Paul Barras

The French statesman and revolutionist Paul François Jean Nicolas, Vicomte de Barras (1755-1829), was a member of the Directory during the French Revolution.

Paul Barras (pronounced ba°-ra°s) was born at Fox-Amphoux of an old noble family of Provence. He embarked upon a military career and took part in the Native American campaign in the years before the French Revolution. Returning to France shortly before 1789 with the rank of captain, he embraced the new revolutionary ideas. On July 14, 1789, he took part in the attack on the Bastille, and on October 5-6 he was involved in bringing Louis XVI back to Paris from Versailles.

In September 1792 Barras was elected to the National Convention, where he voted for the establishment of a republic and the death of the king. Barras spent much of his time on missions in the south, although he attended the convention, sitting with the Jacobins. At the siege of Toulon he met Napoleon Bonaparte who commanded the artillery. By the summer of 1794 Barras had joined the forces determined to overthrow Robespierre, and he helped to bring down the Jacobin regime on 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794).

Barras's popularity and influence grew during the period of the Thermidorian Reaction. When the Directory was established in 1795, he became one of the five directors. Because of his military background the government called upon him to put down the royalist uprising of 13 Vendémiaire (Oct. 5, 1795). Remembering the young artillery officer from Toulon, who was in Paris at the time, Barras appointed Gen. Bonaparte to defend the Tuileries. The rebellion was crushed and the government strengthened, and Bonaparte, with Barras's help, was given command of the Army of Italy. This was Bonaparte's first real opportunity to display his military ability. Furthermore, Barras bestowed his former mistress, Josephine de Beauharnais, upon his protégé and was best man at their marriage in March 1796.

Barras's prestige reached its high point in 1797, when Bonaparte imposed peace upon Austria. During 1798-1799 the French people began to tire of the Directory, and when Bonaparte seized power on 18 Brumaire (Nov. 10, 1799), the government had little support outside of the Chamber of Five Hundred. Barras, opposed to Bonaparte's action, immediately resigned and went into retirement on his estate of Gros-Bois. His disapproval of the Consulate led to his exile to Brussels.

In 1805 Napoleon, then securely on the throne of France, allowed Barras to settle at Marseilles, where he remained until 1813. In the last months of the Empire he lived in Rome, but after Napoleon's abdication in April 1814, he returned to Paris. No more acceptable to the returning royalists than to the departed Bonapartists, Barras remained under surveillance and completely detached from politics. He died at Chaillot in 1829.

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Further Reading on Vicomte de Barras

George Duruy, ed., Memoirs of Barras (trans., 4 vols., 1895-1896), remains the best available source on Barras in English. Georges Lefebvre, The Directory (trans. 1964), is somewhat sympathetic toward Barras. The principal biographies of Barras, however, remain untranslated.