The Consulate

November 11, 1799—May 18, 1804


1. The Consuls

ON November 12, 1799, the Provisional Consuls—Napoleon, Sieyès, and Roger Ducos—aided by two committees from the old Councils, met in the Luxembourg Palace to rebuild France. Sieyès and Ducos, as members of the late Directory, already had apartments there; Napoleon, Josephine, Eugène, Hortense, and their staffs had moved in on November 11.

The victors in the coup d’état faced a nation in economic, political, religious, and moral disarray. Peasants worried lest some returning Bourbon should revoke their title deeds. Merchants and manufacturers saw their prosperity threatened by blockaded ports, neglected roads, and highway robbery. Financiers hesitated to invest in the securities of a government that had been so often overturned; now, when the situation cried out for law enforcement, public works, and poor relief, the Treasury had only twelve hundred francs at its disposal. Religion was in constant opposition: out of eight thousand Catholic priests in France, six thousand had refused to sign the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, and labored in quiet or open hostility to the state. Public education, withdrawn from the Church, was in ruins despite magnificent pronouncements and plans. The family, chief prop of social order, had been shaken by the freedom and prevalence of divorce, extempore marriages, and filial revolt. Public spirit, which in 1789 had risen to rare heights of patriotism and courage, was dying in a people weary of revolution and war, skeptical of every leader, and cynical of its own hopes. Here was a situation that called not for politics but for statesmanship, and not for leisurely democratic debate in spacious assemblies, but (as Marat had foreseen and urged) for dictatorship—for a combination of large perspectives, objective thought, tireless labor, discerning tact, and commanding will. The condition prescribed Napoleon.

At their first sitting Ducos proposed that the thirty-year-old general should take the chair. Bonaparte soothed Sieyès by arranging that each of the three should preside in turn, and suggesting that Sieyès should take the lead in formulating a new constitution. The aging theorist retired to his study and left Napoleon (Ducos complaisant) to issue decrees calculated to secure order in the administration, solvency in the Treasury, patience among factions, and a term of trust from a people disturbed by the forcible usurpation of power.

One of the ruling Consul’s first acts was to put away his military uniform, and to adopt a modest civilian dress; he was to be a master of theater. He announced his intention, as soon as the new government should be established, to propose terms of pacification to England and Austria. His apparent ambition in those early days was not to drive England to surrender, but to quiet and strengthen France. He was at this time what Pitt was to call him, the Son of the Revolution—its product and protector, the consolidator of its economic gains; but he made it clear, too, that he wished to be the end of the Revolution—the healer of its internal strife, the organizer of its prosperity and peace.

He pleased the bourgeoisie—whose economic support was to be indispensable to his power—by condemning to deportation (November 17, 1799) thirty-eight individuals considered dangerous to the public peace; this was dictatorship with a vengeance, which aroused more murmurs than applause; soon he modified the decree to banishment in the provinces.1 He rescinded the confiscatory tax, of twenty to thirty percent, which the Directory had levied upon all incomes above a moderate level. He revoked the law by which prominent citizens were kept under watch as hostages to be fined or deported for any antigovernment crimes committed in their localities. He pacified the Catholics of the Vendée by inviting their leaders to a conference, offering them assurances of goodwill, and signing with them (December 24) a truce that for a time put an end to the religious wars. He ordered all Catholic churches that had been consecrated before 1793 to be restored to Catholic worship on all days except the décadi.2 On, or soon after, December 26 he recalled from banishment the victims of triumphant Revolutionary factions: former liberals of the National Assembly, including Lafayette; defused members of the Committee of Public Safety, like Barère; conservatives proscribed by the coup d’état of the 18th Fructidor, like Lazare Carnot, who returned to his labors in the Ministry of War. Bonaparte restored civic rights to well-behaved nobles, and to the peaceful relatives of émigrés. He put an end to the hate-feeding festivals like those that celebrated the execution of Louis XVI, the proscription of the Girondins, and the fall of Robespierre. He announced that he proposed to govern in the interest not of any one part—Jacobin, bourgeois, or royalist—but as a representative of the entire nation. “To govern in the interest of a party,” he declared, “is sooner or later to be dependent upon it. They will never get me to do it. I am national.”3

