Essay One: Malcom Crook, Keele University, U.K

The first panelist in the Napoleon Forum is Malcolm Crook, Professor of  French History at Keele University. Dr. Crook's publications include Toulon in war and revolution : from the ancien régime to the Restoration, 1750-1820 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press and St. Martin's Press, 1991); Elections in the French Revolution : an apprenticeship in democracy, 1789-1799 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996); and Napoleon Comes to Power: Democracy and Dictatorship in Revolutionary France, 1795-1804 (Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 1998). He is currently working on the development of electoral culture in nineteenth-century France, which will encompass the elections and plebiscites of the Napoleonic period.

Malcolm Crook, Keele University, UK

It is hard to shake off the myths surrounding the events of November 1799 by which Napoleon Bonaparte came to power. The approach of the bicentenary is already prompting their repetition: France was devastated by a decade of Revolution, led by colourless and corrupt politicians, and yearning for the arrival of a saviour, who was received with open arms by a despairing people. It is not only in student essays that such sentiments are expressed. I want to suggest three ways of interrogating the Bonapartist narrative of events, conveyed in official proclamations that were issued as soon as the coup was completed. First, the Directory, the regime that was overturned, had rather more to offer than the poor image propagated by its successors would have us believe. Second, the coup of Brumaire nearly miscarried on its second day, though unforeseen difficulties rebounded to Bonaparte's advantage by involving the military more than intended. And third, the consolidation of the general's authority was not achieved either rapidly or smoothly, but through a gradual process of repression and reconciliation.

Although its positive aspects have yet to make much impact at textbook level, the Directory was clearly a much more creative regime than is usually realised. Besides underlining achievements in the administrative or financial realms, recent research has brought to light a good deal of innovation. The pendulum did not simply swing back towards the early 1790s, for the politicians who remained in office from the Convention continued to explore ways to found a new order, not least by their endeavours to entrench republican institutions. Their efforts over four years, pursued in extremely difficult circumstances, were fruitful if not always successful.  This was especially true in the sphere of political culture.

Whilst it has usually been viewed as a post-revolutionary retreat from the commanding heights of the Year II, the Directory was a broadly based republican regime. The male, taxpaying franchise encompassed some five million Frenchmen, of whom a million were eligible to serve on the departmental electoral colleges which chose national deputies. Elections remained indirect, but legislative contests took place each year. There was a brief experiment with declared candidates, a fair measure of press freedom was permitted and a few glimmers of pluralistic politics can be discerned during this period. Indeed, in the Year VII (1799), the outcome of the electoral process was for once endorsed, rather than overturned, and measures were in hand to ensure the more orderly operation of elections in future. Voter turnout was not high, but there was no reason to suppose it was in terminal decline. It was Bonaparte's seizure of power that decisively removed any further opportunities for development along more liberal lines.

Ironically it was Bonaparte himself who contributed to the crisis which brought the Directory crashing down, since the military reverses of 1799 were provoked by his adventurism in the Middle East. The Second anti-French coalition not only threatened the invasion of France, which in turn provoked a recrudescence of internal unrest. It also convinced many, more recently elected, deputies at the legislative Councils that a revision of the Constitution of 1795 was the only alternative to Jacobin terror or royalist restoration. Of course, when Sieyès began to plot this course Bonaparte was bogged down in the desert sands of Egypt and the general's unanticipated return in September was certainly not welcomed by the former priest turned statesman. Yet Bonaparte's role was intended to be a subordinate one, since it was planned to persuade the two legislative Councils to yield up power voluntarily to a revisionary commission, rather than force them to do so.

Early on the morning of 18 Brumaire VIII (9 November 1799 according to the old calendar) the deputies were duly encouraged to decamp to Saint-Cloud, to the west of Paris. So far, so good. It was the following day, 19 Brumaire, that was the crucial one, for by then the element of surprise had been lost. Many Council members saw through the unfounded threat that had led to their transfer out of the capital and began to suspect they had been led into a trap. As the deputies remonstrated, so Bonaparte lost his composure and stormed into the chambers, to convey a few 'home truths'. In fact, he only exacerbated the growing resistance he encountered there. When Bonaparte was assaulted in the Council of Five Hundred he almost fainted (contrary to Bouchot's famous depiction of the scene, which shows the general maintaining his sang froid) and it was brother Lucien, a deputy in the Council, who saved the day by calling upon the troops to defend their leader. No wonder subsequent accounts sought to emphasize the orderly 18 Brumaire rather than the almost disastrous 19 Brumaire. The elision of the latter is complete, for history only makes reference to the former date.

