Napoleon Rises to Power in France

Napoleon I rose to power in France through the coup d’état of 18-19 Brumaire, effectively ending France’s revolutionary experiment and initiating nearly sixteen years of Napoleonic domination of Europe.

Summary of Event

The fall of the Jacobins from power in July of 1794 led to government by the Directory in the following year. The five directors and the two legislative assemblies, the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred, attempted to steer a middle course and restore order during the final troublesome years of the eighteenth century. Threatened from both the Royalist right and the Jacobin left, the government manipulated elections, put down insurrections, purged its own members, and engaged in political infighting for more than four years. By 1799, France was weary of their ineffective leadership and ready for another change. As a body, the directors were increasingly perceived as weak and corrupt, and their dependence on the army to maintain their authority had grown steadily more essential. [kw]Napoleon Rises to Power in France (Nov. 9-10, 1799)
[kw]France, Napoleon Rises to Power in (Nov. 9-10, 1799)
[kw]Power in France, Napoleon Rises to (Nov. 9-10, 1799)
Napoleonic era
French Revolution (1789-1796);end of
[g]France;1799: Discovery of the Earliest Anesthetics[3380]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 9-10, 1799: Napoleon Rises to Power in France[3410]
Napoleon I
Napoleon I;rise to power
Sieyès, Emmanuel-Joseph
Gohier, Louis Jérôme
Fouché, Joseph
Barras, Paul-François-Jean Nicolas de
Bonaparte, Joséphine
Bonaparte, Lucien

The principal intriguer against the government was also a part of it. Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, generally known as Abbé Sieyès despite the fact that he had abandoned Holy Orders, was considered one of the intellectual founders of the French Revolution. During the first phase of the revolution, Sieyès had been a leading spokesman and pamphleteer for the Third Estate, having produced his most famous tract Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? (What Is the Third Estate?, 1963) in 1789. He was initially active in the National Assembly but prudently became more aloof during the early years of the Republic, as the revolution became more violent. In January of 1793, he voted for the execution of Louis XVI, but his genuine attachment to either the Girondin or Jacobin Party was unclear. After the fall of Robespierre in July of 1794, he served in several positions related to foreign affairs (a pursuit he shared with Talleyrand), and in the fall of 1799, he once again became an influential member of the government.

As a member of the Directory, Sieyès was in a key position to engineer a coup d’état against his unpopular colleagues, especially the complacent President Louis Jérôme Gohier and Paul-François-Jean-Nicolas de Barras, whose name had become a synonym for moral and financial corruption. He was now in a capacity to fulfill a long-held ambition: to give to France what he considered would be a stronger and more ideal constitution. To achieve his end, however, and to neutralize his old political enemies, the Jacobins, he required a military figure of high rank to assure support of the army. Sieyès and his associates approached several generals, but they refused, were considered unreliable, or, in one case, died in battle.

By October, 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte had successfully evaded the British blockade of Egypt, where he had left his rapidly dwindling army under the command of General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, and returned to France. The Italian campaign of 1796-1797 had already proved that the young general could make both peace and war. Furthermore, Bonaparte had sent back only misleadingly favorable reports about conditions in Egypt. Sieyès was suspicious of his ambitions but invited him to take part in the plot after Talleyrand, who had been minister of foreign affairs but was momentarily without office, presented Napoleon to him as “the man on horseback” who could guarantee the loyalty of the army. After some hesitation, Bonaparte agreed and began to formulate his own plans. His brothers Joseph and Lucien and his most trusted officers, Generals Jean Lannes and Joachim Murat, were taken into the conspiracy, along with Joséphine, who was a particular friend of Directors Barras and Gohier and Gohier’s wife. As a popular hostess, Joséphine’s role was to lull those who were not part of the coup into a sense of confidence in her husband.

This Italian cartoon, “The 18 Brumaire, Year VIII,” represents France as a sphinx wearing a liberty cap, reclining upon the destruction “she” has wrought. Napoleon, on a platform next to the sphinx’s head, unfurls his banner at the head of an army.

(Library of Congress)

On 18 Brumaire in the year VIII (November 9, 1799), the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred were told of a fictional Jacobin plot to overthrow the government. For supposed reasons of safety from the Paris mob, the two assemblies were persuaded to move to the suburb of Saint-Cloud the following day. After Joseph Fouché, the minister of police (who was well aware of the plot but was not an active participant), promised to keep Paris tranquil, Napoleon joined the two assemblies along with a military escort. Some Jacobin members of the two assemblies, realizing that a coup was in progress, attempted to prevent the overthrow of the government.

