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And welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.53, The Consulate.
So a funny thing happened on my way to the finish line. On Friday morning, my hard drive crashed. I didn’t lose any files, but I did lose an incredibly necessary day of work while my computer was being fixed. As a consequence, I had to abandon the dream of writing the final retrospective before I went on break. Luckily, the episode I had written on Napoleon had ballooned to over 7,000 words, so what I decided to do instead was break that one huge episode into two smaller episodes. First that focused on the Consulate, and a second on the Empire, and so here we are. The final retrospective will be written, but it will just randomly show up in your feed one day. I’m not going to not write it, I’m just not going to write it right now. Pretty rotten timing, but such is life. So on with the end of the show.
We know now that Napoleon coming to power in November 1799 turned out to be a watershed moment not just in the course of the French Revolution, but for the course of world history period. But as I said at the end of last week’s show, no one who woke up on the morning after the coup of Brumaire could have possibly known how momentous Bonaparte’s ascension to power would turn out to be. Coups and countercoups and purges had defined the French Revolution for the last decade, so the new French Consulate might last a thousand years. Then again, it might not make it till spring. Who could tell?
In the end, the Consulate would last five years, before it gave way to the Empire, which lasted for another ten, before it gave way to the Bourbon Restoration that closed the whole great cycle set off by the bankruptcy of the monarchy in 1786. So what I want to do here today is give a brief summary of the next five years, with a particular emphasis on providing some closure for a few of the threads we’ve been following for so long but which are still left open. The fate of the Church, the economy, the legal system, and of course the wars, the wars, and the more wars, because aside from 1802, it’s basically just one non-stop war.
The French Consulate was officially inaugurated in February 1800, when the Constitution of Year 8 was ratified in a general referendum by the rather unbelievable margin of three million to one thousand five hundred. Now people like to point to this as proof of Napoleon’s transparently anti-democratic instincts. And while it’s true that Bonaparte was not big on democracy, it’s not like the votes on previous Constitutions had been any different. Remember, the Constitution of 1793 had passed one point seven million to sixteen thousand. The Constitution of Year 3 had passed one million to forty-nine thousand. So it’s not like the unbelievable verdict on the Constitution of Year 8 was wildly out of line with previous constitutional referendums. But that said, the results of the referendum were obviously rigged, and the vote was purely for show.
Now as I mentioned at the end of last week’s episode, the one group that had not been major players for Bonaparte’s hand after he returned from Egypt were the Royalists. But the fact that he had just climbed to power by stomping on the Jacobins had raised Royalist hopes that Bonaparte might still play General Monk to Louis XVIII’s King Charles II. The Restoration of the Stewarts was a historical episode they all knew quite well. King Louis XVIII personally wrote to the new first consul in those very terms.
But Bonaparte had no intention of going down merely as another monk, though he was careful to play his cards close to the vest. He did not reply to the king, but he did not overtly dismiss him either. The Catholic and royal rebels out in the West were rising back up again, and Bonaparte didn’t want to alienate them by coming out firmly against the idea of restoration. He wanted to ensure domestic tranquility, because he was about to have to go out and deal with the looming Second Coalition.
But Bonaparte was also aware that restoring the monarchy was in many ways the least of the Western rebel demands, and so he arranged meetings with those leaders to address their real concerns—the preservation of traditional Catholicism and military conscription. He said, look, I’m utterly committed to freedom of worship so you’ll be able to worship how you want, I’m canceling the law of hostages that would have come down hard on your families, and with luck I’m about to go win the war so conscription just won’t be a thing.
This all sounded pretty good to the potential rebels. So rather than the West going totally to hell in 1800, like it had in 1793, Bonaparte was able to defuse the situation, and the unrest died down. And this was crucial for Bonaparte, because a lot of the guys that he’s about to lead across the Rhine would not have been available had there been a new war in the Bonde.