And so the people of France came to view him—nearly all but jealous generals and immovable Jacobins. As early as November 13 public opinion had turned decisively in his favor. “Every previous revolution,” wrote the Prussian ambassador to his government on that day, “had inspired much distrust and fear. This one, on the contrary, as I myself can testify, has cheered the spirits of everyone, and has wakened the liveliest hopes.”4 On November 17 the Bourse had fallen to eleven francs; on the 20th it rose to fourteen; on the 21st, to twenty.5

When Sieyès brought to the other Consuls his plan for a “Constitution of the Year VIII” (1799) they soon saw that the former midwife of the Revolution had lost much of that admiration for the Third Estate which had inspired his challenging pamphlet of a decade back. He was now quite certain that no constitution could long uphold a state if the roots of both lay in the fluent will of an uninformed and emotional multitude. France had then almost no secondary schools, and its press was an agent of passionate partisanship that deformed, rather than informed, the public mind. His new constitution aimed to protect the state from popular ignorance at one end and despotic rule at the other. He half succeeded.

Napoleon revised Sieyès’ proposals, but accepted most of them, for he too was in no mood for democracy. He did not conceal his opinion that the people were not equipped to decide wisely about candidates or policies; they were too amenable to personal charm, declamatory eloquence, bought periodicals, or Rome-oriented priests. The people themselves, he thought, would recognize their unfitness to meet the problems of government; they would be content if the new constitution as a whole should be submitted to them for acceptance or rejection in a general referendum. Sieyès now reformulated his political philosophy in a basic maxim: “Confidence ought to come from below; power ought to come from above.”6

He began with a brief bow to democracy. All Frenchmen aged twenty-one or more were to vote for one tenth of their number to be communal notables; these were to vote for one tenth of their number to be departmental notables; these to vote for one tenth of their number to be national notables. There democracy ended: local officials were to be appointed from —not elected by—communal notables; departmental officials were to be appointed from departmental notables; national officials, from national notables. All appointments were to be made by the central government.

This was to consist of (1) a Conseil d’État, or Council of State, usually twenty-five men appointed by the chief of state, and authorized to propose new laws to (2) a Tribunat of one hundred tribunes authorized to discuss the measures so proposed, and to present its recommendations to (3) a Corps Législatif, or Legislature, of three hundred men authorized to reject, or to enact into law—but not to discuss—the measures so submitted; (4) a Sénat, usually of eighty men of mature mind, authorized to annul laws judged by it to be unconstitutional, to appoint the members of the Tribunate and the Legislature, to recruit new members for itself from the national notables, and to accept new members appointed to it by (5) the “grand elector.”

This was the term that Sieyès had proposed for the head of the state, but Napoleon rejected the term and its description. He saw in the office, as Sieyès proceeded to describe it, a mere executive agent of laws passed without his participation or consent, and a starched figurehead to receive delegations and diplomats, and preside at official ceremonies. He felt no talent for such rituals; on the contrary, his head was swelling with proposals that he was resolved to transform into laws as soon as possible for a nation crying out for order, direction, and continuity. “Your Grand Elector,” he told Sieyès, “is a do-nothing king, and the time of such rois fainéants is gone. What man of head and heart would submit to such a sluggish life at the price of six million francs and an apartment in the Tuileries? What?—nominate persons who act, and not act oneself? It is inadmissible.”7 He demanded the right to initiate legislation, to issue ordinances, to appoint to office in the central government not only from national notables, but wherever he found willing competence. His program of political, economic, and social reconstruction required a guaranteed tenure of ten years. And he wished to be called not “grand elector,” which savored of Prussia, but “first consul,” which carried the aroma of ancient Rome. Sieyès saw his constitution falling into monarchy, but was mollified by the presidency of the Senate and lucrative estates. He and Ducos resigned as consuls, and were replaced, at Napoleon’s request (December 12, 1799), by Jean-Jacques Cambacérès as second consul, and Charles-François Lebrun as third.

