Volume II - Chapter 5


MAY 18, 1804




I created the Empire to safeguard the Revolution 

and on behalf of the French nation…

I had to give France a form of government that combined

all the conditions needed for unity and stability.

(Napoleon to Montholon, Saint Helena)



Bonaparte First Consul, with consuls Cambacérès and Lebrun,

receiving the presidents' oaths


Louis-Charles-Auguste Couder (1789-1873)


Bonaparte understood his position perfectly well: he could fall to the blows of royalist assassins in the pay of the English, and the country, still inadequately restructured owing to lack of time, would pass into the hands of the various rival factions – Royalists, Jacobins – whose self-destructiveness would drag France once more into chaos.


The assassination attempts that the First Consul had been subjected to (he had been appointed “Consul for Life” by the Constitution of year X) had led him to realize that it was vital to plan measures to safeguard his work of national peace and reconciliation.


And what a triumph he achieved!


National peace, including the recall of exiles of all stripes and the suspension of the list of émigrés; religious peace under the Concordat, hailed with a Te Deum sung in Notre-Dame on Easter Sunday 1802 (in this regard, we may recall that the Concordat recognized the Roman Catholic religion not as the state religion – as the Vatican so earnestly desired – but as “the religion of the majority of French people.” This qualification gave the Catholic religion equal legal status with other religions. To be precise, the First Consul had introduced religious tolerance among the social institutions of the nation; financial and judicial reconstruction; external peace brought about by brilliant victories over the European monarchies, who, with English financing, had not ceased to make war on France.


The Russian ambassador to London, Woronsov, a staunch foe of France during the Revolution and the Consulate, just as he was toward the Empire, wrote in 1803:


“Its method [referring to the London Cabinet] will ever be to obliterate its only rival, France, and then to rule despotically over the whole universe.”


A man such as Bonaparte could therefore only be a thorn in England’s side. Had they not arranged the assassination of Tsar Paul I for being tempted to forge a rapprochement with France? And did they not bombard Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, a neutral state, on April 2, 1801, a sorry exploit that was to be repeated in 1807 to seize the Danish naval fleet?


The London Cabinet was forced, however, to realize that, far from weakening and withdrawing, France under the First Consul was flourishing and growing stronger. Reluctantly, and certainly with the intention that it would be as brief as possible, it had signed the Peace of Amiens on March 25, 1802.


It is no surprise, therefore, as indeed would be the case the today, that when the question of Napoleon’s appointment as “Consul for Life” was put to the people of France, the tally was 3,509,000 Yes votes out of a total of 3,580,000 votes cast. The result was deserved recognition by the entire nation for a man who had made them forget the Terror, that hideous, bloody avatar of the Revolution, and pulled France out of the quagmire of the Directorate.


A More “Presentable” France

The First Consul was not alone in his awareness of the fragility of the régime that led France. For some months, the idea of urging Bonaparte to assume the throne had been making the rounds.


Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838)

by Simon (1770-1837) (RR)


Bishop of Autun before the Revolution, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1795-1804. He played a decisive role in the advent of the French Empire, and it was he who skilfully negotiated with the Vatican so that the Pope, Pie VII, should come to Paris in order to crown Napoleon Emperor at Notre-Dame. A talented diplomat, Talleyrand was above all an opportunist and although Napoleon appointed him Grand Chamberlain of the empire in 1804 and later granted him the title of Prince of Benevente, he later betrayed the Emperor and went on to serve under different regimes, always in high office.


Men as dissimilar as Talleyrand and Fouché supported the scheme. The general idea was that by founding a fourth dynasty, France, which in the eyes of the courts of Europe was still dressed in the rags of the Revolution, would become more “presentable.” It could become a country with which others could once again have relations on an equal-to-equal basis, since it would have adopted a (nearly) legitimate sovereign.


It would likely have been the activists in the Revolution who were most involved in this progress to the throne by the First Consul, and especially those who had voted for the death of Louis XVI, because founding a new dynasty would be the surest way to prevent the return of the Bourbons.


The conspiracy by Cadoulal, which provoked justifiable outrage in the country (the Senate was shown coins found on the three English agents, Drake, Taylor and Smith, thereby substantiating the active participation of their country in the plot), had prepared public opinion for a change that seemed more and more essential for the survival of the state.


In the month of April 1804, during the investigation for the trial of Cadoulal and his accomplices, among them General Pichegru (who committed suicide in the Temple prison), and Moreau (whose sentence was commuted to banishment)… a member of the Tribunate placed a motion before the Assembly to invest Napoleon Bonaparte with imperial honours and to declare the French Empire hereditary upon his heirs.


