Napoleon: Son of the Revolution

Posted on January 7, 2013

By Alan Forrest


Napoleon’s rise owed everything to the French Revolution, to its ideals of liberty and equality, the meritocracy that lay at its roots, and the huge institutional changes that it wrought. Without the events of 1789, France would have retained the restrictive legal order of the Old Regime, with its emphasis on privilege and inheritance, its passion for nobility and hierarchy, and a social order that – while cherishing ideas of honour – excluded commoners from positions in the officer corps of the army or in the royal administration. In pre-revolutionary France, Napoleon’s horizons would have been limited and the bounds of his ambition severely curtailed. 1789 therefore was a year of hope, a year when social walls and barriers seemed to fall with a devastating ease that echoed the dramatic surrender of the Bastille before the onslaught of the Paris crowd.

For Napoleon and thousands like him the changes that were being made in the name of the French people opened the door to brilliant careers and rapid social advancement – as Napoleon himself began to realise. He had spent his schooldays in the company of the sons of French aristocrats, who were destined for officer rank in the military, and he encountered the same sorts of men in the army – men whose social values he could not share and whose disdain and snobbery he bitterly resented. There was much about ancien régime France for which he had little affection and with which he could not identify. The ideals of the early Revolution were far from being anathema to the young officer.


Napoleon’s letters during the summer months of 1789 may talk deprecatingly of looting and pillage by the populace since, as a soldier, he emphasised the importance of keeping order, and thus the need to side with the authorities against popular violence. In the town of Auxonne where his regiment was stationed, rioters had sounded the tocsin from the parish church, attacked public officials and burned the tax registers; moreover, many of the troops sympathised with the rioters, and in August soldiers in Napoleon’s regiment mutinied and indulged in an orgy of drunken violence. His main duty, he wrote to his brother Joseph, had been to contain the violence after the rioters had broken down one of the gates of the town, and his general had given him responsibility for haranguing the mutineers, subduing the rebels and safeguarding property in the city. No army officer could condone such indiscipline, and Napoleon did not seek to do so; but he could not entirely conceal his excitement at the implications of what was happening around him. Writing to Joseph from Auxonne in early August, reporting rumours that were circulating amongst the garrison, he announced that ‘all over France blood had been spilt’. But, he added, ‘almost without exception it was the impure blood of the enemies of Liberty and the Nation, those who had long been getting fat at their expense. We hear that in Brittany five people have been killed and their heads sent to Paris’. The tone of his letter is more one of wonderment than of condemnation, a realisation that the meeting of the Estates-General heralded a new political era and that the events unfolding around him were more than just another banal manifestation of the rebelliousness of the French.

It must be remembered that at this time Napoleon’s world still revolved around Corsica, and it was to Corsica that his thoughts immediately turned. There, talk of liberty meant something very different from the new meanings it had acquired in France: it meant the independence and political autonomy of the island, freedom from French control, and the right of the Corsican elites to rule their island in accordance with their own traditions. To many islanders, that liberty had been synonymous with the nationalist rhetoric of Paoli, now living in exile in London, and they saw in the French patriots in 1789 and 1790 men who might help them to achieve their goals. Inevitably, Corsican reaction to events in Versailles and Paris was coloured by Corsicans’ own aspirations; for many of them liberty remained inextricably linked to a desire for Corsican independence.

Napoleon, from his army post in France, expressed his hopes for the future freedom of his island in a letter he wrote to Paoli in early June. Clearly his mind was still on Corsica; his dreams were of giving the Corsican people the sort of liberty that was being so widely discussed in metropolitan France. And despite their differences, he did not conceal his hope that Paoli might return from exile to provide the Corsican people with the leadership and inspiration they now lacked. ‘General’, he wrote, with reference to Corsica’s loss of sovereignty in 1768, ‘I was born at the moment when our country perished. Thirty thousand Frenchmen thrown up on our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood, that was the odious sight that first met my eyes.’ When Paoli left Corsica, wrote Bonaparte, ‘all hope of happiness went with you; slavery was the price of our submission; oppressed by the fetters of the soldier, the jurist and the tax collector, our fellow-citizens find themselves despised by those who administer them’. And while the purpose of his letter was modest – to seek Paoli’s approval for the history of Corsica which he had written during his periods of leisure from the army – the language in which he expressed himself and the bluntness of his condemnation of French rule implied that, in the new political context provided by the outbreak of the Revolution, he had not lost his youthful faith in the patriot leader. That he still wrote to him may seem surprising in view of Paoli’s earlier political career and Napoleon’s own decision to throw in his lot with France. It was scarcely the language of a loyal officer in the French army whose commitment to the cause of the French people seemed unquestioning.

