He was born in a small village near Nantes. His father, a sailor, wanted him to go to sea; but his physical weakness and academic talent put paid to this idea. He was educated at the college of the Oratorians at Nantes, and showed great aptitude for literary and scientific studies. Wanting to become a teacher, he was sent to an institution kept by brethren of the same order at Paris. There he made rapid progress, and was soon appointed to tutorial duties at the colleges of Niort, Saumur, Vendôme, Juilly and Arras. At Arras he had some dealings with Maximilien Robespierre in the early days of the French Revolution (1789).
In October 1790, he was transferred by the Oratorians to their college at Nantes, in an attempt to control his zeal for revolutionary principles; but at Nantes he showed even more democratic fervour. His abilities and the enthusiasm with which he adopted the most subversive beliefs brought him into favour with the populace at Nantes; he became a leading member of the local Jacobin club. When the college of the Oratorians was dissolved in May 1792, Fouché gave up the church, whose major vows he had not taken. After the downfall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792, he was elected as deputy for the department of the Lower Loire to the National Convention which met at the autumnal equinox and proclaimed the republic. Fouché's interests brought him into touch with Condorcet and the party, or group, of the Girondists; but their vacillation at the time of the trial and execution of Louis XVI (December 1792 - January 21, 1793) led him to take up the cause of the Jacobins, the less scrupulous champions of revolutionary doctrine. On the question of the execution of the king, Fouché, after some preliminary hesitations, was strongly in favour of immediate execution, and denounced those who wavered.
The crisis which resulted from the declaration of war by the Convention against England and Holland (February 1, 1793), and a little later against Spain, made Fouché notorious as one of the Jacobin fanatics who held power in Paris. While the armies of the first coalition threatened the north-east of France, a revolt of the royalist peasants of Brittany and La Vendée menaced the Convention on the west. That body deputed Fouché with a colleague, Villers, to proceed to the west as commissioners invested with almost dictatorial powers for the crushing of the revolt of "the whites." The vigour with which he carried out these duties earned him a reputation, and he soon held the post of commissioner of the republic in the départment of the Nièvre. Together with Chaumette, he helped to initiate the atheistical movement, the founders of which in the autumn of 1793 began to aim at the extinction of Christianity in France. In the department of the Nièvre he ransacked churches, sent their spoils to the treasury and established the cult of the goddess of Reason. Over the cemeteries, he ordered these words to be inscribed: "Death is an eternal sleep." He also waged war against luxury and wealth, wanting to abolish the use of money. The new cult was inaugurated at Notre Dame de Paris by "The Festival of Reason."
Fouché went on to Lyons to execute the vengeance of the Convention on that city, which had revolted against the new tyranny. Preluding his work by a festival remarkable for its obscene parody of religious rites, he then, along with his colleague, Collot d'Herbois, set the guillotine and cannon to work with a rigour which made his name odious. Modern research, however, proves that at the close of those horrors Fouché exercised a moderating influence. Outwardly his conduct was marked by the utmost rigour, and on his return to Paris early in April 1794, he thus characterised his policy: "The blood of criminals fertilises the soil of liberty and establishes power on sure foundations."
By that time Robespierre had struck down the other leaders of the atheistical party; but early in June 1794, at the time of the "Festival of the Supreme Being," Fouché ventured to mock at the theistic revival which Robespierre then inaugurated. Sharp passages of arms took place between them, and Robespierre procured the ejection of Fouché from the Jacobin Club (July 14, 1794). Fouché, however, was working with his customary skill and energy, and along with Tallien and others, managed to effect the overthrow of the theistic dictator on Thermidor 10 (July 28), 1794.
The ensuing reaction in favour of more merciful methods of government threatened to sweep away the group of Terrorists who had been mainly instrumental in carrying through the coup d'état of Thermidor; but, thanks largely to the skill of Fouché in intrigue, they managed for a time to keep at the head of affairs. Discords, however, crept in which left him for a time almost isolated, and it needed all his ability to withstand the attacks of the moderates. A vigorous attack on him by Boissy d'Anglas, on August 9, 1795, caused him to be arrested, but the troubles of Vendémiaire averted his doom; and he owed his release to the amnesty which was passed on the proclamation of the new constitution of the year 1795.
In the ensuing period, known as that of the Directory (1795-1799), Fouché remained at first in obscurity, but tne relations he had with the communists, once headed by Chaumette and now by François-Noël Babeuf, helped him to rise once more. He is said to have betrayed to the director Barras the secret of the strange plot which Babeuf and a few accomplices hatched in the year 1796; but recent research has tended to throw doubt on the assertion.
