The Directory, Consulate & End of the French Revolution 1795 - 1802

History of the French Revolution

Napolean, November 9, 1799
Napolean, November 9, 1799. Jean Baptiste Madou [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Constitution of Year III

With the Terror over, the French Revolutionary wars once again going in France's favor and the stranglehold of the Parisians on the revolution broken, the National Convention began to devise a new constitution. Chief in their aims was the need for stability. The resulting constitution was approved on April 22nd and was once again begun with a declaration of rights, but this time a list of duties was also added.

All male taxpayers over 21 were 'citizens' who could vote, but in practice, the deputies were chosen by assemblies in which only citizens who owned or rented property and who paid a set sum of tax each year could sit. The nation would thus be governed by those who had a stake in it. This created an electorate of roughly a million, of which 30,000 could sit in the resulting assemblies. Elections would take place yearly, returning a third of the required deputies each time.

The legislature was bicameral, being comprised of two councils. The 'lower' Council of Five Hundred proposed all legislation but did not vote, while the 'upper' Council of Elders, which was composed of married or widowed men over forty, could only pass or reject legislation, not propose it. Executive power lay with five Directors, which were chosen by the Elders from a list provided by the 500. One retired each year by lot, and none could be chosen from the Councils. The aim here was a series of checks and balances on power. However, the Convention also decided that two-thirds of the first set of council deputies had to be members of the National Convention.

The Vendémiaire Uprising

The two-thirds law disappointed many, further fuelling a public displeasure at the Convention which had been growing as food once again became scarce. Only one section in Paris was in favor of the law and this led to the planning of an insurrection. The Convention responded by summoning troops to Paris, which further inflamed support for the insurrection as people feared that the constitution would be forced onto them by the army.

On October 4th, 1795 seven sections declared themselves insurrectionary and ordered their units of National Guard to gather ready for action, and on the 5th over 20,000 insurgents marched on the Convention. They were stopped by 6000 troops guarding vital bridges, who had been placed there by a deputy called Barras and a General called Napoleon Bonaparte. A standoff developed but violence soon ensued and the insurgents, who had been very effectively disarmed in the preceding months, were forced to retreat with hundreds killed. This failure marked the last time Parisians attempted to take charge, a turning point in the Revolution.

Royalists and Jacobins

The Councils soon took their seats and the first five Directors was Barras, who had helped save the constitution, Carnot, a military organizer who had once been on the Committee of Public Safety, Reubell, Letourneur and La Revelliére-Lépeaux. Over the next few years, the Directors maintained a policy of vacillating between Jacobin and Royalist sides to try and negate both. When Jacobins were in the ascendant the Directors closed their clubs and rounded up terrorists and when the royalists were rising their newspapers were curbed, Jacobins papers funded and sans-culottes released to cause trouble. The Jacobins still tried to force their ideas through by planning uprisings, while the monarchists looked to the elections to gain power. For their part, the new government grew increasingly dependent on the army to maintain itself.

Meanwhile, sectional assemblies were abolished, to be replaced with a new, centrally controlled body. The sectionally controlled National Guard also went, replaced with a new and centrally controlled Parisian Guard. During this period a journalist called Babeuf began calling for the abolition of private property, common ownership and the equal distribution of goods; this is believed to the first instance of full communism being advocated.

The Fructidor Coup

The first elections to take place under the new regime occurred in year V of the revolutionary calendar. The people of France voted against the former Convention deputies (few were re-elected), against the Jacobins, (almost none were returned) and against the Directory, returning new men with no experience instead of those the Directors favored. 182 of the deputies were now royalist. Meanwhile, Letourneur left the Directory and Barthélemy took his place.

The results worried both the Directors and the nation’s generals, both concerned that the royalists were growing greatly in power. On the night of September 3-4th the ‘Triumvirs’, as Barras, Reubell and La Revelliére-Lépeaux were increasingly known, ordered troops to seize Parisian strong points and surround the council rooms. They arrested Carnot, Barthélemy and 53 council deputies, plus other prominent royalists. Propaganda was sent out stating that there had been a royalist plot. The Fructidor Coup against the monarchists was this swift and bloodless. Two new Directors were appointed, but the council positions were left vacant.

The Directory

From this point on the 'Second Directory' rigged and annulled elections to keep their power, which they now began to use. They signed the peace of Campo Formio with Austria, leaving France at war with just Britain, against whom an invasion was planned before Napoleon Bonaparte led a force to invade Egypt and threaten British interests in Suez and India. Tax and debts were revamped, with a 'two-thirds' bankruptcy and the reintroduction of indirect taxes on, among other things, tobacco and windows. Laws against émigrés returned, as did refractory laws, with refusals being deported.

The elections of 1797 were rigged at every level to minimize royalist gains and support the Directory. Only 47 out of 96 departmental results were not altered by a scrutinizing process. This was the coup of Floréal and it tightened the Director's grip over the councils. However, they were to weaken their support when their actions, and the behavior of France in international politics, led to a renewal of war and the return of conscription.