By June 1789 that commitment was indeed firm, but he kept his contacts in Corsica, where he appears to have retained political ambitions of his own. As the son of a notable local family, recently returned from the mainland and well connected to the most prominent political factions on the island, Napoleon enjoyed something of a public profile. As mentioned before, since receiving his commission he had spent more time in Corsica, through a series of extended leaves, than he had in France itself.

By September 1789 he was back in Ajaccio, engaged in politics with other members of his family, helping to form a local unit of the National Guard, welcoming Paoli back from exile, and establishing a patriotic club on the model of the popular societies that were beginning to appear across France. Locally, public opinion was volatile, ready to respond to outside challenges and aggravations, and news of developments in France only served as a catalyst for further demands. Popular anger was aroused by high grain prices and the scarcity of bread, as it was everywhere in the French provinces, but the anger also reflected more parochial Corsican concerns and social antagonisms inherited from the ancien régime. Corsica used the language of the French Revolution to express itself politically, but its leaders and its political priorities were often specific to the Corsican nation. The young army officer, Napoleon, knew how to appeal to local interests and to interpret the factional politics of the Revolution on the island.

Enthusiasm for more radical politics came with news of the fall of the Bastille and of the Night of 4 August, when members of the privileged orders had excitedly forsworn privilege before a packed session of the National Assembly. The city of Bastia, inspired by the Corsican deputy to the Assembly, Christophe Saliceti, came to be seen as one of the most radicalised cities in provincial France. By returning to the island, Napoleon was able to exercise a political influence that would have been denied him on the mainland. But he was also able to understand the reality of Corsica’s politics and the conservative position of many Corsicans. It was this that led him to understand that he faced a choice, and ultimately to break with Paoli. It also led to his first and most polemical political pamphlet in the Corsican context, his Letter to Matteo Buttafoco of 1791, in which he made clear his unshakable attachment to France and to French ideas. He castigated Buttafoco for his continued adherence to monarchy and to feudal values: ‘Your favourite plan’, he wrote accusingly, ‘was to share out the island between ten barons. Not content with helping to forge the chains with which your country was restrained, you wanted to go further and subject it to the absurd regime of feudalism!’

In both his rhetoric and his political ideas, the young Bonaparte displayed a passion that was no longer capable of entertaining any hint of compromise; he had become a committed devotee of the Revolution, even a convinced republican, and therefore on the radical wing of revolutionary politics at a time when France was still a constitutional monarchy. Already in June 1790, in Ajaccio, he was driven by his radical convictions to support popular action and participate directly in a popular uprising. This expression of revolutionary enthusiasm could only drive a further wedge between the young army officer and his erstwhile hero, Paoli, whose anti-Parisian posturings were increasingly coming to be identified with the political Right and the rejection of republicanism.

In the early years of the Revolution, during which Napoleon continued to enjoy long periods of leave from his regiment, Bonaparte divided his time between France and Corsica, finding inspiration in the ideological and political changes voted in in Paris while pushing forward the revolutionary cause on his native island. Here there were signs of pragmatism to which other members of his family, in particular his brother Lucien, were temperamentally unsuited: a desire to appease opposing factions and accommodate an increasingly intransigent Paoli. But where Napoleon had no intention of compromising was over the complete integration of Corsica into France – a process that was concluded by the decree of 20 January 1790 – and the polity of the French Revolution. Increasingly, he moved away from his previous Corsican patriotism to adopt the new revolutionary model that was emanating from Paris. There was no longer any place for either autonomy or independence for the island, no special statute or devolutionary concession: it was to be a department of France, like any other area of the interior.

