French military disasters in 1798 and 1799 had shaken the Directory, and eventually shattered it. Historians sometimes date the start of the political downfall of the Directory to 18 June 1799 (30 Prairial Year VII by the French Republican calendar), when Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès with the help of Paul Barras successfully rid himself of the other then-sitting directors. An irregularity emerged in the election of Jean Baptiste Treilhard, who retired in favor of Louis Jérôme Gohier. Within days, Philippe-Antoine Merlin (Merlin de Douai) and Louis-Marie de La Revellière (La Révellière-Lépeaux) were driven to resign; Baron Jean-François-Auguste Moulin and Roger Ducos replaced them. The three new directors were generally seen as non-entities.
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), Orléanist intrigues, and the end became certain. In order to soothe the populace and protect the frontier, more than the French Revolution's usual terrorist measures (such as forced taxation or 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). Jean Victor Moreau being unattainable as his sword, Sieyès favoured Barthélemy Catherine Joubert; but, when Joubert was killed at the Battle of Novi (15 August 1799), he turned to General Napoleon Bonaparte.
Although Guillaume Marie Anne Brune and André Masséna won the Battles of Bergen and of Zürich, and although the Allies of the Second Coalition lingered on the frontier as they had done after the Battle of Valmy, still the fortunes of the Directory were not restored. Success was reserved for Bonaparte, suddenly landing at Fréjus with the prestige of his victories in the East, and now, after Hoche's death (1797), appearing as sole master of the armies.
In the coup of 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), Napoleon 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 the 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.
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 both which could serve his ambition.
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 Legislative Assembly, 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 recognized Napoleon as the French sovereign Emperor, but their respective powers were greatly diminished.
Napoleon 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 Napoleon helped reinforce the authority of the consuls, an office which he would assume. Nor was Napoleon content simply to be part of an equal triumvirate. As the years would progress 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.
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, Napoleon 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.
Bonaparte had now 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 of Marengo (14 June 1800) momentarily in the balance, but secured by Desaix and 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.
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 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 Articles Organiques 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.
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. The Rubicon was crossed on that day: Bonaparte’s march to empire began with the Constitution of the Year X.
On 2 August 1802 (14 Thermidor, An X), a second national referendum was held, this time to confirm Napoleon as "First Consul for Life." Once again, a vote claimed 99.8% approval.
As Napoleon 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, an over-centralised, strictly utilitarian administrative and bureaucratic methods, and a policy of subservient pedantic scholasticism 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, traditions of conscientious well-disciplined labour force.
France enjoyed a high level of peace and order under Napoleon 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 Napoleon, provisions became cheap and abundant, while trade prospered and wages ran high. The pomp and luxury of the nouveaux riches were displayed in the salons of the good Joséphine, the beautiful Madame Tallien, and the "divine" Juliette Récamier.
In strengthening the machinery of state, Napoleon created the elite order of the Légion d'honneur (The Legion of Honour), the Concordat, and restored indirect taxes, an act seen as a betrayal of the Revolution.
Napoleon 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 San Domingo 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 Napoleon's authority came from Moreau, who was compromised in a royalist plot; he too was sent into exile.
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. The Napoleonic age began here when he became officer of the French state and established the Consulate.
Because Napoleon's hold on political power was still tenuous, French Royalists devised a plot that involved kidnapping and assassinating him and inviting Louis Antoine Henri, 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 Charles Pichegru for their return to France from England. Pichegru met Jean Victor Marie Moreau, one of Napoleon'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. 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 Grand Duchy of Baden, but he also kept a rented house in Ettenheim, which was close to the French border. Perhaps at the urging of Talleyrand, Napoleon's foreign minister, and Fouché, Napoleon's minister of police who had warned that "the air is full of daggers", the First Consul came to the political conclusion that the Duke must be dealt with. Two hundred French soldiers 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."
After three plots to assassinate him and the further financing of a supposed insurrection in Strasbourg, Napoleon had enough. Based on d'Enghien's 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 per year by England "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."
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 favored or been neutral to Napoleon now turned against him. But Napoleon always assumed full responsibility for allowing the execution and continued to believe that, on balance, he had done the right thing.
The endless conspiracies against Bonaparte's life began to raise concerns that the Republic would collapse shortly following his death, followed by either the Bourbons restored, a military dictatorship, or the Jacobins with their guillotine. Fouché suggested that Napoleon create a hereditary title to cement his legacy and lessen the likelihood that the regime would change upon his death. Napoleon was at first reluctant to accept the title. However, he was ultimately persuaded to do so, provided that the power come from the people, not by divine right. On 18 May 1804, the Senate passed a bill introducing the French Empire, with Napoleon as Emperor. The coronation ceremony took place on 2 December 1804, where Napoleon crowned himself as Emperor of the French, establishing the Empire.
See Cabinet of the French Consulate
The Ministers under the Consulate were: