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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

Napoleon Comes to Power: Democracy and Dictatorship in Revolutionary France, 1795-1804

By Malcolm Crook

Crook, Malcolm. Napoleon Comes to Power: Democracy and Dictatorship in Revolutionary France, 1795-1804. Cardiff: University of Wales, 1998. 153 p. ISBN# 0708314015. $14.95. Paperback.

Napoleon Comes to Power

Malcolm Crook, author of the very interesting Elections in the French Revolution (1996), has produced a short study of Brumaire. Those already well familiar with Brumaire and the events leading up to it will probably not learn very much new reading this book. Those who would like an overview of the advent of Napoleon, as well as a précis of current historical thinking on Brumaire and the Directory will benefit from Crook's work.

This volume is obviously intended for use by university students. It is part of the University of Wales's "The Past in Perspective" series, which "assesses how [historiographical] interpretations of its theme[s] have developed" over time and to allow the "reader to come to his or her own conclusions about differing interpretations" through the presentation of documentary evidence. It opens with a brief factual recounting of the events of the coup and an examination of the varying interpretations of that event, including the Bonapartist legend, the Republican tradition, the Marxist interpretation and an overview of current perspectives. This is followed by a concise history of the Directory, a lengthier exposition on Brumaire itself and a short history of the progress from Brumaire to Consulate to Empire. 40 pages of 'Illustrative Documents' that include extracts from representative historians, proclamations, memoirs, laws, letters and other documents allow the reader to get a feel for the tenor of the times and perhaps form his own opinions of these events. These documents are all keyed to appropriate sections of the main text. Also included is a glossary of terms and a useful eight-page bibliographical essay. There are no footnotes and, at times, quotes in the text are inadequately identified. The volume is indexed.

In the section on the Directory, Crook continues the efforts of recent historians to "rehabilitate" the Directory from being considered simply a period of transition and one of mismanagement and corruptionto era which had many successes and that can stand on its own. Crook makes a manful effort to put forth the best case for a Directory that had many important "achievements to its credit and many of them paved the way for Napoleon's later successes." That this case is not entirely convincing may, in part, be due to the nature of the Directory itself. That it does lie between the periods of the Jacobin Republic and the Napoleonic Era and that it was ultimately short-lived will probably always condemn the Directory to being seen as largely transitional. After Fructidor parliamentary rule was largely out of the question. Under the Directory the powers of government (save financial) were concentrated in the hands of the five Directors. These powers were sweeping, but differences among the Directors themselves added to the regimes instability. Attacking alternately the right and the left, successive Directorial "coups" gradually marginalized support for the regime. Ultimately supporters of the exiled Bourbons, the Jacobins and Bonaparte all managed to agree on their low estimation of the Directorial regime.

The "meat" of Crook's book, of course, is Brumaire itself. Crook manages to produce a largely dispassionate and factual account of the coup. Naturally, a book entitled Napoleon Comes to Power is going to focus primarily on Napoleon's role in the events, but this to an extent de-emphasizes the fact that this was a conspiracy undertaken by a number of individuals who had varying interests and ambitions. Nor could Bonaparte have accomplished the change of regime single-handedly. By focusing primarily on Bonaparte the reader doesn't truly get a good feel for how a conspiracy of these diverse opponents of the Directory became Bonaparte's bid to "come to power." This is presented as the natural outcome of the coup yet one doesn't really get to know why this became so -how Bonaparte went from one element of a broader conspiracy (and a late-comer, at that) to the primary beneficiary of that conspiracy. Although Crook doesn't mention it, perhaps Bonaparte's fellow-conspirators let him take the leading role so that if the coup failed Bonaparte would be the leading fall-guy (Crook fails to emphasize the risk the conspirators were taking in the event of failure; success was not assured). Then again, perhaps it was Bonaparte's personality as a man-of-action that led him to eventually take the leading role. Or that perhaps it was the public, identifying the coup as Bonaparte's, that thrust him so firmly into the leading position.

Crook devotes a good deal of space to discussing the reaction to the coup in the provinces, pointing out both support and opposition to the new regime. Crook sums up that while "there had been little overt opposition [to the coup], yet apathy and resignation were the order of the was a case of wait and see." He also presents an interesting breakdown of the Brumairian legislators (those who supported the coup) pointing out that they probably represented the "silent majority of the deputies as a whole." Crook also points out the shaky nature of the new regime. Royalist agents were reporting within three months of the coup that "the fall of Bonaparte appears not only certain but imminent...a great number of his friends...foreseeing the decline of his authority, are distancing themselves from him."

Crook, following current trends, downplays the threat to Bonaparte in the Council of Five Hundred, referring to Bonaparte being "jostled." D.J. Goodspeed in Bayonets at St. Cloud (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1965, p. 147) says that several of the deputies rushed him and that the burly deputy Destrem caught Bonaparte by the collar and shook him, pushing him "to and fro." Nor does Crook mention the fistfights on the floor of the Council or the cries of "Vive Bonaparte!" from the public in the gallery. Not attempting to write a narrative history, Crook downplays the drama of the event. Crook takes no stand on the controversy over Bonaparte's fainting spell in the Orangery, whether from nervous exhaustion or from fear or some other cause. Crook also fails to make clear that the grenadiers, who cleared the Orangery and sent the toga-clad deputies scrambling from the windows, were not from the regular army but were actually Grenadiers of the Legislative Guard. These men owed their loyalty not to Bonaparte but to the Councils. They had no real self-interest in supporting a coup. This is why these troops had to be convinced, one way or another, to forget their duties as the guardians of the assemblies (Sièyes believed at one point that the grenadiers were about to seize Bonaparte). Of all the conspirators Bonaparte was perhaps the one most interested in keeping a veneer of legality about the proceedings, countermanding Fouche's shutting of the gates of Paris and Sièyes extensive list of those to be proscribed after the coup. (Although Napoleon did say on St. Helena that "people are still engaged in abstract deliberation as to whether our action of 18th Brumaire was a legal or a criminal one. At best, however, these are but theories suitable for books or public orators, and which disappear before the face of sheer necessity.") To have the regular army clear the hall would smacked of a military takeover. So support of the grenadiers was important. Crook doesn't mention that it might have been the presence of the regular army, however, that may have done as much to convince the grenadiers to clear the hall of deputies as Lucien Bonapartes famous exhortation.

I noticed only a few errors in Crook's text. On page 89 Crook implies that George Washington served only a four-year term as president of the United States, he served two terms in office. On page 124 Crook states that "Lucien soon fell out with his older brother and ended up as an exile in England." In fact Lucien Bonaparte was captured by the British in 1809 and held on parole in England. On occasion Crook adds details which are out of context, such as mentioning Napoleon's "stocking full of excrement" comment concerning Talleyrand when, in fact, this comment wouldn't be made until years later. Perhaps even Crook is unable to pass up an interesting anecdote even if it is anachronistic.

Crook has produced a balanced treatment of the rise of Napoleon. Napoleon Comes to Power presents a clear and concise overview of the Directory and of the coup itself. The lengthy section of documents translated by Crook gives the reader a real feel for the times and affords one the opportunity think for one's self. The modest price of this volume is also a plus. A Napoleon buff who wants a good summary of the events of Brumaire or a relative newcomer who is just starting to discover the era would both profit from purchasing this little volume. As Goodspeed's Bayonets at St. Cloud is out of print and Albert Vandal's L'Avenement de Bonaparte is unavailable in English Crooks is the best book available to celebrate the bicentennial of Napoleon's coming to power.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg


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