The Committee of Division recognised, however, that Corsica did present unique challenges: it had sufficient territory to justify its division into two departments, whereas it had a sparse population that could be encompassed in one. Besides, there were few towns of any size on the island; its economy was underdeveloped, and it was divided down the middle by a chain of mountains. Finally, the National Assembly concluded that Corsica should be a single department, with its administrative centre in Corte, but divided into nine districts in order to take account of its social and economic diversity. Integration into France, it was hoped, would help end the excessive poverty and depopulation that characterised Corsican life, and provide the basis on which to build a programme of economic regeneration. In accepting this logic, Napoleon could not but lose the sympathy of large sections of the Corsican electorate. It meant taking sides with the French against most of the Corsican warlords, foremost among them Paoli himself, now allied to the British in what was becoming an internecine fight between power brokers and bandit leaders.

For Napoleon, it was a dangerous environment in which to operate and an even more dangerous one in which to leave his mother with her tribe of young children, and the Bonaparte family did not emerge unscathed. By the summer of 1793 they found themselves caught in crossfire between the opposing factions, and the family home in Ajaccio was attacked and pillaged. Letizia and her children were warned by a friendly bandit leader that it was time to get out, and they rapidly found themselves reduced to the status of refugees, homeless and penniless and hurriedly leaving the island for the south of France. It was a harrowing moment: the mother and her young family, scurrying through the night to the protection of a French ship, one of several hundred Corsican families forced to flee to the mainland, abandoning all their possessions to be pillaged by Paoli’s henchmen. They took refuge in the small town of Saint-Maximin, not far from Toulon, with the help of funds obtained through the good offices of Saliceti. It had been a disturbing and disruptive experience, and though he was not there in person, Napoleon was deeply affected by it. He was hurt and bruised by his rejection from his own people, while the memory of his family – fearful, shivering and reduced to temporary indigence – would continue to haunt him.

In the early period of his career, Napoleon found the desire of the revolutionary authorities to pass sweeping measures to renew the fabric of the nation refreshing and energising. Napoleon was a convinced believer in the benefits of meritocracy and applauded the boldness of the revolutionaries in abolishing nobility, selling church lands and reforming a society rooted in privilege. In print, he mocked the corruption of the old order and lambasted the privileged idleness of many members of the nobility; and there was nothing in his actions to suggest that he was disaffected with the revolutionary regime. He did not emigrate; he continued to serve in the army; he took the oath of loyalty to the constitution of 1791. With the passage of time, however, his letters suggest a growing disquiet at the violence and extremism of some elements of the population, in particular the Jacobins and the Paris crowd. In June 1792, in a letter to Joseph, he quoted Lafayette’s moderate stance with obvious approval, and sided with the army against the more radical factions in the Assembly. Lafayette had written to the Assembly warning of the extremism of the Jacobin Club, a warning that Napoleon found ‘very powerful’. He went on to explain that ‘M. de La Fayette, a majority of the officers in the army, all honest men, the ministers, and the department of Paris are on one side; the majority of the Assembly, the Jacobins and the populace are on the other’. The Jacobins, in Napoleon’s view, were ‘madmen who are lacking in common sense’. They had abused Lafayette and had stirred up the crowd; indeed, they did not hesitate to promote popular violence. Only a day or two before, he noted, an armed crowd seven or eight thousand strong had forced its way into the Tuileries and demanded an audience with the King, forcing him to drink to their cause and to wear a red liberty cap. When he heard of Louis’ humiliation, Napoleon wrote that such action was both unconstitutional and dangerous. The crowd was armed with axes and pikes, sticks and guns; and all that the National Guard could do was to stand by to make sure that the King was not harmed. ‘It remains very difficult to guess what will become of his authority in such a stormy atmosphere.’

Although he remained a French patriot, seemingly committed to the revolutionary cause, here he wrote with the unease and confusion of a man who felt that he was being overtaken by a stream of events which were changing the political landscape before his eyes. In particular, that image of the crowd – threatening, insulting and volatile – was one that remained with him throughout his life. He might have been a Jacobin in Corsican politics; but back in France he comes across as a moderate republican, a man of order, protective of authority, and with an abiding distrust of popular violence.

