1902 Encyclopedia > J Fouche

Joseph Fouché
Duke of Otranto and minister of police under Napoleon I
(1763-1820)




JOSEPH FOUCHÉ, (1763-1820), duke of Otranto, minister of police under Napoleon I., was born in a small village near Nantes, 26th May 1763. He was the son of a ship captain, and at the age of nine years began the study of mathematics at the college of his native place, with the view of entering the merchant marine. That such a call-ing would have proved congenial to him is not very probable, and at any rate it presented so little attraction to his youthful fancy that he induced his father to consent to the abandonment of this intention, and to permit him to continue his studies at Paris under the superintendence of the principal of the oratory. He afterwards taught successively in the colleges of Juilly, Arras, and Vendôme ; and at the time of the Revolution he was préfet des études at Nantes. He now renounced his connexion with the ecclesiastical profession, and in 1792 succeeded in being chosen one of the national deputies for Loire-Inférieure. In this capacity he made a violent speech in support of the execution of Louis XVI., without respite and without appeal to the people, taunting those who hesitated to adopt such an extreme measure with " trembling before the shade of a king." In the midst of the political chaos he determined to " ride on the whirlwind and direct the storm :" though he had little or no interest in moral speculation, he became an ardent asserter of atheism; and, though devoid of all political predilections, and actuated in his political purposes simply by a cool calculation of advantages that was seldom if ever surprised or ruffled even by the most critical contingencies, he soon manifested a zeal for republicanism which exceeded that of the wildest enthusiasts of that exceptional time. Having at the end of 1793 been commissioned to put in operation the law des suspects in the department of Nièvre, then one of the centres of the royalist sympathizers, he not only succeeded in completely crushing all insurrectionary symptoms, but initiated the movement for the spoliation of the churches, by which the treasury was supplied with money for the campaign of 1794; and he also further inaugurated the age of reason by suppressing the priests and causing to be inscribed on the doors of the cemeteries a sentence afterwards generally adopted for this purpose—La mort est un sommeil éternel. In November of the same year he was appointed, along with Collot d'Herbois, to execute the decree of the convention against the royalist city of Lyons; and here he vied with his colleague in a mania for destruction and bloodshed, inditing bombastic regrets that the mine and the guillotine did their work too slowly to accord with the impatience of the republic, or to express the omnipotence of the people. This devoted enthusiasm for freedom led to his being elected president of the Jacobin Club, 4th June 1794, soon after his return to Paris. He now so far allowed his audacity to overcome his discretion as to make some derisive allusions to the part played in the fête de l'Etre Suprême by Bobespierre, who on that account denounced him as an impostor and peculator, and procured his expulsion from the society. Fouché had erred, however, only by a too quick anticipation of public opinion, for the execution of Bobespierre fol-lowed on the 25 th July. The star of Fouché was thus for a short time again in the ascendant ; but having awakened distrust by some new intrigues, he was denounced as a terrorist, expelled the convention 9th August 1795, and placed under arrest. He obtained his freedom by the amnesty of the 26th October following; and having obtained the confidence of the socialist Babeuf, and revealed his conspiracy to Barras, then president of the directory, he was rewarded by an interest in the contracts of the army, and by being appointed in 1798 ambassador to the Cis-alpine republic. Soon afterwards his intrigues against the directory of Milan led to his recall, but when the party of Barras again came into power he was appointed to the Hague. There he remained only a few months, returning to Paris to enter upon his famous career as minister of police. In this capacity he for some years exercised an influence on the internal affairs of France perhaps greater than that of any one else; and it was chiefly owing to his well-chosen measures of repression, his ready and dexterous use of expedients, his almost omniscient faculty of detection, and his just appreciation of political contingencies, that at this critical period of France's history the reign of anarchy was averted. Recognizing the necessity of a new political departure, he suppressed the Jacobin clubs and newspapers, and was concerned in instigating the beginning of a reaction towards monarchical principles. Though he failed to effect an understanding between Barras and Napoleon, he resolved rather to desert his patron than to share his overthrow, and exerted all his powers of management and finesse to bring the coup d'etat of the 18th Brumaire to a successful termination. Besides taking an important though carefully guarded share in the preliminary negotiations, he suspended in the name of the directory the twelve municipalities of Paris, tranquillized the citizens by posting on the walls reassuring intimations, and took the precaution of shutting the gates of Paris to prevent the fugitive deputies from re-entering the city.





