Joseph Fouche, duke of Otranto - Encyclopedia

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JOSEPH FOUCHE, DUKE OF OTRANTO (1763-1820), French statesman, was born in a small village near Nantes on the 21st of May 1759. His father, a seafaring man, destined him for the sea; but the weakness of his frame and the precocity of his talents soon caused this idea to be given up. He was educated at the college of the Oratorians at Nantes, and showed marked aptitude for studies both literary and scientific. Desiring to enter the teaching profession he was sent to an institution kept by brethren of the same order at Paris. There also he made rapid progress, and soon entered upon tutorial duties at the colleges of Niort, Saumur, Vendome, Juilly and Arras. At Arras he had some dealings with Robespierre at the time of the beginning of the French Revolution (1789).

In October 1790 he was transferred by the Oratorians to their college at Nantes, owing to irregularities due to his zeal for revolutionary principles; but at Nantes he showed even more democratic fervour. His abilities and the zeal with which he espoused the most subversive notions brought him into favour with the populace at Nantes; he became a leading member of the local Jacobin club; and on the dissolution of the college of the Oratorians at Nantes in May 1792, Fouche gave up all connexion with the church, whose major vows he had not taken. After the downfall of the monarchy on the 10th of August 1792, he was elected as deputy for the department of the Lower Loire to the National Convention which met at the autumnal equinox and proclaimed the republic. The literary and pedagogic sympathies of Fouche at first brought him into touch with Condorcet and the party, or group, of the Girondists; but their vacillation at the time of the trial and execution of Louis XVI. (December 1792 - January 21, 1793) led him to espouse the cause of the Jacobins, the less scrupulous and more thoroughgoing champions of revolutionary doctrine. On the question of the execution of the king, Fouche, after some preliminary hesitations, expressed himself with the utmost vigour in favour of immediate execution, and denounced those who " wavered before the shadow of a king." The crisis which resulted from the declaration of war by the Convention against England and Holland (Feb. I, 1793), and a little later against Spain, brought Fouche into notoriety as one of the fiercest of the Jacobinical fanatics who then held power at Paris. While the armies of the first coalition threatened the north-east of France, a revolt of the royalist peasants of Brittany and la Vendee menaced the Convention on the west. That body deputed Fouche with a colleague, T illers, to proceed to the west as commissioners invested with almost dictatorial powers for the crushing of the revolt of " the whites." The vigour with which he carried out these duties earned him other work, and he soon held the post of commissioner of the republic in the department of the Nievre. Together with 'Chaumette, he helped to initiate the atheistical movement, the founders of which in the autumn of 1793 began to aim at the extinction of Christianity in France. In the department of the Nievre he ransacked the churches, sent their spoils to the treasury and established the cult of the goddess of Reason. Over the cemeteries, he ordered these words to be inscribed: " Death is an eternal sleep." He also waged war against luxury and wealth, and desired to abolish the use of money. The new cult was inaugurated at Paris at Notre Dame by the strange orgy known as " The Festival of Reason " (November io, 1793).

Fouche then proceeded to Lyons to execute the vengeance of the Convention on that city, which had revolted against the new Jacobin tyranny. Preluding his work by a festival remarkable for its obscene parody of religious rites, he then, along with his colleague, Collot d'Herbois, set the guillotine and cannon to work with a rigour which made his name odious. Modern research, however, proves that at the close of those horrors Fouche exercised a moderating influence. Outwardly his conduct was marked by the utmost rigour, and on his return to Paris early in April 1794, he thus characterised his policy: " The blood of criminals fertilises the soil of liberty and establishes power on sure foundations." By that time Robespierre had struck down the other leaders of the atheistical party; but early in June 1794, at the time of the " Festival of the Supreme Being, Fouche ventured to mock at the theistic revival which Robespierre then inaugurated. Sharp passages of arms took place between them, and Robespierre procured the ejection of Fouche from the Jacobin Club (July 14, 1794). Fouche, however, was working with his customary skill and energy, and along with Tallien and others, managed to effect the overthrow of the theistic dictator on Thermidor io (July 28), 1794. The ensuing reaction in favour of more merciful methods of government threatened to sweep away the group of Terrorists who had been mainly instrumental in carrying through the coup d'etat of Thermidor; but, thanks largely to the skill of Fouche in intrigue, they managed for a time to keep at the head of affairs. Discords, however, crept in which left him for a time almost isolated, and it needed all his ability to withstand the attacks of the moderates. A vigorous attack on him by Boissy d'Anglas, on the 9th of August 1795, caused him to be arrested, but the troubles which ensued in Vendemiaire averted the doom that seemed to be pending; and he owed his release to the amnesty which was passed on the proclamation of the new constitution of the year 1795.