He was also, of course, a career officer, with an eye on promotion and a keen concern for his position within the army. Politics, even Corsican politics, remained secondary to military questions, and from 1792 the condition of the army became more pressing with the declaration of war against Austria and Prussia, to be followed the next year by its extension to include Britain and Spain. The French military seemed poorly equipped to take on the rest of the European continent, in large measure because the army which had served the Bourbon monarchy was so ill-suited to the demands placed on it by the revolutionaries. The officers, as we have seen, were all drawn from the nobility and had taken a personal oath of loyalty to the monarch. Would they fight with equal alacrity for the sovereign people – especially after the King was suspended and put on trial and the country turned into a republic in September 1792? The answer quickly became obvious: noble officers resigned their commissions during the first years of the Revolution, many passing discreetly across the Alps or the Pyrenees to spend the rest of the revolutionary decade in political exile. By 1792, a third of army officers had already tendered their resignations, often in response to particular stimuli – the abolition of noble privilege, the ending of seigniorial dues, the institution of constitutional monarchy, or the example set by the King when he fled from Paris in June 1791, only to be intercepted by the National Guard at Varennes.

The morale of the men in the ranks was often not much better. Whole regiments mutinied in 1790 at Nancy, Perpignan and elsewhere, in protest against low pay and poor conditions of service; others again, sent to impose order during crowd troubles and market disturbances, made it clear that their sympathies lay with the people they were supposed to police. If the Revolution was to create an army that would be capable of defeating the finest regiments in Europe, and one that was not wholly incompatible with the values and ideology of the regime, root-and-branch reform was urgently needed. The army of the Bourbons had failed too often in the European wars of the eighteenth century. Now France would be plunged into a series of conflicts that would see the great powers of Europe join forces against her in a succession of coalitions that would last, almost unabated, for over twenty years; wars so costly and draining of the country’s resources that historians have compared them to the Great War of 1914–18 and been tempted to call them ‘the first total war’.

War was not imposed on France against the wishes of her leaders; indeed, those who spoke out against it were largely confined to radicals like Maximilien Robespierre, who feared that it would leave the door open to counter-revolution and conspiracy at home. His was a minority voice in late 1791 and the early months of 1792, when many in Paris clamoured for war, seemingly confident that the revolutionary spirit of the French people would make their armies invincible. Or else, like some of the King’s ministers, they sought war for tactical reasons, to increase royal authority and deflect attention from failures at home. But the Austrian and Prussian leaders, too, had every reason to welcome a war with France at a moment when the French army was so obviously weakened that victory seemed assured. The first engagements in the summer of 1792 confirmed the worst fears of the French commanders; after their armies capitulated at Longwy and Verdun, the road to Paris lay unprotected for the first time since the seventeenth century. France’s frontiers were breached and the Revolution itself was endangered, spreading both rumour and panic in the streets of the capital. The situation was saved, temporarily at least, by dogged French resistance at Thionville and Montmédy in the east, and by the failure of the Duke of Brunswick’s Anglo-Prussian army to press home its advantage over a poorly trained French force at Valmy in September. It was not a classic military victory – some nine hundred lives were lost on each side – but the Austrian army scattered, Paris was saved, and Valmy went on to enjoy a special place in French republican mythology.

Though the new army was grafted on to the line army inherited from the old regime, it would prove to be a very different animal, both in the ranks and in the officer cadres. Before 1789 soldiers were recruited for long periods, usually from among the poorest and most rootless members of society; they were pressed into service at fairs and markets, lured by a signing-on bounty, or trawled from poorhouses and prisons. Many were mercenaries from other countries, pressed into the service of the French king. Voltaire was not alone in dismissing the men who fought in Europe’s armies as the lowest of the low, the dregs of civil society. But these methods were insufficient to provide either the numbers the new armies required, or men who could be trusted with the mission of defending the Revolution and the nation. From 1791, therefore, the revolutionaries called for volunteers; by 1793 they were demanding mass levies from across the population; and in 1799 they turned to full-blown conscription without even the possibility of buying a substitute to fight in one’s place. The professional background and social configuration of the troops changed dramatically, and the army, for a few short years, became predominantly French as the government relied on its own people where, previously, it had bought soldiers from other states. The ideal of the ‘nation in arms’ was proclaimed, and with it the notion that every citizen had a duty to play his part in the defence of the republic.

