The empire. Dictatorship? Monarchy?

Author(s) : TULARD Jean
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The debate regarding the real nature of Napoleonic power is still lively today. What exactly was that power? A dictatorship? A monarchy? A mixed system? If it was a dictatorship, what type of dictatorship was it? If it was a monarchy, was it parliamentary, absolute or enlightened? The following is an attempt at clarification.

A dictatorship?

It all began with a coup d’état. But that taking of power was justified by the deficiencies of the 1795 constitution. In fact, the authors had written into the constitution a delay of nine years between the initiative for a reform and the reform itself, thus making it almost impossible for it to reformed by legal means. It was therefore natural for Sieyès to call upon a military man (Joubert had initially been the favoured candidate, but on his death Moreau was to be approached) with the aim of intimidating the two assemblies and forcing them to declare the constitution of the Year III nul and to accept a new one (made by Sieyès) designed to save the Republic.

Was it Sieyès plan to have a temporary dictatorship? The idea was already in the air since Marat had demanded one in 1793. Fabre d’Olivet asserts in his memoires that hardline Jacobins had proposed a dictatorship to Bernadotte, but that the latter had preferred to received obtain it from the national legislature.

Bonaparte’s dictatorship was thus accidental: it was the consequence of his awkwardness and his helplessness in the Council of the Five Hundred. Once Sieyès’ parliamentary solution was in jeopardy, the army had to be called in, if only to intimidate. As a result, the leadership of the coup moved from Sieyès to Bonaparte, a general. What had started off as a parliamentary coup became a military one.

The accusation of military dictatorship has been cast at the Consulate. But nothing actually supports this claim. Bonaparte consistently asserted the superiority of the civil over the military. To give just a few quotations: “There are thirty million of us, united by enlightened ideas, property and trade; three or four hundred thousand soldiers are as nothing faced with this mass,” and again “Soldiers are only the children of the citizens. The army is the nation.” Thibaudeau reports Bonaparte’s remark to the Council of State: “I have no hesitation in saying that when it is a question of pre-eminence, this  belongs indisputably to the civil.”

Of course, opportunism played a major part at the time of the Consulate: the memory of the terrible Comité de Salut Public, which did not hesitate to have its generals guillotined, was still very fresh. But there is nothing which could be described as a military dictatorship. Quite the opposite. Many generals plotted against the system and were exiled to faraway embassies. There were no generals in the ministries and the rare officers sent to the prefectures were at the end of their careers or retired. The war department (section de la guerre) in the Council of State had only an advisory role. There was no military caste controlling everything, from politics to the economy. Certainly the war gave to the system a military feel: exaltation of the leader, strict discipline, warmongering propaganda and war monuments, but nothing comparable to a South American dictatorship.

Is it possible to talk of enlightened despotism, so fashionable at the end of the 18th century? This was indeed the period when a sovereign could decide to bring happiness to his people without asking for their opinion and often in the face of opposition. In fact, the reforms of the Consulate were not only necessary but also desired. That the First Consul acted in agreement with the people can be seen from the practice of referendums. In a way, Bonaparte risked his power. And referendums were the contrary of very spirit of enlightened despotism, since such despotism considered the people unable to understand what would ensure its happiness.
Was Bonaparte a tyrant à la Caligula? Did he behave like a man whose whims are restrained by no obstacle? Far from it; despite the assertions of the published after the fall of the Empire, striving to create a black legend. Bonaparte had to take into account the constitution. The assemblies held – in theory – the role of a counterbalance, although we must not exaggerate this influence, as Pietri did in his book, Napoleon et le Parlement.

It would be more precise to talk of a “dictature de salut public” (dictatorship of public safety) of the Roman sort. Napoleon was careful to recall it on St Helena: “When I put myself at the head of power, France was in the same state as Rome was when it was said that a dictator was needed to save the Republic. All the most powerful peoples of Europe were united against France. In order to succeed in its resistance, the head of State had to have at his disposal all the strength and all the resources of the Nation.”

