Modern history

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The Unsteady Republic (1795–9)


The messy winding up of the Convention in October 1795 provided an inauspicious beginning for the new republican regime. The political chalice proffered by the Conventionnels which had disenchanted the electorate in the September plebiscite proved no more appetizing in the elections of the following month: only around a million citizens voted in primary assemblies, and the more restrictive second-level electoral assemblies delivered an unqualified raspberry to the new constitution. The Law of Two-Thirds had to be invoked to ensure that some 100 ex-Conventionnels were added to the 394 of their fellows elected. The Left lost heavily, and the new deputies had a strongly right-wing complexion: of 250 new men, 88 were outright counter-revolutionaries, and a further 73 could be qualified as moderate royalists. The continued domination of the ex-Conventionnels meant that the men chosen as Directors were all regicides. The politically supple ex-noble Barras, hero of the defeat of the Vendémiaire journée, was a popular choice, as was Carnot, acclaimed ‘organizer of victory’ in Year II (but now progressing towards moderate royalism), who stood in for Siéyès, who refused to serve. Their colleagues lacked political and personal sparkle: La Révellière-Lépeaux had little but worthy tedium to recommend him; Letourneur was a military engineer like Carnot; and Reubell, a diligent Alsatian lawyer of mildly leftish hue.

The first challenge awaiting the Directors was the continuing economic and social problems of the Republic – and the political agitation which that helped promote. Both factors brought under intense pressure the vaunted respect of the new regime for legality and constitutionality, after the Revolutionary exceptionalism of the Convention. The appalling winter of 1794–5 augured exceeding ill for the first year of the Directory’s power. The continuing depreciation of the assignat was worsening problems: in November and December, the currency’s cash return dipped below 1 per cent of its face value, bringing a comic aspect to many exchanges and inducing street beggars to decline alms in paper form. Government benefited from the depreciation by paying off its debts, but conversely found the real value of its tax take dwindling almost to nothing. The Directors made a great show of abolishing the assignat as a currency, on 16 February 1796, formally breaking the overworked presses on which they had been printed. Yet problems persisted. The Directors rejected the proposal of Finance Minister Ramel to create a state bank – lingering memories of John Law still counted for something, and these were overlain with a continuing suspicion of the vulnerability of English-style dependence on public credit and foreign empire. In March 1796, the government simply introduced a new paper currency, the mandat territorial, which was fixed at the ratio of 1:30 against the old assignats. Wretchedly, however, it played out the assignat’s experience in fast-forward mode: within four months it had collapsed totally.

It was not simply a matter of the debacle of paper currency over the winter and spring of 1795–6 worsening conditions for a great many individuals. What aggravated matters was that government showed rank insouciance towards popular suffering. The forced loan it tried to levy in December to compensate for a shrinking tax take aroused much indignation and little hard money. Although the state utilized devalued paper currency to pay its own debts, it also did its best to ensure that its own creditors paid in cash or kind: landowners, for example, were obliged to pay their taxes in grain or its cash equivalent. Economic deregulation was accompanied by boosts to private enterprise which scandalized aficionados of the controlled economy of Year II. The sale of national lands in return for devalued assignats provided a field day for property speculators, who went on to sell or lease in return for hard cash. Financial corruption seemed to characterize the government’s growing use of the private sector: the private company established to wind up theassignats made huge profits, as did private contractors working for the army. The shabbiness of the regime was all the greater in that sleaze was matched by a new-found and brazen hedonism – in which Director Barras was up to his ears. The republic of vice seemed to have succeeded the Republic of Virtue.

