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Napoleon's Administrative Army – His Prefects

(Article by WILLIAMS Robert D. ,  Concord, MA - ed., notes and bibliography by P.H. )

 Bibliographical details

A new administration for a new Constitution
The prefect alone in charge of the administration
Overworked; time to delegate...
A uniform for the Prefects
An ancient Roman Institution
A sharp contrast with the Revolutionary model
A return to the Intendant of the Ancien Régime
The personnel
A selection committee of six
Were there extremists?
A change in the selection criteria post-1805?
Was there an "Aristocratic Reaction"?
Were the men competent?

  A new administration for a new Constitution

"Citizens, the Revolution is bound to the principles with which it began. The Revolution is ended."(1) With these words began the efforts of First Consul Bonaparte to reconcile political factions and to restore order. After the coup d'etat of the Eighteenth Brumaire (9, November, 1799), Bonaparte faced the dilemma of having to establish a system of authority different from those of the preceding decade and yet which would maintain the basic principles that had cost so many French lives. The instability and disruption associated with the failures of a constitutional monarchy and a republic left only one possible solution: a fusion of the traditional structure of the Old Regime with the new ideas of the Revolution. Some way of harmonizing authority with liberty, equality and fraternity in the new regime appeared to be the only foundation upon which the First consul could establish his power.
On February 17, 1800, First Consul Bonaparte issued a law revising the French administrative system. In place of Intendants, legislative representatives on mission and locally-elected directories, he instituted the rule of Prefects, directly responsible to the Minister of the Interior, and in reality, to the First Consul. The most absolute centralization, even with respect to the visions of generations of Capetian Monarchs, had at last been realized by an individual who was as much a fusion of the Old Regime and the Revolution as the government and society which he tried to create.
The Constitution of the year VIII adopted on 13 December, 1799, had not dealt with the organization of local administration. Siéyès had described the creation of "regional Prefects" in an earlier draft of a proposed constitution. The new Constitution had retained the geographic division of France in Departments, a division which had been created in the waning months of 1789 by the Constituent Assembly and which had been retained by the constitution of the year III adopted in 1795. At the time of Bonaparte's coup in 1799, there were 102 Departments, 89 for actual French territory, nine for Belgium and Luxembourg which had been annexed in 1795, and four for the left bank of the Rhine. The French empire at its height comprised 130 Departments.

  The prefect alone in charge of the administration

The law of 17 February, 1800, creating the Prefectural organization provided as follows:
"There shall be in each department a Prefect, a Council of Prefecture and a General Council for the Department, which shall discharge the functions now performed by the administrations and commissioners of the Department... The Prefect alone shall be in charge of the administration ... The First Consul shall appoint the Prefects, the Councillors of Prefecture, the members of the General Council of the departments, the General Secretary for the Prefecture, the sub-prefects, the members of the district council, the mayors and deputies of the cities of more than five thousand inhabitants, the commissioners-general of police and Prefects of police in the cities in which they shall be established."
There were, however, no detailed directives on the use or application of this power provided in the law, or any definition of "administration" as to which the Prefects were in charge. To remedy this situation, Lucien Bonaparte, acting as Minister of the Interior, issued a circular dated March 12, 1800, ten days after the first appointments had been announced, which reaffirmed in more concrete terms the position of the Prefect as the chief administrator of the department: "Your mission...reaches all branches of internal administration...Your prerogatives embrace everything that concerns the public welfare and national prosperity, for the best interests of those whom you serve."

He added that the powers of the Prefect extended to "conscription, tax collections, agriculture, industry, commerce, public work, the fine arts, bridges and roads, public welfare, (and) public education.

  Overworked; time to delegate...

