Account of the coup d’état du 18/19 Brumaire by Helen Maria Williams

Author(s) : WILLIAMS Helen Maria
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Helen Maria Williams was an English novelist, poet and translator, who moved to France at the time of the Revolution. She just so happened to be at Saint Cloud as the events of the coup d’Etat of Brumaire unfolded. These letters, published in London in 1801, detail her account of the coup.


Account of the coup d’état du 18/19 Brumaire by Helen Maria Williams



Revolution of the 19th of Brumaire.

I am not surprised at the anxiety which pervades your Republic respecting the momentous events which are passing in ours. You feel, no doubt, that on the fate of the parent Republic depends the destiny of your own. You desire me to tell you more than the journals have already told you of the nineteenth of Brumaire- that day, big with the fate of such a country as France, and such a man as Buonaparte, will, no doubt, employ the pen of many an able historian, through all succeeding ages, over whom I can certainly boast of only one advantage, that of having been present at the scene.

For some time past I have considered the Park of St. Cloud as my domain, since, in my daily rides on horseback in search of health, I often prefer those solitudes to the Bois de Boulogne, for ever haunted by the Parisian beau monde. To the Park of St. Cloud, then, my horse, on the immortal nineteenth of Brumaire, turned his steps mechanically; and, traversing the village and the court of the Chateau, filled with troops, conveyed me in perfect safety to my accustomed hills and woods. On returning towards the Chateau, seeing a little gate open at the side of the Park, the curiosity of my cavalier was excited, and we entered the garden, where, on approaching the palace, we beheld, through the trees, Deputies of the Five Hundred sauntering in the walks; and as it was the first time I had beheld them in their costume, though they had worn it two years, I was the more struck with their picturesque appearance, moving along with flowing robes, like tragedy-heroes, or shades of Elysium, through embowering groves and enamelled meads.

The events of the preceding day, which was the eighteenth of Brumaire, portented some great and decisive measures of public safety; but, from the moderation and legality in the proceedings at Paris, every one imagined that those at St. Cloud would be equally calm and pacific. The Council of Elders had on the eighteenth held their important sitting, the danger of the country had been denounced, and the transfer of the Legislative Body to St. Cloud decreed before the Parisians knew that any thing like a Revolution was going forward. The garden of the Thuileries was open, no others than the usual guards seemed present, and the citizens took their morning walk, without any suspicion of what had passed, but half an hour before, within the walls of the Palace.

The scene, however, suddenly changed. The orders which Buonaparte had received at the Bar of the Council were soon put into execution; the gardens were filled with troops, the persons who were already there were suffered to remain, but the troops only were permitted to enter. This was all the appearance of force which was seen througout the day in Paris, except a company of horse posted before the Council of Five Hundred; and as the Parisians discovered nothing in the Spectacle much worth their attention, every one pursued his usual occupations, after the stare [space?] of an hour, satisfied with the information given by the placards, plentifully stuck on the walls, that the city and the good citizens of Paris were placed under the protection of Buonaparte.

The “journey to St. Cloud, by sea and by land”, of the Deputies on the following day, was executed with great order; and Paris remained in its usual state of tranquility. I intended, on arriving at the avenue of St. Cloud, to have turned my morning ride towards the hills of Meudon; but, seeing few persons on the road, we continued our route, and, as I have observed, entered the park without difficulty. Buonaparte had preceded us an hour; he had finished his explanations with the Council of the Elders, declaring the necessity of a total reform in the Constitution, which the Deputies of the Five Hundred were in the mean time swearing unanimously, and to all appearance very peaceably, to keep inviolate. When we arrived at the Orangery, the place of their sittings, we were informed, by some of the Deputies, of the scene which had just before taken place; that the motion for a commission of inquiry into the state of the nation over-ruled, and that of faithful adherence to the present order of things adopted. We found the ceremony of swearing five hundred individuals, though perhaps very patriotic, extremely dull; notwithstanding it was sometimes animated by variations in the utterance, according to the sentiments of the swearer, some laying particular stress on the words “fidelity to the constitution of the year three”; others pronouncing, with an emphatic gesture, the words “hatred to all tyranny”. Tired of this senatorial comedy, we returned to the terrace, where we found a considerable number of Deputies; some disseminated in little groups, according to their respective parties; while others, more indifferent, who had escaped from the swearing apartment, to breathe a fresher air, were wandering trough the alleys, and, like ourselves, appeared more pleased with gazing on the autumnal tints and variegated forms of the lofty elms, than in listening to the disquisitions of their more impetuous associates.

