The Directory (1795-99): Framing of the Constitution of France!

The Constitution of 1795 framed by the National Convention vested the executive authority in France in a committee of five Directors known as the Directory.

The Directory was in power in France for four years (1795-99) when it was overthrown by General Napoleon.

The Directors were men of mediocre talents and did not hesitate to practise bribery and corruption. They failed to rise to the occasion and could not tackle the problems facing the country.

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The first Directors were Carnot, the organiser of victory, Letoumeur, an engineer, Larevelliere Lepeaux, a Girondist, Rewbell, a Jacobin and Barras. Barras hailed from the South.

In 1789, he was elected to the Third Estate. In course of time, he became a good Jacobin. He took courage to attack Robespierre. He saved the National Convention by employing Napoleon Bonaparte in 1795. Consequently, he was made one of the five Directors.

He was a clever politician, a cynic, entirely unscrupulous, immoral who “loved the throne for its velvet,” and was always in debt. He had an imposing appearance and fine manners. He was the leader of the Parisian society.


Plots and Intrigues:

The period of the Directory was one of plots and intrigues in the country. The royalists and the reactionaries were elected to the legislature in large numbers and they did not hesitate to use fair or foul means to sabotage the government. They were kept, in check only by the use of force by the government.

A reference may be made to the Babeuf Plot of 1796. A political club called the Society of the Pantheon was started in October 1795. It attracted a large number of former Jacobins and held meetings by torchlight. It published a newspaper known as the Tribun which was edited by Babeuf who was a young, fanatical agitator. The Directory took action against the Society in February 1796 when General Bonaparte personally closed the meeting place and dissolved the Society.

However, the members hit back by setting up a Secret Directory of six members and started making preparations for a revolt. Their object was to revive the Jacobin Constitution of 1793 which had been approved but not enforced. They also aimed at restoring the revolutionary movement to its original purity of idealism and sincerity of purpose.


They proposed to proclaim a “Republic of Equals” in which the gulf between the rich and the poor was to be avoided. The programme was to penetrate the units of the army, police and administration by means of revolutionary agents. Thorough preparations were made for the revolt. Arms and ammunition were collected. It was decided that citizens from each district of Paris should march behind banners to support the mutineers of the army.

After capturing power, the Secret Directory was to exercise power till fully democratic institutions started working in the country. However, the police had their agents in the movement from the very beginning. The result was that on the eve of the revolt, all the leaders were arrested and the people were dispersed by the use of force.

The conspirators were tried in 1797 by a special court. The trial lasted for 3 months and on that occasion Babeuf condemned the administration of the Directory in the strongest possible terms, Babeuf was executed. He won the admiration of all by his sincerity of purpose. It is pointed out that modem communism owes a lot to the ideals of Babeuf.

Finances of France:

The finances of France began to deteriorate during the regime of the Directory. There was corruption all around. There was enormous waste in public expenditure. A lot of money was required to support an army of a million men. The population of Paris had to be fed at the cost of the nation.

The position of Assignats issued by the National Assembly was already not satisfactory. It was made worse by a policy of further inflation. There was so great a use of the printing press that the value of the Assignats fell.

The condition became so hopeless that as many as 300 livres in Assignats were required to get one livre in cash. In 1797, the Government was forced to declare partial bankruptcy. Payment of interest on the national debt was suspended and ultimately the Assignats had to be repudiated altogether.

Obviously, such a state of affairs could not be expected to bring any credit to the Government and so the Directory was condemned by the people who were really in great distress on account of the failure of the Directory to tackle the financial problem.

There was no harmony between the Directors and the two legislative chambers. One-third of the Assemblies and one out of the five Directors retired every year. The Directory was not in sympathy with either the Assemblies or the constituencies.

The religious problem demanded attention. The Constitutional Church set up by the Revolution had almost disappeared. Anew religious movement called “Theo-philanthropy” had no real following. The Roman Catholic Church was still strong and popular with the people.

There were more than three hundred thousand emigres. Their property had been confiscated. Many persons were declared emigres so that their property might be captured. No wonder, their relatives protested against those acts of injustice and that created unrest.

In March 1797, elections took place to fill the place of one-third members of the Assemblies. The results showed great gains for the Moderates and anti-Jacobin party. The Directors were not prepared to yield. They appealed to Hoche but he declined. They asked Napoleon to do the needful. He sent his officer, Augereau, to carry out his instructions. The show of force was enough. Carnot was deposed from the Directory. A number of Deputies were arrested, including Pichegrus. After that, the results of 154 electors were cancelled.

Foreign Policy:

When the Directory assumed office, France was still at war with Austria, Sardinia and Great Britain. The general plan of the campaign was to advance one French army across the Rhine through Germany and from there into the Austrian dominion and to send another army across the Alps through Northern Italy to Vienna. As regards the army of the Rhine, such great Generals as Moreau, Jourdan and Pichegrus were to be in charge.

