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Constitution of the Year VIII
The Constitution of the Year VIII (1799)
Original titleConstitution de l'an VIII
Created22 Frimaire, Year VIII (13 December 1799)
Presented24 Frimaire, Year VIII (15 December 1799)
Repealed16 Thermidor, Year X (4 August 1802)
LocationFrench National Archives
Author(s)Initially Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, later delegated to Daunou
SupersedesConstitution of 5 Fructidor, Year III (Constitution of the Directory)

The Constitution of the Year VIII (French: Constitution de l'an VIII or French: Constitution du 22 frimaire an VIII) was a national constitution of France, adopted on 24 December 1799 (during Year VIII of the French Republican calendar), which established the form of government known as the Consulate. The coup of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799) had effectively given all power to Napoleon Bonaparte, and in the eyes of some, ended the French Revolution.

After the coup, Napoleon and his allies legitimized his position by crafting a Constitution that would be, in the words of Napoleon, "short and obscure".[1][2] The constitution tailor-made the position of First Consul to give Napoleon most of the powers of a dictator. It was the first constitution since the 1789 Revolution without a Declaration of Rights.

The document vested executive power in three Consuls, but all actual power was held by the First Consul, Bonaparte. This differed from Robespierre's republic of c.1792 to 1795 (which was more radical), and from the oligarchic liberal republic of the Directory (1795–1799). More than anything, the Consulat resembled the autocratic Roman Republic of Caesar Augustus, a conservative republic-in-name, which reminded the French of stability, order, and peace.[3] It has been called a regime of "modern Caesarism".[4][5] To emphasize this, the authors of the constitutional document used classical Roman terms, such as "Consul", "Senator" and "Tribune".

The Constitution of Year VIII established a legislature of three houses, which was composed of a Conservative Senate of 80 men over the age of 40, a Tribunate of 100 men over the age of 25, and a Legislative Body (Corps législatif) of 300 men over 30 years old.

The Constitution also used the term "notables". The word "notables" had been in common usage under the monarchy. It referred to prominent, "distinguished" men — landholders, merchants, scholars, professionals, clergymen and officials.[6] The people in each district chose a slate of "notables" by popular vote. The First Consul, the Tribunate, and the Corps Législatif each nominated one Senatorial candidate to the rest of the Senate, which chose one candidate from among the three. Once all of its members were picked, it would then appoint the Tribunate, the Corps Législatif, the judges of cassation, and the commissioners of accounts from the National List of notables.[7]

Napoleon held a plebiscite on the Constitution on 7 February 1800. The vote was not binding, but it allowed Napoleon to maintain a veneer of democracy. Lucien Bonaparte announced results of 3,011,007 in favor and 1,562 against the new dispensation. The true result was probably around 1.55 million for it, with several thousand against it.[8]

This Constitution was amended, firstly, by the Constitution of the Year X, which made Napoleon First Consul for Life. A more extensive alteration, the Constitution of the Year XII, established the Bonaparte dynasty with Napoleon as a hereditary Emperor. The first, brief Bourbon Restoration of 1814 abolished the Napoleonic constitutional system, but the Emperor revived it and at once virtually replaced it with the so-called "Additional Act" of April 1815, promulgated on his return to power. The return of Louis XVIII in July 1815 (following the Hundred Days) saw the definitive abolition of Napoleon's constitutional arrangements. The Napoleonic constitutions were completely replaced by the Bourbon Charter of 1814.

Background and Adoption

Napoleon Bonaparte during the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud, painting by François Bouchot

Following the refusal of the Council of Five Hundred to revise the Constitution of the Year III, Napoleon Bonaparte conducted a coup d'État on the 18th Brumaire of year VIII (9 November 1799) and took control of the government alongside the Abbot Sieyès and Roger Ducos, establishing a provisional consulate.[9]

Napoléon proceeded to compose, alongside Sieyès, a new constitution aiming to assure a strong executive power, concentrated in Napoleon's hands.[10] The assemblies designated a commission each for the preparation of a new constitution. Multiple sessions took place before Napoleon interfered to accelerate the process.[10]

The Constitution of the Year VIII was composed in 11 days,[11] principally by Pierre Claude François Daunou, who belonged to the Society of Ideologues (liberal republicans hostile to Jacobinism) and had had a significant role in writing the Constitution of the Year III.[12] It was adopted on 13 December 1799, under pretext of emergency, before being ratified by a plebiscite which took place for 15 days, the official results of which were made public 7 February 1800.

