THE CONSULATE 1799 - 1804  (G3b, G3c)

xxxxxAs we have seen, The Directory was established in 1795 and, over the next four years, proved a weak and corrupt system of government. To remain in power it carried out a number of purges to rid parliament of royalists and counter-revolutionaries, alarming the moderates, and making likely a military coup. And Napoleon’s unsuccessful expedition to Egypt did not improve its fortunes. Nelson’s brilliant victory at the Battle of Aboukir Bay in 1798 encouraged the formation of the Second Coalition against France, and the Austrians in particular began to regain lost land in Italy. It was against this background that Napoleon returned to Paris in August 1799 and, with much popular support, seized control of the country. As “First Consul” in the new Consulate, he began sweeping reforms to unite the country and improve its administration. At the same time, he took his army into Italy and, as we shall see, defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, thereby bringing about the collapse of the Second Coalition.


Napoleon Bonaparte

xxxxxAs we have seen, The Directory had been established by the National Convention in 1795. Over the next four years this bourgeois republic proved weak, corrupt and progressively unpopular. Made up of a five-man executive elected by a lower and upper house, its main concern was to safeguard its own political and economic power, and to prevent by any means at its disposal the return of the Bourbons. Having owed its inception to the overthrow of a royalist uprising - ruthlessly carried out by General Bonaparte’s famous “whiff of grapeshot” - from 1797 onwards it carried out a series of purges to rid parliament of royalists and counter-revolutionaries. Many were dismissed from their appointments, and a large number were exiled to the penal colony of French Guiana, a fate referred to as “the dry guillotine”. Such activities deeply alarmed the moderates on the one hand, and made a military dictatorship a distinct possibility on the other.

xxxxxAnd the threat of an army take-over became the more likely following Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and Nelson’s destruction of the French fleet in Aboukir Bay in 1798. This stunning victory, putting an end to French ambitions in the Middle and Far East, and leaving Napoleon’s expeditionary force stranded far from home, encouraged the formation of a Second Coalition of powers. During the spring and summer of 1799 this alliance, made up of Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Turkey, Portugal and Naples, went on the offensive. It aimed to drive the French back to their national borders, and it did succeed in expelling them out of much of Italy, despite disagreements over strategy. It was at this juncture, however - August 1799 - that Napoleon made his escape from Egypt and, with a few companions, returned to France. He could not have chosen a more opportune time. Despite his ill-fated Egyptian campaign, he was welcomed as a hero by the masses, and hailed as a saviour by almost as many.

xxxxxThe coup d’état which made General Bonaparte leader of France, putting an end to The Directory and, in effect, the French Revolution itself, was engineered in the second week of November 1799 (the coup of 18th Brumaire). With the connivance of Abbé Sieyès (a member of the Directory) and the support in particular of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand (a former foreign minister), both the upper and lower houses were called to a meeting at the palace of Saint-Cloud, just west of Paris. While Bonaparte addressed both councils, his troops took over the capital for their commander. There was no point in resisting. The Council of Five Hundred was dismissed, and the Council of Ancients, the senior body, was obliged to vote itself and The Directory out of existence, and then accept the creation of The Consulate, led by the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte himself. By the end of the week the new leader of France was firmly ensconced in Luxembourg Palace. Revolutionary idealists were still to be found, but the vast majority were silenced by fear of disorder and a return to bloodshed. His first act was to proclaim the end of the Revolution, but, in fact, the strict, disciplined dictatorship he established - thinly disguised as a republic - was to spread abroad many of its ideals, carried along by his insatiable urge to conquer and expand.

xxxxxAt home he began to introduce a vast programme of reform aimed at quelling dissension and improving government administration, the country’s financial situation, and the judicial system - the so-called Napoleonic Code. On the military front, Napoleon renewed his Italian campaign in June 1800, crossing the Alps and reoccupying Milan. As we shall see, his victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in June, followed in December by the success of another French army at the Battle of Hohenlinden in Germany, was to bring about the collapse of the Second Coalition.


