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Before Brumaire: Napoleon’s Development as a Ruler 1796-98

By Tom Miller


‘Destiny called upon me to change the face of the world’, Napoleon once remarked. No one could deny that Napoleon was a man of destiny. His illustrious career spawned admiration from the world’s French government greatest writers, artists and statesmen; his legacy still leaves its imprint on Europe to this day. When the time came to change the incompetent Directory, the impetuous Corsican undoubtedly felt touched by the hand of history.

Over the course of the 9th/10th November 1799 an intimately planned coup was staged involving two members of France’s executive directory, a general named Napoleon Bonaparte and several other military and political figures. For some time now the Directory had failed to govern effectively; there was economic instability, a resurgence of political radicalism, abroad French armies were being driven back by the determined forces of the Second Coalition and many favoured a Bourbon restoration. Any doubts the leaders of the coup may have had about the success of the operation were quickly dispelled by the end of the 9th November.Roger Ducos and Abbe Sieyes (the Trojan horses on the Directory) had placed their colleagues under house arrest and arrangements had been made for both parliamentary chambers to assemble at St. Cloud the following day. Events took a dramatic turn on the 10th. The leaders of the coup had planned to report the unravelling chain of events to the chambers, making clear that this was the fait accompli, ask for their support and then demand the recognition of a new government. They hoped that any opposition would be so small it could be brushed aside, thus precluding the use of force. However, they had not accounted for Napoleon’s dogged determination, fiery temper and rapidly diminishing impatience. The Corsican general, brimming with confidence and assured of his persuasive powers, swept into the room in which the Council of the Five Hundred were sat and urged them to accept this new government. Alarmed at what they saw as a return to dictatorship, they swarmed around the general ready to beat him to the ground. Outside the agitated soldiers were pacified by the intervention of Napoleon’s brother Lucien who promised them that he would sooner drive a sword through his brother’s chest if he knew him to be a traitor. With this bold assertion, the troops of the guard marched into the Palace of St. Cloud.

What followed was the decisive event of Napoleon’s career. It was moments like this, Napoleon believed, which decided the fate of men. Here his fiery personality and ability to lead would propel him to take action. Lesser men may have been deterred by the initial hostility of the chamber, especially since such hostility had erupted into physical violence, but Napoleon realised that there was never a better opportunity to enforce his will than now. Outside he had spurred on the soldiers whose appetite for the coup had visibly waned. However, inspired by Napoleon’s rhetoric, the soldiers moved to enter the building with their general leading and dispersed the hostile chamber. Virtually all the assembled politicians fled through the windows of St. Cloud symbolising the success of the coup. Only 60 returned in order to formally recognise the new government.

Ducos and Sieyes had been central to the organisation of the coup since they were members of the Directory and could in their own words ‘bring down the government from within’. However, they had realised that its success depended on the involvement of a popular general to ensure the support of the army. After a decade of political instability – the French government had changed on four occasions since 1789 – the army’s support was the concrete guarantee of both the coup’s success and the subsequent government’s perpetuity. The question then arose of whom they would choose to front the seizure of power. It is important to note that Napoleon was not their first choice. He came to be selected more by default and accident than by any genuine desire to acquire his services. Initially the directors had looked to General Joubert, whose success in the Low Countries had won him command of France’s Army of Italy in the War of the Second Coalition. However, he was killed at the Battle of Novi in August 1799. Next they looked to General Moreau, a man who’d also enjoyed success in the Low Countries and was commanding the Army of the North. He was arguably as ambitious as Napoleon but declined to involve himself in a conspiracy that had an uncertain outcome. And so, having been unsuccessful with their first two choices, it fell on them to choose Napoleon.

However, far from being a pawn in conspiratorial politics, Napoleon was planning to organise a coup of his own. While in Egypt he had learned of the directory’s many failings and, in particular, the reversal of fortunes in Italy. By early 1799 most of Northern Italy – the land he had fought so hard to conquer – had been recaptured by Austrian and Russian forces. Enough was enough. This government had been in power too long. He would leave Egypt; a land which had promised to be the springboard of Napoleon’s oriental ambitions, stretching as far as India, but which ultimately led to military frustration at the foot of Acre.  And once safely returned to France, he could rally support among the disaffected population and inspire another change of government, with himself at the helm.

