The successes of the French armies—culminating in the submission of Prussia at Basel in 1795, of Austria at Campoformio in 1797, and of Naples and Switzerland in 1798—softened the French government into an almost Oriental lassitude. The two chambers of the Corps Législatif submitted to the Directory, and the five Directors acknowledged the leadership of Barras, Rewbell, and Larevellière. These men seem to have adopted the motto that legend ascribed to Pope Leo X: “Since God has given us this office, let us enjoy it.” Blessed with apparent security by a period of relative peace, and taught by experience that governmental positions are especially insecure in revolutions, they feathered their nests for their fall. When isolated England offered peace in July, 1797, it was told that this could be arranged by the payment of £500,000 to Rewbell and Barras; and apparently a bribe of £400,000 was exacted from Portugal for the peace granted it in August of that year.83 Rewbell was rapacious, and Barras needed an elastic income to keep Mme. Tallien and his associates in good humor, and to maintain his luxurious apartment in the Luxembourg Palace.84 Talleyrand, as minister of foreign affairs, seldom lost an opportunity to make the Revolution finance his aristocratic tastes; Barras calculated that Talleyrand’s tips often exceeded 100,000 livres in a year.85 In October, 1797, three American commissioners came to Paris to settle a dispute about American vessels captured by French privateers; according to President John Adams, they were told that agreement could be reached by a loan of 32 million florins to the Directors, and by a private douceur of £50,000 to Talleyrand.86
The ruling triumvirate faced so many problems that most of their faults might be forgiven them—at least an evening’s refreshment in the smiles of fair women. They averted another fiscal collapse by collecting traditional taxes more insistently, restoring defunct taxes like transport tolls, and levying new taxes—as on licenses and stamps, windows and doors. They presided over a nation torn in body and soul, in province and class, by conflicting aims: nobles and plutocrats, Vendéan Catholics, Jacobin atheists, Babeuvian socialists, merchants demanding liberty, a populace dreaming of equality and living on the edge of starvation; luckily the good harvests of 1796 and 1798 shortened the bread lines.
The victory of the “liberal” over the monarchical Directors in 1797 had been achieved by enlisting the support of the radicals. In partial payment therefor the triumphant trio censored the bourgeois-leaning press and theater, rigged elections, made arrests without warning, and renewed the Hébertist campaign against religion. Education of the young was taken from nuns and entrusted to lay instructors who were ordered to keep all supernatural ideas out of their teaching.87 In twelve months of 1797–98, a total of 1,448 priests were deported from France, 8,235 from Belgium. Of 193 ecclesiastics deported on the ship Décade only thirty-nine were alive two years later.88
While internal conflict flourished, external danger rose. In Belgium, Holland, and the Rhineland the rapacity of the Directory made new enemies of new friends; taxes were high, youths resisted conscription, forced loans infuriated the influential, seizure of gold and silver and art from the churches alienated clergy and people alike. In three years the Directory took in from these lands and Italy two billion livres.89 After the departure of Bonaparte for Egypt “the Directory continued a policy of conquest, or rather of rapine, occupying territories for money’s sake, pillaging the population, exacting ‘indemnities’ from local governments, making France an object of execration.”90 “The French Republic,” said the monarchist Mallet du Pan, “is eating Europe leaf by leaf, like the head of an artichoke. It revolutionizes nations that it may despoil them, and it despoils them that it may subsist.”91 War had become profitable, peace would be ruinous. Suspecting that the ship of state was sailing into a storm, Talleyrand resigned his ministry (July 20, 1798), and retired to spend his spoils.92
Napoleon had given a stimulating example of how war could be made to pay, and his reckless operations were in part responsible for the military woes that befell France in the decline of the Directory. He had too quickly and superficially subjected Italy to a French protectorate, and had left his conquests in the hands of subordinates who lacked his soothing subtlety and diplomatic skill. He had reckoned too optimistically on the willingness of the new Italian republics to pay France for their freedom from Austria. He had underestimated the vigor with which England would resist the French occupation of Malta and Egypt. How long would flouted Turkey resist the invitations of its ancient enemies, Russia and Austria, to join them in disciplining these nouveaux-richesrevolutionaries? How long would the partitioning of Poland keep Russia, Prussia, and Austria too busy in the east to restore the divine right of kings in the west?
