Modern history

Conclusion: The Brumaire Leviathan and La Grande Nation

‘Public opinion’, mused Louis-Sébastien Mercier in 1798, ‘no longer exists, because society is being torn apart.’1 Certainly, the notion that public opinion had a unifying and harmonizing role looked comically malapropos in the politically turbulent Directorial period. A legacy of the Enlightenment project crystallized in the moment of the Encyclopédie, elaborated over the course of the eighteenth century in the developing bourgeois public sphere, it had lost its operational utility.

If public opinion no longer seemed a rudder for Revolutionaries to steer with, this was largely because, as we noted in the previous chapter, this paramount unifying and popularizing symbol of Revolutionary political culture generated rather than transcended division and discord. The Directorial regime registered the developing contradiction between unity and fragmentation in especially striking forms. As we have noted, the Directory’s claims to legitimacy were endlessly, almost pathologically, fractured by oscillations both within the political elite and within the broader nation, summed up in the frenzied sectional atmosphere of electoral fixing. There were some Directorials who found this kind of instability acceptable within a constitutional regime: the moderate deputy Berlier, for example, regarded the electoral battles as ‘simply a war of nuances among patriots of different degrees’.2 Yet others wearied of them, and worried about the impact of such squabbling on popular support for the regime: attendance in primary elections on occasion dwindled to alarmingly meagre levels. Consequently, by 1798 and 1799, constitutional specialists such as Siéyès and idealistic intriguers like Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant began to reflect on how the regime could be changed from the outside so as to reinject into the Revolutionary process a unity and a popularity which seemed to have evaded the Directory.

That even such enthusiasts for the rule of law as these individuals were willing to infringe constitutional legality for what they thought was the greater good underscored the regime’s entropic state. Right and Left seemed to cancel each other out in a deadlock. The threat of royalist restoration had been much attenuated by 1798–9, but this was not so apparent to contemporaries, who retained that fear of conspiracy which was such a core feature of Revolutionary political culture. Louis XVIII had tried constitutional electoralism, peasant insurrection, clandestine intriguing and international lobbying: but he still found it impossible to secure a breakthrough in post-1789 public opinion. And no wonder. For Louis still rejected everything back to and including the work of the Constituent Assembly: the high-water mark of his political compromise was the programme outlined by Louis XVI in the séance royale of 13 June 1789 – ‘the Ancien Régime minus the abuses’, as the king-pretender put it.3 The intransigence of royalist hawks – orPurs – was buttressed by a similar intractability among the counter-revolution’s apologists and ideologists. The abbé Barruel’s populist and popular Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme (‘Memoirs on the History of Jacobinism’) (1797) ascribed the whole Revolution to a masonic plot with its roots in the Enlightenment. En bloc rejection of the Enlightenment project was also the hallmark of reactionary theoreticians such as Bonald and Joseph de Maistre, who unconditionally rejected the Revolution’s commitment to natural rights, and journeyed down a Burkean path, seeking the answers to France’s problems in a far-distant and highly idealized past.

If a royalist restoration was not really on the cards, there still existed within the political nation an irreducible core of supporters of the old Bourbon polity, impervious to Directorial propaganda, pedagogy and persuasion. These forces of counter-revolution had massive nuisance value in a regime as fragile as the Directory. The same was true of the Left. Though the Parisian popular movement had been muzzled, there still was a good deal of popular hostility towards the Directorial regime, underpinning the danger of a dictatorship of public safety imposing authoritarian and populist policies on every aspect of political life. One did not have to be a neo-Jacobin to appreciate the critical importance of the Montagnard mobilizing strategy of 1793–4 in protecting the gains of the Revolution when these were most under pressure from within and without. Yet overall, moderates preferred to consign such experiences to memory rather than actuality. Neo-Jacobin posturings frightened them as much as royalist fierceness.

For Siéyès and others in his circle, the way ahead appeared to be a strengthening of the executive arm over the legislature, in a way which avoided the extremes of Bourbon absolutism and Committee of Public Safety-style Terror. They could expect support from what Mercier called ‘the minority of opinion composed of sensible folk who recognize the need for strong government’.4 However, no one could expect the legislative Councils to approve their own weakening. Nor had the framers of the 1795 constitution made the task of revision easy: constitutional amendments involved tortuous and lengthy procedures which would be virtually impossible to get through the legislature, whatever its political complexion. To achieve anything, Siéyès reckoned, a ‘sword’ was essential – that is, a general who could be instrumental in a coup d’état which would allow change to be forced through. It was essential to Siéyès’s developing plans that the general in question should be a political minnow, who would then stand aside and let the constitution be reworked under Siéyès’s rational vision. In the event, Siéyès went fishing for a sword – but netted a leviathan. Politely demurring on his own account, General Joubert proposed Bonaparte to Siéyès: ‘There’s your man!’ The coup d’état which Bonaparte engineered with Siéyès’s assistance on 18 and 19 Brumaire VII (9–10 November 1799) installed a new regime, the Consulate, which brought the Directory to a close – and in the event also ended much of what had been distinctive about the the political culture of the previous decade.