It was fate therefore that he left Egypt at around the same time Joubert was killed and Moreau refused to join Ducos and Sieyes. It did not take long for the directors to find Napoleon and inform him of their plans. The stage was set and the actors had received their scripts. However, not all of the actors seemed to be performing the same play. Napoleon had come to France planning his own coup but in unusually fortuitous circumstances he was now nominated to join in the coup of Abbe Sieyes and Roger Ducos. They were unaware of the degree of his ambition. As far as they were concerned Napoleon’s role was secondary; he would ensure the coup received the army’s support and upon its success occupy a subordinate position in the new government. In other words he was to be under their control. Yet Napoleon never intended to hand over the reins of power once seized. It was just fortunate that other politicians had planned a coup and were soliciting his support. This way Napoleon did not have to concern himself with any organisation — when the moment came (as it did outside the palace of St. Cloud) he would impose himself and by the sheer force of his personality they would recognise his leadership. And this is exactly what happened. What could Sieyes and Ducos possibly do? Napoleon had shown the strength of character to enter the chamber and speak, he had shown the courage after having been physically assaulted to lead his soldiers into the chamber and finally he had been responsible for dispersing the intransigent politicians. The army’s loyalty had been won long ago on the battlefields of Northern Italy and it was merely confirmed on the 10th November 1799. With the strength of force behind him, Ducos and Sieyes had to submit. Although appointed as provisional consuls immediately after the coup, when they were informed by Napoleon that their responsibilities were inferior to his and that they would in effect have only consultative powers in the new constitution, they resigned. Napoleon was made First Consul with an array of executive powers, two new subordinate consuls were appointed and new legislative institutions — Tribunat, Corps Legislatif & Senate – were created. Napoleon had finally reached the top. However, his emergence as head of state in France was not his first opportunity to rule a country. What historians often overlook is that Napoleon, far from being a military commander with no experience as a ruler, was in fact a proven and capable administrator. It was while in Italy and Egypt that the young general learned about the demands of government, experimented with reform and experienced real power.


It’s worth mentioning that during the revolutionary wars (and indeed throughout history) commanders of armies could become very powerful. By winning a series of battles, which presented soldiers with the chance to loot, generals had the potential to win their undying loyalty. Yet only the glory associated with winning could cemented loyalty. When Napoleon came to Italy in the spring of 1796 after his appointment as Commander of the Army of Italy he found soldiers that were undisciplined, hungry, tired and lacking in confidence. By spring the following year this situation was completely reversed. Napoleon had won a plethora of superb victories, which had allowed him to chase the entire Austrian army across the face of Northern Italy. His first victories came soon after his arrival; at Montenotte and Mondovi he defeated the Piedmontese and forced their King to make terms. These victories were emulated at Lodi Bridge, Arcola and Rivoli. During these campaigns Napoleon conquered territories far beyond the Directory’s wildest dreams; they had intended the Italian campaign to be a mere sideshow, however, with the reversal of fortune in the main theatre of war (Germany), Italy became the focus of their attention. Exploiting the Directory’s new-found interest in Italy, Napoleon successfully petitioned the Directory for supplies essential for ultimate victory. By the spring of 1797, Napoleon was threatening to march on Vienna having lifted the siege of Mantua. The Austrians sued for an immediate peace at Leoben.

Military success aside, Napoleon was also responsible for reorganising the government of these newly conquered territories. He had insisted on drilling home to Italians that the French were there as liberators, not conquerors, emancipating them from the rod of monarchical oppression. Such truths had to be symbolised in the new political order he would create. Five so-called ‘sister republics’ were carved out of the rich, fertile Italian plains (Ligurian, Cispadene, Cisalpine, Roman & Parthenopian). Of the five, the Cisalpine was the most important, comprising the economic and culturally significant cities of Milan & Mantua as well as the surrounding Lombard lands. Soon after, the territories of the Cispadene (Bologna & Ferrara) were also incorporated. The Cisalpine’s importance laid not only in its economic resourcefulness, but so too in its strategic position, at the heart of the Italian peninsular, where it could threaten Hapsburg Austria and more worryingly for the Directory, France. The creation of these republics was Napoleon’s first taste of real power. In the magnificent palaces of deposed Italian potentates, Napoleon gained real valuable ruling experience. In many ways, his behaviour and style of living foreshadowed the man who in less than a decade would be Emperor of France and the most powerful man in Europe.