Despite its reputation for the individual venality of leading figures, the regime worked hard to put the state’s fiscality on to an even keel, in an appallingly difficult economic situation in which runaway inflation was being followed by plummeting deflation. Finance Minister Ramel – in post from February 1796 to July 1799 – was responsible for carrying through a partial state bankruptcy in September 1797 (Vendémiaire VI) following the mandat territorial fiasco. Although he dressed the measure up to disguise the fact, Ramel essentially repudiated two-thirds of the national debt – following this up in December by a parallel measure for the state’s other financial commitments. These measures were hardly destined to improve the regime’s popularity with the rentier class, which was propelled thereby more firmly to the right. But they did help the economy to recover from recent paroxysms. Ramel also overhauled the state’s fiscal regime. First, he improved the collection system, introducing a Direct Tax Agency from November 1797 responsible to the Finance Minister. Second, he issued revised schedules for the main direct taxes, on land, on moveable wealth and on industry (the patente), and initiated a new tax on doors and windows. And, third, he brought back indirect taxation, from which the state had not profited since the onslaught on Farmers General, seigneurial and municipal tolls and the like in 1789. A stamp tax on paper and official documents was followed by municipal tolls (octrois) in Paris then other major cities, a tobacco tax and so on.

This patient work of state reconstruction failed to douse down political extremism. The opening of the Panthéon Club in November 1795, a successor to the closed Jacobins, marked the beginnings of the recovery of the extra-parliamentary Left, now reinforced by amnestied militants. Drawing together ex-Terrorists such as Amar, Pache, Darthé and Buonarroti, the Club called for more radical policies, and its message was taken up by Babeuf’s Tribun du Peuple, and it also spread to the provinces where a network of neo-Jacobin groupings emerged. Director Barras had been giving subsidies to the anti-royalist press but now, as the Left began to consolidate its position, withdrew government aid, and in February 1796, closed down the Panthéon Club and its emulators. But by then the Left had begun to attract support from within the Directorial Councils.

‘Gracchus’ Babeuf’s ideas about agrarian reform, symbolized by his adoption of a first name which honoured the radical land-reformer of the Roman Republic, included state ownership of all property, communism in distribution and small-scale direct democracy. He put much of this on hold, however, as he worked to give direction to the re-emerging Left. The Germinal and Prairial journées seemed to have demonstrated that the old kind of Revolutionary demonstration-cum-insurrection was no longer an effective option: bad living conditions demoralized rather than radicalized the people, while the disappearance of the old Parisian sections, following the rearrangement of municipal government, made organization much harder. In addition, the Right had far more support than at any time since 1791, while Vendémiaire showed that the government was now ready, if necessary, to meet force with superior force on the streets of Paris. Babeuf thus chose to target radical propaganda at key strategic sites – such as the Police Legion formed to take the place of the old National Guard. He combined this with the formation of a secret insurrectionary committee to organize a coup d’état to seize the levers of power, replace the Year III Constitution with that of 1793 and to go back to something like the closed economy of Year II.

Babeuf’s ‘Conspiracy of Equals’ took shape from late March 1796. Those let into at least part of the secret tended to be the intellectual heirs of the Parisian sans-culottes (including members of the Police Legion), middling-sort radicals in the big provincial cities and a smattering of Left radicals from the Councils. The Directory had been deregulating the economy since Thermidor; but it had not cashiered the police spies on which the Terror had depended, and these allowed the government to keep abreast of the threat. A special Police Ministry was created in January under Merlin de Douai, who, as a Thermidorian CPS member, had won his reactionary spurs overseeing the closure of the Jacobin Club in November 1794. Press freedom was restricted, and on 16 April proposing the reintroduction of the 1793 constitution, the restoration of the monarchy or radical agrarian reforms was made punishable by death. At the end of the month, Merlin ordered the disbanding of the Police Legion, which had been infiltrated by the Babouvists. In a pre-emptive swoop on 10 May (21 Floréal V), Babeuf and many of his fellow ‘Equals’ were arrested, and sent to be tried for treason before the high court established in reassuringly out-of-the-way Vendôme.