It would be a mistake to class these two men as mere obedient functionaries. Each was a man of tried ability. Cambacérès, who had been minister of justice under the Directory, served now as legal counselor to Napoleon. He presided over the Senate, and (in the absence of the First Consul) over the Council of State. He played a leading role in formulating the Code Napoléon. He was a bit vain, and proud of the Lucullan dinners that he served; but his calm and thoughtful temper often saved the First Consul from impetuous mistakes. He warned Napoleon not to antagonize Spain, and to avoid Russia as a mattress grave. —Lebrun had been secretary to René de Maupeou in the effort to avert the bankruptcy of Bourbon France; he had shared in the financial legislation of the National Assembly and the Directory; now starting with an empty Treasury, he helped to organize the finances of the new government. Napoleon appreciated the quality of these men; when he became emperor he made Lebrun archtreasurer and Cambacérès archchancellor, and they remained faithful to him to the end.

Despite his conviction that the condition of France required early decisions and quick implementation of policies, Napoleon, in this freshman year of his course, submitted his proposals to the Council of State, heard them attacked and defended, and took an active part in the discussion. This was a new role for him; he was accustomed to command rather than to debate, and his thoughts now often outran his words: but he learned quickly and worked arduously, in and out of Council, to analyze problems and find solutions. He was as yet only “Citoyen-Consul,” and allowed himself to be overruled.8 The leaders of the Council—like Portalis, Roederer, Thibaudeau—were men of high caliber, not to be dictated to; and their memoirs abound in tributes to the Consul’s willingness to work. Hear Roederer:

Punctual at every sitting, prolonging the session five or six hours, … always returning to the question, “Is that just? Is that useful?” … subjecting each question to exact and elaborate analysis, obtaining information about bygone jurisprudence, the laws of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great…. Never did the Council adjourn without its members knowing more than the day before—if not through knowledge derived from him, at least through the researches he obliged them to make…. What characterizes him above them all … [is] the force, flexibility, and constancy of his attention. I never saw him tired. I never found his mind lacking in inspiration, even when weary in body…. Never did man more wholly devote himself to the work in hand, nor better devote his time to what he had to do.9

In those days one could have loved Napoleon.

2. The Ministers

Besides arranging for legislation to govern France, he attended to the still more difficult task of administration. He divided the work among eight ministries, and chose as their heads the ablest men he could find, regardless of their party or their past; some had been Jacobins, some Girondins, some royalists. In one or two cases he allowed personal fondness to overrule practical judgment; so he made Laplace minister of the interior, but soon found the great mathematician-astronomer bringing “the spirit of infinitesimals into administration”;10 he transferred him to the Senate, and gave the ministry to brother Lucien.

The basic and almost desperate task of the Ministry of the Interior was to restore the solvency and vitality of the communes or municipalities as the foundation cells of the body politic. Napoleon expressed himself on their condition in a letter to Lucien on December 25, 1799:

Since 1790 the 36,000 local bodies have been like 36,000 orphan girls. Heiresses of the old feudal rights, they [the communes] have been neglected or defrauded … by the municipal trustees of the Convention or the Directory. A new set of mayors, assessors, or municipal councilors has generally meant nothing more than a fresh form of robbery: they have stolen the byroad, stolen the footpath, stolen the timber, robbed the church, and filched the property of the commune…. If this system were to last another ten years, what would become of local bodies? They would inherit nothing but debts, and be so bankrupt that they would be asking charity of the inhabitants.11

This was Napoleon in a literary mood, and so a bit exaggerated. If true it might have suggested that the communes should be allowed to choose their own officials, as in Paris. But Napoleon had no liking for what the result had been in Paris. As for lesser communes, “the Revolution,” in the judgment of its latest historian, “had unearthed but few villagers well enough educated and cultivated to possess a sense of integrity and public interest”;12 and too often such locally chosen rulers, like those sent from Paris, had proved to be incompetent or corrupt or both. So Napoleon remained deaf to appeals for communal self-rule. Going back to the Roman consular system, or to the intendants of the late Bourbons, he preferred to appoint—or to have the Interior Ministry appoint—to each département a ruling prefect, to each arrondissement a subprefect, and to each commune a mayor; each appointee to be responsible to his superior, and ultimately to the central government. “All of the prefects” so appointed “were men of wide experience, and most were very capable.”13 In any case they gave Napoleon far-reaching reins of power.