The two main republics — Ligurian & Cisalpine — each received new constitutions largely based on the French model of 1795. Although on the face of it they appeared democratic the reality was different. The Ligurian Republic would receive legislative councils chosen by indirect elections. Feudalism was ostensibly abolished and Catholicism recognised as the chief religion (but with the quid pro quo that the church would have less influence in education). Similarly in the Cisalpine Republic the press had greater freedom, torture was abolished, education secularised and a modicum of religious toleration adopted, but political power was concentrated in the hands of traditional feudal elites whose support Napoleon cultivated.

At the head of all these constitutions was the man responsible for their inception. All new laws required Napoleon’s assent and all matters of state were channelled toward him. Napoleon had the power of a king and he certainly behaved like one. After the Battle of Rivoli in February 1797, Napoleon took up residence at the ducal palace of Montebello where he enjoyed all the trappings of royalty; luxurious food, personal servants and a diplomatic entourage. One diplomat, Count Miot de Melito, described the extent to which Napoleon’s behaviour presaged the Emperor of 1804:

‘I was received by Bounaparte [sic] at the magnificent residence of Montebello [on June 1st 1797], in the midst of a brilliant court, rather than the usual army headquarters I had expected. Strict etiquette already reigned round him. Even his aides-de-camp and officers were no longer received at this table, for he had become fastidious in the choice of guests who he admitted to it. An invitation was an honour eagerly sought, and obtained only with great difficulty. He was in no way embarrassed by these excessive honours, but received them as though he had been accustomed to them all his life. His reception rooms and an immense tent pitched before the palace were constantly filled with a crowd of generals, administrators and the most distinguished noblemen of Italy, who came to solicit the favour of a momentary glance or the briefest interview. In a word all bowed before the glory of his victories and the haughtiness of his demeanour. He was no longer the general of a triumphant Republic, but a conqueror on his own account, imposing his own laws on the vanquished’[i]

This passage from the Count’s memoirs reveals a great deal about Napoleon’s development as a ruler. Particularly striking is the fact that high-ranking Italian noblemen paid homage to Napoleon in order to solicit favours. It conjures up an almost feudal image of obedient vassals showing their loyalty to a new king. The last sentence is most fitting, describing Napoleon’s elevation from Republican general to powerful lawmaker. It echoes an earlier statement that spoke of the power generals could acquire if they enjoyed military success. With the Directory far away in Paris, preoccupied with the war on the Rhine and rising domestic instability, with communication between the government and Italy taking several days, Napoleon was free to do as he pleased. Any doubts the government had about the practicalities of ruling Italy were removed by the incessant flow of money and valuable artwork coming direct from Italy to Paris. Napoleon was aware of the financial difficulties the executive had come into — by 1797 the government was already in debt — so he eased their fears about his growing influence by filling the coffers!

Already Napoleon had consolidated a power base through his conquest and subsequent political reorganisation of Northern Italy. The constitutions he designed won him the support of Italy’s burgeoning middle-class, avid supporters of the French Revolution and whose economic prosperity and political influence were a guarantee for stability. He had begun to govern, removing many features of Italy’s archaic feudal system with modern laws that changed education, taxation and religion. Arguably, these reforms foreshadowed the gargantuan Civil Code that restructured French law over the course of five years. He had even assisted the Directory in its hour of need, despatching General Augereau to Paris to remove from parliament royalists who’d won a majority in the recent election (coup de Fructidor). Napoleon’s involvement in this coup showed initiative and was a firm reminder of those leadership traits he was developing before November 1799. More uncomfortably perhaps for the Directory, this intervention was an ominous indicator that Napoleon had his eye on political events in Paris as if ready to pounce at any moment. Another means by which Napoleon consolidated his rule was through the publication of his own newspapers. They were distributed chiefly amongst his soldiers but many found their way into Italian hands and more importantly back to France, where a people recently accustomed to failure who now desperately longed for victory abroad could read of Napoleon’s triumphs. Thus, their use lay in the propaganda value. Though he perhaps did not know it, Napoleon was acquiring hero-status among the French people, which paid enormous dividends when he called upon their support for the new government in early 1800.

