Contrary to a widely held belief, it was not the coronation (Sacre) of 2 December, 1804, which “created” the Napoleonic Empire but rather a Sénatus-consulte adopted by the Sénat during its meeting of 18 May, 1804. The ensemble of documents presented on Napoleonica makes it possible to follow this apparently “parliamentary” inception to what was the denouement of a political manoeuvre on a large scale.
An idea launched in 1802
The idea of a hereditary monarchy took root very early on in Bonaparte’s entourage, even though Bonaparte himself studiously affected a lack of interest in such matters, at least up until the recommencement of hostilities with Britain (May 1803). To those who advised him to aim for a hereditary monarchy, he simply replied: “My natural heir is the French people “. To use an expression which was dear to him, he felt that “the pear was not yet ripe”. He even penalised those who wished to move too fast – Roederer was deposed from being president of the Section de l’Intérieur at the Conseil d’Etat and sent to kick his heels at the Sénat, whilst Lucien Bonaparte was made to hand over his ministerial portfolio and sent to pursue his fortunes in Madrid, where the diplomatic successes of the Spanish embassy were less spectacular than the younger Bonaparte’s propensity for filling his own pockets.
As soon as war arose again and more significant assassination attempts allowed him to take the country in an iron grip, Bonaparte revealed himself and worked resolutely towards empire.
A constitutional process
The documents presented on Napoleonica show the different constitutional stages of the process, which concluded with the proclamation of the Empire by the Sénatus-consulte of 18 May, 1804. It is however important while reading them not to lose sight of the other aspects of this key moment: the Cadoudal conspiracy, the arrest of Moreau, the execution of the Duc d’Enghien, the French départements in a state of siege. And the “atmosphere” created by the actions of the Consulate: in a few years Bonaparte’s government had solved many of the problems arising out of the previous ten years of the Revolution, from the resolution of the religious crisis to the pacification of the départements in revolt, not to mention the successful financial, economic, administrative and judicial re-organisation and the other advances of this fecund period, which I have elsewhere called “le Grand Consulat”.
In taking the last step which separated him from the throne, Bonaparte chose the constitutional route. For this, the support of the Sénat was indispensable. When the government gave the Sénat the official documents which showed British financial support for the Cadoudal-Moreau-Pichegru conspiracy, the Sénat set up a special ten-member commission to reply to the communication. The commission however contented itself with proposing a motion which noted the facts of the case and which sent its congratulations to the First Consul for having escaped so many dangers.
At the Sénat
Fouché now entered the scene. He asked to take the floor and spoke in opposition to the limited nature of the motion proposed. He said that it was necessary to go further and added, without giving any details, that he had talked to Bonaparte about it. Surprised and subsequently dominated by those who spoke after Fouché, the sénateurs decided to set up a second commission, which this time wrote an address which touched on the question of the regime: “Great Man (Grand Homme), finish your work and render it as immortal as your glory”. When he received this text, Bonaparte replied that he would think about it and give a reply soon. Whilst the Sénat was hesitating and Bonaparte was playing hard to get, the First Consul’s partisans pursued a campaign of motions throughout the army and in the local and national institutions. Considered as a block, these motions gave the impression of being a “call from the nation” for the head of state to decide to cross the Rubicon.
At the Tribunat
On 28 April, 1804, a surprise came from the Tribunat. With Bonaparte’s agreement, the Tribune Curée stepped up to the speaker’s platform and asked his colleagues to decide concerning the creation of an empire and the heredity of the imperial dignity in the Bonaparte family. Only Carnot voted against. The Sénat had been caught napping. It then attempted to make up for lost time.
Back at the Sénat
3 May, a delegation from the Tribunat came to present Curée’s motion to the sénateurs. François de Neufchâteau invited his colleagues to proclaim the Empire.
The sénateurs began by quibbling over the details. They adopted a long memorandum demanding that the new constitution should guarantee: the independence of the major authorities, a free vote unattached to income tax, individual and press freedom, ministerial responsibility, etc. When he saw the text, Bonaparte grew angry and said it was the work of the “ideologues” and their “reminiscences of the British constitution” (criticism indeed, in his mouth). Publication of the memorandum was forbidden. A new senatorial commission was appointed. It worked under the control of Cambacérès and Talleyrand, beginning on 11 May. On 13 May, a project for a Sénatus-consulte was voted and approved by the privy council. On 16 May, Portalis presented the text to the Sénat. The senatorial commission concluded that the text should be adopted.
On 18 May, 1804, the sénatus-consulte was unanimously approved. There were three votes against (Grégoire, Lambrechts and Garat) and two abstentions.
The Empire was made.