Napoleon and His Collaborators: The Making of a Dictatorship

Napoleon and His Collaborators: The Making of a Dictatorship

by Isser Woloch

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A great historian explains how Napoleon forged a dictatorship and explores the dilemmas of collaboration, personal and political.

The Eighteenth Brumaire, November 9, 1799: with France in political and economic turmoil, a group of disaffected politicians enlisted the talented general Napoleon Bonaparte to lead a coup d'etat and establish "confidence from below, authority from above." This is the story of how Napoleon managed his ascent from general of the Republic and first consul to dictator and conqueror of Europe. Napoleon did not vault into the imperial throne but moved toward dictatorship gradually; each assertion of new power came gilded with a veneer of legality and a rhetoric of commitment to the ideals of 1789. In this fashion Napoleon not only gained the upper hand over his partners of Brumaire but also retained their loyalty and services going forward. Far from shunting aside those collaborators, he put them to use in ways that satisfied their most emphatic needs: political security, material self-interest, social status, and the opportunity for high-level public service.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393323412
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 07/17/2002
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 904,305
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Isser Woloch is the Moore Collegiate Professor Emeritus at Columbia University. His publications include The New Regime: Transformations of the French Civic Order, 1789-1820s, which won the Leo Gershoy Award of the American Historical Association.

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Chapter One

Seizing Power: The Joint Venture of Brumaire

* * *

On at least two occasions the citizens of France had plausibly expected to see their revolution come to an end. The promulgation of the nation's first constitution in September 1791 marked the first such moment. Four extremely long years later—with Louis XVI and Robespierre in the grave, over a hundred thousand émigrés in exile, the Jacobin dictatorship dismantled, and the reign of terror at an end—the moderate thermidorians produced a new constitution and a new expectation of closure. The Directory, so named for its five-man executive, pledged that the republic would finally shed its revolutionary birth pangs for a kind of normalcy. But by 1799 that hope had waned. The Directory failed to create a national consensus or a normal politics just as it failed to allay the accumulated recriminations from the Revolution's fratricidal conflicts.

    To be sure, the French Revolution had begun auspiciously when the Third Estate transformed itself into a National Assembly in June 1789 and proclaimed as its basic principles the sovereignty of the people and representative government. The Assembly instituted a reverent commitment to elections at all levels of government, and even demonstrated an admirable willingness to surrender power to new men once the constitution was in place. In 1791 the deputies adopted a "self-denying ordinance" rendering themselves ineligible for election to the forthcoming Legislative Assembly.

    But the practice of a normal democraticpoliticseluded the new regime. As bitter contention exploded over relations with the clergy, the power of the king, the treatment of counterrevolutionaries, the prosecution of the war that began in April 1792, and the response to populist militancy, it became clear that the constitution had not provided an accepted, consensual basis for the nation's civic life. In this fast-changing and bewildering climate, new political imperatives eventually swamped commitments to legality and political compromise. In the name of revolutionary unity and public safety, Parisian militants overthrew the monarchy and with it the constitution of 1791. But the insurrection of August 1792 settled little, as citizens all across France chose deputies to a National Convention to fill the vacuum. The Convention, on which everything now hinged, found itself torn apart by factional conflict—a stalemate resolved only when the Montagnard-Jacobin alliance purged its Girondin rivals and thus achieved "unity by partition." The reign of terror and the ascendancy of the Jacobins in turn came to an abrupt end after 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) with the execution of the leading Robespierrists and subsequent purges of Jacobin stalwarts.

    Even as it completed a new constitution in 1795 as the basis for political normalcy, however, the thermidorian Convention did not trust the electorate's wisdom or loyalty at this juncture, fearing that it was too inclined toward royalist reaction. The Convention not only declined to enact a new self-denying ordinance, but refused to call an open election for the two-house legislature that its new constitution created. Instead, in the name of preserving the republic, it adopted the controversial "two-thirds decree," which provided that only one-third of the new legislators would be chosen in the upcoming election, with the remaining two-thirds of the seats to be filled by sitting conventionnels, the justification being that in the future only one-third of the legislature would be up for election annually. For the moment, perpetuation in office served the same function as enforcing unity through purges. But would that suffice to assure stability?