For officers, too, change was sudden and tangible. Junior officers were elected by their units, and there was, for the first time, direct promotion from the ranks. Officer rank was no longer restricted to noblemen, but was conferred on the basis of experience in the field and merit. Aristocratic concepts of honour were also revised, and were replaced by concepts of personal internalised honour and by the reputation one established with one’s peers. Because of the high turnover of officers – both through heavy casualty rates in battle and as a result of resignations and emigration – promotion could come rapidly and at a very young age. Recognition was there to be won for those with flair and talent, and a new generation of officers, men like Hoche and Moreau, did nothing to conceal their professional ambition or their thirst for glory. They identified strongly with the French Revolution, with French patriotism; they did not hide their republican sympathies; they sought patrons among the country’s political elite, and they competed to serve the Nation at the highest level. Prominent among such officers was Napoleon Bonaparte, who came back to France in 1793 to report for duty with the Fourth Artillery regiment, stationed in Nice. There he was fortunate to find as his commanding officer Jean du Teil, whose brother he had known during his early garrison duty at Auxonne. Napoleon quickly got himself noticed, and he was assigned to Avignon to organise ammunition supplies.

The political climate in France was tense in the summer months of 1793, a period dominated by an uncompromising struggle between the two principal republican groups, the Girondins and the Jacobins, which ended in violence and the Jacobin seizure of power. During this period the government found its authority challenged not only by the foreign armies camped along the frontiers but also by dissension in many parts of the French provinces. Already in the spring a Spanish force had broken through in Catalonia and briefly captured the city of Perpignan, while in the north Dumouriez had abandoned his army and gone over to the Austrians. In the Vendée and along the valley of the Loire the countryside had erupted into open warfare, with a counter-revolutionary force declaring itself loyal to Church and King, defying the Revolution’s recruitment demands and uniting the greater part of the West against the government. It would take military intervention and ruthless repression to restore law and order to the region. Meanwhile, several of France’s largest cities had risen in revolt in the summer against what they saw as oppression from Paris, with Caen and Bordeaux, Marseille and Lyon all taking back their share of national sovereignty and declaring that they no longer felt bound by the decisions of the republican assembly in Paris, the National Convention. It was August before most of these revolts, condemned by the Jacobins as ‘federalist’ and aimed at destroying the unity of the Republic, could be suppressed, and the retribution that followed was often bloody. There were six hundred executions in Marseille, two thousand in Lyon, as these cities were restored to the authority of the state. Right across the Midi the atmosphere remained highly charged.

Was there a degree of cynicism in Napoleon’s professed republicanism and his preparedness to identify with Jacobins like Saliceti, who had shown favour to his family and helped to advance his military career? Were his expressions of political attachments also exercises in opportunism? While it is clear that he remained sympathetic to many of the ideals of the Revolution, it is impossible to dismiss these accusations entirely. He was conscious of the importance of patronage and showed himself skilful in using it. He took care to pay due homage to those in political authority, and such attentions helped bring his name to the notice of the Committee of Public Safety in Paris. And even at this early stage of his career he showed symptoms of that gift for self-publicity that would become so important in the years ahead. It would be wise, therefore, to approach Napoleon’s public utterances on politics with a degree of caution – especially the most famous, Souper de Beaucaire, the pamphlet which he published within weeks of his return to France. It is in many ways a work of the romantic imagination, a dramatised discussion between the author, a soldier in the army of General Carteaux in the Midi, and three other characters, from Marseille, Nîmes and Montpellier, who had witnessed the political convulsions in the south and lived through the federalist interlude. But in it, he also takes care to show his own political colours by denouncing the extravagant ambitions of the Marseillais in challenging the authority of Paris, and by warning of the consequences that await them if they continue to defy the forces of the republic.

The work is notable for the open exchange of views which it presents, even views favourable to the rebel cities, though inevitably it is the opinion of the soldier and the pragmatic patriotism of Napoleon himself which emerges triumphant. He makes it all sound so easy. ‘Shake off the yoke of the small number of rascals who are leading you into counter-revolution’, he advises his new friend from Marseille; ‘re-establish your legal authorities; accept the Constitution; give the deputies back their freedom, so that they may go up to Paris to intercede on your behalf; you have been misled, and it is not new that the people should be misled by a small number of conspirators; since the beginning of time the ignorance and compliance of the masses have been at the root of most civil wars’. It may sound like common sense; but it was also extremely partisan advice, and exactly what Paris and the Jacobins wanted to hear said.

