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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

84 Lavalette judged the position of the Directory


In

order to understand Bonaparte's share in the _coup d'etat_ of Fructidor, we must briefly review the course of political events at Paris. At the time of the installation of the Directory the hope was widely cherished that the Revolution was now entirely a thing of the past. But the unrest of the time was seen in the renewal of the royalist revolts in the west, and in the communistic plot of Babeuf for the overthrow of the whole existing system of private property. The aims of these desperadoes were revealed by an accomplice; the ringleaders were arrested, and after a long trial Babeuf was guillotined and his confederates were transported (May, 1797). The disclosure of these ultra-revolutionary aims shocked not only the bourgeois, but even the peasants who were settled on the confiscated lands of the nobles and clergy. The very class which had given to the events of 1789 their irresistible momentum was now inclined to rest and be thankful; and in this swift revulsion of popular feeling the royalists began to gain ground. The elections for the renewal of a third part of the Councils resulted in large gains for them, and they could therefore somewhat influence the composition of the Directory by electing Barthelemy, a constitutional royalist. Still, he could not overbear the other four regicide Directors, even though one of these, Carnot, also favoured moderate opinions more and more. A crisis therefore rapidly developed between the still Jacobinical Directory and the two legislative
Councils, in each of which the royalists, or moderates, had the upper hand. The aim of this majority was to strengthen the royalist elements in France by the repeal of many revolutionary laws. Their man of action was Pichegru, the conqueror of Holland, who, abjuring Jacobinism, now schemed with a club of royalists, which met at Clichy, on the outskirts of Paris. That their intrigues aimed at the restoration of the Bourbons had recently been proved. The French agents in Venice seized the Comte d'Entraigues, the confidante of the _soi-disant_ Louis XVIII.; and his papers, when opened by Bonaparte, Clarke, and Berthier at Montebello, proved that there was a conspiracy in France for the recall of the Bourbons. With characteristic skill, Bonaparte held back these papers from the Directory until he had mastered the difficulties of the situation. As for the count, he released him; and in return for this signal act of clemency, then very unusual towards an _emigre_, he soon became the object of his misrepresentation and slander.

The political crisis became acute in July, when the majority of the Councils sought to force on the Directory Ministers who would favour moderate or royalist aims. Three Directors, Barras, La Reveilliere-Lepeaux, and Rewbell, refused to listen to these behests, and insisted on the appointment of Jacobinical Ministers even in the teeth of a majority of the Councils. This defiance of the deputies of France was received with execration by most civilians, but with jubilant acclaim by the armies; for the soldiery, far removed from the partisan strifes of the capital, still retained their strongly republican opinions. The news that their conduct towards Venice was being sharply criticised by the moderates in Paris aroused their strongest feelings, military pride and democratic ardour.

Nevertheless, Bonaparte's conduct was eminently cautious and reserved. In the month of May he sent to Paris his most trusted aide-de-camp, Lavalette, instructing him to sound all parties, to hold aloof from all engagements, and to report to him dispassionately on the state of public opinion.[84] Lavalette judged the position of the Directory, or rather of the Triumvirate which swayed it, to be so precarious that he cautioned his chief against any definite espousal of its cause; and in June-July, 1797, Bonaparte almost ceased to correspond with the Directors except on Italian affairs, probably because he looked forward to their overthrow as an important step towards his own supremacy. There was, however, the possibility of a royalist reaction sweeping all before it in France and ranging the armies against the civil power. He therefore waited and watched, fully aware of the enhanced importance which an uncertain situation gives to the outsider who refuses to show his hand.


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