The chequered course of the final political crisis of the Directory was intricately intertwined with the changing military and diplomatic position. War and Revolution, as always from 1792, were joined at the hip. Hopes for a Europe-wide peace in the aftermath of Campo-Formio had soon been dashed, with French generals finding it impossible to resist expansionism, notably in Italy. In April 1799, an untoward incident during the negotiations for a general peace being conducted at Rastadt saw the French envoys attacked by a hostile German crowd, and several of them murdered. This provided a convenient casus belli for the French, justifying the fact that military skirmishes were already taking place.

With Austria returning to the fray alongside England, France found itself pitted against its two most intractable foes – plus the relatively untried force of Russia, which had been stimulated into hostility by fears that Bonaparte’s Egyptian ambitions might upset the balance of power in south-eastern Europe. The 1799 campaign went badly for the French almost at once. Jourdan led an army across the Rhine – but was soon beaten back by the reinvigorated Austrians. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy conveyed a British expeditionary force to Holland in order to link up with Russian troops and the allies managed to capture the Dutch fleet. In Italy too, theatre of so much French success since 1796, there were dramatic reverses. The Austrians and Russians defeated Schérer at Cassano in April, after the French had attempted to seize Tuscany. General Championnet evacuated the ‘Parthenopean Republic’ (Naples), so as to bring aid to his compatriots in the north. But he was defeated by the Russians at Trebbia. French armies were obliged to leave the peninsula altogether and to join up with the retreating forces from Germany to fight a holding battle at Zurich in June. By then, however, the entire network of pro-French regimes established since 1796 was collapsing like a house of cards.

Furthermore, the French now had new as well as old enemies on their hands. By the late 1790s, the soldier-in-arms of la grande nation had become less a fraternal liberator of Jacobin imaginings than a symbol of coercive extraction, and many of the populations to whom France prided itself on bringing a humane and emancipatory message had turned distinctly hostile. In addition, local Jacobins, particularly in the Italian cities, proved more radical than even the Directorial French, worsening social and political antagonisms. Some of the areas which had been brought directly under French rule – such as Belgium and the left bank of the Rhine, Mulhouse and Piedmont – were relatively shielded. But fighting zones and areas of French occupation were subject to brutal measures of looting and pillaging, and the fate of sister republics was often little better. The organization of the Batavian Republic, for example, was accompanied by the Dutch being forbidden to have links with their customary trading partners, the English; at the same time, high tariffs shut them out of the French market. Elsewhere it was the nationalization of church lands and anti-clerical policies conducted against refractory priests which produced high levels of popular resentment, particularly in Belgium and Italy. Attempts to introduce conscription under the Jourdan Law of 1798 triggered riots in Belgium which snowballed into outright peasant insurrection, along the lines of the Vendée revolt of 1793. Peasant mobilization against the French was also in evidence in southern Italy. Cardinal Ruffo’s peasant band, the ‘Christian Army of the Holy Faith’, swelled into a crusading host, wreaking vengeance on anyone who had dealings with the French Revolutionary Anti-Christ. The Republic had, moreover, added to its faults in Catholic eyes: following skirmishes in Italy, Pope Pius VI was taken prisoner by the French and in spring 1799 brought to France and imprisoned in Valence. (In August, he would die whilst still in prison.) This rankled with Catholics in France, where socio-religious and political opposition was re-emerging. Louis XVIII had been using his network of agents to rekindle revolt, and the conscription issue reactivated by the 1798 Jourdan Law helped to crystallize discontent. There was a peasant royalist rising at Montréjeau in the Haute-Garonne in August 1799, plus a spate of rebellions in Anjou, Normandy and Brittany.

