Napoleon's Rise to Power

By Rapport, Michael | History Today, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Napoleon's Rise to Power


Rapport, Michael, History Today


On October 9th, 1799, at Frejus in south-eastern France, General Napoleon Bonaparte disembarked from the frigate which had carried him from Egypt, evaded British cruisers and brought him safely back to the French Republic. Bonaparte had been plucked from a disastrous campaign in the East - only a month later, he would be brought to power as First Consul over the ruins of the Directory, the regime which had ruled France for four years.

But this rapid rise was far from assured, Whatever the realities of Egypt, where he had abandoned his command, Bonaparte was considered the Republic's only undefeated general. In Avignon, en route to Paris, he was greeted in a spontaneous show of popular acclaim. It was his reputation as a victorious commander that had brought him popularity, but it took far more than this to bring him to power. At the same time, the government which he and his partners overthrew in the coup of 18-19 Brumaire, Year VIII (November 9th-10th, 1199) was either hated or treated with indifference by the bulk of the population.

Bonaparte's ambition, his skill and his popularity cannot be dismissed as factors in his own rise, but more important were the failings of the Directory. In exploiting these weaknesses, opponents of the regime had several options to which they might have turned: Bonaparte was only one of them.

With war raging in Europe and unrest at home, the Directory faced determined opposition from the radical Jacobins on the Left and Royalists on the Right. In western France, the Catholic-Royalist rebellion, the chouannerie, remained a festering wound. Elsewhere in France the dodging of conscription, desertion from the army and brigandage ensured that the regime had a hard task in restoring order to the countryside. Its failure to do so did little to reassure property owners, who of course included some of the peasantry. Much of the peasantry also resented the continuing persecution of the Catholic clergy, which stemmed from the Revolution's decision to reform the church and to nationalise its property in 1789. Non-jurors or refractories, the clerical opponents of this settlement, became focal points for counter-revolution. Moreover, the Directory had inherited considerable financial problems.

Underlying all these difficulties was the war against the First Coalition (comprising Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Prussia and Sardinia and Naples), which had been raging since 1792. Despite its successes against various of these, the Directory was never able to win a lasting peace. Even when Austria was forced out of the war, ceding Belgium and a strong position in Italy and the Rhineland to France at the Treaty of Campo Formio in October 1797, Britain fought on and the peace' was nothing more than a fragile truce shattered less than a year later by the advent of the War of the Second Coalition. Meanwhile, most of the French population desired an end to the strains and demands of the lengthy conflict.

Support for the Directory was limited to a narrow, if powerful, base. This included those who held the national debt and property owners, particularly those who had bought biens nationaux, or nationalised church land. These people had much to lose, both from a restoration of the monarchy, which might restore to the church its confiscated property, and from a resurgence of Jacobinism which, it was generally believed, would bring about a redistribution of wealth. The Directory was also supported by the army, whose veteran soldiers had imbibed Republicanism and whose commanders and suppliers had gained prestige and wealth under it. By the time of the coup of Brumaire, however, even support from this quarter had largely been eroded. The watershed was the coup of 18 Fructidor, Year V (September 4th, 1797).

Until this point, the Directory had been an experiment in constitutional government. The Constitution of the Year Ill (1795), provided almost universal male suffrage, a bicameral legislature, consisting of the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Elders, and a five-member executive, the Directory. …

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