The Road to Brumaire

By this time, international opinion had also become disenchanted with the Revolution. The experience of the Terror had altered definitively outsiders' views of France, driving it from sympathy in 1789 to hostility and derision by 1795. Certainly the Terror and the defeat of the pro-French "patriot" movement in England itself emboldened British cartoonists to lambaste the French revolutionaries, particularly their claims of having achieved "liberty" unknown elsewhere in Europe.

If the executive council of the Directory remained impervious to both the military and caricatural insults of the British, it faced far more onerous challenges in the arena of domestic politics. The Directory's continual reliance on military force against its own citizens revealed its instability. Sieyès, as a delegate of the Third Estate in 1789, had been instrumental in initiating the Revolution, but now as a Director in 1799, he would take the lead in ending it because he believed that anarchy would reign unless the government was reorganized. Turning to the most popular figure on the political landscape—General Bonaparte, freshly returned from Egypt—Sieyès arranged for a coup that would consolidate all power in a three-man consulate to include himself, Bonaparte, and Roger Ducos. With Bonaparte's brother Lucien manipulating the Council of Five-Hundred into consent, the coup of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799) replaced the Directory with the Consulate, a government neither liberal nor democratic. Bonaparte, whose political skills Sieyès drastically underestimated, immediately seized the upper hand and emerged within a couple of months as the real leader of France, taking first the title of First Consul (1799–1802), then Consul for Life (1802–4), and finally crowning himself Emperor (1804–14, 1815).

Although the Directory is best known for its activities in war and politics, it was also very busy in other fields. In a number of ways, it pursued the Revolution's goal of rationalizing everything, from the system of weights and measures to the lay system of free, compulsory, secondary education. Outside its official activities, the Directory achieved notoriety for ushering in a period of excess: the wealthy and fashionable flaunted their riches through ostentatious displays of self-indulgence as a reaction to the Jacobin prudery and sans-culotte economic leveling. In the most spectacular case, the wife of one of France's leading politicians, Madame Tallien, went topless, drawing considerable comment and criticism.

The multiple directions in which the Directory seemed to move—expanding secondary education while restricting political rights, gaining territory on the battlefield while becoming ridiculed by educated Europeans, assuring the citizens it would defend "republican institutions" while allowing power to be consolidated ever more narrowly—all make this "unheroic" period of the French Revolution difficult to assess. Even scholars have given it relatively little attention. Yet it deserves careful consideration because it consolidated the achievements of the first half of the revolutionary decade and because similar contradictions continue to plague nations to this very day.













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