Themselves divided, and faced with an irreducibly divided country plus the hostility of neighbouring populations, the Directors continued their customary balancing act. The leftist complexion of the Fructidorian Directory was being attenuated by the serendipities of replacement by lot. After the 1797 elections, Neufchâteau was replaced by the solid Treilhard, while the exit of moderate leftist Reubell in 1798 led to the election of Siéyès, whose critical views about the Year III Constitution were widely known. The air of uncertainty was amplified, moreover, by the tense military context in spring 1799 when the Year VII elections were held: the Directors deployed their administrative powers to take as many candidates as possible from the political extremes off the electoral slate. Even so, the patriotic feeling behind what had suddenly again become a war of national defence increased the proportion of left-wing candidates elected – even as the Directors themselves were sliding to the Right.

The Legislative Councils and Directors were almost at once at loggerheads. On 16 June, the Councils determined – against the Directors’ wishes – to sit en permanence, evoking further memories of the 1793–4 war crisis. Then, on 18 June (30 Prairial VII), they acted to break the developing deadlock in a ‘Journée of the Councils’. A couple of days earlier they had had Treilhard removed as Director on the grounds that there were procedural problems about his election the previous year. The pro-Jacobin Gohier was put in his place and then, in the 30 Prairial journée, the Councils replaced Merlin de Douai and La Révellière-Lépeaux with General Moulin and the Barras protégé Roger Ducos. A ministerial reshuffle followed, and pro-Directorial administrative personnel were also purged: significantly Robert Lindet, from the CPS of Year II, ex-Terrorist Fouché and General Bernadotte were chosen for the Ministries of Finance, Police and War respectively.

The Left shaped up to reinject some of the energy of the Revolutionary government into public affairs. The controls which the Directory had placed over freedom of expression in the aftermath of the Fructidor coup were lifted, and political newspapers started to open again. In Paris, the Manège Club was formed in July. Meeting in the site of Jacobin memory that was the Salle du Manège, where the National Convention had sat, it soon boasted over 3,000 members, including around 250 members of the Councils, alongside names from the Jacobin past including CPS stalwart Prieur de la Marne, ex-War Minister Bouchotte, postmaster-cum-king-catcher Drouet, and Félix Lepeletier, the brother of Revolutionary martyr Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau. Their call for la patrie en danger to be declared helped rally the forces of the Left more convincingly than at any time since 1794. They also helped to have an impact on national policy. An oath of hatred of royalty – but not, significantly, of ‘anarchy’ (Jacobinism’s coded alias) – was imposed on all functionaries. The Jourdan Law was activated in its fullest form, involving the call-up of all young men between twenty and twenty-five years old, in a move which clearly recalled the levée en masse. The ‘Law of Hostages’ of 12 July allowed the authorities in departments adjudged to be in a state of rebellion to imprison as ‘hostages’ members of émigré families. These could be held personally financially liable for any damage caused by royalist disturbances. And after a degree of to-ing and fro-ing, a forced loan on the rich was decreed to compensate for lost revenue from conquered territories. When news came in of the royalist rising at Montréjeau and the landing of an Anglo-Russian expeditionary force in Holland, the Councils decreed that authorities could make visitations into the homes of suspects to seek incriminating evidence of counter-revolutionary activity or sentiments.

There were many who thrilled to this nostalgic trip down Terrorist memory lane. There were many more who did not. Patriotic overtures chilled rather than warmed the blood of much of the population. Those who looked unfondly back on 1793–4 found their spokesperson in the new Director, Siéyès, who did what he could to fire warning shots about the direction policy seemed to be taking. Brawls around the Manège Club involving the neo-Jacobins and rightist youths were used as a pretext for Police Minister Fouché to close the club down, and in September, tougher press laws led to the closure of many Left and Right newspapers. Siéyès then moved to have Bernadotte replaced as War Minister by the more flexible Dubois-Crancé, and coordinated opposition in the Councils to the Left’s call for the declaration of la patrie en danger.

It was at this delicately poised moment that Bonaparte arrived back on the scene from Egypt. Since his embarkation on 19 May 1798, the Egyptian campaign which he had conceived and conducted had gone disastrously badly. He first smashed the native Mameluke army at the battle of the Pyramids on 21 July, and secured lower Egypt before leading an expedition into Syria against Turkish forces. The military value of the whole venture had, however, been brought into question almost straight away. In order to reach Egypt, Bonaparte had managed to slip the surveillance of Horatio Nelson’s English fleet. Nelson doggedly tracked down his quarry, however, and on 1 August 1798 inflicted an appalling defeat on the French, sending most of their boats to the bottom of Aboukir Bay, just outside Cairo. The English then proceeded to offer support to Turkish resistance to the French invasion. Although Bonaparte was able to inflict a further defeat on the Turks at the battle of Aboukir on 25 July 1799, the project of turning Egypt into a ‘sort of Islamic Milan’5 had begun to pall. In later summer, Bonaparte heard the news of the loss of French control of Italy which he had done so much to establish. He determined to abandon the rump of the French forces in the Near East, and to return to France.