As he was defusing the West, Bonaparte was also trying to defuse the Second Coalition, so that maybe he wouldn’t have to go back to fighting at all, with the Russians having withdrawn from the Second Coalition in a huff. The new First Consul reached out to both the Austrians and the British, and offered to settle a peace on the basic terms of compo formio, but both rebuffed his overtures. So war was set to resume in the spring of 1800.
Now in overall strategic command of the war, Bonaparte actually wound up following the basic outline employed by the Directory in 1796—that Germany would be the main theater, and Italy merely a secondary front. But General Moreau, now in charge of the Army of the Rhine as a reward for his part in the coup of 18 Brumaire, thought the First Consul’s plan for an aggressive thrust across the Rhine impractical and he resisted the order. He basically said, we’ve tried this before, I’ve tried this before, and it did not turn out well. Not wanting to alienate Moreau, because he was not yet firmly entrenched in power, Bonaparte agreed to focus all his attention on Italy. So in 1800, the First Consul personally led the Army of Reserve, which is basically the domestic forces stationed inside France, on a fairly daring push through the Alps into northern Italy. This is famously captured in Jacques-Louis David’s great Napoleon Crossing the Alps, where Bonaparte is pictured astride a magnificent white steed, but just so you know, he actually made the crossing riding a donkey.
Emerging into northern Italy, Bonaparte retook Milan on June 2nd, and then, with an army of about 22,000, faced off against about 30,000 Austrians at Marigno on June 14th. The French very nearly lost the battle, and that could have been it right there for Bonaparte, but at the end of the day, 6,000 French reinforcements arrived and knocked out the exhausted Austrians. After that, Austria asked for an armistice and agreed to evacuate Lombardy and Liguria, a ceasefire between the Austrian and French armies facing each other along the Rhine soon followed. After Marigno, Bonaparte again demanded the Austrians make peace on the basis of Campo Formio, but believing the armistice was just a temporary pause to catch their breath, the Austrians refused, and hostilities resumed in November.
When Bonaparte ordered Moreau across the Rhine this time, there was no pushback. Moreau led about 56,000 men, and he managed to ambush and encircle 64,000 Austrians at Hohenlinden on December 3rd. The Austrian army was crushed. By Christmas, peace talks were well underway, culminating with the Treaty of Lunaville in February 1801.
This treaty was negotiated primarily by the consulate’s foreign minister, Talleyrand, and was settled, wouldn’t you know it, on the basis of Campo Formio. Talleyrand also made a huge fortune during these negotiations by taking bribes from various German princes to settle things in their favor, because that’s just how he rolls.
With his victory over the Austrians solidifying his political position back in Paris, Bonaparte started to lay the groundwork for a unified authoritarian state under his personal rule. He finally replied to King Louis in September 1800 and said, dear self-declared king, I would be more than happy to pay for your retirement, but do not think of coming home. You’d have to walk over 100,000 corpses to get here.
But it was really only the king that Bonaparte wanted to keep away. Everyone else was welcome to come home if they wanted to. Formerly prescribed emigres were told that all the prescriptions and penalties against them were canceled. This was followed up in October by a general amnesty for men who had taken up arms against France. The only condition was that the emigres had to acknowledge that the lands they had lost during the course of the revolution were gone for good. To secure his middle-class flank, Bonaparte guaranteed that land titles purchased at auction would be recognized as valid full stop.
This would not, however, stop emigres from slowly repurchasing their lands and rebuilding their old estates. Indeed, by the time of the restoration, many noble families were back in possession of most of what they had owned before the fall of the Bastille, which was fine with Napoleon just so long as the land was repurchased, not simply claimed by hereditary right.
The rehabilitation and reintegration of the royalists was nearly derailed on Christmas Eve 1800, when Bonaparte was almost blown to bits by assassins in Paris. But the fuse-lit bomb that was supposed to go off when the first consul’s carriage passed was lit too late, and it didn’t explode until after he was passed. In the aftermath of the attempt, Minister of Police Joseph Fouché uncovered evidence that the plotters had been intractable royalists from the West who refused to reconcile with the consulate. But that did not fit the narrative Bonaparte was building. He wanted everyone to believe that the royalists were with him to a man, and that the greatest threat to public order was actually Jacobin anarchists. So Fouché was ordered to arrest 130 Jacobins for their invented role in the attempt. Four wound up guillotined, five shot, and the rest were exiled.