The official oath of loyalty in the directorial republic required a declaration of hatred for royalism and anarchy (the current epithet for Jacobinism). By most calculations the moderate political elite should have embraced the constitution of 1795 as a safe passage between those extremes—the practical alternative to the abortive Jacobin commonwealth of 1793 or to a royalist restoration. But the constitution of 1795 did not produce the anticipated equilibrium. Liberal enough to permit openings for oppositional movements, it did not preclude the government from taking repressive acts against royalists or Jacobins whenever it felt threatened.

    Centrist supporters of the Directory stigmatized political parties as illegitimate, no better than cabals. They thereby impeded the development of normal politics, since among constitutional royalists and former Jacobins, at least, an impulse toward organized opposition or nascent party formation came naturally. But the directorials denounced such tendencies as potential conspiracies to overthrow the government. The Directory regime improbably combined a system of annual elections with a readiness to nullify the results of those elections if they seemed outside the pale. When the right or left showed any strength in the political arena, the Directory suspended the liberties pledged in its own constitution and adopted coercive measures.

    With its allies in the legislature, the Directory thus organized two purges to undo the results of successive elections in 1797 and 1798. The coup of Fructidor Year V (1797) closed down the royalist press and ousted over two hundred deputies on the right who had tilted the balance in the legislature after that spring's elections. Following the next year's voting, the coup of Floréal Year VI (1798) struck at the left. The Directory orchestrated a purge of 127 deputies-elect, mostly Neo-Jacobins, having previously closed down their clubs and newspapers.

    These purges provoked appreciative responses at the time from various constituencies, but cumulatively this succession of unconstitutional actions sapped the legitimacy of the republic itself. Yet as self-declared liberals and anti-terrorists who abhorred the guillotine, the directorials could not decisively quash opposition from the left or right. In the end, then, nothing could be taken for granted, least of all the integrity of the constitution itself. The electoral wars of the Directory years fractured, unsettled, and ultimately disillusioned the moderate political elites. As the last year of the century drew to a close, many who shared the original thermidorian consensus were ready to scrap their constitution altogether and start over. In search of a surer, more controlled political framework, they became "revisionists."

    Paradoxically, from 1798 onward it was the Neo-Jacobins who defended the constitution of 1795 most adamantly. They correctly feared that any attempt to shed or alter that framework would produce a more authoritarian or oligarchic regime—an even less democratic constitution, which would surely bar their own path to local or national power once and for all. Before the Brumaire plot even existed, the Neo-Jacobins could predict its outcome as far as they were concerned. Polemics in their surviving newspapers and resuscitated clubs, and remarks by deputies who had slipped through the purge, communicated a passionate commitment to defend the very constitution originally designed to erase their legacy. In response, moderates might have found even more reason to question their own devotion to that charter.

    The more so since the Directory had managed to bungle other areas of its stewardship. The treasury was empty and financial stringency inhibited the government at every turn, most visibly in its ability to supply the army. This was especially scandalous since the Directory's diplomacy had provoked the formation of a new anti-French coalition abroad, the outbreak of a war on three fronts, and an early string of victories by its enemies—Britain, Austria, and Russia. Within France, the government's seeming inability to suppress a tide of rural brigandage and highway robbery—some political in coloration and some simply criminal—further weakened the Directory's standing, although it was actually in the process of mounting a serious offensive against this terrifying disorder.

    Meanwhile, the secularists or Voltairians in the government (often moderate on other issues) had incited a different kind of backlash. "Republican institutions" in their lexicon translated into a Kulturkampf with Catholic values and the Catholic clergy. The republican calendar, its ten-day weeks a remnant of more radical times, became the entering wedge for the government's counterproductive ideological campaign. By insisting on the observance of the décadi instead of Sunday as the day of rest and even of worship, the Directory antagonized ordinary Frenchmen and women. A campaign of harassment against Catholic primary school teachers further alienated many parents from the republic. As one aggrieved priest argued shortly before Brumaire, the constitution of 1795 did not truly guarantee the precious freedom of religion at all, and the Directory seemed to feel "that to be a republican one must still cease being a catholic."