Nearly all the monarchs of Europe watched for an opportunity to renew the attack upon France. They saw it when Napoleon took himself and 35,000 of France’s best troops to Egypt; they seized it when that army seemed safely imprisoned by Nelson’s victory at Abukir. Czar Paul I accepted election as grandmaster of the Knights of Malta, and pledged himself to drive the French from that pivotal isle. He offered his aid to Ferdinand IV in recapturing Naples. He dreamed of finding friendly ports for Russian ships in Naples, Malta, and Alexandria, and thereby making Russia a Mediterranean power. On December 29, 1798, he signed an alliance with England. When Emperor Francis II gave free passage through Austrian territory for a Russian army moving toward the Rhine, France declared war upon Austria (March 12, 1799). Austria thereupon joined Russia, Turkey, Naples, Portugal, and England in the Second Coalition against France.
The weakness of the Directory was exposed in this conflict, which it had provoked and could have foreseen. It was tardy in preparation, unsuccessful in war finance, and clumsy in conscription. It called up 200,000 men, and found only 143,000 of them fit for service; of them only 97,000 obeyed the summons; thousands of these deserted on the way, so that only 74,000 reached their allotted regiments. There they found a chaotic inadequacy of clothing, equipment, and arms. The spirit that had once animated the armies of the republic was gone from these men who had experienced the years of national disorder and disillusionment. The ruthless determination and discipline with which the Committee of Public Safety had planned and waged war in 1793 were missing in the Directory that led France in 1798.
There were some initial and deceiving successes. Piedmont and Tuscany were conquered, occupied, and taxed. The victory of King Ferdinand IV in driving the French out of Rome was annulled by the French under Jean-Étienne Championnet, who entered Rome on December 15. Ferdinand and his court, with Lady Hamilton and twenty million ducats, retreated to Palermo under the protection of Nelson’s fleet. Championnet captured Naples, and set up the Parthenopean Republic under the protectorate of France. As the war proceeded, and fresh contingents joined the Russian-Austrian-English troops, the French forces found themselves outnumbered 320,000 to 170,000. The French generals, despite the brilliance of Masséna’s operations in Switzerland, lacked the ability of Bonaparte to overcome superior numbers with superior strategy, tactics, and discipline. Jourdan was defeated at Stockach (March 25, 1799), retreated to Strasbourg, and resigned. Schérer was defeated at Magnano (April 5), retreated in disorder, lost nearly all his army, and turned his command over to Moreau. Then a veritable “devil of a man,” Aleksandr Suvorov, arrived with eighteen thousand Russians, and led them and some Austrian divisions in a ferocious campaign that wrested from the French one after another of the regions that Napoleon had won in 1796–97; he entered Milan victorious on April 27; Moreau fell back to Genoa; Napoleon’s Cisalpine Republic came to an early end. Left perilously alone with his small army in Switzerland, Masséna abandoned his conquests there, and withdrew to the Rhine.
Having so easily restored Lombardy to Austria, Suvorov marched out from Milan to meet a French force coming up from Naples and Rome; at the Trebbia (June 17–19, 1799) he so overwhelmed it that only a shattered remnant reached Genoa. The Parthenopean Republic came to an early end; Ferdinand resumed his Neapolitan throne, and established a reign of terror in which hundreds of democrats were put to death. Joubert, placed in command of all surviving French forces in Italy, led them against Suvorov at Novi (August 15); he exposed himself recklessly, and was killed at the outset of the battle; the French fought bravely but in vain; twelve thousand of them fell on that field; and France, learning of this culminating catastrophe, realized that its hard-won frontiers were crumbling, and that Suvorov’s Russians might soon be on French soil. The imagination of the populace in Alsace and Provence pictured him and his men as “giant barbarians,” as a tidal wave of savage Slavs pouring into the towns and hamlets of France.
The country, so recently proud of its strength and its victories, was now in a state of confusion and fear rivaling that which in 1792 had led to the September Massacres. The Vendée was again in revolt; Belgium was rising against its French overlords; forty-five of the eighty-six departments of France were nearing a complete breakdown of government and morale. Armed youths were fighting the officials sent to conscript them; municipal officers and tax collectors were murdered; hundreds of brigands were terrorizing merchants and travelers on city streets and country roads; criminals overpowered the gendarmes, opened the jails, released the prisoners, and added them to their ranks; every estate, abbey, and home was subject to pillage; the “Great Terror” of 1794 had returned. The nation looked hopefully for protection by the men it had sent to Paris; but the Councils had surrendered to the Directory, and the Directory seemed but another usurping oligarchy, ruling by bribery, chicanery, and force.
