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1799 Napoleon's Coup


The months preceding Napoleon’s take over of power were marked by his muted success in the Egyptian campaign. It featured heavy losses of men and some significant disappointments, such as the repeated failures at the siege of Acre in the spring of 1799. The campaign was saved by the success at Aboukir on the 25th of July, in which a cavalry charge by General Murat enabled a French victory, and the capture of the fort. However, despite this, the Egyptian campaign marked the end of Napoleon’s hopes to expand the French empire further east, and so in August 1799 he decided to return to Paris. Napoleon left his army under the command of General Kleber and made his way back to the French capital, where the newspapers were full of exaggerated reports of his victories in Egypt.

The rule of the Directory in France between 1795 and 1799 had been marked by economic stagnation and political divides, and so by the time of Napoleon’s return in October 1799 the Directory had lost all political support. France was also fighting against the second coalition, which had been formed earlier that year, and which had already seen the French driven out of Italy. By contrast the exaggerated reports of Napoleon’s victories had made him popular in Paris, and so by November 1799 he was well placed to seize power.

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By Pierre-Paul Prud'hon


Napoleon planned the coup with the help of Abbé Sieyès (a director), Charles-Maurice de Tallyrand (the former minister of foreign affairs) and his brother Lucien Bonaparte. On the 9th of November (18 Brumaire, Year VIII) Sieyès announced that a Jacobin plot had been discovered and that for their own safety the two legislative chambers, the Council of the Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients should move away from Paris and relocate to the former royal palace at Saint Cloud. To ensure the safety of the legislators Sieyès announced that all of the soldiers stationed in Paris would be under the command of Napoleon, who promptly stationed troops all around the palace to cause maximum intimidation.

The executive director Paul Barras, along with Sieyès and Roger Ducos resigned from the Directory that same day, effectively ending its rule. The next day, on the 19th Brumaire, the plotters had hoped that the two assemblies would agree to appoint a new executive. However, the remaining two deputies (who were members of the Jacobins) refused to give up power, and so were placed under arrest by Napoleon’s ally General Moreau, who was in charge of the soldiers at Saint Cloud. By this time Napoleon was growing impatient, and so he gave an impassioned but ineffective speech to the Council of Ancients defending himself against accusations of tyranny. He then attempted to do the same in the Council of the Five Hundred, but was met with hostility and then assaulted by the members. Napoleon was forced to flee, and it was Lucien Bonaparte who saved the conspiracy by sending the grenadiers into the council to disperse the Five Hundred. This effectively ended the directory, and was confirmed by a decree forced from the Council of Ancients to suspend the Five Hundred and declare Napoleon, Sieyès and Ducos consuls. In this way the coup brought about the end of the Directory and established the consulship of Napoleon.


Following his ascension to First Consul, Napoleon re-wrote the constitution, replacing the existing document with the Constitution of the Year VIII. It created three new legislative chambers, but they had very little power. The Tribunate and the Legislative Body were comprised of members nominated by the senate, whose members were in turn appointed by Sieyès, and the three houses did not have the ability to introduce or amend legislation. The real power therefore lay with the consuls, and especially the First Consul, and so Napoleon had effectively established himself as a dictator. However, the new government was careful to avoid the mistakes of the directory, and so ensured that they had the support of influential groups such as the military and social elites in order to avoid threats to the power of the consuls or any bloodshed. Finally, Napoleon managed to consolidate his position as leader through various military accomplishments, for example at the battle of Marengo in June 1800 the French army successfully forced the Austrian army out of Italy under the direction of the new first consul, and so the consulate was consolidated.

Up Next: The Battle of Marengo

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