It is generally agreed that the regime installed by Napoleon was authoritarian. But simply calling it a dictatorship seems excessive. The presence of opposing powers, the strength of the principles limiting the action of the executive and the circumstances themselves all restricted the leader’s room for action. There are three elements that define a dictatorship:
– A dictatorship is installed and kept in power by force, particularly by military force
– A dictatorship is an arbitrary regime, that is, it removes all the elements that safeguard the freedom of citizens
– A dictatorship is not seen as a legitimate political structure by the majority of its citizens (1)
Any attempt to measure the Napoleonic regime against these points would cause a lengthy debate, yet the conclusion to any such discussion would be a moderate one, unless the author was blinkered by ideology or by the black legend of Napoleon.
Georges Lefebvre, however, like some of those historians who came to Napoleon from a study of the French Revolution wrote that Napoleon’s power was “by its origin” a “military dictatorship”. Mathiez took a similar line. Soboul on the other hand preferred the expression “bourgeois dictatorship”. (2) Godechot’s section on the institutions of the Consulate and the Empire is entitled ‘La Dictature Militaire’ (the military dictatorship) but he neither justified the choice of the word ‘dictatorship’ nor defined what he meant by the adjective ‘military’; the closest he gets is when he describes the emperor’s non-military entourage as a civilian ‘staff council’, a body whose sole purpose was to prepare his decisions (Les institutions de la France sous la Révolution et l’Empire, 1968, p. 553). As a final example, chapter IV of Jacques Ellul’s Histoire des Institutions (1962) bears the title: ‘La dictature militaire et l’apogée de l’État’ (The military dictatorship and the triumph of the state) but at no point does Ellul explain what he means by military dictatorship, and he does not bring the subject up in his discussion of the Napoleonic regime. This strand of French historiography seems to echo the British propaganda of the time and has influenced foreign studies, particularly in the English speaking world as evidenced by Isser Woloch’s recent work.
I see no need to share Lefebvre’s opinion, even though he may have been one of the best historians of the last century. I cannot agree with his deduction: it seems to me incorrect to allow the origin of a regime to determine its classification as a ‘type’, since this approach freezes any consideration of the dynamics or contradictions of the regime. All things being equal, and using just for once an anachronistic comparison, if we follow the great historian’s logic we could say that de Gaulle’s constitution of 4th October created a ‘military dictatorship’ when he took power in 1958 because he was supported by the armée d’Algérie. Similarly, since King Juan Carlos of Spain was chosen by the Franco the dictator and put on the throne by him, then the King is a dictator himself because of the origin of his power, no matter what efforts he later made to bring in representative democracy and to preserve it. These examples – and I could give many more – show the limits and the sterility of defining a power from its ‘origins’. Indeed it seems that in his analysis of the Napoleonic regime, Lefebvre not only passed over the complex organisation of the state, both in its institutions and its procedures, and the fact that it was inspired by moderate revolutionaries, but even the whole history of the regime that he had analysed so well in his Napoléon. Nor can I agree with his interpretation of Brumaire. Brumaire was a coup d’état prepared by civilians, carried out by civilians in its first part at least (calling the Councils to Saint-Cloud, resignation of the directors, the first parliamentary debates), and which was concluded by a return to the law (the Councils’ votes on the decree creating the Consulate). In this regard Brumaire is quite different to a pronunciamento. The use of military force to evacuate the Councillors had more impact as to the final beneficiary of the coup (Bonaparte instead of Sieyès) than as to its real nature. After that, whilst there was undeniably a slide towards authoritarianism from 1802 onwards, this must be seen in the light of the political reality and the social needs of the time, to say nothing of the hopes of a population avid for peace at home after 10 stormy years of revolution. Moreover the army played almost no role in this strengthening of the executive. It could even be said that it was the most ‘turbulent’ generals who were among the first ‘victims’ of Bonaparte’s firm seizure of power.
