Napoleon I

The Consulate

The Directory was overthrown by the coup of 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9–10, 1799), and the Consulate was established with Bonaparte as first consul. The autocratic constitution of the year VIII was accepted by plebiscite. In effect, the constitution established the dictatorship of Bonaparte. As Consul, Napoleon made a point of ruling as a civilian, but he was more authoritarian than Louis XVI. Napoleon declared that France had finished with the "romance of the revolution." He centralized the administration, while giving local prefects considerable power in executing the policies of the central government. Officials and military officers were recruited from several strata of society and from all revolutionary factions, including émigrés. However they were appointed, not elected, and strict obedience was enforced.

Bonaparte's administrative reforms established an efficient modern state that was capable of effectively mobilizing its resources and afforded him vast patronage powers. He established the Bank of France. He also made peace with the Roman Catholic Church by the Concordat of 1801, which reestablished the church in France, but bound it to the success of his regime. He thereby neutralized the antirevolutionary priests who had encouraged peasant unrest (see Chouans) since 1793. Church property was not restored, but church unity and status were reestablished in return for stricter submission to civil authorities. The legal system was reformed with the Code Napoléon, which was begun before Bonaparte's consulate but was marked by his priorities.

While establishing the regime at home, Napoleon also dealt with France's enemies (1800), crossing the St. Bernard pass and defeating (June 14) the Austrians at Marengo, Italy. With the Treaty of Lunéville (1801) with Austria and the Treaty of Amiens (1802) with Great Britain, the Second Coalition was ended and France became paramount on the Continent. Napoleon's ambition did not rest. In Aug., 1802, a plebiscite approved his becoming first consul for life; a modified constitution, that of the year X, came into force. In the same year he incorporated Piedmont into France.

His continued intervention in Italy, Germany, the Helvetic Republic (Switzerland), and the Netherlands as well as his refusal to arrange a commercial treaty with Great Britain aroused British distrust. Britain failed to restore Malta to the Knights Hospitalers, as the Treaty of Amiens had stipulated. In May, 1803, Britain again declared war on France. Napoleon built up his army, apparently preparing to invade England, but the invasion fleet he assembled (1803–5) was repeatedly struck by storms, and a major part of the French fleet was engaged in the disastrous expedition of Charles Leclerc to Haiti.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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