As regards the army to be sent to Italy, Napoleon Bonaparte was appointed the commander. While the French troops sent to the Rhine did not accomplish much. Napoleon worked wonders. With lightning speed and great personal bravery. Napoleon was able to cross the Alps. Within a year, he was able to dispose of five Austrian armies and he occupied every fort in Northern Italy.

The Sardinians were defeated and forced to give Nice and Savoy to France. Austria made peace with Napoleon by signing the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797. By that treaty, France got from Austria the Austrian Netherlands or Belgium and the Ionian Islands. Austria was given the republic of Venice and she agreed not to interfere in other parts of Italy.

It was agreed that a conference was to meet to rearrange the map of the Holy Roman Empire with a view to compensating those German princes whose lands on the left of the Rhine had been appropriated by France. One of the immediate effects of the victory of Napoleon in Italy was the dissolution of the first Coalition. Both Austria and Sardinia left the Coalition and Great Britain was left alone. Another effect of the victory was the sudden rise of Napoleon to fame. He became the talk of the people of France and while the people applauded him, the Government feared him but outwardly flattered him.

In a proclamation issued to the people of France, the Directory boasted “You will learn with pleasure that several millions of people have been restored to freedom and that the French nation is the benefactor of humanity. The peace of the continent will soon be set on an indestructible base. It remains only now to punish the perfidy of London. There the ills of Europe have sprung; there they must be ended.”

In 1797, Napoleon was appointed the General of the Army of England which was formed in France to invade England. In the beginning of 1798 he inspected the coastline and came to the conclusion that it was impossible to cross the English Channel so long as France had not a strong navy. However, he decided to attack the British Empire on some other point.

He fixed the Mediterranean open to him and consequently he managed to take a French army to Egypt in 1798. His intention was to side-track the attention of the British navy in the Mediterranean and, after getting the opportunity, to attack England by crossing the English Channel.

He also hoped to proceed from Egypt to India and thereby put an end to the British Empire in India with the help of the Marathas and Sultan Tipu. There was also the possibility of his attacking the Ottoman Empire from Egypt and smashing the same. Unfortunately for Napoleon, all his schemes fell through. Admiral Nelson pursued him to Egypt and defeated him in the naval Battle of the Nile (1798). The people of Egypt also revolted against him.

His army was small and he felt himself isolated. However, Napoleon managed to escape from Egypt and reached France. From the place of landing all the way up to Paris, he was applauded by the crowds. The people compared the achievements of Napoleon with those of the Directory and condemned the latter.

Overthrow of the Directory:

On his arrival in Paris, Napoleon appeared in the role of the modest and studious civilian. At one time, he read a paper before the Institute on Egyptian Archaeology and at another he moved about in the streets of Paris as an ordinary citizen. His object was to advertise himself not at a gambler in empires but a person eager for knowledge and well-versed in the arts of peace. For many weeks. Napoleon contented himself with merely studying minutely the political currents in the country, especially Paris. While doing so, he did not commit himself to any group.

After a lot of deliberation, he decided to enter into a conspiracy with Abbe Sieyes to overthrow the Directory. The two conspirators were poles as under in their ideas. Napoleon Bonaparte was a man of action and believed in the autocracy of the sword and Abbe Sieyes was a philosopher v/ho believed in a policy of checks and balances. However, both of them were agreed so far as the question of the overthrow of the Directory was concerned.

It was certainly a difficult task because republican­ism was a strong political force in the country. It was the creed of Generals like Jourdan and Moreau and of two of the five Directors. A great majority of the members of the legislature also believed in republicanism. Any revolution which aimed at setting aside the republican form of government had very little chance of success.

It is true that the odds were heavy but Napoleon was determined to carry out his own scheme. The plan was duly executed on 9 and 10 November, 1799. The Council of Ancients passed a decree on 9 November to transfer the legislature to St. Cloud on the pretext of a conspiracy and Napoleon rode to the Tuileries at the head of a brilliant cavalcade and took oath to preserve the republic.

Afterwards he spoke the following words to a Secretary of the Directory who came to meet him in the gardens “What have you done with this France which I left so brilliant? I left you peace, I find war. I left you victories, I find defeats. I left you the millions of Italy I find losses of spoliation and miseries.” These words of Napoleon resounded throughout the length and breadth of the country.

On 10 November, the legislators met in the palace of St. Cloud. They found themselves trapped in the midst of a hostile army. When Napoleon appeared in the Lower House, there was a storm of passion against him and he was carried fainting from the hall. However, his life was saved by Lucien, his brother, who was presiding over the session of the Lower House. The soldiers surrounded the legislature and the members fled. A small committee of both Chambers decreed a provisional government consisting of Bonaparte, Sieyes and Ducos. The constitution which was framed a month later placed the supreme powers in the hands of Bonaparte as First Consul. Thus, the Directory was overthrown by Napoleon by ruse and violence. To quote him: “It is the epoch of my life in which I have shown impossible ability.”

David Thomson writes, “The Coup succeeded because neither assemblies nor Directory had any popular esteem left, and the population as a whole—even in Paris—accepted the accomplished fact with little resistance.”

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