The recourse to military force to overcome the protesting politicians only served to strengthen Bonaparte's hand when order was restored. He cashed in on his enhanced role in the events to determine the character of the new constitution that was rapidly drawn up. One French historian has rightly referred to the many coups of Napoleon, since the way in which he imposed his own solution to the post-Brumaire outcome may be described as a coup within the original coup hatched by Sieyès. Bonaparte declared his refusal to be 'the man of any party'. In practice this meant that when he nominated himself as First Consul in the three-man Consulate that emerged in December 1799, he was rendering himself a dictator. The short and obscure Constitution of the Year VIII set the tone for a regime in which government decrees would decide how broad legislation was actually interpreted. It was significant that the Declaration of Rights was dropped from this fourth constitutional charter of the revolutionary decade and that references to liberty and equality became increasingly perfunctory.

None the less, the success of the emergent Bonapartist order was by no means a foregone conclusion. The events of Brumaire were deeply ambiguous and could be read in different ways. The Directory found few defenders, even among its own personnel, many of whom sent congratulatory addresses to Paris. Yet if there was agreement that change was needed to end the uncertainty of the revolutionary decade, the basis of the post-revolutionary order remained in dispute. In some areas there was relief among radical groups that the Republic had been saved, while in others royalists assumed that a restoration was imminent. Above all, there was widespread apathy, neither enthusiasm nor opposition, for few perceived more than just another coup taking place in the depths of a severe economic crisis.

The vote or 'plebiscite' to which the new constitution was put (like its two predecessors in 1793 and 1795) revealed indifference if not much outright hostility. Yet the regime declared that some three million Frenchmen had expressed an opinion in favour of the new order and this fraud has only recently come to light. It was once again Lucien who rushed to his brother's assistance when it became obvious that the returns were disappointing and that the figures would be inferior to those recorded in 1793, if not 1795. By effectively doubling the number of votes cast in yet another 'coup', the regime imposed authority from above on the basis of minimal confidence from below. It would take victory on the battlefield, notably at Marengo in June 1800, some severely repressive measures against lawlessness, and a healing of the rift with the Catholic church, via the Concordat of 1801, to produce a greater degree of popularity. This was subsequently reflected in a strong turnout in the more genuine plebiscitary returns of 1802 on the Life Consulate.

The so-called 'revolution of 18 Brumaire' must thus be set in a broad context in order to demystify the Bonapartist legend. There were alternatives available in 1799 which have not been adequately explored because Bonaparte's news management was so effective. The coup itself was far from being a neat surgical operation. Above all, engineering the post-revolutionary regime was to prove a protracted matter. A great deal of attention has been paid to how revolutions begin, but relatively little to how they are brought to an end. As even Napoleon was to discover, the latter is rather more difficult than the former. He was gradually able to fulfill the promise he made on the morrow of Brumaire that 'the Revolution is over', yet only at the expense of abandoning much of the political acculturation of the 1790s. However, his authoritarian solution was no more enduring and efforts to combine freedom with stability would continue during the century that followed.

Copyright 1999 H-France and Malcolm Crook

Essay Two: Isser Woloch, Columbia University

The second panelist in our Napoleon Forum is Isser Woloch, Moore Collegiate Professor of History at Columbia University. Dr. Woloch's publications include The French Veteran from the Revolution to the Restoration (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1979) and The New Regime: Transformations of the French Civic Order, 1789-1820s (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994). Next fall will appear his new work Napoleon and His Collaborators (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000).

Isser Woloch, Columbia University

Brumaire, we must always remember, was launched by several dozen disaffected moderate politicians from within the Directory regime. They plotted to overthrow their own constitution because they believed the republic to be in imminent danger of collapse: threatened by a deteriorating diplomatic and military situation; beset by bitter factionalism and localized brigandage; destabilized by annual elections whose wide swings left no one feeling secure; soured by unconstitutional purges two years in a row; immobilized by governmental institutions that often produced stalemate in making policy and weakness in implementing it. Making their task easier, the French republic lacked a tradition of constitutional sacrality.

In 1795 the Directory was supposed to turn a new page with a general amnesty and a moderate, centrist politics, but it could not put the genie back in the bottle. As Voltairians for the most part, the directorial centrists themselves were decidedly radical and at odds with most French citizens when it came to religion, as in their coercive campaign to re-impose the republican calendar on a resistant population. Their purge of the right in Fructidor 1797 was a massive shock to the republic's integrity. Their repeated bludgeoning of the left likewise violated the constitution but never subdued that energetic minority, although ironically it led the Neo-Jacobins by 1799 to become the primary supporters of the (anti-Jacobin) constitution of 1795, which at least gave them some breathing room. In all this the Brumaire cabal saw the basic gains of the Revolution imperiled and time running out. This was their rationalization before, during and after the coup.