His rise from poverty was slow, but in 1797 he gained an appointment for the supply of military materiel, which offered opportunities direct and indirect. After offering his services to the royalists, whose movement was then gathering force, he again decided to support the Jacobins and the director Barras. In the coup d'etat of Fructidor 1797 he made himself serviceable to Barras, who in 1798 appointed him to be French ambassador to the Cisalpine republic. At Milan he was so high-handed that his actions were disowned and he was removed; but he was able for a time to hold his own and to intrigue successfully against his successor. Early in 1799 he returned to Paris, and after a brief tenure of office as ambassador at The Hague, he became minister of police at Paris (July 20, 1799). The newly elected director, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, planned to curb the excesses of the Jacobins, who had recently reopened their club. Fouché, casting consistency to the winds, closed the Jacobins club in a manner at once daring and clever. He hunted down the pamphleteers and editors, whether Jacobins or royalists, who were obnoxious to the government, so that at the time of the return of Bonaparte from Egypt (October 1799) the ex-Jacobin was one of the most powerful men in France.
Knowing well the unpopularity of the directors, Fouché lent himself to the schemes of Bonaparte and Sieyés for their overthrow. His activity in furthering the coup d'état of Brumaire 18-19 (November 9-10), 1799, procured him the favour of Bonaparte, who kept him in office (v. Napoleon I). In the ensuing period of the Consulate (1799-1804) Fouché behaved with the utmost adroitness. While curbing the royalists and extreme Jacobins who at first alone opposed Bonaparte, Fouché was careful to temper the arbitrary actions of the new master of France. In this difficult task he acquitted himself with so much skill as to earn at times the gratitude even of the royalists. While countermining a foolish intrigue of theirs in which the duchesse de Guiche was the chief agent, Fouché took care that she should escape.
Equally skilful was his action in the affair of the so-called Aréna-Ceracchi plot, in which the agents provocateurs of the police were believed to have played a sinister part. The chief "conspirators" were easily ensnared and were executed when the affair of Nivôse (December 1800) enabled Bonaparte to act with rigour. This far more serious attempt (in which royalist conspirators exploded a bomb near the First Consul's carriage with results disastrous to the bystanders) was soon seen by Fouché to be the work of royalists; and when the First Consul, eager to entrap the still formidable Jacobins, sought to fasten the blame on them, Fouché firmly declared that he would not only assert but would prove that the outrage was the work of royalists. All his efforts failed to avert the punishment which Bonaparte was resolved to inflict on the leading Jacobins.
In other matters (especially in that known as the Plot of the Placards in the spring of 1802) Fouché was thought to have saved the Jacobins from the vengeance of the First Consul. Bonaparte decided to rid himself of a man who had too much power and skill in intrigue to be desirable as a subordinate. On the proclamation of Bonaparte as First Consul for life (August 1, 1802) Fouché was deprived of his office; but the blow was softened by the suppression of the ministry of police and by the attribution of most of its duties to an extended ministry of justice. Fouché became a senator and received half of the reserve funds of the police which had accumulated during his tenure of office. He continued, however, to intrigue through his spies, whose information was so superior to that of the new minister of police as to render great services to Napoleon at the time of the Cadoudal-Pichegru conspiracy (February-March 1804).
Napoleon, now emperor, restored Fouché to the re-constituted ministry of police (July 1804); he later entrusted to him that of the interior. His work was no less important than at the time of the Consulate. His police agents were ubiquitous, and the terror which Napoleon and Fouché inspired partly accounts for the absence of conspiracies after 1804. After the Battle of Austerlitz (December 1805), Fouché uttered the mot of the occasion: "Sire, Austerlitz has shattered the old aristocracy; the boulevard St Germain no longer conspires."
That Napoleon retained some feeling of distrust, or even of fear, of Fouché was proved by his conduct in the early days of 1808. While engaged in the campaign of Spain, the emperor heard rumours that Fouché and Talleyrand, once bitter enemies, were having interviews at Paris in which Murat, king of Naples, was concerned. At once the sensitive autocrat hurried to Paris, but found nothing to incriminate Fouché. In that year Fouché received the title of Duke of Otranto. During the absence of Napoleon in Austria in the campaign of 1809, the British Walcheren expedition threatened the safety of Antwerp. Fouché thereupon issued an order to the prefects of the northern departments of the empire for the mobilization of 60,000 National Guards. He added to the order this statement: "Let us prove to Europe that although the genius of Napoleon can throw lustre on France, his presence is not necessary to enable us to repulse the enemy."
The emperor's approval of the measure was no less marked than his disapproval of Fouché's words. The next months brought further friction between emperor and minister. The latter, knowing the desire of his master for peace at the close of 1809, undertook to make secret overtures to the British ministry. Napoleon opened negotiations only to find that Fouché had forestalled him. His rage against his minister was extreme, and on June 3, 1810 he dismissed him from his office. However, as it was not the emperor's custom completely to disgrace a man who might again be useful, Fouché received the governorship of Rome. He went, not as governor hut as fugitive, for on receiving the emperor's order to give up certain important documents of his former ministry, he handed over only a few, declaring that the rest were destroyed. At this the emperor's anger was renewed, and Fouché on learning of this, after his arrival at Florence, prepared to sail to the United States.
