The National Convention in the era after Robespierre’s downfall was significantly more conservative than it had been before and deeply entrenched in the values of the moderate middle class. The change was so drastic that once-powerful groups like the sans-culottes and Jacobins were forced underground, and sans-culottes even became a derisive term in France. Meanwhile, the French economy struggled during the winter of 1794–1795, and hunger became widespread.
Although the members of the convention worked diligently to try to establish a new constitution, they faced opposition at every turn. Because many sanctions against the churches had been revoked, the clergy—many of whom were still loyal to the royalty—started to return from exile. Likewise, the Comte de Provence, the younger brother of Louis XVI, declared himself next in line for the throne and, taking the name Louis XVIII, declared to France that royalty would return. (Hopeful French nobles in exile briefly referred to Louis XVI’s young son as “Louis XVII,” but the boy died in prison in June 1795.)
On August 22, 1795, the convention was finally able to ratify a new constitution, the Constitution of 1795, which ushered in a period of governmental restructuring. The new legislature would consist of two houses: an upper house, called the Council of Ancients, consisting of 250 members, and a lower house, called the Council of Five Hundred, consisting of 500 members. Fearing influence from the left, the convention decreed that two-thirds of the members of the first new legislature had to have already served on the National Convention between 1792 and 1795.
The new constitution also stipulated that the executive body of the new government would be a group of five officers called the Directory. Although the Directory would have no legislative power, it would have the authority to appoint people to fill the other positions within the government, which was a source of considerable power in itself. Annual elections would be held to keep the new government in check.
The dilemma facing the new Directory was a daunting one: essentially, it had to rid the scene of Jacobin influence while at the same time prevent royalists from taking advantage of the disarray and reclaiming the throne. The two-thirds rule was implemented for this reason, as an attempt to keep the same composition like that of the original, moderate-run National Convention. In theory, the new government closely resembled that of the United States, with its checks-and-balances system. As it turned out, however, the new government’s priorities became its downfall: rather than address the deteriorating economic situation in the country, the legislature instead focused on keeping progressive members out. Ultimately, paranoia and attempts at overprotection weakened the group.
Meanwhile, fortified by the Committee of Public Safety’s conscription drive of 1793, the French army had grown significantly. While the foundation of the Directory was being laid, the army, having successfully defended France against invasion from Prussia and Austria, kept right on going, blazing its way into foreign countries and annexing land. During the period from 1795 to 1799 in particular, the French army was nearly unstoppable. Napoleon Bonaparte, a young Corsican in charge of French forces in Italy and then Egypt, won considerable fame for himself with a series of brilliant victories and also amassed massive reservoirs of wealth and support as he tore through Europe.
The Directory encouraged this French war effort across Europe, though less as a democratic crusade against tyranny than as a means of resolving the unemployment crisis in France. A large, victorious French army lowered unemployment within France and guaranteed soldiers a steady paycheck to buy the goods they needed to survive. The Directory hoped that this increase in income would encourage an increase in demand, reinvigorating the French economy.
Unfortunately, it was not long before the Directory began to abuse its power. The results of the elections of 1795 were worrisome to the Directory because a number of moderate royalists won. Although these royalists didn’t exactly qualify as counterrevolutionaries, their loyalty to the Directory was nevertheless suspect.
Then, in May 1796, a group of Jacobins, led by prominent publisher Gracchus Babeuf, met secretly to plan a coup in the hopes of reinstating the government of the Constitution of 1793. Already troubled by the 1795 election results, the Directory squashed the coup plot, had the conspirators arrested, and had Babeuf guillotined.
As the elections of 1797 drew near, the Directory noticed that significant royalist and neo-Jacobin influences were leaking into the republic, which could have terrible implications for the direction of the legislature. On the other hand, the Directory had to obey the Constitution of 1795 and its mandate for annual elections. It therefore allowed the elections to proceed as scheduled.
However, on September 4, 1797, after the elections did indeed produce decidedly pro-royal and pro-Jacobin results, three members of the Directory orchestrated an overthrow of the legislature, annulling the election results and removing a majority of the new deputies from their seats. The coup plotters also unseated two members of the Directory itself—former military strategist Lazare Carnot being one of them—and installed two new directors, further ensuring that the government would remain staunch in its moderate stance.
This new Directory was powerfully conservative, initiating strong new financial policies and cracking down on radicalism through executions and other means. However, the coup and the Directory’s subsequent abuses of power destroyed all of the government’s credibility and further disillusioned the French populace. In the elections of 1798, the left made gains, feeding on public anger about the coup and the reinstatement of the military draft.
The Directory, justifiably fearing the opposition’s gains, once again nullified almost one-third of the election results, ensuring that its own policies would remain strongly in place. Public dissatisfaction was an obvious result, and the next elections would have the lowest turnout of any during the Revolution. Meanwhile, inflation was continuing unchecked, leading the public to wonder whether a royal return to power wouldn’t be more beneficial. Trust and faith in the government neared an all-time low.
As the government’s credibility took a turn for the worse, so too did French military fortunes. In 1799, Napoleon’s seemingly unstoppable forward progress ran into a roadblock in Egypt, and France’s army in general faced simultaneous threats from Britain, Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Hearing of the bedlam taking place in mainland Europe, as well as within in his own country, Napoleon deserted his men and headed back to France.
The failing war efforts amplified the French people’s distrust of the Directory, and large majorities of the French public began calling for peace at home and abroad. In May 1799, the upper house of the legislature, the Council of Five Hundred, elected Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès—of “What Is the Third Estate?” fame—to the Directory. This election was the result of extensive maneuvering on Sieyès’s part.
Sieyès, however, did not want to keep his newfound power for himself but instead intended to use it to protect the French government from future instability and disturbances. Therefore, he enlisted the aid of Napoleon, with whom he began to plan a military coup to topple the very same Directory on which Sieyès himself served. This coup materialized on November 9, 1799, when Napoleon, who had returned to France, overthrew the Directory. The next day, Napoleon dissolved the legislature and instituted himself as first consul, the leader of a military dictatorship. By imposing this state of military rule that would grip France for fifteen years, Napoleon effectively ended the French Revolution.
Although it was the Directory that had encouraged the French army’s actions, ultimately, the army’s unprecedented success in its outward expansion actually ended up working against the Directory rather than for it. Being away from home for so long, the respective companies of soldiers—particularly those under the control of Napoleon—formed their own identities and group philosophies. By splitting the spoils of each successful campaign with his own troops, Napoleon earned the steadfast devotion of what amounted to a private army. This loyalty would prove essential to the success of his eventual coup and the years of military rule and expansionism that would follow.
Sieyès’s political maneuvering may seem inexplicable at first, as he essentially finagled his way into power in the Directory just so he could use that power to remove himself from it. Though that explanation is an oversimplification, it illuminates Sieyès’s priorities and demonstrates the depth of the revolutionary spirit that prompted him to make such a sacrifice. To Sieyès, it was clear that, at the time, a military rule under the watch of someone such as Napoleon would be far more beneficial to France than the argumentative, corrupt, and generally ineffective system that was in place. Indeed, though Napoleon would lead as a dictator of sorts, he would do so with much more respect for the spirit of liberty and equality than the originators of the French Revolution had pursued.