Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

How Napoleon Seized the Reins of Government


We were plunging under full sail back to the abyss of the Terror, without a gleam of consolation or of hope. The glory of our arms was tarnished, our conquests lost, our territory threatened with invasion. . . . All the efforts made by honest statesmen to secure the legal enjoyment of their rights had been crushed by violence. There seemed to be nothing before us but to return to a bloodthirsty anarchy, the duration of which it was as impossible to foresee as it was to find any remedy."

Thus writes the Duke de Broglie of this period, and his picture is none too black for reality. The attempt to establish a Constitutional Republic had failed; the Directors had proved their inability to hold the reins of government or to check the disaster which almost everyone felt must inevitably come. One gleam of sunshine alone brightened the horizon of the bankrupt nation, namely the news of Napoleon's landing. From the point of view of the general public this was worth more than Massena's victory at Zurich over the Austrians and Russians in the previous month, which had alone saved the unhappy country from invasion.

Clearly the Republic needed a strong man at the head of affairs; and in Napoleon it soon recognised its master. He arrived in Paris on the 16th October 1799, and as on the occasion of his return from Italy he was feasted and feted. Again he showed the same taciturnity and seeming absence of interest. Perhaps to unbend would have been to unmask himself; a haughty demeanour often hides a fluttering heart. He lived quietly, affecting the unobtrusive dress of the National Institute, seeming to take more delight in the company of philosophers than of politicians. In reality he was waiting the turn of events, weighing his chances of securing the reins of government, and carefully considering the possible policies of Moreau and Bernadotte, the rival generals who shared public sympathy with him. Either of the two great parties in the government, the Moderates and the Democrats, the former under the leadership of Director Sieyes, the latter under Director Barras, would have been glad for Napoleon to throw in his lot with them; indeed, so keen was popular enthusiasm that his glory, reflected in his brother Lucien, carried the election of the latter as President of the Five Hundred. Without undue haste Napoleon decided in favour of the less aggressive and semi-monarchical policy represented by Sieyes and supported by the majority of Ancients. Between them they determined to overthrow the Directory, their immediate accomplices being Lucien Bonaparte, Talleyrand, and Roederer. Later the conspirators received the support of many of the leading generals, including Lannes, Lefebvre, Murat, Berthier and Marmont, as well as of many influential legislators.

Meantime accomplices in the Council of Ancients had been skilfully at work, and had induced their colleagues to decide to transfer the meetings of the two legislative bodies from the too-accessible Tuileries to the less-frequented St Cloud, ostensibly because of a Jacobin conspiracy, in reality that the Parisian mob might not interfere, for it was hoped that the coming coup d'etat, or "stroke of state," might fall with as little disturbance as possible. Regnier de la Meurthe, who was in the General's confidence, proposed that Napoleon be called upon to see that the decrees of removal were executed, which was duly carried, a large number of troops thus being placed under his command for that purpose, which was exactly what he required for the complete success of the plot. Proceeding to the Tuileries on the 18th Brumaire (November 9), Napoleon addressed the assembled Ancients in a short flattering speech, assuring them that they were the collected wisdom of the nation, and offering the support of his generals and of himself. When the Council of Five Hundred heard the decree which removed them to St Cloud, there were wild scenes which they soon found could serve no useful purpose. Military under the command of Lannes, Murat, Mureau, Serrurier, and others had been so disposed as to be ready for any emergency either within or without the building, and no amount of argument could have swayed Napoleon from his purpose. If the Directors were not actually deposed they were practically forced to resign; Gohier and Moulins, offering opposition, were put under arrest.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


On the following day Napoleon appeared before the Ancients at St Cloud and made a short speech, then proceeded to an apartment known as the Orangery in which the Five Hundred were sitting. The building itself was surrounded by troops, and accompanied by a guard he made his entrance, the soldiers remaining within call in case their presence should be required. Immediately cries of "Down with the tyrant! No Cromwell! Down with the Dictator! Outlaw him!" arose from different parts of the hall. Attempts were made to lay violent hands on the General, who was bodily removed in a half-fainting condition by a couple of grenadiers acting under the orders of his supporter Lefebvre. Lucien Bonaparte endeavoured to make himself heard, but without effect; the utmost disorder reigned. General Augereau attempted to put the question of outlawry to the vote, whereupon the former renounced his office of President, flung off his official robes, left the building, and joined his brother. He made a rousing speech to the troops, declaring that the majority of the Council of the Five Hundred "is enthralled by a faction armed with daggers who besiege the tribune and interdict all freedom of deliberation. General, and you soldiers, and you citizens, you can no longer recognise any as legislators but those who are around me. Let force expel those who remained in the Orangery; they are not the representatives of the people, but the representatives of the dagger," and so on. "Soldiers," cried Napoleon, "can I rely on you?" There seemed some hesitation, and Lucien swore to plunge his sword in his brother's breast should he make an attempt on the liberty of France. This aroused the troops from their apathy, and they at once threw in their lot with Napoleon. Bayonets were fixed and the order given to march into the Orangery. Not a few of the politicians jumped from the windows in their alarm. The Ancients were then informed by Lucien that daggers had been used by their fellow politicians—probably a figment of his imagination—and the Council of the Five Hundred dissolved. Within an hour of midnight a little group of legislators who sided with Napoleon passed a decree which abolished the Directory, adjourned meetings of the Councils for three months, and created Napoleon, Sieyes and Ducos provisional Consuls.

"The 18 Brumaire," to again quote the Duke de Broglie, "was the salvation of France, and the four years that followed it were a series of triumphs, alike over our external enemies, and over the principles of disaster and anarchy at home. These four years are, with the ten years of the reign of Henry IV., the noblest period of French history."

"The little Corporal "had won the day. Henceforth until his fall he was to dominate France.