It was not the same Paris that he had known in the crowd-ruled days of ’92 and ’93. Ever since the fall of Robespierre in ’94 the capital had followed the countryside in an intensifying reaction—religious and political—against the Revolution. Catholicism, led by nonjuring priests, was regaining its hold upon a people that had lost belief in an earthly substitute for supernatural hopes and consolations, for sacraments, ceremonies, and processional holydays. The décadi, or decimal day of rest, was increasingly ignored; the Christian Sunday was flagrantly respected and enjoyed. France was voting for God.
And for a king. In homes and salons, in the press and on the streets, even in section assemblies once ruled by sansculottes, men and women aired regrets for bonhomme Louis XVI, found excuses for Bourbon faults, and asked could any other government than an authoritative monarchy bring order, safety, prosperity, and peace out of the chaos, crime, corruption, and war that were desolating France? Returned émigrés congregated in such number that a wit called their favorite Parisian purlieu le petit Coblenz (from the haven of titled exiles in Germany); and there one could hear the monarchical philosophies that were being preached abroad by Bonald and de Maistre. The electoral assemblies, overwhelmingly bourgeois, were sending to the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred more and more deputies ready to flirt with royalty if it offered a property guarantee. By 1797 the monarchists in the Councils were strong enough to elect to the Directory the Marquis de Barthélemy. Lazare Carnot, a director since 1795, had turned to the right in reaction against the propaganda of Babeuf, and looked with complacent eye upon religion as a vaccination against communism.
The firmly republican Directors—Barras, Larevellière-Lépaux, and Rewbell—felt endangered in their tenure and their lives by the movement toward monarchism, and decided to risk all on a coup d’état that would eliminate its leaders from both the Councils and the Directory. They sought popular support from the radical Jacobins, who had been hiding in bitter obscurity during the conservative revival. They sought military support by appealing to Napoleon to send them from Italy a general capable of organizing Parisian soldiery for the defense of the republic. He was willing to accommodate them; a Bourbon revival would frustrate his plans; the road must be kept open for his own rise to political power, and the time was not ripe for that plunge. He sent them tough Pierre Augereau, veteran of many campaigns. Augereau enlisted a part of Hoche’s troops; with these, on the 18th Fructidor, he invaded the legislative chambers, arrested fifty-three deputies, many royalist agents, and Directors Barthélemy and Carnot. Carnot escaped to Switzerland; most of the others were deported to sweat and wither in South American Guiana. In the elections of 1797 the radicals won control of the Councils; they added Merlin of Douai and Jean-Baptiste Treilhard to the victorious “triumvirs,” and gave this revised Directory almost absolute power.60
When Napoleon reached Paris, December 5, 1797, he found a new Terror operating, aimed at all conservatives, and substituting Guiana for the guillotine. Nevertheless all classes seemed to unite in feting the invincible young general who had added half of Italy to France. He put aside for the present his look of stern command. He dressed modestly, and pleased variously: the conservatives by lauding order; the Jacobins by appearing to have raised Italy from vassalage to liberty; the intelligentsia by writing that “the true conquests, the only ones that leave no regrets, are those that are made over ignorance.”61 On December 10 the dignitaries of the national government honored him with an official welcome. Mme. de Staël was there, and her Memoirs preserve the scene:
The Directory gave General Bonaparte a solemn reception which in some respects marked an epoch in the history of the Revolution. They chose for this ceremony the court of the Luxembourg Palace; no hall would have been vast enough to contain the crowd that was attracted; there were spectators in every window and on the roof. The five Directors, in Roman costume, were placed on a stage in the court; near them were the deputies of the Council of the Ancients, the Council of Five Hundred, and the Institute….
Bonaparte arrived very simply dressed, followed by his aides-de-camp or assistant officers; all of them taller than he, but bent with the respect they showed him. The elite of France, gathered there, covered the victorious general with applause. He was the hope of every man, republican or royalist; all saw the present and the future as held in his strong hands.62
On that occasion he handed the Directors the completed Treaty of Campoformio. It was officially ratified, and Napoleon could for a time rest on his victories in diplomacy as well as war.