Crucial to Napoleon’s development as a ruler in these years was his diplomatic dealings with the Pope and Austria. The French had entered Rome in 1797 and proclaimed a Republic but the Pope brought them to the negotiating table. Here Napoleon was able to win for France the Adriatic port of Ancona — of immense strategic value — the lands of Ferrara & Bologna and a sizeable sum of money for the Directory. In the spring of that same year, as a result of Napoleon’s victory at Rivoli, the relief of Mantua and his advance toward Vienna, Austria made peace. A provisional treaty was signed at Leoben. Here differences arose between the Directory and Napoleon. The Directory wanted to secure Austrian recognition of France’s possessions in the Low Countries and the cession of the Rhineland in return for renouncing the Italian conquests. This was unacceptable to Napoleon. To relinquish the territory that his soldiers had fought so hard to conquer was an abomination in Napoleon’s eyes. In complete defiance of the Directory, Napoleon obtained Austrian recognition of the Italian satellite states and forced her to cede Belgium to France. There was a vague promise to discuss the Rhineland at a later date. These terms were ratified at Campo Formio later in the year with certain additions; Venice was partitioned between France, the Cisalpine Republic and Austria (who received the lion’s share) and France received the Ionian Islands, an important strategic possession in the Mediterranean. Domestic troubles obliged the Directory to accept the terms and Napoleon concentrated on administering the new realms.

Napoleon’s diplomatic activity during 1797 was important for two reasons. Firstly, it provides more evidence of his development as a ruler. It equipped him with negotiating skills invaluable to any head of state and also gave him an insight into the Austrian psyche, which would be useful when dealing with her in the future. From the Austrian perspective, these talks at Leoben and Campo Formio gave a useful insight into Napoleon’s personality, which they noted well for the future. Diplomacy was perhaps a misleading term of description for these meetings. For example, on one occasion Napoleon was so infuriated that he destroyed a priceless set of china in front of the Austrians. However, the second major development to emerge from diplomatic talks was Napoleon’s rebellious streak and his early opposition to the Directory, which came to a head when he joined the coup of 1799. General Pichegru, writing in 1797, commented quite prophetically that:

The directors believe that they are using him, but one fine morning he is going to gobble them up, without their being able to do anything about it.[ii]

He had specifically disobeyed the orders received from Paris urging him to press for Austria’s cession of the Rhineland and renounce claims to territory in Italy. Instead he had negotiated on his own terms as if he were a head of state with his own government.  In fact it would not be too bold to suggest that Napoleon already conceived of himself as a legitimate head of state representing an independent Italian republic, though simultaneously honouring the interests of France. Learning very early on that he could exploit the distance between Paris and Milan, Napoleon took full advantage of the power this distance established. Above all else, the Italian episode reveals Napoleon’s love of power. Years later when he was Emperor and the time spent in Italy seemed a faint memory, Napoleon remarked: ‘power, she is my mistress!’ This was certainly true at the very start of his astonishing career.


With the signing of a treaty at Campo Formio, Austria left the First Coalition. This allowed the Directory to concentrate its efforts against Great Britain. Straight of the back of his success in Italy, Napoleon was recalled to Paris in order to help organise the invasion of England. Proposals were put forward for a landing in Ireland where rebellion was imminent. A joint French and Irish force would then land on the west coast of England. However, Napoleon informed the Directory that such a plan was too ambitious. The French navy was too weak and the weather too detrimental. Alternatively Napoleon presented the Directory with another option – the conquest of Egypt.

When Napoleon returned to Paris in early 1798, he had discussed the ‘Egyptian’ plan with the foreign minister Talleyrand who had been instantly won over by its logic. By conquering Egypt, France would establish a very potent power base in the Middle East to disrupt the British trade routes with India. Once consolidated, France could use Egypt as a base to launch an invasion of British India. With the help of the influential Talleyrand, the government approved the operation and approved Napoleon’s command.