This while Fouché held in custody the men he actually knew to be responsible. Bonaparte’s continued turn against the left and rehabilitation of the right also put him on the verge of scoring a new ally, because Russia was now deep in talks with France about an alliance. Tsar Paul clearly saw in the autocratic Bonaparte someone he could deal with, rather than that mob of frenzied French republicans he had been so hell-bent on destroying the year before. The Russians started coordinating what was called the Army of Neutrals, a formally unaligned coalition of powers surrounding the Baltic Sea, whose rise was clearly aimed at containing the British.
All of this was upset, however, when Tsar Paul was assassinated in March 1801 and replaced by his son, the far more formidable Tsar Alexander, who, for the time being, pulled back from the French into studied neutrality.
But though the first consul did not win a new ally, he did manage to shed his last enemy. After nearly a decade of war, the British were finally getting sick of it all, especially since they were now left all on their own again. In February 1801, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, the strongest anti-French voice in the government, resigned after his move to relax anti-Catholic laws to forge a stronger and more stable union with Ireland was rejected by King George III. With Pitt gone, the ministry sent out peace feelers to France.
And so though there was still technically a war on, Napoleon was able to spend most of the next year focused on domestic concerns.
First Consul Bonaparte capitalized on the de facto peace and further entrenched the new order he had been building since Brumaire. And a key to this was solidifying the state finances and making sure that the money guys were on his side. He formed the Bank of France, a central bank that would handle state finances, and he promised that the remaining national debt would be paid in time and in cash. The value of government debt notes doubled almost overnight. Tax collection was also vastly improved by this point, so state revenue was actually there to meet these obligations. And this, as I mentioned back in episode 3.47, was entirely due to the efforts of the directory’s finance minister, Rommel, who had repudiated two-thirds of the state’s debt back in 1797 and had then formed the new centralized tax collection agency. Had it not been for Rommel, Bonaparte would have had an impossible time stabilizing the state’s finances. But by 1802, France was actually running a budget surplus.
The First Consul was also obsessed with completely overhauling law and order in France. From almost his first day in office, Bonaparte had been hard at work on what would become the Napoleonic Code, one of the single most influential law books in human history. Finally published in full in 1804, the Napoleonic Code represented the achievement of a dream the Revolution had been striving for since the Estates-General had first been called. Scrap the contradictory, obscure, and illogical laws of the Ancien Régime and replace them with a single, unified, clearly spelled out set of rules that applied to everyone equally. Though Napoleon himself obviously felt bound by no laws, he wanted his nation to enjoy the peace and security that comes with the rule of law.
The Napoleonic Code is without a doubt one of his great contributions to the development of the modern world, and the legal systems of a ton of different countries right now today are rooted in the Napoleonic Code. But Bonaparte’s greatest achievement during this period, in terms of his immediate situation, was reconciling France with the Catholic Church.
Since the occupation of Rome, Pope Pius VI had been in French custody. The Pope since 1775 had been staunchly anti-revolution the whole time. When he died in August 1799, there was real talk that he might actually be the last pope.
But Bonaparte believed that reconciling with the Church was essential to restoring domestic tranquility and his own personal rule. You know how out in the West it’s always the Catholic and Royal Army? Just think if the Catholic part is cut out, the Royalists wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if they were no longer the only defenders of traditional religion, and they will have to reconcile with my regime. So the First Consul gave permission to the College of Cardinals to hold a conclave in Venice, and that conclave elected Pius VII, who was a more practical politician than his predecessor, and who would make a fine negotiating partner for the First Consul.