After attending a sumptuous party given in his honor by the indestructible Talleyrand (then minister for foreign affairs), he retired to his home in the Rue Chantereine. There he relaxed with Josephine and her children, and for some time kept himself so out of the public eye that his admirers commented on his modesty and his detractors rejoiced over his decline. However, he made a point of visiting the Institute; he talked mathematics with Lagrange, astronomy with Laplace, government with Sieyès, literature with Marie-Joseph de Chénier, and art with David. Probably he was already meditating a sally into Egypt, and thought of taking with him a garnishment of scholars and scientists.
The Directory saw something to be suspected in such uncharacteristic modesty; this youth, who in Italy and Austria had behaved as if he were the government—might he not decide to behave likewise in Paris? Hoping to keep him busy at a distance, they offered him command of the fifty thousand soldiers and sailors that were assembling at Brest for an invasion of England. Napoleon studied the project, rejected it, and warned the Directory, in a letter of February 23, 1798:
We should give up any real attempt to invade England, and content ourselves with the appearance of it, while devoting all our attention and resources to the Rhine…. We must not keep a large army at a distance from Germany…. Or we might make an expedition into the Levant, and threaten the commerce of [England with] India.63
There was his dream. Even amid the Italian campaigns, he had pondered the possibilities of a foray into the Orient: in the soft decay of the Ottoman realm a bold spirit, with brave and hungry men, might forge a career, might carve an empire. England ruled the oceans, but her hold on the Mediterranean could be loosed by taking Malta; her hold on India could be weakened by taking Egypt. In that land, where labor was cheap, genius and francs might build a fleet, courage and imagination might sail over that distant sea to India, and take from the British colonial system its richest possession. In 1803 Napoleon confessed to Mme. de Rémusat:
I do not know what would have happened to me had I not conceived the happy thought of going to Egypt. When I embarked I did not know but that I might be bidding an eternal farewell to France; but I had little doubt that she would recall me. The charm of Oriental conquest drew my thoughts away from Europe more than I should have believed possible.64
The Directory fell in with his proposals, partly because it thought it would be safer if he were at a distance. Talleyrand concurred for reasons still disputed; his mistress Mme. Grand alleged that he did it to “favor his English friends”—presumably by diverting to Egypt the army that was threatening to invade England.65 The Directory delayed consent because the expedition would be costly, would consume men and matériel needed for protection against England and Austria, and might bring Turkey (the indolent sovereign of Egypt) into a new coalition against France. But the rapid advance of the French army in Italy—the subjection of the Papal States and the kingdom of Naples—brought succulent spoils to the Directory; and in April, 1798, with Napoleon’s approval, another French army invaded Switzerland, set up the Helvetic Republic, exacted “indemnities,” and sent money to Paris. Now the Egyptian dream could be financed.
Napoleon began at once to issue detailed orders for a new armada. Thirteen ships of the line, seven frigates, thirty-five other warships, 130 transports, 16,000 seamen, 38,000 troops (many from the Army of Italy), with necessary equipment and matériel, and a library of 287 volumes, were to assemble at Toulon, Genoa, Ajaccio, or Civitavecchia; and scientists, scholars, and artists were happy to accept invitations to what promised to be an exciting and historic union of adventure and research. Among them were Monge the mathematician, Fourier the physicist, Berthollet the chemist, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire the biologist; and Tallien, having surrendered his wife to Barras, found passage among the savants. They noted with pride that Napoleon now signed his letters “Bonaparte, Member of the Institute and General-in-chief.”66 Bourrienne, who had joined Napoleon as secretary at Campoformio in 1797, accompanied him on this voyage, and gave a detailed account of its fate. Josephine too wanted to come along; Napoleon allowed her to accompany him to Toulon, but he forbade her to board ship. However, he took with him her son Eugène de Beauharnais, who had endeared himself to Napoleon by his modesty and competence, and by a loyalty that became an undiscourageable devotion. Josephine mourned this double departure, wondering whether she would ever see her son or her husband again. From Toulon she went to Plombières to take the “fertility waters,” for now she, as well as Napoleon, wanted a child.
On May 19, 1798, the main fleet sailed from Toulon to bring medieval romance into modern history.