You might reasonably suppose that under the late calamitous circumstances of the country, indifference in those who prefided over its destinies was a feeling most remote from the occupied minds of our republican governors. This is the true with respect to a part; a third, perhaps, of the Councils might be considered as deeply interesting themselves in the situation of the country, as being anxious for its safety, and ready to sacrifice every other consideration to its welfare; in this number may be included not only the moderate party, but even a few of those vulgarly called Jacobins. The present generation of that sect are, in general, neither men of philosophic minds, such as Condorcet; or of brilliant talents, such as Vergniaux; nor of atrocious and sanguinary temper, such as Collot and Roberspierre [sic]; all of whom were Jacobins in their turn, but men eager for place and power, fond of revolutionary measures, and little delicate in the choice of the means to attain their end. A few, however, of this class have a jealous love of liberty, which, though often ill directed, is in some circumstances useful; but what renders the whole band eminently dangerous to their country, is the courtesy with which they humble themselves before a few leaders of the Roberspierian [sic] school, who, spared by the mild laws of the Republic, live to regret the glories of their iron-reign, when the guillotine was their throne, and the axe their sceptre.

Of the remaining two-thirds of the Council, some were men of a speculative turn; that is, so attentive to their own private interets, that those of the country were objects of a very secondary nature; others had been so broken and disjointed by the antecedent revolutions of parties, that they had not composed their minds to any settled principle; and the mass was of the class of indifferents, who, from a sort of benevolence of temperament, generally voted with the moderate side of the house; but who, if the hour of dinner sounded, did the salvation of the country hang on the debate, was Philip at the gate, did Demosthenes make the roof re-echo with the thunder of his eloquence- no- not a minute- the robe and toque are thrown by with all the precipitation of hunger, and the first sound they utter is Soupe a la tartare- cotelet à la minute – the next voice which greets their ears, is – tout pret citoyen, dans l’instant – tout pret. – Such were the citizens, no doubt, who were counting the falling leaves, or gliding off from the turbulence unholy of their colleagues, to the more welcome clatter of bottles and dishes at the village taverns, as the sacred hour of dinner drew near.

The comedy of oaths and errors had not ended when we left the garden; and traversing a window, which opened through rooms into the front of the Chateau, we hastened to see what was going forward at the Elders, and then intended to return to Paris. The Elders were in secret committee, deliberating on the Constitution, and altogether undecided whether the remedy proposed, which was that of dissolving it, was not as great as the evil. The court was filled with troops, but the spectators were but few in number. Here we met with Deputies of our acquaintance, who gave us some intimation of what was going forwards; and, among others, with the Pangloss of the Revolution, who, though half a Jacobin, and, I believe, breathing secret vows for the success of the sincere swearers, assured us gravely, that the party which should gain the ascendancy would be in the right.

The Members of the Five Hundred had by this time renewed their vows of constancy to the Constitution, and were about to chose new Directors to supply the place of those who had given in their dismission; to send couriers into the departments, to make an appeal to the people, to return to Paris in mass; and had made other motions of the same incoherent and inconclusive nature: when Buonaparte, descending from the chamber of the Council of Elders, went, attended by a few grenadiers without arms, to the Orangery. Informed of what had passed during the last three hours, he was no doubt prepared to meet with opposition, but scarcely expected the reception he met with; when an hundred voices issued from members, who started from their seats on his entrance, and without suffering him to speak, began to thunder out menaces and exclamations, such as “Down with the dictator- no usurpers- out of the law- kill him- kill him.” while the most eager of the Brutuses crowded towards him, threatening, by the ferocity of their looks and rage of their gestures, to put their exhortations into speedy execution. In vain he made gesticulations in his turn, as if he would have told them that such a disorderly debate was not likely to forward the business in which they were engaged; they were too much under the influence of passion to listen to any counsels, or receive any information. Finding the tumult increase the more he endeavoured to be heard, and seeing the orators press furiously around him, he took the wisest revolution which he could adopt in the present circumstances, and returned back to the court, with looks of discomposure and depression.

