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Timeline: Napoleon as First Consul (1799-1804)

In Paris a purge of the Directory on 18 June (30 Prairial) 1799 had consolidated the position of Paul Barras, a lawyer who was one of the most powerful figures in the Directory, while promoting the veteran revolutionary Emmanuel Sieyes, clergyman who wrote the most influential revolutionary pamphlet in 1789 entitled 'What is the Third Estate?' These two and other conspirators were convinced that a change of regime, strengthening the executive power, was necessary. Napoleon who felt he was fighting a series of fruitless wars in Egypt and whose sense of his own destiny was swelling, was persuaded that he could 'save France.' Hearing of the chaos, Napoleon abandoned his army in Syria, sailing for France on 9 October. The events of 18 November 1799 (18 Brumaire) which toppled the Directory started as a parliamentary coup and ended as a military coup. Sieyes, and the other manufacturers of Napoleon's rise to power, most likely wanted a new balanced constitution with a stronger executive branch; yet what developed was the Napoleonic dictatorship. So, Napoleon Bonaparte and Abbe Sieyes overthrew the current Directory and replaced it with a new government: a three-person Consulate. Sieyes and Napoleon both installed themselves as consuls, though the popular Napoleon became First Consul.

The Constitution of the Year VIII, proclaimed on 12 December 1799 and subsequently approved by plebiscite (a common tool used by dictators to create a façade of representative government), instituted a complex governmental system, but First Consul Bonaparte ruled. Having obtained power Napoleon now needed to consolidate it. He believed the best way to accomplish that would be through a general European peace. Since Austria was the only state that was still a belligerent against France, in order to secure peace Napoleon had to lead another campaign against the Austrians in Italy. Napoleon crossed the Alps again in May 1800, and within a month defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo. This staggering victory assured what the royalist agent Hyde de Neuville deemed 'the baptism of Napoleon's personal power.' (Furet 1992, p. 218) The Austrian defeat at the Battle of Marengo forced them to sign the Treaty of Luneville in February 1801 with the French, reaffirming the terms of the earlier Treaty of Campo Formio. Peace was then made with Britain in March 1802 with the Treaty of Amiens, ending their warring, and briefly bringing Europe to peace, a rare occurrence in this violent period. Of course, during this brief European peace, there still were conflicts going on in other parts of the world: notably, France was desperately trying to control the situation in Saint-Domingue (today Haiti), where Toussaint l'Ouverture was disobeying Napoleon's orders. In 1803, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the US for 80 million francs (15 million dollars).

As war gradually gave way to peace Napoleon and his supporters started the work of reforming France. Almost all of Napoleon's constructive work, i.e. his civil and social reforms, the influence of which is to be felt in France, and throughout Continental Europe to this day, was either completed or commenced in the years before the declaration of the Empire in 1804. His purpose and historical role as he saw it was to bring the Revolution to an end, to draw a line ending the turbulence and chaos of the revolutionary decade and place French government on new, stable ground under his control. Paradoxically, as Napoleon hoped to end the revolution in favor of order, some of the reforms he made were reforms advocated by the most radical of the revolutionaries. He also made statements such as "I am the Revolution." The questions that arise from these apparent contradictions have created a major historical debate over to what extent should history view Napoleon and his reforms as a continuation of the French Revolution, i.e. he is simply the last phase of the Revolution, or as a figure whose authoritarian policies were entirely antithetical to the principles of liberty advocated by earlier revolutionaries.

Napoleon applied his own peculiar idea of the democratic legacy of the Revolution to his reforms: 'My policy is to govern men as the greater number wish to be governed. That, I think, is the way to recognize the sovereignty of the people.' His rule was authoritarian but inclusive; epitomized by his emphasis on a meritocracy or as he called it: 'careers open to the talented.' Napoleon also pardoned most royalist emigres, allowing them to return to France. The administration was centralized, with prefects appointed to rule the new departments, i.e. administrative provinces of France, that he created in March 1800. Work on new law codes began in August 1800, and the final Civil Code, known as the Code Napoleon, ensured that those who profited most from the Revolution, the peasants and bourgeois who had acquired confiscated noble and Church lands, held onto their gains. Also, in line with Napoleon's interest in establishing a meritocracy in France, Napoleon established the lycee system for secondary education. The Lycees were meant to be the cornerstone of the new French educational systems, which also included the national Universities, such as Polytechnique. Each court of appeal, a smaller administrative district inside the various departments that Napoleon created, was to have at least one lycee, while the principle of equality of opportunity was honored by the provision of scholarships. A common curriculum was imposed in 1809, along with the baccalaureate examination that is still a prerequisite for entry into higher education in France today. Napoleon also stabilized the currency by using a gold and silver standard to back money, rather than paper. He also created the Bank of France, to regulate the economy in hopes of avoiding financial crises like the one which prompted Louis XVI to call the Estates General in 1789.

Napoleon also enacted reforms directed at imposing order and stability on society through authoritarian means. For instance, Napoleon put down many royalist and pro-Church rebellions in the provinces of France. He created the first modern secret police, led by Fouche. Also, to reduce the number of potential revolutionaries floating around Europe, he issued a general amnesty allowing exiles, aristocrats to Jacobins, to return, believing that he can watch people more closely if they are in France, rather than abroad. Napoleon ended the exclusion of the nobility from power that had been the trademark of earlier post- revolution regimes. He simply wanted the best men he could find, even if they happened to be from aristocratic families. As an example, he took in Talleyrand as his foreign minister despite Talleyrand's aristocratic heritage.

