To what extent did Napoleon’s government during the Consulate bring benefits to France?

Between 1799 and 1804 Napoleon as First Consul instigated a series of sweeping reforms, fundamentally changing the institutions of France. He had a shrewd idea of what was necessary after a decade of Revolution: ‘My policy is to govern men as most of them wish to be governed. It is in this way, I believe, that popular sovereignty is acknowledged.’ Opposition notwithstanding, he was able to convert the majority of Frenchmen from being citizens to being subjects, and to impose on them a political, administrative and judicial system which reflected his own tastes for efficiency and uniformity. So, to what extent did Napoleon’s government during the consulate bring benefits to France? The answer must be that it did so only so far as to secure a regime at bottom authoritarian; that some benefited more than others as a result. However, for many if not all contemporaries the Consulate was ‘rational’, ‘modern’ and ultimately ‘beneficial’ notwithstanding.

Firstly, we must look at the lynchpin of the Consulate period itself: the Constitution of the Year VII, together with the reo-organisation of the Communes. It is obvious that the Coup of Brumaire inaugurated a period of breakdown and reconstruction in French politics. Sieyes’ aphorisms reveal a lot as to the prevailing mood, independent of Napoleon himself; for example, ‘Confidence should come from below, authority from above.’ Such might be taken as describing the nature of the ensuing government. Napoleon alternately opposed and approved the respective plans of Sieyes and Danou, selecting from each what was most in accordance with his own views; but the underlying presupposition remained unchanged; many wanted and (perhaps) sanctioned the rule which bears his name, given the tumultuous nature of the outgoing Directory and the benefits to be gained. After all, factionalism had plagued France for over a decade, in what amounted to a thinly disguised civil war. Thus universal suffrage was re-established at face value, but instituted in such a way, in the form of election by tenths, so as to prevent a repeat of all-too familiar governmental gridlock. The new system also opened up the doors to a plethora of beneficial opportunities. Each constitution since 1789 had tried to subdivide the departments in such a way as to favour the electoral chances of each party in power; yet now Napoleon could arrange 36,000 communes so as to reach out and benefit 36 million inhabitants. As a result of the Local Government Act of 28 Pluviose (February 17, 1800) the people of Clohars-Carnoet, for example, felt for the first time that their affairs were known in Paris, and their interests borne in mind by the Government. If the taxes were now more effectively collected, there could be put against this better roads and bridges, safer travel, and prompter punishment of crime in the long run. In short, it did not irk people that they had no say in their choice of rulers; they had few pleasant memories of the departmental and district directors they had so elaborately elected during the last ten years, and liked best a monarchical government, provided it was strong and just.

‘Liberty consists in the power to do anything that does not injure other; accordingly, the exercise of the rights of each man has no limits except those that secure the enjoyment of thee same rights to the other members of society.’ So ran the fourth article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. In order to assess the degree to which the Consulate government (i.e. Napoleon) met this ideal, we must turn to the Civil Code. Prima facie this was unreservedly beneficial, given that it sanctioned the disappearance of the feudal aristocracy and affirmed equality under the law and freedom of work. Codification was itself contrary to the spirit of the Ancien Regime, and was the result of a collective effort. In France, a new brotherhood was born in which the peasant was liberated from seigniorial rights whilst the bourgeoisie remained as the economically powerful class; for central to the code was the consecration of the ‘inviolable and sacred right of property,’ now given renewed emphasis as the bedrock of a stable society that might benefit the people within it. However, it is clear that Napoleon included many measures in the Code with the sole intention of consolidating his own power, and that these measures were not in and of themselves beneficial in any sense. For example, on the subject of divorce, on women as minors and on the exclusion of children from inheritance, the Code marked a definite repudiation of Revolutionary ideals. In its deliberate emphasis on duty and structure, egalitarian inheritance laws were abandoned in favour of more paternalistic legislation, in which the authority of the father was paramount; and in which Napoleon was given a powerful image as leader of the nation. This is the crux of it, though; for as leader of the nation he cannot be said to have acted chiefly in his own self interest – rather, in the long-term interests of the people under his care. Those elements of the Code which marked a return to the social discipline of pre-Revolutionary France were not criticised per se, and ought not to be considered ‘in and of themselves’, given that they promoted public order; and that public order conduced a plethora of benefits in the wider context of things.

Next, we turn to the question of religious reform. The Concordat of July 16, 1801 was a revision of the work of reason in the light of experience. If there were a point at which the Revolution ‘went wrong’, it was when the Constituent Assembly imposed the oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (November 27, 1790). This had marked the end of national unity, and the beginning of yet another civil war. Napoleon realised that the only way to resolve the religious question in France, without recourse to constant oppression, was to diffuse the schism that had been precipitated thereby; but there were broadly two solutions to the religious problem at hand. He had either to allow the movement for the restoration of religion to develop without interference, or he had to reach an agreement with the Pope in order to take credit for a rediscovered peace. Given his determination that the state should remain in control of the church, he opted for the latter (arguably less beneficial ‘in and of itself’). In other words, the First Consul didn’t give a damn about religion, but was perfectly aware that it was a necessary means to fusion and reconciliation. He needed the Concordat in order to secure his popularity and to separate the Catholics from the Royalist cause; and he also sensed that the public mood in France had swung in favour of religion, a mood which his government could harness for political purposes. Wishing to win the aristocracy and counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie to his side above all, he could hardly ignore the renaissance they were now experiencing. Writers were delighted at the opportunity to renew religious themes. Fontanes recognised that the restoration of the cult was socially significant in that it would support the new class division; and since it was precisely Napoleon’s intention to consolidate this class division and thus his own rule, he fully agreed with him. So, of all the Reforms the Concordat is perhaps the one to be interpreted with the most cynicism, but again the very fact that it gave a tremendous boost to Napoleon’s reputation tells us that it was popular, and that people considered it beneficial in the long run.

In conclusion, the reforms instituted during the Consulate were invariably characterised by a strong political bias, some more than others. However, to argue for a dichotomy between benefits to Napoleon and benefits to the people seems nothing short of fallacious, given that their fortunes were so inextricably bound together. To us, the loss of political liberty suggests that the people were under some form of dictatorship akin to the precedents of the 20th century; but it must be noted that an authoritarian element had been present in the revolutionary philosophy from the beginning. Did not Rousseau declare in his Contrat Social (1769) that a Legislator was needed to ‘enlighten the general will’? In 1802 Napoleon seemed to be the most dazzling embodiment of the enlightened despot in action. That is to say, although there were clear disparities between those who benefited more and those who benefited less, disparities necessary if the enlightened despot was to survive, the people at large considered the net benefits to France at this time to be unparalleled when compared to preceding governments.

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