Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Bonaparte's Coup d'etat

Bonaparte had been without news from home for ten long months, so he was not aware of many important events that happened since his departure. The Directory had governed weakly and unfairly at home, and abroad had so mismanaged things that the recent French conquests in Italy were already lost. The new southern republics, after a brief existence, had been overthrown, and the old governments restored; besides, measures were even now being taken to punish the French, who had robbed Italy so ruthlessly of many treasures, and had detained Pope Pius VI. in captivity! Of course, the news of all these disasters to France delighted her English foes; and Sir Sidney Smith, thinking it might discourage French soldiers so far away from home, sent a bundle of newspapers to Bonaparte. You can imagine how eagerly these newspapers were devoured, but they produced a very different effect from that which was expected.

The French army could not leave, for English vessels were patrolling the Mediterranean, but Bonaparte calculated that one vessel might, perchance, slip through unseen. He therefore left General Kleber in charge of the army in Egypt, and, taking the ablest officers with him, embarked to run the blockade. Some authorities state that Napoleon was only too glad to leave Egypt just after winning a famous victory, because he foresaw that thereafter things would go wrong, and wanted some one else to bear the blame! However that may be, Kleber did not make friends with the Mohammedans, nor did he maintain good order; after sundry ups and downs, he was stabbed from behind, his successor was defeated by an English army, and Egypt was lost to the French.

Meantime, Bonaparte's ship—by great good fortune, and thanks to a heavy fog—passed unseen through the English blockade, so he could land in France, to announce his Egyptian triumphs, which lost nothing by his telling! The French, who love glory and success, now remembered that while Bonaparte was at the head of the army, they had been victorious, and that money had been plentiful. They naturally concluded that the Directors and other generals were less capable than Bonaparte, who really felt pleased that things had gone wrong, for he confessed later, "In order that I should become master of France, it was necessary that the Directory should experience reverses during my absence."

These reverses having come, Bonaparte, standing once more before the Directors, chided them like naughty schoolboys, saying: "What have you done with the France I left so glorious? I left peace, I find war; I left you victories, I find defeats; I left you millions, I find starvation!" Then, the pear being "ripe," and therefore ready to pluck, he cleverly laid plans to overthrow the government, by a coup d'etat  on November 9 (or 18th Brumaire), 1799. Among those who plotted with him were his brother Lucien Bonaparte, president of the Council of Five Hundred; many members of the Council of Ancients; and Sieyes, now one of the Directors. The Directors having been either cowed or induced to resign, both councils were transferred to St. Cloud, where they were closely guarded by soldiers, under pretext of threatened trouble among the people. Thus Bonaparte prepared everything to gain his own way, before marching into the Hall where the Council of Ancients were sitting. They made no opposition whatever to his demands, which were that he and his friends should be empowered to draw up a new constitution. He said: "We want a Republic, founded on true liberty and national representation. We shall have it, I swear. I swear in my own name and in that of my companions in arms!"

On his way to the Hall of the Five Hundred, which he meant to visit next, Bonaparte met one of his military friends, who exclaimed in dismay and anger, "You've gotten yourself in a pretty mess!" But Bonaparte promptly answered: "It was worse at Arcole. Just keep quiet. In half an hour things will change!" Escorted by a few grenadiers, he then marched into the hall of the Five Hundred, which he had no right to enter thus; so the loud, angry cry immediately arose: What is this? Swords here! Armed men! Away! We will have no dictator!" In fact, the indignant roar became so persistent that Bonaparte could not make himself heard. Then one man sprang forward to stab him; whereupon the general turned ghastly pale, lost his presence of mind, and had to be almost carried out of the assembly by his tall grenadiers.

At the door, Bonaparte encountered his brother Lucien, to whom he cried in consternation, "They are going to outlaw me!"

"Outlaw you?" retorted Lucien. "Turn them out of the Hall!" This suggestion was promptly carried out, and the Five Hundred fled in confusion, when the grenadiers charged in with lowered bayonets, after proclaiming at the open door: "In the name of General Bonaparte, this Legislative Assembly is dissolved. Let all good citizens therefore retire!"

This proved the end of the Directory and the beginning of a new government called "the Consulate," Bonaparte and a few helpers directing everything until they could frame a new constitution (the fourth since 1789) and get the people to adopt it. But the proposed changes immediately raised suspicions in the breasts of some of the French, who feared for their hard-won liberties and dreaded a second Cromwell. These fears were, however, quieted for a while by Lucien's theatrical announcement, as he brandished his sword: "For my own part, I swear to run this through my own brother, if he ever strikes a blow at the liberties of the French!"

Nevertheless, the "liberties  of the French" were already in a bad way. The Revolution, which had culminated in 1794, gave the people the power to control the government by frequent elections; but the Directory had not worked well, and now the people were ready to resign some of their power in order to secure a stronger government. By beheading harmless Louis XVI., the French had rid themselves of a mild "tyrant" or "despot"; they were soon to taste of the rule of a genuine tyrant, thus learning how mistaken all their former estimates of autocracy had been.

It was only a short time after the French government had thus been changed again in France, that the news arrived from America that George Washington had breathed his last. In making these tidings officially known, Bonaparte ordered the flags draped with crape for ten days, adding: "Washington is dead! That great man fought against tyranny. He established the liberty of his country. His memory will be ever dear to the freemen of both hemispheres, and especially to the French soldiers, who, like him and like the American troops, have fought for liberty and equality!"

Well would it have been for France had Bonaparte been actuated by the same unselfish motives as Washington! While he undoubtedly had the will, the power, and the capacity to direct everything, while he was a military genius and a great administrator, the lack of corresponding moral qualities prevented him from really becoming the greatest man the world has ever seen, although for a time he seemed to have attained that dizzy height.