Bonaparte arrived at Fréjus on 9 October 1799 and within a week was back in Paris. The potential delicacy of his position – he had, after all, just abandoned his command to return home from a dreadful campaign – was overlooked. His cursus from Fréjus to Paris turned into a triumphal march, with whole towns and villages staging ceremonial entrées for him and cheering his passage. He had become, noted one Montpellier schoolteacher, ‘this hero whose name is worth a whole army’, ‘a great man to whom France has turned its eyes as the object of its tenderest affections and dearest hopes’.6

This degree of panegyrization had its roots in Directorial festive culture, and testified to a subtle mutation which had been taking place in the tenor of public opinion. Prior to 1795, the heroes and great men which the Revolution had commemorated were civilians – or else tragic young soldiers such as Bara, the teenager hero voted the honours of the Pantheon in 1794. The festive culture of the Directory had become, however, less Revolutionary, more military and more nationalistic. Besides the decadal festivals honouring key Revolutionary anniversaries (14 July, 10 August, 9 Thermidor, etc.) or else for ‘natural’ categories (Spouses, Old Age, etc.) a new category of military and diplomatic festival now appeared. The town of Rodez, for example, had festivities for the victories of Lodi, Rivoli and Mantua in 1796–7. Toulouse feted victory over Spain in 1795, over Austria in 1797 (with further celebrations for Campo-Formio) and the capture of Malta in 1798 – and there were also funerary services held for the deaths of Generals Hoche in 1797 and Joubert in 1799. Local officials noted that these chauvinistic events were the most enthusiastically received by the local populace: in Normandy in particular a good dose of anglophobia invariably made things go with a swing. Even in the civilian festivals, military glamour and nationalistic pride now prevailed over the evocation of civic and republican virtue. Soldierly parades with fife and drum were integral parts of the ceremonies. The 9 Thermidor fête held in Paris in 1797, moreover, had extensive sections which involved parading and glorying in the works of art plundered in the Italian campaigns. Directorial festive culture was being militarized. In addition, since most of these ancillary festivals had to do with the battles which Bonaparte had won and the peace he had helped secure, they also served the young general’s popularity.

Bonaparte’s return thus caused considerable alarm and excitement within the political nation which seemed to be enthusing less for Revolutionary principles and more for the expansionist glory of what was coming to be known as la Grande Nation (‘the Great Nation’). The moment was particularly opportune because, although anxiety was still in the air, the military situation which had been the focus of preoccupation had begun to stabilize, and even improve. The English had been repulsed, and forced to evacuate Holland under the Convention of Alkmaar in October. French troops had also recovered their poise on the eastern front after some severe defeats, and they defeated the Austro–Russian force in a second battle of Zurich in late September. The Helvetic Republic was cleared, and the French went on to reoccupy the left bank of the Rhine, as a dispirited Czar Paul recalled Russian troops from western Europe. Within France too, royalist resistance to conscription and the Leftward swing of the Revolution had failed to ignite widespread revolt.

Yet if the military situation was being corrected, the state of politics had progressed to a point at which the decomposition of the regime seemed imminent. For several weeks after his arrival in Paris, Bonaparte held court in Paris, as interested parties and delegations from a variety of political groupings fawned over him. In every viable political pie, the finger of Siéyès was invariably to be found. The wily Director now set about assembling a conspiratorial team to revise a constitution which brooked no easy legal revision. His fellow conspirators included individuals drawn from the executive (Police Minister Fouché and Justice Minister Cambacérès as well as himself), the legislature (where Bonaparte’s brother Lucien, who was President of the Council of the Five Hundred, played a crucial marshalling role), and the world of politics, high finance and state service (Talleyrand, Roederer, Chénier, Daunou, Cabanis).