The First Consul found solutions for a desperate situation: he brought about religious pacification with the Concordat in 1801, restored finances (creating the Banque de France and the franc-germinal), reformed the administration (passing the law of 28 Pluviose, An VIII creating the prefects), won victories abroad, bringing about an end to ten years of war. It is true, as people tend to demonstrate nowadays, that this success benefited from some measures and victories of the Directoire; but there is no denying that Bonaparte brought solutions to the problems inherited from the Revolution, something which the Directoire had not been able to do.

The Empire of 1804 was the continuation of this dictatorship. The hereditary empire was merely the perpetuation of the “Dictature de salut public” with respect to problems at home (the plot of An XII) and abroad (the Third Coalition). The Roman dictatorship had a limited duration. At the start, Bonaparte’s term of office had benefited from a longer stretch of time (ten years), but it nevertheless remained restricted. Thereafter, there were no limits whilst nonetheless remaining a dictatorship. Hence the ambiguities of the new system. The term “Republique” was kept on the coins until 1808, and the Republican calendar was to disappear only in 1806. The official anthem was:
Veillons au salut de l’Empire ;
Veillons au maintien de nos droits.
Si le despotisme conspire,
Conspirons la perte des rois!
(Let us look to the security of the Empire.
Let us look to the preservation of our rights.
If despotism conspires against us
Let us conspire for the downfall of kings!)
In the coronation ceremony, the coronation mass was less important than the oath by which Napoleon promised to defend the victories of the Revolution. Furthermore, a referendum had approved the establishment of the Empire.

For all that, the “heredity” did not have much meaning since the new emperor had no children and Joséphine was spreading the rumor that he could not have any. The keyb point here was to avoid a vacuum of power which would have as a consequence a restauration of the Bourbons, a possibility that had terrified the ex-members of the Convention ever since the threatening proclamation of Louis XVIII in Verona, after Louis XVII’s official death. Thus, a continuity would be maintained in case of accident or successful murder attempt against Bonaparte.

The solution remained “provisional” simply because it was impossible to find a solution which would ensure the inheritance of the Revolution.

A monarchy?

It is only in the writings of Roman historians that Cincinnatus, after having saved the Republic, went back to his plough.

When he married with Marie-Louise, in 1810, Napoleon (who as a result became the nephew of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and the son-in-law of a Hapsburg) tried to turn his dictatorship into the beginning of a new dynasty.

The seeds of such an evolution were visible in 1804 under the impetus of a neo-monarchist trend (from Fontanes to Fievée). Was not the first king a happy soldier? Why not create a dynasty which would close off the Ancien Régime? Here at court began to reappear the old customs of the greatest nobility. In a note dated 14 June, 1810, the emperor used the ‘evil’ word “privilege”? In 1811, the birth of the king of Rome at last gave some meaning to the term “heredity”. Napoleon could speak of the Fourth Dynasty. Up to that point, propaganda had emphasised (through paintings, engravings, medals, newspapers and reports of the Grande Armée) the fact that Napoleon was the ‘saviour’ and “the man sent by providence”. Thereafter, they turned to the concept of the family. An enquiry was launched as to whether “the glorious history of the Fourth Dynasty” was properly taught in high schools. After the Merovingians, the Carolingians and the Capetians, came the Bonapartes. Related to the Hapsburgs!

But a dynasty can only be imposed over time. And this is what Napoleon lacked. He continued to be perceived as a dictator, even in France. The terrible Malet affair, in October 1812, cruelly underlined the failure of the dynastic project. No soldier, nor civil servant reacted when hearing of the death of Napoleon I, or so-called death, by shouting “Long live Napoleon II”. It was because there was no Napoleon I, only a Napoleon. A dictator whose death opened the door to many denials or, at least, a great deal of caution. No one thought of the king of Rome in 1814, no more than they did in 1815. “That wretched King of Rome, we always forget him” admitted Frochot to justify his pathetic behavior in the Malet affair. “I know him but I do not recognise him” Talleyrand declared calmly on seeing the child in Vienna.

