Home » QUEST FOR EMPIRE: Napoleonic Wars » Text » II. LEGEND IN THE MAKING


                       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 In October 1795, some fifteen months after the death of Robespierre, the French Republic adopted a new constitution in which the general assembly known as the Convention was reconstituted in two legislative bodies modeled on the American Congress, the Council of Five Hundred (comparable to the House of Representatives) and the Council of Ancients (comparable to the Senate). At the same time, a five-member panel known as the Directory was established as an executive body. While the latter represented a clear departure from the unitary executive of the American presidency, it promised to secure additional constraints against the power of individual leaders in a country still very much on guard against the caprices of divine-right monarchs. As such, it promised to end the political perils of the Reign of Terror and launch a new era of relative stability.

For Napoleon, the new constitution was especially promising, giving him every reason to embrace his adopted country with fresh enthusiasm. Thus far, he had managed to catapult himself from a lowly captain to commander of the Army of the Interior, and been lucky to escape the political blowback that had attended his rise. For all of his professional success, however, he had thus far led a remarkably uneventful personal life, which for the most part had been focused on his family and the travails of his homeland, Corsica. 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 was frequently as much a source of amusement among members of the opposite sex as it had been among his schoolmates at Brienne. His resulting inexperience in matters of the heart would be evident in his first notable romantic attachment. While serving at Marseille, he became enamored of a girl of fourteen named Désirée Clary, the younger sister of his brother Joseph’s wife. Despite an eight-year age difference, the two were engaged and Napoleon took to calling his prospective bride by a pet name: Eugénie. After some six months, however, allegedly due to the disapproval of the girl’s mother, Napoleon called off the affair in a series of avuncular letters; however, the fact that he had recently met a very different sort of woman may well have had something to do with this decision. In any case, instead of a far younger girl, he would now fall for a woman six years his senior.

Her name was Rose Beauharnais, and she too had experienced first-hand the turmoil of the revolution. Born Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in the French colony of Martinique, she first traveled to France in 1779 to 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. His high-born background would catch up with him, however, during the Reign of Terror. Arbitrarily accused of failing to mount an adequate defense against the Austro-Prussian invasion at the border stronghold of 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 Beauharnais nearly shared his fate, and after spending some three months in prison herself, she escaped execution only upon the fall of Robespierre. In the months that followed her release, with the help of influential friends, notably a fellow prisoner and socialite named Teresa Tallien, she took part in the salon scene that once again flourished in the capital, and it was during this period that she met General Bonaparte.

By this time, the reinstated hero of both Touloun and 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 previously confiscated under a general disarmament order, and when Napoleon consented to its return, the boy’s mother came to express her appreciation. Exactly what transpired during this meeting is the stuff of romantic novels, but clearly, Napoleon took an immediate interest in the refined yet resilient woman who presented herself on this occasion. Over the space of the ensuing months, friendship turned to courtship and he revealed his affections by bestowing on her 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 among her more influential friends was 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, a promotion Napoleon coveted above all other, is thought to have been part of an arrangement Josephine made with Barras on Napoleon’s behalf. In any case, the prized assignment 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 take up his new command.