By 18 Brumaire VII (9 November 1799), things were ready. On that day, by a prearranged signal, three of the Directors – Barras, Roger Ducos and Siéyès himself – resigned, forcing the hand of the more grudging Gohier and Moulin. The Councils were convened and informed of the existence of a ghastly Jacobin plot, and this served as justification for removing the Councils to out-of-the-way Saint-Cloud – plus Bonaparte’s appointment as local commander-in-chief. The plotters had shown a little too much complacency, however, and the coordinated appearance of posters all over Paris declaring that the Republic had to be saved made many political insiders smell a rat. Next day, Bonaparte received a rude reception from the Councils, with cries of ‘outlaw’ and ‘dictator’ making themselves heard. Bonaparte was rattled, but his brother Lucien saved the day for him. He rallied the troops, forced the unruly neo-Jacobins out of the chambers at the end of bayonets, and inveigled the docile rump of the two Councils to agree that evening to a new regime, the Consulate. In a matter of months, Siéyès’s ‘sword’ would marginalize the originator of constitutional revision, and skilfully craft a new constitution very much to his own measure. In the Constitution of Year VIII (13 December 1799/22 Frimaire VII), a new regime was established in which power was located much more firmly on the first of three consuls who composed the executive arm. The Napoleonic adventure was up and running.

Though having played the role of reformist zealot to a tee, the young Swiss Benjamin Constant had wonderfully lucid second thoughts about what had taken place on 18 Brumaire, and what the coup d’état might mean for the Revolutionary political culture to which he was so attached. ‘I believe this is a decisive moment for liberty,’ he wrote to Siéyès on the morning of 19 Brumaire.

[T]alk of adjourning the Councils … would seem disastrous to me at this time, since it would destroy the only barrier which could be set up against a man whom you associated with yesterday’s events, but who is thereby only more of a threat to the Republic. His proclamations, in which he speaks only of himself and says that his return has raised hopes that in everything he does he sees nothing but his own elevation … [H]e has on his side the generals, the soldiers, aristocratic riffraff and everyone who surrenders enthusiastically embraces the appearance of strength … 7

Constant’s characterization of the three strongest supports of the regime in the making – the army, the right (‘aristocratic riff-raff’, in his disdainful prose) and supporters of a strong executive (those who ‘embrace[d] the appearance of strength’) – was just. Bonaparte needed military force to sweep aside the nay-sayers; the Right inevitably preferred a soldier in command to a republican ideologue like Robespierre; and much of the political nation had been won over to the idea of strengthening the executive. But Constant probably underestimated the strongest card in Bonaparte’s hand – namely, his popularity. Public opinion, fractured and torn apart on all major issues within the Directorial regime, seemed to be on Bonaparte’s side.

‘We saw the frightful regime of terror gradually returning; then suddenly, the journée of 18 Brumaire displayed to us a less gloomy horizon.’8 This comment by a bourgeois from Mende in the southern Massif captured fairly accurately the views of a solid wedge of middling France when confronted with Bonaparte’s coup d’état. Whatever Bonaparte and his regime became, at the outset he had a great deal to recommend him to those who had benefited from the Revolution (or who did not wish to lose, by the continuation of political instability, more than they already had). That he was a military man was not excessively worrying, nor did it seem to predestine France for an inevitably militaristic future. After all, George Washington had been generalissimo of the American colonists – and the United States of America had not turned into a military dictatorship. As the maker of Campo-Formio, moreover, Bonaparte was particularly associated with pacification with honour. He was an unusual figure, who had ostentatiously attended the Institut’s sessions on his return to Paris, for example, as if to demonstrate his intellectual seriousness and his debts to Enlightenment science.

In addition, Bonaparte was living exemplification of the career open to talent, that talismanic precept of bourgeois Revolution. With his background, he would not have secured a military command before 1789, let alone have the kind of glorious career he had managed. His military career also made him a member of a professional grouping with which the Revolutionary cause was particularly associated. Without the super-patriotic soldier, the Revolution would not have lasted. Even Bonaparte’s Jacobin past in the Terror-when the Revolution had seemed most at threat – probably did him no disfavours in that respect, for the army retained a reputation as a storm centre of fervent Revolutionary commitment. With the urban sans-culottes a busted flush, even most neo-Jacobins expected more in the way of radical commitment from the army than from the streets. Indeed, there were some–though neither Siéyès nor Benjamin Constant were of this number – who in 1799 would reflect that the professional soldier was more ‘representative’ of the spirit of the Revolution than the elected deputies who sat on the legislative Councils.