Officially, the Constitution was approved by 3,011,107 citizens against 1,562 opposants,[13] from a base of around 6 million voters registered in electoral lists. French historian Claude Langlois demonstrated in 1972 that the results of this plebiscite had been massively falsified by Napoleon's brother Lucien Bonaparte.[14][15]

New Constitutional Order

The Constitution of the Year VIII marks a break with the preceding constitutions- it allows Napoleon to exercise a personal power[16] all the while maintaining an illusion of democracy. The text is very technical, and defines mainly the powers of the First Consul.

Unlike the preceding Republican Constitutions, the Constitution of the Year VIII does not feature a declaration of rights and freedoms.[17] However, some rights are affirmed in general terms, such as the inviolability of the home, personal safety, and the right to petition.

The Constitution establishes universal masculine suffrage, but the electoral system does not allow a real expression of the citizens; in effect, elections are removed, with citizen unable to elect representants but limited to create "Lists of Confidence (or notability)".[18] These were lists of candidates from which membres of the Assemblies, consuls, and functionaries are names or elected by the government or the Senate.

This universal suffrage is indirect, and proceeds in three stages:

  1. The voters of each canton designate a tenth of them to constitute the district list. This list makes it possible to choose the public servants of the arrondissement. These members designate another tenth of them to constitute the departmental list.
  2. This departmental list makes it possible to choose the officials of the department. These members designate another tenth of them to constitute the national list.
  3. The national list makes it possible to choose national civil servants including members of the Legislative Body and the Tribunate.

In addition, the length of stay required of a foreigner to claim French citizenship increases: it is no longer seven years but ten years, or twice as long as the period provided for by the Legislative Assembly in 1791.[19]

The Constitution appears "tailored" to Napoleon, to the point that he is designated explicitly and by name as the First Consul, highly unusual for a constitutional text,[20] which is by definition destined to be permanently applicable. The designation by name of five citizens (Napoleon, Cambacérès, Lebrun, Sieyès, and Ducos)[21] limits the applicability of the text to the lifetimes of the Consuls.

The Consulate is composed of three Consuls, but contrary to the Directory, the Second and Third Consuls only had a consultative power.

The powers of the First Consul are considerable. He names the main civil servants and has the right of initiative. Additionally, he is given significant powers in diplomacy and military affairs.

Organs of Executive Power


The three Consuls of the Year VIII: Cambacérès, Napoleon, and Lebrun.

The executive power, weakened during the Revolution, now holds the real political power, aided by the advisory role of the then newly-established Conseil d'État (Council of State). Executive power is wielded by the Consulate. Three Consuls are named for ten years and indefinitely re-electable by the Senate.[21] The Second and Third Consul only being able to make their opinion known, executive power now effectively belongs to the First Consul, who also has a large amount of legislative power. He proposes and promulgates laws, names and revokes ministers and civil servants, and has no political responsibility.[22]

The first three consuls designated by the Constitution of Year VIII are Napoléon Bonaparte, Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, and Charles-François Lebrun.[23]

The legislature is now weakened by its division in three assemblies: the Conservative Senate, the Tribunate, and the Legislative Body.[24]

Installation of the Council of State at the Petit-Luxembourg, 25 December 1799, an 1856 painting by Auguste Couder.

Council of State

The Council of State (French: Conseil d'État) was established by the article 52 of the Constitution of the Year VIII.[25] This council was designed as an instrument at the service of the executive,[26] given various functions for this end: from the drafting of laws to the control of the administration, consisting of resolving disputes that arise in administrative matters, particularly between citizens and the State.

It consisted of between 30 and 50 members, appointed by the First Consul.[27]

Organs of Legislative Power

In an effort to weaken the legislative power,[28] it was divided into three organs: two assemblies,[29] the Tribunate (French: Tribunat) and the Legislative Body (Corps législatif), and the Conservative Senate (Sénat conservateur).


Composed of 100 men over the age of 25 selected by the Senate from the lists of Notability,[30] the Tribunate had the role of discussing laws proposed by the Government. The Tribunate could express its opinion on laws made or to be made, on possible corrections, or improvements to be made in all areas of public administration.[21] The Tribunate then designated three speakers who would defend its position before the Legislative Body.