In assessing the Brumaire coup and the subsequent Napoleonic experience it is of course irresistible to ask: was it necessary? Was the Directory really such a failure, so politically bankrupt? This is probably a good question to avoid. We cannot extrapolate and rate the Directory's performance had it been allowed to survive. We cannot assume, for example, that electoral politics would have matured sufficiently in its mechanisms or levels of participation to provide a surer foundation for representative government. Or that parliamentary politics would have evolved toward the formation of a majority bloc and a loyal opposition, which might have enhanced its stability and effectiveness.

In the event, Brumaire was neither a simple parliamentary coup nor a military coup, but a joint venture between the veteran revolutionaries who initiated it and an ambitious general recruited to be their preemptive "sword." There is room for argument over whether the scenario for 18-19 Brumaire might have collapsed in the face of opposition by infuriated deputies in the Council of 500, thus making the "necessity" of Brumaire (let alone of the Napoleonic dictatorship) seem dubious. All we can say is that their resistance remained ineffective up until Bonaparte's soldiers cleared the hall (contrary to plan) and brought it to an abrupt end.

The next irresistible question is how, like someone walking behind you through a revolving door who exits in front of you, general Bonaparte emerged from the provisional government of Brumaire as the head of state with an unprecedented array of powers, while Sieyès effectively retired to the country, leaving his followers to become Bonaparte's pliant collaborators. Could it be that the general's constitutional ideas had a more coherent or realistic fit with the objectives of the "revisionist" politicians than the more convoluted and wistful notions of Sieyès?[1]

The revisionists assuredly endorsed Bonaparte's intention to depoliticize France. True, they expected an experienced, cooptive oligarchy to rule the country without the bother of elections or local autonomy, with a strong executive acting as their surrogate. They did not imagine that a first consul or emperor would dominate everything and gradually create a dictatorship. But that result could be palatable to them because Bonaparte did promote the pacification that they craved. As I will argue in my forthcoming book, the Consulate from its inception set out to heal the great rift of Fructidor. The targets of the purge and deportations of 1797 of course played no role in bringing Bonaparte to power, but he in turn did a great deal for many of them. If one observed the Council of State (the hub of the new government) a year after Brumaire, it would seem as if Fructidor had never occurred; the same was true, if less dramatically, in the Senate and elsewhere. To be sure, Bonaparte did not abandon the revolutionary tradition of "unity by partition" (in Furet's phrase). Before the ink on its proclamations had dried, the provisional government ejected the outspoken Neo-Jacobins of 19 Brumaire from any future positions; but in general the regime's patronage extended in many directions.

In the provinces, depoliticization and reconciliation hinged on the prefects who were not always the non-partisan paragons that the Consulate ostensibly desired. A kind of low-intensity warfare smoldered in many localities for the duration of the Napoleonic era and after, but for the most part it remained latent and contained. Mollien's astute comment about Napoleon's high-level servitors may have been true of politically conscious individuals all across France: "they were astonished to regain a kind of security that they had not known when they themselves governed" during the 1790s.[2] The most daunting challenge was to pacify the combustible borderland between the purchasers of biens nationaux and the returning emigrés who had been dispossessed. (The painstaking labors of the Bureau des Contentieux des Domaines, under the consummate Napoleonic collaborator, Boulay de la Meurthe, made a crucial contribution to this effort.)

With conciliation, however, came repression. "Public liberty" always figured among the basic gains of the Revolution that the regime was supposed to uphold (as enumerated, for example, in the Senate's manifesto endorsing the elevation of Napoleon to hereditary emperor.) At best this was wishful thinking, belied by the brutal deportation of "terrorists" in Nivôse IX (after the royalist's near miss in assassinating the first consul with a huge bomb); the muzzling of the Tribunate; the subjugation of a once freewheeling newspaper press; the re-imposition of book censorship; and the routine use of preventive detention not only for political dissidents or hotheads but for acquitted common criminals deemed to be dangerous. On most of these issues one can recover faint residues of discomfort and occasional objections among the liberal collaborators (the "men of the Revolution" in Napoleon's regime), which produced little more than symbolic gestures, perhaps, but helped them maintain the semblance of a clear conscience.

