Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
So we left off last time with a circuit of all of France’s new allies, all those sister republics who were thrilled, just thrilled, to be joining the French revolutionary project of liberating mankind. And by that, I of course, mean getting rung dry. Today, we’ll take a look at France’s posture towards its remaining enemies, the British, of course, who were supposed to be the only ones left, but then also the Americans, who Talleyrand is about to accidentally provoke into an undeclared naval war. And once we’re done listening to the stream of bald faced lies coming out of Talleyrand denying he had anything to do with driving the Americans to take up arms, we’ll return to the domestic front for the elections of Year VI, suppress the left, and then wrap up today by getting Bonaparte launched on his ultimately ill fated Egyptian expedition. All of this taken together is going to set the stage for the formation of a second anti French coalition by the end of 1798 and the resumption of full blown war in 1799.
So, to back up a little bit, the Treaty of Campo Formio that had been signed by Bonaparte and the Austrian ambassadors in October 1797 had settled things between France and Austria. But the Austrian Habsburg were just one component of the insanely complicated political coalition called the Holy Roman Empire. They were the most powerful part, to be sure, but still just a part.
So shortly after the Campo Formio a huge summit of all the little sovereign components of the Holy Roman Empire met at the city of Rastatt along the Rhine to discuss and ratify the terms that had been worked out. Most controversial of all those were, of course, the ceding of all the German principalities on the west side of the Rhine. And the French delegation, soon led by a guy named Jean Baptiste Treilhard, were not making it easy for the Germans to accept these losses. Now Bonaparte had agreed in principle at Campo Formio that new territorial acquisitions made by the French at the expense of the Holy Roman Empire would be matched by compensatory land elsewhere. Hence the handover of Venice that we talked about last week.
But at Rastatt, the Austrian delegation now asserted that ceding the left bank of the Rhine counted as a new territorial acquisition for France that required compensation. Treilhard said fat chance, the left bank has been under French occupation for so long that it’s hardly a new acquisition. This was just the first of many squabbles that led the Congress nowhere fast. And in the end, the Congress of Rastatt would wind up never actually coming to any formal agreement as a series of diplomatic and military incidents eventually led to the outbreak of the War of the Second Coalition in 1799 before the peace terms ending the War of the First Coalition were actually ratified.
But for the Directory, the situation in Italy and along the Rhine was certainly settled enough that they were able to order Bonaparte to return to Paris to help them deliver the death blow to the one enemy left actively in the field, the British. This death blow was to be nothing less than a full blown invasion of Great Britain. Now, talk of a multiple front invasion of the British Isles had not been killed by the failure of the Irish expedition in 1796. And indeed, when the Directory really started to discuss plans, Lazare Hoche was the most likely candidate to lead the invasion. Almost all the troops massing along the English Channel had served under him before, and Hoche himself was eager to redeem himself for the failed Irish expedition, which he not unjustly blamed on the weather. But in September 1797, Hoche suddenly up and died in his base along the Rhine River, he was just 29 years old. And that left Bonaparte as the only logical choice to lead the invasion.
Bonaparte’s return to Paris was a nerve racking experience for the men running the Directory. On the one hand, here he was the conquering hero, the man whose victories had helped legitimize their rule and whose pledge of support before and after the coup of Fructidor were key to the coup’s success. On the other hand, here he was, the conquering hero, who is way more popular both inside the army and amongst the French citizenry than we could ever hope to be.
But Bonaparte was a careful planner and he had no desire to seize power yet. So, while in the capital, he was conspicuously deferential to civilian authority and made no outward displays of his military might. He dressed as a regular citizen, rather than marching around in a full dress uniform making everyone nervous. And when the director ordered him to go take over the planned invasion of Britain, he said, Sure thing, you’re the boss! But he also spent a lot of time making political contacts, finally meeting in person, for example, Talleyrand, and also the abbé Sieyès, the man who had scorned a directorship because he had his own constitutional plans for France. So the seeds of Brumaire were being sown over the winter of 1797 – 1798.
