Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power

Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power

by Philip Dwyer

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A superb new volume tracks Napoleon’s ruthless drive for absolute power, from the post-coup years to exile on Elba  See more details below


A superb new volume tracks Napoleon’s ruthless drive for absolute power, from the post-coup years to exile on Elba

Editorial Reviews

Charles Esdaile
“A wonderful read that will offer fresh insights to even the most hardened Napoleonic veteran: I only wish that I had written this book.”—Charles Esdaile, author of Napoleon's Wars: An International History, 1803-1815
Books and Culture - Douglas Wilson
“This is the book . . . stunning and memorable, reading like an insider’s account.”—Douglas Wilson, Books and Culture

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Yale University Press
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8.20(w) x 12.40(h) x 2.70(d)

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Copyright © 2013 Philip Dwyer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16243-1


The Invention of a Saviour

'Neither Excitement nor Enthusiasm'

It was still dark, the early hours of the morning of 11 November 1799. Bonaparte's carriage stopped before a modest house in the rue de la Victoire where Josephine was waiting for him in bed in a state of nervous anxiety. They stayed up talking for a while, going over the events of the previous day. He learnt that his mother and one of his sisters, Pauline, had come to the house. They had been at the theatre when they heard the rumour that Bonaparte had just escaped an assassination attempt. Pauline apparently had been unable to stop crying until news arrived that all was well. The strain the conspirators must have suffered over the last two days would have been enormous. Bonaparte appears to have taken it in his stride, with the exception of that little incident that had taken place amid the Council of Five Hundred at Saint-Cloud when the epithet 'Outlaw' was hurled at him by a number of deputies, furious to see a soldier enter the chamber where they were deliberating. He had nearly fainted. A little later that morning, when Bonaparte dismissed his secretary Bourrienne, he supposedly said as an aside, 'By the way, we will sleep tomorrow at the Luxembourg [Palace].'

Bonaparte was just thirty years old. He still cut a relatively svelte figure although over the years he would become portly, if not obese. His dark-brown hair was beginning to recede. He had a scar on his leg where an English bayonet had once pierced him. His skin was sallow, and his eyes grey. He was five feet six inches tall with a slight build. He did not have any children, but he would eventually sire four or five, only one of them legitimate, and none of them with his first wife Josephine. By any standards, his had been a meteoric rise. Less than three years before, he had been a nonentity on the political and military scene. Now he was one of the major political contenders, and in time would become one of the most recognized men in European history, with a hat and a pose – that is, his right hand in his vest or his hands folded behind his back – that would become iconic. No one yet knew, however, what he was truly capable of.

Newspaper accounts of the previous evening's events had already appeared by the time Bonaparte awoke after a few hours' sleep. It was 20 Brumaire in the Year VIII (11 November 1799), a décadi, a rest day in the revolutionary calendar. At the Chateau de Saint-Cloud on the western outskirts of Paris, where the coup unfolded in the night of 10–11 November, the conspirators had formed a new provisional government – dubbed the Consulate because headed by three consuls, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Roger Ducos and Bonaparte. The trip from Josephine's house in the rue de la Victoire to the Luxembourg Palace, where Bonaparte was to meet with the other two provisional consuls, was a short one. On his way, he would have seen people going about their daily business, taking a stroll on what turned out to be a mild, rainy day, gazing at the troops that had been positioned at strategic points throughout the city. Some stopped to read the proclamations posted on the walls of Paris explaining what had taken place, possibly relieved to discover that Bonaparte had escaped an assassination attempt against him, smiling perhaps at the story of the defenestration of the Five Hundred. The minister of police, Joseph Fouché, was doing his best to spread that one around the cafes and the theatres.

From a reading of the official explanations, plus the accounts given in some of the newspapers, it would have been apparent even to the most heedless observer that the coup had been Bonaparte's, or that he was at least the central figure, and that therefore he was now nominally holding the reins of government. That is why reaction to the coup varied according to what one thought of Bonaparte, or conversely according to how much one detested the ousted regime that had been in power since the fall of Robespierre, the Directory. In Paris, Christine Reinhard talked of how the people were jubilant, and of how, even a week later, the enthusiasm for the new regime had not waned – 'you would think that we had returned to the first days of liberty'. Given that her husband was minister for foreign affairs, she may have portrayed things in a somewhat rosier light than they actually were. Paris, by other accounts, appears to have been relatively indifferent. A curious police report stated that the coup was met with 'neither excitement nor enthusiasm' (ni l'exaltation ni l'enthousiasme). This was portrayed as a positive thing. 'It is at the bottom of people's hearts that this contentment resides.'