The threat to the regime’s political stability from the Left fizzled gently out over ensuing months. While nearly fifty putative ‘Equals’ were awaiting trial, the neo-Jacobin rump in Paris tried unsuccessfully to win over disgruntled soldiers encamped at nearby Grenelle. The attempt backfired, and special military commissions were set up to dispense summary justice over the would-be rebels. More than thirty death-sentences were carried out, including that on the wild ex-Conventionnel Javogues. The trial of Babeuf and his colleagues only got under way in February 1797. The conspiracy’s secrecy made it difficult for the prosecution to establish the guilt of all but the ringleaders. Most of the accused were discharged, a handful were deported and only Babeuf and Darthé condemned to death: with due Roman stoicism they attempted to commit suicide on the way to the scaffold on 27 May 1797 (8 Prairial V). That their death caused nary a flicker of interest in Paris highlighted how remote the heirs of Year II radicalism had become from the popular classes whom they imagined themselves representing.

With the Left seemingly under control, the Directory could now endeavour to come to terms with the threat to political stability embodied by the resurgent Right. Fortunately for them, the royalists were split between moderates and extremists and their cause was also badly served by the unbudging refusal of their leader, Louis XVIII, to consider compromising his attachment to a restoration of the Ancien Régime. To a considerable extent, the mixed system of government instituted in Year III had been developed as a more attractive alternative to the form of unified government represented by the Bourbons. It was comforting, then, that the Bourbons fell into the trap. The Pretender was convinced that his native land had ‘reverted to the end of the sixteenth century’, and therefore needed more rather than less absolutism if it was to recover from religious and civil strife.1 Though still smarting from the fiasco of Quiberon Bay, the émigrés tried another landing on the Îie de Yeu off Brittany. It flopped, failing to reignite the forces of popular royalism in the west. The astute counter-insurgency work of the local republican commander, General Hoche, was also producing results here. Vendéan leaders Stofflet and Charette were captured and executed in early 1796, and within months the Vendéan rebels and the Breton Chouans had been neutralized.

The émigré position was also seriously affected by the course of the European war, for most of their European allies were beginning to disengage from the conflict, either from choice or under military pressure. Hoche’s plan to use the Army of the West to invade Ireland and Wales came to nothing, and the Royal Navy’s victory over the French at Cape Saint-Vincent in February 1797 confirmed English naval dominance. In continental Europe, the withdrawal of Prussia and Spain from the war in 1795 marked the beginning of a trend. Even though French fortunes in the German campaign of 1796 were mixed, many minor German states sought armistices.

The most striking successes were, however, the doing of General Bonaparte on the Italian front. The young Corsican had been a career artillery officer before 1789, springing to national prominence for his part in the capture of Toulon from the British in December 1793. A budding reputation as a Jacobin and friendship with Augustin Robespierre won him a spell in a Thermidorian gaol in August 1794. But he re-emerged to develop his career under the wing of Barras, whom he served in putting down the Vendémiaire rising. Marriage to one of Barras’s protégées, the Créole widow Josephine de Beauharnais, was followed almost immediately by appointment to the Italian command. Bonaparte seized his opportunity with alacrity and, in a matter of months, had turned a military sideshow into the main focus of France’s strategic efforts. In a whirlwind campaign strewn with brilliant victories, he knocked the kingdom of Savoy out of the war: the Armistice of Cherasco in April 1796 was followed by the Treaty of Paris in May, ceding Nice and Savoy to the French. Bonaparte’s successes stimulated Jacobin radicals in Italian cities to demonstrate in France’s favour, and the general turned the discomfiture of existing regimes to France’s advantage. In December 1796, the duchy of Modena, including Reggio, was added to the papal territories of Bologna and Ferrara to form the new Cispadane (‘this side of the Po’) Republic, which was given a Directorial-style constitution. Bonaparte spent much of the autumn and winter of 1796–7 fighting the Austrians for control of the strategically key fortress of Mantua, and he inflicted a series of defeats upon them before the French took the city in February. With most of the states of the Italian peninsula falling into the hands of the young Frenchman, Austria decided to treat for terms. The Austro-French Peace Preliminaries signed at Leoben on 18 April were followed by the Treaty of Campo-Formio on 18 October 1797 (27 Vendémiaire VI).