Do not be alarmed if the fidelity of the historian obliges me to throw a momentary shade over the imperturbability of the hero. Were each petty artery in his body “as hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve”, he must have been endowed with other properties than are incident to our nature, had he not felt discomposure, and even depression, at a crisis so tremendous. He knew that on the resolve of that moment, when he stood sternly silent before the intemperate menace, and tempestuous imprecations of the Jacobin faction, with murder in its eye, and the dagger in its hand, the salvation of the country depended. He entered the assembly, and it was his duty to have entered, to give that fair and manly explanation of his conduct, and motives, which, as a citizen called to eminent power by legal right, he ought, and which in another place he had already given. In the submission of his sentiments to the Council of the Elders, except some unguarded expressions, which in the heat of debate unwittingly strayed from his lips, but flowed not from his heart, there was no arrogance of opinion, no usurpation of power; he had boldly spoken what every man, who considered attentively the state of things, had repeatedly whispered. Had the minority of the Council of Five Hundred heard with attention, as the Elders had done, the remembrance of the oath they had taken would have strangely embarassed the subsequent deliberation, tending to overthrow what they had just solemnly sworm to keep inviolate. It is difficult to guess what would have been the result of a conduct thus unfortunately prudent; for the majority of the Council had already given way to the clamours of a few; and such is the mechanism of popular associations, and the ascendency of tumultuous violence in any important crisis over the dictates of wisdom, that the assembly might have been pushed on the consequence of their former act, and as they had sworm that the Constitution was sacred, have also voted that any violation of it would be an act of treason.

Buonaparte, had he been permitted to speak might, however, have succedeed in absolving the majority from their oaths; he might easily have shown them that the Constitution, which they had sworn to keep inviolate, had, from its frequent violations, no real existence; and that instead of addressing their vows for the liberty and safety of the Republic, paramount to every oath, and all other considerations, they had been using harmless perjury towards an organization, so extremely vicious, that it was only on its immediate correction that depended the security of the state. He might, perhaps, have also made some few personal interpellations. He might have pointed out, even among this immaculate minority, so tempestuous in guarding every avenue to the Constitution, certain members who had lately made propositions of not very republican tendency for its subvertion, and which he had not hesitated instantly to reject. Happily for the Republic, his rethoric was not put to this proof. Whether the Jacobin party had the sagacity to foresee the danger of his representations, or whether they were blinded by rage, their conduct was such as changed in an instant the nature of his relationship between themselves and Buonaparte; and instead of regarding him as an officer of the Republic, essentially obedient to the will of its representatives, they threw away that character, and challenged him to equal combat as an enemy.

A challenge, thus indecently given, it was impossible to decline. On its acceptance Buonaparte now saw that the security of the state depended. But outrageous as was the insult, unprovoked the attack, it was still against the representatives of the people, though unworthy of the character, that the weapons they had chosen for combat were to be employed. Is it then astonishing, that, independent of every consideration of personal danger, a strong conflict should have arisen in the breast of Buonaparte between his obedience as a soldier, and his regard for the safety of the state as a citizen; when he knew that on the resolution of the moment the latter depended? Can we be surprized that he felt discomposure at being compelled to the commission of an act abhorent from its forms to every idea of freedom, but strongly necessitated by every motive for its preservation? Is it to be wondered as, that he felt with the Roman patriot, that in the interval between the motive and the execution of a dreadful thing,

“The state of man
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection”

and that while he was impelled to do a strange and daring deed, by the irresistible impulse of acting for the salvation of his country, his first, and most important duty, he regretted as sincerely, and as poignantly as the most enthusiastic friend of liberty; the means?

He had withdrawn from this scene of menace and confusion, and was haranguing the troops, recounting to them the dangers which he had incurred, and the tyranny which the minority were exercising over the counsel, when word was brought him that the life of the president, his brother, was in imminent danger. When Buonaparte left the counsel, it was on the president that rage of the violent party turned; he had attempted to speak, and had preferred a few words in justification of the general, alleging, that he ought to have been heard; that his actions had hitherto demonstrated that his attachment to liberty and the Republic was not to be suspected: that it was unjust to suppose he harboured designs sinister to the public weal, and that he had, no doubt, come to give such information as might lead to measures which would secure the preservation and welfare of the state. This harangue, which was heard only by a few members, was frequently interrupted by the clamorous exertions of the violent party, some of whom, had pressed around the tribune, and were putting themselves in the attitude of an attack, as they had done against the general. The president, alarmed probably at their menaces, and indignant at their reproaches, descended from the chair, threw off his toque and his robe, and with tears starting from his eyes, declared himself divested of his presidency. It was at the moment, when the clamour of those raging senators was its climax, when pistols were presented to make him resume his robe and his seat, that the military entering once more the hall, surrounded the president, and led him away into the court of the palace.