In the ensuing period, known as that of the Directory (1795-1799), Fouche remained at first in obscurity, but the relations which he had with the communists, once headed by Chaumette and now by Fran901s N. (" Gracchus ") Babeuf, helped him to rise once more. He is said to have betrayed to the director Barras the secret of the strange plot which Babeuf and a few accomplices hatched in the year 1796; but recent research has tended to throw doubt on the assertion. His rise from poverty was slow, but in 1797 he gained an appointment for the supply of military materiel, which offered opportunities direct and indirect. After offering his services to the royalists, whose movement was then gathering force, he again decided to support the Jacobins and the director Barras (q.v.). In the coup d'etat of Fructidor 1797 he made himself serviceable to Barras, who in 1798 appointed him to be French ambassador to the Cisalpine republic. At Milan he carried matters with so high a hand against the Gallophobes of that government that his actions were disavowed and he himself was removed; but in the confused state in which matters then were, he was able for a time to hold his own and to intrigue successfully against his successor. Early in 1799 he returned to Paris, and after a brief tenure of office as ambassador at The Hague, he became minister of police at Paris (July 20, 1 799). The newly elected director, Sieyes was then in the ascendant and desired to curb the excesses of the Jacobins, who had recently reopened their club. Fouche, casting consistency to the winds, closed the Jacobins club in a manner at once daring and clever. Thereupon he hunted down the pamphleteers and editors, whether Jacobins or royalists, who were obnoxious to the government, so that at the time of the return of Bonaparte from Egypt (October 1799) the exJacobin was one of the most powerful men in France.

Knowing well the unpopularity of the directors, Fouche lent himself to the schemes of Bonaparte and Sieyes for their overthrow. His activity in furthering the coup d'etat of Brumaire 18-19 (November 9-10), 1799, procured him the favour of Bonaparte, who kept him in office (v. Napoleon I.). In the ensuing period of the Consulate (1799-1804) Fouche behaved with the utmost adroitness. While curbing the royalists and extreme Jacobins who at first alone opposed Bonaparte, Fouche was careful to temper as far as possible the arbitrary actions of the new master of France. In this difficult task he acquitted himself with so much skill as to earn at times the gratitude even of the royalists. Thus, while countermining a foolish intrigue of theirs in which the duchesse de Guiche was the chief agent, Fouche took care that she should escape. Equally skilful was his action in the affair of the so-called Arena-Ceracchi plot, in which the agents provocateurs of the police were believed to have played a sinister part. The chief " conspirators " were easily ensnared and were executed when the affair of Nivose (December 1800) enabled Bonaparte to act with rigour. This far more serious attempt (in which royalist conspirators exploded a bomb near the First Consul's carriage with results disastrous to the bystanders) was soon seen by Fouche to be the work of royalists; and when the First Consul, eager to entrap the still formidable Jacobins, sought to fasten the blame on them, Fouche firmly declared that he would not only assert but would prove that the outrage was the work of royalists. All his efforts, however, failed to avert the punishment which Bonaparte was resolved to inflict on the leading Jacobins. In other matters (especially in that known as the Plot of the Placards in the spring of 1802) Fouche was thought to have secured the Jacobins concerned from the vengeance of the First Consul. In any case the latter resolved to rid himself of a man who had too much power and too much skill in intrigue to be desirable as a subordinate. On the proclamation of Bonaparte as First Consul for life (August 1, 1802) Fouche was deprived of his office; but the blow was softened by the suppression of the ministry of police and by the attribution of most of its duties to an extended ministry of justice. Fouche also became a senator and received half of the reserve funds of the police which had accumulated during his tenure of office. He continued, however, to intrigue through his spies, whose information was so superior to that of the new minister of police as to render great services to Napoleon at the time of the Cadoudal-Pichegru conspiracy (February - March 1804).