Unambiguously, however, Napoleon guaranteed the Revolution's clearing away of the old-regime's detritus, and enthusiastically embraced its modernizing vision -- the National Assembly's project to integrate France, to forge a unified national state, where laws, civil equality, civic obligations and public services would be uniform across the land, in all regions and from the largest metropolis to the smallest villages. (That a deeply unpopular military conscription would emerge as the regime's foremost civic obligation stands as an obvious but cruel irony in this drama.)

A Word on the State of the Field: Turning from such interpretive issues, what opportunities for further study are offered by the Napoleonic era? We have dependable and in some cases sufficient scholarship on such fundamental subjects as the local Napoleonic notables, the imperial nobility, the governing "organs" (as the Soviets used to say), the marshals, the prefects, certain cultural institutions, the civil code, and conscription (although on this last subject much clearly remains to be done). But there are many blank spaces and question marks specific to the Napoleonic experience. Here is a small, idiosyncratic sample:

[1] I have wrestled with the aforementioned questions in my forthcoming book, Napoleon and his Collaborators (W.W. Norton, Fall 2000), chap 1. On this last issue see Paul Bastid, Sieyès et sa pensée (1970 edn.), 249-58 and especially Marcel Gauchet, La Révolution des pouvoirs: la souveraineté, le peuple et la représentation, 1789-1799 (1995), part III.

[2] N.-F. Mollien, Mémoires, I: 234-35.

Copyright 1999, H-France and Isser Woloch

Essay Three: Annie Jourdan, University of Amsterdam

The third panelist in our Napoleon Forum is Dr. Annie Jourdan, maître de conférence in European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Dr. Jourdan recently has published Les monuments de la Révolution 1770-1804.  Une histoire de représentation (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1997) and Napoléon. Héros, imperator, mécène (Paris: Aubier/Flammarion, 1998).  Next year will appear her new work, Napoléon (Paris: Champs Flammarion, 2000).  She currently is investigating the artistic, mental, and historical representations of the Revolution and the Empire as well as the relations between the French Republic and the Batavian Republic.

Annie Jourdan, University of Amsterdam

Aborder Napoléon par la culture - et les arts - peut paraître incongru, voire absurde. Les historiens l'ont brossé avant tout comme un militaire, un législateur, un politique, un administrateur. Certes, on lui a reconnu un certain intérêt pour l'architecture, avant de conclure bien vite à la mégalomanie. Mais Napoléon a aussi encouragé comme jamais la peinture d'histoire contemporaine.

Les historiens ne se sont pas non plus passionnés pour l'intérêt très tôt affiché par le jeune Bonaparte pour les belles lettres et les disciplines historiques. Napoléon Bonaparte, véritable fils des Lumières avait pourtant compris très vite la leçon donnée par Voltaire. Lui aussi, il valorise les activités de l'esprit. C'est perceptible dès la jeunesse, mais ce l'est encore dès la campagne d'Italie, où il met un point d'honneur à paraître un homme de culture. Et, il persistera au point de vouloir surpasser Louis XIV en ce domaine.[1] A partir de cette découverte, que confirment la correspondance et les témoignages des visiteurs du château de Mombello, et de la politique culturelle qui s'ensuit dès l'Italie et l'Egypte, il est possible de re-découvrir un homme, mais aussi de reconstruire les images sous lesquelles il entendait passer à la postérité.

Son attitude, me semble-t-il, découle de la vision qu'il a de l'histoire. Son intérêt à ce sujet est constant et croissant, ainsi que le dévoilent ses lectures et les écrits de jeunesse, de même que ses bibliothèques successives. Modèle exemplaire dans la jeunesse, l'histoire sera ensuite un argument d'autorité pour motiver actions et politique. Mais ces connaissances sont encore une instance de légitimité, en ce sens qu'elles permettent d'afficher un savoir et donc une supériorité intellectuelle. Enfin, l'histoire est en mesure de raconter l'extraordinaire aventure du Héros, aux contemporains comme aux générations suivantes. Elle est l'instrument par excellence pour accéder à l'immortalité dans les mémoires. Dimension qui ne laisse pas de préoccuper Napoléon Ier.