What was not being sown over that winter was an invasion of Great Britain. Now, Bonaparte does not seem to have arrived in the army camped along the channel coast intending to abort the invasion, but it did not take him long to decide that it really needed to be aborted. This was no small thing the Directory was asking him to do. And with the Dutch navy having just been ravaged at Camperdown, the invasion fleet assembled was simply insufficient for the job, to say nothing of the men themselves, who were not the cracked troops forged in the battles of Italy, but rather men from the Vendée and the Pyrenees who had not seen major action and no major battles for years.
Bonaparte came back to Paris and said, look, I’ll do this, but the earliest, and I mean the earliest that I will be ready to go is the end of 1798. And even then, the success of this is not guaranteed. And that is actually one of Bonaparte’s biggest concerns. At that moment, he was invincible. He had won the war against Austria without losing a single battle, at least according to his official dispatches. Why risk his well won reputation on a dubious mission to England that might wreck his career with a colossal failure?
But he had an alternative suggestion. In the period between the preliminaries at Leoban and the Treaty of Campo Formio, Bonaparte had been twiddling his thumbs in Italy and started thinking globally. Specifically, the best way to take out the British was not to try to go and occupy London, but rather to try to go and occupy Egypt and limit British access to their wealthy colonial holdings in India. After Venice was forced to cede their Mediterranean islands to the French at Campo Formio, these dreams of an Egyptian campaign became a very real possibility. So after Bonaparte returned from his dismal survey of the army on the Channel coast, he told Talleyrand that what they should really do is invade Egypt. Not only would conquest be easier, but it would promise a lot of plunder and permanent colonial wealth and the sharp check on British power.
Talleyrand thought all of this an absolute capital idea, since he too had major reservations about the invasion of England. So Bonaparte and Talleyrand took the plan to the Directory in March 1798, and the Directory said, okay, go do it. For them, the calculation was pretty simple. If Bonaparte pulls it off, all the good things he just said would happen would happen. And if he fails, well, that’s one less Napoleon Bonaparte we have to worry about coming back and overthrowing our little regime.
While Talleyrand was helping Bonaparte arrange the Egyptian campaign, he was also in the process of introducing a new belligerent into the war, a belligerent that had basically gone to superhuman lengths to stay out of the fighting but who could resist no longer: the United States of America.
Now, relations between the United States and both sides of the War of the First Coalition had not been great during the presidency of George Washington. By insisting on American neutrality, Washington irritated everyone and both the British and French navies harassed neutral American shipping to prevent them from assisting the other side.
In 1797 though, Washington finally accepted the efficacy of the somewhat humiliating Jay Treaty, which agreed to nearly every concession, condition, and constraint the British demanded of the Americans in exchange for their navy leaving American shipping alone. The French were livid at this perceived betrayal. But despite rising tensions out on the high seas, when Washington retired in March 1797, the United States was still neutral.
Incoming President John Adams then proceeded to go to pretty crazy lengths to try to maintain American neutrality. But with Washington out of the picture, a hyperpolarized partisan battle erupted between the pro-British Federalists and the pro-French Jeffersonians. But no one did more to blow up the dream of American neutrality than French Foreign Minister Talleyrand.
Talleyrand had, of course, just spent two years living in the United States. He knew the lay of political land, and he knew that Adams was not particularly well disposed towards the French. This was confirmed in Talleyrand’s eyes when Adams dispatched Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as the new ambassador to France. Pinckney was a staunch Federalist and avowedly anti-French, so at Talleyrand’s recommendation the Directory refused Pinckney’s credentials.
Not wanting to capitulate but also not wanting to start a war, Adams then dispatched future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and New England merchant and well résuméd patriot leader Elbridge Gerry to join Pinckney in a three man diplomatic commission to work through the impasse. But when this commission presented themselves to Talleyrand in October 1797, he refused to recognize their credentials unless they agreed to A) loan the French a bunch of money and B) pay Talleyrand a huge bribe equivalent to 50,000 pounds. Now bribes in exchange for consideration was a routine part of European diplomacy but Talleyrand took it to a high art: there was simply nothing to be done unless you pay me a great deal of money.
