Napoleon Bonaparte, Corsican and Republican, General and Emperor, came from relatively humble beginnings to reshape France and shake the world. Most people remember Napoleon as the dictator who ruled France with an iron hand, who made an ill-fated invasion of Russia and who lost the Battle of Waterloo effectively ending his reign. The circumstances surrounding his rise to the Consulate and eventually Emperor of the French is less known. Eric Hobsbawn said in his book Age of Revolution 1789-1848 that, “Power was half thrust upon him, half grasped by him when the foreign invasions of 1799 the Directory’s feebleness and his own indispensability.” The truth of Hobsbawm’s assertion is what we will attempt to discover.
Napoleon had distinguished himself in two campaigns during the Revolution, The siege of Toulon as artillery commander and on 5 October, 1795 or 13 Vendémiaire year IV in the revolutionary calendar. The first earned him distrust from the Directory after the fall of Robespierre ad his cohorts as Napoleon was appointed to the post at the behest of Augustin Robespierre, younger brother of Maximillien Robespierre, the architect of the Terror. However the second, defending the National Convention from a direct attack by royalists, earned him fame and the support of the Directory. Following the events of 13 Vendémiaire Napoleon was promoted and given command of the Army of Italy. This was Napoleon’s first step towards real power.
Distinguishing himself against the Austrians during the Italian campaigns gave Napoleon an increased reputation as the ‘First soldier of France’. This was an important distinction as each successive victory for him increased his own reputation rather than the Directory’s. Following the capture of Venice Napoleon allowed his troops to loot the city enraging royalists and inciting them to attack him and claim that he was a dictator in the making. Martyn Lyons writes, “The elections of Fructidor Year 5 (1797) produced a result that the republican government feared: a royalist majority was returned. Afraid for the stability of the regime, the Directory annulled the elections in forty nine departments and called in Pierre Augereau’s forces to disperse the deputies.” The Coup of 18 Fructidor (4 September, 1797) placed the Directory squarely in debt to the army and Bonaparte since General Augereau was one of his division commanders. Following the defeat of the Austrians in Italy he negotiated a peace treaty. These negotiations resulted in the Treaty of Campoformio, and Napoleon returned to Paris in December as a hero. Whether intentional or not Napoleon continued to acquire debts in Paris and the Directory became more and more dependent upon him and this made some in the Directory uncomfortable.
The Treaty of Campoformio did not sit well with members of the Directory. According to Martyn Lyons, “Bonaparte asserted his own version of French foreign policy and presented the outcome to the Directory as a fait acompli…In...