The Coup of Prairial

By the start of 1799, with war, conscription and action against refractory priests dividing the nation, confidence in the Directory to bring about the much-desired peace and stability was gone. Now Sieyès, who had turned down the chance to be one of the original Directors, replaced Reubell, convinced he could effect change. Once again it became obvious the Directory would rig the elections, but their grip on the councils was waning and on June 6th the Five Hundred summoned the Directory and subjected them to an attack over its poor war record. Sieyès was new and without blame, but the other Directors didn't know how to respond.

The Five Hundred declared a permanent session until the Directory replied; they also declared that one Director, Treilhard, had risen to the post illegally and ousted him. Gohier replaced Treilhard and immediately sided with Sieyès, as Barras, always the opportunist, also did. This was followed by the Coup of Prairial where the Five Hundred, continuing their attack on the Directory, forced the remaining two Directors out. The councils had, for the first time, purged the Directory, not the other way round, pushing three out of their jobs.

The Coup of Brumaire and the End of the Directory

The Coup of Prairial had been masterfully orchestrated by Sieyès, who was now able to dominate the Directory, concentrating power almost wholly in his hands. However, he was not satisfied and when a Jacobin resurgence had been put down and confidence in the military once again grew he decided to take advantage and force a change in the government by use of military power. His first choice of general, the tame Jourdan, had recently died. His second, the Director Moreau, wasn't keen. His third, Napoleon Bonaparte, arrived back in Paris on October 16th.

Bonaparte was greeted with crowds celebrating his success: he was their undefeated and triumphant general and he met with Sieyès soon after. Neither liked the other, but they agreed on an alliance to force constitutional change. On November 9th Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother and president of the Five Hundred, managed to have the meeting place of the councils switched from Paris to the old royal palace at Saint-Cloud, under the pretext of freeing the councils from the – now absent – influence of Parisians. Napoleon was put in charge of the troops.

The next stage occurred when the entire Directory, motivated by Sieyès, resigned, aiming to force the councils to create a provisional government. Things didn’t go quite as planned and the next day, Brumaire 18th, Napoleon’s demand to the council for constitutional change was greeted frostily; there were even calls to outlaw him. At one stage he was scratched, and the wound bled. Lucien announced to the troops outside that a Jacobin had tried to assassinate his brother, and they followed orders to clear the meeting halls of the council. Later that day a quorum was reassembled to vote, and now things did go as planned: the legislature was suspended for six weeks while a committee of deputies revised the constitution. The provisional government was to be three consuls: Ducos, Sieyés, and Bonaparte. The era of the Directory was over.

The Consulate

The new constitution was hurriedly written under the eye of Napoleon. Citizens would now vote for a tenth of themselves to form a communal list, which in turn selected a tenth to form a departmental list. A further tenth was then chosen for a national list. From these a new institution, a senate whose powers were not defined, would choose the deputies. The legislature remained bicameral, with a lower hundred member Tribunate which discussed legislation and an upper three hundred member Legislative Body which could only vote. Draft laws now came from the government via a council of state, a throwback to the old monarchical system.

Sieyés had originally wanted a system with two consuls, one for internal and external matters, selected by a lifetime ‘Grand Elector’ with no other powers; he had wanted Bonaparte in this role. However Napoleon disagreed and the constitution reflected his wishes: three consuls, with the first having most authority. He was to be first consul. The constitution was finished on December 15th and voted in late December 1799 to early January 1800. It passed.

Napoleon Bonaparte's Rise to Power and the End of Revolution

Bonaparte now turned his attention to the wars, beginning a campaign which ended with the defeat of the alliance ranged against him. The Treaty of Lunéville was signed in France’s favor with Austria while Napoleon began creating satellite kingdoms. Even Britain came to the negotiating table for peace. Bonaparte thus brought the French Revolutionary Wars to a close with triumph for France. While this peace was not to last for long, by then the Revolution was over.

Having at first sent out conciliatory signals to royalists he then declared his refusal to invite the king back, purged Jacobin survivors and then began rebuilding the republic. He created a Bank of France to manage state debt and produced a balanced budget in 1802. Law and order were reinforced by the creations of special prefects in each department, the use of the army and special courts which cut into the crime epidemic in France. He also began the creation of a uniform series of laws, the Civil Code which although not finished until 1804 were around in a draft format in 1801. Having finished the wars which had divided so much of France he also ended the schism with the Catholic Church by re-establishing the Church of France and signing a concordat with the Pope.

In 1802 Bonaparte purged – bloodlessly - the Tribunate and other bodies after they and the senate and its president – Sieyès – had begun to criticize him and refuse to pass laws. Public support for him was now overwhelming and with his position secure he made more reforms, including making himself consul for life. Within two years he would crown himself Emperor of France. The Revolution was over and empire would soon begin

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Wilde, Robert. "The Directory, Consulate & End of the French Revolution 1795 - 1802." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Directory, Consulate & End of the French Revolution 1795 - 1802. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Directory, Consulate & End of the French Revolution 1795 - 1802." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).