1. Why was the 'Directory' a weak government?

In August 1795, the Thermidorian Reaction ousted the most extreme Jacobins from power. The government which replaced the radical National Convention was a more moderate republican system led by an executive of five 'Directors', hence this government was known as the Directory. Although it was the longest lasting of the revolutionary regimes, the Directory found it difficult to impose its authority. As the Directors failed to deal with the political, economic and social problems created by the revolution it became increasingly relient upon the support of the Army for its authority.

A. Weak Executive Powers

The diagram below sets out the system of government created by the 1795 Constitution

In what ways was the power of the executive branch of government (the Directors) limited by the 1795 constitution?

  1. Annual electionscreated instability
  2. Seperation of Powers created deadlock

Powerless to provide clear leadership, the Directors began to rely on unconstitutional methods to ensure the government did not come under the control of extremists from both sides of the political spectrum.

B. Failure to deal with the economic, religious and political divisions in French Society

  1. The financial failings of successive regimes had left France in an economic depression under which both the poor and rich suffered hardships. The repeal of the Law of the Maximum sent prices rocketing and bread riots continued to occur in major towns and cities. The Assignat finally collapsed in 1796 and its replacment, the Mandat soon shared the same fate. Only Napoleon's introduction of the Francin 1803 finally solved the problem of inflation. New property taxes were introduced to cover the short-fall, which brought about the alienation of middle-class; the bedrock of support for the Direcotry.
  2. The Directory failed to bring an end to the attacks on the Catholic church and so heal the religious divisionswhich divided catholics and their opponents since 1789.
  3. As the French grew weary of war and revolution the republican Directors had to fight a resurgent political oppositionin the form of new royalist deputies in the councils.
  4. Adoption of extreme policies; the directors returned to some of the tactics of the Terror to maintain order. Royalist deputies were deported to French Guinea. Death sentences against returning emigres were introduced. Hundreds of non-juring priests were deported or imprisoned. Members of the old nobility were declared as foreigners and had to apply for naturalisation to become citizens again. Rather than soothing the divisions in French society, the Directory's policies only drove the wedge deeper.

C. Success ...then Failure in War

  1. The First Coalition (1793-97)had fought to stop the spread of Republicanism, but after early victories and a push towards Paris in 1793-4 the coalition suffered a series of defeats in the Netherlands, Switzerland and most notably Italy at the hands of Napoleon. The coalition fell apart when the Austrians called for peace talks with the French in 1797 (Treaty of Campo Formio).
  2. The Second Coalition (1798-1802) against revolutionary France was formed in 1798. The rejoining of battle was marked by Nelson's destruction of the French fleet at Akoubir, Egypt. This victory gave the allies command of the Eastern Mediterranean and cut off supply routes to Napoleon's army. Meanwhile, in Italy the enormous gains Napoleon had made between 1796-97 were lost and Provence was threatened with invasion by a new Austro-Russian army.

D. Growing reliance upon the Military

  1. Revolt of Vendemairie (Oct 1795) occurred just days before the new constitution came into being. In Paris 25,000 sans culottes were egged on by royalists to lay seige the Convention. Low wages, a poor harvest in 1795 and the repeal of the law of the Maximum also contributed to the disorder. Fortunately for the politicians inside the Tuileries Palace, Napoleon Bonaparte was on hand and he put down the revolt when he trained his canon on the rebels and treated them to a 'whiff of grapeshot'. The Directory owed its existence to the army before it was even born. A whiff of grapeshot
  2. Coup of Fructidor (Sept 1797)was a seizure of power by the Jacobin Directors, supported by the military. The annual elections of 1797 had returned 200 new royalist deputies which raised the spectre of royalist majorities in both councils. Backed by the soldiers of General Augereau (sent by Napoleon from Italy), the directors accused the councils of plotting to overthrow the revolution and refused to allow them to take their seats.
  3. Military Annuls 1798 Elections when another hostile majority is returned to the councils; this time the anti-Directory deputies are led by a small group of extreme Jacobins.

E. Disagreements and Plots amongst the Directors


The 5 Directors prior to the Coup of Fructidor 1797; Barras (Republican), La Revelliere (Republican), Reubell (Republican), Carnot (Royalist) and Bathelemy (Royalist)

In 1799 some of the Directors were so fed up with the ineptitude of the government that they began plotting in secret to overthrow the whole system.

The newly elected Director, Emmanuel Sieyes (Feuillient) hatched a plan to destroy the Directory and replace it with a stronger executive with far greater powers over the Legislature.

Any move to overthrow the Directory would require the backing of the military and so Sieyes began sounding out support for his plans amongst the leading Generals. Eventually, Sieyes recruited Napoleon to act as the necessary military muscle.

2. When and how did Napoleon gain political power?

Look at the painting below. What do you think is happening?

Napoleon was part of coup which seized power in November 1799. This event is known as the Coup de 18 Brumaire.

Napoleon addresses the deputies at St Cloud

Describe the roles played by the following people in the coup:

i) Napoleon Bonaparte
ii) Lucien Bonaparte
iii) Emmanuel Sieyes

Who's actions were most crucial to the success of the coup?

The coup is described by the French historian Alexis de Toqueville as, "one of the worst conceived and worst conducted coups imaginable". In what sense was the coup a confused affair?

