The 18th Brumaire of the Abbé Sieyès

By A.B. Harwood​

General Bonaparte during the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud, painting by François Bouchot, 1840

In 1799, just over a decade after it began, the French Revolution came to an end with the Coup of Brumaire Year VIII: a full rotation of the revolutionary wheel had brought France back to where she had started, and delivered her back into the hands of absolute monarchy. But the tragic symmetry of the Bonapartist overthrow of the first French Republic was not so inevitable as its near narrative perfection would suggest. Napoleon himself was only a latecomer to the plot which would result in his ascendancy, and even after his recruitment he was only ever seen as the second man amongst the plotters… up until the moment it became clear that he wasn’t. In fact, the Coup of Brumaire was the brainchild of the Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, author of the celebrated pamphlet ‘What is the Third Estate?’, the rhetorical opening shot of the revolution. Again, we return to the tragic irony that the penman of the revolution became the author of its demise. Yet Sieyès did not seek to destroy the republic, but to save it – only Napoleon’s ‘coup-within-a-coup’ (aided by Talleyrand) put paid to that task. But what if it hadn’t?

Before approaching Napoleon, Sieyès and his co-conspirators had actually approached two other republican generals: Barthélemy Joubert and Jean Moreau. The former, however, died at the battle of Novi in August before Sieyès felt it expedient to strike. And on seeing the popular adulation Napoleon received on his return from Egypt, the latter demurred, and suggested Bonaparte in his place, telling Sieyès “There is your man. He will make your coup d’état far better than I.” The best opportunity to remove Napoleon from the equation, therefore, seems to be avoiding Joubert’s death at Novi. Supposing this had occurred, let us say with a victory at Novi (which, was not at all impossible, though we will not delve too far into the battle’s history) and Joubert’s triumphant return to Paris, having repulsed the Austrians, he and not Bonaparte may very well have been the hero of the republic, and the sword for which Sieyès was looking in his quest to strike down the Directory.

Even without Bonaparte, the chances of that coup not only being carried out, but succeeding were fairly high. The ruling French regime, the five-member executive ‘Directory’ ruling in tandem with the legislative Council of the Five Hundred and Council of Ancients was decidedly on its last legs by 1799, just five years after its foundation. The Directory’s ‘liberal republic’ founded in the wake of the bloody Terror and the equally brutal Thermidorian Reaction had quickly seen itself drowned in chaos as rural brigandage, financial crisis, and military pressure on France’s frontiers tested her constitution to the breaking point. By November 1799, three coups had already taken place, the first to purge the legislature of Royalists, the second to purge it of the resurgent Jacobin Club, and the third to alter the composition of the Directory. It was that final coup which saw Sieyès appointed Director (he had already refused one such appointment in 1795 and was serving as France’s Minister in Prussia, where he was well-acquainted with John Quincy Adams). From his new vantage point at the head of the French Republic, Sieyès was certain that something needed to change: to avoid military disaster and a return to Jacobin Terrorism, what was needed was a new constitution.

It was against this background, and not the meteoric rise of Napoleonic grandeur, that the coup of 18th Brumaire took shape, and Bonaparte’s role, as we can see, was pretty much ancillary. The old Abbé undeniably saw himself as France’s hero-in-waiting, and amusing accounts by contemporaries report that one of the great spectacles of Paris in the Autumn of 1799 was Sieyès riding lessons in the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace in preparation for the coup. The popular, but not overly ambitious Joubert was thus the ideal candidate to bring the army over to the plotters’ side. Supposing that the coup had still succeeded (which seems likely: the only major hitch in real history was Bonaparte’s failings on the first day) things may have taken a very different turn afterwards. Sieyès, whose elaborate plans for a new French constitution were ultimately eclipsed by Napoleon, may very well have won the day. What would his new France have looked like?

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, by Jacques Louis David

As with many of Sieyès’ writings, his plans in 1799 were elliptical. Edmund Burke famously quipped that “Abbé Sieyès has whole nests of pigeonholes full of constitutions ready-made, ticketed, sorted, and numbered; suited to every season and every fancy […] some with directories, others without a direction; some with councils of elders, and councils of youngsters; some without any council at all. Some, where the electors choose the representatives; others, where the representatives choose the electors. […] So that no constitution-fancier may go unsuited from his shop”. Burke’s remarks may have been injudicious, but they captured the complex and arcane nature of Sieyès’ constitutional system. Whilst he is often seen as a foundational figure in the liberal representative system, the constitution Sieyès proposed in 1799 was very far indeed from a representative democracy.