Paris was not France, and for the moment nothing was certain. The Brumairians, as the conspirators were called (named after the month of Brumaire in the revolutionary calendar, the month in which the coup took place), did not know how the rest of the country was going to react, and that included the army. More than sixty generals had been involved in the coup, but the troops belonged to the garrison of Paris, were personally loyal to Bonaparte and had been well prepared in advance. It was normal that they should publish a declaration of support in the newspaper the Moniteur universel, but reactions within the rest of the army were far from uniform. General Andre Massena, for example, at the head of about 35,000 demoralized troops in Italy, wrote that opinion was generally not favourable, while some divisions and a number of officers were openly opposed to it. Officers in the Army of the North (based in Holland) expressed some reservations, as did the commanding general of Marseilles. One cannot assume that because Bonaparte was a renowned general the army was completely swayed by him. On the contrary, the army was home to enough oppositional elements to make it a potentially dangerous institution. Eventually, the officer corps was purged, but that would come later.

The reactions in the administration were mixed too. A number of local authorities took the initiative and sent messages of adherence to the new authorities – this was the case in the north and east of the country, that is, those areas under direct threat from invasion – but at Toulouse there was talk of a Jacobin uprising. At Grenoble the National Guard refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the new regime. At Metz the commander of the town had to establish order by force and impose martial law in several surrounding areas. In 1789, the revolutionaries had divided France into eighty-nine departments. One week after the coup, the regime could count on the adhesion of only thirteen departments. The departmental administration of the Jura, for example, characterized Bonaparte as a 'usurping tyrant'.

This is why, ten days after the coup, the consuls decided to send one delegate to each military division (there were twenty-six in all), to carry the 'good news' and to nip in the bud any signs of resistance to the changeover. The delegates, all officers, had far-reaching powers to suspend or replace public functionaries, to close political clubs and to post proclamations. Three weeks later, however, twenty departments had still not sent in congratulations. Even then, the letters received did little more than mirror the propaganda the new regime had already sent to the provinces. It has to be said, though, that most officials in the departments appear to have welcomed the coup, happier to be rid of the Directory than to see Bonaparte's arrival on the political scene. Few were downright hostile. Even those individuals who had opposed the coup eventually had to face the political reality and come round to the new regime.

In view of the rapid turnover of political personalities since 1789, many people did not expect the new regime to last very long. In the last ten years, there had been five governments – the National Assembly (1789), the National Constituent Assembly (1789–91), the Legislative Assembly (1791–2), the National Convention (1792–5) and the Directory (1795–9) – and the country had swung from absolute monarchy to a republic when the king, Louis XVI, was executed in 1793. After that, the Revolution lurched to the left as increasingly radical factions vied for power, culminating in the ascendancy within the Convention of a group known as the Jacobins and the formation of an executive, the Committee of Public Safety, dominated by one of the leading members of the Jacobins, Maximilien Robespierre. During the reign of the Convention, more than 16,000 people were guillotined, another 25,000 were summarily executed by one means or another, and hundreds of thousands died as a result of a bloody civil war. This was the Terror, which was brought to an end only when Robespierre was overthrown in 1794, meeting the same fate as his victims. The Directory that ruled France from 1795 to 1799 did a reasonably good job in the face of war and civil unrest, but was characterized by corruption, scandal, an egregious fiouting of the electoral system, and a parliamentary coup.

For Bonaparte and his collaborators, the best way to overcome the impression that his government was transitory, one more in a long line of governments, was to make sure he was seen to act, quickly and decisively. Three days after the coup, Bonaparte made a dramatic gesture towards political reconciliation by repealing the Law of Hostages. The Law, passed in June 1799, was considered to be one of the most odious edicts promulgated by the Directory and called for local authorities to round up people who were then held as political hostages. It was a means of keeping rebellious regions quiet. Bonaparte personally went to the Temple Prison in Paris to release the hostages, and from there went on to other prisons, demanding the list of inmates, reportedly saying: 'It was an unjust law that deprived you of your freedom and it was my first duty to restore liberty to you.'

It was a media coup; the police reports noted how much of a favourable impact it had had on the public. Bonaparte's personal involvement in the release of prisoners had nothing to do with his humanity. It was also telling of the kind of regime now in place, and the kind of man heading it. The rationalization of the Penal Code in 1791 had completely eliminated the possibility of a head of state interfering in the legal process to grant pardons; it was considered a remnant of the ancien régime, at odds with the Revolution's notion of equality of all before the law. Bonaparte, however (though probably inadvertently), was reclaiming the right to patrimonial justice, to the historic prerogative of the executive pardon, years before it was institutionalized in the imperial Constitution. In short, he was already acting if not quite yet as a monarch, then as though everything already devolved from his person.