Legislative Body

The Legislative Body was composed of 300 members over the age of 30,[31] selected likewise by the Senate from national lists of notability. It was tasked with voting on the laws discussed by the Tribunate, without being able to modify or discuss them. For this reason, it was sometimes facetiously called the "mute assembly".[32] The Legislative Body then voted for or against the Tribunate's proposal. If adopted, the bill became a "decretal" (French: Décret) of the Legislative Body, able to be promulgated as law.

Conservative Senate

The Sénat conservateur comprised 80 members made over the age of 40.[33] This figure of 80 members was to be reached gradually; 60 members were appointed in the Year VIII, to which were to be added two additional members each year, for ten years.[34] The Constitution of the Year VIII explicitly named Sieyès and Roger-Ducos, outgoing Second and Third Consuls, as ex officio members of the Senate. They were tasked with appointing the majority of the Senate, in consultation with Cambacérès and Lebrun, the new Second and Third Consuls.[35]

Unlike the Tribunate and the Legislative Body, had no role in the legislative process. However, it had significant power over the two assemblies, in elective and constitutional matters.[36]

The Senate, presided by Napoleon himself, names the members of the two assemblies.[21] Its other mission was to ensure the constitutionality of laws; as the "conservator of the Constitution" (from which it gets its name), it could block the promulgation of a text voted by the Legislative Body.[37][38]


Connelly, Owen (2000). The French Revolution and Napoleonic Era. 3rd Edition. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt. pp. 201–203.