Now that I have dealt with the question of the origin of the First Empire, we must now consider whether it was a military dictatorship, in other words, how much, as in Duverger’s definition, the regime was kept in power by military force. The answer is, it was not. Jean Tulard has pointed out that during the whole reign the army hardly ever intervened in internal affairs: “Bonaparte took care to remove those generals who were close to the Directoire, and looked to the notables for support instead.” (3) Later on as the regime came to resemble a monarchy, Rome replaced Sparta completely. (4) As Gilbert Bodinier has put it: “The army has probably never played so small a role in France, and it took almost no part in the maintenance of law and order, the latter task falling to the gendarmerie and police”. (5) Let us consider the arrêté of 8th Germinal, An VIII (29th March 1800). This placed the gendarmerie (a military institution) under the control of three ministries:
that of the Minister of Police for all matters concerning the safety of citizens and the peace of the state;
that of the Minister of Justice for legal affairs;
and that of the Minister for War, who retained only powers of conscription and military discipline. (6)
“The gendarmerie must be answerable to someone […]”, the emperor wrote later. “It must be made available to the prefects as they are in charge of policing the départements. I cannot consider the gendarmerie a power within the state […]. It is better for the service and for the perception of the gendarmerie, for it to be under civil rather than military control”. (7) I could also quote Frédéric Bluche who wrote the following in a work on Bonapartism:
The explanation given by Bonaparte himself to the Conseil d’Etat in 1802, as reported by Thibaudeau, is significant and precise. Power by its very nature is civilian. Reason must be used. A military government is impossible in Enlightenment France. Only an ignorant people would accept it. “I do not govern as a general, but because the nation believes that I have the civilian qualities required for governing.” These civilian qualities consist of seeing “only the common good”. Unlike a military officer bound by the law of force, the civilian submits everything “to discussion, to truth, to reason”. Here we see dictatorship and the Enlightenment brought together The First Consul affirms that pre-eminence “indisputably belongs to the civilian”, and Sieyès tells us that Bonaparte was “the most civilian of all the military men”. The general does not disappear but reins in his temperament, and gives way to the head of state who is supported by the civilian notables. (8)
Bluche’s analysis is borne out by the facts and by contemporary accounts. Roederer for example, commenting on the terms of the constitution under which “public authority was essentially obedient”, (9) made the following declaration to the Conseil d’Etat:
[Public power] is in no way a political force, that is to say a power of will, of direction, of administration exerted upon the citizen; rather it is a means of action of all the powers, it assists all of them […]. A constitution where the will has no power, and where power has no direction is not a constitution […]. Nothing in what we have just said establishes any relation of power between the military and civil authorities. (10)
Finally Chaptal notes in his memoirs:
Napoleon was always on guard against the ambition of his generals and against discontent among the people; and he was constantly occupied with smothering the one and preventing the other. He acted with great reserve towards the generals at all times; he always kept them at a great distance from himself, he rarely spoke to them and even then only on trifling matters […]. I have never caught the Emperor singing the praises of any of his generals, and I have often heard him strongly criticise either their lack of talent or their bad behaviour. (11)
The First Empire thus cannot be considered a military dictatorship. “It was essentially a civilian regime”, is Albert Soboul’s view. (12) This does not mean that it did not use the army or military model as a backdrop or operating model, quite the contrary. Without going into the details of the organisation of the military apparatus as such, it is worth assessing the army’s political role and recall how Napoleon “contained” this intermediary body. He knew this particular type of structure better than anyone, and ended up detaching himself from it to move into a wider and “higher” sphere of action.