A commission responsible for investigating the motion tabled its report some days later and concluded in favour of adoption.


A single dissenting voice arose in the midst of this unanimity, that of the mathematician and former member of the Directorate, Carnot, an unshakeable republican, who had already openly declared himself by his refusal to vote for the Consul for Life. But, unlike the others, Carnot endangered neither the Emperor nor France, and in the dark days of 1814-1815, this dissenter placed himself – spontaneously – at Napoleon’s service.


The Emperor, respecting the man, never bore a grudge against ex-Director Carnot.


Involuntary and Unexpected Support


Another voice arose on June 6 in Warsaw from a man who was for the moment only the Comte de Provence but who would have dearly liked to rule as Louis XVIII.


Le comte de Provence by Adélaïde (1749-1803) (RR)


Instead of attempting ot conceal the reaction of the exiled Bourbon - then comte de Provence and future Louis XVIII - Napoleon, very intelligently, decided to publish his protestations in "Le Moniteur". Shocked, the French discovered that "the man who wanted to be king" refused to acknowledge the changes and social benefits they had acquired with the French Revolution.


When he was apprised of Bonaparte’s accession to the throne, he protested in the following terms:


“By taking the title of Emperor, and in wanting to make it hereditary upon his heirs, Bonaparte puts a seal upon his usurpation. This fresh act of a revolution in which all things from the start were worthless will assuredly not diminish my rights; but, accountable for my conduct before all sovereigns, whose rights have been no less dishonoured than my own and whose thrones have all been disturbed by the dangerous principles that the Senate in Paris has dared to advance; accountable to France, to my family, and to my own honour, I believe that my silence on this occasion would betray the common cause. I therefore declare, before all sovereigns, that, far from recognizing the imperial title that Bonaparte has just had bestowed upon himself by a body that does not even enjoy legitimate existence in France [!], I protest this title and all future acts that may thereby ensue.”


This protest became an immeasurable assistance to the new regime, however little intended: the remarks of the Comte de Provence, which were nothing less than a negation of and challenge to the gains of the Revolution, rallied all those who with dogged republican fervour were reluctant to assent.


Napoleon, however, made no mistake and had the Pretender’s protest compulsorily and extensively reprinted in the Moniteur of July 1.


The protest itself produced no outcome because, as one memoir writer records, “the conspiracy of Georges [Cadoulal] had perhaps dampened the already-enfeebled support that barely lingered on for the old regime. [This plot] was, in effect, so badly hatched and appeared to be based on such ignorance of the inner convictions of France and the sentiments that she embraced, the names and characters of the conspirators inspiring so little confidence, and, especially, there being such widespread fear of fresh troubles that great changes would generate, that, except for a small number of the gentry devoted to restoring things to an order already destroyed, there were absolutely no regrets in France regarding an outcome that reinforced the system that had just been set up.”


Heeding the Monarchies of Europe


Thereafter, the most influential European monarchies were attended to: those of Prussia and Austria. Russia was excluded because Tsar Alexander had officially protested the execution of the Duc d’Enghien, a protest all the more strange given that Alexander, who was brought to power by the assassination of his father, had no family ties to the Duke, and that, in courts like those of Naples and Spain where Bourbons reigned, no one had gone into mourning as might have been expected.

The King of Prussia, Friedrich-Wilhelm, clearly unenthusiastic about any such recognition, but, at the same time, obsessed by the notion that he would be awarded the fine lands of Hanover, declared himself “ready to recognize, as soon as it occurred, the restoration in France of a monarchical government to the advantage of a man who had deserved it by his wisdom and great deeds.”

As for the House of Habsburg, threatened by the aftermath of the “Recez of Ratisbonne” (the law that had dismembered the Holy Roman Empire in March 1803) with the loss of the German Elector’s crown and the imperial title, it sought to create another title – that of “Hereditary Emperor of Austria”

However, the plan needed to be accepted by the European powers, and therefore very much by France.


There would henceforth be an exchange of friendly services.


Bonaparte had concluded that, logically, if Berlin and Vienna accepted willy-nilly the establishment of the French Empire, it was unnecessary to sound out other reactions – Europe would follow in the train of these two mighty engines.


A Title with Military Significance


In the advance toward a yet-undefined throne, a question of vital importance arose – what title would the new sovereign assume?