The civil service—the total administrative body—in Napoleonic France was the least democratic and the most efficient known to history, with the possible exception of ancient Rome. The people resisted the system, but it proved to be a defensible corrective of their acquisitive individualism; the restored Bourbons and the successive French republics retained it; and it gave the country a hidden and basic continuity through a century of political and cultural turmoil. “France lives today,” wrote Vandal in 1903, “in the administrative frame and under the civil laws which Napoleon bequeathed to her.”

A more immediate problem was the rehabilitation of the Treasury. On the recommendation of Consul Lebrun, Napoleon offered the Ministry of Finance to Martin-Michel Gaudin, who had refused that post under the Directory and had acquired a reputation for ability and honesty. His accession to the ministry guaranteed the support of the financial community for the new government. Substantial loans now came to the rescue of the state: one banker advanced 500,000 francs in gold, and asked no interest. Soon the Treasury had twelve million francs with which to pay its operating expenses and (always a first care with Napoleon) to feed and content the Army, poorly clothed and long unpaid. Gaudin at once transferred from local officials to the central government the power to assess and collect taxes; local corruption in these processes had been notorious. On February 13, 1800, Gaudin united various financial agencies into one Bank of France, financed by selling shares, and empowered to issue paper currency; soon the careful management of the bank made its notes as popular and trustworthy as cash. This in itself was a revolution. The bank was not a state institution; it remained in private hands; but it was buttressed, and partly controlled, by governmental revenues deposited there; and a Minister of the Treasury, Barbé-Marbois, was added to the Ministry of Finance to guard and manage state funds in the bank.

The most disagreeable part of administration was the prevention, detection, and punishment of crime, and the protection of governmental officials from assassination. Joseph Fouché was just the man for this work; he had had much experience with many forms of skulduggery; and, as a regicide marked out for vengeance by the royalists, he could be relied upon to protect Napoleon as the strongest barrier against a Bourbon restoration. While Gaudin coddled the bankers, Fouché kept the Jacobins in line with hopes that the First Consul would be a true son of the Revolution—protecting the commonalty against aristocracy and clergy, and France against reactionary powers. Napoleon distrusted and feared Fouché, and maintained a separate force of spies whose duties included spying upon the Minister of Police; but he was long at a loss to replace him. He did this gingerly in 1802, restored him in 1804, kept him till 1810. He appreciated Fouché’s moderation in asking for funds, and winked at the sly Minister’s partial financing of his force by confiscations from gambling casinos and contributions from brothels.14 A separate gendarmerie kept watch over streets, stores, offices, and homes, and presumably shared in the income of its wards.

The defense of the individual—even of the criminal—against the police, the law, and the state did not get as much attention in France as in the England of that time, but some of it was provided by a judiciary efficient and relatively free from the correlation of judgments with gifts. In assigning this branch of administration to the jurist André-Joseph Abrimal, Napoleon said: “Citizen, I do not know you, but I am told you are the honestest man in the magistracy, and that is why I name you Minister of Justice.”15 Soon France was covered with an abundance and diversity of courts, with grand and petty juries, justices of the peace, bailiffs, prosecutors, plaintiffs, notaries, advocates…

The protection of the state from other states was assigned to a Ministry of War under General Louis-Alexander Berthier, a Ministry of Marine under Denis Decrès, and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministère des Relations Extérieures) under the indestructible Talleyrand. He was now forty-five years old, with an established reputation for polished manners, intellectual penetration, and moral depravity. We last saw him (July 14, 1790) celebrating Holy Mass at the Champ-de-Mars festival; shortly afterward he wrote to his latest acquisition, Adélaïde de Filleul, Comtesse de Flahaut: “I hope you feel to what divinity I yesterday addressed my prayers and my oath of fidelity. You alone are the Supreme Being whom I adore, and will always adore.”16 He had a son by the Countess, but he quietly attended her wedding as the unseen giver of the bride.17 His passion for feminine beauty was naturally accompanied by an appetite for francs, on which beauty lived. Since he rejected the Christian ethic as well as the Catholic theology, he adjusted his eloquence to lucrative causes, and earned a pretty bouquet from Carnot:

Talleyrand brings with him all the vices of the old regime, without having been able to acquire any of the virtues of the new one. He has no fixed principles; he changes them as he does his linen, and takes them according to the wind of the day—a philosopher when philosophy is the mode; a republican now because that is necessary in order to become anything; tomorrow he will declare for an absolute monarchy if he can make anything out of it. I don’t want him at any price.