The troops had been greatly animated by the presence and harangue of their general, but when they heard the speech of the president, who declared that he, as well as his brother, had been threatened with assassinations; that the Assembly of Five Hundred no longer existed; that the minority had become rebels, and were holding the poniard of sedition and despotism over the heads of the unarmed majority; and that he, the president of the council, invoked the aid of the military force to expel those rebels from the chamber, where they were then exercising acts of despotism and rebellion, and were on the point of overthrowing the republic: the soldiers held up their swords, rending the air with the cries of “Vive la Republique”, and put themselves in the attitude of marching, waiting the signal of their commander.

The order was given, and the troops marched forward to execute it. The chamber of the counsel was still the feat of uproar, confusion and anarchy. A thousand motions had succeeded each other; every man struggling to gain precedency for his own opinion. The assembly was in its wildest state, when the sound of the pas de charge was heard. Amidst the vociferations and roarings of the Jacobin faction, the noise of the drum suspended the tempest of their debate, and they eagerly darted their looks toward the place from whence the unwelcome sound proceeded. They were not left to linger in expectations. The soldiers appeared at the door, preceded by officers, one of whom invited the deputies to clear the hall. Invectives and remonstrances were poured out with all the volubility of utterance, but this artillery had lost his its force. The soldiers were deaf to every thing but the orders they had received, and when the command was given a second time to advance, the chamber was emptied without personal violence on the one side, and without any farther resistance on the other.

Do not be surprised, if I am far from sharing in the humilation which you tell me every friend to liberty must feel at this event. I confess that it is an event of which every friend of liberty may regret the occasion, but it can only be the absence of reflection, or the want of a due acquaintance with the circumstances, which can for a moment obscure that triumph felt by those who believe that the existence of liberty in Europe is fixed on the fate of the French Republic. Nurtured in the bosom of freedom, in a country, formerly at least, abhorent of every act of tyranny, with a prominent point of the history of that country to which you allude, full in my recollection, I must be deemed an apostate from principle, and unworthy of your esteem, if I could attempt to defend an act which could not, and which ought not, to be defended by every friend to freedom, in the circumstances in which the Republic was placed. I know that the laws of policy are considered as less immutable than those of morals; but I do not shield myself behind a distinction which I do not approve; lest, however, you should tremble that I am going to enter into metaphysical disquisitions, I spare you till you are disposed to hear, and I to write, the sequel of this memorable story. Adieu.


Subject continued.

I always suspect my judgment, as it is fit I should, when it comes in competition with your’s but if I am somewhat tenacious of my opinions respecting the nineteenth of Brumaire, it is because I am nearer the scene of action, and therefore have more accurate knowledge of the facts. I do not remember having ever told you, that those who are commonly called Jacobins, were disposed to overturn the Republic, or that the Constitution which was set aside, was hostile to the principles of liberty. I must have strangely erred, if I have said either of those things, or you must have misconstrued my meaning, and have mistaken the indignation I expressed against the conduct of the former, as leading to the eventual subvertion of the Republic, for a positive assertion that it was their real intention, and that the abuse which I observed had been made of the Constitution, in violating the principles of liberty, was highly favourable to those principles.

It was not the Constitution that was in fault, but those who were chosen to direct its progress. You remember the unhappy auspices under which it was born, and we have had melancholy evidence of the total worthlessness and incapacity of the far greater part of those, who have either been called, or who have usurped the power, of regulating its motions. Never was any poor Constitution so abused, and so ill treated, even to the day of its death; and those who have contributed most to its perversion and misfortunes, have been the loudest in their accusations against it.

No; the Constitution, so far from being hostile to the principles of liberty, which is really an absurd accusation, was probably too friendly to those principles; not that any Constitution can perhaps be too friendly, but that the exercise of the liberty, which it allowed, was too extensive for the present state, of political opinion, and perhaps also of political knowledge in France. Scarcely can any Constitution, founded on the rights and the sovreignty of the people, be adverse to the purposes of good government, if those by whom it be regulated are wise and upright men: but if all the knowledge and wisdom that ever existed in the world, were concentered to form a code with such regulators as France had hitherto had the misfortune of possessing, they must be other mortals than Frenchmen, probably some higher order of beings than any among mankind, to have been either politically, civilly, or morally well governed, under such a succession of immoral, impolitic, and often nefarious, administrators.

