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French Consulate

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French Consulate

Consulat français
Executive government of the French First Republic
Coat of arms or logo
Established10 November 1799
Disbanded18 May 1804
Preceded byFrench Directory
Succeeded byFirst French Empire
(with Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor)

The Consulate (French: Le Consulat) was the top-level government of France from the fall of the Directory in the coup of 18 Brumaire on 10 November 1799 until the start of the French Empire on 18 May 1804. By extension, the term The Consulate also refers to this period of French history.

During this period, Napoleon Bonaparte, as First Consul (Premier consul), established himself as the head of a more autocratic and centralised republican government in France while not declaring himself sole ruler. Due to the long-lasting institutions established during these years, Robert B. Holtman has called the consulate "one of the most important periods of all French history."[1] By the end of this period, Bonaparte had engineered an authoritarian personal rule now viewed as a military dictatorship.[2]

Fall of the Directory[edit]

French military disasters in 1798 and 1799 had shaken the Directory, and eventually shattered it in November 1799. Historians sometimes date the start of the political downfall of the Directory to 18 June 1799 (Coup of 30 Prairial VII by the French Republican calendar). This was when anti-Jacobin Director Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, after only a month in office, with the help of the Directory's only surviving original member, Paul Barras, also an anti-Jacobin, successfully rid himself of the other three then-sitting directors.[citation needed] The March–April 1799 elections to the two councils had produced a new Neo-Jacobin majority in the two bodies, and being unhappy with the existing five man Directory, by 5 June 1799, these councils had found an irregularity in the election of the Director Jean Baptiste Treilhard, who thus retired in favour of Louis-Jérôme Gohier, a Jacobin more "in tune" with the feelings in the two councils. The next day, 18 June 1799, anti-Jacobins Philippe-Antoine Merlin de Douai and Louis Marie de La Révellière-Lépeaux were also driven to resign, although one long time anti-Jacobin, popularly known for his cunning, survived the day's coup; they were replaced by Jacobin Baron Jean-François-Auguste Moulin and by non-Jacobin, or "weak" Jacobin, Roger Ducos. The three new directors were generally seen by the anti-Jacobin elite of France as non-entities, but that same elite could take some comfort in knowing that the five man Directory was still in anti-Jacobin hands, but with a reduced majority.

A few more military disasters, royalist insurrections in the south, Chouan disturbances in a dozen departments of the western part of France (mainly in Brittany, Maine, and eventually Normandy), royalist intrigues, and the end became certain.[citation needed] In order to soothe the populace and protect the frontier, more than the French Revolution's usual terrorist measures (such as the Law of Hostages) was necessary. The new Directory government, led by Sieyès, decided that the necessary revision of the constitution would require "a head" (his own) and "a sword" (a general to back him). With General Jean Victor Marie Moreau being unattainable as his sword, Sieyès favoured General Barthélemy Catherine Joubert; but, when Joubert was killed at the Battle of Novi (15 August 1799), he turned to General Napoleon Bonaparte.[3]

Although Generals Guillaume Brune and André Masséna won the Battles of Bergen and of Zürich, and the Allies of the Second Coalition lingered on the frontier as they had done after the Battle of Valmy, the fortunes of the Directory were still not restored. Success was reserved for Bonaparte, suddenly landing at Fréjus with the prestige of his victories in the East, and now, after General Lazare Hoche's death (1797), appearing as sole master of the armies.[3]

In the coup of 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), Bonaparte seized French parliamentary and military power in a two-fold coup d'état, forcing the sitting directors of the government to resign. On the night of 19 Brumaire (10 November 1799) a remnant of the Council of Ancients abolished the Constitution of the Year III, ordained the consulate, and legalised the coup d'état in favour of Bonaparte with the Constitution of the Year VIII.[3]

The new government[edit]