As a result Napoleon, now emperor, brought back Fouche to the re-constituted ministry of police (July 1804); he also later on entrusted to him that of the interior. His work was na less important than at the time of the Consulate. His police agents were ubiquitous, and the terror which Napoleon and Fouche inspired, owing to their proven ability to benefit by plots, partly accounts for the absence of conspiracies after 1804. After Austerlitz (December 1805) Fouche uttered the mot of the occasion: " Sire,' Austerlitz has shattered the old aristocracy; the boulevard St Germain no longer conspires." That Napoleon retained some feeling of distrust, or even of fear, of Fouche was proved by his conduct in the early days of 1808. While engaged in the campaign of Spain, the emperor heard rumours that Fouche and Talleyrand, once bitter enemies, were having interviews at Paris in which Murat, king of Naples, was concerned. At once the sensitive autocrat hurried to Paris, but found nothing to incriminate Fouche. In that year Fouche received the title of duke of Otranto. During the absence of Napoleon in Austria in the campaign of 1809, the British Walcheren expedition threatened for a time the safety of Antwerp. Fouche thereupon issued an order to the prefects of the northern departments of the empire for the mobilization of bo,000 National Guards. He added to the order a statement in which occurred the words: " Let us prove to Europe that although the genius of Napoleon can throw lustre on France, his presence is not necessary to enable us to repulse the enemy." The emperor's apps oval of the measure was no less marked than his disapproval of the words just quoted. The next months brought further causes of friction between emperor and minister. The latter, knowing the desire of his master for peace at the close of the year 1809, undertook on his own account to make secret overtures to the British ministry. A little later Napoleon opened negotiations and found that Fouche had forestalled him. His rage against his minister was extreme, and on the 3rd of June 1810 he dismissed him from his office. However, as it was not the emperor's custom completely to disgrace a man who might again be useful, Fouche received the governorship of Rome. He went thither, not as governor but as fugitive, for on receiving the emperor's order to give up certain important documents of his former ministry, he handed over only a few, declaring that the rest were destroyed. At this the emperor's anger burst forth again, and Fouche on learning, after his arrival at Florence, that the storm was still raging at Paris, prepared to sail to the United States. Compelled, however, by stress of weather and sickness to put back again, he found a mediator in Elisa Bonaparte, grand duchess of Tuscany, thanks to whom he was allowed to settle at Aix and finally to return to his domain of Point Carre. In 1812 he sought vainly to turn Napoleon from the projected invasion of Russia; and on the return of the emperor in haste from Smorgoni to Paris at the close of that year, the ex-minister of police was suspected of complicity in the conspiracy of General Malet, which came so strangely near to success. From this suspicion Fouche cleared himself and gave the emperor useful advice concerning internal affairs and the diplomatic situation. Nevertheless, the emperor, still distrustful of the arch-intriguer, ordered him to undertake the government of the Illyrian provinces. On the break-up of the Napoleonic system in Germany in October 1813 Fouche was ordered to repair to Rome and thence to Naples, in order to watch the movements of Murat. Before Fouche arrived at Naples Murat threw off the mask and invaded the Roman territory, whereupon Fouche received orders to return to France. He arrived at Paris on the 10th of April 1814 at the time when Napoleon was being constrained by his marshals to abdicate.

The conduct of Fouche at this crisis was characteristic. As senator he advised the senate to send a deputation to the comte d'Artois, brother of Louis XVIII., with a view to a reconciliation between the monarchy and the nation. A little later he addressed to Napoleon, then at Elba, a letter begging him in the interests of peace and of France to withdraw to the United States. To the new sovereign Louis XVIII. he sent an appeal in favour of liberty and recommending the adoption of measures which would conciliate all interests. It was not successful, but Fouche remained unmolested.

