(The FRENCH REVOLUTION – continued)

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Napoleon Wins Battles and becomes First Consul (1796-99)

The winter of 1795-96 was the worst of the winters since the beginning of the revolution. Going into 1796 support by the executive government – the Directory – for military expansion abroad was a means of handling unsolved economic problems. Large armies reduced unemployment, and plunder supported the large armies. note27

There were people on the Left of concern for the government. There was a new communist movement led by Gracchus Babeuf. In Paris, Babeuf had started a newspaper called The Tribune of the People and had quickly acquired a following. He claimed that equality among men would not be achieved until property was abolished, and he advocated agrarian communism. Rather than the kind of popular rising against the government that had failed in 1794, he had been looking forward to an armed coup by an elite few, what some ideological revolutionaries in the 20th century derided as a "putch" – an attempted rising without the mass support needed to be successful. In 1796 the Directory stopped tolerating the movement and quickly and easily crushed it and had him guillotined.

Financially, the government was still bankrupt, but the war was going well for France. The Austrian Netherlands had been annexed. The French had conquered the Dutch Republic. Prussia had signed a peace treaty with France in April 1795 – Prussia having turned its interest in the direction of Poland, hoping to limit Russian expansion there. And by now France had signed a peace treaty with Spain.

In the spring of 1796, French armies were pushing through the Holy Roman Empire, and Napoleon Bonaparte was given command of an army directed against the Austrians and against Piedmont. Napoleon was an exceptional commander. He knew how to rally his ragged and hungry troops, telling them he would lead them to the most fertile plains on earth. Rich provinces and opulent towns, he told them, would be at their disposal. There, he said, "you will find honor, riches and glory."

The Austrian and Piedmont armies outnumbered Napoleon's army 52,000 to 32,000, but they were divided in purpose, scattered and slow while Napoleon's army was concentrated and following Napoleon's singular strategy. Napoleon, moreover, was unusual in his capacity for details, and he was unafraid of danger. By using his army economically and concentrating his attacks at critical places and at critical times, within fifteen days he won six victories, captured 55 artillery pieces and conquered what he told his troops was "the richest parts of Piedmont."

Napoleon chased the Austrians out of Milan and entered that city on May 15, 1796. By January 1797 he had won more great battles, the last one at Rivoli on January 14. Napoleon's victories cheered the French people.

In February 1797, the assignat was abandoned in favor of metallic currency, and the Directory had begun balancing its financial books through tax collection and wealth it was taking from conquered territories.

Politically, however, the Directory ran into trouble. The first elections for seats in parliament, held in April 1797, did not have the requirements involved in the selection of deputies in 1795. Conservatives won a substantial number of seats, and they were hostile to the war. During the months that followed deputies to the new parliament argued whether it was best to continue with a republican constitution or to return to a constitutional monarchy. Two of the five members of the Directory sided with the conservatives. The three remaining members of the Directory engineered a coup to save the republic, and in doing so the Directory crippled its political legitimacy.

Napoleon had conquered Venice and was expanding against the Austrians. The Austrians sued for peace. In October 1797, Napoleon acted on his own and signed a treaty with the Austrians, giving them rule over what had been the Venetian Republic. Napoleon's troops pulled out of Venice in January, and behind them arrived Austrian troops.

A French army had conquered Rome, and, in December, the French took the city of Naples, 180 kilometers to the south of Rome. The French were raiding churches and palaces in Italy, confiscating art treasures and sending them back to France.

Napoleon's campaigning in northern Italy ended in May 1798. France was still at war with Great Britain. Napoleon returned to France and then set sail for Egypt with a plan to strike at Britain by cutting off its trade route to India. On the way, he conquered the island of Malta – a hundred kilometers south of the heel of the Italian boot. On July 1 he arrived in Egypt to do battle against its Mameluk rulers, and on July 21 he defeated an army of some 40,000 at the Battle of the Pyramids. Then on August 1 a British naval force, led by Admiral Horatio Nelson, smashed the French navy at anchor at Abu Qir bay, near Alexandria, Egypt, the French losing 6,200 men as casualties and prisoners. The British were jubilant and encouraged. Austria, Russia and Turkey were also encouraged by the British victory and joined Britain in a new coalition against the French.

Beginning in March 1799, the allies began pushing the French out of Italy. Napoleon in Egypt was still winning battles, but the south of France, adjacent to Italy, appeared vulnerable to invasion. In Paris, the government's Executive Directory was under a prolonged and vociferous attack from parliament. The Directory was ruling dictatorially and trying to hold on to power. Leftists in parliament were weaker than were centrists but loud in blaming greed and corruption by members of the Directory for insufficient supplies reaching the military and for military defeats. Military conscription was still creating opposition to the government.

On August 15 1799, British and Russian forces landed in the Dutch Republic, and the Dutch fleet joined them against France. In France, monarchists were rising in revolt in expectation of the arrival of the foreign armies. In August, arose in the area of Toulouse. Fighting around Bordeaux resulted in perhaps as many as 4,000 casualties. In mid-September an estimated 3,000 monarchists ransacked the town of Le Mans, looking for arms and supplies, and a monarchist army briefly occupied the town of Nantes.

In October, Napoleon abandoned his army in Egypt and without permission from the Directory returned to France. His six-day journey across the country to Paris was filled with local officials greeting him with speeches in front of jubilant crowds of thousands flocking to get a glimpse of him. Napoleon was the country's only undefeated general. As a hero who had helped straighten out matters in Paris in 1795 and in 1797 there was hope that he would now put an end to the squabbling and crisis in Paris and save the endangered nation.

In Paris, a member of the Directory, Emmanuel Sieyès, joined others in a conspiracy with Napoleon. Sieyès had written a pamphlet advocating rule by the entire people, and recently his motto had become "confidence from below, authority from above." In the guise of an emergency to save France from a leftist coup, the creation of a new constitution was announced. The Directory was replaced by a three-man provisional government, one of whom was Sieyès and the other Napoleon. A committee of 50 deputies was created to change the constitution.

In December a plebiscite overwhelmingly approved the new constitution. The Roman Republic of ancient times had two consuls to avoid any one man from having too much power. France was to have three consuls, but one of them was to be a First Consul – Napoleon's new title.


A Short History of the French Revolution, by Jeremy D Popkin, 1998

The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate, by Gwynne Lewis, 1993

The Fruits of Revolution: Property Rights, Litigation, and French Agriculture, 1700-1860, by Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, 1992

A French Genocide: the Vendée, by Reynald Secher, 2003

Napoleon: a Biography, by Frank McLynn, 2011

History of Western Civilization, by William H. McNeill, 1986

Western Civilization: A History of European Society, by Steven Hause and William Maltby, 2004

PBS: Marie Antoinette (on DVD at, 2006

A History of Western Society, Volume Two, Fourth Edition, by McKay, Hill and Buckler, 1991

The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters, by Anthony Pagden, 2013

"Do you have an ancestor who was decapitated in France during the Revolution?"
A Website in French by Raymond Combes


Elsewhere on this site

Bits from the movie Danton

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