The basic principle of Sieyès’ system can be summed up in one word: ‘filtration’. Rather than the people directly electing their representatives on the national stage, all national magistrates would be chosen by a complex process of selection. Voters (those ‘Active Citizens’ who paid a voluntary tax for the right to vote) would first meet in communal assemblies to elect ten percent of their members to a “communal list”, whose members would then select from amongst themselves a second list of those eligible to serve as officials in the commune. These trusted citizens would then themselves nominate ten percent of their number for a “national list” of about one thousand men eligible to serve as national officials. But the people, limited in its composition as it was, did not directly select who would play what function. Instead, member of the two chambers of the legislature the Tribune of Petition and the somewhat ambiguously named ‘Legislature’ (more on these bodies later) would be selected by a ‘College of Guardians’*, whose members would serve for life and replace their colleagues when their seats became vacant. The members of the executive (composed of a vast array of ministries and other bodies) would be selected by the two ‘Consuls’, one for War and one for the Interior, who were in turn selected by the ‘Grand Elector’. Every official would, therefore, be selected by both the people ‘below’ and his superior ‘above’, in a very complex system of dual election. Officials would be authorised by and thus authentically ‘representative’ of the people, but they were not directly responsible to them.

*In French its title is ‘Collège des Conservateurs’, but Anglophone historical convention translates Conservateur not as ‘Conservator’ or ‘Conservative’, but as Guardian. This is despite the Napoleonic ‘Senate Conservatrice’, which was based on Sieyès’ College of Guardians, being rendered as the Conservative Senate.

The two-branch legislature (which in one of his more creative documents Sieyès referred to as the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ chambers) was not bicameral in the sense with which modern citizens of liberal democracies are familiar. The Tribune had no power to vote, only to discuss and propose, whilst the Legislature had no power to debate or discuss, only to vote. The latter branch would receive suggestions from both the Tribune and from the Council of State (essentially analogous to the British cabinet), and would be the sole institution authorised to legislate for the republic.

Above these bodies was the chamber which Sieyès’s friend Pierre-Louis Roederer referred to as “the watchdog of the constitution”, the College of Guardians. This body is probably the most difficult of Sieyès’ to understand for a modern reader. It was, in effect, a constructed aristocracy, founded on the premise that, as Sieyès wrote*:

“In all states that are sufficiently well constituted to maintain themselves in existence, there is […] a moral authority that, through its influence on customs, ideas and even fashion holds all the particular movements in check and forestalls the excesses of unrestrained ambition. In monarchies, this role is played by the monarch, the princes of the blood, and the great officers of the crown. In the ancient republics, it was played by a large hereditary aristocracy.”

* In Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès Des Manuscrits de Sieyès, ed. Christine Fauré, Jacques Guilhaumou, and Jacques Vallier, 2 vols., (Honoré Champion: Paris, 1999), i, p.524. Translation my own.

Sieyès rejected these specific bodies, but he felt that an aristocracy was everywhere essential to maintain the constitutional order. The College of Guardians would play that role: its members would be granted a landed estate for life, and would be encouraged to become influential patrons of the arts, sciences, and philosophy. But they were also the supreme constitutional magistrate, sort of a beefed up constitutional court, but also so much more, capable of “absorbing’ any official into its ranks, and thereby forcing him to abdicate all other functions if his ambition or power threatened the constitution. It was, without a doubt, to be the ultimate power in Sieyès’ constitution, the supreme guardian of the republic.

But every aristocracy, as Montesquieu would have argued, needs a King at its head. This was Sieyès’ Great Elector. Imagine if the Queen was elected by an electoral college system like the American President (the College of Guardians played this role), and you’ll have something close. In effect, the Great Elector was a hybrid of a modern constitutional monarch and a German-style non-executive President. He was responsible for appointing the Consuls, and so was the font of all executive authority. But he played no role within the executive. He was the majestic figure who ‘crowned’ the state, but he was utterly powerless. Napoleon, who Sieyès hoped would play this role described the Great Elector as pig fattened on the nation’s wealth. Like the members of the College of Guardians, the Great Elector would be handsomely rewarded, but aside from representing the unity of the nation (and perhaps, in an exceptional emergency) would do nothing but sit majestically in his palace. Hardly, as Napoleon suggested, the place for a great man.