While the burdens placed on the Prefect were heavy, the assistant agencies provided for by the law had but limited functions. The Council of Prefecture dealt only with the litigation which might arise when the Prefect attempted to execute his duties, as for example, over the collection of taxes. The General Council for the Department convened only once a year, and then for a maximum of fifteen days. The functions of this council were limited to financial problems, such as tax assessment and the report of the "conditions and needs of the department" which was sent directly to the Minister of the Interior. Finally, the sub-prefect acted as the administrative head of each communal district and performed most of the duties previously executed by the "municipal administrations and cantonal commissioners." It was this latter figure, therefore, who was second in power only to the Prefect, while the councils were peripheral bodies by comparison.
Obviously, there was still too much for the Prefect alone, and he therefore maintained a staff of subordinate administrators. For example, in the department of the Bouches-du-Rhône, the office of the prefecture employed seven bureaus in 1804. Altogether, they represented the functions and concerns outlined in Lucien's circular. A general secretariat handled petitions, correspondence, registration of laws and decrees, and supervision of the archives. A bureau of internal administration supervised commerce, education, sciences, the arts, agriculture, health, taxes, civilian hospitals, and similar institutions. There were, however, separate bureaux for public works and the national domains. The subprefecture, a Prefect's duties writ small, was yet another. Finally, two which performed those functions to prove most significant and crucial for the Napoleonic regime were those of finances and police and military duties. The former concentrated on direct taxes, departmental expenditures, municipal expenditures and expenses and, in general, the accounts of the department. The latter supervised conscription and the multitude of lesser matters as weights and measures, paupery, the national guard, pension, power, assemblies and national festivals. It has been pointed out that Bonaparte used the Prefects as a system of "supervised residences", so as constrain individuals belonging to factions opposing the government. The prefect thus became a restraint on individual liberty in the name of security of the State, something especially useful in isolating militant minorities, especially the former Jacobins and terrorists."

  A uniform for the Prefects

"Bonaparte, who began to put France in uniform, equipped the Prefects, subprefects and all the personnel of the prefectures and subprefectures with uniforms. For the Prefects, this took the form of a blue coat embroidered with silver at the collar, at the cuffs and at the pockets, under which there was a white vest. The trousers were also white. A red scarf with silver fringes and a hat also embroidered in silver completed the outfit."

  An ancient Roman Institution

What were the derivation of, antecedents or model for, this system of administration so adopted? It has survived fairly well intact to the present day and has proved to be one of the most durable of the Napoleonic institutions. The name "Prefect" or "Praefectus" is yet another example of the craze for antiquity emblematic of the Consular period. As earlier stated, the name was not applied by Bonaparte, but had been used previously by Second Consul, Siéyès. The name "Prefect" had been in fact used in Imperial Rome for a lower level provincial administrator, typically of a military character, though some had certain judicial duties.

  A sharp contrast with the Revolutionary model

While there was a certain prestige associated with imperial antiquity, clearly the function and power of the new Prefect was substantially greater than that of the Roman mode. While the administrative departmental divisions established during the Revolution were retained by Bonaparte, the administrative organization and its functioning must be sharply contrasted with that created by the revolutionary governments. During the Revolution, there were locally elected councils but there was no executive connection between the local groups and the central government. As Alfred Cobban points out in his seminal article entitled 'Local Government During the French Revolution',(2) there are four basic reasons for the failure of local government as created by the revolutionary assemblies:
1. The lack of an executive liaison as described;
2. The lack of fundamental powers including the ability to adequately finance the government locally;
3. Lack of cooperation and the conflicts created among the local bodies because of different constituencies; and
4. The rivalry between the revolutionary municipalities and the generally more conservative departmental directories.
The administrative organization headed by the Prefect under Bonaparte effectively cured all of these ills by providing an extremely centralized and controlled structure. An astute memorialist of that time, Etienne-Denis Pasquier, commented that local government during the Revolution included "a great number of petty officials, who were both worthless and incapable, and at whose mercy the administration of the departments and arrondissments had been for the past ten years. They were all the more inclined to make the weight of their authority felt because they had almost all of them sprung from the lowliest strata of society."(3) While this may be an overly biased and over generalized comment, nonetheless, the point is made.

  A return to the Intendant of the Ancien Régime

By contrast, the centralized administration of France by Bonaparte draws more completely and directly on the system of intendants of the Ancien Régime. It has been brilliantly described by Alexis de Tocqueville.
"The Intendant was a young man of humble extraction, who had still his way to make and was never a native of the province to which he was posted. He did not obtain his office by purchase, by right of birth, or by election, but was chosen by the government from amongst the junior members of the council and he was always liable to dismissal. In the official jargon of the time he was described as a commissaire départi, because he had been ‘detached' from the Council to act as its provincial agent. Most of the powers possessed by the Council itself were vested in him and he was entitled to use them as he thought fit. Like those of the Council these were both administrative and judicial; he corresponded directly with Ministers and was sole executant of all the measures enacted by the government in the province to which he had been posted.

