18 Brumaire / November 9, 1799
18 Brumaire, the coup of 18 Brumaire or sometimes simply Brumaire refers to the coup d’état by which General Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory, replacing it with the Consulate. This occurred on 9 November 1799, which was 18 Brumaire, Year VIII under the French Republican Calendar.
The name, already well-established in common usage, was reinforced by the title of Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, 1852), an account of the 2 December 1851 coup by Napoleon’s nephew, which begins with the oft-quoted “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Ironically, the ground for General Bonaparte’s coup may have been laid more by his few defeats than by his many victories. In November 1799, France was suffering the effects of military reverses brought on by Bonaparte’s adventurism in the Middle East. The looming threat of opportunistic invasion by the Second Coalition had provoked internal unrest, with Napoleon stuck in Egypt.
The coup was first prepared not by Napoleon, but by the Abbé Sieyès, then one of the five Directors, attempting to head off a return to Jacobinism. Dazzled by Napoleon’s victories in the East, the public ignored the impending calamitous ending of the Egyptian expedition. They received Napoleon with an ardor which convinced Sieyès he had found the general indispensable to his coup. However, from the moment of his return in September 1799, Napoleon plotted a coup within the coup, ultimately gaining power for himself rather than Sieyès.
Perhaps the gravest potential obstacles to a coup were in the army. Some generals, such as Jourdan, honestly believed in republicanism; others, such as Bernadotte, believed themselves capable of governing France. With perfect subtlety, Napoleon worked on the feelings of all, keeping secret his own intentions.
An army contractor named Collot advanced two million francs to finance the coup. There were troops conveniently deployed around Paris. The plan was, first, to persuade the Directors to resign, then, second, to get the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred (the upper and lower houses of the legislature) to appoint a pliant commission that would draw up a new constitution to the plotters’ specifications.
Events of 18 Brumaire, Year VIII
On the morning of 18 Brumaire, members of the Council of Ancients sympathetic to the coup warned their colleagues of a Jacobin conspiracy and persuaded them to remove to the Château de Saint-Cloud, west of Paris. General Bonaparte was charged with the safety of the two Councils. Later that morning Sieyès and Roger Ducos resigned as Directors. Talleyrand persuaded Barras to do the same (the troops in the garden outside were persuasive).
The resignation of three of the five Directors prevented a quorum and thus practically abolished the Directory, but the two Jacobin Directors, Gohier and Moulin, refused to resign. Gohier was taken prisoner and Moulin escaped. The two Councils were not yet intimidated and continued meeting.
Events of 19 Brumaire
By the following day, the deputies had, for the most part, realized that they were facing an attempted coup rather than being protected from a Jacobin rebellion. Faced with their recalcitrance, Napoleon stormed into the chambers, escorted by a small force of grenadiers. While perhaps unplanned, this proved to be the coup within the coup: from this point, this was a military affair.
Napoleon met with heckling as he addressed the Ancients with such “home truths” as, “the Republic has no government” and, most likely, “the Revolution is over.” One deputy called out, “And the Constitution?” Napoleon replied, referring to earlier parliamentary coups, “The Constitution! You yourselves have destroyed it. You violated it on 18 Fructidor; you violated it on 22 Floreal; you violated it on 30 Prairial. It no longer has the respect of anyone.”
Napoleon withdrew to the chateau’s Orangerie, where the Council of Five Hundred was meeting. His reception here was even more hostile. Napoleon and his grenadiers entered just as the legality of Barras’ resignation was being challenged by the Jacobins in the chamber. Upon entering, Napoleon was first jostled, then outright assaulted. Depending on whose account is accepted, he may or may not have come close to fainting. It was not Napoleon himself, but his brother Lucien, President of the Council, who called upon the grenadiers to defend their leader. Napoleon escaped, but only through the use of military force.
A motion was raised in the Council of Five Hundred to declare Napoleon an outlaw. At this point, Lucien Bonaparte apparently slipped out of the chamber and told the soldiers guarding the Councils that the majority of the Five Hundred were being terrorized by a group of deputies brandishing daggers. Then, according to Michael Rapport, “He pointed to Napoleon’s bloody, pallid face as proof. Then, in a theatrical gesture, he seized a sword and promised to plunge it through his own brother’s heart if he were a traitor.”
Lucien ordered the troops to expel the violent deputies from the chamber. Grenadiers under the command of General Murat marched into the Orangerie and dispersed the Council. This was, effectively the end of the Directory.
The Ancients passed a decree which adjourned the Councils for three months, appointed Napoleon, Sieyès, and Ducos provisional consuls, and named the Legislative Commission. Some tractable members of the Five Hundred, rounded up afterwards, served to give these measures the confirmation of their House. Thus the Directory and the Councils came to an end.
The Directory was crushed, but the coup within the coup was not yet complete. The use of military force had certainly strengthened Napoleon’s hand vis à vis Sieyès and the other plotters. With the Council routed, the plotters convened two commissions, each consisting of twenty-five deputies from the two Councils. The plotters essentially intimidated the commissions into declaring a provisional government, the first form of the Consulate with Napoleon, Sieyès, and Ducos as Consuls. The lack of reaction from the streets proved that the revolution was, indeed, over. “A shabby compound of brute force and imposture, the 18th Brumaire was nevertheless condoned, nay applauded, by the French nation. Weary of revolution, men sought no more than to be wisely and firmly governed.” Resistance by Jacobin officeholders in the provinces was quickly crushed. Twenty Jacobin deputies were exiled, and others were arrested.
The commissions then drew up the “short and obscure Constitution of the Year VIII”, the first of the constitutions since the Revolution without a Declaration of Rights.
Bonaparte thus completed his coup within a coup by the adoption of a constitution under which the First Consul, a position he was sure to hold, had greater power than the other two. In particular, he appointed the Senate and the Senate interpreted the constitution. The Senate allowed him to rule by decree, so the more independent State Council and Tribunate degenerated into impotence, serving merely as window dressing. It led ultimately to Empire.