H-FRANCE NAPOLEON FORUM

The first panelist in the Napoleon Forum is Malcolm Crook, Professor of

French History at Keele University. Dr. Crook's publications include

_Toulon in war and revolution : from the ancien régime to the Restoration,

1750-1820_ (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press and St.

Martin's Press, 1991); _Elections in the French Revolution : an

apprenticeship in democracy, 1789-1799_ (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press,

1996); and Napoleon Comes to Power: Democracy and Dictatorship in

Revolutionary France, 1795-1804 (Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 1998). He

is currently working on the development of electoral culture in

nineteenth-century France, which will encompass the elections and

plebiscites of the Napoleonic period

 

 

THE MYTH OF THE 18 BRUMAIRE

Malcolm Crook, Keele University, UK

It is hard to shake off the myths surrounding the events of November 1799

by which Napoleon Bonaparte came to power. The approach of the bicentenary

is already prompting their repetition: France was devastated by a decade of

Revolution, led by colourless and corrupt politicians, and yearning for the

arrival of a saviour, who was received with open arms by a despairing

people. It is not only in student essays that such sentiments are

expressed. I want to suggest three ways of interrogating the Bonapartist

narrative of events, conveyed in official proclamations that were issued as

soon as the coup was completed. First, the Directory, the regime that was

overturned, had rather more to offer than the poor image propagated by its

successors would have us believe. Second, the coup of Brumaire nearly

miscarried on its second day, though unforeseen difficulties rebounded to

Bonaparte's advantage by involving the military more than intended. And

third, the consolidation of the general's authority was not achieved either

rapidly or smoothly, but through a gradual process of repression and

reconciliation.

Although its positive aspects have yet to make much impact at textbook

level, the Directory was clearly a much more creative regime than is

usually realised. Besides underlining achievements in the administrative or

financial realms, recent research has brought to light a good deal of

innovation. The pendulum did not simply swing back towards the early 1790s,

for the politicians who remained in office from the Convention continued to

explore ways to found a new order, not least by their endeavours to

entrench republican institutions. Their efforts over four years, pursued in

extremely difficult circumstances, were fruitful if not always successful.

This was especially true in the sphere of political culture.

Whilst it has usually been viewed as a post-revolutionary retreat from the

commanding heights of the Year II, the Directory was a broadly based

republican regime. The male, taxpaying franchise encompassed some five

million Frenchmen, of whom a million were eligible to serve on the

departmental electoral colleges which chose national deputies. Elections

remained indirect, but legislative contests took place each year. There was

a brief experiment with declared candidates, a fair measure of press

freedom was permitted and a few glimmers of pluralistic politics can be

discerned during this period. Indeed, in the Year VII (1799), the outcome

of the electoral process was for once endorsed, rather than overturned, and

measures were in hand to ensure the more orderly operation of elections in

future. Voter turnout was not high, but there was no reason to suppose it

was in terminal decline. It was Bonaparte's seizure of power that

decisively removed any further opportunities for development along more

liberal lines.

Ironically it was Bonaparte himself who contributed to the crisis which

brought the Directory crashing down, since the military reverses of 1799

were provoked by his adventurism in the Middle East. The Second anti-French

coalition not only threatened the invasion of France, which in turn

provoked a recrudescence of internal unrest. It also convinced many, more

recently elected, deputies at the legislative Councils that a revision of

the Constitution of 1795 was the only alternative to Jacobin terror or

royalist restoration. Of course, when Siey`s began to plot this course

Bonaparte was bogged down in the desert sands of Egypt and the general's

unanticipated return in September was certainly not welcomed by the former

priest turned statesman. Yet Bonaparte's role was intended to be a

subordinate one, since it was planned to persuade the two legislative

Councils to yield up power voluntarily to a revisionary commission, rather

than force them to do so.