Under him and appointed by him were the officials known as ‘subdelegates,' one for each canton, and he could dismiss them at will. The Intendant was usually a man who had recently been raised to noble rank, the subdelegate always a commoner. Nevertheless, within his smaller sphere of influence the latter – like the Intendant as regards the généralité (administrative district) as a whole – was a plenary representative of the government. He was a subordinate to the Intendant in the same way as the latter was subordinate to the Minister of State."(4)
As we will discuss later, even the system developed for the training of the subsequent cadres of administrative functionaries created by Bonaparte was very similar to that created by the Bourbons for the training of Intendants and other administrative officials. The similarity of function and power is truly brought home by a study of the experiences of Turgot, Intendant of Limoges and later Controller-General of France from 1774–6 under Louis XVI.

  The personnel

Who were the personnel of the prefectures under Bonaparte as Consul and then Napoleon as Emperor? Over thirty years ago, Professor Crane Brinton, then McLane Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard, suggested to me that a study of the backgrounds of the personnel of the Prefectures of Napoleon was a topic still not adequately pursued. In his doctoral thesis "The Jacobins" published in the thirties, he had made the statement that "man after man assumes an appointed position under the Directory, and ends up as a Napoleonic official — Prefect, subprefect, mayor, judge. Napoleon was as indebted to the Jacobin government for civil administration as he was to the Revolutionary Armies for his military leaders." But he had never pursued a study to confirm this general statement. The following statistical analysis of the personnel of the Prefects, in abbreviated form, is based in large part upon five or six months I then spent pursuing this topic.
The basis for the study were the 257 men who served as Prefects from the original appointments of March 2, 1800, through the calendar year 1812. Since by law and by personality, Bonaparte and then Napoleon controlled the appointments to the Prefectures, it is informative to observe the nature of these appointments and to analyze the probable basis for them. The first appointments of 1800 did not solely represent the choices of Bonaparte even though the law of February 17, 1800, which had established the prefectural system of administration, specifically empowered the First Consul alone to appoint these administrative officials. Bonaparte, Corsican by birth, and military by occupation, did not possess the broad knowledge of available man power which others had acquired by wide political experience and numerous acquaintances during the proceeding decade. He had been a marginal figure in political circles during the years of upheaval and prior to that too young and taciturn to have developed a knowledge of Old Regime administrators. The First Consul, therefore, necessarily relied upon the judgment of others.

  A selection committee of six

Six men formed the essential sources of recommendation in the initial selection of prefects in March, 1800:
- Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, as Minister of the Interior,
- Jacque-Claude Beugnot, Lucien's secretary and then himself Prefect of the department of the Seine-Inferiéure as a reward for his services in the nominating process,
- Cambacérès and Lebrun, the Second and Third Consuls respectively, the former a regicide and the latter an old royalist,
- Talleyrand, with his tremendous knowledge of men of both the Old Regime and the Revolution, having himself played a significant role in both epochs,
- and finally, General Clarke at the head of a special bureau whose main function was the gathering and assimilation of information on candidates for public office.
All except Lebrun had been men of influence and activity in the Revolution. Each made his recommendation or commented upon that of his colleagues, both notations appearing on the great chart "attached to the first minute concerning the nomination of the Prefects." The significant factor, as seen from these tables, remained in the column entitled "decision" – under which the final selections are crudely penned in the hand of the First Consul. Bonaparte retained the power of ultimate choice, even initially.
The legacy of the Revolution cannot be denied, for it is a heritage which influences the entire Napoleonic epoch, which, in so many aspects, is but the inevitable culmination of the preceding tumultuous decade. And so in personnel: of the 257 Prefects appointed from 1800 through 1812, 172, or approximately 68% were men who had been employed by the Revolutionary governments. The rest were of the new generation, too young to have taken part in the Revolution, or were foreign-born, or were too obscure to have made a mark during this period. Bonaparte leaned heavily on the parliamentarians for filling the new positions created by the Constitution of the Year VIII. One third of the men appointed as Prefects from march 2, 1800, through the last months of 1812 had sat in one or more of the revolutionary assemblies. Fifty-five of these 85 ex-deputies were appointed in 1800 alone. The majority of the others were appointed before 1803, while only four were appointed after 1805. The first years of the consulate, therefore, in fact the years in which the greatest number of Prefects per year were appointed, saw the major influx of the men of revolutionary parliamentary background.
Most of the former legislators had been members of the constituent Assembly, or the Legislative Corps of the Directory. In other words, those two bodies that marked the beginning and the end of the Revolution. Men of the Prefectures, some 28 in number, who had sat in the Constituent Assembly were the moderate men of this first revolutionary assembly. One general indication of this is the fact that out of the 18 who served only in this legislative body, eleven emigrated, retired from political life, or were imprisoned under the radical revolutionary regimes.