So shortly after restoring French hegemony in Italy following the Battle of Marengo, Bonaparte entered into talks with the new pope to restore the French Catholic Church. In July 1801, the two sides reached an agreement called the Concordat of 1801. The Church acknowledged that lands it had lost in France in 1789 were not coming back. They also agreed that freedom of worship in France would be a thing. Bonaparte was clear about that, and he really did believe in it.
But the Concordat also re-established state support for the Catholic Church, though it did fall short of making Catholicism the official state religion. The Concordat also brought back the Sunday rhythm of the week, and rolled back strict laws about adhering to the Republican calendar—a calendar which Bonaparte would keep around until 1806, when he finally let it slip into oblivion, where it would henceforth only trouble students of history trying to make sense of an already too-complicated historical era.
Now as had been the case before the Revolution, the Concordat of 1801 said that France’s head of state would select French bishops. And in preparation for the renewed Church, all existing bishops—refractory and constitutional alike—were ordered to resign. Bonaparte would build a new college of bishops from scratch, taking some from the refractories and some from the Constitutionals. Bonaparte also got the Pope to say it was okay for French bishops to take an oath of allegiance to France—something the revolutionaries had been trying to shove down clerical throats since the very beginning. With the Pope’s permission, they finally accepted the oath.
When it was all worked out, the Concordat of 1801 basically healed one of the great festering wounds that had been opened by the Revolution—a wound that had helped turn the good revolution of 1789, defined by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, into the bad revolution of 1792, defined by the Reign of Terror.
But because he was Napoleon, that is of course not quite the end of it. When the Concordat was presented to the Pope for his final signature in April 1802, it was accompanied by a unilateral addition made by Bonaparte called the 77 Organic Laws, which definitely put the Church under the state’s jurisdiction and limited the supremacy of Catholicism in France because Bonaparte was equally concerned about Protestant revolts being triggered by overzealous clergymen. Dropped on his desk at the last minute, the Pope went along with it, rather than lose France back to the atheists.
At the end of 1801, Talleyrand was then wrapping up the terms of a final peace with the British, and the Concordat was on its way to the printer, and so Bonaparte was feeling pretty strong politically. But one guy who thought he was a little too strong was Bonaparte’s old partner-in-crime C.S. C.S. believed in a strong executive, but the First Consul was taking things altogether too far, so C.S. started urging the tribunate and the Legislative Assembly to stand up to the First Consul, to not just rubber-stamp his every decree.
When Bonaparte got wind of this, he decided to invoke a vague clause in the Constitution of Year 8 that said the tribunate and Legislative Assembly would be renewed in Year 10 without saying when or how. The First Consul said, uh, we’re doing it now and under my personal direction. He got the Senate to drop a list of men who would be kept on, dropping 60 troublemakers from the Legislative Assembly and 20 from the tribunate. But Bonaparte just wanted these guys out of the way, not forming the core of some bitter opposition, so he made sure to find them state jobs elsewhere. You know, you’re out of power, but you’re going to be very comfortably out of power.
Shortly after this little purge, the French and British finally signed the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802. Once again negotiated by Talleyrand, the treaty not only ended the war of the Second Coalition for good, but it brought a general peace to Europe for the first time since 1792. Talleyrand himself thought that this was the end of it. France had reached its natural boundaries. The balance of power in Europe seemed stable. Britain was finally laying down their arms. It was the dawn of a permanent peace. And for the moment, it seemed like he might be right. 1802 would go down as the year of peace. For the first time in a decade, there was no war in Europe.
So in the spring of 1802, Bonaparte has in hand the Treaty of Lunaville, which took the Austrians out, the Treaty of Amiens, which took the British out, the Concordant of 1801, which dealt with the Church, and a compliant government.
Trade was prospering again. Prices were rising, all those scarce goods that France had been deprived of for a decade were now flooding back onto the market. Both popular and successful, Bonaparte exploited all this good news and rewrote the Constitution of Year 8 to give the First Consul even more power. The resulting Constitution of Year 10 was thoroughly autocratic and included a provision making Bonaparte First Consul for life. As I’ve mentioned, this moment is often recognized as the true and logical end of the French Revolution. As now so many of the Revolution’s aspirations had been achieved, so many of its open wounds healed, France was at peace for the first time since 1792, and Bonaparte is now de facto dictator for life. So clearly, the French Revolution is over.
