Napoleon and the Directory

Napoleon at the Battle of Rivoli, by Henri Philippoteaux

In my youth I had illusions; I got rid of them fast.


Josephine With the advent of the Directory in October 1795 the French Republic entered a period of relative calm as the old political divisions–Montagnard vs. Girondin, royalist vs. radical–gave way to more formal governmental constructs. Under a new constitution the Convention was reconstituted in two houses, the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients, modeled on the American Congress, each with distinct powers that served as a system of checks and balances. The five-member panel of the executive represented a clear departure from the unitary executive of the American presidency, however, imposing added constraints on the power of individual leadership in a country still keenly on its guard against the excesses of divine-right monarchs.

For Napoleon, the new regime promised more than simply a more stable political climate; it meant bright new opportunities for advancing his career. Having survived the hazards of the Terror and been duly rewarded with army command for his role in putting down the royalist insurrection, he embraced the fortunes of his adopted country with renewed enthusiasm. For all of his professional success, however, the new commander of the Army of the Interior had thus far led a rather uneventful personal life. Less than imposing in stature and physically slight, as a young man he had not been overtly attractive to women, and the self-important intensity of his personality had not infrequently been a source of amusement among members of the opposite sex. Thus far his one notable romantic attachment had taken place while he was serving at Marseille, where he courted a girl of fourteen named Désirée Clary, the younger sister of his brother Joseph’s wife. Given her youth and the family connection, it may well be assumed that Désirée was duly flattered by the attentions of a man as ambitious as Napoleon, and one nine years her senior into the bargain. For his part, Napoleon took to calling her by a pet name, Eugénie, and entertained thoughts of marriage until the difference in their ages and the disapproval of the girl’s mother led to his calling off the affair in a series of avuncular letters.

By the time of his return to Paris as a brigadier in 1795, Napoleon had become considerably more impatient for success and more worldly, and now, instead of a younger girl, he fell for a woman six years his senior. Her name was Rose Beauharnais, and she too had experienced first-hand the political turmoil of the times. Born Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in the French colony of Martinique, she had first traveled to France in 1779 to be take part in an arranged marriage to Alexandre Beauharnais, a member of the aristocracy who went on to serve with the French Army in the war for American independence. During the French Revolution, Beauharnais was named president of the National Assembly and later became General-in-Chief of the Army of the Rhine, but his high-born background would eventually catch up with him during the Terror. Accused of failing to mount an adequate defense of the border stronghold at Metz, he was imprisoned in March 1794, and despite his wife’s efforts to plead his case with officialdom, he was sent to the guillotine in July. Indeed, for her pains on his behalf Rose nearly shared his fate, and after spending some three months in prison, she escaped execution only as a result of the fall of Robespierre. In the months following the Thermidorian revolt, with the help of influential friends, she took part in the salon scene that once again flourished in the capital, and it was during this period that she met General Buonaparte.

By this time, the newly-promoted hero of Thirteen Vendémiaire had become the toast of Paris, and it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Madame Beauharnais orchestrated their first meeting. Her son, Eugene Beauharnais, then a teenager, had requested of the young army commander the return of a sword confiscated under a general disarmament order, and when Napoleon consented to its return, the boy’s mother came to express her appreciation. Over the space of a few months, friendship turned into courtship, and in token of his affection for her, Napoleon began calling her by another of his pet names–Josephine. Theirs would be a complicated relationship, to be sure, and early in their courtship Madame Beauharnais frankly admitted to a friend that she did not love him. Nevertheless, at 32 she had acquired expensive habits without a stable income to support them, and the young general, though by no means rich, showed considerable promise. As for Napoleon, while he was clearly in love with her, it is worth noting that she was in a position to advance his career, for she had been the mistress of none other than Paul Barras, who had recently been named to one of the five seats on the Directory. Indeed, command of the Army of Italy, which Napoleon coveted above all others, is thought to have been part of an arrangement Josephine made with her former lover. In any case, the promotion was presented as a wedding present to them both. Thus, courtship and marriage were closely linked to the pursuit of his career, and in March 1796, after a honeymoon of only two days (much of which he spent reading various accounts of alpine warfare), Napoleon left Paris to assume his new post.