  Were there extremists?

Of the 85 ex-deputies appointed to the Prefectures, only 23, or 27% had sat in the convention, the assembly which presided through the Terror. Sixteen of these received the nomination as Prefect in 1800. None was appointed after 1805. On analysis of the activities of these men who sat in the Convention, only approximately three could be identified as true extremists. And, it is significant that these three men, the extremists, would all serve the Prefectures of newly annexed departments. Their Revolutionary reputations would there be at a minimum, and yet their education, experience and special knowledge did not go unused by a regime in need of administrative talent. The largest number of parliamentarians to serve the prefectures sat in the assemblies of the Directory. Fifty or 59%, of the total number of Prefects with experience in the Revolutionary assemblies, served the Directory in this capacity, but some of these had prior parliamentary experience as well.

Bonaparte attempted to bind all parties to his regime by a system of recruitment, but with a few brilliant exceptions, he chose the moderate examples from these parties. The extremes, outright royalism and committed Jacobinism, were very sparsely represented. More important, even these were capable of compromise. Vieuville, an old royalist, became Chamberlain to an Emperor rejected by the legitimate thrones of Europe; Quinette, an extreme Jacobin, reinstituted an anachronistic symbol of royalism to greet a First Consul about to make mockery of the principle of popular sovereignty. Pasquier, in his memoirs, observes that the credit for making political positions of all kinds, including the Prefects and subprefects, open to men of talent without regard to their past affiliations, belongs to Bonaparte alone.

  A change in the selection criteria post-1805?

Historians have also argued as to whether or not subsequent appointments to the Prefectures reflected a change in Napoleon's political selection. For example, Jacques Godechot asserts that after 1805, Napoleon, substituting loyalty for competence, recruited especially from the "victims" of the initial revolution, by which he means the royalist-aristocratic political elements. Conversely, Alphonse Aulard comments that "it is incorrect to claim Napoleon, in appointing new prefects, had chosen any differently during the Empire than he had during the Consulate. The selections of the Emperor were not more conservative than those of the first Consul and there is no political tendency illustrated by these selections."
In terms of information obtained in varying degrees for 73% (186) of the 257 Prefects under examination, 47% (88) were by origins or status of the nobility, either sword or robe, while 52% (95) were of the bourgeoisie: both represent the heritage of the Old Regime. Less than 2% (3) were of lower-class origins, while on their own status they belonged at least to the petty bourgeoisie. There were no peasants. When one views the composition of these three categories, the overwhelming preponderance rests in the highest strata of 18th-century French society. Most of those Prefects who represented the bourgeoisie, however, were within the upper half of that class, either by social origins or contemporary status: 71% (67) were above middle bourgeoisie; most of whom can be truly classified as the high bourgeoisie; 28% (26) were of the middle bourgeoisie; less than 2% (2) were of the petty bourgeoisie, not including the three noted previously.
The highest stratum of the Old Regime reflected in the personnel of the Napoleonic centralization consisted of the nobility, both robe and sword, that is, judicial representatives and old aristocrats, respectively. This class did not "remain suppressed" in either the Consulate or the Empire within the ranks of the Prefects. While the Constitution of the Year VIII had reasserted the stringent laws against the émigrés in order to quiet perpetual fears of those possessing national lands, (the confiscated lands of the émigrés) the laws with regard to the deposed were gradually relaxed even under the consulate. On March 2, 1800, the same day significantly that the first nominations to the Prefectures were announced, a consular decree pardoned the  émigrés of the Constituent Assembly who could prove that they had not subverted the principals of this body during their exile. Finally, in a Senatus-Consulte of 1802, the First Consul declared a general amnesty. Even more, the government not only permitted them to return to France, but also gave them employment in its service. Approximately 20% of the nobility in the Prefectures were of the robe, and the majority of these were high robe officials, sovereign court personnel of the Old Regime.