IN THEIR RATIONALIZATIONS for Brumaire during and after the coup, its adherents indicted the recurrent electoral turmoil of the Directory regime for promoting factionalism at the expense of the public interest. Poorly designed organs of government compounded the damage, in this view, neither functioning effectively nor meshing harmoniously with each other.

    The thermidorian architects of the constitution of 1795 had abandoned the universal male suffrage promised in the Jacobins' abortive constitution of 1793 by returning to a propertied franchise and indirect elections. (Local "primary assemblies" of all eligible voters chose electors who in turn convened in departmental "electoral assemblies" to choose deputies, judges, and local administrators.) While Jacobins deplored this abridgment of the franchise, the right to vote at the primary level still remained extensive; indeed, according to the brumairians, it permitted "the disastrous and irresistible influence of the multitude in the primary assemblies." As a result, "the fundamental base of the representative system is thrown upon a shifting and volcanic terrain." Considering that voter turnout was notoriously low in the annual primary assemblies, perhaps averaging only 15 percent of eligible voters, this was a preposterous claim. Yet it did explain away for moderates the volatility of the electoral process: the often unsatisfactory choices of electors and deputies as well as the commotion that sometimes swirled around primary and electoral assemblies. Another element of the indictment, in any case, was assuredly true: "The frequency and universal simultaneity of elections" compounded that volatility. Elections to renew a portion of the legislature and of local administrations took place each and every year, never giving political conflicts and historic animosities a chance to subside. As one apologist concluded with notable illogic, the Brumaire coup held out the promise "that the vivifying influence of elections will make itself felt without producing trouble or disorder anywhere"!

    The character of the Directory's bicameral legislature magnified the appearance of instability created by the electoral process. Too large to begin with (one house of five hundred deputies, the other of two hundred fifty), it met day in and day out in the manner of the Convention, which had effectively ruled the country between 1792 and 1795. "Oppositionists are constantly in confrontation, opinions collide against each other, differences of opinion are exalted, the conflicts of yesterday are rekindled, to be engaged in again tomorrow .... [The legislature] can attain neither consistency nor poise." Again, this judgment was entirely one-sided, but the revisionists could have justly complained that on numerous issues crying out for resolution the parliament was not making decisions. Either the Council of 500 (which initiated laws) could not come to agreement within its own ranks, or a bill finally hammered out in that chamber could not win approval in the Council of Elders.

    Such frequent stalemates exacerbated the more obvious problem of occasional deadlock between the legislature and the executive for which no constitutional mechanism of resolution existed. Moreover, the five-man Directory itself could be frustrated by internal discord. The thermidorians had fashioned a collective executive precisely to avoid the danger of an excessively strong hand or dictatorship, but the Directory sometimes failed to maintain a collegial harmony. Internal conflict exploded twice, once in Fructidor (1797), and again on the eve of the Brumaire coup itself. Before three of the directors could nullify the royalist-tinged elections of 1797 by a purge, they had first to neutralize (i.e., oust and arrest) their two colleagues who vehemently opposed the plan. The three justified this manifest violation of the constitution by condemning their colleagues Barthélemy and Carnot for collusion with royalists who threatened the survival of the republic. The separation of powers was all well and good but did not offer much protection for constitutionalism in the absence of an underlying consensus.

IN SUM, the revisionists concluded after four years of experience that the defects of their own constitution promoted the very factionalism it was supposed to restrain. They were ready to jettison the open electoral arena with its annual confrontations; the clashing opinions endlessly ventilated in the legislature; the conflicts among the directors and between Directory and legislature; the liberal provisions that permitted public manifestations of Neo-Jacobinism and anti-republicanism—or anarchy and royalism, in the current formula.

