Napoleon’s return to France

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© Bob Denton 2014

Napoleon’s return to France, 1799

The Republic of France had managed almost everything that the past French kings had dreamed of achieving a control of the Netherlands, occupation the left bank of the Rhine, plus Switzerland and Italy were theirs.

Yet the Directory became unhappy with the terms of the Treaty of Campo Formio and began demanding additional territories never mentioned in the treaty; the Austrians were not keen to give up those areas that they had conceded in it.

In 1798 a Second Coalition gathered against France, across time to include Austria, Great Britain, Portugal, the kingdom of Naples, the Ottoman Empire, the Papal states, Sweden and Russia. The coalition recorded a number of successes advancing in to Italy, but suffering a defeat in Switzerland. The Russians withdrew from the coalition in protest when the British insisted on monitoring and controlling their shipping in the Baltic.

The French Army of Observation had been established to monitor Austria’s intentions and actions. As the tension increased it was promptly renamed the Army of the Danube in March 1799. It was commanded by General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan. Four divisions of 30,000 men it entered in to Germany to rekindle war.

However its first two engagements, in Ostrach and Stockach, ended poorly without resolution and the army withdrawing. Further battles in May at Winterthur and June in Zurich saw them withdrawing and licking their wounds again. These setbacks were in the context that Napoleon and perhaps the strongest Republican army being stranded in Egypt.

Back in Paris this resumption of hostilities had initially been underpinned by a pro-war Jacobin group that triumphed in the April 1799 election. But they were washed away by a coup on June 18th (30 Prairal) which brought Abbé Sieyès, one of the five members of the Directory, in power.

The Army of the Danube renewed hostilities in September 1799 at Zurich they did succeed, but their prize was for much of the army to be subsumed in to the Army of the Rhine. But their victory calmed some of the fears back home.

Stranded in the Middle East Napoleon had tried to invade Syria, but this failed. Hearing of the crisis developing at home he chose to return, to all intents and purposes abandoning his army there. The British and Ottomans would later attack and defeat this residual army he left in Egypt.

In October 1799, back in France, Napoleon was heralded by both factions.

Abbé Sieyès welcomed him assuming that he could control him and use him in a coup attempt. Napoleon had his own ideas and organised a coup within a coup.

There were other strong personalities in the army that needed to be massaged or handled, but Napoleon used his celebrity to sway them. He arranged that troops were located around Paris in preparation for the coup.

Sieyès led the Council of Ancients and on the 9th November 1799 coup (18 Brumaire year VIII) he called a meeting of both councils the following day at the Château de Saint-Cloud, intimating that there was a Jacobin plot afoot and there would be safety there.

On the 19 Brumaire, Lucien Bonaparte, a younger brother and the President of the Council of the Five Hundred, persuaded both houses that there was indeed an imminent Jacobin coup. In fact their meeting place out in the suburbs meant they were more easily able to be intimidated.

As a result of these fomented fears Napoleon was appointed to command the troops in Paris so that he might better protect the councils.  He subsequently managed to get three of the five members of the Directory to resign – Abbé Sieyès, Roger Ducos and Paul Barras. At a stroke they had no quorum to permit any further decisions. The two remaining members, Louis Gohier and Jean-François-Auguste Moulin, complained so were promptly arrested.

Napoleon arrived with a force of grenadiers to launch his coup within a coup.  The two councils realised too late that this was no Jacobin uprising but a military coup. Napoleon was met with resistance by both houses. It was Lucien who bade the grenadiers disperse the lower house on the suggestion that there was a rebellious group brandishing weapons and whipping up rebellion.

The Ancients under military observation then decided to suspend the councils for three months and appointed Napoleon, Sieyès and Ducos as temporary consuls of a new government body they called the Consulate, this would replace the short-lived Directory. Deputies of the lower house were manipulated in to confirming this so that it was formally adopted as law. Worn out by the emotions and privations of the Revolution the streets stayed calm and accepted this change of power.

Two commissions of twenty-five deputies were formed from the two houses’ deputies and these were pressed in to agreeing a provisional government and a new form of constitution – significantly this one had no Declaration of Rights. It vested all power in the office of the First Consul, who would appoint the Senate, who in turn would interpret matters of the constitution and legislation.

Of course Napoleon was elected as that First Consul, by 14th November 1799 he was installed in the Palace of Luxembourg with supreme power over France. 

Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès was appointed as the Second Consul. From a noble family he had been appointed for Montpelier to the Estates-General and was later appointed to the National Council. He had served on the Committee of General Defence, but did not join its successor organisation the Committee of Public Safety. For the Directory he was charged with rationalising French law achieving little progress, Napoleon set him to the same task.

Charles-François Lebrun was appointed as the Third Consul. A lawyer and administrator, he had served as a deputy in the Council of Ancients. Lebrun was keen on reconciliation and was charged with reorganising the administration and financing of Napoleon’s regime.

Jacobins were sent in to exile or arrested and the pockets of Jacobin support around the provinces soon mopped up by the military.

Most historians agree that this coup marked the final act of the French Revolution.

Forward to 8.2 The Napoleonic Period – Back to Meanwhile back in Europe
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014