, let us quote André Castelot as he relates the first meeting between Napoleon and Gaudin, the new Minister of Finance. "Bonaparte received Gaudin in the most gracious manner.


  • Have you worked in finance for long?
  • For twenty years, mon général.
  • We have great need of your help, and I count on it. Let us proceed to the swearing in, we are in a hurry.

Once the formality was completed, Bonaparte added:

  • "Go to the Ministry, take charge there, and as soon as you are able, give us a report on our situation, along with the first steps that need to be taken to restore the services that are lacking everywhere. Come and see me this evening at my house on rue de la Victoire so that we can discuss our business in greater detail."

In the coffers of the Treasury, Gaudin found the sum of one hundred and sixty seven thousand francs in cash, which came from an advance of three hundred thousand francs made the day before. However, there were nearly five hundred million francs in debts, not counting unpaid requisition slips and promissory notes for unpaid salaries. Bureaucratic mismanagement reigned everywhere.


Bonaparte exploded: "What people! What a government! What an administration!" When he wanted to send an aide-de-camp to carry a message, there was not a penny available for his travelling expenses. When the First Consul wanted to know the exact size of the army, nobody could tell him.


  • " But," he insisted, "you must at least have lists at the war office?
  • What good would they do us? There have been far too many changes that have not been taken into account.
  • But you must at least have payroll statements that will help us figure it out!
  • We donít pay them!
  • But the food bills?
  • We donít feed them!
  • But the clothing bill?
  • We donít clothe them!"


On December 26, 1799, the State Council was inaugurated, on the 27 the Senate, on January 1 (yes, on New Year's Day!) the Tribunate and the Legislature.


February 13, 1800 saw the creation of the Bank of France. After six years of various experiments, it received its final status, through the Law of April 22, 1806. France needed a paper currency that was acceptable to all. The State had to be able to rely on a powerful financial institution that could insure advances to the Treasury and perhaps even loans. On January 6, 1800, a group of bankers, including Lecoulteux and Perregaux, supported by State Councillor Cretet, presented to the First Consul a plan for a bank that, under the control of the government, would issue bank notes payable to the bearer on sight in exchange for discounted commercial bills. Bonaparte gave the project his full support. Already by August 1800, the bank was able to pay state wages and pensions in cash. By 1801, it was able to grant advances to the Treasury.


On February 17, 1800, the Prefects received their statuses. In the provinces, as in Paris, the administration was in a dreadful moral and material mess, sometimes under the control of illiterates, "Michu, a roadmender, in charge of bridges and highways, Barzic, a poacher, trial judge, etc..." Bonaparte was to rectify this situation in one stroke. He placed a prefect chosen for his competence at the head of each department. "I love honest, decent people of every type," he said. On March 11, 1800, he sent them a circular, not to promise them glittering material rewards or holidays, but to require them to devote all their energies to the restitution of France. "Your new role imposes extensive duties upon you, but offers you a great future reward; you are being called upon to assist the government in the noble project of restoring France to its ancient splendour, to revive within it everything it has produced that is great and generous, and finally to found this splendid edifice on the unshakeable foundations of freedom and equality."


From January to April 1800, Bonaparte launched a whole series of projects that we will see later at the time of their completion, such as the civil, commercial, criminal instruction, penal and civil procedure codes, the Napoleon University, freedom of worship for various religions, the Legion of Honour, the Stock Exchange, the Court of Auditors, major public works (roads, canals, ports), city planning, etc.


This activity was interrupted in May and June, when he had to go to Italy to overcome the Austrians who were about to invade France in order to restore to the throne the fat Louis XVIII, whom the Flemish called Louis die zweet (a pun on the French "dix-huit"), i.e. Louis the sweaty.




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