Army, War and Legitimacy
Military symbolism was tirelessly used to support the legitimacy of the imperial regime; and not just by the presence of marshals or bearskin hats in the emperor’s vicinity. Napoleon was doing nothing new in this area, but was bringing together the traditions of the Ancien Regime and the Revolution. War -and its result, control of the military apparatus- continued to be part of the ruler’s job. As the reign continued, declarations of war were made by a vote after a speech by the emperor, with no other formalities and almost without discussion, save for the reading of an address of approval prepared by a commission whose minds were already made up. The First Empire moved away from the complex solutions drawn up in the first years of the Revolution (13) to resemble the procedures of the traditional monarchy, where the “king of war” had the power to apply “the most spectacular display of the state’s disturbing power of force and of death”. (14)
Furthermore Napoleon drew upon the monarchistic “theology of war”, with its Te Deums, and sermons by bishops, priests, pastors and rabbis. One of the clearest examples of this was the call – made on December 2nd every year after 1806 – where the faithful were reminded of “the duty God imposes on all citizens to dedicate their lives to their Prince and Fatherland”. (15)
War was thus an example for citizens to follow. Napoleon himself reckoned that “all Frenchmen are of a chivalrous and warlike nature, and are driven, indeed enthralled by the brightness of glory” who would “forgive anything in return for success and victory”. (16) Despite the fact that national glory and personal honour were related to civilian life, it was mainly on the battlefield that these essential values of Napoleonic society were to be won. (17)
Neither should we forget the impact of the prose of the Bulletins de la Grande Armée, written under the emperor’s personal supervision or indeed dictated by him. The other arts were also asked to make their contribution. In Jean-Paul Bertaud’s words the theatre became “the ministry for glory”, (18) with nearly one hundred and fifty “warlike” plays staged under the Consulate and the Empire. Here naturally was not only the emperor glorified, but also the ranks of men who had helped him bring freedom to the peoples of Europe. Thus a link was created –however tenuous, it was only propaganda after all- between the new dynasty and the Revolutionaries. The same went for the opera where the works performed were required to exalt Napoleon’s heroism and portray him as a “god of war”. (19) Elsewhere there was a “militarization of public areas”, with the erection of triumphal arches and monuments, names of victorious battles given to bridges and embankments in Paris etc, as if “heroism and glory […] had taken over where political passions had left off. (20) As Annie Jourdan has pointed out: “even the most insignificant monuments recalled the regime’s greatest triumphs in order to encourage the nation to continue and multiply the sacrifices made, but also to show the leader’s power and discourage any opposition or bellicose tendencies at home or abroad”. (21)
At the same time, in the people’s imagination the army had to remain the people’s army (as seen in the use of the word ‘patrie’ in the panegyrics of 2nd December), it was not to set itself apart from the nation and must indeed become part of it, as Napoleon put it to the Conseil d’Etat in 1802: “ The army is the nation […] If we divide men up into civilians and soldiers we will create two separate orders, and there is only one nation”.
Basically, the Napoleonic army was essentially a national one with its recruitment based upon the Jourdan-Delbrel act of 5th September 1798, which was modified in points of detail throughout the life of the regime (notably concerning replacement). Thus around 2 million men joined the army from 1800 to 1814 including around 1.6 million by conscription. This represents only slightly more than a third of the available population, but sufficient numbers for every village and every family to feel involved in foreign affairs and connected to this vast army fighting all over Europe. Conscription was considered “a truly national law, apt to stamp the character of regeneration on the French people”, making every Frenchman “a defender of the fatherland, something which [creates] a general bond between the citizens and a special bond between each citizen and the state”. (22) That was the limit to the national character of the army. Replacement was the first bending of the rules; you could pay another man to take your place if your name came up. This option reassured the bourgeoisie, and they made good use of it. The length of service was so long (indeed many served through the whole period) that the army became virtually professional, (23) except during the last years of the regime, where promotion came much more slowly than during the revolutionary wars and the officers tended to be trained in specialised academies. All this encouraged the emperor to maintain total control over the marshals and generals, and indeed made the task easier.
From the Revolutionary Army to the Imperial Army
On the basis of these brief observations, one often gets the impression that the army played a dominating role in Napoleonic political life, since many important posts in admin and institutions were filled by generals. This feeling is strengthened by the use of military paraphernalia in major ceremonies, (as seen in contemporary and later paintings), and the privileges accorded to senior officers over civilian notables of the same rank. The importance of these facts must be relativised however. The army may appear to have been the power behind the imperial throne –there was a war on after all- but a symbolic power rather than having an inside role to play on a daily basis.
Only those senior officers whom Napoleon trusted completely were allowed into the workings of the state. The others were restricted to staff roles and asked not to leave their units, sent to distant embassies, used in decorative and ceremonial functions or minor posts, and sometimes invalided out or otherwise retired from the army. Evidence of this can be seen in how the first list of marshals of the Empire was drawn up. Next to faithful followers like Berthier, Davout, Murat, Bessières ou Moncey, opponents such as Augereau, Bernadotte, Brune or Masséna were included. This inspired General Thiébault to a telling remark: “Napoleon seemed to be rewarding faithful servants, but […] he was placing a degree of honour between himself and his former brother officers which in fact reduced their standing”. (24) For contrary to widely held opinion he did not have the backing of all the military during his “reign”, at least not until he had completely eradicated from the ranks and minds the “political virus” that the Revolution had allowed to spread. If further proof were needed we need only look at the conspiracies; all of them – from those under the Consulate to the Malet affair and the final betrayals – would be enough to prove that pockets of resistance remained up until the end. In any case, by the use of purges or promotions, or renewing the senior staff, the emperor succeeded in bringing the army closer to the regime and reducing its independence. Indeed, the emperor’s feelings on the subject progressed “in the opposite direction to that of the population” (Bodinier), as confirmed by the disapproval among the ranks of the “treason” committed by the marshals in 1814.
