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French Directory

The Directory (in French Directoire) held executive power in France from October 1795 until November 1799. Five Directors shared power.

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In its final shape the constitution of the Directory period centred on a parliamentary system of two houses: a Council of Five Hundred[?] and a Council of Ancients[?], 250 in number. Members of the Five Hundred were to be at least thirty years of age, members of the Ancients at least forty. The system of indirect election of the Convention[?] period was maintained but universal suffrage was abandoned. A moderate qualification was required for electors in the first degree, a higher one for electors in the second degree.

When the 750 persons necessary had been elected they were to choose the Ancients out of their own body. A legislature was to last for three years, and one-third of the members were to be renewed every year. The Ancients had a suspensory veto, but no initiative in legislation.

The executive was to consist of five directors chosen by the Ancients out of a list elected by the Five Hundred. One director was to retire every year. The directors were aided by ministers for the various departments of State. These ministers did not form a council and had no general powers of government.

Provision was made for the stringent control of all local authorities by the central government. Since the separation of powers was still deemed axiomatic, the directors had no voice in legislation or taxation, nor could directors or ministers sit in either house. Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of labour were guaranteed. Armed assemblies and even public meetings of political societies were forbidden. Petitions were to be tendered only by individuals or through the public authorities.

The constitution was not, however, allowed free play from the beginning. The Convention was so unpopular that, if its members had retired into private life, they would not have been safe and their work might have been undone. It was therefore decreed that two-thirds of the first legislature must be chosen out of the Convention.

When the constitution was submitted to the primary assemblies, most electors held aloof, 1,050,000 voting for and only 5,000 voting against it. On 23 September it was declared to be law. Then all the parties which resented the limit upon freedom of election combined to rise in Paris. The government entrusted its defence to Barras; but its true man of action was young General Napoleon Bonaparte, who could dispose of a few thousand regular troops and a powerful artillery. The Parisians were ill-equipped and ill-led, and on the 13th of Vendémiaire (5 October 1795) their insurrection was quelled almost without loss to the victors. No further resistance was possible. The Convention dissolved itself on 26 October 1795.

Inital Composition

The feeling of the nation was clearly shown in the elections. Among those who had sat in the Convention the anti-Jacobins were generally preferred. Leaders of the old Right were sometimes chosen by many departments at once. Owing to this circumstance, 104 places reserved to the new members of the Convention were left unfilled. When the persons elected met they had no choice but to co-opt the 104 from the Left of the Convention. The new one-third were, as a rule, enemies of the Jacobins, but not of the Revolution. Many had been members of the Constituent[?] or of the Legislative Assembly. When the new legislature was complete, the Jacobins had a majority, although a weak one.

After the Council of the Ancients had been chosen by lot, it remained to name the directors. For its own security the Left resolved that all five must be old members of the Convention and regicides. The persons chosen were Rewbell, Barras, La Révellière Lépeaux[?], Carnot and Letourneur[?].

Rewbell was an able, although unscrupulous, man of action, Barras a dissolute and shameless adventurer, La Révellière Lépeaux the chief of a new sect, the Theophilanthropists, and therefore a bitter foe to other religions, especially the Catholic. Severe integrity and memorable public services raised Carnot far above his colleagues, but he was not a statesman and was hampered by his past. Letourneur, a harmless insignificant person, admired and followed Carnot.

The division in the legislature was reproduced in the Directory. Rewbell, Barras and La Révellière Lépeaux had a full measure of the Jacobin spirit; Carnot and Letourneur favoured a more temperate policy.

Character of the Directory Period

With the establishment of the Directory the Revolution might seem closed. The nation only desired rest and the healing of its many wounds. Those who wished to restore Louis XVIII of France and the ancien régime and those who would have renewed the Reign of Terror were insignificant in number. The possibility of foreign interference had vanished with the failure of the First coalition. Nevertheless the four years of the Directory were a time of arbitrary government and chronic disquiet. The late atrocities had made confidence or goodwill between parties impossible. The same instinct of self-preservation which had led the members of the Convention to claim so large a part in the new legislature and the whole of the Directory impelled them to keep their predominance.

