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The Directory (1795-1799): First, Second & the Coup of 18 Fructidor

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  • 0:01 Tired of Terror
  • 1:23 Another New Government
  • 2:13 Coup & Directory Number Two
  • 3:37 Napoleon Victorious
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the last days of the French Revolution. We will examine the French government under the Directory, as well as Napoleon Bonaparte's coup d'etat.

Tired of Terror

In 1793-1794, the Reign of Terror held sway in France as radical revolutionaries, like Maximilien de Robespierre and the members of the Committee of Public Safety, sent thousands of their opponents to the guillotine. The radicals also attempted to suppress Catholicism, introducing instead a 'temple of reason' and a brand new calendar that eliminated all Christian feasts and even renamed the months.

The French people quickly grew tired of the radicalism and terror controlling their country. Many were still devout Catholics, and they rebelled against the attacks on their church. No one felt safe, for Robespierre even executed his fellow radicals. The tide began to turn, however, when Robespierre tried to establish a 'republic of virtue,' abandoning Christian morality for a new set of values that Frenchmen simply couldn't accept. The backlash led Robespierre himself to the guillotine in July of 1794.

After his death, radicalism began to falter, and moderates resumed some control of the National Convention. A few royalists even sneaked back into France and started to reassert themselves. Most people agreed that it was time for some sort of new government.

Another New Government

On August 22, 1795, the Convention ratified a new constitution, which set up a new system of government. The constitution established two legislative houses. The Council of Five Hundred was the lower house that initiated legislation, and the Council of Ancients, the upper house with 250 members, approved or rejected the laws started by the lower house.

France also received a new executive branch in the form of a 5-man Directory, which could appoint men to fill government positions. While the Directory technically didn't have much power, it had wide influence. The members of the legislature and Directory were to be elected annually in hopes of retaining a balance of power and avoiding abuses and corruption.

A Coup and Directory Number Two

Unfortunately for France, the new government struggled from its very beginning. Plots and factions rose up on all sides, vying for control. The royalists raised their voices to call for a restoration of the monarchy. The radical Jacobins clamored to regain the influence they had under the old National Convention. The members of the Directory soon found themselves walking a fine line between these two groups as they struggled to maintain moderation and influence.

It didn't take long for the situation to move from bad to worse. The Directory was not at all happy with the results of the election of 1797, for too many royalists and Jacobins had won seats in the legislature. Three Directory members decided to take matters into their own hands.

On September 4, 1797, they declared the election results void and used the military to oust the new legislators and the other two members of the Directory. The Coup of 18 Fructidor, referring to the date on the French calendar on which the action took place, established the Second Directory, a revised executive committee, which was made up of the three original members and two hand-picked additions who were determined to assume greater control over the French government.

Napoleon Victorious

The Coup of 18 Fructidor received a nod of approval from a young, up-and-coming army general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was popular with the French people for his military victories in the wars that France had been carrying on throughout Europe. He threw his support and that of the army behind the Second Directory.

The Second Directory, however, quickly lost the support of the French people. Its poor financial decisions led to skyrocketing inflation that made life more difficult for the common folks. The Second Directory also imposed higher taxes, continued to interfere with elections, resumed the war after only a year of peace, and successfully lobbied for a new, much-despised conscription law. On top of all that, the new war was not going well as European enemies pushed back French fronts on all sides and even Napoleon met defeat in the Middle East.

As confidence in the French government dropped to a new low and the abuses of the Second Directory increased, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès was appointed to the Directory in May of 1799. He realized that the Second Directory was failing miserably, and he decided that France once again needed a new system, something more powerful, perhaps something military. Sieyès knew just to whom he would turn - the popular Napoleon Bonaparte.

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