18 Brumaire: the context and course of a coup d’État

Author(s) : JOB Eymeric
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A regime thought to be on its last legs

In 1795 the Directory succeeded the Thermidorian Convention, the regime that had followed the downfall of Maximilian Robespierre and his Reign of Terror. The new regime was structured in the following way: an executive body of five directors with two legislative houses – a Council of Anciens, and a Council of Five Hundred. This separation of power sought to avoid either the danger of the tyranny of one man or the potential of a democratic government to go disastrously awry (memories of the Terror were still fresh in people’s minds). According to one député, Antoine Thibaudeau, the mission of the Directory was to find a ‘middle way of government, half-way between monarchy and demagogy’.

The Constitution of 5 Fructidor An III (22 August 1795) was the founding document of the new regime, and it broke quite considerably with the principles of the preceding regime, instead putting more emphasis on the ideals of liberty and property. Difficulties quickly began to emerge on the domestic front, caused namely by Gracchus Babeuf and his Conspiracy of Equals (an attempted coup d’État inspired by proto-socialist and Jacobin ideals), continued insurrection in the Vendée, and General Pichegru’s defection to the royalist cause, not to mention the coup d’État of 18 Fructidor An V (4 September 1797).

However, the problematic beginnings of the regime pushed one individual to the fore: Napoleon Bonaparte. He succeeded in attracting the positive attention of Barras, one of the new regime’s directors, by suppressing a royalist insurrection on 13 Vendémiaire An IV (5 October 1795) (when Bonaparte infamously gave the royalists a ‘whiff of grapeshot’), and in doing so managed to gain the confidence of the regime in only a few short months. On 12 Ventôse An IV (2 March 1796) the Directory appointed him commander of the Army of Italy.

18 Brumaire: the context and course of a coup d’État
General Bonaparte in the Council of the Five Hundred, at Saint-Cloud, 10 November 1799, by François Bouchot
@RMN-GP, Musée National du château de Versailles

From Italy to Egypt: Napoleon’s lucky star

At this time, the Army of Italy was thought to be neglected, the least well equipped and generally the worst maintained of the Republican armies. Immediately after being put in charge, the new general in chief exalted his men with the now famous ‘proclamation’:

“Soldiers, you are naked, poorly fed. The Government owes you a great deal, but can give you nothing. The patience, the courage that you showedThe text in the 1823 edition, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de France sous Napoléon, écrits à Sainte-Hélène, par les généraux qui ont partagé sa captivité, et publiés sur les manuscrits entièrement corrigés de sa main, tome III, dicté au Comte de Montholon, Londres, M. Bossange et cie et Henri Colburn et cie, 1823, reads “montriez” pp. 137-38; the English translation of this, Memoirs of the History of France during the Reign of Napoleon, dictated by the Emperor at Saint Helena to the generals who shared his captivity; and published from the original manuscripts corrected by himself. Volume 3 dictated to the Count of Montholon, H. Colburn and Company and Martin Bossange and Co., 1823, p. 142, has “you showed”. The version published in the Correspondance de Napoleon Ier publié par ordre de Napoléon III, Paris: Imprimerie impériale, 1858, vol. I, p. 107, reads “montrez” (“you show”). The past tense is clearly correct. Napoleon was referring to past glories of the Army of Italy, as the remarks following the proclamation show: “This speech from a young general of twenty-six, already renowned for the operations of Toulon, Saorgio and Cairo [i.e., the First Battle of Dego], was received with eager acclamations.” (p. 138) [English translation of 1823. p. 142] Indeed, the army had not yet entered Italy and this time would not conquer the Alps. (PH) amongst these rocks is admirable, but it brings you no reputation, the blaze of glory does not shine on you. I wish to bring you into the richest plains in the world. Wealthy provinces, great cities will be within your power. You will meet with honour, glory and riches. Soldiers of Italy, might you lack the courage or the staying power?”

Against all odds and expectations, the young general won victory after victory, defeating the much more experienced Austrian generals such as Beaulieu at Montenotte on 22 Germinal An IV (12 April 1796), Sebottendorf at Lodi on 21 Floréal (10 May), Alvinczy at Arcole on 27 Brumaire (17 November) and also at Rivoli on 25 Nivôse An V (15 January 1797).

In only a few months, Bonaparte succeeded in defeating four disciplined Austrian armies in battle, expanding the territory of the Republic, and establishing two sister republics, before finally forcing most of the dynastic sovereigns of the Italian peninsula to negotiate with him directly.

Owing to his achievements on the Italian front, Bonaparte became very popular and extended his influence amongst those at the highest rungs of power. After successfully negotiating the Treaty of Campo Formio with the Austrians in October 1797, he returned triumphantly to Paris where, in March 1798, the Directory appointed him commander of the highly secretive expedition to Egypt. The crossing was relatively uneventful except for the invasion of Malta, and Bonaparte managed to elude Nelson’s fleet. The French expeditionary corps put boots on Egyptian soil during the night of 1-2 July.