Compelled by the weather and sickness to put back into port, he found a mediator in Elisa Bonaparte, grand duchess of Tuscany, thanks to whom he was allowed to settle at Aix and finally to return to his domain of Point Carré. In 1812 he sought vainly to turn Napoleon from the projected invasion of Russia; and on the return of the emperor in haste from Smorgoni to Paris at the close of that year, the ex-minister of police was suspected of involvement in the conspiracy of General Malet, which came so strangely near to success. From this suspicion Fouché cleared himself and gave the emperor useful advice concerning' internal affairs and the diplomatic situation. Nevertheless, the emperor, still distrustful of the arch-intriguer, ordered him to undertake the government of the Illyrian provinces. On the break-up of the Napoleonic system in Germany in October 1813 Fouché was ordered to repair to Rome and thence to Naples, in order to watch the movements of Murat. Before Fouché arrived at Naples, Joachim Murat invaded the Roman territory, whereupon Fouché received orders to return to France. He arrived at Paris on April 10 1814 at the time when Napoleon was being constrained by his marshals to abdicate.
Fouché's conduct in this crisis was characteristic. As senator he advised the senate to send a deputation to the comte d'Artois, brother of Louis XVIII, with a view to a reconciliation between the monarchy and the nation. A little later he addressed to Napoleon, then at Elba, a letter begging him in the interests of peace and of France to withdraw to the United States. To the new sovereign Louis XVIII he sent an appeal in favour of liberty and recommending the adoption of measures which would conciliate all interests.
The response was unsatisfactory, and when he found that there were no hopes of advancement, he entered into relations with conspirators who sought the overthrow of the Bourbons. Lafayette and Louis Nicolas Davout were concerned in the affair, but their refusal to take the course desired by Fouché and other bold spirits led to nothing being done. Soon Napoleon escaped from Elba and made his way in triumph to Paris. Shortly before his arrival at Paris (March 19, 1815) Louis XVIII sent Fouché an offer of the ministry of police, which he declined, saying, "It is too late; the only plan to adopt is to retreat." He then foiled an attempt by royalists to arrest him, and on the arrival of Napoleon he received for the third time the portfolio of police. That, however, did not prevent him from entering into secret relations with Metternich at Vienna, his aim being to prepare for all eventualities. Meanwhile he used all his powers to induce the emperor to popularise his rule, and he is said to have caused the insertion of the words "the sovereignty resides in the people--it is the source of power" in the declaration of the council of state. But the autocratic tendencies of Napoleon could scarcely be held in check, and Fouché seeing the fall of the emperor to be imminent, took measures to expedite it and secure his own interests.
On June 22 Napoleon abdicated for the second time, and Fouché was next day elected president of the commission which provisionally governed France. Already he was in touch with Louis XVIII, then at Ghent, and now secretly received the overtures of his agent at Paris. While ostensibly working for the recognition of Napoleon II, he facilitated the success of the Bourbon cause, and thus procured for himself a place in the ministry of Louis XVIII. Even his skill, however, was unequal to the task of conciliating hot-headed royalists who remembered his vote as regicide and his fanaticism as terrorist. He resigned office, and after acting for a brief space as ambassador at Dresden, he retired to Prague. Finally he settled at Trieste, where he died on the 25th of December 1820. He had accumulated great wealth.
Marked at the outset by fanaticism, which, though cruel, was at least conscientious, Fouché's character deteriorated in and after the year 1794 into one of calculating cunning. The transition represented all that was Worst in the life of France during the period of the Revolution and Empire. In Fouché the enthtlsiasm of the earlier period appeared as a cold, selfish and remorseless fanaticism; in him the bureaucracy of the period 1795-1799 and the autocracy of Napoleon found their ablest instrument. Yet his intellectual pride prevented him sinking to the level of a mere tool. His relations to Napoleon were marked by a certain aloofness. He multiplied the means of resistance even to that irresistible autocrat, so that though removed from office, he was ‘never wholly disgraced. Despised by all for his tergiversations, he nevertheless was sought by all on account of his cleverness. He repaid the contempt of his superiors and the adulation of his inferiors by a mask of impenetrable reserve or scorn. He sought for power and neglected no means to make himself serviceable to the party whose success appeared to be imminent. Yet, while appearing to be the servant of the victors, present or prospective, he never gave himself to any one party. In this versatility he resembles Talleyrand, of whom he was a coarse replica. Both professed, under all their shifts and turns, to be desirous of serving France. Talleyrand certainly did so in the sphere of diplomacy; Fouché may occasionally have done so in the sphere of intrigue.
Fouché wrote some political pamphlets and reports, the chief of which are: *Réflexions sur le jugement de Louis Capet (1793)
The best life of Fouché is that by L Madelin, Fouché (2 vois., Paris, 1901). The so-called Fouché Memoirs are not genuine, but they were apparently compiled, at least in part, from notes written by Fouché, and are often valuable, though their account of events (e.g. of, the negotiations of 1809-1810) is not seldom untrustworthy. For those negotiations see Coquelle, Napoleon et l'Angleterre (Paris, 1903, Eng. trans., London, 1904).
For the plots with which Fouché had to deal see:
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Fouché wrote some political pamphlets and reports, the chief of which are: *Réflexions sur le jugement de Louis Capet (1793)