Campo-Formio highlighted significant changes in France’s international strategy and indeed its place in Europe. By forcing France’s most formidable land foe to the conference table, Bonaparte ensured recognition of the Republic’s annexations in the north (Belgium, the left bank of the Rhine) and in the south-east (Nice, Savoy). Yet his personal diplomacy – which extended French influence in Italy further than at any time in the previous 300 years – involved riding roughshod over the wishes of the Directors, who had wished to use Italian conquests as bargaining counters in a general peace with Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. The war of national defence of 1792–4 was turning into a conflict for expansion and conquest, recalling the dynastic manoeuvres of the Bourbon monarchy. Bonaparte had, moreover, displayed machiavellian cunning in utilizing pro-French agitation by local Jacobins as diplomatic leverage. Jacobin risings in the Venetian cities of Brescia and Bergamo served as the justificatory figleaf for him to work surreptitiously with the Austrians to partition the Venetian Republic: the Austrians took the lion’s share, while Bonaparte’s pickings were added to the conquered Lombardy and the Cispadane Republic so as to form the Cisalpine (‘this side of the Alps’) Republic.

Bonaparte’s successes cancelled out the European threat associated with the émigrés, and allowed the regime to focus on devising a way of dealing with the growth of royalist sentiment within France itself. The Babeuf plot had caused a red scare (which the Directors helped orchestrate) which consolidated the popularity of the Right. The latter also benefited from the moderate religious aggiornamento which the Directory permitted: returned refractory priests did their utmost to prod their flocks towards opposing the regime. The Clichy Club in Paris became a rallying ground for royalist propaganda, allowing the fusion of moderate ex-Conventionnels such as Boissy d’Anglas and Henry La Rivière and returned émigrés such as Mathieu Dumas. Many Clichyens embraced the constitutional road, arguing that the working-through of the Law of Two-Thirds would allow the royalist majority in France to reassert itself democratically. Others on the Right, however, rejected such moderation. The Institut philanthropique, for example – a congeries of voluntary associations, located in most departments, which ostensibly sought to revive charity – developed as a front organization for insurrection. So did the ‘Paris Agency’ of abbé Brottier, reactionary journalist turned counter-revolutionary broker. Brottier’s nationwide network of royalist agents had initially sought to persuade Louis XVIII to agree to a constitution and a political amnesty, but the abbé was turned towards insurrectionary methods by Louis’s intransigence. Though Brottier’s arrest in January 1797 reduced the influence of his ‘Paris Agency’, at much the same time, the eminent General Pichegru – dismissed from his post in early 1796 because of his political views – began to establish covert links with the exiled monarch. There seemed a real danger of the royalists frittering away their strong position in a welter of competing factions and crossed wires. Faction, the Achilles heel of the Bourbon polity, was the besetting vice of the emigration.

The Directory did its best to keep the royalists within the bounds of legality and to reduce their political modus operandi. The tightening of press censorship and the reorganization of political policing targeted the royalists as much as the Left. In March 1796, efforts had been made to shake royalists out of state service and administrative office by imposing on all functionaries an oath of hatred of royalty, and several weeks later the death penalty was reimposed for proposing the restoration of the monarchy. Among the Directors, Carnot in particular sought to find ways of winning over constitutional royalists to the cause of moderate republicanism, but for all his efforts he failed to devise a sufficiently attractive package. For example, had the Directors repealed the Thermidorian law of 4 Brumaire IV (26 October 1795) which excluded émigrés and their relatives from any public office,2 they would have alienated their supporters in the centre as well as on the Left. The latter was already weakened by the depredations of the White Terror in many areas. In the event, the Directors’ efforts to placate the Right by attacking the Left through purging judicial, municipal and administrative posts dangerously strengthened the Right in the country as a whole and made more likely a further royalist victory at the polls in the spring of 1797.