After Bonaparte had accepted to be Sieyès’ “sword”, many generals attempted to oppose or at least distance themselves from Brumaire. Some of them (Moreau, Augereau, Bernadotte, etc.) thought that they were just as entitled as Bonaparte (fresh back from Egypt) to take part in the regeneration of the Republic. Others reckoned that the operation was not necessary in the way the participants in the coup did. The Saint-Cloud affair was supported not by the whole army, but only by those units of the Paris garrison that had taken part in the Italian campaign of 1796-1797. In the following weeks the new powers had to carry out a wide purge of senior officers to put an end to the “partial independence of the army from those in power”. (25) In passing it must be said that Bonaparte had already benefited from this in Italy. “Unreliable” generals were relieved of their duties while another use was found for them. And several dozen generals were hounded out of the army and placed under police surveillance. This first wave was not enough however; after Lunéville and even more so after Amiens, thousands of officers were suspended on half pay from an army that had become too vast and was a drain on the resources of the state. The last followers of “Jacobinism” got the worst of it. “They have tried several times to topple me or share power with me” Napoleon explained to Chaptal, (26) in justification of his decisions. These men were ‘let go’ in Paris and other major cities at the very time when prestigious leaders, General Moreau the first among them, were eliminated with their friends in 1804.
Throughout his reign, having learnt the lessons of the Consulate, Napoleon kept the military out of power while paradoxically giving them a central role in a power based society. He made them rich, decorated them, tried to create bonds between them via the Légion d’Honneur. And he softened their retirement by reserving them posts in the police, in horse-breeding stables, in the customs or in the postal service. He also tried to draw the “active” amongst them closer to the regime. The resumption of military campaigns was key in establishing loyalty in all ranks. And the adventure of the campaigns brought the troops together. It also allowed turnover among senior officers and, just as in the civilian domain, made it possible to bring in new blood. And so, in exactly the same way as in civilian admin, at the height of the regime a new generation came in, trained by the regime, and indebted to it for its promotion. This process was not only political; it filled a real need for senior officers in an army that was growing and which was engaged on several fronts. Whereas under the Revolution less than 10% of officers were drawn from the bourgeoisie, the figure was over 33% by 1814; it was what you might call, the enlistment of the sons of the notables.
The Army in the Napoleonic State
Although the Consulate and the Empire were not a military dictatorship, they did not reject the military model: far from it. A sizeable quantity of officers passed into civilian administration even if the significance of this movement has sometimes been overstated. The number of officers or ex-officers carrying out civil duties cannot have been much less under the Ancien Regime. The Consulate turned to the army to fill the large gaps in its admin personnel mainly because the army was the only body to have proper organisation and discipline, a genuine existence and experience. The experience of these soldiers was very varied. Not all those appointed to civilian posts were battle-hardened men with a thirst for power. Often, they had had only minor posts in active units, or had only had experience of military admin or were already retired. In the latter case, these men were employed as mayors or presidents of regional authorities. Thus in 1810, 58 retired generals were mayors of towns with a population of over 5000 (although rarely mayors of large towns). This was to make up for the lack of skills among the local notables or to place government supporters in these non-political management posts.