In this absence of distinction between Emperor and dictator, we must consider the behavior of Napoleon himself. He took all decisions without consulting anyone and did not try to impose a constitutional monarchy, on the English model, which would have been very popular. He behaved like an absolute monarch by divine right, hence the new importance of the coronation consecration. It was only on St Helena – in other words, too late – that he began to refer to a parliamentary monarchy based on new elites.

Was the idea of succession dismissed after the fall of the Empire? Not in the least. This succession continued to be ruled by the Salic law. Joseph, the elder, who ought by right to have received the throne and to whom the throne of Spain had been given, had only had daughters. Lucien had been precluded from the succession because of the condemnation of his marriage by the emperor. Jérôme, more cleverly, knew how to make amends but Louis passed before him. The latter had three sons: Napoleon-Louis-Charles died in 1807, Napoleon-Louis in 1831. It was Louis-Napoleon who would become Napoleon III. But curiously he would pass first through the presidency of the Republic, like his uncle who had initially been First Consul. As the first of the Napoleonids, Louis-Napoleon, in a Republic doomed to anarchy and disorder, took first of all the role of saviour before that of legitimate heir to the throne, unlike Louis XVIII in 1814. The prince himself noted: “In all my adventures, I was ruled by one principle. I believe that, from time to time, men are created, I would call them men of Providence, in whose hands are put the destinies of their countries. I believe I am myself one of these men. If I err, I could perish in vain. But if I am right, Providence will help me fulfil my mission. ” It was not by his birth that Napoleon III imposed himself, but by a coup d’état approved of by a large part of the population. As ever, popular sanction was the key. And after the defeat at Sedan the imperial crown was not trasmitted to Napoleon IV. The succession was not automatic, as was the rule (not always followed) during the Ancien Régime.

A political trend

Referring to Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Guizot said: “It is a great deal to be a national glory, a revolutionary guarantee and a principle of order, all at the same time.” Louis-Napoleon was lucky to have a doctrine as a support which the first of the Napoleonids lacked: namely Bonapartism. Bonaparte certainly refered to Caesar (and Lucien did it with no hesitation in his famous Parallèle) but the nephew had a political philosophy at his disposal. It was based on the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène published in 1823. Did Las Cases arrange Napoleon’s words as a part of a propaganda effort? It is likely, for the Mémorial offers one or two very strong ideas.

Bonapartism was the return of order after anarchy. This was what Napoleon explained to Las Cases, and it was this which Louis-Napoleon took up: “My name is the guarantee of strong and stable power, of good administration.”

And this principle of order went very well with a liberal program. Napoleon asserted to Las Cases: “Nothing can henceforth destroy or erase the great principles of our Revolution. These great and beautiful truths must remain for ever since we have intertwined them with glory, monuments, prodigies… Here is the tripod from which the light of the world will flash out. These truths will support it; they will be the faith, the religion, the morals of all peoples, and this memorable era will be linked, regardless of what people have said, to my person, because, after all, I made the torch shine, I hallowed the principles, and because today persecution makes me its Messiah.”

Another element in the programme: the unification of the peoples. Evoking Germany, Italy and Spain, Napoleon declared to Las Cases: “I would have wanted to make these peoples into a single body, a single nation. It would have been grand to pass with such a cortege into posterity and under the benediction of the centuries.”

One final principle: military glory. It impregnates the Mémorial and was supposed strike the imagination of the future.

The Mémorial was read, reflected upon and, finally, taken too literally by Louis-Napoleon. He wished to complete it by developing a theory of democratic caesarism in his book, Des idées napoléoniennes, published in 1839. He added a social dimension to it with his booklet entitled The extinction of pauperism, which came out in 1844. In it he wrote: “The working class does not own anything, we must make it a landlord. It is like a people of Helots within a people of Sybarites. We must give it a place in society and attach its interests to that of the land.”

With Bonapartism, it is impossible to dissassociate the question “dictatorship or monarchy?” from the unavoidable conflict between a conservative tendency and a social trend. Is Bonapartism to the right or to the left? A part of Bonapartism relies on the gentry and the Church, another part seeks to be popular and anticlerical. These ambiguities helped Louis-Napoleon in his conquest for power in 1848, and are at the origins of the fall of the Second Empire in 1870.

Publication Title :
Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien
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