The Directorial antagonism towards extremism of both the Right and the Left was generating an endless fight on two fronts which risked thinning support for the political centre and the principle of constitutionality which was the regime’s touchstone. In April and May 1797, the fulcrum collapsed, and the inevitable occurred. The Year V elections to renew one-third of the Councils produced a royalist triumph: only thirteen of some 216 ex-Conventionnels who had put themselves up for consideration were elected, and even the workings of the Law of Two-Thirds could not forestall a massive shift to the Right in the Councils. The royalists, who included prominent figures such as Pichegru and Louis XVIII’s political agent, Imbert-Colomès, were probably not far from a majority. In the first tests of strength, they had outgoing Director Letourneur replaced by the career diplomat and acknowledged rightist, Barthelémy, and Pichegru elected President of the Council of the Five Hundred.

Moderate republicans did not, however, take the royalist success lying down. In Paris, the Club de Salm emerged to orchestrate anti-royalism. One of their number, Siéyès, when asked what he had done during the Terror, famously replied ‘J’ai vécu’ (‘I survived’). This bon mot could have been the collective watchword of the Club as a whole: it included figures such as former Terrorist Tallien, Girondinophiles Daunou and Garat, professional survival artistes such as Talleyrand, as well as the mutual admiration society that was the young Benjamin Constant and latterday salonnière Madame de Staël (the daughter of Necker). The Salmistes did their utmost to counter royalist propaganda, notably through their newspaper, L’Éclair, and also linked up with a developing network of ‘constitutional circles’ (cercles constitutionnels) which in larger cities were bringing together the provincial vestiges of Jacobinism.

The political situation after the Year V elections developed into a war of position between rival factions, with muffled insurrectionary noises off supplied by bellicose neo-Jacobins and sabre-rattling royalists. The seemingly unstoppable progress of the Right and the complaisance of Directors Carnot and Barthelémy was causing the remaining triumvirate on the Directory (Barras, Reubell and La Révellière-Lépeaux) to coordinate their views on the defence of the Republic. A significant – and in the event ominous – development was their desire to explore ways of profiting from the dazzling prestige in which the republican armies were now clothed. In July, a Directorial reshuffle ended the Clichyen complexion of the ministries, and Talleyrand was appointed Foreign Minister, with General Hoche offered the post of War Minister. To bring a military commander into the government was startling enough; but it was doubly so in that Hoche had been tipped off to bring his troops up within striking distance of Paris in case the Right took their protests to the streets.

In the event, Hoche’s ministerial career was blocked by the realization that he was under the age requirement of forty for all ministers. The Right had, however, been thoroughly alarmed by the turn of events. In retrospect, it might have been in their interests to abandon a policy of caution. Yet divisions within their ranks continued to hobble their capacity for decisive action. Many moderate constitutionalist monarchists still urged a waiting game, with the electoral tide flowing so strongly in their favour. This was all the more the case after 27 June 1797 (9 Messidor V), when the Councils repealed the Law of 4 Brumaire IV, opening public office to émigrés and their families and ending persecution of refractory priests under 1792 and 1793 legislation. However, electoral success in Year V had stoked up the enthusiasm of the hardliners. They felt that the iron was hot enough to strike – but were divided over exactly when and how. Their dithering allowed their opponents to seize the initiative. The Triumvirs on the Directory – Barras, Reubell and La Révellière-Lépeaux – agreed to the Councils’ wish to dissolve all political clubs, a move directed against the cercles constitutionnels. But they also put out feelers to the army to secure the aid of a sympathetic general. Barras won over his erstwhile client, Bonaparte, who sent the trustworthy General Augereau to Paris to be at the Triumvirate’s disposal. Augereau harried the right-wing royalist youth gangs within the city, while Hoche circled the city menacingly with further troops. In an atmosphere crackling with political tension, the Triumvirs struck. On 4 September 1797 (18 Fructidor V), they ordered the military occupation of Paris and then went on to annul the Year V elections in forty-nine departments in which the Right had triumphed; to remove from the Councils nearly 200 deputies; and to deport over sixty leading royalists, including Carnot, Pichegru and Barthelémy.