The Egyptian campaign began without any major difficulties, with Bonaparte winning victories over the Mamluks (notably at the Battle of the Pyramids on 3 Thermidor An VI (21 July 1798)), but the situation rapidly disintegrated. The British sank most of the French fleet at the Battle of Aboukir Bay/Battle of the Nile during the night of 1-2 August, the Cairo garrison had to deal with a large-scale revolt, there was an outbreak of plague during the Syrian campaign, and to add insult to injury there was the disastrous failure of the Siege of Acre. Although forced into retreat, the French army directly under Napoleon saw one last success in Egypt defeating the Ottomans at Aboukir on 25 July 1799. At this point Bonaparte knew that his troops, depleted in number, were exhausted, afflicted by fatigue and illness, and therefore incapable of continuing with the expedition beyond the territory they had already conquered. Furthermore, Bonaparte understood the Directory’s precarious political and military situation and now felt his ‘destiny’ lay in Europe. He left Egypt on 23 August 1798 on-board the frigate La Muiron along with a handful of his most trusted men and generals, leaving General Kléber in command of the Army of the Orient.

Bonaparte and Sieyès: an uneasy joint venture

General Bonaparte landed at Fréjus on 8 October and was cheered all the way to Paris by crowds driven delirious with the news of his victory at Aboukir. However, the political situation had changed considerably since his departure. The Directory was in tatters, war had broken out again, and France now had to face the Second Coalition. Bonaparte was outraged to return to this chaotic situation: ‘In what state did I leave France, and in what state do I find her! I left you with peace and return to war! I left you conquests, and now the enemy is crossing our borders! I left you with a fully furnished arsenal, and I cannot find a single gun! I left you the millions from Italy, and I find now everywhere pernicious, grasping laws and poverty! Our cannons have been sold, and robbery has been institutionalised! The resources of the state are exhausted!’

Abbé Sieyès was the leader of a revisionist political faction striving to change the Constitution and create a more strong and stable executive body. He was elected as a director on 27 Floréal An VII (16 Mai 1799) and was quick to oust the Jacobins from government, soon turning his thoughts to a coup d’État. Having already found support in the financial sector in the form of Claude Périer and Jean-Frédéric Perrégaux (who would go on to found the Bank of France), he began looking for a suitable military figure to back his coup.

At first Sieyès was hesitant to bring Bonaparte into the fold, believing him to be too dangerous and ambitious, but it turned out he had little choice; Jourdan and Macdonald were too close to the Jacobins, Moreau was reluctant to take the mission (and also suspected of royalist leanings), and both Hoche and Joubert had died on campaign. The negotiations between Sieyès and Bonaparte began in a state of mutual distrust, and as a safeguard the concrete aspects of the plan were shared with Talleyrand and Roederer, who were both cynical but powerful political players.

The development of the plot

The conspirators met at Bonaparte’s apartment on Rue de la Victoire during the following weeks to plan their coup. They set the date for 18 Brumaire An VIII (9 November 1799). On 17 Brumaire, Bonaparte invited General Lefebvre (the commander of the Paris garrison) and a crowd of loyal officers to gather on Rue de la Victoire the next day at 7am, fully armed and in dress uniform.

18 Brumaire: Day 1

The coup d’Etat began at 7am on 18 Brumaire. First of all, the conspirators industriously promulgated the rumour that there was a Jacobin plot to bring down the government. The atmosphere became rife with suspicion, and this facilitated the ratification of a decree to move the assemblies to the Château de Saint Cloud. Bonaparte was put in charge of the army’s 17th Division who were ostensibly sent to protect the assemblies against the supposed conspirators. In reality this gave Bonaparte the freedom to act as he desired.

At around 10am General Bonaparte stood before the Council of Ancients and gave a short speech in which he defended his vision of the Republic, while deliberately saying nothing in defence of the Constitution. Ducos and Sieyès both resigned from their posts as directors, whereas Gohier – the president of the Directory – and Moulin – a director – suspected the whole thing was a trap and quickly made for the Tuileries Palace. Here they found Bonaparte, Cambacérès, Fouché, and the two directors who had just resigned. Bonaparte ‘invited’ Gohier and Moulin to resign but they refused and fled to the Palais du Luxembourg. Under the pretext of protecting them from a Jacobin attack, General Bonaparte then sent Moreau and three hundred men to ‘protect’ the directors at the Palace. In doing this, Bonaparte neutralised any opposition from Gohier and Moulin, as well as Moreau, who, as he was occupied with defending the directors, would not be at Saint Cloud as the rest of the coup unfolded.

Meanwhile, Sieyès’s military pawns were being positioned all over Paris: officers were watching the Ministry of War in order to prevent the intervention of the War Minister, Dubois-Crancé (who was thought to be against the coup d’État), Generals Lannes and Berruyer were stationed outside the Tuileries and the Invalides respectively, Murat and Sebastiani’s cavalries monitored the area around the Palais Bourbon and the Pont de la Concorde, Macdonald sped to Versailles, and Sérurier moved the Garde du Corps Legislatif to Saint Cloud.

While events were unfolding, Barras, who had been a Director since 1795 and the key figure in Robespierre’s downfall in 1794, was biding his time to see which way the wind would blow, hoping there would still be a political role for him to play. As it turned out, Talleyrand found no difficulty in getting Barras to resign. This game of politics would continue without him. The Directory had done away with its executive body, and in doing so accomplished the first goal of the coup d’État with relatively few hiccups.

