Sieyès agreed. Studying his fellow Directors, he saw that none of them—not even the crafty Barras—had in him the combination of intellect, vision, and will needed to bring France to sanity and unity. He was pregnant with a constitution, but he wanted a general to aid him in its birth and serve him as his arm. He had thought of Joubert, but now Joubert was dead. He sent for Moreau, and almost persuaded him to be the “man on horseback”; but when they learned that Napoleon was returning from Egypt, Moreau told Sieyès: “There is your man; he will make your coup d’état much better than I could.”95 Sieyès pondered; Napoleon could be the man, but would he accept Sieyès and the new constitution as his guides?
On October 13 the Directors notified the Councils that Bonaparte had landed near Fréjus; the members rose in acclamation. For three days and nights the people of Paris celebrated the news with drinking in the taverns and singing in the streets. At every town on the route from the coast to the capital the populace and its masters turned out to greet the man who seemed to them the symbol and assurance of victory; they had not yet heard of the debacle in Egypt. In several centers, reported the Moniteur, “the crowd was such that traffic could hardly advance.”96 In Lyons a play was staged in his honor, and an orator told him, “Go and fight the enemy, defeat him, and we will make you king.”97 But the little general, silent and somber, was thinking how he should deal with Josephine.
When he reached Paris (October 16), he went directly to the house which he had bought in the street which had been renamed, in his honor, the Rue de la Victoire. He had hoped to find his errant wife there, and to dismiss her from his life. She was not there, and for two reasons. First, on April 21, 1799, while he was besieging Acre, she had bought a 300-acre estate, Malmaison, some ten miles down the Seine from Paris; Barras had advanced her the 50,000 francs as the initial payment on the 300,000-francs cost; and Captain Hippolyte Charles was her first guest in the roomy château.98 Second, she and her daughter had left Paris four days before to drive toward Lyons in the hope of meeting Bonaparte on the way. When Josephine and Hortense discovered that Napoleon had chosen an alternative route, they turned back, though literally sick of travel, and retraced two hundred miles to the capital. In the interim her aged father-in-law, the Marquis de Beauharnais, came to Napoleon to plead her cause: “Whatever her faults, forget them; do not cast dishonor upon my white head, and upon a family that holds you in honor.”99 Bonaparte’s brothers urged him to divorce his wife, for his family resented her power over him; but Barras warned him that a public scandal would hurt his political career.
When the exhausted mother and daughter arrived at 3 Rue de la Victoire (October 18), Eugène met them on the landing, and warned them to expect a storm. Letting him attend to his sister, Josephine climbed the stairs and knocked at the door of Napoleon’s room. He answered that he was resolved never to see her again. She sank down upon the stairs and wept until Eugène and Hortense raised her and led her back to make a united appeal. Napoleon later reported: “I was profoundly stirred. I could not bear the sobs of those two children. I asked myself, should they be made the victims of their mother’s failing? I reached out, caught hold of Eugéne’s arm and drew him back to me. Then Hortense came … with her mother…. What was there to say? One cannot be human without being heir to human weaknesses.”100
In those brooding days he kept out of the public eye; he knew that a public man must not be too public. At home and abroad he wore civilian dress, to discourage rumors that the Army was planning to seize the government. He made two visits: one to pay his respects to the eighty-year-old Mme. Helvétius at Auteuil; the other to the Institute. There he talked of the Egyptian expedition as having been undertaken in large part in the interests of science; Berthollet and Monge supported him; Laplace, Lagrange, Cabanis, and many others listened to him as to a scientist and a philosopher.101 At this meeting he encountered Sieyès, and won him with one remark: “We have no government because we have no constitution, or at least not the one we need; your genius must give us one.”102