The initial 18 Brumaire coup seemed to be a victory for Sieyès, rather than for Bonaparte. Sieyès was a proponent of a new system of government for the Republic, and the coup initially seemed certain to bring his system into force. Bonaparte's cleverness lay in counterposing Pierre Claude François Daunou's plan to that of Sieyès, and in retaining only those portions of each which could serve his ambition.[4][3]

Constitution of the year VIII and later the French Empire

The new government was composed of three parliamentary assemblies: the Council of State which drafted bills, the Tribunate which could not vote on the bills but instead debated them, and the Corps législatif, whose members could not discuss the bills but voted on them after reviewing the Tribunate's debate record. The Sénat conservateur was a governmental body equal to the three aforementioned legislative assemblies and verified the draft bills and directly advised the First Consul on the implications of such bills. Ultimate executive authority was vested in three consuls, who were elected for ten years. Popular suffrage was retained, though mutilated by the lists of notables (on which the members of the Assemblies were to be chosen by the Senate). The four aforementioned governmental organs were retained under the Constitution of the Year XII, which recognised Bonaparte as the French sovereign, but their respective powers were greatly diminished.

Bonaparte vetoed Sieyès' original idea of having a single Grand Elector as supreme executive and head of state. Sieyès had intended to reserve this important position for himself, and by denying him the job Bonaparte helped reinforce the authority of the consuls, an office which he would assume. Nor was Bonaparte content simply to be part of an equal triumvirate. As the years progressed he would move to consolidate his own power as First Consul, and leave the two other consuls, Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès and Charles-François Lebrun, as well as the Assemblies, weak and subservient.

By consolidating power, Bonaparte was able to transform the aristocratic constitution of Sieyès into an unavowed dictatorship.[3]

On 7 February 1800, a public referendum confirmed the new constitution. It vested all of the real power in the hands of the First Consul, leaving only a nominal role for the other two consuls. A full 99.9% of voters approved the motion, according to the released results.

While this near-unanimity is certainly open to question, Bonaparte was genuinely popular among many voters, and after a period of strife, many in France were reassured by his dazzling but unsuccessful offers of peace to the victorious Second Coalition, his rapid disarmament of La Vendée, and his talk of stability of government, order, justice, and moderation. He gave everyone a feeling that France was governed once more by a real statesman, and that a competent government was finally in charge.[3]

Bonaparte's consolidation of power[edit]

Portrait of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Bonaparte needed to rid himself of Sieyès and of those republicans who had no desire to hand over the republic to one man, particularly of Moreau and Masséna, his military rivals. The victory at Marengo (14 June 1800) momentarily in the balance, but secured by Generals Louis Desaix and François Christophe de Kellermann, offered a further opportunity to his ambition by increasing his popularity. The royalist plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise on 24 December 1800 allowed him to make a clean sweep of the democratic republicans, who despite their innocence were deported to French Guiana. He annulled the Assemblies and made the Senate omnipotent in constitutional matters.[3]

The Treaty of Lunéville, signed in February 1801 with Austria (which had been disarmed by Moreau's victory at Hohenlinden), restored peace to Europe, gave nearly the whole of Italy to France, and permitted Bonaparte to eliminate from the Assemblies all the leaders of the opposition in the discussion of the Civil Code. The Concordat of 1801, drawn up not in the Catholic Church's interest but in that of his own policy, by giving satisfaction to the religious feeling of the country, allowed him to put down the constitutional democratic Church, to rally round him the consciences of the peasants, and above all to deprive the royalists of their best weapon. The Organic Articles hid from the eyes of his companions-in-arms and councillors a reaction which, in fact if not in law, restored to a submissive Church, despoiled of her revenues, her position as the religion of the state.[3]

The Peace of Amiens (25 March 1802) with the United Kingdom, of which France's allies, Spain and the Batavian Republic, paid all the costs, finally gave the peacemaker a pretext for endowing himself with a consulate, not for ten years but for life, as a recompense from the nation. Bonaparte's path to emperor began with the Constitution of the Year X dated 16 Thermidor or 4 August 1802.[3]