As it neared 7pm the time had come for the conspirators to attempt the most challenging part of their plan: to convince the assemblies to vote in a new constitution that validated their coup d’État.

19 Brumaire: Day 2

On 19 Brumaire, it looked as if the coup was set for a smooth and speedy success thanks to Bonaparte’s military action. But events were not to pan out as the conspirators had hoped. First of all, there were a significant number of Jacobins in attendance, which the plotters hadn’t anticipated on account of the absence of their main support in the military (namely Jourdan and Bernadotte).
Secondly, the parliamentary session did not begin until 1.30pm, and the delay only served to intensify the atmosphere. Bonaparte’s brother Lucien Bonaparte, who was chair of the assembly, was unable to maintain a level of calm. Debrel, a Jacobin député, took to the stand and insisted that each député renew their vows to the Constitution of the Year III. They proceeded to do so, which took a considerable amount of time.

After this the conspirators of the coup found themselves in a difficult situation, in no small part due to the threat posed by the Jacobin presence. Bonaparte, who had been nervous to start with, could no longer contain himself and interrupted the Anciens where they sat in the Galerie d’Apollon.

His speech came across incoherently and was very poorly received by the députés, who were irritated by his military rhetoric. Linglet, the deputy from Pas-de-Calais, retorted, ‘And what of the Constitution?’ to which Napoleon responded, allowing his rage to take over, ‘The Constitution? You yourselves have destroyed it. On 18 Fructidor, you violated it; on 22 Floréal, you violated it; on 30 Prairial, you violated it. It is no longer respected by anyone.’ He continued his tirade, drawing it to a somewhat tone-deaf conclusion: ‘Remember that I walk with the God of War, and the God of Fortune.’ This was met with an enormous uproar.

The tension was equally as palpable at the Orangerie, where the Council of Five Hundred were sitting. Roll call was completed at 4pm, and the session began with the reading of Barras’s letter of resignation. The atmosphere became increasingly suffocating until Bonaparte burst into the assembly accompanied by armed grenadiers. At this the députés erupted with cries of, ‘down with the dictator!’ ‘unlawful!’, and, ‘death to the tyrant!’ Bonaparte was already discouraged by the failure of his intervention at the Council of Anciens and seemed now seemed to falter. Only heavy-handed intervention from Murat, Leclerc, and their grenadiers prevented the situation from deteriorating further.

At this point, it seemed that the coup d’État was becoming increasingly compromised. The assemblies were outraged, and Napoleon, who seemed faint and was making incoherent suggestions (even calling Sieyès ‘general’), was unrecognisable. His momentary lapse exacerbated the violence of the députés, who were eager to denounce him and his actions as unlawful.
Lucien, once again finding himself in a weak position in front of the députés, removed his president’s sash and joined his brother outside. Their chances of success were now very slim, and they knew they had to act quickly. Sieyès pushed for a military intervention, but Bonaparte still seemed reluctant. Then Lucien addressed the soldiers, making the theatrical declaration, ‘I swear to plant a blade in the breast of my own brother if he ever violates the liberty of the French!’

The soldiers cheered at this, and Bonaparte, who appeared to have regained his composure, called for Murat to seize the Orangerie. Murat, a turbulent cavalryman, entered the assembly and made the dramatic declaration: ‘Citizens, you have been dissolved!’ before making a rather uncouth addition: ‘Get this effing rabbble out of here!’ Taken aback, the députés were sent into a panic, and – according to legend – some even escaped through the windows, abandoning their hats and sashes in the process.

This free-for-all gave Lucien the opportunity to return to the Anciens and explain in his own words what had just happened. He spun the story to put Bonaparte in a positive light and made it seem as if the ‘real’ conspirators had been the ones trying to denounce his brother. However, the coup d’État wasn’t finished. Cornudet, the president of the Council of Anciens, took to the speaker’s platform and proposed a decree to form a provisional executive of three, which both Sieyès and Bonaparte deemed an inadequate measure. In order to counterbalance Cornudet’s proposal, they would have to go out and get the Council of Five Hundred back in! Before evening fell, they managed to round up several hundred members of the council, and the session finally began towards 21h. Lucien handed the reigns over to Bérenger, the député from Isère, who announced that the representatives of the Nation shuold express their gratitude, ‘to Bonaparte, and to the generals and soldiers who have helped them in their mission to cleanse the lower house’. From now on, the military intervention in the Orangerie would vanish behind a moment that had saved the Republic in the greatest danger, with Napoleon even looking like a martyr, having almost succumbed to the extreme violence of these ‘representatives with daggers.’ The député Chazal, an accomplice of the coup d’État, then proposed that they endorse the events of the last two days, get rid of the Directory altogether, and create an executive commission with Sieyès, Ducos, and Bonaparte at its head.

The députés voted in favour of this proposal, and the Directory was replaced with an executive commission made up of three Consuls. The coup d’État had been a success; Bonaparte had begun his rise to power.


Author: Eymeric Job (tr./ed. PH and JR)

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