As the majority of Frenchmen wanted to be rid of them, they could achieve their purpose only by extraordinary means. They habitually disregarded the terms of the constitution, and, when the elections went against them, appealed to the sword. They resolved to prolong the war as the best expedient for prolonging their power. They were thus driven to rely upon the armies, which also desired war and were becoming less and less civic in temper.

Other reasons influenced them in this direction. The finances had been so thoroughly ruined that the government could not have met its expenses without the plunder and the tribute of foreign countries. If peace were made, the armies would return home and the directors would have to face the exasperation of the rank-and-file who had lost their livelihood, as well as the ambition of generals who could in a moment brush them aside. Barras and Rewbell were notoriously corrupt themselves and screened corruption in others. The patronage of the directors was ill-bestowed, and the general maladministration heightened their unpopularity.

The contitutional party in the legislature desired a toleration[?] of the nonjuring clergy[?], the repeal of the laws against the relatives of the émigrés[?], and some merciful discrimination toward the émigrés themselves. The directors baffled all such endeavours. On the other hand, the socialist conspiracy of Babeuf was easily quelled. Little was done to improve the finances, and the assignats continued to fall in value.

Military Successes

But the Directory was sustained by the military successes of the year 1796. Hoche again pacified La Vendée. Bonaparte’s victories in Italy more than compensated for the reverses of Jourdan[?] and Moreau[?] in Germany. The king of Sardinia made peace in May 1796, ceding Nice and Savoy to the French Republic and consenting to receive French garrisons in his Piedmontese fortresses. By the treaty of San Ildefonso[?], concluded in August, Spain became the ally of France. In October 1796 Naples made peace.

In 1797 Bonaparte finished the conquest of northern Italy and forced Austria to make the treaty of Campo Formio (October), whereby the emperor ceded Lombardy and the Austrian Netherlands[?] to the French Republic in exchange for Venice and undertook to urge upon the Diet the surrender of the lands beyond the Rhine. Notwithstanding the victory of Cape St Vincent, the United Kingdom was brought into such extreme peril by the mutinies in the fleet that she offered to acknowledge the French conquest of the Netherlands and to restore the French colonies.

The selfishness of the three directors threw away this golden opportunity. In March and April the election of a new third of the Councils had been held. It gave a majority to the constitutional party. Among the directors the lot fell on Letourneur to retire, and he was succeeded by Barthélemy[?], an eminent diplomatist, who allied himself with Carnot. The political disabilities imposed upon the relatives of émigrés were repealed. Priests who would declare their submission to the Republic were restored to their rights as citizens. It seemed likely that peace would be made and that moderate men would gain power.

18 Fructidor

Barras, Rewbell and La Révellière-Lépeaux then sought help from the armies. Although Royalists formed but a petty fraction of the majority, they accused that fraction of seeking to restore monarchy and to undo the work of the Revolution. Hoche, then in command of the army of the Sambre[?] and Meuse, visited Paris and sent troops. Bonaparte sent General Augereau[?], who executed the coup d’état of 18 Fructidor (4 September 1797).

The councils were purged, the elections in forty-nine departments were cancelled, and many deputies and other men of note were arrested. Some of them, including Barthélemy, were deported to Cayenne[?]. Carnot made good his escape. The two vacant places in the Directory were filled by Merlin of Douai[?] and François of Neufchateau[?]. Then the government frankly returned to Jacobin methods. The law against the relatives of émigrés was reenacted, and military tribunals were established to condemn émigrés who should return to France.

The nonjuring priests were again persecuted. Many hundreds were either sent to Cayenne or imprisoned in the hulks of Re and Oleron. La Révelliére Lépeaux seized the opportunity to propagate his religion. Many churches were turned into Theophilanthropic temples. The government strained its power to secure the recognition of the décadi as the day of public worship and the non-observance of Sunday. Liberty of the press ceased. Newspapers were confiscated and journalists were deported wholesale. It was proposed to banish from France all members of the old noblesse. Although the proposal was dropped, they were all declared to be foreigners and were forced to obtain naturalisation if they would enjoy the rights of other citizens. A formal bankruptcy of the state, the cancelling of two-thirds of the interest on the public debt, crowned the misgovernment of this disastrous time.