3. Why was Napoleon chosen?

A. Political Connections

  1. Friendship with Augustin Robespierre; Napoleon exchanged letters with Maximilien's brother, also a committed Jacobin, and published a pamphlet in support of the Jacobin's cause. During the Thermidorian reaction Napoleon was briefly imprisoned whilst the extent of his Jacobin sympathies was investigated. Fortunately for Napoleon his case was adjudicated by a sympathetic Corsican politician. In 1799, Napoleon's 'Jacobin' background made him a safe choice in the face of royalist opposition.
  2. Patronage of Barras; Paul Barras was a member of the Convention who supported the removal of Robespierre in July 1794. When a popular revolt threatened the safety of the Convention, in October 1795 it was Barras, who had a military background, who was apppointed to defend the Tuileries Palace from the mob. Barras had met the young Napoleon during the relief of Toulon and he appointed the artillery specialist to assist with the supression of the royalist riot. Subsequently, Napoleon won great acclaim when his canons ripped the rioters apart. Barras went on to become one of the Directors in the new government.
  3. Marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais; Joesphine was an aristocratic woman of reknowned beauty. She provided the low born Napoleon with access to influential political and social circles. Josephine was a former mistress of Barras and it is claimed that her links to the Director helped Napoleon win the command of the Army of Italy.

B. Military Success

  1. Personal ability; Napoleon was a consolidator rather than an innovator. He was fortunate to inherit a professional officer corps, a supply of veterans and an enormous pool from which to recruit. His ability consisted of an emphasis on logistical planning, occasional brilliant improvisation and the most efficient use of the new conscript armies, 'living off the land' as they moved. Napoleon's main contribution to the development of the French army was the self-contained army corps. By dividing up his forces into smaller bodies or 'corps', each with their own integrated command and support structures, Napoleon freed his army from the need to remain close to a main supply depot or indeed his personal presence. These corps were then sent along different routes towards a target to enable swift movement and avoid detection of their objective. With supreme precision Napoleon would then suddenly concentrate the disparate elements of his army to surprise and overwhelm the enemy.
  2. Toulon; in 1793 Lieutenant Bonaparte's expert use of his artillery played a crucial role in the recapture of the strategically important naval port from the British.
  3. Paris; see Revolt of Vendemairieabove.
  4. Italy; Napoleon won a series of stunning victories across northern Italy against the combined forces of Austria and the Kingdom of Piedmont. What made these victories so impressive was that the French were vastly outnumbered by their opponents. The First Coalition met its end at the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797. Napoleon leads the charge at the Battle of Arcole (1796)
  5. Egypt; An attempt to strike at British trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. This quasi-scientific expedition fell foul of disease, rebellion but most significantly, the loss of their supply lines after Nelson destroyed the French fleet in Aug 1798. Napoleon left his destitute army in 1799 after hearing of the formation of the Second Coalition and the loss of his hard won gains in Italy. Napoleon in Cairo (1798)

C. Image Consciousness

  1. Newsheets; Regular bulletins full of disinformation were published by Napoleon e.g. the Courier of Italy. These exaggerated battle reports, many of them written by Napoleon himself, were meant to boost Army morale and dishearten the enemy. Disseminated widely, these helped Napoleon win acclaim in France and cultivate a deep loyalty amongst his troops
  2. Senior Officers;Napoleon sent his senior commanders back to Paris, in scheduled in relays, to report on his achievements. These officers made sure no detail was lost in the telling and ensured the Paris press were fed a succession of success stories.
  3. Treaty of Campo Formio; The crowning achievement of Napoleon's Italian campaign was handed over to the Directors by Napoleon himself in an elaborate ceremony held in the Luxembourg Palace. Testament to Napoleon's burgeoning reputation came when he returned to France in 1797. Parisians gave him a hero's welcome, the Institut de France, the leading scientific association in Europe, honoured Napoleon by admitting him to their mathematics division and everywhere he was feted.
  4. Selective reporting; Napoleon used his contacts in Paris to keep bad news out of the popular press e.g. the massacre of 1,000 prisoners at Gaza or the mutiny of his troops on the march from Alexandria to Cairo.

D. Ruthless Ambition

  1. "I love power like a musician loves his music", said Napoleon. A hugely driven man, whose pride had both helped and hindered him since childhood, Napoleon's attempts to defend the Directory system can be partly explained by his fear that a restoration of the monarchy would see an end to the war. This would remove the stage on which he could display his abilities and without which he could not launch a bid for political power.
  2. Desertion of his Egyptian Army; not a cowardly act but a reflection of Napoleon's ambition.
  3. Lack of concern over high casualties; aware the French armies were conscription based, Napoleon once remarked on reviewing the dead after a particulalrly bloody battle, "they will all be replaced by one night in Paris".

E. Opportunities created by the Revolution

  1. War; the Revolution brought over 20 years of international conflict to Europe. Successful leaders were required to win victories in these new theatres of war.
  2. Meritocracy; the DOROM pointed to the creation of a meritocratic society. Equality of opportunity proved a struggle to implement in Revolutionary society. Yet for the Army at least, the principle of advancement based on ability was borne of necessity as the survival of the Republic itself was dependent upon the identification of the most talented soldiers. However, merit was not the only criterion for advancement, political suitability was key too.
  3. Emigres; many nobles left France following 1789, a number of whom held senior positions in the French military. The gaps created provided aspiring young officers with opportunities for advancement.

Essay Planning: 'Account for Napoleon's Rise to Power in 1799'

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