Carteaux succeeded in retaking Marseille on 24August, and terror and mass executions followed. The lesson was clearly spelt out that the government would tolerate no further dissent from provincial republicans, and that insurrection would be met with severe punishment. The capitulation of Marseille left only one major city in the Midi in the hands of the rebels: Toulon, the main Mediterranean naval port, where the federalist authorities sought to ensure their safety by handing over the dockyard and the port installations to the British and Spanish fleets, a move which was seen by Paris as a craven act of treachery that must be defeated. Its potential to inflict catastrophic damage on the French navy cannot be doubted. When the Royal Navy and Admiral Hood reached Toulon they found anchored in the Grande Rade, equipped and ready to sail, a French fleet of seventeen ships of the line, five frigates and eleven corvettes. Refitting in the New Basin were a further four ships of the line and a frigate; while in the Old Basin, in various states of repair, were eight more ships of the line, five frigates and two corvettes. Hood was presented with the opportunity to knock out at a stroke a major part of French naval strength, though in the event the British and their Spanish allies left the job only half completed. Many of the ships surrendered at Toulon were repaired and would sail again under the French flag in later campaigns, but the French were in no position to foresee this outcome, and they responded with a predictable show of force. In the later summer of 1793 Carteaux’s army, around ten thousand strong, was directed against Toulon and its rebel authorities.

The expedition against Toulon presented Napoleon, newly promoted to the rank of captain, with his first major opportunity to impress his superiors in the heat of battle. Toulon, protected by a series of detached forts, was one of the strongest defensive positions in Europe, yet Carteaux had only a weakened army and woefully inadequate artillery. In all, he had a few field guns, two twenty-four-pounders, two sixteen-pounders and a few mortars; he had expected to attack by bombarding the Allied fleet, but that proved to be beyond the range of his guns, and the French plans seemed highly flawed. Carteaux was a brave and experienced officer, but he was no expert in the use of artillery, and he failed to give his gunners sufficient resources. This was Napoleon’s opportunity. He interceded with the deputies-on-mission from the Convention, explaining his tactical ideas and stressing the advantage of surprise and the value of artillery, given the topography of Toulon. And though many in the military remained dubious about these tactics, the deputies gave him their support, and Napoleon was rewarded with the post of ‘commandant of the artillery of the army before Toulon’, an appointment that he interpreted as giving him absolute autonomy over the artillery and its deployment.

At his command, guns and supplies were quickly shipped in from across Provence, gunners were taught to man them, and young officers learned to take command. His plan was to take the English positions and gain control over the roads without resorting to a siege; he preferred to take advantage of the manoeuvrability of his light artillery and to direct maximum fire at the English redoubt to dislodge them from their position of strength on the hilltop of Le Caire. Executing this plan was necessarily risky and involved great feats of bravery, but on the night of 16 December the British were finally dislodged from their fort, and on the following day the Republicans entered Toulon. Philip Dwyer is right to note that in the dispatches from the city the principal credit is given to the commanding officers, most notably Dugommier, the new commander-in-chief. But the victory was Napoleon’s, and his talent came to the notice both of his army superiors and his political masters. He was rewarded with promotion to the rank of brigadiergeneral (général de brigade).

The Revolution demanded not only talent from its officers, but also political loyalty. The political leadership had had too many painful experiences with officers who proved untrustworthy, socially conservative, or whose loyalty was to the king or to the Catholic Church before it was to the French people. There is little reason to doubt that Napoleon’s reputation as a good revolutionary, even in some circles as a Jacobin, helped secure his rapid rise. Toulon had been a highly political campaign, the siege of a French city in revolt, an act in a civil war which pitted Frenchman against Frenchman and where political disaffection could easily lead to defection or treason. That, too, had its dangers. In the south-east Napoleon relied on his standing with – and, to a degree, his cultivation of – several key Jacobins, among them deputies-on-mission from Paris, whose reputations would be scarred by the brutality of the repressive measures unleashed against Toulon once the city surrendered. At the height of the Terror it was clearly useful to have men like Fréron and Saliceti, Paul Barras and Augustin Robespierre, among his cheerleaders and protectors. But when the Jacobins were in their turn toppled by a palace revolution in the Convention on the Ninth of Thermidor (27 July 1794), the political landscape was transformed. The younger Robespierre was sent to the guillotine with his brother on the following day; while Barras and Fréron, after successfully conspiring against Robespierre, scurried to realign with the anti-Jacobin cause.