The Fructidor coup d’état produced a sharp move back towards the political centre ground following months in which the Right had carried all before it. Barras, Reubell and La Révellière-Lépeaux took steps to effect an anti-royalist transformation of the political landscape. The two empty posts of Director were filled by ex-Police Minister, Merlin de Douai, and the technocratic François de Neufchâteau, who had been appointed Interior Minister in the July reshuffle. The Directors took on emergency powers so as to conduct purges over the next weeks at every level of public life, ejecting putative royalists in administrative, judicial and municipal posts. The law of 4 Brumaire IV – still very much the litmus test of factional contention – was reimposed, disbarring from public posts individuals from émigré families, while on 29 November 1797 former nobles were prohibited from public life. Any émigré who had returned to France without obtaining government consent was required to leave France forthwith, and the punitive laws of 1792–3 against refractory priests were reimposed, leading to the abandonment of the relative religious freedom which had developed prior to Fructidor. All public officials, members of electoral assemblies and individuals serving on juries would henceforth swear an oath of hatred of royalty and anarchy (the latter a code-word for Jacobinism). A new press law forced the closure of much of the royalist and right-wing press, while military commissions were established with competence over returningémigrés, conspirators, bandits, rebels and highwaymen.

The Right was swift to denounce this wave of repression. Yet the ‘Fructidorian Terror’ was small beer when compared to the Terror of Year II (or indeed the White Terror of Year III). It disposed of political opponents mainly through the ‘dry guillotine’ of deportation rather than by physical liquidation. Some 1,600 priests were deported, for example, while the total number of capital victims of the military commissions down to 1799 was only around 150. This was far too mild to effect a durable sea-change in the political complexion of the country at large. Political clubs opened again, but levels of enthusiasm for the regime were not high. The methods which the Triumvirate had employed to carry out their coup caused a good deal of alarm and disenchantment. The Directory had prided itself on being the regime of legality in which the executive power was kept in check – in contradistinction to both the supra-legal personal absolutism of the Bourbon polity or the Revolutionary violence of Year II. Yet in Fructidor it used main force to override electoral decisions arrived at by constitutional means, and pressurized the judiciary into political sentencing.

Having stepped outside the charmed circle of constitutionality, moreover, the Fructidorians found it difficult to step back in, especially as it was soon apparent that they had far from depleted the strength of royalist opinion in the country as a whole. The attack on the Right had, moreover, triggered a compensatory resurgence of the Left. The early months of 1798 were spent in growing dread of the result of the Year VI elections from which both Right and Left could expect to make significant gains. The Directors worked hard on the electoral small print in order to deny their opponents too many advantages. Thus in February 1798, it was agreed that the outgoing (rather than incoming) Councils would choose the new Director each year; while political rights including participation in elections were denied to any individual who had discharged civil or military responsibilities with rebels. In March, the Directors began to encourage the idea of ‘schismatic’ electoral assemblies being formed in localities where it seemed likely that Left or Rightcandidates hostile to the regime might be elected. This gave them the scope for a choice of candidates to endorse when on 11 May (22 Floréal VI) the electoral results started to come in. They used this power especially against the Left – eighty-four of some 130 radicals or Jacobins were ‘Floréalized’, and replaced by pro-Directorial candidates from ‘schismatic’ assemblies. The process was, moreover, extended to other forms of elections taking place at this time: altogether around a quarter of legislative elections and a third of either judicial or administrative posts were affected by Directorial fiat.

