Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

18 Brumaire

18 Brumaire, the coup of 18 Brumaire or sometimes simply Brumaire refers to the coup d'état of by which General Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the government of the Directory to replace it by the Consulate. This occurred on November 9, 1799, which was 18 Brumaire in the year VIII under the French Revolutionary Calendar.

The name, already well established in common use, was reinforced by the title of Karl Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, 1852), an account of December 2, 1851 coup by Napoleon's nephew which begins with the much-quoted "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

Table of contents
1 Context
2 The events of 18 Brumaire in the year VIII
3 The events of 19 Brumaire
4 Aftermath
5 See also
6 External references


Ironically, the ground for Bonaparte's coup may have been laid more by his few defeats than by his many victories. In November 1799, France was suffering the effects of military reverses brought on by Bonaparte's adventurism in the Middle East. The looming threat of opportunistic invasion by the Second Coalition had provoked internal unrest, with Bonaparte stuck in Egypt.

The coup was first prepared not by Bonaparte, but by the Abbé Sieyès, then one of the five Directors, attempting to head off a return to Jacobinism. However, beginning with his return from Egypt in September 1799, Bonaparte began a coup within the coup. Ultimately, the coup brought Bonaparte to power, not Sieyès.

An army contractor named Collot advanced two million francs to finance the coup. The plan was, through the use of troops conveniently arrayed around Paris, first to persuade the Directors (see French Directory) to resign, then to persuade the two Councils to appoint a pliant commision to draw up a new constitution.

The events of 18 Brumaire in the year VIII

On the morning of 18 Brumaire, members of the Council of Elders sympathetic to the coup warned their colleagues of a Jacobin conspiracy and persuaded them to remove to Saint-Cloud, west of Paris. Bonaparte was charged with the safety of the two Councils. Later that morning Sieyès and Roger-Duclos resigned as Directors; Talleyrand persuaded Barras to do the same. (The presence of troops in the garden outside was, no doubt, rather persuasive.)

The resignation of three Directors was sufficient to destroy the quorum, but the two Jacobin Directors, Gohier and Moulin, refused to resign. Moulin escaped; Gohier was taken prisoner. However, the two Councils were not immediately intimidated and continued to meet.

The events of 19 Brumaire

By the following day, the deputies had, for the most part, worked out that they were facing an attempted coup rather than being protected from a Jacobin rebellion. Faced with their recalcitrance, Bonaparte stormed into the chambers accompanied by a small escort of grenadiers. While perhaps unplanned, this proved to be the coup within the coup: from this point, this was a military affair.

Accounts of Bonaparte's confrontation with the councils differ; the following two paragraphs might be improved by resort to more sources.

Bonaparte met with heckling as he addressed the Council of Ancients with such "home truths" as, "the Republic has no government" and, most likely, "the Revolution is over." One deputy called out, "And the Constitution?" Bonaparte replied, referring to earlier parliamentary coups, "The Constitution! You yourselves have destroyed it. You violated it on 18 Fructidor; you violated it on 22 Floreal; you violated it on 30 Prairial. It no longer has the respect of anyone." [1]

Bonaparte withdrew to the Orangerie, where the Council of Five Hundred was meeting. His reception here was even more hostile: Napoleon and the grenadiers entered just as the legality of Barras' resignation was being challenged by the Jacobins in the chamber. Upon entering, Napoleon was first jostled, then outright assaulted. Depending on whose account is accepted, he may or may not have come close to fainting. Not Napoleon himself, but his brother Lucien, President of the Council, called upon the grenadiers to defend their leader. Napoleon escaped, but only through the use of military force.

A motion was raised in the Council of Five Hundred to declare Napoleon Bonaparte an outlaw. At this point, Lucien Bonaparte apparently slipped out of the chamber and told the soldiers guarding the parliament that the majority of the Five Hundred were being terrorised by a group of deputies brandishing daggers. Then, according to Michael Rapport, "He pointed to Napoleon's bloody, pallid face as proof. Then, in a theatrical gesture, he seized a sword and promised to plunge it through his own brother's heart if he were a traitor." [1]

Lucien ordered the troops to expel the violent deputies from the chamber. Grenadiers under the command of General Murat marched into the Orangerie and dispersed the Council. This was, effectively the end of the Directory.


The Directory was crushed, but the coup within the coup was not yet complete. The necessity to use military force had certainly strengthened Bonaparte's hand vis a vis Sieyès and the other plotters. With the Council routed, the plotters convened two commissions, each consisting of twenty-five deputies from the two Councils and essentially intimidated them into declaring a provisional government, the first form of the consulate with Bonaparte, Sieyès, and Roger-Duclos as consuls, and then into drawing up what Malcolm Crook refers to as the "short and obscure Constitution of the Year VIII" [1], the first of the constitutions since the Revolution without a Declaration of Rights.

The lack of reaction from the streets proved that the revolution was, indeed, over. Resistance by Jacobin officeholders in the provinces was quickly crushed, twenty Jacobin legislators were exiled, and others were arrested. Bonaparte completed his coup within a coup by the adoption of a constitution under which the First Consul, a position he was sure to hold, had greater power than the other two. In particular, he appointed the Senate and the Senate interpreted the constitution. The Bonapartist Senate allowed him to rule by decree, so the more independent State Council and Tribunate degenerated into the status of window dressing.

See also

External references