On This Day in Napoleonic History – 9 November 1799

bouchot_-_le_general_bonaparte_au_conseil_des_cinq-cents18th Brumaire

18th Brumaire was the first day of the bloodless coup that would see General Bonaparte assume power as the First Consul. This is how Napoleon described his rise to power many years later, when he was in exile on a remote island of Saint Helena: ‘I returned to France at a fortunate moment when the existing government was so bad, it could not continue. I became its chief. Everything else followed, of course. There’s my story in a few words.’ The coup was not Napoleon’s idea but the brainchild of Abbé Sieyès. Joseph Fouché, Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and Napoleon’s brother Lucien were also involved. With the plot underway, the conspirators needed a sword, a popular but not too ambitious general who would ensure everything went smoothly. Their first choice was Barthélemy Catherine Joubert but he had been shot through the heart at the Battle of Novi on Napoleon’s birthday, 15 August 1799. It was Talleyrand who had persuaded Sieyès to turn to Napoleon on the basis of his impeccable Republican record. ‘You want the power and Sieyès wants the constitution. Therefore, join forces,’ he told Napoleon.

The legislative Council of Ancients, under Sieyès, passed a decree  moving the venue of the session of the Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred to St Cloud under the pretext of a Jacobin plot but in reality to place them away from the city and under the intimidation of Bonaparte’s troops. Napoleon delivered a speech for the Elders at the Tuileries Palace, calling for national unity, which was well received. ‘You are the wisdom of the nation. I will faithfully carry out the mission you have entrusted to me. Nothing in history resembles the end of the eighteenth century,’ he said. As Napoleon rode past Place de la Révolution, the scene of so many executions, including those of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, he remarked to his co-conspirators: ‘Tomorrow we will either sleep at the Luxembourg or we will finish up here.’

On day two, 10 November or 19 Brumaire, Napoleon rode to St Cloud with his troops. He blundered his way through his speech to the Ancients. ‘You are on the volcano. The Republic no longer has a government,’ he said. ‘The Directory has been dissolved, the factions are agitating, the time to make a decision has arrived. I want only the safety of the Republic and to support the decisions that you are going to take.’ When a member of the Ancients demanded that Napoleon swore allegiance to the Constitution of Year 3, Napoleon said: ‘The Constitution of the year 3 you have no more. You have violated it on the 18th Fructidor.’  He then proceeded to the Palace Orangery to address the Five Hundred. The deputies were furious at the sight of men in uniform in the democratic chamber and so Napoleon entered on his own to the contemptuous shouts of the assembly. ‘Down with the tyrant! Cromwell, tyrant! Down with the dictator. Outlaw him!’ they demanded. These were the cries that were last addressed to Robespierre.

Napoleon was uncharacteristically but understandably pale, emotional and hesitant. When his physical safety was threatened, he was forced to leave and sent an order for Lucien, who was the president of the Five Hundred, to join him. It was Lucien who saved the day in what was possibly the only time when any of Napoleon’s siblings would prove anything but a liability to him. Addressing the 400-strong legislative guard, Lucien drew his sword and held it to Napoleon’s breast, ‘I swear that I will stab my own brother to the heart if he ever attempts anything against the liberty of Frenchmen.’ He told them that the Five Hundred were threatened by royalists in the pay of English gold. ‘They are not the representatives of the nation anymore but some scoundrels who caused all these misfortunes,’ cried Napoleon, ordering them to disperse the assembly. The soldiers cleared out the orangery and some deputies were forced to jump out the windows. ‘The Directory is no more,’ decreed 50 or so deputies who were loyal to the coup.

Sieyès, Ducos and Napoleon were appointed as provisional consuls. An interim commission of 50 members, 25 from each chamber, would draw up a new constitution. Napoleon was able to seize power without shedding a drop of blood. Not a shot was fired by the population in the defense of the unpopular Directory. That night, Napoleon and Josephine did indeed sleep at the Luxembourg Palace.

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