By July Napoleon had seized control of Malta, landed on the Egyptian coast, taken Alexandria and was marching towards Cairo. He defeated the Mameluke army sent to oppose him at the Battle of the Pyramids, giving him control of Cairo and the entire Lower Nile region. That same year, a new coalition was formed consisting of Austria, Russia, Great Britain, Naples and the Ottoman Empire. While the Austrians and Russians overran Northern Italy, the Ottomans sent an army to recapture Egypt (nominally under the Sultan’s suzerainty). This despite frantic diplomatic efforts by Napoleon to persuade them to ally with France. Napoleon marched into Palestine, capturing Jerusalem before reaching Acre. A lengthy siege began, which was totally unsuited to Napoleon’s mobile style of warfare, until his soldiers, dying from disease and thirst, necessitated a withdrawal. Although Turkish armies were defeated at Mount Tabor and Aboukir Bay, by August 1799 Napoleon had tired of his Egyptian adventure, which seemed to be heading for disaster since, after the French Navy was destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, insufficient supplies were reaching his armies. Entrusting his men to General Kleber, he left on the 23rd and headed for France to embark upon the most important adventure of his life!

There was a period, however, between July 1798 and February 1799 when military hostilities ceased. This allowed Napoleon to implement a reform programme. Once again the Directory was occupied with a new war in Europe and communiqués could take weeks if not months to travel the vast distance between Cairo and Paris. Once again this gave Napoleon the freedom to rule as he had in Italy. Egypt in the 18th century was severely underdeveloped by enlightened European standards; a remote outpost of the declining and ineffectual Ottoman Empire and governed by a corrupt regime, it was essentially languishing in the Middle Ages. The streets were filthy and unlit as there was no sewage system and no one knew of gas. A poorly structured and corrupt fiscal system meant no efficient form of tax-collection existed which might alleviate the problem. There was not even a mint to regulate the flow of currency. It was similar to the situation the British found when they came to India. Napoleon was determined to modernise Egypt while making every effort to respect its culture, especially religion. One of the first reforms he enacted was the establishment of a printing press, which he used to make posters in Arabic proclaiming the good intentions of the French who had come as liberators and who respected the Muslim faith. Although probably apocryphal, it was reported that Napoleon even considered following Islam in order to demonstrate his good will. A tax-collecting bureaucracy was created and within weeks a sizeable revenue had been amassed. A mint was established to coin money. Napoleon used the generated revenue to install gas lamps for the streets of Cairo and build a sewage system. In addition he founded Egypt’s first Postal Service and Health Department. Virtually nothing was known of Ancient Egyptian culture so Napoleon established the Egyptian Institute and an accompanying university to conduct research. The results were published in the multi-volume ‘Description de l’Egypte’. French research led to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, which was the key to deciphering hieroglyphics. The French mathematician Champollion eventually succeeded in decoding it. Egypt offered Napoleon a greater opportunity to rule. Further away from Paris than Milan, his time in the land of the pharaohs allowed Napoleon to turn a blind eye to the Directory. It also afforded a larger breathing space between hostilities during which time the immense programme of reform could be instituted.


By the time Napoleon decided to leave for France, he had undergone a conversion from Republican General to Conqueror of Italy and Egypt. With the experience of conquest came the experience of ruling. Napoleon did not simply enforce an authoritarian martial law, though his soldiers were used to quell popular unrest. Instead he approached the challenge of governing a country with great relish and responsibility. As a youth he had read some important classical treatises on government. Between 1796 and 1798 he had the opportunity to put into practice this acquired knowledge. Once Napoleon had returned to Paris the political landscape of Italy was forever changed. New republican constitutions were created, ancient feudal laws abolished and religious toleration adopted. Egypt was reshaped into a more modernised state, as Cairo became equipped with its own tax-collecting bureaucracy, postal service and health department. And the secrets of its ancient civilisation were unlocked for the first time and made available to European scholars, as a result of the discovery and decipherment of the Rosetta stone. Napoleon also had his first taste of power and the experience made him hungry for more.

These years in Napoleon’s life are often seen as mere stepping-stones on the path to to becoming, in his own words, ‘the greatest monarch of the world’. However, this is a fatal misjudgement of history. Far from being just stepping-stones in his remarkable career, they were essential to his development as a ruler and were the foundation for his rise to greatness.


[i] Memoirs of the Count Miot de Melito, 1881, quoted in Schom, A., Napoleon Bonaparte, New York (1997)

[ii] Letter written to Favre de L’Aude


Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2005