N & E
Napoleon & Empire

Republican opposition
The Idéologues

The faces of the republican opposition: [Introduction] [The Idéologues] [Military opposition] [The liberals: Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant]

The Ideologues were a group of leading intellectuals who shared common principles, those of the Enlightenment philosophy of which they were the heirs. They were republicans, anti-clerical because they were resolutely hostile to everything they consider to be prejudice or superstition - and therefore to the Church - and supporters of human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Strictly speaking, they did not form a party, but an informal collective with support in the salons and at the Institut, especially in the Moral and Political Sciences class. They have their own journal, La Décade philosophique, founded by several of them in 1794 and directed by the liberal economist Jean-Baptiste Say until his entry into the Tribunate. Many were also Freemasons.

Pierre Daunou
Pierre Daunou

The group's five main personalities were:

  1. Antoine Destutt de Tracy, leader of the group, member of the Institut and senator;
  2. Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, member of the Institut and senator;
  3. Pierre Daunou, member of the Institut, first president of the Tribunat. He refused to join the Conseil d'État;
  4. Volney (Constantin-François Chassebœuf de La Giraudais, comte Volney, a.k.a. -), member of the Institut, senator. He has known Bonaparte since 1792;
  5. Marie-Joseph Chénier, member of the Tribunat.

Napoleon Bonaparte, himself a member of the Institut, had long been regarded as one of their own, which explains the Ideologues' support for his coup d'état on 18 Brumaire. As a result, they were present in large numbers in the assemblies, most notably the Tribunat. But relations soon became strained between the First Consul, a pragmatist with authoritarian tendencies, and these principled men, who defended the prerogatives of the legislative power.

The Tribunat's move to the Palais-Royal  gave rise to the first clashes, as the choice of this former place of debauchery was interpreted by some as a provocation. One speaker had to apologize after comparing Bonaparte, in a pro-government speech, to a fifteen-day-old idol. Already, Stanislas de Girardin, tribune and friend of the Bonaparte family, felt obliged to assert in session that the Tribunat was not a place of opposition.

The real showdown began when a bill concerning the organization of parliamentary work was submitted to the Tribunat. Bonaparte wanted the Tribunat's rules of procedure to meticulously organize debates. His aim was to limit the duration of debates, and to prevent the resurgence of the factions that had plagued revolutionary assemblies. For the Ideologues, on the other hand, this project is in keeping with neither the letter nor the spirit of the Constitution as they see it. By transforming the Tribunate into a recording chamber, it undermines freedom of expression and the independence of the assembly. Their opposition was total.

Despite the support of Benjamin Constant, who was not a member of the Ideologues but was close to them, and who made his political debut on this occasion, the draft regulations were approved by 54 votes to 26.

After the attack on rue Saint-Nicaise, initially attributed to the Jacobins, Bonaparte organized a vast crackdown on the Parisian far left. From an initial list of one hundred and thirty Jacobins, seventy were deported and fifty-two placed under house arrest; shortly afterwards, two hundred and twenty-three new suspects were arrested. However, when Joseph Fouché's investigation exonerated them, the proscribed Jacobins remained so. Within the Tribunate, the arbitrariness of these measures shocked the Ideologues and strengthened their opposition.

They expressed their opposition to a bill creating special criminal courts. While the aim of the bill was to tackle brigandage, many of its articles seemed to threaten individual liberties: juries were abolished, five of the eight judges replacing them were chosen by the government, and there was no longer any right of appeal.

Benjamin Constant, Pierre Daunou, Marie-Joseph Chénier and Pierre-Louis Ginguené took turns at the podium to reject the text outright. They did not wish to deny the government the means to govern, but wanted to prevent it from overstepping the bounds of the law. For the first time, in a debate involving no fewer than thirty-eight speakers, both in favor and against the bill - a sign of its importance - the Ideologues denounced the violation of the Constitution.