While the men representing the nobility of the sword, that is, the old aristocracy, were present, these were not the impoverished nobility of the 18th century who needed employment with Napoleon in order to survive economically. Quite the contrary: from those of the oldest houses through and including the youngest members of the new generation serving under Napoleon in the latter years of the Empire, the dominant characteristic was extreme wealth. This general stratification of the Prefects socially portrays a preponderance of the upper classes in French society.

  Was there an "Aristocratic Reaction"?

Historians have argued over whether or not there was a shift during the consulate to the Empire from middle class representation to a greater preponderance of nobles culminating during the apogee of the Empire, 1810 and 1811, in that phenomenon which historians have termed "the aristocratic reaction." Simply, they mean that the old nobility, along with Napoleon's own creation, the imperial nobility, gained ascendance in the prominent positions under the Empire.
Actually, more nobles gained appointment to the Prefectures during the consulate, than during the Empire. However, in proportion to the number appointed, more nobles assumed the chief administrative office during the Empire than those of other classes. Of the 257 Prefects appointed from 1800 through 1812, only 83, or 32% became Prefects after 1804. So it was a stable administrative system in terms of its personnel. The fact that in seven years of an era which saw almost ceaseless foreign wars and ongoing internal economic crisis there should be so little turnover within the main domestic structure of rule is evidence of this stability. The Consulate was a regime of construction: the great shifting of personnel that occurred was only natural in the formation of a new regime. The Empire presented few changes in administrative personnel. Of those 109 prefects appointed in the course of 1800, 30 still held the office of Prefect in 1810, in spite of the great readjustments of 1801 and 1802, not to mention the more often noted replacement of personnel in 1810.
The comparative age levels present one indication of this phenomenon of relative stability. The average age of the first appointees directly following the law of 1800 is 43 years, the same as the overall average for all twelve years under examination. However, the average age of the Prefects in office in 1810 is 46 years, even though the appointees have become younger, on the average, as the years passed. The higher average age of those in office in the later year is the reflection of a basically stable system as it normally aged. Re-appointment is the prime factor in the explanation for the circulation of many Prefects. The use of the Prefectures as a reservoir for upper-level administrative personnel was, in fact an important procedure in the Napoleonic Regime.

  Were the men competent?