Mirabeau agreed: “For money Talleyrand would sell his soul—and he would be right, for he would be trading muck for gold.”18

There was, however, a limit to Talleyrand’s gyrations. When the mob ejected the King and Queen from the Tuileries and set up a proletarian dictatorship, he made no curtsies to the new masters, but took a boat to England (September 17, 1792). He received a mixed reception there: warm from Joseph Priestley and Jeremy Bentham, George Canning and Charles James Fox;19 cool from aristocrats remembering his share in the Revolution. In March, 1794, English tolerance ran out, and Talleyrand was ordered to leave the country within twenty-four hours. He sailed to the United States, lived comfortably there on the income from his property and investments, returned to France (August, 1796), and became foreign minister (July, 1797) under the Directory. In that capacity he added to his fortune by diverse means, so that he was able to deposit three million francs in British and German banks. Foreseeing the fall of the Directory, he resigned (July 20, 1799), and waited in comfort for Napoleon to call him back to office. The Consul did not wait long; on November 22, 1799, Talleyrand was again ministre des relations extérieures.

Bonaparte found him valuable as an intermediary between an upstart ruler and decaying kings. Through all his revolutions Talleyrand had preserved the dress, manners, speech, and mind of the old aristocracy: the easy grace (despite the twisted foot), the imperturbable composure, the subtle wit of a man who knew that at need he could kill with an epigram. He was a hard worker, a shrewd diplomat, who could rephrase in courteous elegance the impetuous bluntness of his unvarnished master. He made a principle “never to hurry” in reaching a decision20—a good motto for a lame man; in several instances his delays in forwarding a dispatch allowed Napoleon to recede from dangerous absolutes.

He wanted, under whatever banner, to live lavishly, seduce leisurely, and gather plums from any tree. When the Consul asked him how he had amassed so great a fortune, he answered disarmingly, “I bought stocks on the seventeenth Brumaire, and sold them three days later.”21 That was but a beginning; within fourteen months of resuming office he added fifteen million francs more. He played the market from “inside” knowledge, and he gathered “tidbits” from foreign powers who exaggerated his influence upon Napoleon’s policies. By the end of the Consulate his fortune was estimated at forty million francs.22 Napoleon found him revolting and irreplaceable. Echoing Mirabeau, he called the graceful cripple “merde in a silk stocking,”23 using a term that carries less odor in French than in its Anglo-Saxon equivalent. Napoleon himself was above bribery, having acquired the French Treasury, and France.

3. The Reception of the Constitution

The new constitution met with much criticism when it was published (December 15, 1799) with the ingratiating claim, “It is founded on the true principles of representative government, on the sacred rights of property, equality, and liberty. The powers which it institutes will be strong and stable, as they must be in order to guarantee the rights of the citizens and the interests of the state. Citizens! the Revolution is made fast to the principles which began it; it is finished.”24 These were spacious words, but Napoleon seems to have considered them justified because the constitution allowed for universal adult male suffrage in the first stages of election; it required more appointments to be made from “notables” directly or indirectly chosen by the voters; it confirmed the peasantry and the bourgeoisie in their possession of property purchased as the result of the Revolution; it confirmed the abolition of feudal dues and ecclesiastical tithes; theoretically, and subject to nature, it established the equality of all citizens before the law and in eligibility to any career—political, economic, or cultural; it set up a strong central government to control crime, end anarchy, corruption, and incompetent administration, and defend France against foreign powers; and it ended the Revolution by making it a fait accompli, a purpose realized within natural limits, a new form of social organization rooted in stable government, efficient administration, national liberty, and lasting law.

