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French Consulate

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The Consulate marks a period of French constitutional history between 1799 and 1804 - from the fall of the Directory to the start of the Napoleonic Empire.

Military disasters in 1798 and 1799 had shaken the Directory, and responsibility for them could not be shirked. As though shattered by a reverberant echo from the cannon of the Trebbia, the Directory crumbled to pieces, succumbing on 18 June 1799 beneath the reprobation showered on Treilhard , Merlin de Douai , and La Révellière-Lépeaux . A few more military disasters, royalist insurrections in the south, Chouan disturbances in Normandy, Orleanist intrigues and the end came. To soothe the populace and protect the frontier more was required than the resumption, as in all grave crises of the Revolution, of terrorist measures such as forced taxation or the law of hostages; the new Directory, Sieyès presiding, saw that the indispensable revision of the constitution required "a head and a sword". Moreau being unattainable, Sieyès favoured Joubert as his sword; but, when he was killed at the Battle of Novi (15 August 1799), the sword of the Revolution fell into the hands of Bonaparte.

Although Brune and Masséna retrieved the fight at Bergen and Zürich, and although the Allies lingered on the frontier as they had done after Valmy, still the fortunes of the of Directory were not restored. Success was reserved for Bonaparte, suddenly landing at Fréjus with the prestige of his victories in the East, and now, after Roche's death, appearing as sole master of the armies.

On the 18th Brumaire of the year VIII (9 November 1799) France and the army fell together at his feet. By a two-fold coup d’état, parliamentary and military power went into the hands of a single man. There was little resistance to this move; after years of turmoil and revolution, France was tired and appeared to accept the sacrifice of the liberty and democracy that she had known for so short a time in return for simple stability and a strong hand at the reins of government.

On the night of the 19th Brumaire (10 November 1799) a mere ghost of an Assembly abolished the constitution of the year III, ordained "The Consulate", and legalised the coup d’état in favour of Bonaparte. A striking and singular event; for the history of France and a great part of Europe was now for fifteen years to be summed up in the person of a single man.

This night of Brumaire, however, seemed to be a victory for Sieyès rather than for Bonaparte. He had originated the project which the legislative commissions, charged with elaborating the new constitution, had to discuss. Bonaparte’s cleverness lay in opposing Daunou's plan to that of Sieyès, and in retaining only those portions of both which could serve his ambition. Parliamentary institutions annulled by the complication of three assemblies - the Council of State which drafted bills, the Tribunate which discussed them without voting them, and the Legislative Assembly which voted them without discussing them; popular suffrage, mutilated by the lists of notables (on which the members of the Assemblies were to be chosen by the conservative Senate); and the triple executive authority of the consuls, elected for ten years: all these semblances of constitutional authority were adopted by Bonaparte. But he abolished the post of Grand Elector, which Sieyès had reserved for himself, in order to reinforce the real authority of the First Consul himself - by leaving the two other consuls, Cambacérès and Lebrun , as well as the Assemblies, equally weak.

Thus Bonaparte transformed the aristocratic constitution of Sieyès into an unavowed dictatorship, a public ratification of which the First Consul obtained by a third coup d’état from the intimidated and yet reassured electors - reassured by his dazzling but unconvincing offers of peace to the victorious Coalition (which repulsed them), by the rapid disarmament of La Vendée, and by the proclamations in which he filled the ears of the infatuated people with the new talk of stability of government, order, justice and moderation. He gave every one a feeling that France was governed once more by a real statesman, that a pilot was at the helm.

Bonaparte had now to rid himself of Sieyès and of those republicans who had no desire to hand over the republic to one man, particularly of Moreau and Masséna, his military rivals. The victory of Marengo (14 June 1800) momentarily in the balance, but secured by Desaix and Kellermann, offered a further opportunity to his jealous ambition by increasing his popularity. The royalist plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise (24 December 1800) allowed him to make a clean sweep of the democratic republicans, who despite their innocence were deported to Guiana, and to annul Assemblies that were a mere show by making the senate omnipotent in constitutional matters; but it was necessary for him to transform this deceptive truce into the general pacification so ardently desired for the last eight years.