Having reviewed the extensive scope of their function in office for which they were responsible, did these appointees have the requisite skills? Competency seems to be the common characteristic and the real driving force behind the appointments. These were truly qualified men for the most part who bring to bear real technical expertise in a variety of areas and strengths. The majority of the prefects, representing those generations born in the years 1748 to 1768, were men who had established themselves successfully under the Old Regime. The upper-class preponderance and economic substance of the greater number and the upward mobility of the others indicate that these men were not failures. Quite the contrary: the administrators, lawyers, magistrates and army officers of the Old Regime who appeared in the prefectures had held positions of influence in 18th century France. Prior to their appointment to the prefectures, 137, or approximately 50%, of these men had pursued a career in the bureaucracy, the army, the bar, or the bench under the Bourbons. Of this group, approximately 14% were bureaucrats, 25% lawyers, 25% magistrates and 36% army officers. Other professions included eleven teachers or professors, eight writers, four great merchants, three clerics, two doctors, a road surveyor, a Protestant pastor and a glass works craftsman.
But it was the Revolution which prepared them for Napoleon. All of the 21 bureaucrats of the Old Regime held at some time in that chaotic epoch an administrative position, while at least one-half sat in one or more of the Revolutionary Assemblies. Twenty-three of the 34 Prefects who had been lawyers, practicing in either the lower courts or the parlements sat in one or more of the assemblies of the Revolution, while the 11 men who did not all served in administrative capacities during that period. Of the 36 magistrates, 12 continued in judicial duties, while 16 others took administrative functions. Only 11 of these men did not sit in one of these assemblies. Only 16 of the 46 representatives from the royal army remained within a purely military position and even six of these held administrative positions for short durations. The remaining thirty all gained either administrative or parliamentary experience from the Revolution. Finally, of the others — the scattering of intellectuals, merchants, doctors and clerics, whose main careers prior to the Revolution lay outside the four major divisions - all without exception attained some measure of administrative, parliamentary, or technical experience during the Revolution or the Napoleonic Regime before they assumed the duties of departmental administration. Nevertheless, the Prefects of the Revolutionary generation had not been, in general, the formulators of Revolutionary policy, but rather its executors. The ex-deputies had served the technical committees in one or more of the four assemblies. Others had been local and departmental administrators or judicial officers, while still others had served in the army. Moreover, a common occurrence was the combination of administrative and one or more technical skills in their backgrounds.
According to Beugnot, Napoleon in 1811 at the height of his power expressed a regret that the men of the Revolutionary generation would vanish simultaneously from their positions of power and influence, leaving a great void. He relied heavily upon the men tempered by the Revolution in establishing his power and continuing in its administration. Upon Beugnot's consolation that there was a rich reservoir of skill to be found among the 'masters of requests' ('maîtres des requêtes') and the 'auditors' ('auditeurs') of the Council of State, the Emperor could not agree. In his mind, there was something about those who had experienced the great upheaval of the preceding decade which could never be reproduced. And it was this vague quality upon which he so much depended.(5)
In order to provide the training ground for new bureaucrats, in lieu of the experience obtained by the Revolution as that generation was waning, Napoleon created a program of "auditors" to the Council of State. The functions of this particular office, created in march of 1803, make it apparent that it was to provide a reservoir for higher administrative officials, especially the Prefects. This system of training administrators was similar to that employed by the Bourbons, as they recruited most of their Intendants from among the 'masters of request' who served a similar function in the Controller-General's office under the Monarchy.
The 'auditor' acted as an intermediary between each section of the Council of state  — finances, civil and criminal legislation, war, navy and interior — and the respective minister of each corresponding department of the government, for whom the 'auditor' presented and defended specific ministerial proposals. He also served on missions to various parts of the Empire to insure the execution of imperial decrees, much as the Commissioners of the Executive Directory.
In general, the administrative system was stable during the period 1800 to 1812. In 1810, there appeared the same professional representation as in 1800. The majority of the men in the system still reflected the heritage of the Revolution. But Napoleon had created an institution which provided for a continuation of administrative skill, for a new reservoir from which he could appoint his Prefects.
What Napoleon had created was a "cadre of technocrats." professional functionaries meant to serve him. With minor modifications, this system of civil administration exists in France to this day.


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 (1) Final words of the proclamation (drafted by Sieyès) accompanying the promulgation of the Constitution of An VIII, the founding document of the Consulate. Proclamation dated 24 Frimaire, An VIII (15 December, 1799) published in Correspondance publiée par ordre de l'Empereur Napoléon III, Paris: Imprimerie Impériale, 1858, no. 4422.
(2) Chapter in Cobban, A., Aspects of the French Revolution, London:  Jonathan Cape, 1968.
(3) Pasquier, Etienne Denis, Mémoires du chancelier Pasquier: histoire de mon temps, Paris: Plon, 1893-1908, vol. 1, p.148.
(4) Alexis de Tocqueville, L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, Paris: Lévy Frères, 1856, Chapter 2. English trans. The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume I: The Complete Text. Edited with an Introduction and Critical Apparatus by François Furet and Françoise Mélonio. Translated by Alan S. Kahan. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998.
(5) Beugnot, Jacques Claude, Mémoires du comte Beugnot, ancien ministre, 1783-1815, 2nd ed., Paris: E. Dentu, 1868, Tome 1, p. 459.

Bibliography (works in English)
Richardson, N., The French prefectoral corps, 1814-1830, Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1966
Whitcomb, E. A., 'Napoleon's Prefects', American Historical Review, vol. 79 (1974), pp. 108-118

Further information

 TOURNON-SIMIANE, Philippe-Camille-Marcellin-Casimir de



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