Nevertheless there were complaints. The Jacobins felt that they had been ignored in the “Constitution of the Year VIII”—that the “representative government” which it offered was a hypocritical surrender of the Revolution to the bourgeoisie. Several generals wondered why fate had not chosen one of them, instead of that puny Corsican, for political supremacy; “there was not one of the generals who did not conspire against me.”25 The Catholics mourned that the constitution confirmed the Revolution’s confiscation of church property; rebellion rose again in the Vendée (1800). Royalists fretted because Napoleon was consolidating his position instead of calling Louis XVIII to restore Bourbon rule. As the royalists controlled most of the newspapers,26 they launched a campaign against acceptance of the new regime; Napoleon replied (January 17, 1800) by suppressing sixty out of the seventy-three existing journals of France, on the ground that they were financed by foreign gold. The radical press was also reduced, and theMoniteurbecame the official organ of the government. Journalists, authors, and philosophers condemned this attack upon the freedom of the press; and now Mme. de Staël, having given up hope of playing Egeria, began a powerful and lifelong attack upon Napoleon as a dictator who was crucifying French liberty.

Napoleon defended himself by proxy in the Moniteur. He had not destroyed liberty; this had already been shattered by the need for centralized government in war, by the rigged elections of the Jacobins, by the dictatorship of rioting mobs, and by the repeatedcoups d’état of the Directory years; and what remained of it had been dragged in the mire of political bribery and moral decay. The liberty he was crucifying was the freedom of the crowd to be lawless, of the criminal to steal and kill, of the propagandist to lie, of the judge to take bribes, of the financier to embezzle, of the businessman to play monopoly. Had not Marat advocated—had not the Committee of Public Safety practiced—dictatorship as the only cure for the chaos of a society suddenly released from religious tutelage, class domination, and royal autocracy, and left to the urgency of instincts and the tyranny of crowds? Some discipline must now be found to reestablish that order which is the precondition of freedom.27

The peasantry did not need such arguments to decide their support of the constitution; they had the land, and secretly applauded any government that would squelch the Jacobins. Here, despite opposite economic interests, the city proletariat agreed with the tillers of the soil. The people of the tenements—workers in the factories, clerks in the shops, peddlers in the streets—those who as sansculottes had fought for bread and power, had lost faith in a Revolution that had lifted them up, thrown them down, and left them shorn of hope; one magic still stirred them—the hero of war; and the conqueror of Italy could be no worse than the politicians of the Directory. And as for the bourgeoisie—bankers, merchants, businessmen—how could they reject the man who had so completely accepted the sanctity of property and freedom of enterprise? With him they had won the Revolution and inherited France. He was, till 1810, their man.

Confident that the great majority would support him, Napoleon submitted the new constitution to a plebiscite (December 24, 1799). We do not know if this referendum was managed and manacled like so many similar polls before or since. The official count reported 3,011,107 in favor of the constitution, 1,562 against it.28

Having those ayes behind him, Napoleon, with his family and aides, moved from the crowded Luxembourg to the royal and commodious Tuileries (February 19, 1800). He made the transit in a pompous procession with three thousand troops, generals on horseback, ministers in carriages, the Council of State in hackney coaches, and the First Consul in a coach drawn by six white horses. It was the first example of the many public displays with which Napoleon hoped to impress the public of Paris. He explained to his secretary:

“Bourrienne, tonight at last we shall sleep in the Tuileries. You are better off than I: you are not obliged to make a spectacle of yourself, but may go your own way there. I must, however, go in procession; that disgusts me, but it is necessary to speak to the eyes…. In the Army simplicity is in the proper place; but in a great city, in a palace, the Chief of the Government must attract attention in every possible way, yet still with prudence.”29

The ritual was triumphantly completed with but one disturbing note: on one of the guardhouses through which Napoleon passed into the courtyard of the palace he could have seen a large inscription reading “Tenth of August, 1792—Royalty in France is abolished, and shall never be restored.”30 As they walked through the rooms that had once displayed the wealth of the Bourbons, State Councilor Roederer remarked to the First Consul, “Général, cela est triste” (General, this is sad); to which Napoleon replied,“Oui, comme la gloire” (Yes, like glory).31 For his work with Bourrienne he chose a spacious chamber adorned only with books. When he was shown the royal bedroom and bed, he refused to use them, preferring to sleep regularly with Josephine. However, that evening, not without pride, he said to his wife, “Come along, my little Creole, go lie down in the bed of your masters.”32

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!