In. the spring of 1798 not only a new third of the legislature had to be chosen, but the places of the members expelled by the revolution of Fructidor had to be filled. The constitutional party had been rendered helpless, and the mass of the electors were indifferent. But among the Jacobins themselves there had arisen an extreme party hostile to the directors. With the support of many who were not Jacobins but detested the government, it bade fair to gain a majority. Before the new deputies could take their seats the directors forced through the councils the law of the 22nd Floréal, annulling or perverting the elections in thirty departments and excluding forty-eight deputies by name. Even this coup d'état did not secure harmony between the executive and the legislature. In the councils the directors were loudly charged with corruption and misgovernment. The retirement of Francois of Neufchâteau and the choice of Treilhard[?] as his successor (15 May 1798) made no difference in the position of the Directory.

While France was thus inwardly convulsed, its rulers were doubly bound to husband the national strength and practise moderation towards other states. Since December 1797 a congress had been sitting at Rastadt[?] to regulate the future of Germany. That it should be brought to a successful conclusion was of the utmost import for France. But the directors were driven by self-interest to new adventures abroad. Bonaparte was resolved not to sink into obscurity, and the directors were anxious to keep him as far as possible from Paris; they therefore sanctioned the expedition to Egypt which deprived the Republic of its best army and most renowned captain. Coveting the treasures of Bern, the Directors sent Brune to invade Switzerland and remodel its constitution; in revenge for the murder of General Duphot[?] (28 December 1797), they sent Berthier[?] to invade the Papal States and erect the Roman Republic; they occupied and virtually annexed Piedmont. In all these countries they organised such an effective pillage that the French became universally hateful.

As the armies were far below the strength required by the policy of unbounded conquest and rapine, the first permanent law of conscription was passed in the summer of 1798. The attempt to enforce it caused a revolt of the peasants in. the Belgian departments. The priests were held responsible and some eight thousand were condemned to deportation en masse, although much the greater part escaped by the goodwill of the people. Few soldiers were obtained by the conscription, for the government was as weak as it was tyrannical.

Under these circumstances Horatio Nelson’s victory of Aboukir (1 August 1798), which gave the British full command of the Mediterranean and isolated Bonaparte in Egypt, was the signal for a second coalition[?]. Naples, Austria, Russia and Turkey joined Great Britain against France. Ferdinand IV of Naples, rashly taking the offensive before his allies were ready, was defeated and forced to seek a refuge in Sicily.


In January 1799 the French occupied Naples and set up the Parthenopaean Republic. But the consequent dispersion of their weak forces only exposed them to greater peril. At home the Directory was in a most critical position. In the elections of April 1799 a large number of Jacobins gained seats. A little later Rewbell retired. It was imperative to fill his place with a man of ability and influence. The choice fell upon Sieyès, who had kept aloof from office and retained not only his immeasurable self-conceit but the respect of the public.

Sieyès felt that the Directory was bankrupt of reputation, and he intended to be far more than a mere member of a board. He hoped to concentrate power in his own hands,to bridle the Jacobins,and to remodel the constitution. With the help of Barras he proceeded to rid himself of the other directors. An irregularity having been discovered in Treilhard’s election, he retired, and his place was taken by Gohier[?] (30 Prairial, 18 June 1799). Merlin of Douai and La Révellière Lépeaux were driven to resign in June 1799: they were succeeded by Moulin[?] and Ducos[?]. The three new directors were so insignificant that they could give no trouble, but for the same reason they were of little service.

Such a government was ill-fitted to cope with the dangers then gathering round France. The directors having resolved on the French offensive in Germany, the French crossed the Rhine early in March, but were defeated by the Archduke Charles of Austria at Stockach[?] on 25 March 1799. The congress at Rastatt[?], which had sat for fifteen months without doing anything, broke up in April and the French envoys were murdered by Austrian hussars. In Italy the allies took the offensive with an army partly Austrian, partly Russian under the command of Suvorov[?]. After defeating Moreau at Cassano d'Adda[?] on 27 April 1799, he occupied Milan and Turin. The republics established by the French in Italy were overthrown, and the French army retreating from Naples was defeated by Suvorov on the Trebbia[?].