After badly delivering a rambling speech to the Council of Ancients, which rattled his nerve, Bonaparte went before the Council of Five Hundred, which was already in turmoil. Greeted with cries from the radical deputies of “Outlaw him!” and “Down with the dictator!” he was pushed and shoved by several of the Jacobins. Only the quick action of his younger brother Lucien, who was presiding, prevented collapse of the coup. Ignoring demands to outlaw Napoleon, Lucien left the hall and called on the soldiers to defend his brother and the Republic from “brigands” and “madmen.” Inspired by his rhetoric, the troops (led by Napoleon’s future brother-in-law, Murat) cleared the room of disorderly deputies. The assemblies met again that same evening, but with most of the members of the Council of Five Hundred absent. The day’s actions were covered with a veil of legality, and Bonaparte, Sieyès, and Roger-Ducos were appointed provisional consuls empowered to draw up a new constitution.


The Constitution of the Year VIII contained the wording of Sieyès but also expressed the political views of Bonaparte. It gave Napoleon virtual dictatorial powers, and the Republic existed only in name thereafter. Napoleon became first consul, and while Sieyès and Pierre-Roger Ducos kept the title of consuls, they were reduced to mere advisers. The power of the legislature was divided among three chambers: the Council of State, whose members were nominated by Bonaparte; the Tribunate, whose members had the power to discuss proposals sent to them by the Council of State; and the Legislative Assembly, whose members, like those of the ancient Spartan assembly, could not discuss proposals but only accept or reject them by vote. The new constitution was based on the principle that “confidence comes from below, power from above,” and at the head of the government was Napoleon Bonaparte. As Sieyès himself supposedly remarked shortly after the coup, “Gentlemen, we now have a master.”

France passively accepted the new regime. After ten years of revolution and turmoil, most people were willing to support any government that promised order, stability, and peace. That Bonaparte represented such attributes may be seen in the lack of opposition to the coup d’état of 18-19 Brumaire, and the fact that the stock market climbed steadily during the following week. The French Revolution had ended and the Napoleonic era had begun.

Further Reading

  • Bonaparte, Napoleon. Letters and Documents of Napoleon: The Rise to Power. Vol. 1. Selected and translated by John Eldred Howard. London: Cresset Press, 1961. Includes a useful collection of Napoleon’s speeches, orders, letters, and proclamations from the period of the coup d’état.
  • _______. Napoleon on Napoleon: An Autobiography of the Emperor. Edited by Somerset de Chair. London: Cassell, 1992. This edition of Napoleon’s Commentaries at St. Helena and his Memoirs includes a chapter on Brumaire, with Napoleon’s own justifications for the coup.
  • Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. An authoritative and comprehensive account of French history between 1774 and 1802, written by a prominent historian. Includes information on the end of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s assumption of power.
  • Emsley, Clive. Napoleon: Conquest, Reform, and Reorganization. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2003. Succinct overview of Napoleon’s political career, from his rise to power in 1799 through 1815. Places Napoleon’s career within the broad context of European history.
  • Goodspeed, D. J. Bayonets at St. Cloud: The Story of the 18th Brumaire. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1965. Goodspeed focuses specifically on the events of 18 Brumaire and the people who supported or opposed Napoleon’s seizure of power.
  • Lefebvre, Georges. Napoleon: From 18 Brumaire to Tilsit, 1799-1807. Translated by Henry F. Stockhold. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. Lefebvre views the coup d’état of 18-19 Brumaire as the logical (though not inevitable) result of the revolution, not merely an isolated event or a turning point.
  • Markham, Felix. Napoleon. New York: New American Library, 1964. Written by a noted historian of the Napoleonic period, this excellent biography is concise and objective, and makes extensive use of a variety of sources.
  • Orieux, Jean. Talleyrand: The Art of Survival. Translated by Patricia Wolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. This richly detailed biography provides insights into the political career of one of the most complex and paradoxical of Napoleon’s associates.
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon G. Sieyès: His Life and His Nationalism. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1968. First published in 1932, Van Deusen’s biography is particularly important, since Sieyès’s influence on the events leading up to Brumaire has long been overshadowed by Napoleon’s role in the coup d’état.

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Early Wars of the French Revolution

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Fall of Robespierre

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