Napoleon as first consul imposed increasing restrictions on freedom of expression in France, with provisions that were then extended throughout his conquered domains. Freedom of the press was declared by the Revolution in 1789, and made into a basic right in the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,' but by 1800 all new books were examined by the police before publication, while five dramatic censors reported on the moral and political content of new plays to the minister of the interior. Similarly, sixty of the seventy-three newspapers of Paris were banned. Censorship became more stringent in 1810 with the creation of the Directeur General de l'imprimerie et de la librairie, which supervised all newspapers, reducing the total in Paris to four.

The most urgent reform, or act of reconciliation achieved under the consulate was a new religious settlement with the Catholic Church, called the Concordat. The Catholic Church had been persecuted under the Revolution. Anti-clericalism was so common in revolutionary France that there was an attempt to replace Christianity with the cult of the Supreme Being, in which Churches were turned into 'Temples of Reason.' Not suprisingly, Catholicism was one of the major driving forces behind counter-revolutionary revolt in western France, principally in the Vendee rebellion. The REvolutionary calendar had even abolished Sunday as a day of worship and rest. However, within weeks of 18 Brumaire 1799, Napoleon, despite his own lack of interest in Catholicism, reopened churches on Sundays, and in November 1800 began negotiations with Pope Pius VII. The signing of the Concordat, which overturned the Revolutionary principle of the separation of church and state and restored Catholicism to a privileged position 'as the religion of the majority of the French people' was signed in July 1801 reconciling Catholics who had formerly been ostracized by the Revolution. Napoleon made this deal purely for political ends saying 'They will say I am a papist but I am nothing at all. In Egypt I was a Muhammedan; here I will be a Catholic, for the good of the people.' Napoleon supported religious tolerance, even for Jews, a policy consistent with his conviction of judging men according to their ability, not according to their birth, social status, or personal beliefs.

Despite the Concordat the Church had permanently lost much of the control it exerted over French life in the period prior to the Revolution. For instance, regarding education, Napoleon's lycee system which sought to inculcate young people with antimonarchist values and train them to be loyal, efficient servants of the state, replaced the emphasis on religion that the Church formally imposed on education.

Not everyone, however, supported Napoleon's reforms or even acknowledged his right to rule. On Christmas Eve, 1800, he was nearly killed by a bomb planted by conspirators wanting to restore the old Bourbon line of kings. Although it was clear that the plot had been royalist in origin, Napoleon felt more threatened by the Jacobins and used the event to persecute and intimidate them. In 1803, the British violated the Peace of Amiens, by backing a royalist plot to reinstate a Bourbon Prince on the French throne. The plot failed, however, and Napoleon's forces captured Louis de Bourbon-Conde on March 15, 1804, trying him as a criminal and executing him.

In August 1802, Napoleon proclaimed himself First Consul for Life. A new constitution of his own devising legislated a succession to rule for his son (even though he had not yet fathered any children) and he had taken the major steps in creating a new regime in his own image. There was no doubt that the Revolution was over. But there was no guarantee that the new order, resting in essence on the life of one man, would last any longer than its predecessor, nor that relations with the rest of Europe could be anything other than an armed truce. Napoleon remained aggressive, becoming the president of the REpublic of Italy, annexed Elba and Piedmont to France, and interfered with British trade.

In May 1804 Napoleon became hereditary emperor of the French, proclaiming himself the heir of Charlemagne, the great early medieval king of the Franks and founder of the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon's coronation in December 1804 was a particular affront to the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, head of the house of Habsburg and by tradition successor to Charlemagne. Napoleon paid for Pope Pius VII, who had signed the Concordat of Rome, to travel to France for the occasion, believing that his presence would imbue the event with a solemn, religious feeling. Pius agreed to come, hoping to win Napoleon's goodwill towards Rome and the Papal States. However, at the ceremony, Napoleon surprised everyone by not allowing the Pope to crown him. Instead, he placed the crown on his own head, and then crowned Josephine Empress. A few months later, on May 26, 1805, Napoleon crowned himself again-- this time with the iron circlet that symbolized the rule over all of Italy.

Napoleon next moved to recreate an aristocracy, a long French tradition that had been eliminated by the Revolution. In 1808, Napoleon started granting titles of nobility to people who served him particularly well, in addition to the previously created Legion d'Honneur. The royal court of the French Emperor became a public spectacle of pomp and elegance. Court protocol and rules of etiquette became very complex and regimented. Josephine reveled in her new role as Empress, and cultivated a famously impressive style. Yet Napoleon himself, even though he had intentionally made a spectacle of his court, found his new role somewhat uncomfortable and difficult. He preferred to work long hours in his study to escape from court life. Napoleon now led a double life. On the one hand, he was a stately Emperor cloaked in ermine robes. On the other hand, he was an obsessive workaholic, often staying in his study for days on end writing letters and preparing various plans. Yet Napoleon understood well the importance of maintaining a splendid image: he commissioned all the leading French artists to create art that would depict a positive view of the Empire. Chief among these artists was Jacques-Louis David, whose paintings and portraits depicted Napoleon as intensely heroic.

As Napoleon assumed the title of king of Italy in May 1805, annexed Genoa to France, and appointed Josephine's son viceroy of Italy, a new Coalition of Austria, Britain, and Russia was signed on August 9 1805. Napoleon abandoned the invasion of England, and the Army of England became the Grande Armee and marched into Germany.