On 2 August 1802 (14 Thermidor, An X), a second national referendum was held, this time to confirm Bonaparte as "First Consul for Life."[5] Once again, a vote claimed 99.7% approval.[6][7]

As Bonaparte increased his power, he borrowed many techniques of the ancien régime in his new form of one-man government. Like the old monarchy, he re-introduced plenipotentiaries; over-centralised, strictly utilitarian administrative and bureaucratic methods, and a policy of subservient pedantic scholasticism[clarification needed] towards the nation's universities. He constructed or consolidated the funds necessary for national institutions, local governments, a judiciary system, organs of finance, banking, codes, and traditions of conscientious of a well-disciplined labour force.[8]

France enjoyed a high level of peace and order under Bonaparte that helped to raise the standard of comfort. Prior to this, Paris had often suffered from hunger and thirst, and lacked fire and light, but under Bonaparte, provisions became cheap and abundant, while trade prospered and wages ran high.[8]

In strengthening the machinery of the state, Bonaparte created the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honour), the Concordat, and restored indirect taxes, an act seen as a betrayal of the Revolution.

Bonaparte was largely able to quell dissent within government by expelling his more vocal critics, such as Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël. The expedition to Saint-Domingue reduced the republican army to a nullity. Constant war helped demoralise and scatter the military's leaders, who were jealous of their "comrade" Bonaparte. The last major challenge to Bonaparte's authority came from Moreau, who was compromised in a royalist plot; he too was sent into exile.[8]

In contradistinction to the opposition of senators and republican generals, the majority of the French populace remained uncritical of Bonaparte's authority. No suggestion of the possibility of his death was tolerated.[8]

Duke of Enghien affair[edit]

Portrait of Louis Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Enghien, by Jean-Michel Moreau

Because Bonaparte's hold on political power was still tenuous, French royalists devised a plot that involved kidnapping and assassinating him and inviting Louis Antoine de Bourbon, the Duke of Enghien, to lead a coup d'état that would precede the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy with Louis XVIII on the throne. The British government of William Pitt the Younger had contributed to this royalist conspiracy by financing one million pounds and providing naval transport (with the ship of Captain John Wesley Wright) to the conspirators Georges Cadoudal and General Jean-Charles Pichegru for their return to France from England. Pichegru met Moreau, one of Bonaparte's generals and a former protege of Pichegru, on 28 January 1804. The next day, a British secret agent named Courson was arrested and he, under torture, confessed that Pichegru, Moreau, and Cadoudal were conspiring to overthrow the consulate. The French government sought more details of this plot by arresting and torturing Louis Picot, Cadoudal's servant. General Joachim Murat ordered the city gates of Paris to be closed from 7 pm to 6 am while Pichegru and Moreau were arrested during the next month.

These further arrests revealed that the Royalist conspiracy would eventually involve the active participation of the Duke of Enghien, who was a relatively young Bourbon prince and thus another possible heir to a restored Bourbon monarchy. The Duke, at that time, was living as a French émigré in the Electorate of Baden, but he also kept a rented house in Ettenheim, which was close to the French border. Possibly at the urging of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périogord, Bonaparte's foreign minister, and Joseph Fouché, Bonaparte's minister of police who had warned that "the air is full of daggers", the First Consul came to the conclusion that the Duke must be dealt with. Two hundred French soldiers crossed the border, surrounded the Duke's home in Baden and arrested him.

On the way back to France, d'Enghien stated that "he had sworn implacable hatred against Bonaparte as well as against the French; he would take every occasion to make war on them."[9]

After three plots to assassinate him and the further financing of a supposed insurrection in Strasbourg, Bonaparte had enough. Based on d'Enghien's[clarification needed] who were seized at his home in Germany and the material from the police, d'Enghien was charged as a conspirator in time of war and was subject to a military court. He was ordered to be tried by a court of seven colonels at Vincennes.