This was far from satisfying him, and when he found that there were no hopes of advancement, he entered into relations with conspirators who sought the overthrow of the Bourbons. Lafayette and Davout were concerned in the affair, but their refusal to take the course desired by Fouche and other bold spirits led to nothing being done. Soon Napoleon escaped from Elba and made his way in triumph to Paris. Shortly before his arrival at Paris (March 19, 1815) Louis XVIII. sent to Fouche an offer of the ministry of police, which he declined, saying, " It is too late; the only plan to adopt is to retreat." He then foiled an attempt of the royalists to arrest him, and on the arrival of Napoleon he received for the third time the portfolio of police. That, however, did not prevent him from entering into secret relations with Metternich at Vienna, his aim being then, as always, to prepare for all eventualities. Meanwhile he used all his powers to induce the emperor to popularise his rule, and he is said to have caused the insertion of the words " The sovereignty resides in the people; it is the source of power " in the declaration of the council of state. But the autocratic tendencies of Napoleon could scarcely be held in check, and Fouche seeing the fall of the emperor to be imminent, took measures to expedite it and secure his own interests. On the 22nd of June Napoleon abdicated for the second time, and Fouche was next day elected president of the commission which provisionally governed France. Already he was in touch with Louis XVIII., then at Ghent, and now secretly received the overtures of his agent at Paris. While ostensibly working for the recognition of Napoleon II., he facilitated the success of the Bourbon cause, and thus procured for himself a place in the ministry of Louis XVIII. Even his skill, however, was unequal to the task of conciliating hot-headed royalists who remembered his vote as regicide and his fanaticism as terrorist. He resigned office, and after acting for a brief space as ambassador at Dresden, he retired to Prague. Finally he settled at Trieste, where he died on the 25th of December 1820. He had accumulated great wealth.

Marked at the outset by fanaticism, which, though cruel, was at least conscientious, Fouche's character deteriorated in and after the year 1794 into one of calculating cunning. The transition represented all that was worst in the life of France during the period of the Revolution and Empire. In Fouche the enthusiasm of the earlier period appeared as a cold, selfish and remorseless fanaticism; in him the bureaucracy of the period 1 7951 799 and the autocracy of Napoleon found their ablest instrument. Yet his intellectual pride prevented him sinking to the level of a mere tool. His relations to Napoleon were marked by a certain aloofness. He multiplied the means of resistance even to that irresistible autocrat, so that though removed from office, he was never wholly disgraced. Despised by all for his tergiversations, he nevertheless was sought by all on account of his cleverness. He repaid the contempt of his superiors and the adulation of his inferiors by a mask of impenetrable reserve or scorn. He sought for power and neglected no means to make himself serviceable to the party whose success appeared to be imminent. Yet, while appearing to be the servant of the victors, present or prospective, he never gave himself to any one party. In this versatility he resembles Talleyrand, of whom he was a coarse replica. Both professed, under all their shifts and turns, to be desirous of serving France. Talleyrand certainly did so in the sphere of diplomacy; Fouche may occasionally have done so in the sphere of intrigue.


Fouche wrote some political pamphlets and reports, the chief of which are Reflexions sur le jugement de Louis Capet (1793); Reflexions sur l'education publique (1793); Rapport et projet de loi relatif aux colleges (1793); Rapport sur la situation de CommuneA ffranchie [Lyons] (1794); Lettre aux prefets concernant les pretres, &c. (1801); also the letters of 1815 noted above, and a Lettre au duc de Wellington (1817). The best life of Fouche is that by L. Madelin, Fouche (2 vols., Paris, 1901). The so-called Fouche Memoirs are not genuine, but they were apparently compiled, at least in part, from notes written by Fouche, and are often valuable, though their account of events (e.g. of the negotiations of 1809-1810) is not seldom untrustworthy. For those negotiations see Coquelle, Napoleon et l'Angleterre (Paris, 1903, Eng. trans., London, 1904). For the plots with which Fouche had to deal see E. Daudet, La Police et les Chouans sous le Consulat et l'Empire (Paris, 1895); P. M. C. Desmarest, Temoignages historiques, ou quinze ans de haute police (Paris, 1833, 2nd ed., 1900); E. Picard, Bonaparte et Moreau (Paris, 1905); G. A. Thierry, Conspirateurs et gens de police; le complot de libelles (Paris, 1903) (Eng. trans., London, 1903); H. Welschinger, Le Duc d'Enghien (Paris, 1888); E. Guillon, Les Complots militaires sous le Consulat et l'Empire (Paris, 1894). (J. Hz. R.)

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