Napoleon found his political position dangerously exposed, and his friendship with Augustin Robespierre a particular source of embarrassment. For a few days his life may even have been in danger: his arrest was ordered on a charge of treason, and he spent a fortnight under house arrest. He expressed his outrage in a letter to deputies-on-mission to the area, protesting that the charge that hung over him was an attack on his honour and reputation. ‘Declaring a patriot suspect’, he declared, ‘robs him of his most precious attributes, public confidence and esteem’.26 But the moment of crisis passed, thanks once again to the intervention of Saliceti and to the praise heaped on him by his army commander. Napoleon could point to the sacrifices he had made for the Revolution and the support he had provided in pursuit of its goals. He could also show that his contribution to the fall of Toulon had been a purely military one, and that he had not taken part in the often gratuitous cruelty that followed. In the event he was exonerated and did not have to stand trial.

The revolution of the Ninth of Thermidor did not immediately abolish the 1793 constitution; nor yet did it undermine the republican character of the regime. What it did do was to purge the Convention of those deputies most closely identified with the politics of the Terror and to rid France of the exceptional laws and jurisdictions that had defined it. In fact, the regime remained strongly republican, intolerant of the aristocracy and the clergy, and profoundly committed to the ideal of a secular state. Over sixty of Maximilien Robespierre’s closest allies were purged – purging was a favoured ploy, the figurative cleansing of the body politic – yet some of the men who had served under the Jacobins were called back to office, while more moderate republicans, among them many who had sympathised with the Girondins, resumed political life. On the other hand, the new regime remained suspicious of those whom it adjudged to be tainted with terrorism, or with violence that had become closely associated in their eyes with Jacobin extremism. Their aim was to end the spiral of revolution, to draw up a new and lasting constitution, end the state of emergency, and create a republican stability which so far had eluded French lawmakers.

The army, because of the danger it posed, was subjected to close surveillance, and officers deemed too close to Robespierre were investigated or stood down, especially those radical sans-culottes who had been promoted in 1793 and 1794. The Thermidorians looked instead to appoint men of proven military talent, but also men on whom they could depend, who would not question their orders and could be trusted to fight in the name of the Republic. This would become even more pressing in the months that followed when the regime was threatened by military plots – from the Right as much as from the Left – and the army was exposed to the blandishments of royalists and counter-revolutionaries. It was imperative that the officer class should remain loyal to republican institutions at a time of increasing political turbulence within France, when the revolt in the Vendée had not yet been extinguished and popular violence threatened in Paris.

After his success in Toulon, Napoleon might have hoped to profit from the new order, but his career was anything but assured. He dreamed of spreading revolutionary war across Italy and encouraging the people of Genoa to throw off the yoke of the House of Savoy. But this was not the government’s aim, and Lazare Carnot assigned the Italian campaign to older, less headstrong generals, leaving Napoleon out in the cold, his future uncertain. The new Minister of War, Aubry, showed particular vigilance in removing those with known Jacobin sympathies, and despite interventions on his behalf, Napoleon was denied the command he felt to be his due. And when he did receive an assignment – to command an infantry brigade in the civil war in the Vendée – he made no effort to hide his disappointment, protesting about the unsuitability of the posting and even engaging in a bitter altercation with Aubry which he must have known he could not win. There was little glory to be gained from the campaign in the Vendée, essentially by this stage a final clearing-up operation against the last of the rebels, and Napoleon felt little enthusiasm for the kind of work it entailed. He did not go to the West, but took refuge behind permissions and sick notes, staying on in Paris into the summer of 1795 with such fellow officers as Junot and Marmont, and enjoying the artistic and social life – theatre and opera, salons and café society – that the city offered. His enjoyment was not, however, unqualified. What he really aspired to was military action and a command in Italy.

He was rescued from this enforced idleness, and from facing a possible charge of insubordination, by the intercession of friends and political allies who were to play an increasingly important part in his career. The most significant of these was Paul Barras who, like himself, had started out as an officer-cadet in the royal army of the 1780s, before resigning in favour of marriage and the rather spendthrift lifestyle of a young nobleman. With the advent of the Revolution, Barras had thrown himself into radical politics, getting himself elected to the Convention and voting for the King’s death in 1792. In the following year he was in Toulon, as a Jacobin deputy-on-mission, when he encountered Bonaparte, was impressed by his courage and temperament, and promoted him to captain. The two men remained on good terms after Barras was recalled to Paris, where he plotted against Robespierre and helped to overthrow him, taking power himself as one of the five Directors in 1795. He would prove a valuable and powerful ally: he trusted Napoleon and helped to advance his career.