Durant son règne, Napoléon ne trouva pas un nouveau Voltaire qui écrirait le Siècle de Napoléon. Par contre, les contemporains s'accordent pour reconnaître qu'il y eut un substitut efficace: les beaux-arts, perçus alors comme le suppléant et le complément idéal des lettres et de l'histoire. Ainsi que le soutient Denon, le directeur du Musée Napoléon, ils "passent la mémoire du temps présent à l'intérêt du temps à venir"; ils sont souvent "les seuls témoignages de gloire qui survivent à tous les siècles". Ils sont signes du passage sur terre d'un homme, et donc, une instance d'immortalité. Comme l'histoire, ils ne sont pas moins primordiaux pour vieillir rapidement le proche passé et lui donner une usure prématurée - en figeant le héros sur la toile ou dans le marbre, en lui conférant une galerie d'ancêtres ou en déclinant ses actes glorieux et multiples. Plus ces actes multiples s'accumulent sur la toile, le bronze ou le marbre, plus ils suggèrent une ancienneté. Or, on le sait, c'est l'ancienneté qui fait le plus cruellement défaut à Napoléon Ier. On comprend mieux alors qu'il se soit hâté de combler le vide symbolique qui lui advient à lui et à sa dynastie.[2]

Quand entre sur scène le général d'Italie, la première constation qui s'impose, c'est qu'il accorde très vite un grand intérêt tant à la presse qu'à ses portraits. Il comprend que pour se faire rapidement un nom, il importe à la fois qu'il soit souvent évoqué - dans les journaux - mais aussi qu'il soit visualisé et que lui soient conférés des traits précis - signes de reconnaissance. Dès le printemps 1796, on le voit avide de faire graver ses premiers portraits - entre autres, celui de Gros, jeune élève de David, qui vient le rejoindre à Milan. De retour à Paris, il suggère à David de le peindre "calme sur un cheval fougueux" - ainsi qu'il convient au Héros - et nie qu'il faille tendre à la ressemblance. Peu importe,aurait-il dit, que "les portraits des grands hommes ne soient pas ressemblants, pourvu que leur génie y vive". A cette date, il se donne pour "une espèce de Caton", pour un héros républicain, sévère et inflexible. Les images figurées qui naissent dès lors ont pour objet de redoubler cette image mentale.

A partir de l'Egypte, où il se fait couper les cheveux, et surtout après le 18 Brumaire, les contemporains, admiratifs, ne cessent de crier à la ressemblance entre Junius Brutus et Bonaparte. Cette ressemblance physique semble garante de la ressemblance morale et réconforte ceux que le coup d'Etat aurait pu inquiéter. Peu à peu, les images se diversifient en effet et proposent une autre face de Bonaparte, celle de magistrat suprême de la République: un homme sévère, travailleur acharné et politique profond. Un pacificateur, un restaurateur, un génie absorbé dans de vastes méditations. Les peintres essaient de reproduire sur la toile l'image que donne de lui-même le grand homme dans la vie publique et militaire. Bientôt, ils créent un type: Napoléon Bonaparte. Entre-temps, le Premier Consul a perdu son dynamisme belliqueux, son bâton de commandement ou son épée. Dès le Consulat, on le voit revêtu de l'uniforme sous lequel il est entré dans la postérité. C'est qu'il a perçu très vite, qu'il devait se distinguer de son état-major. Il choisit de le faire par la simplicité des apparences - gage de vertu et de républicanisme.

Les multiples tableaux de bataille commandés pour orner la Galerie de Diane des Tuileries, fonctionnent comme une compensation à son défaut de légitimité et remémorent aux yeux des visiteurs les pérégrinations du plus grand capitaine des temps modernes: Italie, Egypte, Autriche, Allemagne, Espagne, Napoléon est partout à la fois. Sur ces immenses toiles, l'acteur principal est l'Empereur des Français. Non point en tant que souverain en majesté, comme sur les portraits du Sacre, bien à l'inverse. Ici est représenté le grand capitaine, le maître de l'Europe, le père des soldats. Napoléon protège, soutient, accueille, exalte, rallie, concilie, compâtit. Par sa seule apparition et sa seule parole, il séduit et persuade les soldats, français et étrangers, les divers souverains de l'Europe, le tsar de toutes les Russies. Tous succombent au charme. Si la noblesse et l'élégance prédominent dans quelques scènes d'apparat,[3] dans les batailles, bien souvent, les artistes déclinent les traits touchants du Héros et restituent une dimension humaine à l'icône qu'est devenu Napoléon-le-Grand. Le voilà endormi dans le bivouac de Wagram, devant les soldats attendris. Ailleurs, il fait grâce au prince d'Hatzfeld ou donne une bourse à une paysanne démunie. A moins qu'il ne fasse une entrée triomphale à Munich, Berlin ou Vienne, sous le regard admiratif des peuples vaincus. La liste est longue, et mieux vaut aller à Versailles pour en juger par soi-même.