Historians of the Napoleonic regime have tended to exaggerate – so as excessively either to laud or to vilify – the putatively radical break which Bonaparte represented with the Revolutionary past. Bonaparte’s declaration that ‘the Revolution is over’9 showed a determination to keep a firm control over many of those aspects of the 1790s which had created division rather than harmony – representative government, a strong legislature, the elective principle, a free press, personal freedoms. Yet this redrawing of the political map also signalled a commitment to draw a line under the Revolutionary experience in a way in which those who had benefited from it could enjoy their spoils. These individuals – property-owners and professionals for the most part, as we have seen – were looking for peace and security so that they could consolidate their gains – and Bonaparte seemed determined to satisfy them. The perpetuation of the political culture of the Revolution had seemed to produce only instability and apathy, and the Revolutionary mythic present inaugurated in 1789, which was such a cardinal feature of political culture, had become tiresome and lost its appeal. The bourgeoisie, which had provided the basis of the Revolutionary political class, was thus increasingly willing to surrender the rights outlined in the 1795 regime to a more authoritarian set-up which guaranteed them their more material gains.

Not, moreover, that there was much to surrender in certain areas, for much of Bonaparte’s appeal was that he seemed to be continuing an existing but unfulfilled trend within Directorial government for a stronger executive power. The draconian views he soon exhibited on freedom of the press and freedom of association had already been prefigured by the Directory’s repressive attitude towards newspapers and political associations on the fringes of the Left and Right. His reduction of the elective principle was less resented than might appear likely: the low ballots of the late 1790s suggested that the country could either take electoral democracy or leave it. Beneath the frothy oscillations of Directorial politicking, growing centralization through a Directorial bureaucracy more effective than anything that either the Bourbons or the earlier Revolutionaries had been able to assemble also prepared the way for the Napoleonic regime. The wide use of military justice under the Directory to control areas of brigandage and highway robbery, for example, presaged the tough policies of Napoleon in pacifying France and creating a kind of ‘security state’.10

‘Confidence comes from below,’ Siéyès had opined, ‘power comes from above.’11 There was a telling Fénelonian echo in the comment which Bonaparte would have relished. The link between virtuous authority and a loyal and receptive population which Fénelon had posited as the basis of a moral polity found its consummation in the new First Consul. The source of his authority came not from the deity but from the public. ‘I myself, he noted, ‘am representative of the people.’ The new system was, the idéologueCabanis stated with no little satisfaction, ‘democracy purged of all its inconveniences’.12 That government was moreover made to Napoleonic measure. ‘What’s in the new constitution?’ asked the wags as the Constitution of Year VIII succeeded that of Year III. ‘Bonaparte,’ was the reply. Liberal critics would accuse him of having hijacked public opinion, central myth of the Enlightenment project. Yet Bonaparte’s claims to unify and represent public opinion, prefigured in the personal adulation and popular acclaim which had greeted him on his march from Fréjus to Paris, contrasted with the Directorial tendency to divide and fracture opinion.

There was still much uncertainty about what a Bonapartist regime would look like. Even Siéyès, whose more balanced constitutional schemes Napoleon put on ice, was uncertain whether Bonaparte would merely be a dictator in the old Roman republican sense, a frontman for a more representative scheme, or a continuator of a mixed system of government. Quite what Bonaparte’s accession would mean for the international balance of power also remained uncertain. Would he be able to live up to his Campo-Formio reputation as a man of peace? Would he seek to recover the French colonies lost to England and to reposition France as a global colonial and commercial power? Or would he renounce Louis XV’s conviction that France was a ‘satisfied power’ in Europe, and seek to make territorial gains like an old-fashioned eighteenth-century dynast?

There still seemed much that was uncertain, and much to play for in 1799. In a great many respects, 1715 seemed a very long way off. Despite Bonaparte’s amputation or deformation of many of the cherished values of the Revolution, it would prove difficult to liquidate all elements of the political culture he inherited from the Revolutionary decade. Indeed, he would not seek to do so, and sought rather to transform that culture into one of the bases of his personal rule. Despite the uncertainties, many contemporaries grasped the point – underlined by the new constitution which now came forward – that Bonaparte was rewriting the political script in a way which personalized power more forcefully on an individual than anyone since the pre-Revolutionary reign of Louis XVI – with whom he would soon be comparing himself (to his own considerable advantage). An early portrait – by Gros in 1802 – even showed Bonaparte flaunting as fine a set of legs as the Sun King – a subliminal association which, given the First Consul’s zealous dedication to propaganda and self-fashioning, was doubtless intentional. Power was represented in the body of the dynast again, and other representational claims were systematically downgraded. The eighteenth century closed therefore with a new, Bonapartist political tradition – which drew from Bourbon, Enlightenment and Revolutionary sources – establishing itself on the apparent ruins of Bourbon absolutism, constitutional monarchy, liberal republicanism and Jacobin authoritarianism. Its military orientation would, however, make fragile both the regime and its claim to greatness.

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