As for government at state level, let us note first of all that of the ten highest dignitaries of the Empire, only Berthier (vice-connétable from 1807) and Murat (grand amiral) were proper senior officers; Joseph Bonaparte’s rank of général de division does not count in this context. (27) As for the ministers, among the thirty-two appointed (including the Hundred Days), twelve had started out in the army. (28) It was traditional in any case in the ministries of war for army and navy admin to be run by military men. Their careers had sometimes been chaotic and some of them (Carnot, Dejean or Lacuée) had become specialists in military or civil admin. In the end, only six of them had carried out war-time commands during the Revolution and went back to them under the Consulate and Empire; Davout did so regularly, Berthier and Clark occasionally, Savary and Caulaincourt only in exceptional circumstances and Decrès never after 1801. In the first Conseil d’Etat there were only five generals, one contre-amiral and one navy officer among the twenty-nine members. At the Senate, over the whole period 41 members of the military (of which only 32 could be called career officers) were part of the 184 total appointees. Only 10% of députés in the Corps legislative were from the military, and an even lower number at the Tribunat. There was a first wave of military appointees to the diplomatic corps during the Consulate (17 ambassadors and plenipotentiaries out of 29), but fewer under the Empire; eleven out of thirty. As for the préfets, while it is true that many of them (53 out of 300) were former soldiers, the empirical nature of appointments meant that they were very much government men. These few examples seem to show that although they were many military men occupying civilian posts their presence must not be exaggerated.
That leaves the organisational model. There is no need labour the point that most agents of the state wore uniform, a tradition brought in by the Revolution which was not based on a desire to militarise society.
Borrowings from the military model were of course most noticeable in the structure of the administration.
The army was present across all parts of the Empire via its own organisations. The territory was divided up into military divisions, commands of départements or places, headquarters of infantry, cavalry, artillery and engineers. Up to thirty-two military divisions each covered several départements. A général de division commanded a division, a général de brigade commanded a département. In time of war their forces were made up of several regular companies and national guards, paid or unpaid.
The military model was also adopted for the organisation of some civil admin sectors, sometimes to the extreme. In the case of the customs service for example (40,000 men) some units took part in the regime’s last campaigns (1814-1815). (29) But these are exceptions due to the particular role of this service. The state’s other services were simply subject to rules of authority and hierarchy. “The influence of the army on society is partly due to the fact that the army was used as the model for organising society”, as Jacques-Olivier Boudon reminds us. “If strictly speaking we cannot call the Empire a military dictatorship because Napoleon’s main collegues are civilians, French society is nevertheless organised along military and hierarchical lines which put the French under the control of state representatives, if not under their orders”. (30) As for internal administration, centralisation was characterised by hierarchical organisation of the services in pyramid form. Everything had to be passed upward to a summit and then on to the next summit. This was indeed how the army worked but it is also true that this was the best solution given the regime’s organisation. Moreover it was similar to the way the ministries were structured under the Ancien Regime. No better way had been invented for the “leader” to keep informed, and to check and stimulate his staff’s work.
So in spite of appearances the First Empire was not a military dictatorship. We can believe that Napoleon is being sincere when he writes: “Military authority has no place or use in civil order”. (31) We can even wonder to what extent the generalisation of uniforms and “military thinking” in the institutions made the place of the army in society seem less unusual.
Napoleon had been a general before he became First Consul and then emperor. From many angles Brumaire may look like a show of parliamentary strength, “the first modern coup d’état” for Curzio Malaparte, (32) but Napoleon overthrew the Direcorate by armed force. He was also a fighter who spent months away from France leading his armies, living in camp and more often than not wearing uniform. He employed many military men in various capacities, and lived surrounded by decorated senior officers and “busby wearing soldiers” who were legends in their own lifetimes. All this has led people to categorise the Napoleonic regime as a “military dictatorship”. Now if these words have any meaning, this would imply, that Napoleon governed with, by and for the army. I disagree and think that, despite that fact that power was concentrated in the hands of the executive, the consular and later imperial constitution had the effect –regardless of how it was often merely a formality- of giving power to civilians, even if some of these were former military officers. Louis Bergeron rightly points out that: “even though the army and war were part and parcel of consular and imperial history, they were assistants in an experiment where the general definitely stepped back to let the head of state come forward.” (33)
In other words, the army did not rule Napoleon’s France. Quite the opposite is true. And so whilst the emperor did indeed make use of the army not only during his wars and campaigns (as is entirely normal), but also as an “intermediary corps” for structuring society and its values, and as a means of keeping internal order, I would venture that the army was never a participant expressing independent political will. And since Napoleon was well aware of the danger –as well he might have been: indeed he had profited from it- of giving generals a slack rein, he took great care to submit the army to civilian power, no matter what material and ceremonial advantages were given to soldiers.
Thierry Lentz (2006)