In August, Barras’ intervention led to Napoleon’s appointment to the new Topographical Bureau of the army under General Clarke. This was a group that had responsibility for strategic planning and which reported directly to the Committee of Public Safety. In Napoleon’s eyes this was no more than a stop-gap appointment, but at least it might serve as a stepping stone to something better, and it diverted him, at least momentarily, from thoughts of resigning his commission. His anger and depression returned, however, less than a month later when he found that his name was omitted from the official army list of generals. These were nervous and deeply unsatisfying months in Napoleon’s military career, months when his morale was at its lowest ebb and when he seems to have contemplated suicide.

Yet by the end of 1794 his prospects, and with them his temperament, had much improved and, thanks again to his political protector Barras, his career seemed to be back on track. The origins of his changed fortunes were once again political, as the Convention was faced with a popular uprising in Paris in Vendémiaire (5 October), the latest in a series of popular journées, days of rioting and violence that marked the history of the capital throughout the Revolution. These journées generally took their name from the month in which they occurred, as expressed in the new revolutionary calendar which the Republic had introduced in 1793 in a bid to rationalise the division of time. Not only was the new calendar stripped of all religious context; it also purported to be more logical and scientific, with the year divided into twelve months of thirty days, and each month subdivided into three ten-day units, or décades. Sundays and Saints’ days were abolished, and Frenchmen were now given one day off in ten, on the décadi, which proved scant compensation. But it was not purely a propagandistic daily reminder to the population that they were living in revolutionary times. The Jacobin Gilbert Romme, who had proposed it to the Convention, took pains to tie the calendar to the astronomical year; each year would begin on 22 September, which had both natural and ideological significance as the date of the autumn equinox as well as the start of the First Republic. Interestingly, the calendar outlasted the Republic and remained in use until 1806 when, persuaded that French commerce was suffering from time differences across Europe, Napoleon returned to the same Gregorian calendar which the Revolution had abandoned.

The disturbances in Vendémiaire had their roots, as was so often the case, in the government’s failure to control the economy, leading to uncontrollable inflation and high bread prices. Seven of the city’s sections – the forty-eight local districts into which Paris was divided in 1790 and which now controlled local political assemblies and units of the National Guard – rose in arms against the government. The difference this time was that the crowd was manipulated by the royalist Right, not the Jacobin Left as at the height of the Terror, so that the Republic once again was in peril. To make matters worse, the National Guard seemed likely to join the rebels, thus increasing levels of violence and leaving shops and homes unprotected.

Paul Barras had responsibility for public order in the capital and it was he who ordered the regular army to suppress the insurrection; he turned for support to former Jacobins and convinced republicans of the kind who habeen largely excluded after the Ninth of Thermidor. Napoleon fell into that category; besides, Barras knew him, and admired him for his tactics in Toulon. Napoleon took full advantage of the opportunity he was given, taking care to demonstrate his value to the government. He responded efficiently and effectively, showing at Vendémiaire both the tactical ability to curb civil disorder and a clinical concern to maintain the peace, even at considerable cost in human life. To the Thermidorian administration he provided evidence that he was a man who would not flinch before unpleasant or sensitive missions: several hundred Parisians died in the fighting, and

Napoleon would long be identified in the capital as ‘Général Vendémiaire’. It was the first time the Revolution had used the army to quell popular agitation in Paris, and its impact was both immediate and dramatic. The days of the revolutionary crowds, as George Rudé reminds us, were ‘over for many a year’. The political landscape in the capital was permanently altered by Napoleon’s ‘whiff of grapeshot’, since the army would remain in occupation throughout the years of the Directory which followed. As for Napoleon, he had proved himself the man of the moment and in a single day reconstituted his failing military career.


Excerpted from Napoleon: Life, Legacy, and Image: A Biography by Alan Forrest.

Copyright © 2011 by Alan Forrest.

Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.

ALAN FORREST is a professor of modern history, director of the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, and author of Napoleon: Life, Legacy, and Image: A Biography. He works on modern French history, especially the period of the French Revolution and Empire, and on the history of modern warfare. He serves on the editorial boards of French History and War in History, and is a member of the advisory committee for Annales Historiques de la Revolution Francaise.

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