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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

Napoleon And His Parliaments 1800-1815

By Irene Collins

Collins, Irene. Napoleon And His Parliaments 1800-1815. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979. 193 p. ISBN#0-312-55892-9. Hardcover. (Out of Print.)

Napoleon And His Parliaments cover

I found this unusual book in a used bookstore in Boston, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, it appears to be out of print and therefore only available from a used book dealer. This is a pity because it is a fine study of the legislative workings of the Consulate and Empire, a relatively rare topic for English language readers. Irene Collins begins her study with a brief history of parliamentary government and the events that led up to Brumaire, including revolutionary political evolution and Bonaparte's experiences with governmental roles in Italy, Malta and Egypt. Later chapters trace the creation and evolution of the legislature, its role in the Consulate and Empire with an overview of the sessions and some discussion of the individuals who played a role in these bodies.

Collins explains her belief that though Napoleon claimed to have had a parliamentary system forced on him by a will of the people, he in fact adopted it voluntarily as a means of attracting politicians to his cause. One of the chief concerns was that the coup have the appearance of legality, and this required the existing legislative bodies endorse or at least tolerate this change in leadership. The Elders and the Five Hundred each chose panel members to confer with the three temporary consuls, Napoleon Bonaparte, Roger Ducos and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, in drawing up a new Constitution.

Sieyès, a former Director and respected as a constitutional scholar and theorist was to play a prominent part. Napoleon had been warned that the role of the executive was unlikely to suit him, and saved his arguments for that part of the debate, allowing the legislative formations to go by essentially unopposed. When Sieyès and another constitutional scholar Pierre-Claude-François Daunou disagreed over executive powers, Bonaparte took Daunou's side, which favored concentrating power in the executive.

In fact, Collins writes that this was a clear reflection of the people's will, and that the public supported Bonaparte chiefly because it hoped that he would prove to be an individual strong enough to tame the Revolution and create peace and stability. When the Constitution of the Year VIII was introduced and put up for public vote, the response was overwhelmingly favorable. Complete executive power was given to Bonaparte, who could appoint and dismiss ministers at will. Initiative in legislation was also given to Bonaparte, who was named First Consul. Consulting with a Council of State, Bonaparte would draw up bills for introduction to parliament. The constitution provided for two legislative chambers. The Tribunate, with 100 members, would receive and debate these bills. The Tribunate would then make recommendations to a Legislative body of 300 members, who were denied any opportunity to debate, but would vote the bills up or down by secret ballot.

All parliamentary members were to be selected from national lists by the Senate, who also had a responsibility to judge a bill's constitutionality before the First Consul promulgated it. These lists were collected by having voters in territorial divisions, starting with smaller areas called "communal arrondissements," elect a tenth of their number to a "communal list." These lists in turn would be grouped in a wider territory called a "department" that would elect a tenth of its number to a "departmental list," and these in turn would elect a tenth to a "national list." Voting was done by male suffrage, and would begin in 1801. This created an immediate situation where most political positions were filled by appointees and not elected, even by this rather indirect method. The consuls themselves appointed the Senate, with Napoleon selecting thirty-one of its members, and the other two consuls naming the remaining twenty-nine.

Collins traces the evolution of parliamentary government, outlining its sometimes vigorous dissent with the government. The Tribunate was especially vocal, initially voting against several bills, including the first installments of the civil code. She also shows how the First Consul took steps to reduce their ability to voice disagreement. This came about largely because the Constitution seems to have been unclear on several points, and these gaps were bridged by sénatus consultes. These pronouncements were first used by the Senate to dismiss a fifth of each of the parliamentary bodies and select more agreeable replacements. The renewal was outlined in the Constitution, but its implementation was not. Similar instances of vagueness allowed the Napoleon to actually reduce the Tribunate and finally eliminate it later under the Empire.

All of this could have been rather dry prose, but Collins never neglects the politicians themselves, and readers get to know the friends and enemies of government. Throughout, the Council of State plays a prominent role, but sadly the author never identifies this body or its activities more than superficially, apparently because documentary evidence is not available. She follows the progress of the parliament as it debates and passes legislation for various codes, budgets, taxation, the Legion of Honor, and charts the sessions through the first abdication, the restoration and the Hundred Days. Throughout, Collins explains how the parliaments worked, its evolution and deficiencies, and how Napoleon was able to use this system to organize and stabilize French life, establish laws, and center power in the hands of his person, and how he believed that this was not only just, but a perfect expression of the will of the people.

There is a bibliography and index, but sadly, there are no charts diagramming the relationships of the governmental bodies or maps showing the electoral divisions (these can be found in Bergeron's France Under Napoleon or Lyon's Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution). There are also no illustrations or photographs of the institutions and individuals that played such an important role in the Consulate and Empire. More importantly, there are no lists of legislation passed and rejected, dates of sessions, members, nor is the text of the Constitution itself collected in what could have been a useful appendix.

Nevertheless, this book was entertaining and informative throughout, and anyone wanting to know more about the system of government under Napoleon will find this a rewarding effort. While it may not be found in your local bookstore, hopefully it has a wide distribution in libraries.

Reviewed by Max Sewell, FINS