What Was the Thermidorian Reaction?

This tile covers the mid-1790s, as France recovered from the violence of the earlier part of the decade.

Thermidorian reaction: the fall of Robespierre

In 1794, a coup at the Convention saw Robespierre being the one accused, for a change. The causes for this political sea change are diverse, but story has it that one mis-step was the straw breaking the camel’s back. Robespierre was used to vehement speeches where he named names, and the accused saw their life expectancy dwindle to nothing. But on that summer day in 1794, he promised a general purge of the government committees, pointed to some shadowy but undefined conspiracies, and, although he named three supposed conspirators, the accusations were broad enough that everyone could feel threatened. When one of the accused, Cambon, fought back, the tide truly turned.

Symbolically, a pistol shot to the jaw during Robespierre’s arrest a couple days later silenced him. He couldn’t talk his way out of this one, as he had done so many times. He and all his supporters were beheaded the next day.

6.2 An ambiguous new Thermidor ‘regime’

Thermidor is the name of the month in the revolutionary calendar when Robespierre’s execution happened.

This is often seen simplistically as a reaction of the ‘moderates’ against the Robespierre dictatorship, but they were actually in an objective alliance with Jacobins who considered Robespierre as too conservative and wanted to impose communism or outlaw religion altogether.

The regime that replaced Robespierre was known as the Thermidor regime. This did put an end to the apex of Terror, but political mores were not completely pacified: many participants to the coup were sentenced, although usage of the guillotine was less: guilty parties were often sent to die in forced labor in distant colonies instead.

6.3 Directory: an attempt at a pacified, bourgeois republic

In 1795, the ailing Convention breathed its last when a new Constitution was adopted:

The Head of State role was filled by a collective of 5 Directeurs: hence the name of Directory. The legislative power was split between a low and a high chamber. The system was closer to aristocratic republics or to the United States.

Unfortunately the Directory regime was marred by rampant corruption and constant coup attempts, by Jacobins or Monarchists.

The Directors, led by Paul Barras, held the center for the many bourgeois liberals who had benefited from the sale of clergy or nobility estates, and feared both a return to absolute monarchy and another Reign of Terror.

Incroyables et merveilleuses

The era right after WW1 is known in France as ‘les années folles,’ a period of artistic exuberance when the country was experiencing a breeze of relief after the horrors it had lived through.

The Revolution had its own années folles after the Terror. Extravagant fashions and literary sub-cultures blossomed, with the most fashionable young lads and ladies being known as ‘les Incroyables et les Merveilleuses.’

This was a time when people were pushing the boundaries of fashion and society. Men would wear outrageous clothes, such as long coats and scarves, and women would wear short skirts and dresses. They would also wear a lot of makeup and jewelry. 

War, still

Since 1792, the Republic had been in a state of continuous war. The Directory was mostly victorious though, making conquests or creating ‘sister republics’ in regions where even Louis XIV wouldn’t have dreamt to tread, like current Belgium or northern Italy.

By 1797, the war went deeper into Italy. Since the proud cities of Venice, Florence and Sienna had seen their power dwindle in the 1500s, the region had been under Austrian domination. Attempts by French kings like Louis XI or François Ier  to make a mark there had been deeply frustrating: François was captured and ransomed. For the first time since the days of Charlemagne, a French general would know significant success in Europe, and bring back enough artistic treasures to fill the whole Louvre.

The end of the Revolution

We’ve seen that 1799 is only a conventional end to the Revolution, but it is the most commonly held one.

The man who was instrumental to this end was that French general who flew from victory to victory in Italy. He hailed from Corsica and was named Napoléon Bonaparte.

His popularity greatly concerned the Directeurs, who sent him away to conquer Egypt, clearly hoping he would never come back. Yet, he did, not as the conqueror of Egypt, but with enough honor to dominate the political scene henceforth.

On 18 Brumaire (9th of November, 1799), Bonaparte deposed the Directory. The new regime, the Consulate, was tailor-made: although some hoped that this soldier would just be a figurehead, he quickly assumed complete power. Five short years later, he would be the Emperor.

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