Under the consulate, Fouché, notwithstanding the op-position of Sieyés, was continued minister of police, partly because he was to be dreaded as an opponent, and partly because no one else could bear comparison with him in fitness for the office. Its duties he discharged, not only with unequalled tact and discretion, but with a justice and mildness rendered possible only by his perfect confidence in his superior cunning. At the same time there was necessarily attached to it a very great irre-sponsible power, and far from neglecting to make undue use of this he took care to lend an additional appearance of necessity and value to his services by a continual supply of political fomentations. If his audacity and assumption aroused the jealousy of Napoleon, his cool impenetrability no less disconcerted him, and matters were not improved by the ludicrous blunders of the secret police which Napoleon had the folly to employ, in order both to test his minister's fidelity and render him less indispensable. Actuated therefore most probably by a regard to his own position, Fouché endeavoured to prevent a too rapid aban-donment of the lines of republicanism, and deprecated as imprudent the means that were being used towards the establishment of a monarchical government. Such advices doubtless increased Napoleon's irritation and distrust, and on becoming consul for life in 1802 he determined to rid himself of the galling fetters of his minister's ascendency. He did this, however, with great caution and respect; and while he suppressed the office as no longer necessary, he conferred on Fouché the dignity of a senator, and presented him with half the police reserve funds. The association of the functions of the old office with those of the ministry of justice did not prove a happy arrangement; and Fouché by maintaining for his own purposes the same system of espionage as formerly, was able, by revealing the Georges conspiracy to reassert his influence in the affairs of state. Divining Napoleon's secret wishes and intentions, he now took every opportunity to press upon him the advisability of immediately assuming the monarchical crown, and applied himself to the furtherance of this object with an ostentatious zeal that was doubtless meant to suggest that he was almost the sole agent in determining events towards that end. And indeed he might, after Napoleon, justly claim the chief merit of that great political change, for at any rate the smoothness with which it was accom-plished was greatly due to Fouchó's skilful management.

After Napoleon's coronation Fouché was therefore re-installed in his old office, 4th July 1804, uniting with its functions those of the ministry of the interior. In this position he took a very prominent part in the rule of France under Napoleon, and to some extent rivalled his master in influence; for if the empire gained glory by Napoleon's achievements, it owed its internal harmony to Fouche, who had for a time the entire direction of its administration. On the revival of the titles of nobility he was created duke of Otranto, and it appeared as if his tenure of office were indissolubly connected with the empire's stability. The bond between him and the emperor was, however, solely one of interest, and the very antipodes of one of affection and mutual esteem. His imperturbable self-control, his connexion with the old republicans, the obscurity and mystery in which he shrouded his intentions, and his power of secret strategy gained him almost a kind of mastery over the arbitrary spirit of Napoleon, but it was a mastery borne both with impatience and with resentment. Apart from this, his cold and vulgar ambition and his cynical contempt for all unsubstantial glory irritated the sensitive egoism of Napoleon, whose magnificent projects he often pierced with shafts of truth that were too painfully effective, and whom he somewhat imprudently tormented with warnings as to the necessity of limiting his designs of conquest. When matters were in this critical condition, they were brought to a crisis by a proclamation of Fouche calling on France—then threatened by the English inva-sion—to prove that Napoleon's presence was not necessary to scatter his enemies. The proclamation was effectual; but on Napoleon's return to Paris Fouche was deprived of the ministry of the interior. Shortly afterwards he sent an agent to England to carry on negotiations with the English Government, in ignorance that Napoleon had sent another for the same purpose; and the English minister, suspecting a trick, declined, all further negotiations. This mischance completed Fouche's disgrace; he ceased to be minister of police, 3d June 1810; and to secure his absence from France, he was appointed governor of Borne. While delaying his departure he was requested to deliver up the autograph letters of Napoleon and other Government documents in his possession; and his answer that they were all destroyed was deemed so little satisfactory that he found it expedient to go into voluntary exile. On deliver ing up the papers the destruction of which he had asserted, he was afterwards permitted to return to his estate at Pont-Carr6; but in 1813 Napoleon judged it prudent to appoint him governor of Illyria, after which he was sent to Rome to watch the movements of Murat. Being recalled to France some time before the entrance of the allies into Paris, he in anticipation of events came to an understanding with Talleyrand, and becoming one of the principal members of the provisional Government, proposed that a deputation should be sent to the "Comte d'Artois, brother of Louis XVIII. He afterwards wrote letters to the king recom-mending the adoption of certain measures fitted to reconcile the opponents of the Bourbon dynasty, and on the 25 th April addressed a letter to Napoleon at Elba, advising him, instead of making an effort to remount the throne of France, to seek a sphere for his ambition in America, " where his genius would be admired without being feared." On the news of Napoleon's escape from Elba the Govern-ment of Louis offered Fouche the portfolio of police, but he declined it on the ground that the Government could no longer hold its position. Next day he was ordered to be arrested, but deluding by a clever stratagem the officers sent for that purpose, he escaped to the hotel of Hortense Beauharnais, and received on the following day his old office from the hands of Napoleon. He now determined merely to prepare for Napoleon's downfall, which he saw to be imminent; and besides securing the confidence of both patriots and royalists, he opened a communication with the allies. After the battle of Waterloo it was therefore to him that all eyes turned for guidance; and, becoming the head of the provisional Government, he succeeded in producing the impression that his skilful diplomacy had saved Paris from extreme humiliation. Having played such an important part in this political crisis, his name could not be omitted from the list of the new Government, and he received his old office from the king, of whose brother's death he had been one of the principal instigators. His dexterity, however, had now set itself a task for which it was incompetent; and gradually finding his position untenable, he resigned office 19th September 1815. As a kind of solatium he was appointed ambassador to Dresden ; but on the passing of the law of banishment against those who had voted for the death of Louis XVI., he retired to Prague. He became a naturalized Austrian subject in 1818, and died at Trieste, 25th December 1820, in possession of enormous wealth.





