It was with a palpable sigh of relief when Robespierre was overthrown and guillotined. The Reign of Terror had been a bloody, chaotic mess and it is easy to understand why the French people would now be exhausted and wary. Governance did not stop, however. Someone still had to take charge. In this edition of The French Turmoil, we’ll look into the Directory: a five-man governing body that ruled France for four years: and also how they were all kicked out by a rather famous Corsican general.
In the political vacuum, the National Convention ratified a new constitution. Similarly to the system used in the United States, it would be a government with checks and balances: there was a ‘Council of Ancients’ (sounds more like a council of grandfathers) with 250 members that acted as the upper house, and the ‘Council of Five Hundred’, with *surprise fanfare* 500 members that acted as the lower house.
The much more interesting part, though, is the executive body of the government. Instead of having an all-powerful President or dictator, like Robespierre had been, or a monarch, there would be not one but five officers who would rule France by being part of a governing body called the Directory, and these officers would be elected annually. (It’s almost like people were now so afraid of having one man take power with the precedent of Robespierre- so they had to go all the way up to five).
The Directory hardly had a fun time ruling France. First, they had to make sure that they could clear away the influence of both the Jacobins, the party that had supported Robespierre, or the royalists who wanted a restoration of the Bourbon dynasty. It did not help when a large number of royalists were elected in 1795 into the legislative body (the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred I talked about earlier). That same year, a Jacobin leader was guillotined after a coup plot was leaked out.
In 1797 things took a turn for the worse. Even more royalists and Jacobins were elected into the legislative body – the Directory’s moderate stance sure was very popular – and so the Directory decided simply to annul the election results, fire a majority of the legislative body and even fire two of their own Directory members who weren’t deemed as moderate enough. A Directory that abused its own power in such a way was hardly one that invited popular discontent. It did not help that the Directory would repeat its actions once again in 1798, all while being unable to solve inflation problems and reinstating the unpopular military draft.
Not all things were so crappy for the Directory yet. The French military was still being the knight in shining armor amid all of the chaos, winning more victories and territorial gains for the French republic. Between 1795 and 1799, a general stood out in particular: a Corsican named Napoleon Bonaparte.
NAPOLEOOONNNN’S HEREEEEEEEE *imagine loud fanfare*
We’ll talk more about the early life and rise of Napoleon in later weeks, but in this post we’ll focus on his relations with the Directory. Napoleon had almost unstoppable progress as he tore his way through Egypt and he won much fame for himself. Now, the fact that the French army was out campaigning for so long would have an important effect. It felt that it was more loyal and tied to its general rather than the republic– in effect, Napoleon now had a private army just for himself.
His victories finally did trickle to a halt, however, in 1799. Finally, the only thing that was still backing up the Directory’s credibility, military victories, was gone. This coincided with the election of a man named Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès to the
Directory. Sieyès, a man who had argued for the Third Estate back in the early days of the Revolution. (Remember him?) Sieyès, understanding that the government was hardly respected and instable, decided to take action. He felt that a strong military dictator would actually be more beneficial for France than the corrupt and ineffective Directory. He came into contact with Napoleon, and together they worked on a coup.
Napoleon first returned from Egypt to France, greeted with cheers by crowds for his campaign in the land of the Nile. On 9 November, 1799, Sieyès managed to arrange the two Councils to leave Paris because of a supposed upcoming Jacobin coup. Napoleon, it was said, would have command of all the local troops and would be able to provide them safety. Sieyès and two other directors resigned, thus practically abolishing the Directory: but the Councils were still there.
The next day, Napoleon stormed right into the meeting of the Council of Ancients. He declared before them that “the Republic has no government” and “the
Revolution is over” and to this a member of the Council of Ancients shouted, “And what of the constitution?” Napoleon was not impressed. “The Constitution? You yourselves have destroyed it.” he said. He declared that the Directory and the Councils had in fact destroyed it themselves with the parliamentary changes they had made in previous years.
If this was hostile reception from the Council of Ancients, the Council of Five Hundred decided to give him a full-on assault from which, according to some accounts, Napoleon nearly fainted and his brother had to call in troops to defend him. The Council could not stand against military might and so were forced to disperse, although not before raising a motion to declare Napoleon an outlaw. With the Council of Five Hundred and Directory gone, it was done.
That same day, the Council of Ancients was forced to issue a decree dissolving both the Directory and itself, and appoint Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul of France. A few days later, a new Constitution would be adopted: one that was missing the Declaration of Rights, the beating heart of the French Revolution.
The French Revolution might be nearly over, but the turmoil of France was not quite yet a thing of the past. Join us next week as we continue on to look at the reign of France’s first Emperor.
Vive la France!