The Consulate was the government of France between the fall of the Directory in the coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799 until the start of the Napoleonic Empire in 1804. By extension, the term The Consulate also refers to this period of French history.
During this period, Napoléon Bonaparte, as First Consul had established himself as the head of government in France while not declaring himself head of state. Nevertheless, due to the long-lasting institutions established during these years, Robert B. Holtman has called the Consulate "one of the most important periods of all French history.
A few more military disasters, royalist insurrections in the south, Chouan disturbances in a dozen departments of the western part of France, mainly in Bretagne, Maine and eventually Normandie, Orleanist intrigues, and the end was 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 Battle 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 Roche's death, appearing as sole master of the armies.
In the coup of 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799) France and the army fell together at Napoleon's feet. By a twofold coup d’état, parliamentary and military power went into the hands of a single man. There was little resistance to this move; after years of turmoil and revolution, France was tired and appeared to accept the sacrifice of the liberty and democracy that she had known for so short a time in return for simple stability and a strong hand at the reins of government.
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. For the next fifteen years, the history of France and a great part of Europe was to be summed up in the person of a single man.
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 discussed them without voting them, and the Legislative Assembly which voted them without discussing them. Popular suffrage was retained, though mutilated by the lists of notables (on which the members of the Assemblies were to be chosen by the conservative Senate). Executive authority was vested in three consuls, who were elected for ten years.
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, duc de Plaisance, 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 February 7, 1800, a public referendum confirmed Napoleon as First Consul, a position which would give him executive powers above 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 unconvincing and 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.
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.
In August 1802, a second national referendum was held, this time to confirm Napoleon as "First Consul for Life." Once again, a rigged vote claimed 99% 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. Provisions, in Paris which had so often suffered from hunger and thirst, and lacked fire and light, had become 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.
However, the republicans, and above all the military, continued to view Napoleon as little more than a tyrant. They criticized the regime's bullying police, the prostration before authority, the sympathy lavished on royalists, the recall of the émigrés, the contempt for the Assemblies, the purification of the Tribunate, the platitudes of the servile Senate, and the silence of the press. 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.
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 January 28, 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 p.m. to 6 a.m. 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 die. In a blatant violation of Baden's neutrality and sovereignty, two hundred French soldiers surrounded the Duke's home in Baden and arrested him. He was taken to the Parisian stronghold at Vincennes where he was quickly tried without legal counsel, evidence or public witnesses, condemned and immediately executed by firing squad.
Murat, as governor of Paris, was the person who signed the papers that started the legal prosecution of the Duke, but Murat did so with reluctance. Although the Duke, while still breathing and alive, was a serious potential threat to the Consulate and the achievements of the French Revolution, he had, up to the time of his show trial and swift execution, played no real active role in the Royalist conspiracy to depose the First Consul and restore the pre-Revolution regime. Napoleon may have regarded his ordering of the Duke's death to be necessary for the safety, interest and honour of the French people, but it was nonetheless a Machiavellian act of political survival that was talked about all over Europe.
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