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The Thermidorian Reaction was a revolt in the French Revolution against the excesses of the Reign of Terror. It was triggered by a vote of the National Convention to execute Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, and several other leading members of the Terror. This ended the most radical phase of the French Revolution.
The name Thermidorian refers to 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), the date according to the French Revolutionary Calendar when Robespierre and other radical revolutionaries came under concerted attack in the National Convention. Thermidorian Reaction also refers to the remaining period until the National Convention was superseded by the Directory; this is also sometimes called the era of the Thermidorian Convention. Prominent figures of Thermidor include Paul Barras, Jean-Lambert Tallien, and Joseph Fouché.
Thermidor represents the final throes of the Reign of Terror. With Robespierre the sole remaining strong-man of the Revolution following the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat (13 July 1793), and the executions of Jacques Hébert (24 March 1794) and Georges Danton (5 April 1794), his apparently total grasp on power became in fact increasingly illusory, especially insofar as he seemed to have support from factions to his right. His only real political power at this time lay in the Jacobin Club, which had extended itself beyond the borders of Paris and into the country as a network of "Popular Societies".
In addition to widespread reaction to the Reign of Terror, Robespierre's tight personal control of the military, his distrust of military might and of banks, and his opposition to corrupt individuals in government, made him the subject of a number of conspiracies. The conspiracies came together on 9 Thermidor (27 July) when members of the national bodies of the revolutionary government arrested Robespierre as well as the leaders of the Paris city government.
Not all of the conspiratorial groupings were ideological in motivation; many who conspired against Robespierre did so for strong practical and personal reasons, most notably self-preservation. The surviving Dantonists, such as Merlin de Thionville for example, wanted revenge for the death of Danton and, more importantly, to protect their own heads.
The prime mover, however, for the events of 9 Thermidor (27 July) was a Montagnard conspiracy, led by Jean-Lambert Tallien and Bourdon de l'Oise, which was gradually coalescing, and was to come to pass at the time when the Montagnards had finally swayed the deputies of the Right over to their side. (Robespierre and Saint-Just were themselves Montagnards.) Some authors argue that the then leftist Joseph Fouché played a large role in the conspiracy. Fouché was likely to be convicted and executed for treason and atheism, since Robespierre himself was about to denounce him in a speech to the Convention, which would have been delivered the day after the coup d'état (28 July). Dwelling in the shadows, he made great efforts to convince the main surviving leftists and moderates that they were meant to be the next victims of Robespierre's dictatorship, thus uniting them against Robespierre, and by those means saving his own life.
In the end, it was Robespierre himself who united all his enemies. On 8 Thermidor (26 July) he gave a speech to the Convention in which he railed against enemies and conspiracies, some within the powerful committees, as he did not give the names of these traitors, all in the Convention had reason to fear that they were the targets. Later he went and enlisted the support of the Jacobin Club, where he denounced Collot and Billaud. These men then spent the night planning the following day’s coup with other members of the convention.
On 9 Thermidor (27 July), in the Hall of Liberty in Paris, Saint-Just was in the midst of reading a report to the Committee of Public Safety when he was interrupted by Tallien, who impugned Saint-Just and then went on to denounce the tyranny of Robespierre. The attack was taken up by Billaud-Varenne, and Saint-Just's typical eloquence fled him, leaving him subject to a withering verbal assault until Robespierre leapt to the defense of Saint-Just and himself. Cries went up of 'Down with the tyrant! Arrest him!' Robespierre then made his appeal to the deputies of the Right, "Deputies of the Right, men of honour, men of virtue, give me the floor, since the assassins will not." However, the Right was unmoved, and an order was made to arrest Robespierre and his followers.
Troops from the Paris Commune arrived to liberate the prisoners. The Commune troops, under General Coffinhal, then marched against the Convention itself. The Convention responded by ordering troops of its own under Paul Barras to be called out. When the Commune's troops heard the news of this, order began to break down, and Hanriot ordered his remaining troops to withdraw to the Hôtel de Ville. Robespierre and his supporters also gathered at the Hôtel de Ville.
The Convention declared them to be outlaws, meaning that upon verification the fugitives could be executed within 24 hours without a trial. As the night went on the Commune forces at the Hôtel de Ville deserted until none of them remained. The Convention troops under Barras approached the Hôtel around 2:00 am on 28 July. As they came, Robespierre's brother Augustin leapt out of a window in an escape attempt, broke his legs, and was arrested. Le Bas committed suicide. Couthon, who was paralysed from the waist down, was found lying at the bottom of a staircase.
Robespierre was shot in the face, and his jaw was shattered. There are two accounts of how he received the wound. One states that, anticipating his own downfall and wanting to have the death of a hero, Robespierre attempted to kill himself and shattered his own jaw with a shot. The contrary view is that he was shot by one of the Convention's troops. At the time, a gendarme named Charles-André Merda claimed to have pulled the trigger.