Soon his home became a center of secret negotiations. He received visitors from Left and Right. He promised the Jacobins to preserve the republic and defend the interests of the masses; but also, he later frankly declared, “I received the agents of the Bourbons.”103 However, he kept himself apart from any faction, especially the Army. General Bernadotte, who had some notion of heading the government himself, advised him to stay out of politics and be content with another military command. Napoleon listened with more satisfaction to civilians like Sieyès, who advised him to take over the government and inaugurate a new constitution. This might require stretching or breaking a law or two; but the Council of Ancients, alarmed by a Jacobin revival, would wink at a little illegality; and the Council of Five Hundred, despite its strong Jacobin minority, had recently elected Lucien Bonaparte its president. Of the five Directors, Sieyès and Ducos pledged themselves to Napoleon; Talleyrand undertook to persuade Barras to retire on his laurels and loot; Gohier, president of the Directory, was half in love with Josephine, and could be immobilized by her smiles.104 Some bankers probably sent assurance of friendly francs.105
In the first week of November a rumor spread through Paris that the Jacobins were preparing an uprising of the populace. Mme. de Staël took the report seriously enough to prepare for a quick exit if violence should break out.106 On November 9 (the henceforth famous eighteenth day of the month Brumaire) the Council of Ancients, using its constitutional powers, ordered both itself and the Council of Five Hundred to transfer their assemblies, on the morrow, to the royal palace in suburban St.-Cloud. Stretching its constitutional powers, it appointed Bonaparte commander of the Paris garrison, and bade him come at once to the Ancients in the Tuileries and take the oath of service. He came, escorted by sixty officers, and pledged himself in terms sufficiently general to allow some latitude of later interpretation: “We want a republic based on liberty, equality, and the sacred principles of national representation. We will have it, I swear!”107
Emerging from the hall, he told the assembled troops, “The Army is reunited with me, and I am reunited with the Corps Législatif.” At this juncture one Bottot, secretary to Barras, brought to Napoleon a message from the once powerful Director, asking for a safe-conduct for exit from Paris. In a voice which he hoped the soldiers and civilians would hear, Napoleon overwhelmed poor Bottot with an apostrophe that was almost a sentence of death upon the Directory: “What have you done with this France which I left you in its full splendor? I left you peace, and I find war; I left you victories, and I find defeats! I left you millions from Italy; I find everywhere spoliation and misery. What have you done with the hundred thousand Frenchmen whom I knew, my companions in glory? They are dead.”
Napoleon’s auditors did not know that he was borrowing some of these lines from a Grenoble Jacobin; they felt their force, and long treasured them in memory as a justification of the coup that was to follow. Then, fearing that his words would arouse Barras to antagonism, he took Bottot aside and assured him that his personal sentiments about the Director remained unchanged.108 He mounted his horse, reviewed the troops, and returned to Josephine all atremble with his success as an orator.
On November 10 General Lefebvre led five hundred men of the Paris garrison to St.-Cloud, and stationed them near the royal palace. Napoleon and some of his favorite officers followed; and after them came Sieyès, Ducos, Talleyrand, Bourrienne. They watched the Council of Ancients assemble in the Gallery of Mars, and the Council of Five Hundred in the adjoining Orangerie. As soon as Lucien Bonaparte called the Five Hundred to order he was met with protests against the presence of soldiers around the palace; cries arose of “No dictatorship! Down with the dictators! We are free men here; the bayonets do not frighten us!” A motion was presented that every deputy should proceed to the rostrum and audibly renew his oath to protect the constitution. It was so ordered, and this balloting proceeded leisurely till four in the afternoon.