Thus threatened with invasion on her German and Italian frontiers, France was disabled by anarchy within. The finances were in the last distress; the anti-religious policy of the government kept many departments on the verge of revolt; and commerce was almost suspended by the decay of roads and the increase of bandits. There was no real political freedom, yet none of the ease or security which enlightened despotism[?] can bestow. The Terrorists lifted their heads in the Council of Five Hundred. A Law of Hostages, which was really a new Law of Suspects, and a progressive income tax showed the temper of the majority. The Jacobin Club was reopened and became once more the focus of disorder. The Jacobin press renewed the licence of Hébert and Marat. Never since the outbreak of the Revolution had the public temper been so gloomy and desponding.

In this extremity Sieyès chose as minister of police the old Terrorist Joseph Fouché[?], who best understood how to deal with his brethren. Fouché closed the Jacobin Club and deported a number of journalists. But like his predecessors Sieyès felt that for the revolution which he meditated he must have the help of a soldier. As his man of action he chose General Joubert, one of the most distinguished among French officers. Joubert was sent to restore the fortune of the war in Italy. At Novi[?] on 15 August 1799 he encountered Suvorov. He was killed at the outset of the battle and his men were defeated.

After this disaster the French held scarcely anything south of the Alps save Genoa. The Russian and Austrian governments then agreed to drive the enemy out of Switzerland and to invade France from the east. At the same time the Netherlands was assailed by the joint forces of Great Britain and Russia. But the second coalition, like the first, was doomed to failure by the narrow views and conflicting interests of its members. The invasion of Switzerland was baffled by want of concert between Austrians and Russians and by André Masséna’s victory at Zurich (25 - 26 September 1799). In October the British and the Russians were forced to evacuate Holland. All immediate danger to France was ended, but the issue of the war was still in suspense. The Directors had been forced to recall Bonaparte from Egypt. He anticipated their order and on 9 October 1799 landed at Fréjus[?].

18 Brumaire

Dazzled by Bonaparte's victories in the East, the public forgot that the Egyptian expedition was ending in calamity. It received him with an ardour which convinced Sieyès that he was the indispensable soldier. Bonaparte was ready to act, but at his own time and for his own ends. Since the close of the Convention, affairs at home and abroad had been tending more and more surely to the establishment of a military dictatorship. Feeling his powers equal to such an office, he only hesitated about the means of attainment. At first he thought of becoming a Director; finally he decided upon a partnership with Sieyès. They resolved to end the actual government by a fresh coup d'état. Means were to be taken for removing the councils from Paris to St Cloud[?], where pressure could more easily be applied. Then the councils would be induced to decree a provisional government by three consuls and the appointment of a commission to revise the constitution. The pretext for this irregular proceeding was to be a vast Jacobin conspiracy. Perhaps the gravest obstacles were to be expected from the army. Of the generals, some, like Jourdan, were honest republicans; others, like Bernadotte, believed themselves capable of governing France. With perfect subtlety Bonaparte worked on the feelings of all and kept his own intentions secret.

On the morning of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799) the Ancients, to whom that power belonged, decreed the transference of the councils to St Cloud. Of the directors, Sieyès and his friend Ducos had arranged to resign; Barras was cajoled and bribed into resigning; Gohier and Moulin, who were intractable, found themselves imprisoned in the Luxemburg palace[?] and helpless. So far all had gone well. But when the councils met at St Cloud on the following day, the majority of the Five Hundred showed themselves bent on resistance, and even the Ancients gave signs of wavering. When Bonaparte addressed the Ancients, he lost his self-possession and made a deplorable figure. When he appeared among the Five Hundred, they fell upon him with such fury that he was hardly rescued by his officers. A motion to outlaw him was only baffled by the audacity of the president, his brother Lucien Bonaparte. At length, driven to undisguised violence, be sent in his grenadiers, who turned out the deputies. Then the Ancients passed a decree which adjourned the Councils for three months, appointed Bonaparte, Sieyès and Ducos provisional consuls, and named the Legislative Commission. Some tractable members of the Five Hundred were afterwards swept up and served to give these measures the confirmation of their House. Thus the Directory and the Councils came to an end. A shabby compound of brute force and imposture, 18 Brumaire was nevertheless condoned, even applauded, by the French nation. Weary of revolution, men sought no more than to be wisely and firmly governed.

Original text from http://1911encyclopedia.org (http://1911encyclopedia.org)

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