The Treaty of Lunéville, signed in February 1801 with Austria (which had been disarmed by Moreau’s victory at Hohenlinden), restored peace to Europe, gave nearly the whole of Italy to France, and permitted Bonaparte to eliminate from the Assemblies all the leaders of the opposition in the discussion of the Civil Code. The Concordat of 1801, drawn up not in the Church's interest but in that of his own policy, by giving satisfaction to the religious feeling of the country, allowed him to put down the constitutional democratic Church, to rally round him the consciences of the peasants, and above all to deprive the royalists of their best weapon. The Articles Organiques hid from the eyes of his companions-in-arms and councillors a reaction which, in fact if not in law, restored to a submissive Church, despoiled of her revenues, her position as the religion of the state.

The Peace of Amiens (25 March 1802) with England, of which France's allies, Spain and the Batavian Republic, paid all the costs, finally gave the peacemaker a pretext for endowing himself with a Consulate, not for ten years but for life, as a recompense from the nation. The Rubicon was crossed on that day: Bonaparte’s march to empire began with the constitution of the year X (August 1802).

Before all things it was now necessary to reorganise France, ravaged as she was by the Revolution, and with her institutions in a state of utter corruption. The touch of the master was at once revealed to all the foreigners who rushed to gaze at the man about whom, after so many catastrophes and strange adventures, Paris, and all Europe were talking.

First of all the Consulate improved Louis XV's system of roads and developed Louis XVI's system of canals; then industry put its shoulder to the wheel; order and discipline re-appeared everywhere, from the frontiers to the capital. The new government suppressed brigand age and beautified Paris, the city of cities, with its forum, its triumphal arches, its shows and parades; and in this new Rome of a new Caesar fancy, elegance and luxury, a radiance of art and learning from the age of Pericles, and masterpieces rifled from the Netherlands, Italy and Egypt illustrated the consular peace.

The "Man of Destiny" renewed the course of time. He borrowed from the ancien régime its plenipotentiaries; its over-centralised, strictly utilitarian administrative and bureaucratic methods; and afterwards, in order to bring them into line, the subservient pedantic scholasticism of its university. On the basis laid down by the Constituent Assembly and the National Convention he constructed or consolidated the funds necessary for national institutions, local governments, a judiciary system, organs of finance, banking, codes, traditions of conscientious well-disciplined labour force, and in short all the organisation which for three-quarters of a century was to maintain and regulate the concentrated activity of the French nation. Peace and order helped to raise the standard of comfort. Provisions, in this Paris which had so often suffered from hunger and thirst, and lacked fire and light, had become cheap and abundant; while trade prospered and wages ran high. The pomp and luxury of the nouveaux riches were displayed in the salons of the good Josephine, the beautiful Madame Tallien, and the "divine" Juliette Récamier.

But the republicans, and above all the military, saw in all this little but the fetters of system; the wily despotism, the bullying police, the prostration before authority, the sympathy lavished on royalists, the recall of the émigré s, the contempt for the Assemblies, the purification of the Tribunate, the platitudes of the servile Senate, the silence of the press. In the formidable machinery of state, above all in the creation of the Legion of Honour, the Concordat, and the restoration of indirect taxes, they saw the rout of the Revolution.

But the expulsion of persons like Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël sufficed to quell this Fronde of the salons. The expedition to San Domingo reduced the republican army to a nullity; war demoralised or scattered the leaders, who were jealous of their "comrade" Bonaparte; and Moreau, the last of his rivals, cleverly compromised in a royalist plot, as Danton had formerly been by Robespierre, disappeared into exile. In contradistinction to this opposition of senators and republican generals, the immense mass of the people received the ineffaceable impression of Bonaparte’s superiority. No suggestion of the possibility of his death was tolerated, of a crime which might cut short his career. The conspiracy of Cadoudal and Pichegru, after Bonaparte’s refusal to give place to Louis XVIII, and the political execution of the duc d’Enghien, provoked an outburst of adulation, of which Bonaparte took advantage to put the crowning touch to his ambitious dream.

The decision of the senate on 18 May 1804, giving Bonaparte the title of emperor, formed the counterblast to the dread he had excited. Thenceforward the brow of the emperor broke through the thin mask of the First Consul. The Emperor Napoleon I crowned himself later that same year - the Consulate had passed away in favour of the Empire.


This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

Last updated: 02-08-2005 16:39:38
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55