The Ancients also took their time, on the ground that it had to wait for the Five Hundred to submit proposals. Napoleon, fretting in a nearby room, feared that unless some decisive action were soon taken his cause would be lost. Between Berthier and Bourrienne he made his way to the rostrum of the Ancients, and attempted to stir these old men into action. But he, who was so eloquent in proclamations, and so decisive in conversation, was too pent up with emotions and ideas to extemporize an orderly address to a legislative body. He spoke abruptly, vehemently, almost incoherently:
You are on a volcano! … Allow me to speak with the freedom of a soldier…. I was at peace in Paris when you called upon me to execute your commands…. I gather my comrades; we have flown to your rescue…. People cover me with calumnies; they talk of Caesar, of Cromwell, of military government…. Time presses; it is essential that you take prompt measures…. The Republic has no government; only the Council of Ancients remains. Let it take measures, let it speak; I will be your agent in action. Let us save liberty! Let us save equality!109
A deputy interrupted him: “And the constitution?” Napoleon replied with angry passion, “The constitution? You yourselves have destroyed it; you violated it on the eighteenth Fructidor; you violated it on the twenty-second Floréal; you violated it on the thirtieth Prairial. It no longer holds any man’s respect.” When challenged to name the men behind the alleged Jacobin plot, he named Barras and Moulin; asked for evidence, he faltered, and could think of nothing more convincing than an appeal to the soldiers who stood at the entrance: “You, my brave comrades, who accompany me, brave grenadiers, … if any orator, brought by a foreigner, dares pronounce the words Hors la loi, let the lightning of war crush him instantly.”110 Questions and objections overwhelmed the speaker; his words became more confused; his aides came to his rescue and escorted him from the chamber.111 He appeared to have ruined his enterprise.
He resolved to try again, and this time to face the enemy directly—the Jacobin-colored Five Hundred. Escorted by four grenadiers, he made his way into the Orangerie. The deputies were angered by the military display; the hall resounded with cries of “À bas le dictateur! Λ bas le tyran! Hors la loi! [Outlaw him!]”; this was the cry that had precipitated the fall and death of Robespierre. A motion to declare Napoleon an outlaw was made; Lucien Bonaparte, chairman, refused to put it to a vote; resigning the presidency of the Five Hundred to a friend, he mounted the tribune, and spoke in defense of his brother. Excited deputies surrounded Napoleon. “Is it for this that you won your victories?” one asked; others pressed upon him so closely that he was near to fainting; the grenadiers forced their way to him and led him out of the hall. Revived by the open air, he mounted a horse and appealed to the troops, who stood amazed by his torn clothing and disheveled hair. “Soldiers, may I count upon you?” he asked. “Yes,” many said, but others hesitated. Napoleon was again confused; his grand design again seemed shattered.
He was saved by his brother. Lucien, hurrying from the Orangerie, jumped upon the nearest horse, rode up beside Napoleon, and spoke to the disorganized guardsmen with authority, eloquence, and considerable bending of the truth:
As president of the Council of Five Hundred I declare to you that the immense majority of the Council is at this moment terrorized by some stilettoarmed representatives who besiege the tribune and threaten death to their colleagues…. I declare that these audacious brigands, doubtless paid by England, have rebelled against the Council of the Ancients, and have dared to speak of outlawing the general charged with executing the Ancients’ decree…. I entrust to warriors the responsibility of delivering the majority of their representatives. Generals, soldiers, citizens, you must recognize as legislators for France only those who rally to me. As for those who persist in remaining in the Orangerie, let force expel them.112
Lucien grasped a sword, pointed it at Napoleon’s breast, and swore that if his brother should ever attack the liberty of the French people he would kill him with his own hand.
Thereupon Napoleon gave orders for the drums to sound, and for the troops to invade the Orangerie and disperse the disobedient deputies. Murat and Lefebvre led the way, shouting; the grenadiers followed, crying, “Bravo! À bas les Jacobins! À bas les ’93! C’est le passage du Rubicon!” When the deputies saw the bayonets advancing upon them, most of them fled, some by jumping from windows; a minority gathered around Lucien. That triumphant master of ceremonies proceeded to the Ancients and explained to them that the Five Hundred had experienced a healing purge. The Ancients, glad to survive, passed a decree replacing the Directory with three “Provisional Consuls”—Bonaparte, Sieyès, and Ducos. About a hundred of the Five Hundred were organized into a second chamber. Both chambers then adjourned till February 20, 1800, leaving the Consuls to write a new constitution and to govern France. “Tomorrow,” Napoleon said to Bourrienne, “we shall sleep at the Luxembourg.”113