Early on the morning of 18 Brumaire VIII (9 November 1799 according to the

old calendar) the deputies were duly encouraged to decamp to Saint-Cloud,

to the west of Paris. So far, so good. It was the following day, 19

Brumaire, that was the crucial one, for by then the element of surprise had

been lost. Many Council members saw through the unfounded threat that had

led to their transfer out of the capital and began to suspect they had been

led into a trap. As the deputies remonstrated, so Bonaparte lost his

composure and stormed into the chambers, to convey a few 'home truths'. In

fact, he only exacerbated the growing resistance he encountered there. When

Bonaparte was assaulted in the Council of Five Hundred he almost fainted

(contrary to Bouchot's famous depiction of the scene, which shows the

general maintaining his "sang froid") and it was brother Lucien, a deputy

in the Council, who saved the day by calling upon the troops to defend

their leader. No wonder subsequent accounts sought to emphasize the orderly

18 Brumaire rather than the almost disastrous 19 Brumaire. The elision of

the latter is complete, for history only makes reference to the former date.

The recourse to military force to overcome the protesting politicians only

served to strengthen Bonaparte's hand when order was restored. He cashed in

on his enhanced role in the events to determine the character of the new

constitution that was rapidly drawn up. One French historian has rightly

referred to the many coups of Napoleon, since the way in which he imposed

his own solution to the post-Brumaire outcome may be described as a coup

within the original coup hatched by Siey`s. Bonaparte declared his refusal

to be 'the man of any party'. In practice this meant that when he nominated

himself as First Consul in the three-man Consulate that emerged in December

1799, he was rendering himself a dictator. The short and obscure

Constitution of the Year VIII set the tone for a regime in which government

decrees would decide how broad legislation was actually interpreted. It was

significant that the Declaration of Rights was dropped from this fourth

constitutional charter of the revolutionary decade and that references to

liberty and equality became increasingly perfunctory.

None the less, the success of the emergent Bonapartist order was by no

means a foregone conclusion. The events of Brumaire were deeply ambiguous

and could be read in different ways. The Directory found few defenders,

even among its own personnel, many of whom sent congratulatory addresses to

Paris. Yet if there was agreement that change was needed to end the

uncertainty of the revolutionary decade, the basis of the

post-revolutionary order remained in dispute. In some areas there was

relief among radical groups that the Republic had been saved, while in

others royalists assumed that a restoration was imminent. Above all, there

was widespread apathy, neither enthusiasm nor opposition, for few perceived

more than just another coup taking place in the depths of a severe economic

crisis.

The vote or 'plebiscite' to which the new constitution was put (like its

two predecessors in 1793 and 1795) revealed indifference if not much

outright hostility. Yet the regime declared that some three million

Frenchmen had expressed an opinion in favour of the new order and this

fraud has only recently come to light. It was once again Lucien who rushed

to his brother's assistance when it became obvious that the returns were

disappointing and that the figures would be inferior to those recorded in

1793, if not 1795. By effectively doubling the number of votes cast in yet

another 'coup', the regime imposed authority from above on the basis of

minimal confidence from below. It would take victory on the battlefield,

notably at Marengo in June 1800, some severely repressive measures against

lawlessness, and a healing of the rift with the Catholic church, via the

Concordat of 1801, to produce a greater degree of popularity. This was

subsequently reflected in a strong turnout in the more genuine plebiscitary

returns of 1802 on the Life Consulate.

The so-called 'revolution of 18 Brumaire' must thus be set in a broad

context in order to demystify the Bonapartist legend. There were

alternatives available in 1799 which have not been adequately explored

because Bonaparte's news management was so effective. The coup itself was

far from being a neat surgical operation. Above all, engineering the

post-revolutionary regime was to prove a protracted matter. A great deal of

attention has been paid to how revolutions begin, but relatively little to

how they are brought to an end. As even Napoleon was to discover, the

latter is rather more difficult than the former. He was gradually able to

fulfil the promise he made on the morrow of Brumaire that 'the Revolution

is over', yet only at the expense of abandoning much of the political

acculturation of the 1790s. However, his authoritarian solution was no more

enduring and efforts to combine freedom with stability would continue

during the century that followed.

 

Copyright 1999 H-France and Malcolm Crook