Council of Five Hundred: by the French painter and engraver François Bouchot (1800-1842), 1840 – Château de Versailles, France. Birthplace: by the French painter Léonard-Alexis Daligé de Fontenay (1813-1892), c1850. Napoleon: by the French artist Antoine Jean Gros (1771-1835) – Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. First Consul: detail, by the French Neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), 1804 – Musée d’Art Modern et d’Art Contemperain, Liège, Belgium. Josephine: by the French painter Jean Louis Victor Viger de Vigneau (1819-1879) – Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. Map (Europe): from


xxxxxNapoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the new able and charismatic leader of France, was born in Ajaccio, Corsica (birthplace illustrated). He attended the French military school at Brienne, and then studied for a year at the Military Academy in Paris, being commissioned in the artillery in 1785. He first came to the notice of his superiors at the siege of Toulon in 1793, where he was in command of an artillery brigade. Here, by seizing ground overlooking the harbour, he played a prominent part in driving out the British, who had been welcomed into the city by royalist leaders earlier that year.

xxxxxThen two years later, in October 1795, he swiftly crushed a royalist uprising in Paris, enabling The Directory to begin its four-year term of office. In recognition of his services to the new constitution he was put in charge of the Army of the Interior, and then chosen to command the fight against the Austrians and Sardinians in Italy. This theatre of operation was seen as something of a side-show, mainly employed to divert Austrian forces to a second front while two large, well equipped French armies made straight for the capture of Vienna. But Napoleon made a first class fighting unit out of his bedraggled force, and won a series of telling victories against the Austrians, notably at the Battles of Lodi, Arcole and Rivoli in 1796 and 1797. As a consequence the Sardinians, Neapolitans and the Pope were obliged to make peace on his terms, and he personally negotiated the Treaty of Campo Formio in October 1797, ending the war against the First Coalition.

xxxxxIn this campaign he showed not only outstanding ability as a military tactician and a leader of men, but also consummate skill as a diplomat, rearranging the map of Italy with little if any recourse to the government in Paris. In addition, he contributed substantially to the coffers of The Directory, and the contents of a number of French museums by purloining vast amounts of money and confiscating priceless works of Italian art. And such was the measure of his military success in this secondary theatre that, having accomplished his task and learnt that the two other French armies had failed to achieve theirs, he crossed the Alps and advanced upon the Austrian capital. It is quite possible that he would have captured the city had not Austria sued for peace!

xxxxxHe returned to Paris to a hero’s welcome, but with some apprehension on the part of the government itself. Thus in 1798, The Directory, being wary of this highly ambitious republican soldier, willingly gave their consent when he suggested that he should invade Egypt to strike at the colonial power of Great Britain, France’s remaining enemy. At first all went well for him. He captured Malta on route, defeated the Egyptian army at the Battle of the Pyramids, and then went on to capture Cairo. In August, however, a British fleet commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson, attacked and virtually destroyed his naval force at the Battle of the Nile. Apart from ending his grandiose schemes for colonial conquest, it left his army stranded in Egypt. After leading an unsuccessful invasion into Syria, he managed to win a further battle against the Egyptians at the Battle of Aboukir before evading the British naval blockade and making his way back to France, arriving in October 1799. Here (as we have seen above), he was in time to seize power from The Directory, by then in the throes of disintegration, and establish his own regime, The Consulate. “I found the crown of France lying on the ground”, he later remarked, “and I picked it up with a sword.”

xxxxxOnce firmly in office and wielding dictatorial powers behind a republican façade (illustrated), Napoleon turned his attention to internal as well as external matters. In the interests of greater harmony at home, for example, he reconciled the royalists, pacified regions still harbouring grievances, and, in 1801, ended the breach with the Roman Catholic Church by a Concordat reached with Pope Pius VII. At the same time, he began a thorough overhaul of the country’s administration, balancing the budget, introducing a fairer method of taxation, centralising local government, and providing the means for higher education. And to this period belonged the drafting of the Napoleonic Code - a standardisation of the civil law -, the order of the Legion of Honour, created to reward civil and military achievement, and the introduction of a number of vast public works, such as a road building programme which included the Simplon pass and a way over Mount Cenis. And contained within his administrative reforms, on paper at least, were the tenets of the Revolution - individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and equality before the law.