Il faudra le mariage autrichien pour que s'opère un nouveau glissement. Le héros enfin se déride. Il a l'air amoureux. Il rayonne de bonheur et rayonne plus encore quand naît son fils. Ces oeuvres, auxquelles il faudrait ajouter les statues et les bas-reliefs, constituent l'histoire illustrée de l'Empire. Les contemporains parleront d'un Moniteur visible. Elles égrènent les prouesses du règne, témoignent de l'extraordinaire mobilité du grand homme, valorisent son énergie surhumaine et son omnipuissance, tandis que l'exotisme des paysages brise la monotonie engendrée par les scènes de batailles. Elles confèrent une silhouette inaltérable à Napoléon, quitte à ne pas être fidèles, puisqu'à partir de quarante ans, il a grossi et vieilli. Elles donnent corps à Napoléon pour l'éternité, un corps idéalisé, mais immédiatement reconnaissable par la grâce du costume, d'une monture (étalon blanc), d'un laconisme (qui n'exclut pas l'humanité), d'une gestuelle (démonstrative, incitative, protectrice), par la position centrale et l'éclairage qui lui confèrent une élévation physique, suggérant elle-même une élévation morale.

Le succès de l'image de Napoléon depuis deux siècles témoigne du succès de l'entreprise. Cette image, c'est lui-même qui l'a créée, dès le Consulat, où il adopte le fameux tricorne et la redingote grise. Costume qu'il n'oublie pas de revêtir, en 1815, de retour de l'île d'Elbe. Plus que celle de l'Empereur en costume de Sacre, privilégiée surtout en regard du présent - pour faire accepter sa dignité nouvelle à ses proches et aux rois de l'Europe - c'est en définitive l'image de l'empereur républicain[4] qui se perpétue dans nos mémoires. Et tel, il s'est voulu, jusqu'à Sainte-Hélène. Empereur républicain, par son génie, son labeur, son humanité et sa culture - dignes d'un homme des Lumières. N'en déplaise à son despotisme croissant. Cette culture, il l'a donc mise à profit pour entrer durablement dans l'Histoire, sous forme visuelle tout d'abord, textuelle par la suite, ainsi que le prouvent les mémoires de Sainte-Hélène.[5]


[1] Je me permets de renvoyer à mon livre qui traite de ces divers problèmes. Napoléon . Héros, Imperator, Mécène (Paris: Aubier/Flammarion, 1998).

[2] A peine sacré, Napoléon commande les portraits des Maréchaux d'Empire et des grands dignitaires, les statues ou portraits des princes et des princesses. C'est qu'il lui faut une galerie d'ancêtres - qui donnent un passé à sa toute nouvelle dynastie.

[3] Entre autres celles qui représentent le mariage de Jérome, le mariage autrichien ou Napoléon recevant le Sénat romain. Dans ces tableaux, Napoléon arbore le petit habit de cour - style Renaissance.

[4] Empereur républicain, c'est-à-dire à la fois chef de l'armée et père de ses peuples, mais en tant que militaire, on ne le voit donc jamais plus se battre ni manier une arme. Les scènes figurent le moment avant ou après la bataille.

[5] Il va sans dire qu'il l'a également mise à profit pour accéder au pouvoir et s'y maintenir, pour éblouir ceux qui l'approchaient - Goethe par exemple - et pour accroître sa puissance.

Copyright 1999, H-France and Annie Jourdan

Howard G. Brown, SUNY Binghamton

The final panelist in our Napoleon Forum is Howard G. Brown, Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies in History at Binghamton University, State University of New York.  Among Dr. Brown's publications are War, Revolution, and the Bureaucratic State: The Politics of Army Administration in France, 1791-1799 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).  He currently is completing a book entitled "Ending the French Revolution:  Violence, Justice and Repression, 1795-1802."  Dr. Brown organized, with Dr. Judith Miller of Emory University, an international symposium entitled "The Impossible Settlement: Problems of a New Order in Post-Revolutionary France," A Symposium to Mark the Bicentennial of Napoleon's Seizure of Power, Atlanta, November 12-13, 1999.

Howard G. Brown, SUNY-Binghamton

It is imprudent to claim that historians have reached a consensus on something. Nonetheless, Napoleon Bonaparte’s historical significance has several aspects that are generally accepted.  Oddly, these accord with Napoleon’s own image of himself cultivated during his years in exile.  Most importantly, Napoleon shaped his own image into a legend by focusing on military genius and charismatic leadership.  Although historians work hard to prevent geniuses from proliferating, they agree that Napoleon was one of the greatest military commanders of all time (even though his innovations were limited).  The importance of his powerful presence, whether in private or public, has never been questioned, making him an archetype of Max Weber’s “charismatic authority.”  Napoleon also presented himself as a latter-day Justinian and self-conscious modernizer.  Here too, historians find little to quarrel about.  Louis Bergeron called him “the last of the enlightened despots or the prophet of the modern state”;[1] François Furet dubbed him “the Louis XIV of the democratic state.”[2]  All of this agreement between Napoleon and historians confirms a final point of consensus: Napoleon was a master propagandist.