  1. ^ Martin, J. (2021). « Bonaparte a été le fossoyeur de la Révolution. ». Dans : , J. Martin, Idées reçues sur la Révolution française (pp. 61-64). Paris: Le Cavalier Bleu.
  2. ^ Crook, Malcolm (1999). "The Myth Of The 18 Brumaire". H-France Napoleon Forum. Archived from the original on 18 January 2008. Retrieved 12 December 2007.
  3. ^ Basilien-Gainche, Marie-Laure (2013). État de droit et états d'exception (in French). Presses Universitaires de France. p. 45. doi:10.3917/puf.gain.2013.01. ISBN 978-2-13-058938-9.
  4. ^ Gramsci, Antonio. « V. Machiavel, la politique, le prince moderne et les classes subalternes », , Guerre de mouvement et guerre de position. Textes choisis et présentés par Razmig Keucheyan, sous la direction de Gramsci Antonio. La Fabrique Éditions, 2012, pp. 159-269.
  5. ^ Droit constitutionnel. Spécial Droit (3e éd ed.). Paris: Ellipses. 2022. p. 127. ISBN 978-2-340-06880-3.
  6. ^ B., Collins, James (1995). The state in early modern France. Cambridge University Press. pp. xix. ISBN 0-521-38284-X. OCLC 31045245.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ "Constitution du 22 Frimaire An VIII" [Constitution of 22 Frimaire Year VIII]. Conseil Constitutionnel. Articles 19 and 20.
  8. ^ Alexander, R. S. (2001). Napoleon. London: Arnold. p. 22. ISBN 0-340-71915-X. OCLC 46498013.
  9. ^ Lefebvre, Georges (1964). The French Revolution. Vol. II: from 1793 to 1799. pp. 252–256.
  10. ^ a b Duverger, Maurice. « Les révolutions et la valse des constitutions », Maurice Duverger éd., Les constitutions de la France. Presses Universitaires de France, 2004, pp. 34-72.
  11. ^ Broc, Katarzyna Gromek; Birkinshaw, Patrick, eds. (2023). Public law in a troubled era: a tribute to Professor Patrick Birkinshaw. European monographs series set. Alphen aan den Rijn Landisville, PA: Wolters Kluwer. ISBN 978-94-035-3576-0.
  12. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica (in French) (11th ed.). Horace Everett Hooper. 1910–1911. pp. 849–850.
  13. ^ Horn, J. (2002). Building the New Regime: Founding the Bonapartist State in the Department of the Aube. French Historical Studies, 25(2), 225–263.
  14. ^ Alexander, Robert (6 February 2017). Napoleon. London: Arnold. p. 22. ISBN 0-340-71916-8
  15. ^ Crook, Malcolm (1998). Napoleon Comes to Power: democracy and dictatorship in revolutionary France, 1795-1804. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. pp. 75–77. ISBN 0-7083-1401-5
  16. ^ Menichetti, Johan (2013). "L'écriture de la constitution de l'An VIII : quelques réflexions sur l'échec d'un mécanisme révolutionnaire". Napoleonica (in French). 18 (3): 68–83. doi:10.3917/napo.133.0068. ISSN 2100-0123. He is especially criticized for favoring the concentration of powers around the figure of the First Consul, thus going against the primary meaning of the separation of powers
  17. ^ Menichetti, Johan (2013). "L'écriture de la constitution de l'An VIII : quelques réflexions sur l'échec d'un mécanisme révolutionnaire". Napoleonica la Revue (in French). 18 (3): 68. doi:10.3917/napo.133.0068. ISSN 2100-0123. Ensuite, elle est la première constitution écrite à laquelle n'est pas associée une Déclaration des Droits. (In addition, it is the first constitution written to which is not affixed a declaration of rights)
  18. ^ Quiviger, Pierre-Yves (13 December 2013). "Les listes de confiance". Revue Française d'Histoire des Idées Politiques. 38 (2): 231–240. doi:10.3917/rfhip.038.0231. ISSN 1266-7862.
  19. ^ "Constitution of 1791". University of Santa Fe. Archived from the original on 27 February 2014.
  20. ^ Ribner, Jonathan P. (1993). Broken Tablets. University of California Press. p. 36. The Napoleonic practice of inscribing Bonaparte's name in the constitution reflected this personalization of the law. Whereas the revolutionary constitutions had upheld Rousseau's insistence that law remain unsullied by particulars, the Constitution of Year VIII cited the three consuls by name, and the imperial Constitution of Year XII [...] specified the positions of Napoleon's heirs in the line of succession to the throne.
  21. ^ a b c d "Constitution du 22 Frimaire An VIII". Conseil Constitutionnel.
  22. ^ Lentz, Thierry (2013). "Napoleon and his ministers". Napoleonica. La Revue. 1 (16): 88–113. doi:10.3917/napo.131.0088.
  23. ^ "Constitution du 22 Frimaire An VIII". Conseil Constitutionnel.
  24. ^ Ribner, Jonathan P. (1993). Broken Tablets. University of California Press. p. 37.
  25. ^ "Constitution du 22 Frimaire An VIII" [Constitution of 22 Frimaire Year VIII]. Conseil Constitutionnel. Article 52. - Sous la direction des consuls, un Conseil d'État est chargé de rédiger les projets de lois et les règlements d'administration publique, et de résoudre les difficultés qui s'élèvent en matière administrative. [Article 52. - Under the direction of the consuls, a Council of State is responsible for drafting bills and public administration regulations, and for resolving difficulties that arise in administrative matters.]
  26. ^ Chevallier, Jacques. « Le Conseil d'État, au cœur de l'État », Pouvoirs, vol. 123, no. 4, 2007, pp. 5-17.
  27. ^ "Constitution du 22 Frimaire An VIII". Conseil Constitutionnel.
  28. ^ "Histoire résumée de l'Assemblée nationale" [Summary of the History of the National Assembly]. Assemblée Nationale (in French).
  29. ^ Thierry Lentz, Nouvelle histoire du Premier Empire, III. La France et l'Europe de Napoléon 1804-1814, éd. Fayard, 2007, p. 110-111.
  30. ^ Article 27 of the Constitution of the Year VIII
  31. ^ Article 31 of the Constitution of the Year VIII
  32. ^ Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Mes souvenir sur Napoléon, 1898, p. 218.
  33. ^ Article 15 of the Constitution of the Year VIII
  34. ^ "1799-1814 : Le Sénat conservateur". Sénat.
  35. ^ Article 24 of the Constitution of the Year VIII
  36. ^ "Sous le Sénat de l'Empire..." [Under the Senate of the Empire]. senat.fr (in French).
  37. ^ Article 37, Constitution of the Year VIII
  38. ^ "Le Sénat Conservateur du Ier Empire" [The Conservative Senate of the First Empire]. sénat.fr. Le Sénat devait, par ailleurs, examiner les listes d'éligibles et les actes déférés à sa censure par le Tribunat ou par le gouvernement : il pouvait donc annuler avant leur promulgation les lois et actes du pouvoir exécutif qu'il jugeait inconstitutionnels. [The Senate had, moreover, to examine the lists of eligible persons and the acts referred to its censure by the Tribunate or by the government: it could therefore annul, before their promulgation, the laws and acts of the executive power which it deemed unconstitutional.]