A series of conciliatory measures designed to help heal the social and political rifts affecting France followed this dramatic first gesture, many of them directed towards royalists: Bonaparte freed refractory priests who had been detained on the islands of Re and Oleron off the Atlantic coast; he began talks with the rebels in the Vendee and concluded a truce; in Calais, he freed émigré prisoners who were about to be executed; the very day the new Constitution was adopted (25 December), the law against émigrés was repealed, and those deported after the coup of Fructidor (September 1797) were allowed to return; more than 50,000 émigrés were removed from the list of the proscribed (a general amnesty followed in 1802); Sunday mass was restored; the oath of loyalty that priests had been required to take was done away with; a ceremony was held in honour of Pope Pius VI, who had died at Valence in August 1799; and the festival of 21 January, the anniversary of Louis XVI's execution – which the revolutionaries dubbed 'the festival of the just punishment of the last king of the French' – was abolished, as was the oath of hatred for royalty. A decision was made to keep only two national feast days as state celebrations: the festival of 14 July and the commemoration of 10 August 1792, the days on which the monarchy was overthrown and the Republic was founded. No other revolutionary government had dared offer such generous conciliatory gestures, obviously calculated, but which nevertheless marked the determination of Bonaparte to bring civil strife to an end.

Like most government bodies, however, the left hand did not necessarily know what the right was doing. Much of the moral capital Bonaparte won through these acts of clemency was almost squandered by Joseph Fouché's repressive machinery that went into action in the days after the coup. On 12 November, as a result of the first meeting between the provisional consuls and probably on the insistence of Sieyès, a mandate was issued for the arrest of about seventy former terrorists, Jacobins and various notorious Parisian sansculottes. It may have been a refiex action based on precedent. Fouché was ordered to draw up a list of suspects that was, deliberately it seems, incoherent. Among the names one could find the hideous drunkard Gabriel Mamin who, in 1792, had bragged about having killed the Princess de Lamballe during the September Massacres and of having ripped out her heart. But one could also find the victor of the battle of Fleurus in June 1794, General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, as well as a number of deputies who had made themselves conspicuous at Saint-Cloud by their hostility towards Bonaparte. They were joined by deputies who had not even been at Saint-Cloud but who were nevertheless suspected of being hostile to the regime. Thirty-seven individuals were deported to Guiana (commonly referred to as the dry guillotine, because death was slow but certain to come), while twenty-two others were confined to the islands of Re and Oleron where survival rates were as low as in Guiana. All the newspapers, with the exception of the royalist press, protested against measures that were obviously meant to eliminate what was left of the Jacobin faction. The outcry, not least from people who had supported the coup, made the provisional consuls realize they had made a mistake. They could not play at being above factions, law-abiding and non-violent if they immediately struck at the Jacobins.

Two weeks later, Bonaparte rescinded the deportation decree on the grounds that 'The [Jacobin] faction that would have wished to form a state within the state no longer exists ... To conserve public tranquillity, we no longer need to do anything but maintain a strict surveillance over those same individuals.' Bonaparte made sure that Sieyès was blamed for the mistake, distancing himself politically from any perceived wrongdoing, weakening his rival in the process. This kind of measure enabled the Brumairians to differentiate their coup from all those that had preceded them (previous coups had always ended in arrests, executions and deportations). Nevertheless, a warning shot had been fired across the bow of Jacobin dissidents.

'Despair of Relying on Yourselves and Rely Only on Me'

The problems facing the new regime were enormous: civil war raged in the west, brigandage, which could entail anything from highway robbery to assaults on towns by armed bands, was rife in many areas of France – some historians speak of a banditry psychosis – the treasury was empty, and the threat of an allied coalition, the second against France, loomed large. The coalition had formed while Bonaparte was in Egypt and consisted largely of Austria and Russia with British backing. By the end of 1799, it had succeeded in clawing back all the territory Bonaparte had won in northern Italy in 1796–7. The new rulers would have to work hard to win the support of a disillusioned public that had lost faith in both politicians and the democratic process. The Brumairians, therefore, not only had to make sure the army was either onside or neutralized, but they also had to convince the local administrations throughout the country to continue their work. Most importantly of all, however, they had to convince the public that the change in regime was warranted and for the good of France. Their success in all of this was by no means an easy or an assured thing. It was a gradual and uneven process that was to prove much more difficult than the actual seizure of power.

Excerpted from CITIZEN EMPEROR by PHILIP DWYER. Copyright © 2013 Philip Dwyer. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Philip Dwyer is professor of history and director of the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

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