The Americans, however, were offended by this old world corruption, and Pinckney famously said, no, no, not a sixpence. So Talleyrand rejected their credentials, and negotiations had to proceed through unofficial channels. Those unofficial channels turned out to be a trio of Talleyrand’s agents who would come around and say, look, just pay the money, and you’re in. What is so hard about this? These agents were later identified in redacted communiques as agents X and Y and Z, which is why this whole thing is about to be called the XYZ Affair.
The incensed Americans refused all further informal talks and demanded to either be credentialed or diplomatic ties would be severed. Talleyrand managed to convince Elbridge Gerry, the least anti-French of the three commissioners, to maintain super secret back channels to stave off war. But he said he could no longer deal with Pinckney, which was fine by Pinckney. In April 1798, Pinckney and Marshall sailed home.
In the meantime, their dispatches back to Washington, D. C. had been creating a full blown scandal. Members of Congress knew that the talks were going nowhere and that this was likely due to French perfidy. Federalist congressman started calling for war. Now, the Jeffersonian Congressmen, of course, wanted to avoid this at all costs, which led them to make a huge tactical blunder. You see, President Adams had been keeping most of the details from the dispatches secret. The Jeffersonians believed that Adams was doing this because he wanted war and was trying to make the French look as bad as possible. But they had it backwards. Adams knew full well that if Congress knew the truth about Talleyrand’s insulting refusal to credential the ambassadors and his demands for a naked bribe, that war would be unavoidable.
So, after relentless Jeffersonian pressure to unseal the dispatches, Adams finally relented in March 1798. Instead of exposing the President as an anti-French warmonger, it turned out the French had been behaving even worse than the wildest rumors had it, and that President Adams had been trying to keep it under wraps.
With the XYZ affair now out in the open, Congress pushed for an aggressive stance towards France. They ordered the Navy to expand, and then, in July 1798, they voted to annul the Treaty of Alliance that had been in place since 1778. They then authorized the American Navy to attack French vessels.
But President Adams, still fighting for neutrality, however technical the distinction might be, refused to sign an actual declaration of war. So what followed was a two year long conflict known in the United States as the Quasi-War, a war exclusively fought at sea and almost entirely in the Caribbean. In the grand scheme of things, the Quasi-War between France and the United States was a low level fight in a secondary theater of the larger war and the British and American navies never coordinated or joined forces, but still provoking the Americans into attacking French ships on the high seas did not serve French interests at all. Of course, when Talleyrand was brought in by the Directory to account for himself, he then lied his head off, said he had nothing to do with it, and said that he didn’t know who X, Y and Z were. And he even went so far as to start up a fake investigation to uncover these rogue agents who were mucking with the director’s foreign policy. So the XYZ affair is not exactly Talleyrand’s finest hour.
While the Americans were getting ready to jump into the Quasi-War in the Spring of 1798, the Directory was mostly concerned not with foreign affairs, but with domestic affairs. Specifically, the looming possibility that Jacobin leftists were about to get themselves voted into a majority of the legislative councils and try to drag France back to the dark days of Year II and the Terror. Not the Directorial Terror, but the Terror Terror.
So while the Triumvirate running the Directory had hoped Fructidor would be a one off emergency coup, they decided they could not risk it. And so the anti right coup of 18 Fructidor gets a historical twin: the anti left wing: coup of 22 Floreal. Now, the left wing we are talking about now is not really the radical leftists of the old days. The few true radicals remaining had been taken down with Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I did totally forget to follow up on Babeuf after the failed Grenell uprising of September 1796. But that was because there’s not much else to tell. Babeuf sat around in prison until May 1797, when he and one of his closest associates were finally sentenced to death and guillotined on May 27. That was the end of everyone’s favorite proto-communist.
The former Jacobins now putting themselves forward for election were of a perfectly moderate variety. They were dangerous to the Directory not because they wanted to overthrow the government, but because they might turn out to be self confident enough to believe that they could act as an opposition party. They supported a platform that included enlarging the franchise to make the Constitution more democratic, and maybe doing something about all those greedy speculators who seem to have flourished in the years since Thermidor.
These were fairly banal reforms. And had the Triumvirate inside the Directory been a bit more self confident themselves, the elections of Year VI could have marked the beginning of a contentious but ultimately stable Republic, with two parties vying for power and the loser settling into being the loyal opposition upon defeat. But the Triumvirate didn’t want that. They wanted Legislative Councils who would be compliant and docile, a mere rubber stamp for their wishes. So this burgeoning opposition party had to be killed before it could grow any bigger.
But of course, the regime was itself responsible for the growing confidence of the Left. As they had targeted conservatives and Royalists in the lead up to and the aftermath of the coup of Fructidor, the Directory found it useful to encourage the activities of committed Republicans as long as they attacked conservatives and Royalists. Their papers were not touched after freedom of the press was revoked and semi official clubs of the directorial regime, called Constitutional Circles, invited all good Republicans into a coalition against the monarchists.
But as the elections of Year VI approached, the directorial regime felt like it had a pretty good handle on the right wing and that it now had to block the Left if it was going to stay in power. And the elections scheduled for the Spring of 1798 were critically important. Not only would this election clear out the last of the old Thermidorians who had been in power since the National Convention, but it was also slated to fill all the vacancies created by the coup of Fructidor. So in all, 437 seats were up for grabs.
So, unlike the elections of Year V, when the Directory waited for the voting to run its course and then react to the results, for the elections of Year VI, they made careful plans to control the process from beginning to end. In January 1798, they passed a credentialing law that said that the outgoing Legislative Councils would have the right to confirm the elected delegates before they would be allowed to take their seats. This law further implied that the outgoing Legislative Councils would be the ones verifying the election results and passing final judgment on any electoral disputes. And then, this is key, they sent agents out to make sure there were as many electoral disputes as possible.
Then, in February, the regime passed a further law that the next new Director would be elected by the outgoing Legislative Councils rather than the incoming legislative council. So this whole thing was rigged from the get go.
The primary electoral assembly started meeting at the end of March 1798. And right away, supporters of the regime worked hard to muddy the waters. The basic tactic was to intentionally create schisms within the various electoral assemblies. So you take, for example, a Parisian electoral assembly that has 609 total electors. Agents of the regime then determined that two thirds of those guys were ready to vote for opposition candidates. So they go out, gin up a technical violation and lead 212 electors in a walkout, reconvene them down the street as the true and legitimate electoral assembly, and elect a list of pro regime candidates, mostly drawn from the ranks of government appointees who owed their jobs and livelihoods to the existing regime.
So now there would be two rival slates of candidates. So oh no, I guess we have to submit our dispute to the sitting Legislative Councils and have them decide which slate of delegates is legitimate. This sort of maneuvering went on all over the place. The most useful technical violation was to trot out the law that had been imposed by Lazare Carnot that said, candidates and electors had to swear a hatred of monarchy and the Constitution of 1793. So wherever anti-regime leftist won, the regime candidates would just assert that they were for anarchy and the Constitution of 1793 and had just perjured themselves. The anti regime candidates would, of course, deny it and then lo and behold, you’ve got another disputed vote that needs resolving.
With the returns starting to come back and those returns not looking good for the regime, the Legislative Councils then announced on May 2 that they had uncovered a conspiracy between Royalists and the left wing anarchists to undermine the Republic. This is just as Robespierre had once denounced Hébert as an agent of the foreign plot who was trying to discredit the Revolution. So the accusation now is that all these left wing candidates wore the white cockade of Royalism under the red cap of liberty.
With this alleged threat looming, the Legislative Councils decided it would be prudent to quickly process all those utterly contrived electoral disputes. With so many contested elections out there, going through them one by one would drag on well into the summer. So on May 7, the Directory submitted a list full of summary judgments on which delegates would be allowed to take their seats and which would not. They asked the Legislative Councils to approve the whole slate all at once, which they did on May 11, 1798 which is 22 Floreal, Year VI which is why we call it the Coup of Floreal.