However, there are other areas where Napoleon’s image of himself and historical scholarship are profoundly at odds and have been for a long time.  One of these is his relationship to the French Revolution; another is his legacy in French politics.  Both aspects are old chestnuts of Napoleonic historiography.  However, they take on freshness when the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire Year VIII is removed from the pantheon of Napoleonic events and demythologized as a point of rupture.

Simply marking the bicentennial of Napoleon Bonaparte’s seizure of power raises suspicions about one’s political values.  The coup d’état of 18 Brumaire has become synonymous with an authoritarian reaction against republican democracy.  This is due in large part to later struggles over republicanism in France, especially Napoleon III’s massive repression of 1851 and Marx’s analysis of it. However, the events of 18-19 Brumaire Year VIII do not merit the historical significance bestowed upon them.  True, this sordid affair brought a general to power and, true, Bonaparte soon became Napoleon, a thoroughly machiavellian prince running a new model empire.  But Brumaire should not be used as historical shorthand for the transition from democracy to dictatorship.  Both the demise of democracy and Bonaparte’s role in it cannot be confined to the coup and the Consulate.

Napoleon Bonaparte was able to become Emperor because his personal ambition before and after Brumaire served as a catalyst in the emergence and consolidation of “liberal authoritarianism,” the political praxis that dominated nineteenth-century France.  This concept of “liberal authoritarianism” is a triple entendre intended to express 1) the limits the liberal (i.e. rights based and constitutionally defined) legal system placed on the powerful police apparatus created after 1793, 2) the French state’s repeated recourse to a liberal (i.e. heavy) use of armed force to resolve socio-political crises, 3) the support supposed liberals (i.e. the representatives of the social and political juste milieu) generally accorded to these contradictory aspects of governance throughout the nineteenth century.[3]

The tortuous journey from a bloody reign of virtue to an even bloodier reign of military prowess should be divided into three phases: 1794-1797; 1797-1802; 1802-1814.  This is an unconventional periodization which relegates both the start and end of the Directory to secondary significance.  It has the virtue, however, of better marking the stages in the collapse of the revolutionary imaginary and the rise of “liberal authoritarianism,” the Napoleonic era’s most important historical legacy.

The first phase could be called the Thermidorian years.  They ran roughly from the overthrow of Robespierre in the summer of 1794 to the defeat of domestic royalism in the autumn of 1797.  These years were dominated by continuous warfare, vigilante violence, and economic chaos.  They also witnessed a desperate struggle to define the nature of republican democracy and the political elite it would generate.  Populist democracy disappeared quickly, the sans-culottes and Babeuf notwithstanding.  On the other hand, only a good deal of royalist bungling and some timely interventions by the army prevented a ground swell of anti-jacobin reaction from bringing down the fledgling republic.  Bonaparte’s ruthless “whiff of grapeshot” preserved the Thermidorians in power and ironically made him midwife to the Directorial regime.  Later his army’s published threats to intervene in domestic politics encouraged a triumvirate of hardliners in the new government to use military force to end the royalist threat of 1797.  The coup d’état of 18 Fructidor V (September 1797) ostensibly saved the Republic but crippled its political legitimacy.

Bonaparte’s victories in Italy in 1796-97 had a similar duality.  They gave the republic some much needed prestige, but their detrimental effects were more significant and longer lasting.  The money he sent back to France was a tiny fraction of the annual budget and his victories did nothing to lessen the anti-republican landslide in the elections of spring 1797.  Furthermore, in order to turn the preliminaries of Leoben (April 1797) into the Peace of Campoformio (October 1797), he had to threaten Austria with renewed attack, which could only be done by stripping southern France of regular army units.  This once again plunged the Midi into factional violence, proving that the Thermidorians and the Constitution of Year III were incapable of ending the Revolution.  Such manifest domestic weakness prevented the Directory from rejecting Campoformio--essentially a replacement of the Republic’s priorities (natural frontiers) by those of Bonaparte (a satrapy in Italy)--and so forced it to live with an inherently unstable settlement.  Thus Bonaparte was deeply implicated in compromising the regime both at home and abroad.

