European History Pt. 41 — The Directory

After the terror and the Thermidorian reaction France finally put in place a new constitution and became a republic. The constitution stipulated two chambers, one with 500 people and the other with  250, both of which helped elected the directory, 5 executives for the government of France.

Directory and then Coup of Fructidor 

The directory got off to a bad start in 1795 because it prohibited certain candidates from serving in the new government based on their desire to bring back a king. Agitation during the elections based on this arbitrary limitation of democracy forced the directory to rely on a young commander named Bonaparte to put down the agitation “with a whiff of grapeshot.”


In 1797, the first really free elections were held in France under the new constitution and many royalists won. They were the party of peace,  hoping to give some conquered regions and end the protracted war with Europe. Here again, the Republicans were forced to rely on the military. They wrote to Bonaparte, asking for his help in purging some of the royalists from the governing bodies of the Republic. Napoleon wanted to help because he had conquered lands in Italy and was living independently on requisitions, and on the power of his sword. He wanted to keep an expansionist foreign policy, and so was eager to support the republicans, as long as they wanted war.

The result was the coup d’etat of Fructidor (September 1797).

The result was fairly tragic.  The republicans, in the name of “preserving the revolution” and preventing a return of monarchy, were forced to purge the first freely elected body constituted in France. The lesson is that revolution is a bitch; it’s easy to preach democracy until you see what the results are.

Coup of 1799

Force begets force, and after the directory had twice interfered with elections, it became a kind of ineffective dictatorship, purging and altering elections by force. Bonaparte was promoted and given an army that was being trained to invade Great Britain. He decided instead to launch the famous Egypt campaign to attack them indirectly (and threaten their Indian holdings). This brought everyone in Europe to war against him again. For instance, at this time even the RUSSIAN army was operating as far west as north Italy. When Bonaparte was surrounded after losing the battle of the Nile to the British fleet, he slipped back to Paris, where he found the political climate ripe for dictatorship.

In November (Brumaire) 1799, Napoleon’s troops drove legislators from their chambers, forming the Consulate with three consuls and Bonaparte as First Consul.

The Consulate 

The consulate was a big joke. There were bodies, and tribunates and notables, and elections, but none of them mattered. Not in the sense that they were ineffective — most governments throughout history are pretty ineffective — but rather they DID NOT MATTER AT ALL. Napoleon tried to arrange it that no one had power but himself. Not surprisingly, this useless machinery quickly fell into disuse.

In fact, the more I read about this time in history, the more I am terrified. Napoleon was a man of great charisma and genius, and the people flocked to him. He met their adoration with manipulation and propaganda. He hid the agenda of government so as not to provoke opposition, and he fanned the flames of crude nationalism and expansionism. “Secret police?” you ask, but of course.

Bonaparte was attacked by a bomb on the way to the opera, and though it was a royalist bomb, he cooked up the attack as planned by Jacobins, a hundred of which he exiled. He invaded the independent state of Baden and arrested the Duke of Enghien, distantly related to the Bourbon monarchy. He know that Enghien had done nothing wrong, but shot him to appease the Jacobins.

The only positive thing to be said about Bonaparte was that in comparison to the directory and Robespierre’s terror, he looked about par for the course.

Well I take that back, Bonaparte was an organizational genius. He brought back the church to serve the needs of the state and he made public governance more a meritocracy, creating a pay system and a path of advancement for civil services. No more would there be favors, privileges, and the buying and selling of offices.

Part of this was the famous Napoleonic codes, which systematized the judicial system and the laws, leading to some improvements, though most of the new laws were burdensome to women and biased against the accused.

The book has this curious quote which I wish I understood better, “They [the Napoleonic Codes] also set the character of France as it has been ever since, socially bourgeois, legally egalitarian, and administratively bureaucratic.”




4 Responses to “European History Pt. 41 — The Directory”

  1. September 3, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    One of the reasons main issues with the Directory was that because people were so concerned for the political system to remain democratic, it just had no executive structure. This made major decisions difficult to put in place, which rendered the government ineffective and unable to solve problems, and ultimately unpopular (by contrast, of course, with national hero Bonaparte). What followed, hence, was somehow predictable..

    • 2 questionbeggar
      September 3, 2013 at 6:05 pm

      Thanks for this. The book I’m working with is broad and text-booky, so filling in the details helps my understanding. The book makes it sound like the directory was on shaky footing right from the beginning because of the political terrain, but it useful to know that it was unable to move forward and take action. Bonaparte certainly did that.

      I like your use “predictable” because indeed, when people tire of doing things the hard way, they look for a “man of action” who will simply solve things.

      • September 3, 2013 at 8:47 pm

        Indeed. And Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign also helped built his reputation as an enlightened man (potential head of state?), and not just another general. I wrote about this in detail in my article of Napoleon’s rise to power, if you haven’t already read it http://publishistory.wordpress.com/tag/napoleon/ 🙂

        Of course, any government structure taking power after Robespierre was indeed on shaky footing from the start, or at least attracting extreme suspicion from the people. But yeah, ultimately a government without executive cannot function 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: