by Ashley Williams, Processing Assistant and Library Assistant
Any of our readers that label themselves French history enthusiasts will, no doubt, have already taken note, but the anniversary of the Coup of Brumaire recently elapsed us this past weekend. This pivotal moment in French history marks the end of the Directory government in France and ushers in the era of Napoleon as he begins his pursuit of Emperor as First Consul. Many recognize this coup as the official end of the French Revolution.
This parliamentary coup was originally masterminded by Abbé Sieyès and Tallyrand. They had simply enlisted Napoleon as muscle to back them up should their negotiations to throw out the current constitution turn sour. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what happened. Napoleon’s grenadiers were sent into the meeting place at Saint-Cloud, and, under duress, the Directory was persuaded to dissolve itself and promise the creation of a new constitution. And though Napoleon was only intended to be used by Sieyès and Tallyrand, he somehow charmed his way into the First Consul seat, channeling all actual constitutional power to himself and leaving the other two as mere figureheads.
There is no doubt that opinions on Napoleon during his reign vary quite drastically. In fact, I would go as far as to label his memory as divisive, even today. Many documents remaining in regards to Napoleon seem to swing pretty heavy-handedly to one side or another whether praising his name or dragging it through the mud. During my time at the MHS, I’ve found that a great majority of our collections regarding Napoleon consist of broadsides from British smear campaigns in response to Napoleon’s boasts to invade England. They serve to demonize Napoleon in the eyes of British citizens and highlight things such as his censorship of the press and atrocities of war during the Egyptian campaign.
It’s been rather difficult to find material about him that isn’t politically charged, but I’ve come across one set of volumes in the Guild Library collection that explicitly claims to be an unbiased “general review of his impact on society.” Frank Goodrich’s The Court of Napoleon is a three-volume set published in the U.S. in 1857 spanning from Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine to his time on St. Helena. The volumes’ historical review is interspersed and decorated with beautiful illustrations and original manuscript letters. In fact, the volumes themselves are quite aesthetically pleasing. These are books that you can judge by the cover.
From what I’ve read, Goodrich’s take on Napoleon is intended for neither praise nor malice, but rather observation, and regardless of the French Emperor’s character, I think we’d be foolish not to acknowledge the impacts his life made on societies around the world.
“Coup Of 18–19 Brumaire | French History . ” 2019. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Coup-of-18-19-Brumaire.
Flower, John, and Eugene Weber. 2019. “France – The First French Republic”. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/France/The-First-French-Republic.
“Plain Answers To Plain Questions: In A Dialogue Between John Bull And Bonaparte, Met Half-Seas Over Between Dover And Calais.”. 1803. Boston. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://balthazaar.masshist.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?DB=local&BBID=148583
“To The Infamous Wretch: If There Be Such An One In England, Who Dares To Talk Of, Or Even Hopes To Find Mercy In The Breast Of The Corsican Bonaparte, The Eternal Sworn Foe Of England …”. 1803. Boston. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://balthazaar.masshist.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?DB=local&BBID=148952
“Who Is Bonaparte?”. 1803. Boston. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://balthazaar.masshist.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?DB=local&BBID=148600