Transformation of the Republic into a Military Dictatorship

Transformation of the Republic into a Military Dictatorship:

The French Republic was proclaimed in 1792 and provided with a “permanent” constitution in 1795, survived in name until 1804. But its actual duration was even briefer, and its government by the Directory lasted less than four years (1795-1799).

The failure of the Directory was due to two chief causes: first, the lack of efficient government; and second, the rise of militarism and the prestige of a victorious, ambitious general. To both of these causes, reference must be made. The former indicated that a stronger government was needed; the latter suggested what the nature of the stronger government would be.

To consolidate the French people after six years of radical revolutionary upheavals required hard and honest labor on the part of men of distinct genius. Yet the Directors were, almost without exception, men of mediocre talents, who preferred personal gain to the welfare of the state.

The period of the Directory was a time of plots and intrigues. The royalists and reactionaries who were elected in considerable numbers to the legislature were restrained from subverting the constitution only by illegal force and violence on the part of the Directors. On the other hand, the extremists in Paris found a leader in a certain Babeuf, who declared that the Revolution had been directed primarily to the advantage of the bourgeoise, while the proletarians were still just as poorly off as ever, and that the latter’s salvation lay in a compulsory equalization of wealth and the abolition of poverty. An insurrection of these socialist radicals was suppressed, and Babeuf was executed in 1797.

While both sincere radicals and convinced reactionaries were opposing the unhappy Directory, the finances of the state were again becoming hopelessly involved. “Graft” flourished in the levying and collecting of taxes and in public expenditures. To the extravagance of the Directors in internal administration were added the financial necessities of armies aggregating a million men. Paris, still in want, had to be fed at the expense of the nation. And the issue of assignats by the National Constituent Assembly, intended at first only as a temporary expedient, had been continued until by the year 1796 their total face value amounted to about forty billion livres, and three hundred of them were required to secure one in cash. In 1797 a partial bankruptcy was declared, interest payments were suspended on two-thirds of the public debt, and the assignats were repudiated. The republic faced much the same financial crisis as had confronted the absolute monarchy in 1789.

In one respect, success attended the Directory; the national army was functioning splendidly and the foreign war was going gloriously. When the Directory assumed office, France was still at war with Austria, Sardinia, and Great Britain. The general plan of the campaign was to advance one French army across the Rhine, through southern Germany, and thence into the Austrian dominions, and to dispatch another army across the Alps, through northern Italy, and thence on to Vienna. Of the army of the Rhine such veteran generals as Pichegru, Jourdan, and Moreau were put in charge. To the command of the army operating in Italy, the youthful Bonaparte was appointed.

Napoleon Bonaparte hitherto had not been particularly conspicuous in the politics of war. He was believed to be in full sympathy with the Revolution, although he took pains after the downfall of Robespierre to disavow any attachment to the extreme radicals. He had acquired some popularity by skillful expulsion of the British from Toulon in 1793, and his protection of the National Convention against the uprising of the Parisian populace in 1795 gave him a reputation as a friend of law and order. Finally, his marriage in 1796 with Josephine Beauharnais, the widow of a revolutionary general and the mistress of one of the Directors, bettered his chances of indulging his fondness for politics and war.

That very year (1796), while the older and more experienced French generals were repeatedly baffled in their efforts to carry the war into southern Germany, the young commander- but twenty-seven years of age- swept the Austrians from Italy. With lightning rapidity, infectious enthusiasm, brilliant tactics, and personal bravery, he crossed the Alps, humbled the Sardinians, and within a year disposed of five Austrian armies and occupied every fort in northern Italy. Sardinia was compelled to cede Savoy and Nice to the French Republic, and, when Bonaparte’s army approached Vienna, Austria sued for peace. By the treaty of Campo Formio (1797), France secured the Austrian Netherlands and the Ionian Islands; Austria obtained, as partial compensation, the Venetian Republic, but agreed not to interfere in other parts of Italy; and a congress was to assemble at Rastatt to rearrange the map of the Holy Roman Empire with a view to compensating those German princes whose lands on the left bank of the Rhine were appropriated by France.

The campaign of 1796-1797, known in history as the first Italian campaign, was the beginning of a long series of sensational military exploits which were to rank Napoleon Bonaparte as the foremost soldier of modern times. Its immediate effect was to complete the dissolution of the First Coalition by forcing Austria and Sardinia to follow the example of Spain, Prussia, and Holland and to make peace highly favorable to the French Republic. Great Britain alone continued the struggle against the Directory.

