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The French Directory: 1795-1799

The French Directory: 1795-1799

I have written about the Directory before in the history section whilst talking about how Napoleon achieved the great feat of stabilising France after years of internal strife. In this article I wish to write more specifically about its history and how it attempted to bring stability to France after the radical French Revolution of 1789. It was formed after the passing of the French constitution of 1795 which was passed by the former government of the national convention.


The Directory consisted of two houses the Upper and Lower House. The former was known as the Council of Ancients consisting of 250 members, who voted on laws, while the latter was called the Council of Five Hundred, consisting of 500 members, who proposed these laws. Fearing influence from the left the convention decreed that two-thirds of the members of the first new legislature had to have already served on the National Convention between 1792 and 1795.


The executive body would be a group of five officers called the Directory which had authority to appoint people to fill the other positions within the government-a source of considerable power. Annual elections would be held to keep the new government in check.


Its challenge was to rid France of Jacobean influence and prevent royalists from taking advantage of the disarray and reclaim the throne. Two thirds rule was implemented for this reason, to keep the same composition as that of the original, moderate national convention. However rather than addressing the economic situation in the country, legislature instead focused on keeping progressive members out. In short, paranoia and overprotection weakened the group.


Whilst the Directory was forming, the French army had grown significantly. It had successfully defended France from attacks from Prussia and Austria, and expanded into surrounding areas. The army was seemingly unstoppable, led by a young Napoleon. The reason the Directory encouraged this expansion was to keep the economy stable, as it kept unemployment low and funds plundered from conquered lands.


The Directory started to become concerned in the election of 1795, as an increasing amount of moderate royalists were elected. While not counterrevolutionaries, this was disconcerting for the Directory.


In May 1796, a group of Jacobins was found to be plotting to reinstate the government of the constitution of 1793. They were captured, and their leaders executed.


However as the 1797 elections grew nearer the Directory had noticed significant royalist and Jacobin influences entering the country. The Directory however had to obey the constitution and hold an election regardless.


Unsurprisingly, the election provided a pro-Jacobin and royalist result, leading to 3 members of the Directory orchestrating an overthrow of the legislature, and of 2 other members of the Directory, and installed two new directors, maintaining the distinctly moderate stance.


The Directory continued to nullify election results, causing discontent, combined with rising inflation, leading to many turning back against the government. It was eventually overthrown in a military coup led by Napoleon Bonaparte.


Image: Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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