The Coup of Floreal was not quite as sweeping as the coup of Fructidor. Though the Directory altered results in 49 of the 96 departments, only eight departments had their elections outright annulled. And of the 437 open seats, only 127 candidates were declared invalid and replaced with regime approved delegates. But that said, denying over a quarter of the men elected by a majority vote the seat that they had won was not going to earn the Directory any awards for meritorious conduct. And as it would turn out, many of the delegates who were allowed to take their seats because they weren’t implacable opponents of the regime became disillusioned enough with the government that they would not lift a finger to help the Directory during the coup of Brumaire. Among those allowed to take their seats, for example, were two of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brothers, former Ambassador to Rome, Joseph, and energetic younger brother Lucian, who will play a central role in the Coup of Brumaire.
In one of their last acts, the sitting Council of 500 and Council of Ancients replaced the oh-so recently appointed Neufchâteau in the Directory. And in case you’re wondering why the oh-so recently appointed Neufchâteau was still eligible for the retirement lottery, it was because he had taken over Carnot’s seat. So even though he himself was new, the seat he occupied was one of the original five. But super convenient that his name was picked out of the hat rather than one of the Triumvirate, wouldn’t you say? I sure would.
Neufchâteau was replaced by Jean Baptiste Treilhard, who we just met at the beginning of this episode, asserting that the Rhine territories did not constitute new territorial acquisitions. What Treilhard’s election meant was that the Directory was now firmly controlled by men who would push aggressively for the projection of French power abroad, rather than making any compromises with the rest of Europe that might tend to reduce the chances of a future war.
Now, while all of this was going on in Paris, Napoleon Bonaparte was down in Toulon preparing to embark on the Egyptian expedition that would really super reduce the chances of avoiding a future war. The Directors, as I mentioned, were quite happy to see him off. The leftist candidates they had just purged from the Legislative Councils were likely feared not half as much as the invincible little corporal who would now be thousands of miles away from home, either winning the Republic a great victory or disappearing into the sands of Egypt.
The final destination of the expedition was a closely held secret. The Directors, Talleyrand, and a few of Bonaparte’s closest aides knew, but other than that, everyone was kept in the dark. So though British intelligence was alerted to the fact that the French were massing forces in Mediterranean ports, they did not know where those forces were headed. By May 1798, 40,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors, and literally hundreds of ships were prepared to set sail to wherever Bonaparte pointed. But, of course, Napoleon did not just gather soldiers for his expedition. He also famously assembled a company of scientists, engineers, intellectuals, scholars, and artists to travel along with the army and make a great investigation of Egypt.
Numbering 167 men in all, these guys were brought along for three big reasons. First, let it not be said that Bonaparte was not a child of the Enlightenment and an advocate of its progressive scientific principles. These academics would, quite simply, advance the sum total of human knowledge, a self evident good. Second, on a more immediately practical level, these guys would be available to improve the supply lines for the French army, map out roads, identify sources of food and supplies, and then make sure it could all get from there to here. They would also hopefully get started on fulfilling one of Western Europe’s great engineering dreams, building a canal that would link the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and dramatically shorten the travel time to India and China. If that canal was built and controlled by the French, that would give them an insane strategic advantage over their rivals.
Third, Bonaparte was a master propagandist. By bringing along all these scientists, he was able to paint the expedition as one of discovery and himself as an enlightened leader interested in the advancement of mankind, rather than simply another general making a grab at Egypt to cripple the British and build his own personal power base.
Even as things started to go badly for the French army in Egypt, the scientific hangers-on worked diligently and wound up producing a wealth of new observations and discoveries, the most famous and most consequential of which was, of course, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. And next week, we’ll get into why the Rosetta Stone is currently sitting in the British Museum and not the Louvre.
When Napoleon led the fleet out of Toulon on May 19, the ultimate destination was still unknown. Bonaparte had given a rousing speech to his men but only hinted towards a foreign land rather than saying dudes were off to Egypt, because he was still trying to keep the British in the dark, and in this, he was actually quite successful. The British were, of course, well aware of the troop mobilization, but do not appear to have seriously considered Egypt as the target. There’s a famous anecdote where the British Secretary of War says, well, maybe they’re making a run at Egypt. And the Foreign Secretary says, try to think with a map in your hand. Basically, the French aren’t going to send their best general and 40,000 men to the other side of the Mediterranean you jackass. Except that’s exactly what the French were doing.