The debate began on January 25, 1801. Constant criticized the project for being unconstitutional, obscure and threatening. Daunou presented it as a new revolutionary code, worthy of the Montagnards. He goes even further. For him, if an unconstitutional text is passed, others will follow. As for the government's claim that a law of exception was necessary, he replies that all tyrannies have always used this pretext to infringe on freedoms. He also reminds us how many victims the abandonment of the usual forms of justice has claimed during the revolution. Chénier insists on this point and denounces the over-extended jurisdiction of these special courts. Lastly, Ginguené, like Daunou, accused the project of being imbued with all the signs of revolution, even though the government had just proclaimed that the Revolution was over.

The project was nevertheless approved, by 49 votes to 41 in the Tribunat and 192 to 88 in the Corps Législatif. Although still in the minority, the opposition nonetheless achieved its best score for a year, well above the 30 or so votes it usually mustered in the Tribunat.

Despite his final success, Bonaparte reacted with undisguised anger to the ideologues' criticism. He now saw them only as metaphysicians, phrase-mongers and ideologues (a disparaging term coined by François-René de Chateaubriand), opposed on principle to authority. The final break between these progressive intellectuals and him was at hand. The Concordat was the occasion.

The first steps towards a rapprochement with the Catholic Church were taken after the battle of Marengo, whose repercussions were considerable and whose results, according to Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, exceeded all expectations. Negotiations with Rome lasted eight months. All that remained was for the results to be accepted by the assemblies.

But while Bonaparte was preparing for ratification, the Republican opposition was organizing to defeat him. A number of government decisions further increased their irritation: the creation, in August 1801, of a directorate of cults, and above all the appointment of Jean-Etienne-Marie Portalis, a former royalist, as its head; the ban on theophilanthropic meetings in national buildings, proclaimed on October 4 (12 Vendémiaire an X).

The Republicans took the offensive at the opening of the parliamentary session on November 22, opposing all government projects, both in the Tribunat (treaties with Russia, Naples and the United States of America) and in the Corps Législatif (Title 1 of the Civil Code), where they also succeeded in electing as president a man known only for his anticlericalism. Finally, the two assemblies put forward two candidates for the post of Senator, Daunou and Abbé Grégoire, both of whom were very hostile to Rome.

The latter was co-opted by the Senate against the Consuls' candidate. Daunou was about to be co-opted when Bonaparte indicated that he would regard the choice as a personal insult. The Tribunate's opposition to the treaty with Russia had not only infuriated him, but totally discredited the assembly in his eyes. You'd have to be a dog, he exclaimed, to risk starting the war all over again just for a word (the term "subjects" used in the treaty to designate both the French and the Russians). From then on, he had nothing but contempt for the Tribunat.

Bonaparte decided to eliminate the Republican opposition. But he wanted the operation to be carried out without a coup de force, because he didn't want the Ideologues to be able to present themselves as martyrs one day, since they had always respected the law. Cambacérès' subtle legal mind provided the solution. While the Constitution, he pointed out, provided for the renewal of one-fifth of the Tribunate that year (Year X), it did not specify how this was to be done... The Senate was therefore asked to change its usual practice, and instead of drawing lots, to appoint by name... the remaining members. By 144 votes to 15 (l'abbé Grégoire, Cabanis, Destutt de Tracy...), the Senate accepted this new procedure.

Daunou, Chénier, Ginguené, Andrieux, Laromiguière, Chazal, Constant and their friends were excluded from the Tribunate and the Corps Législatif. All the newly elected members were in favor of the government, starting with Lucien Bonaparte, who was recalled from his embassy in Madrid and sent to sit in the Tribunat to wrest the assembly of its last claws. He led it to adopt a new set of rules, perfectly in line with his brother's views. The Tribunat was henceforth divided into sections, which sat separately, behind closed doors, not permanently, but only once a decade (April 1, 1802). The Tribunat had lost all importance.

A week later, it approved the Concordat.

Title: Republican opposition. The Ideologues.