The second phase extended from Fructidor V to the Constitution of year X.  It was characterized by renewed warfare, a continual erosion of democracy, the elimination of Jacobinism, and a steady increase in authoritarianism.  Bonaparte contributed more than anyone else to the reckless extension of French power that provoked the war of the second coalition.  His army’s absence in Egypt ensured that a renewal of warfare soon became a national emergency and led directly to the “Jacobin hundred days”[4] of 1799.  In the meantime, he had helped to create a dangerous national thirst for military glory.

Contrasting the Directory and the Consulate is a cliché of Bonapartist and republican historiography alike.  However, it was Fructidor, and not Brumaire, which turned the page on representative democracy and the rule of law, and it was the Consulate for Life, not the Imperial coronation, which closed the book.  After Fructidor the Directory made frequent use of its arbitrary powers.  Selectively nullifying elections and disfranchising former nobles belied the regime’s democratic claims.  The Second Directory sacked and replaced so many elected officials that the Consulate’s transition to appointed prefects, judges and mayors appeared to be little more than streamlining an already undemocratic system of local administration.  How much did it matter when rigged plebiscites replaced election tampering and electoral lists took the place of exclusionary laws?  How much freedom of the press was really left when Bonaparte stifled it in 1800?

Just as republican historians failed to describe the comatose state of democracy before the Consulate nailed the coffin shut, Bonapartist historians emphasized the Consulate’s return to law and order without acknowledging the Directory’s preparatory work. The endemic lawlessness of rural France was not ended by an ecumenical choice of officials or the reopening of churches, alone; it was quashed by ruthless repression.  The Fructidor coup began this process.  Military commissions tried at least a thousand people as émigrés and summarily executed 275 of them.  By Brumaire over 200 cities, towns and villages had been put under a form of martial law known as a “state of siege.”  Starting in January 1798, military courts tried hundreds of civilians accused of highway robbery or housebreaking.  Mobile military commissions attached to flying columns followed in early 1801 in order to break the back of brigandage in the west and south.  Once the balance of fear had tipped in the state’s favor, Special Tribunals were created to ensure that the regular criminal courts would not be “corrupted” by sympathy or intimidation.  Between 1797 and 1802 the gendarmerie doubled in size and public prosecutors gained considerable investigative powers.  In the process, France became a “security state.”  Eliminating representative democracy and fortifying criminal justice went hand in hand with a vast administrative analysis of society that gave the state an unprecedented ability to chart social change, and thereby respond more effectively to it. Thus local communities became enmeshed in the security state, at first through repression and then through supervision.[5]  The revolution turned subjects into citizens; the security state turned citizens into administrés.

The Thermidorian years convinced the republican elite that genuine democracy was not yet viable in France.  The turn to liberal authoritarianism occurred in 1797 and by 1802 the security state was in place.  Only after the power of the post-revolutionary notability had been solidified was the Revolution truly over.  The Constitution of Year X completed this process by restricting political participation to les plus imposés.  The state’s basis of legitimacy had shifted from providing access to politics to providing security and social stability.

During the third phase from 1802 to 1814 France experienced the truly Napoleonic years.  The transition from first Consul for Life to Emperor was more a matter of style than substance.  This was the age of personal grandeur, an essentially ephemeral period dominated by egomania.  The Civil Code had already been written, if not enacted, and creating the Imperial nobility was a gratuitous indulgence after the Légion d’honneur.  Conscription had been thoroughly ensconced before perpetual warfare began in 1803. Napoleon’s legend rests on his European conquests.  However, once he consolidated his power in France, and turned the Bonapartes into a “gangster dynasty”[6] ruling Europe, his personality made defeat by a coalition of powers utterly inevitable.  The Napoleonic legend was not the Napoleonic legacy, and the central part of that legacy--liberal authoritarianism--was not really his, but that of the post-revolutionary notability.


[1]  L’épisode napoléonienne: aspects intérieurs, 1799-1815 (Paris, 1972), 8.

[2] Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française (Paris, 1988), 224.

[3] For a fuller explanation of “liberal authoritarianism” and its place in
the longue durée, see Howard G. Brown, “Domestic State Violence:
Repression from the Croquants to the Commune,” The Historical Journal 42
(Sept. 1999).

[4] J-P Bertaud, Bonaparte prend le pouvoir (Paris, 1987), 120.

[5] This concept is more fully developed in Howard G. Brown, “From Organic
Society to Security State: the War on Brigandage in France, 1797-1802,"
Journal of Modern History, 69 (1997): 692-4.

[6] Richard C. Cobb, The Police and the People: French Popular Protest,
1789-1820 (Oxford, 1970), 197.

Copyright 1999, H-France and Howard G. Brown