The Directors were too engrossed in keeping their heads above the waters of political disillusionment at home to be able to control foreign policy. With Carnot and Barthelémy gone, they lacked a member with diplomatic nous and experience to resist the growing incursions of their generals in policy-making – at home as abroad. They consequently viewed with mixed feelings Bonaparte’s development of his own personal diplomacy in Italy. If this threatened Directorial authority on one hand, at least it was a safety valve for ambitious energies which could prove explosive if they were brought home into the delicately poised atmosphere within France. The Corsican was still trailing clouds of glory for his role in Campo-Formio, and so the Directors listened attentively to his suggestion, from late 1797, that he should lead an expedition to Egypt, stepping-stone to British power in India. The widespread conviction that British imperial power was based on a wobbly system of public credit which might be pushed to the brink of collapse seemed to endorse this venture, especially as British naval power was shutting the French out of imperial battle theatres in the New World. The Directors also liked the proposal because it would bottle up Napoleon’s ferocious energies in the Middle East – and might even put him in harm’s way.

Under the provisions of Campo-Formio, further negotiations were to take place, involving France, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, to settle a durable peace in Europe. The mood of the ensuing Congress of Rastadt was severely disturbed by continuing French gains, which further threatened the balance of power. Coups d’état performed by local Jacobins in Holland in January, then June, 1798 strengthened French influence in the ‘Batavian Republic’, which adopted a Directorial-style constitution. French military involvement on the Swiss frontier led to the annexation of Mulhouse (January 1798) and Geneva (April). Part of Switzerland had been merged into the Cisalpine Republic in 1797, and in spring 1798, the rump was formed into another ‘sister republic’, the Helvetic Republic. The unstable political situation after Campo-Formio also sucked the French further into the Italian peninsula. A riot in Rome in which the French general Duphot was murdered was pretext for French troops to invade and subsequently to organize a Roman Republic in February 1798. In November, troops from the kingdom of Naples attacked France’s puppet regime, the Roman Republic. The riposte was so brusquely effective that within weeks, French commander Championnet had occupied Naples and – in direct contradiction to the wishes of the Directors – established a Neapolitan (or ‘Parthenopean’) Republic in the southern half of the peninsula

The Directors were aware that the personal diplomacy and warmongering of Bonaparte and other generals were endangering the hopes for European peace. Yet they winked at the expansionism into which they were being drawn. The principal reason for this was the financial advantage which France derived from war. War was not without political costs. With the number of troops dwindling, and desertion spreading like an epidemic, the Jourdan Law of September 1798 was passed, introducing universal obligation to conscription for males over twenty years old. This was predictably unpopular. Yet the thought of ending war, bringing the armies back home and moving to a full peacetime economy promised even greater problems. For war had begun to pay for itself in a way that took pressure off tax-payers at home.

In the period of the Terror, the new mass armies, lacking bureaucratic support and maintenance, had resorted to an atavistic policy of plunder which the Finance supremo of Year II, Cambon, was happy to accept and to systematize. Field commanders were encouraged to seek ways of making conquered territories pay. Consequently, reforms trumpeted as Revolutionary – such as the nationalization of church property or the abolition of feudalism – in fact devolved into means of naked revenue-extraction. The instructions of ‘organizer of victory’ Carnot had been explicit as to both the substance and the motivation of such a policy: ‘Strip our enemies of all their resources, all their means of existence. It is a great misfortune that we have to plunder, but it is still preferable to take destruction elsewhere than suffer it on one’s own territory.’3 From 1795 onwards, the same policy was imposed on the so-called ‘sister republics’. After the latter received their new constitution, they signed a commercial treaty in which they undertook to make major contributions to the upkeep of troops. The Directors also adopted the practice of allowing the businessmen who served as army contractors a proportion of the tax take from conquered territories. The generals were playing the same game. Bonaparte in particular proved particularly adept at it, keeping a large proportion of money raised for the use of himself and his troops. He was also involved in measures of naked expropriation, notably of works of art. A good proportion of such booty also made its way back to Paris. Between 1796 and 1799, approximately one-quarter of the state’s needs were met by income extorted from conquered territories. War had bricked itself into the Directory’s financial and political architecture. Consequently, when in 1798–9 military strategy was to falter and France was faced again with the spectre of military defeat, the survival of the whole regime would be at stake.

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