    This sour perspective was of course far from universal. Apart from the Neo-Jacobins who now defended the constitution of 1795, some centrist republicans held a more optimistic view; for example, Théophile Berlier, a veteran legislator from Dijon respected by Jacobins and thermidorians alike for his integrity and legislative skills. Berlier discerned a broad republican consensus behind the exaggerated partisan rhetoric of the annual electoral battles. He viewed the campaign of the Year VI (1798), which ended with the Directory's anti-Jacobin purge, as "for the most part simply a war of nuances among patriots of different degrees." (Berlier himself had been chosen by both factions of the schismatic Paris electoral assembly, and when the government validated the slate of the anti-Jacobin rump, he escaped the Floréal purge.) In the legislature, he believed, there were no veritable parties; "notwithstanding its nuances, the whole body was republican." With this tolerant confidence in the republic's political culture, Berlier did not see the need for another coup, would not have supported it at the time, and would have been dismayed by its success. Berlier's equanimity was not widely shared, however, even if his ardent republicanism and liberal values still commanded the respect of his colleagues—some of whom would come to power in Brumaire and invite their ex-colleague to join them.


Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, author of What Is the Third Estate? and founding father of the French Revolution, had at least two things in common with Napoleon Bonaparte in the fateful year of 1799. Each had been out of the country for a time and therefore had the aura of a fresh face. With the latitude of a comparative outsider, each seemed to stand above the partisan recriminations of the moment. Moreover, although they were securely imbricated with the new regime, each nursed an aversion for the politics and institutions of the directorial republic. Upon their respective returns to France (some five months apart), Sieyès and Bonaparte sensed the malaise that gripped the political elite, and each concluded that the regime must be toppled.

    After his bold, decisive role in the founding acts of 1789-90, Sieyès's reputation endured but his influence receded. While he returned as a deputy to the National Convention (where he voted for the execution of the king) and continued on in the directorial legislature, Sieyès kept a low profile during the Revolution's subsequent phases. As he once famously remarked, his role during the reign of the terror was simply to have survived. Though thoroughly anti-Jacobin or thermidorian in spirit, Sieyès disapproved of the Directory from its inception. Fiercely proud of his conceptual powers in political theory, Sieyès found his ideas ignored in the constitution of 1795. Above all, that charter failed to incorporate his cherished proposal for a "constitutional jury," a third force standing between executive and legislature that could resolve constitutional deadlocks or annul transgressions of the constitution by either branch.

    Dejected by this snub, the sage of 1789 refused to accept a position as one of the five directors, which was his for the asking. Instead, he dropped into a kind of willed obscurity, resurfacing only briefly in late 1797 with an outburst against the ex-nobles whom he wished to bar completely from citizenship rights—an uncharacteristically radical position for this proponent of a moderate bourgeois republic, yet one consistent with his obsessional view of the former Second Estate, which he had attacked so memorably on the eve of the Revolution.

    Subsequently, just as Talleyrand helped launch General Bonaparte on his expedition to Egypt, the foreign minister placed Sieyès as the republic's ambassador to Berlin. This post he filled with a degree of satisfaction, dignity, and success, although his rapport with the Duke of Brunswick fueled speculation back home that Sieyès looked favorably upon some new form of monarchy for France. As diplomatic relations with the European powers deteriorated, France's vulnerability on its far-flung military lines became evident. A personal sense of danger shook the republic's diplomats after the assassination of French delegates to a negotiating conference in Rastadt, Germany. Sieyès decided to pack his bags and seek security back in Paris, where he was about to be offered a seat on the Directory again. This time he accepted.

    Sieyès filled the annual vacancy on the five-man Directory for the Year VII. But shortly after he assumed his post, and before he began to assert himself, a coalition of frustrated moderates and angry Neo-Jacobins in the legislature executed a power play of their own, known as the coup of 30 Prairial (18 June 1799). Accusing three remaining directors of malfeasance, poor leadership, and tyrannical actions, the deputies forced their resignations, in effect ousting them. Subsequently the Council of 500 debated whether to prosecute these ex-directors, and came only three votes short of doing so. Inexplicably, however, the most notoriously corrupt and self-seeking of the veteran directors, Barras, was left in place, while the selection of three new directors seemed calculated to produce new conflicts. Two of the men elected by the Council of Elders—Gohier and Moulin—identified with the resurgent Neo-Jacobins, while Roger Ducos became a faithful follower of the implacably anti-Jacobin Sieyès.