Now, the biggest reason the British intelligence was so imperfect and Napoleon could even dream of this kind of campaign in the first place was because after Bonaparte started kicking the crap out of the Austrians in Italy in 1796, and then especially after the Spanish were forced to switch sides, maintaining a fleet in the Mediterranean was very dangerous for the British. So the Admiralty pulled the fleet out and stationed them at the mouth of the Tagus River, basically Lisbon, from which they ran a blockade of the Spanish port of Cadiz, and then went after any merchant vessels trying to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar that they thought might be trying to aid the French cause.
But with the French obviously up to something, it was time to head back through the Straits of Gibraltar. Now, the first order of business would be figuring out where the French fleet actually was and where it was headed. For this, the Admiral in charge of the Mediterranean fleet appointed Admiral Horatio Nelson. By this point, Nelson was already well on his way to becoming one of Britain’s great naval heroes, though his greatest triumph will come after we have left the French Revolution behind. But the success he will enjoy next week forms a major part of the legend of Admiral Nelson.
Nelson had just returned to the Mediterranean fleet from London where he’d been recuperating after having one of his arms amputated from wounds suffered during a failed attempt to take the Canary Islands back in July 1797. Nelson was given command of a six ship squadron and told to go find out where the French were and where they were headed. On May 9, Nelson crossed through the Straits of Gibraltar back into the Mediterranean. What followed was something of a comedy of errors for both sides, as bad intelligence plagued everyone.
Nelson’s little squadron arrived at Toulon on May 21 and discovered the French had just departed. But then a storm came through and scattered the squadron. Nelson’s flagship and another ship of the line wound up anchored off the southwest coast of Sardinia. Meanwhile, Bonaparte’s fleet was hugging the coast, passing Genoa, picking up more ships and men and supplies before crossing down and heading south along the east coast of Corsica and then Sardinia.
On June 3, Bonaparte was alerted to the fact that the British had ships on the other side of Sardinia and he sent a squadron to investigate but by the time they got there, Nelson, which is the ship they were talking about, had already sailed back to Toulon, trying to link back up with the rest of his squadron not realizing how close he had come to spotting his quarry. So while Nelson sailed northwest towards Toulon, Bonaparte turned southeast towards Sicily. Then, a few days later, the French captured a British merchant who said, Oh, yeah, I just saw Nelson, he’s got a whole fleet and he’s right on your heels. This caused Bonaparte to panic a little bit, and he ordered his fleet to race for the island of Malta.
Now, Malta was still run by the Knights of Malta, an old Crusades era brotherhood of knights. And after the Grand Master of the Knights refused French entrance into the main harbor, Bonaparte fired his guns, landed some troops and just took it. The Knights never really stood a chance, especially because half the 2,000 men garrison were French themselves and had no interest in fighting their countrymen. Bonaparte promised the equivalent of 3 million livre in exchange for the island and the Grandmaster accepted, because what else was he going to do?
But of course, the intelligence about Nelson had been all wrong. Nelson had linked back up with some reinforcements but he was nowhere near the French fleet. And even after he got moving again on June 10, he was told that the French were at Syracuse, when really they were on Malta. So this is a big problem with being out at sea with only stray captured vessels to rely on for information. For this whole opening game of where are the French and where are they going? Both sides were working from horrible intelligence.
It wasn’t until June 20 that Nelson finally learned the French had been at Malta. And even then, he was told that they had disembarked on June 16, when really they hadn’t left until June 19, like, literally the day before Nelson got this news. So he was just 60 nautical miles away from the French and had no idea and no way of even having an idea. But one thing had become clear to both sides: the French were headed east. Before leaving Malta, Bonaparte finally decided it was safe to reveal to his men that the next stop would be Alexandria. Meanwhile, Nelson huddled with his officers and concluded that the French were either headed for Constantinople or Egypt, with Egypt being the most likely target. A shrewd and correct guess.
So next week, we will follow everyone to Egypt. Bonaparte will successfully land his army outside Alexandria and begin his great campaign but then Nelson will swoop down and obliterate, and I mean obliterate the French navy anchored at Aboukir Bay. Whatever Bonaparte did next, he was going to have a hell of a time getting home.
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