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How to Stage a Coup....and How Not

Exit liberté à la François by James Gillray

Exit liberté à la François by James Gillray

A coup by definition is an action through which a certain interest group, like the military, a political party or the two in combination, illegally seizes power and forcibly removes the previous government. History is full of examples of people seizing power this way, and a good number of them succeeded in holding onto the power they seized. France is a country with a very turbulent history, the Revolution that broke out in 1789 changed the country, and the whole of Europe forever. In the decades following the revolution two men named Napoleon seized power in France, both became emperor of the French. The first Napoleon to seize power in France was Napoleon Bonaparte, a military genius who staged a coup in 1799 to become the military dictator of the country.

The other Napoleon to seize power through a coup was Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He overthrew the Second French Republic in 1851 and a year later was crowned Emperor of the Second French Empire.

Before he finally seized absolute power in 1851 Louis Napoleon attempted twice to overthrew the legitimate French government, both of them ending in miserable failure, in 1840 he even became a target of public ridicule after his failed coup attempt.

Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud by Francois Bouchot

Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud by Francois Bouchot

Napoleon Bonaparte’s 18 Brumaire Coup

France in 1799 was governed by the unpopular Directory, the country was once again at war with a coalition of other European powers who opposed the republican ideals of France and her territorial ambitions.

The war of the Second Coalition started badly for France in 1799, although things stabilised later that year, the already unpopular Directory was on the ropes by this time.

The very popular general Napoleon Bonaparte arrived back in France in October that year, one could almost say that most probably Napoleon’s only reason to return so hastily was to seize power.

If true Napoleon was not the only one who had these aims, one of the Directors Emmanuel Sieyes tried to use Napoleon to seize power for himself, another Director Roger Ducos quickly came to support the coup. The archschemers Fouche and Talleyrand quickly realised the chance to profit themselves and flocked to Napoleon. Napoleon’s brother Lucien who was the President of one of the chambers was also on board with the plan.

The plotters hatched up a plan according to which, first they would convince the directors to resign, this way France was left without a government. Secondly, they would convince the two chambers of the Parliament to draw up a new Constitution which would leave the plotters in power.

At first, the plan went well, Sieyes and Ducos resigned, another Director Paul Barras was convinced by Talleyrand to resign, the other two directors who were not so cooperative were seized by force until they eventually relented. The same day Lucien Bonaparte convinced the chambers that a Jacobin coup was imminent in Paris, so for their safety, they should leave Paris. The chambers were to move to the suburban Chateuade Saint-Cloud, conveniently there were soldiers under the command of Napoleon stationed there.

The deputies realised that they were fooled and were unwilling to act according to the plotters will, when Napoleon stormed into the Council of the Five Hundred he was harried out by the hostile deputies.

The quick thinking of his brother Lucien saved the day, just as a motion was raised in the Council to declare Napoleon an outlaw Lucien slipped out and ordered the soldiers to disperse the Council, as the Council was terrorized by some deputies with daggers. Murat and his grenadiers stormed in and dispersed the Council of Five Hundred.

Not much later the other chamber, the Council of Ancients, passed a decree that adjourned the Councils and appointed the conspirators as Consuls. a small number of the deputies from the Five Hundred were rounded up to vote the decree, thus as it passed both chambers the decree was fully legitimate. Despite nearly failing Napoleon succeeded in taking power through the Coup of 18 Brumaire.

There were many reasons for his success, first of all, he had the support of two of the five members of the previous government, he had the support of influential men like Talleyrand and Fouche when things were nearly ruined he still had the army to rely on. He also had his brother as the President of one of the Councils, who was at the right place at the right time to avoid disaster.

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Importantly also the previous government was very unpopular among the French population and not many lifted a finger when the Directory was overthrown. All these things were needed for the Coup of 18 Brumaire to succeed, missing one or two elements would have been enough for it to fail.

Louis Napoleon had another coup attempt in 1836, it ended in failure just like his 1840 attempt

Louis Napoleon had another coup attempt in 1836, it ended in failure just like his 1840 attempt

Louis Napoleon’s failed coup in 1840

Louis Napoleon modelled his coup attempt in his uncles return from Elba in early 1815. When his famous uncle escaped from his exile he landed in France with only a handful of soldiers. King Louis XVIII sent soldiers to capture him, Napoleon’s former Marshall Michel Ney famously said that he will bring back Napoleon in an iron cage, despite his fancy rethorics Ney and his soldiers, and more or less everyone Napoleon encountered on his way to Paris, joined Napoleon.

Thus Napoleon Bonaparte retook his throne by simply marching to Paris.

Louis Napoleon fancied achieving something similar in 1836, but he failed when he and the soldiers who joined him were surrounded by soldiers loyal to King Louis Philippe. He planned to do the same thing in 1840.

Louis Napoleon hired a ship and 60 men, he printed pamphlets of his proclamations and set sail for France. He planned to seize the port of Boulogne by convincing the garrison to join him. With the garrison of Boulogne on his side he planned to march on Paris to overthrew Louis Philippe. His attempt ended as soon as his men had set foot on French soil, the garrison refused to join Louis Napoleon’s cause, his men were quickly surrounded, one killed, the rest along with Louis Napoleon arrested.

The absurdity of the attempt made Louis Napoleon a target of public ridicule, for his failure he spent the next 6 years in prison before he escaped back to England.

Louis Napoleon’s coup attempt, if we can call it that, failed for many reasons. First of all unlike his famous uncle in 1799 he had no serious backing, neither from influential politicians of the government, neither from the army.

Nor did he had the reputation and charisma of his uncle, who retook his throne by simply marching to Paris in 1815, all he had was a good sounding name, the legacy of a great man.

Importantly also the French people were not unhappy with their government in 1840, unlike in 1799 when the unpopular Directory were in power, or in 1815 when the unpopular Bourbons were put back on the throne by the same people who occupied France for a time after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.

Comparing the two coups it is easy enough to see why one Napoleon succeeded, while the other one failed. While his uncle had the backing of politicians, the army, the silent support of the population who hated the Directory and his already considerable reputation, Louis Napoleon had none of the above mentioned things.


Napoleon:A biography by Frank Mclynn

The campaigns of Napoleon by David Chandler

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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