But though France is now a dictatorship, it is not a joke to see in Bonaparte’s rule not the repudiation of the Revolution, but rather its total fulfillment. In so many ways, he was finally achieving the dreams of the early revolutionaries. He was certainly embodying the kind of enlightened despotism the philosophs had been calling for back in the 1760s and 1770s. And look what he’s done. France is now a thoroughly modern state, centrally run, pretty efficient, abiding by a rational and comprehensive and universal code of laws. Church prerogatives are recognized but subservient to the state, and freedom of worship is guaranteed. All public offices are open to men of merit. Promotion was based mostly on talent. All the old hated privileges of the Church and nobility were totally swept aside, now replaced with something far more equalitarian and meritocratic. Feudal privilege had been replaced by the universal rule of law. Sure, democracy was dead and freedom of the press was thoroughly curtailed, but you could live with that.
But the happy days of the Year of Peace would not last, and neither would the enlightened consulate. Despite Talleyrand’s hope, tensions between France and Britain were not much relieved by the Treaty of Amiens, and both had complaints about the other’s conduct. In March 1803, the British abandoned the treaty and re-declared war. Napoleon began plotting an invasion of the British Isles. Now this brewing conflict was restricted to the British and French, until a scandal in early 1804 helped break it wide open. An emigre Duke living in the German city of Baden was implicated in a royalist plot to assassinate First Consul for Life Bonaparte.
Now the plot was real enough, but the Duke’s involvement was nonexistent. Nevertheless, Bonaparte had his soldiers cross into Baden beyond the limits of his sovereign authority, arrest the Duke, try him in secret, and then have him executed. The assassination plot itself, and then Bonaparte’s scandalous reaction to it, had two major repercussions. First, the secret execution of the Duke seems to have played a decisive role in turning the other European heads of state against the First Consul. They suddenly became open to the British, who were saying, we need to nip this guy in the bud because he’s actually scary as hell.
The willingness of the other European powers to form a new anti-French coalition prompted an apocryphal quote which is variously attributed either to Fouche or Talleyrand, that the execution of the Duke was worse than a crime. It was a mistake. The other repercussion was that it convinced Bonaparte and his closest allies that were he to be killed, the French Republic would be thrown into chaos. They decided the best way to solve this problem was to inaugurate a new hereditary dynasty, so that if Bonaparte should die, named heirs would be in place so the regime itself could live on. Powered far more by the example of the Caesars than the decayed monarchies of Europe, Bonaparte and his advisors dreamed up a whole new imperial state, with Napoleon at its center. He would be nothing less than Emperor.
In May 1804, the Senate formally transformed First Consul Bonaparte into Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. And then in December, an elaborately staged coronation was held that saw Napoleon crown himself Emperor. He claimed to derive his authority not from God but from the people. But in crowning himself, it was pretty clear where he thought his power was coming from.
The French Republic was now the French Empire. And if the revolution didn’t end with the beheading of Robespierre in 1794, or the coup of Brumaire in 1799, or Bonaparte becoming First Consul for life in 1802, then it must certainly end here.
A 34-year-old German composer on the cusp of greatness sure thought Napoleon crowning himself Emperor marked the end of the revolution. Ludwig van Beethoven was an enlightened admirer of the romantic hero Bonaparte and had dedicated his spectacular, groundbreaking Third Symphony to the First Consul. But when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, Beethoven angrily scratched out or tore up the dedication, and the Third Symphony was subsequently published in 1806 as the Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.
So we’ll leave it there for now, and come back next time for a lightning march through the Napoleonic Empire and the restoration of the monarchy, which will really, seriously, end the French Revolution.
After coming to power in 1799, First Consul Bonaparte achieved many of the Revolution's dreams and healed many of its open wounds. So he declared himself Emperor in 1804.
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