The title of king was out of the question, for the people of France could never have tolerated a relic of bygone days.


Bonaparte obviously was clearly opposed in equal measure.


It is worth recalling an interesting anecdote told by Madame de Rémusat, one of the ladies at the court of the Empress Josephine: Talleyrand, Minister for External Affairs, remarked one day to Berthier, who was shortly to be promoted to Marshal but at the time was Minister of War:


“You know what great scheme is in the air. Go and persuade the First Consul to take the title of king.”


Then, Talleyrand, who had no affection for Berthier, withdrew to observe the scene.


The inevitable happened. At the mention of the word “king,” Bonaparte’s eyes flashed with anger:


“Who told you to come and get my blood boiling? Next time, don’t accept such errands!”


What, then, for a title?


The only one that suited was that of emperor. It was (relatively) new and thoroughly ancient at the same time and, especially because of its military associations, perfectly suited the distinguished soldier become leader of the nation of which he was to say in 1809:


“A day I spend away from France is a day of happiness lost.”


Moreover, in the eyes of the public, the title of emperor did not have the tainted associations that attached to that of king – a title that reminded the French of a regime they had abolished in 1789.


Talleyrand, who was little more than a venal pocket-liner before becoming a traitor to Napoleon, and therefore to his country, summed up the scene perfectly with one of those spiteful remarks that the future Prince of Bénévent could not resist:


“The title of emperor offered a combination of the Roman Republic and of Charlemagne, and that turned his head.”


Tribunate and Senate Unanimous


On May 2, 1804, after proclaiming “no title better suits the glory of Bonaparte and the dignity of the supreme leader of the French nation than the title of Emperor:


“The Tribunate, exercising the right conferred upon it by Article 29 of the Constitution, expresses its will:


“Firstly, that Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, be proclaimed Emperor of France, and, as such, be responsible for the government of the Republic of France;


“Secondly, that the title of Emperor and all imperial powers devolve upon his heirs, passing from male to male in order of primogeniture;


“Thirdly, that in enacting amendments to the structure of duly constituted authorities such as would require that hereditary powers be instituted, equality, liberty and the rights of the people shall be respected in their entirety.


“This present expression of our will shall be presented to the Senate by six speakers who will explain the will of the Tribunate.”


Religious Toleration

By proclaiming Roman Catholic Religion the religion of the "majority of French people" rather than the "Religion of the French State", Napoleon establisehd religious freedom in France.


On May 4, by unanimous vote, the Senate approved a new address in which it affirmed that the wellbeing of France, and the need to bring stability to the institutions that it owed to the Revolution, required the investment of hereditary imperial dignity upon the person of Bonaparte and his heirs and that it was the duty of the same to accept “a title that, while it adds not at all to his glory, at least gives him the means to render himself the more useful in the service of his country.”


On May 5, the Senate delivered an address to Bonaparte to ask him, without being more explicit, to perform one further act to ensure peace for France in years to come. The First Consul replied in the columns of the Moniteur:

“I invite you to make your wishes known to me in full. I desire that we say to the people of France on the next Fourteenth of July: ‘The gains that you have acquired 15 years ago – Liberty, Equality, Glory – will be sheltered from any storm.’”


On May 18, the senators met to listen to the former president, the naturalist Lacepède, who was also Grand Chancellor of the Legion of Honour, read a text from the senatus consulte that gave official, legal form to these new, utterly monarchical institutions.


Then, they travelled to the Chateau of Saint Cloud where a vast throng had assembled for the great event.


According to witnesses, he who was still “only” First Consul Bonaparte  awaited the senators, Josephine by his side. These witnesses described the Consul as “calm, dignified but not haughty, although his youthful face [he was only 35] revealed a joy that, truth to tell, he could not conceal.”

As for Josephine, she appeared “distraught.”


And this man, who until then was never addressed except as “Citizen General” or “Citizen First Consul,” heard Cambacérès, his colleague (but not for much longer), say to him as he approached: “Sire… ”


That one word sealed a man’s destiny, and with him, that of his entire nation.

All the cannons in Paris could be heard as far away as Saint Cloud.


The Château de Saint-Cloud

It was at the Château de Saint-Cloud (which no longer ixists today) situated approximately four kilometres west of Paris, that he First Consul Bonaparte learned that he was to become Emperor of the French.


It was no longer First Consul Bonaparte, but Napoleon I who answered the speech of Cambacérès in a few short sentences, after which a shout, the first of so many, resounded and echoed:






 Return to the Life of Napoleon - page 1