Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The First Consul

The fierce conflict of the Revolution deprived many men in France of all that they held dear, while to others it offered promise of attainment more glorious than could ever have been realized under the government of an absolute king.

A young lieutenant of artillery had begun to despair of winning promotion in the army of Louis XVI. when the first steps were taken to destroy the tottering monarchy. This Napoleon Bonaparte was Italian rather than French by descent, and all his sympathies were with the inhabitants of Corsica in their revolt against the government of France which followed the purchase of that rocky islet from the Republic of Genoa.

Corsicans had maintained a long struggle for their independence previous to this arrangement in 1768. For thirteen years they had enjoyed some measure of freedom under the dictatorship of Paoli, a true patriot. It was unlikely that they would submit to foreign domination. Continual plotting took place in Ajaccio, the birthplace of Napoleon in 1769.

Through his youth the soldier had dreamed of a great military coup which should free his compatriots and set him in a high position. For he was obscure and inordinately ambitious, conscious of unusual talents and thwarted by the poverty of his parents, who could do nothing to advance his interests. The Revolution of 1789 seemed to reconcile Corsica to France, since the National Assembly were inclined to grant more liberty to their dependents lest the Genoese Republic should try to regain its rights. Paoli returned from exile and met Napoleon, who had hopes of becoming commander of a paid native guard which it was proposed to establish on his island. Probably the Corsican officer aimed at restoring Paoli's sovereignty and succeeding to it himself at some future date. His attempts to get command of an armed force were ultimately successful, but he forfeited his French commission by staying in Ajaccio when he should have gone to Paris for a review of the whole French army on January 1st, 1792.

Napoleon was too sanguine of success to feel that he had lost everything and persisted in fomenting insurrection against France. After the failure of an attempt to get possession of Ajaccio, however, he was obliged to flee from Corsica and return to Paris, where he was in a position of some peril. If the Revolutionary leaders had not been anxious to find trained officers to lead their army against the powers of Europe, he would have been shot as a rebel and deserter instead of receiving a new commission and the rank of captain! A marked change took place in Napoleon's attitude toward Paoli and the patriot party of Corsica. He decided to adopt the French cause as giving him more hope of military glory and withdrew from his birthplace with his whole family, pursued by the hatred of the Corsicans, who held him a betrayer.

In June 1793 the Bonaparte family were at Toulon and, in August, that town delivered itself into the hands of the English. Napoleon's first military exploit was to lead the French artillery in their gallant attempt to retake it. He was made general of brigade after distinguishing himself in action, and joined the army of Italy as general of artillery and inspector-general. His career as a soldier had begun.

Napoleon's brilliant ability soon attracted the notice of his superiors in rank, who saw that he would prove successful in filling any office that might be assigned to him. Barras, who had commanded the Army of the Interior, resigned in favour of the officer he thought most fitted to occupy that difficult position, which carried with it political as well as military duties. Barras is also said to have urged upon his protégé the advantages to be gained by his marriage with Josephine Beauharnais, the beautiful young widow of a noble whose head had fallen under the guillotine. The step seemed to be fortunate indeed, for Napoleon was appointed to the command of the army of Italy in the year of his matrimonial alliance, 1796.

In spite of the extraordinary talents of Napoleon, the war waged by the French Republic could not be continuously successful while a Directory of civilians was the body responsible for the strategy of its numerous generals. It blundered disastrously now and then, and wasted both lives and opportunities. A new member entered the Directory to propose a new constitutional experiment. This man was Sieyes, who had won renown for his declaration of the political importance of the Third Estate.

Sieyes saw that a general with supreme power was needed to organize the vast armies raised by the new laws compelling military service. He was too zealous of his own predominance to choose a man likely to assume civil control and brought about the appointment of Joubert, a fine soldier without great ambitions.

Joubert died in battle and Napoleon Bonaparte returned to Paris, eager to assume fresh responsibilities. He found two parties there—the Jacobins, clamouring always for the vigorous prosecution of the war—the old system of Terror which they believed necessary for maintaining their hostile attitude to their enemies in Europe; the anti-Jacobins, headed by Sieyes, who thought that the time had come to give France a strong, dominant government.

Bonaparte accepted the command of all the troops in Paris, understanding that he was to crush any resistance of the Jacobins to a proposal to reform the Constitution made at a meeting of the Councils in the palace of St Cloud. He was denounced in the Assembly and rescued from a position of some danger by Lucien, his brother, who made a somewhat theatrical promise to stab any member of his family if he tried to attack the liberty of the French nation. It was chiefly through the urgency of Lucien that Napoleon was appointed with Sieyes and Roger-Ducos the new executive, who were to act under the old Roman title of Consuls.

Sieyes found himself supreme legislator of France, and in this capacity showed an amazing neglect of the claims of democracy. He practically abolished representative institutions and the three new assemblies—the Senate, the Tribunate, and the Corps Legislatif—were not chosen by popular election. The man who had been so eloquent in his summons to the Third Estate to come forward and demand their rights now seemed firm in his determination to suppress the popular freedom which had been the main object of the years of Revolution!

Napoleon agreed to the scheme of government which placed supreme authority in the hands of the Senate, but he practically created a monarchy again by giving immense power to a single man to be known as First Consul, and depriving the Senate and Assemblies thereby of some of their most important functions. The provisional consulate lasted for a few weeks and was followed by the appointment of Cambaceres and Lebrun with Napoleon as First Consul. This office carried with it a salary of half a million francs and the right of deciding on war and peace, in addition to the real power in the legislature, for the control of the other consuls was slight over a man of such consummate abilities as Napoleon. He could appoint at his will his own officers, his council of state, and most of the judges of the Republic. He was to hold office for ten years that his powers might be limited and the fear of a monarchy restored might not give rise to insurrection.

In 1802 the First Consul decided to give peace to the world, and set the affairs of France in order. He had excellent opportunities of winning fame as a legislator since all existing institutions had been swept away and he was at liberty to adopt reforms which would once have been opposed by believers in tradition. He drew up a Code of Laws, associated always with his name and acknowledged even by his enemies to restore the work of justice. He re-established the Church and University of France, deciding that it was to the interests of the nation to have the older forms of religion and learning. He also wanted to detach the Church party from the Bourbons for his own sake, and to conciliate the Pope as a step towards his ultimate ambition. For Napoleon was dissatisfied when the Senate proposed that his term of office should be extended for ten years. He desired to have some hereditary title now and was ruthless in the means he took to obtain it.

There were two parties naturally hostile to Napoleon's designs—the moderate Republicans and the ancient Royalists. These seemed ready to sink their differences in an attempt to overthrow the audacious military statesman. Moreau, the personal rival of the First Consul, who had hoped to succeed him in that office, began to communicate with Pichegru, the leader of royalism. This was an opportunity for Napoleon to detach the army from his rival since the soldiers of the Republic distrusted any leaning towards monarchy. A deed of violence removed the Due d'Enghien, a pretender to the throne, and acted as a menace to the Royalist cause, for the Bourbon heirs were not remarkable for courage. A new reign of Terror seemed likely to be established if Napoleon did not win the honor that he coveted. He feared to lose his ascendancy over the soldiers he had won by his strong personality, and chose the old military title of emperor to please them, when the French nation decided to put themselves once more beneath a despot. The title was to be hereditary in a limited degree, for Napoleon was to have the right to nominate his successor. In May, 1804, the Republic had passed and for ten years the will of one man was absolute over the French nation.