Another result of the first Italian Campaign, almost as immediate and certainly more portentous, was the sudden personal fame of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was the most talked-of man in France. People applauded him. The government feared but flattered him. Schemers and plotters of every political faith sought his support. Alongside of decreasing respect for the existing government was increasing trust in Bonaparte.

It was undoubtedly with a sense of relief that the despised Directors of 1798 assented to a project proposed by the popular hero to transport to Egypt a French expedition with the object of interrupting communications between Great Britain and India. The ensuing Egyptian campaign of 1798 was spectacular rather than successful. Bonaparte made stirring speeches to his soldiers. He called the Pyramids to witness the valor of the French. He edified the native Moslems by praising their religion. He encouraged the study of Egyptian antiquities. But his military achievements did not measure up to the colored reports which he sent home. He was checked in Syria, and a naval victory won by the celebrated English admiral, Lord Nelson, near the mouth of the Nile, left Bonaparte’s army cut off and isolated in Egypt.

General Bonaparte himself luckily eluded the British warships and returned to France. It was believed by Frenchmen that his latest expedition had been eminently successful; but that in the meantime the work of the Directory had been disastrous, no one doubted. While Bonaparte was away, affairs in France had gone from bad to worse. There were new plots, increased financial and social disorders, and finally the renewal of a large-scale foreign war.

After the Treaty of Campo Formio, the Directors followed a policy of surrounding France with dependent puppet republics. Even before the treaty, Holland had been transformed into the Batavian Republic, and now pretexts of various sorts were utilized to convert the duchy of Milan, or Lombardy, into a Cisalpine Republic; Genoa into a Ligurian Republic; the papal states into a Roman Republic; the kingdom of the Two Sicilies into a Parthenopean Republic; the Swiss Confederation into a Helvetic Republic. At the same time (1798), the Directory extended conscription for the French army.

In view of the fact that the governments of all the newly established republics were imposed by revolutionary France and utilized to support it, other countries felt themselves increasingly endangered and took steps to stop French aggression. A Second Coalition was formed by Great Britain, Austria, and Russia, and thanks to liberal sums of money supplied by William Pitt, the British minister, they were able to put larger armies into the field.

During 1799 the Second Coalition won repeated victories; the French were driven from Italy; and most of the puppet republics collapsed. It seemed as though Bonaprate’s first Italian campaign had been for naught. Possibly the military hero of France had himself foreseen this very situation and had intended to exploit it to his own advantage.

At any rate, when Bonaparte sailed for Egypt, he had left his country apparently victorious and honored. Now, when he returned in October 1799, he found France defeated and disgraced. It is a small wonder that his journey from the coast to Paris was a triumphal procession. The majority of Frenchmen were convinced that he was the man of the hour.

Within a month of his return from Egypt, public opinion enabled the young general to overthrow the government of the Directory. Intriguing with Sieyes, who was one of the Directors, he surrounded the Assemblies with a cordon of troops loyal to himself, and on Brumaire 18-19 (November 9-10, 1799) secured by show of force the downfall of the government and the appointment of himself to supreme military command. This blow at the state (coup d’état) was soon followed by the promulgation of a new constitution, by which General Bonaparte became the First Consul of the French Republic. Thus, within the space of ten and a half years from the assembling of the Estates General at Versailles, parliamentary and popular government in France fell beneath the sword. The predictions of Marat and Robespierre were realized. A military dictator appeared on the scene.

Yet the advent of military dictatorship did not obscure the deep significance of the French Revolution. A present-day visitor in Paris may still observe on all sides the words Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite- Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. These were the words that the revolutionaries spelled out on their public buildings, and which they thought embodied the basic meaning of the Revolution. These words Napoleon Bonaparte did not erase.

“Liberty” implied certain political ideals. The people, and not a despotic monarch, should be sovereign. The individual citizen should possess personal liberties of conscience, worship, speech, publication, and property.

“Equality” signified the abolition of privilege, the end of serfdom, and the destruction of the feudal system. It meant that all men were equal before the law and that every man should have an equal chance with every other man in the pursuit of life and happiness.

“Fraternity” was the symbol of the idealistic brotherhood of those who sought to make the world better and happier and more just, and at the same time it became the watchword of a new nationalism.

Political liberty, social equality, national patriotism- these three remained the ideals of all those who down to our day have looked for inspiration to the French Revolution.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?
Importance of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Short Note on the French Revolution of 1848
Bonaparte Napoleon
Napoleon Ascendency
Consulate Rule and Constitution of 1799
Reforms of Napoleon
Napoleon Concord With Pope
Napoleonic Code
Continental System
Causes of the Failure of the Continental System
Napoleonic Imperialism
Napoleonic War
Short Note on Napoleon Bonaparte
The United States and the French Revolution, 1789–1799