N & E
Napoleon & Empire

The Sénat Conservateur

Members of the Conservative Senate  List of members of the Conservative Senate.

The Conservative Senate (in french Sénat conservateur) was created by the Constitution of An VIII and saw its powers reinforced by those of An X and An XII. The assembly sat in the Palais du Luxembourg , in the central part of the building, designed as a hemicycle by Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin. In accordance with the constitution, sessions were not open to the public. The first was held on December 24, 1799.

View of the palace of the Conservative Senate, also called Luxembourg, by V.J. Nicolle
View of the Luxembourg Palace, by V.J. Nicolle

Members of the Senate

They are appointed for life and cannot be removed. Their number was set at eighty by the Constitution of An VIII. The first sixty were appointed immediately, while the last twenty were to be added, at the rate of two per year, over the following ten years. It was up to the First Consul, the Tribunate and the Corps Législatif to propose the candidates.

The Constitution of Year X increased the First Consul's control over recruitment: he was responsible for presenting a list of three names for each of the fourteen new senators who immediately completed the assembly, the idea of staggering these appointments over ten years having been abandoned; he also had the right to appoint whomever he wished to the Senate, with the only limitations being the age of the beneficiary (at least forty) and the size of the assembly (a maximum of one hundred and twenty members).

Since the year X, a number of prominent figures have also been members of the Senate ex officio: members of the Grand Council of the Legion of Honor, regardless of age (Constitution of the year X), French princes aged at least eighteen, and the great dignitaries of the regime (Constitution of the year XII).

Organization of the Senate

The Senate is headed by a President. The president was first appointed by his peers (Constitution of the year VIII); the presidency then passed to the Consuls and then to the Emperor. Day-to-day business was handled by an ordinary president appointed from among the great dignitaries (Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, Pierre-Simon Laplace, François Etienne Christophe Kellermann, Bernard Germain Étienne de Lacépède, François Denis Tronchet, Nicolas François de Neufchâteau, Gaspard Monge...).

The administration was headed by two praetors, a chancellor and a treasurer, appointed by the First Consul and then the Emperor. The praetors were responsible for palace maintenance and security. The chancellor sealed the acts of the Senate and looked after the library, archives and objets d'art. The treasurer managed the assembly's resources in accordance with the budget established by the board of directors, made up of two secretaries and seven senators.

Mission and powers

The Senate's mission was to ensure the constitutionality of laws: it is the guardian of the Constitution and can, as such, rule against the promulgation of a text voted by the Legislature.

It was the Senate that selected the members of the other two assemblies from a list known as the National Confidence List, which comprised around one adult male in a thousand (i.e., approximately 6,000 names). It also appointed the juges de cassation and the commissaires de la comptabilité, again from the same list. During the Consulate, it was responsible for appointing the Consuls; under the Empire, it may be called upon to choose a regent, or even a new Emperor if the incumbent died without a direct heir.

The Senate acted through decrees known as senatus-consults.

Ordinary senatus-consults allowed for the dissolution of the Corps Législatif or the Tribunat, the suspension of juries or the laying of siege to departments.

Organic senatus-consults, which required a two-thirds majority to pass, laid down all matters not provided for in the Constitution, but necessary to its operation. It was through them that the Senate explained the articles of the Constitution that gave rise to different interpretations. (art. 54 of the Constitution of Year X).

On April 18, 1804, a sénatus-consulte proclaimed the Empire. Another ended it on April 1, 1814.


The powers of this assembly were therefore quite considerable, and it could, if it had the will, stand up to Napoleon I and control or even limit his authority.

In fact, until April 1, 1814, the Senate played no political role at all, acting as a mere recording chamber.

Its composition and the Emperor's policy towards it explain this apathy. The Senate was mainly populated by old men whose vanity and greed Napoleon I flattered. On the self-esteem side, from 1808 onwards, every senator was, by right, a count of the Empire; on the financial side, in addition to a comfortable salary, the senatorial system set up by the Constitution of Year X gave the most "deserving" senators (thirty-six by the end of the Empire) an estate and a residential palace for life, both taken from national property. This "perk" provided the holder with an additional annual income of around 25,000 Francs, doubling his remuneration.

As long as the regime flourished, the senators, gorged with honors and riches, displayed an obedience and servility equaled only by their ultimate ingratitude.

April 1814

On April 1, 1814, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord illegally convened the Senate and obtained from the sixty-four senators present the nomination of a five-member provisional government, of which he was the head.

On April 2, presided over by François Barthélémy, the Senate declared the forfeiture of Napoleon 1st, before specifying the reasons the following day in a lengthy decree. The decree listed the violations of the constitutional pact of which the Emperor had been guilty, violations complacently endorsed by the same assembly in previous years.