Saint-Just made no attempt at suicide or concealment. Hanriot tried to hide in the Hôtel de Ville's yard, by some sources[who?] after being thrown out a window into a stack of latrine and hay, but the Convention troops quickly discovered him and assaulted him badly, allegedly gouging one of his eyes out so that it hung from its socket.
Death of Robespierre
Robespierre was declared an outlaw, and condemned without judicial process. The following day, 10 Thermidor (28 July 1794), he was executed with 21 of his closest associates, including:
- Adrien-Nicolas Gobeau, ex-substitute of the public prosecutor
- Antoine Gency
- Antoine Simon, gaoler of the Dauphin
- Augustin Robespierre
- Charles-Jacques Bougon
- Christophe Cochefer
- Claude-François de Payan
- Denis-Étienne Laurent, municipal officer
- Étienne-Nicolas Guérin
- François Hanriot, ex-commander of the Parisian National Guard
- Jean-Baptiste de Lavalette, ex-général de brigade
- Jean-Barnabé Dhazard
- Jean-Baptiste Fleuriot-Lescot, mayor of Paris
- Jean-Claude Bernard
- Jean-Etienne Forestier
- Jacques-Louis Frédéric Wouarmé
- Jean-Marie Quenet
- Georges Couthon
- Louis Antoine de Saint-Just
- Nicolas-Joseph Vivier, judge of the Revolutionary Tribunal
- René-François Dumas, ex-president of the Revolutionary Tribunal
Consequences of the Reaction
The events of 9 Thermidor proved a watershed in the revolutionary process. The Thermidorian regime that followed became, at the very least, less rigid, ending the Reign of Terror and allowing for more individual liberty, especially in areas of religion. At the same time, its economic policies paved the way for rampant inflation. Ultimately, power devolved to the hands of the Directory, an executive of five men who assumed power in France in November 1795 (in year III of the French Revolutionary calendar).
The Thermidorian regime excluded the remaining Montagnards from power, even those who had joined in conspiring against Robespierre and Saint-Just. The White Terror of 1794 resulted in numerous imprisonments and several hundred executions, almost exclusively of people on the political left. These numbers, while significant, were considerably smaller than those associated with the previous Reign of Terror, which killed over 40,000. The executions became more politically motivated (often as instances of revenge against Jacobins) rather than responding to perceived or real threats to the people, as in the previous Terror. Many executions took place without a trial.
“On July 29 the victor of the 9th Thermidor condemned seventy members of the Paris Commune to death; thereafter the Commune was subject to the Convention”
As part of the reorganization of French politics, practitioners of the terror were called to defend their records, some such as Tallien, Fouché and Fréron rejoined the leadership. Others such as Billaud-Varenne, Collot d’Herbois, Barère & Vadier were sentenced to exile in South America. (Although the last two managed to evade arrest). Many Jacobin clubs were closed. Freedom of worship was extended first to the Vendée and later to all France. On 24 December 1794 the Maximum, (controls on prices and wages), was abolished. The government exacerbated this inflationary move by issuing more assignats.
In April and May of 1795 protests and riots in support of the radicals broke out culminating in an invasion of the Convention by an insurrectionist mob on 20 May. On 22 May the Convention struck back, having troops under Pichegru surround the Faubourg St-Antoine and force the capitulation of the armed rebels. In May and June 1795, a "White Terror" raged in which Jacobins were victims and the judges were bourgeois "Moderates". Throughout France the events of the September Massacres were repeated, however this time the victims were imprisoned officials of the Terror. In Paris, Royalist sentiments were openly tolerated.
Meanwhile, French Armies overran the Netherlands and established the Batavian Republic, occupied the left bank of the Rhine and forced Spain, Prussia and several German States to sue for peace, enhancing the prestige of the Convention. A new constitution was drawn up which eased back some of the democratic elements of the constitution of 1793, establishing an electoral college for the election of officials, a bicameral legislature and other provisions designed to protect the current holders of power. On 5 October (13 Vendémiaire), a revolt led by Royalists challenged the Convention. It was put down by Napoleon with a whiff of grapeshot. On 25 October the Convention declared itself dissolved and was replaced by the French Directory on 2 November.
Other Thermidorian Reactions
For historians of revolutionary movements, the term Thermidor has come to mean the phase in some revolutions when power slips from the hands of the original revolutionary leadership and a radical regime is replaced by a more conservative regime, sometimes to the point where the political pendulum may swing back towards something resembling a pre-revolutionary state. Leon Trotsky, in his book The Revolution Betrayed, alleges the rise of Joseph Stalin to power was a Soviet Thermidor.
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