In May, 1799, the once-abbé Sieyès—who, ten long years ago, had sparked the Revolution by asking “What is the Third Estate?” and had answered that it was, and should call itself, the nation—was drawn out of his cautious obscurity, and was elected to the Directory; for, as a maker of constitutions, he had become identified with law and order. He agreed to serve, on condition that Rewbell would resign; Rewbell resigned with a consolatory severance pay of 100,000 francs.93 On June 18 a strong minority of Jacobins in the two legislative chambers forced Directors Larevellière, Treilhard, and Merlin to yield their places to Louis-Jérôme Gohier, Jean-François Moulin, and Roger Ducos. Fouché was made minister of police, and Robert Lindet became head of the Treasury; both were resurrections from the Committee of Public Safety. The Jacobin Club in Paris was reopened, and heard praises of Robespierre and Babeuf.94
On June 28 the Legislature, under Jacobin influence, levied a forced loan of a hundred million livres in the form of a tax ranging from thirty to seventy-five percent upon incomes above a moderate level. Prosperous citizens hired lawyers to find loopholes in the law, and listened amiably to plots for the overthrow of the government. On July 12 the Jacobins secured passage of a Law of Hostages: every commune in France was ordered to compile a roster of local citizens related to the outlawed nobility, and to keep them under surveillance; for every robbery committed these hostages were to be fined; for every murder of a “patriot” (one loyal to the existing regime) four hostages were to be deported. This decree was met with a cry of horror from the upper classes, and with no compensating welcome from the commonalty.
After a decade of excitement, class strife, foreign wars, political upsets, lawless tribunals, tyrannical spoliations, executions, and massacres, nearly all of France was sick of the Revolution. Those who looked back sadly to the “good old days” of Louis XVI felt that only a king could bring France back to order and sanity. Those who cherished Catholic Christianity prayed for the time when they would be freed from rule by atheists. Even some graduate skeptics who had shed all supernatural belief had come to doubt that a moral code unsupported by a religious faith could resist unfettered passions and antisocial impulses rooted in centuries of insecurity, hunting, and savagery; many creedless parents were sending their children to church, prayer, confession, and First Communion as hopeful sources of modesty, family discipline, and mental peace. Peasants and bourgeois proprietors who owed their lands to the Revolution, and wanted to keep them, had come to hate the government that so often came to tax their crops or conscript their sons. Town workers were clamoring for bread even more desperately than before the fall of the Bastille; they saw merchants, manufacturers, speculators, politicians, Directors, living in luxury; they had come to look upon the Revolution as merely the replacement of the nobility by the bourgeoisie as the masters and profiteers of the state. But their bourgeois masters too were discontent. The unsafe and neglected roads made travel and commerce toilsome and hazardous; the forced loans and high taxes discouraged investment and enterprise; in Lyons thirteen thousand of fifteen thousand shops had been abandoned as profitless, adding thousands of men and women to the unemployed. Le Havre, Bordeaux, and Marseilles had been ruined by the war and the consequent British blockade. The diminishing minority that still talked of liberty could hardly associate it with the Revolution, which had destroyed so many liberties, had passed so many terrifying laws, and had sent so many men and women to prison or the guillotine. Women, except the wives, mistresses, and daughters of the old and the new rich, moved anxiously from one shopping line to another, wondering would the stock of goods run out, would their sons, brothers, or husbands ever return from the war, would the war ever end. Soldiers accustomed to violence, theft, and hatred, suffering not only from defeat but from the shortage and shoddiness of supplies, were soured by repeated revelations of corruption in the men who led or fed or clothed them; when they came home or to Paris they found similar dishonesty in society, commerce, industry, finance, and government; why should they let themselves be killed for so tarnished a dream? The mirage of a bright new world receded and vanished as the Revolution marched on.
Some spirits were raised for a while by news that the Allies had quarreled and parted, and had been beaten back in Switzerland and the Netherlands; that Masséna had recovered the initiative and had cut a Russian army in two at Zurich (August 26, 1799), that the terrible Slavs were in retreat, and Russia had left the Coalition. Frenchmen began to wonder what if some able general like Masséna, Moreau, Bernadotte, or, best of all, Bonaparte, safely back from Egypt, should lead a battalion into Paris, throw out the politicians, and give France order and security, even at the cost of liberty? Most Frenchmen had come to the conclusion that only a centralized government under one authoritative leader could end the chaos of revolution, and give the country the order and security of civilized life.