xxxxxOn the military front (see map below), he set out to reassert French supremacy. As we shall see, his defeat of the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in June 1800, together with the success achieved by a French army serving in Germany, brought about the collapse of the Second Coalition. By the Treaty of Luneville in February 1801 Austria was obliged to recognise France’s natural boundaries - the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees - and a year later Great Britain, weary of the conflict, agreed to end hostilities by the Treaty of Amiens.

xxxxxThat same year he was made First Consulate for life and then, as we shall see, was crowned Emperor of the French in 1804 (G3c) with the overwhelming support of the people. Having founded a royal dynasty, he then embarked on the conquest of Europe by means of the aptly-named Napoleonic Wars. It was to be more than ten years before he met his Waterloo.

xxxxxIncidentally, for a time Napoleon’s father, Carlo supported the nationalist leader Pasquale Paoli in his bid to gain independence for Corsica, then ruled by Genoa, but gave his allegiance to the French when they took over the island in 1769. Later, Napoleon himself opposed Paoli when, leading a revolt against the French in the early 1790s, he managed to turn the island over to the British, though only for a couple of years. You might recall that the Scottish biographer James Boswell, visited Corsica during his tour of the continent and, after meeting Paoli, published his Account of Corsica in 1768 to rally support for the nationalist cause. ……

xxxxx…… Napoleonxmarried Josephine de Beauharnais in 1796. Widow of General de Beauharnais, and the then mistress of Vicomte de Barras, (a member of the Directory), she was an ambitious, attractive woman, well known in Parisian society. She possibly married Napoleon to gain a degree of security. At first, she seems to have regarded him as a quaint little Corsican, but she had to make a quick reappraisal when he returned from his triumphant Italian campaign. Their married life together appears to have been quite a happy one and, as we shall see, she was eventually crowned Empress of the French in 1804 (G3c). Five years later, however, failing to produce an heir for the new dynasty, Napoleon was obliged to divorce her. He then married into the prestigious Austrian House of Habsburg and begot the son he so badly needed. ……

…… In 1802 Napoleon instituted the Order of the Legion of Honour, to be conferred upon any man, woman (including foreigners) for meritorious service to the state in civil as well as military life. When awarded in connection with war service, it carries with it the Croix de Guerre, the highest military medal. ……

xxxxx…… The above portrait of Napoleon as the First Consul was the work of the French neo-classical artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. He completed it in 1804 and, two years later, produced his famous portrait of the Emperor, sitting on his ceremonial throne and wearing ermine robes and a Roman-style crown. As we shall see, in 1824 (G4) Ingres gained fame with his The Vow of Louis XIII, and became universally recognised as the leading exponent of Classicism.

xxxxxNapoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the new, charismatic leader of France, was born at Ajaccio in Corsica, and was commissioned in the artillery in 1785. He became noticed in 1793 for the part he played in expelling the British from the port of Toulon, and two years later made possible the creation of The Directory by swiftly crushing a royalist revolt. Appointed commander of the French forces in Italy in 1796, he won a series of brilliant victories over the Austrians - notably at Lodi, Arcole and Rivoli - thereby gaining much territory in Italy - and, by the Treaty of Campo Formio, put an end to the First Coalition of nations formed against France. He returned home to a hero’s welcome, and in 1798 led an expedition to Egypt, seizing Malta en route. He roundly defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of the Pyramids and went on to occupy Cairo, but in August of that year the British admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of Aboukir Bay. This left his army stranded in Egypt. Undaunted, he returned to Paris in 1799 where the corrupt and inefficient Directory was in the throes of losing land in Italy to members of a Second Coalition. He seized power and, setting up The Consulate, became the First Consul. As a virtual dictator, he embarked upon a series of sweeping reforms to stabilise the country, and by his victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, he brought about the collapse of the Second Coalition. He obtained an advantageous peace settlement by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 and then, as we shall see, had himself crowned Emperor of the French in 1804 (G3c). Having founded a royal dynasty, he then embarked on the conquest of Europe via the aptly-named Napoleonic Wars.