And let us not be more injust with respect to those fallen angels, the Jacobins, than with respect to the Constitution. Most of those who have presided at the helm, have been Jacobins, spoilt and perverted; and who, without their fanaticism for what they called liberty, possessed all their spirit of violence and incapacity, together with a large and tremendous dose of the corrupted passions, which disgraced the former despotic government of this country. I might defy Paul the First, to feel a more rooted aversions to the caste of Jacobins than myself; on the contrary, he ought to respect them as no weak auxiliairies, while I have had the horror of seeing them drag my friends to the scaffold, and only escaped myself their fury by flight. It would, however, be injust to heap on their heads more crimes than they deserve; and they may, I believe, be absolved from any intention of overturning the Republic, although their administrations, like that of our late governors, would infallibly have led to its ruin.

But the Constitution, and I trust the Jacobins, being quietly inurned, peace be to their ashes, let us seek no longer to

‘Draw their frailties from their dark abode.’

A fairer prospect is opening to France, and to the world – but I forget what you have asked me for the denouement of the grand drama of the 19th Brumaire.

For what is official, I must again refer you to the documents which have been published. After the dispersion of the Members of the Counsel of Five Hundred at the Orangery, the violent party made good their retreat to Paris, followed by the indifferents, who scarcely understood more of the transaction than that they were turned out rather cavalierly of their country residence, and waited farther orders. This catastrophe concluded the first act of this singular drama; the second opened in the evening, by the reunion of such Members of the Counsel of Elders, agreeably to a decree which the latter had passed previous to their adjournment. This sitting was probably as important as any that had been held before or since the Revolution. The decease of the late Government was decreed, and its funeral oration pronounced in no very flattering terms. A considerable portion of members were excluded from the legislature. A provisionary government was formed, and committees, representing the two councils, to new model the Constitution, or build up a new one on the old foundations.

The first news of these extraordinary events overwhelmed the Parisians Republicans with momentary constenation, and filled the Royalists with the most intemperate joy. Nothing among this class was heard but mutual congratulations; for whenever any change took place, be it the most fatal to their wishes, les honnetes gens, who have the admirable faculty of seeing every thing on the bright side, and who, on the defeat of the Russians under Suwarrow, had just laid by the court dresses which they had prepared for his reception – began again to unlock their chests and wardrobes, since nothing was more certain, than that Buonaparte had fallen into Syeyes’s [sic] plans, which were well understood by them to be that of the restoration of the lawful monarchy and royalty. This class of incurables, who understand no more of principles than they do of Arabic, who can form no idea of govenment but as it is connected with royal despotism, and who counfound all classes out of the pale of their own slavish creed, under the name of Jacobins, were convinced that the halcyon days of the good old times were returning, when they saw the events of the late revolution brought upon the theatres, and were permitted by the police to clap their hands and cry out encore at the fanfares of St. Cloud, and the ridiculous route of the conquered party. The police, however, speedily put a stop to those party exhibitions; and as the hopes of the Royalists died slowly away, those of the Republicans revived. Indeed the apprehensions of the latter were of no long duration, and might be construed rather into a dislike of the means than the end.

The first day some of them talked loudly of usurpation; the second day, like Lord Burleigh in Mr. Sheridan’s Critic, they shook their heads and said nothing; the third day they hoped that every thing was for the best; the fourth, they believed that Buonaparte was in the right; and, in the next decade, all rallied themselves under the banners of the new administration. Meanwhile, the legislative commissions are proceeding on the business of the state; the greater part of their occupation will be cleaning the Augean stable of the state of the most obnoxious rubbish of the forty thousand laws, which the industry of succeeding legislators had created; – an Herculean task, which the commision will neither have the time nor the means of effecting, since no stream is potent enough to wash away impurities in so short a space of time, without doing more mischief than good by its rapidity. The most salutary water that can flow for the present, is that of oblivion, on some spots over which no torrent can glide too briskly. The hostage law, which has lighted up the war in the Vendee; and the forced loan, a mode of borrowing money disliked in every part of the Republic, are on the point of being repealed.

The exclusive patriots of your Republic, were, it seems, also about to exert their energies, and make trial of their skill in saving the country; but the Revolution of St. Cloud has spread its beneficent effects beyond the confines of the Republic; and you are, of course, grateful for this second escape, which, unlike the last, has cost nothing. Long and melancholy experience has here taught us, and it will be a sufficient warning, without doubt, to surrounding nations, that whatever by their form of government, none can be more miserable than that which is under Jacobinical sway. With such rulers force usurps the place of knowledge, and they are always the dupes of the cunning, of the persecutors of the wise.

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