But supposing this system had been adopted, would it have actually played out as Sieyès intended? I have my doubts. The coup of 18th Brumaire was a coup against the weakness of the Directory, and the moderate republicans’ fear that its plural executive could not take on resurgent Royalism or Jacobinism. Supposing, however, that one wanted to maintain the unity of the republic through a strong executive, it does not seem Sieyès’ system would actually be able to. Certainly, it was not plural in the same sense as the Directory: all eventually coalesced into the Great Elector. But despite Sieyès professed disdain for the English system of the separation of powers, power in the government, the legislature, and over the constitution were all divided. Two competing Consuls who were, at least in theory, responsible only to the apolitical Great Elector were supposed to share often overlapping executive powers (such as over financing the army). Various ministers were responsible to each Consul, but again their jurisdictions overlapped. Considerable power was vested in the College of Guardians, but it had no capacity to govern. And a medley of voices all demanded that the Legislature obeyed their particular wills. It seems likely the republic would have remained in disarray under Sieyès’ byzantine new constitution.

Yet there was an easy way out of such jurisdictional and political chaos. There was one figure who could direct all from above, and genuinely unite France. The Great Elector. Whilst he was prohibited in principle from acting, in fact this republican monarch possessed an estimable suite of powers which, in the wrong (or right) hands could be used quite contrarily to Sieyès’ best laid plans. Assuming that our substitute First Consul, General Joubert, allowed Sieyès’ plan to be adopted more or less wholesale and was chosen to be the Great Elector, would such a man of action, a hero-soldier-King, simply sit idly by as the republic fell into disarray? He might – history often surprises us, after all, but it seems unlikely. What seems more probable is that faced with chaos an ambitious Great Elector would seek to act as a dictator and save the state – to usurp a kind of power which went against the spirit of the laws, but was not strictly prohibited by them.

General Barthélemy Catherine Joubert - An Alternate Napoleon?

Could he do it? It certainly would not be too difficult. Sieyès’ draft constitution depended entirely on everyone performing the proper function which they had been assigned: there were no real checks on authority based on competition between self-interested branches. If the College of Guardians supported the Great Elector’s plans, either because he had cowed them into submission or it was filled with his supporters, he could do anything, as long as they endorsed it. But even short of violating the constitution, the Great Elector’s ability to appoint and dismiss the two Consuls, Diplomats, Generals, and numerous other figures gave him broad discretionary powers. Sieyès did not envision the figure as a Head of Government and Commander in Chief, but as the members of the executive branch were all de facto responsible to him, he in fact possessed the power to act as one. The legislative branch, certainly, was beyond his direct control, but again if packed with placemen or loyalists it could be bent to his bidding through the executive’s right to propose news laws to the Legislature. As France was more and more hemmed in by the forces of the Coalition, and as the financial legacy of the Directory grew worse and worse, it is entirely likely that such actions might have been taken, either by Joubert or by his successor. With a sympathetic political class, population, or both, the Great Elector could assume unprecedented authority, and it is quite likely that it would have done.

So, would the result of a more Sieyèsian victory simply have been a kind of Bonapartism with extra steps? It’s quite possible, but it’s probably more likely that a regime somewhere between Napoleon’s majoritarian dictatorship and Sieyès’ aristocratic republic would have developed, perhaps something a little like the Presidential republic founded a decade earlier in the United States, with a balance between a strong executive, a powerful constitutional guardian (here the College, in America the Supreme Court). And that might, despite Sieyès’ intentions, have furnished France with a more stable form of republican government able to slowly evolve into a genuinely democratic republic and avoid the cycle of revolutionary violence and counterrevolutionary dictatorship which would plague the French monarchies and republics of the 19th-century. Regardless of its outcome, Sieyès’ constitutional designs, and the possibilities presented by the coup of 1799, remain fertile territory for a kind of revolutionary alternate history that’s often neglected in favour of constant recapitulation of the triumphs of Napoleon or the excesses of Robespierre – exploration of how the revolution might have succeeded.

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