    The legislature's performance in those months heightened the anxiety of the revisionists. Panic over military defeat in Italy and the Low Countries emboldened the Neo-Jacobins to activate their arsenal of draconian measures. As an anti-Jacobin backbencher later recalled, the war crisis "justified the clamors of the Jacobins up to a point and caused a number of others to pass into their ranks." Not only did they come within a whisker of indicting the three ex-directors, but they won majorities for two muscular laws of exception: a forced loan—a kind of emergency tax with steeply progressive modalities to replenish the empty treasury—and the law of hostages, which authorized the interning of émigré relatives as a deterrent to the assassination of local republicans. Many moderates considered this no less than a revival of Jacobin spoliation and terrorism. The forced loan and the law of hostages later became part of the revisionists' litany in justifying their coup against the "destructive measures" and "convulsive movements" that ought by now to have been banished forever from French public life, regardless of circumstances.

    Of course things looked different to those who advocated such laws. Deputies from the western departments beset by chouannerie (anti-republican violence) communicated the sense of peril and helplessness in the region's isolated rural communes. They urged their colleagues to respond by threatening prominent sympathizers of the chouans, such as émigré relatives, with incarceration and seizure of property should any republican official in a community be attacked. Théophile Berlier sat on the committee appointed to deal with this problem. His liberal republican convictions at first ranged him against such a "repugnant" law of exception. But the firsthand reports relayed from the West by its deputies won him over to the proposal. In the end, although he was not the bill's rapporteur, he made the most impassioned floor speech in favor of the law of hostages, and came to be regarded as its architect.

    Berlier was the rapporteur for a proposed law to establish the boundaries of press freedom. His long-pending draft addressed the perpetual conundrum of how to preserve liberty and curb license, how to assure the right of free expression to journalists while protecting the republic from subversion. Most immediately, Berlier's bill would have limited the government's power to shut down or otherwise censor dissenting newspapers—a power the Directory had used with abandon since the Fructidor coup in 1797. The Council of 500 was also debating how political clubs might be regulated in order to assure freedom of association yet prevent the abuse of that freedom. Unlike many of his friends in the Council of 500, Berlier did not belong to the Neo-Jacobin club that had recently started meeting at a public building known as the Manège. But he keenly wished to halt the closures of local Neo-Jacobin clubs that the Directory had repeatedly ordered. Berlier therefore submitted a detailed and balanced proposal "to normalize these assemblies [and to specify] the limitations required for public order," which would have provided a more secure basis for their existence.

    Berlier's painstaking projects on press freedom and political associations never came to a vote. With opinion sharply divided, the Council of 500 could not reach consensus on either issue. Dissenting newspapers and clubs therefore remained vulnerable to government repression. Were my proposals on protecting and regulating newspapers and clubs "a vain utopia"? Berlier asked himself decades later. "Today I am strongly inclined to think so." That may have well been true, for these issues bedeviled French governments until the 1880s. But the failure of the legislature in 1799 to codify a liberal framework for a free press and political association would make it much easier for Bonaparte to erase both kinds of liberty in the wake of Brumaire.

    It also meant that the Neo-Jacobins would be fettered on the eve of Brumaire, since Sieyès was able to instigate the closure of the Neo-Jacobin's rallying point, the club of the Manège, three months before the coup. Not that his move was gratuitous. For the Neo-Jacobins detected in Sieyès a powerful enemy and had started attacking him personally. The preemptive strike against the Manège Club by Sieyès and his new police minister, Joseph Fouché, was effectively the preliminary skirmish of the Brumaire plot.

SUBJECT to fits of depression, Sieyès often fled to the sidelines and sulked, but he could also display fierce determination at crucial junctures and did so now with two clear objectives. First, to break the momentum of the Neo-Jacobins by deploying whatever powers the Directory had amassed over the years; then to lay the groundwork for a revision of the constitution. Given the inordinately protracted requirements for legal amendment, this meant some sort of coup, to be clothed as much as possible in the garb of legality. To this end, Sieyès recruited allies among moderates of all stripes in and outside the legislature, with particular focus on the Council of Elders. In the more fractious Council of 500, his most effective collaborator proved to be Boulay de la Meurthe, who would go on to become the quintessential revolutionary servitor of Napoleon from Brumaire to Waterloo.