D'Enghien during his questioning at the court told them that he was being paid 4,200 pounds per year by Britain "in order to combat not France but a government to which his birth had made him hostile." Further, he stated that "I asked England if I might serve in her armies, but she replied that that was impossible: I must wait on the Rhine, where I would have a part to play immediately, and I was in fact waiting."[10]

D'Enghien was found guilty of being in violation of Article 2 of a law of 6 October 1791, to wit, "Any conspiracy and plot aimed at disturbing the State by civil war, and arming the citizens against one another, or against lawful authority, will be punished by death." He was executed in the ditch of the fortress of Vincennes.

The aftermath caused hardly a ripple in France, but abroad, it produced a storm of anger. Many of those who had favoured or been neutral to Bonaparte now turned against him, but Bonaparte always assumed full responsibility for allowing the execution and continued to believe that, on balance, he had done the right thing.


Provisional consuls (10 November – 12 December 1799)
Napoleon Bonaparte
Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès
Roger Ducos
Consulate (12 December 1799 – 18 May 1804)
Napoleon Bonaparte
First Consul
J.J. Cambacérès
Second Consul
Charles-François Lebrun
Third Consul


The ministers under the Consulate were:[11]

Ministry Start End Minister
Foreign Affairs 11 November 1799 22 November 1799 Charles-Frédéric Reinhard
22 November 1799 18 May 1804 Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord
Justice 11 November 1799 25 December 1799 Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès
25 December 1799 14 September 1802 André Joseph Abrial
14 September 1802 18 May 1804 Claude Ambroise Régnier
War 11 November 1799 2 April 1800 Louis-Alexandre Berthier
2 April 1800 8 October 1800 Lazare Carnot
8 October 1800 18 May 1804 Louis-Alexandre Berthier
Finance 11 November 1799 18 May 1804 Martin-Michel-Charles Gaudin
Police 11 November 1799 18 May 1804 Joseph Fouché
Interior 12 November 1799 25 December 1799 Pierre-Simon Laplace
25 December 1799 21 January 1801 Lucien Bonaparte
21 January 1801 18 May 1804 Jean-Antoine Chaptal
Navy and Colonies 12 November 1799 22 November 1799 Marc-Antoine Bourdon de Vatry
22 November 1799 3 October 1801 Pierre-Alexandre-Laurent Forfait
3 October 1801 18 May 1804 Denis Decrès
Secretary of State 25 December 1799 18 May 1804 Hugues-Bernard Maret
Treasury 27 September 1801 18 May 1804 François Barbé-Marbois
War Administration 12 March 1802 18 May 1804 Jean François Aimé Dejean


  1. ^ Robert B. Holtman, The Napoleonic Revolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), 31.
  2. ^ Jones, Colin (1994). The Cambridge Illustrated History of France (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 193–94. ISBN 0-521-43294-4.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Wiriath 1911, p. 860.
  4. ^ Antoine-Claire Thibaudeau, "Creation of the Consular Government," Napoleon: Symbol for an Age, A Brief History with Documents, ed. Rafe Blaufarb (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008), 54–56.
  5. ^ "From Life Consulship to the hereditary Empire (1802–1804)". Napoleon.org. Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  6. ^ Frank McLynn (2002). Napoleon. Arcade Publishing. pp. 253–54. ISBN 978-1-55970-631-5. August 1802 referendum.
  7. ^ Lucius Hudson Holt; Alexander Wheeler Chilton (1919). A Brief History of Europe from 1789–1815. The Macmillan Company. p. 206. August 1802 referendum napoleon.
  8. ^ a b c d Wiriath 1911, p. 861.
  9. ^ Cronin 1994, p. 242
  10. ^ Cronin 1994, pp. 243–44
  11. ^ *Muel, Léon (1891). Gouvernements, ministères et constitutions de la France depuis cent ans: Précis historique des révolutions, des crises ministérielles et gouvernementales, et des changements de constitutions de la France depuis 1789 jusqu'en 1890 ... Marchal et Billard. p. 61. Retrieved 3 May 2014.