Fouche, notwithstanding his equivocal expression of countenance and his known untrustworthiness, had a pecu-liar faculty of captivating the eminent politicians with whom he came into contact. This was due at once to his instinctive divination of their weak point, and to his wonderful knowledge of the varying conditions of the political barometer. Though somewhat boastful, his con-versation was remarkably agreeable and interesting, and was frequently lighted up by terse and sarcastic witticisms which would have done credit to Talleyrand. His temperament was too cold to enable him to achieve success as an orator, but his writings, though sometimes bombastic, must be allowed the merit of cleverness, and are often characterized by a graphic felicity. His unparalleled political career is to be accounted for not perhaps so much by his peculiar intellectual abilities as by the apparent fact that he was, as M. Thiers has expressed it, completely " indifferent to good and evil "o—that he was influenced neither by the impulses of passion nor by the dictates of conscience. His private life was virtuous compared with that of many of his contemporaries, and his political life—apart from his connexion with the death of Louis XVI., and the atrocities of Nantes and Lyons—was not only unstained by heinous crime, but to an unenlightened spectator seemed wholly devoted to the public interest. Inhabiting a region beyond the influence of party bias, he appeared when a political crisis was at hand almost in the character of the guardian angel of France, cherishing no remembranceof past ingratitude, but benevolently proffering for her acceptance the only aid that could save her from disaster. He was, if not the leading actor, at least the principal wire-puller and prompter in many of the great events of his time; but his only important legacy to pos-terity is the grand spy-system which he brought almost to perfection, and which has since exercised such a baneful in-fluence on European politics. Next to his love of intrigue, his main motive in all his purposes was something re-sembling avarice; but in all probability he did not love even money, and sought to lay hold of it chiefly as the one stable rock amid the billows and quicksands of political life. Though his purposes were not held in check by any moral principle, yet so strong was his self-control, and so calm his estimate of possibilities, that he never committed himself irrevocably to a conspiracy that was not successful. The atrocities, however, which inaugurated his political career, and at the close of it his acceptance of office under Louis XVIII., were, though widely separated in time, so incompatible with each other that he at last completely lost the confidence of all parties in the state, and his past career was placed in a light so strongly sinister as to render its character unmistakable. Many politicians of his own time had been guilty of equally heinous crimes; but few of any age have so consistently and uninterruptedly sacrificed every political and moral consideration, including that of self-respect, to a temporary success.

Fouché is the author of Réflexions sur le jugement de Louis Capet, 1793 ; Réflexions sur l'éducation publique, 1793 ; Rapport et projet de loi relatifs aux collèges, 1793 ; Rapport sur la situation de Com- mune-Affranchie, 1794; Lettre auxprefets, concernant les prêtres, &c, 1801 ; two Rapports au Roi and Notes aux ministres étrangers, 1815, where he ably discusses the condition of France at the time; and Lettre au duc de Wellington, 1817. He is said to have been the author of the Précis de la vie publique du duc d'Otrante, published at London and Leipsic in 1816. The Mémoires de Fouché, Paris, 1824, were declared by his family to be a forgery, but although their naïveté is often too pronounced to be compatible with their authenticity, they are evidently founded on original sources of information. See also Vie de Fouché, 1821; Bourrienne, Life of Napoleon ; Desmarest, Témoignages historiques, ou quinze Ans de haute police sous Napoléon, 1833 ; Martel, Étude sur Fouché et sur le communisme dans le pratique en 1793, 1873, which contains a number of documents never before published ; and an interesting account of an interview with Fouché by Earl Stanhope, in Lord Brougham's collected works, vol. v. (T. F. H.)




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