    Born in 1761 to a prosperous cultivator who died when his son was three, Boulay received an excellent education in a provincial collège. Under the tutelage of a clerical uncle he first considered a career in the church but opted instead for the bar. As a young man he practiced law in Nancy and then sought his fortune in Paris, where he observed the early events of the Revolution, sometimes from the spectators' gallery of the National Assembly. Back home in 1792, he enrolled in the volunteer battalion of the Meurthe department as a common soldier and saw combat at the historic battle of Valmy. After mustering out of the army, Boulay was elected a judge on the civil tribunal of the district, but was later purged as a moderate. Rejoining the army, he rose to the rank of captain but ill-health forced him out. Back home again, a threat of arrest for his past politics drove Boulay into hiding for several months during the Terror, but the fall of Robespierre released him from that miserable existence. For a second time his fellow citizens in the Meurthe chose him as a judge and then as the department's public prosecutor.

    One of the very few republicans to be elected deputy in the royalist tide of 1797, Boulay embodied for his constituents their wish for moderation and reconciliation. But in the confrontational atmosphere that engulfed the legislature after the "new third" took its seats, he joined the directorials in their battle with the conservative and royalist opposition or Clichyites, as they were known, after the name of their club. Boulay backed the coup of 18 Fructidor, and along with Sieyès and Chazal, he was named to the committee that led the Council of 500 through the purge. Indeed, he became the committee's rapporteur, for as a young man Boulay had trained himself in oratory like Demosthenes, and his colleagues valued that talent.

    All supporters of the Fructidor purge agreed that no scaffolds should be erected for the vanquished side. But the Directory insisted on the penal deportation of the most notorious Clichyite deputies and journalists, and this extra measure of repression Boulay vainly opposed. Similarly, he deplored the tight rein of press censorship that the Directory imposed after the coup. Nor did Boulay share the anti-clerical, secularizing bias of the post-Fructidor Directory. In fact he led the parliamentary resistance to the Directory's anti-Catholic Kulturkampf in 1798-99, and successfully defended the prerogatives of private Catholic school teachers against proposals to regulate what went on in their classrooms. While he joined in engineering the ouster of three directors in Prairial for malfeasance and unconstitutional actions, he drew the line at putting them on trial.

    Boulay de la Meurthe possessed a finely calibrated political sensibility that combined liberal values with a hard edge of realism. Like Berlier, he was respected by his colleagues and often found himself named to important ad hoc committees in the Council of 500. On three occasions the Council elected him as its president, most recently in September 1799. During his one-month term, General Jourdan, victor of Fleurus in 1794 and one of the most prominent Neo-Jacobins in the Council of 500, introduced a motion to declare the fatherland in danger (la patrie en danger). Was this a plausible response to dire military news from the front or a license to plunge France back into revolutionary dictatorship? Neither interpretation could be excluded, and this evocative, open-ended motion therefore provoked an impassioned debate. Boulay worked strenuously to defeat the motion. As presiding officer he prevented a precipitous, emotional vote by stretching out the debate to a second day. Then he successfully lobbied for a rare appel nominal or roll call vote. These two tactics likely helped produce the desired outcome, for Jourdan's motion failed, 171 to 215 against.

    The timing was fortuitous. Within ten days, French armies under Generals Brune and Masséna finally halted the anti-French offensive with decisive victories in Holland and Zurich. The war crisis had been defused by ordinary means, for the most part, without plunging the country back into a revolutionary dictatorship. Sieyès could now begin to lay his plans in earnest.

Table of Contents

I.Seizing Power: The Joint Venture of Brumaire3
II.Organizing Power36
III.Early Warning Signs66
IV.From Consulate to Empire90
V.The Second Most Important Man in Napoleonic France120
VI.In the Service of the Emperor156
VII.Living with the Erosion of Liberty186
VIII.The Limits of Loyalty214
A Note on Sources247

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