A slandered creek, not so deep, death
– Mallarmé, ‘Tombeau de Verlaine’
From that moment all was lost! To justify their crime, those who had cooperated in the events of that day were obliged to change into heads of accusations the very principles, conduct, and virtues of their victims. The interested professors of democracy, and the ancient partisans of aristocracy, were found to accord once more. Certain rallying cries that recalled the doctrines and institutions of equality, were now regarded as the impure howls of anarchy, brigandism, and terrorism. Those that in Robespierre’s time had been wisely kept in check for the nation’s safety, seized upon authority again; and to revenge themselves for the humiliation they had been reduced to, they involved in a long and sanguinary proscription, together with the sincere friends of equality, those also who had preached it from self-interest, and even the very factionists who by reason, jealousy, or blindness, had so largely and fatally cooperated in the counter-revolution of the 9th Thermidor.1
The name of the man who explains the meaning of 9 Thermidor in this way was Filippo Buonarroti, a friend of Robespierre who for a long time defended his memory and spread his ideas. At the start of his book on the Conspiracy of Equals, he presents the event as a radical break, or at least a disastrous turn: ‘From the moment that the Revolutionary Government had passed into the hands of the Egoists it became a veritable public scourge.’2
Major historians have also given credit to the idea of a Thermidorian break, by ending their histories of the Revolution at this date. The most prestigious example is that of Michelet. In the closing lines of his great book, a child, taken by his parents to the theatre soon after Thermidor, is amazed to see on the way out ‘men in jackets, their hats doffed, asking the spectators as they leave: “Do you need a carriage, master?” The child does not understand these new words. He asks for an explanation, and is simply told that there has been a great change with the death of Robespierre.’
Jaurès breaks off his contribution to the Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française after Thermidor, at the end of volume 6, leaving ‘in the hands of our friends the torch whose flame has already been buffeted by such stormy winds’. Mathiez similarly ends the third and final volume of his Histoire de la Révolution française with Thermidor, ‘a memorable example of the limits of human will grappling with the resistance of things’ – a nod, perhaps, to Saint-Just’s expression, ‘the force of things’.3
Alongside these venerable writers of the past, it is unsettling to see some present-day historians, even among the most interesting, interpret Thermidor in a very different way. For Martyn Lyons, ‘in regarding 9 Thermidor as the end of the Revolution, we have taken for granted an interpretation of the Revolution which has perhaps overstated the role of Robespierre and the Terror’. Lyons arrives, as we have seen, at the rather paradoxical conclusion that ‘9 Thermidor, seen so often as the work of reactionaries, was interpreted by the Comité de Sûreté Générale and by its main authors as a revolution of the Left.’ Neither Barère, nor Billaud, nor Collot, he continues, ‘imagined that the overthrow of Robespierre would necessarily mean the end of the Terror … The Thermidorean regime of the Year 3 became a perversion of their original intentions.’4
Françoise Brunel goes further, writing that 9 Thermidor appears to her a ‘non-event’, apart from the number of victims. For her, the end of the Revolution is located not in Thermidor of year II but in Germinal–Prairial of year III (April–May 1795), when, after the final Paris uprising was crushed, the ‘last Montagnards’ were arrested and either deported or condemned to death. ‘None of this [the closing of the Jacobins club, the abrogation of the maximum, the Constitution of year III] was inevitable on 9 Thermidor.’5 It is true that the Roman-style suicide of the ‘Prairial martyrs’,6 the throwing of Marat’s ashes into the sewer, and the return of the Girondins to the Convention, all these events of year III, may well appear as an ending. For Yannick Bosc, it is the new Constitution of that year that marks the real break.7
But is it possible to argue, for all that, that there was a continuity in the Revolution beyond 9 Thermidor?
On 10 Thermidor, in the evening session,8 the Convention decided on Lecointre’s proposal to purge the popular commissions – set up, we recall, to screen suspects and distribute their assets to the poor. This operation would be conducted under the auspices of the Committees of Public Safety and General Security, but the final decision would be taken by the Convention itself. This was a major step towards the de facto annulment of the Ventôse decrees.9
The following day, on Thuriot’s proposal, the Revolutionary Tribunal, ‘peopled by Robespierre’s creatures’, was suspended and replaced by a temporary commission. In the evening, as proposed by Tallien, the Convention decreed that all the Committees would be renewed by a quarter each month. Delmas requested successfully that ‘no member shall be able to return to a committee within a month of leaving it’.10
On 14 Thermidor (1 August), the Prairial law, a ‘veritable martial law’, was abolished.11 Fouquier-Tinville was placed under arrest at Fréron’s proposal (‘I demand that Fouquier-Tinville go and expiate in hell the blood that he has spilled’).
On 7 Fructidor (24 August), less than a month after the fall of Robespierre, a series of laws were passed that completely reorganized the revolutionary government and administration. The revolutionary committees were reduced to one per local administrative capital – Paris would have twelve, and ‘the arrondissement of each of these committees shall include four sections’: this put an end to the autonomy of the sections, and was the origin of the ordering of Paris into twelve arrondissements, which lasted until 1860.
The government was now divided into sixteen committees,12 with twelve principal ones to which twelve executive commissions were attached. The Committee of Public Safety saw its brief reduced to the direction of diplomacy and military operations, the manufacture of war materiel, and the importation and circulation of goods. Domestic administration and tribunals were removed from it and assigned to the Legislation Committee, which became the third Committee of government.
In parallel with this legislative overhaul, the leading personnel were massively purged. On 13 Thermidor, the Convention chose the men who would fill the vacancies on the Committee of Public Safety: only Dantonists and representatives of the Plaine were elected, plus Tallien.13 For the Committee of General Security, the gaps were filled by Legendre, a close friend of Danton; Goupilleau de Fontenay, whose altercations with Rossignol in the Vendée had made his reputation; Merlin de Thionville, an associate of Chabot and Basire; André Dumont, famous for his repressive ferocity in the Somme; Bernard de Saintes, and Jean Debry, a Girondin who had signed the protest against 31 May (he would resign the same day): here again, Moderates, corrupt men discredited before Thermidor.
It took only a few days, therefore, three or four weeks at the most, to destroy the foundations of the revolutionary government and lay down those of what would soon become the Thermidorian reaction.14 Any who thought they could continue the work of the great Committee, once Robespierre was got rid of, were soon carried away in the great reactionary current.15
So 9 Thermidor does indeed constitute a rupture; but since this date clearly does not mark the ‘end’ of the Revolution, what other moment should be chosen as the final curtain? It is not very convincing to end with the last session of the Convention, nor with the pitiful exit of the Directory on 18 Brumaire of year VIII, nor again with the transition from the Consulate to the Empire. Did the Revolution end with the departure for St Helena of the man in the little hat, whom Mme de Staël saw as a ‘Robespierre on horseback’?
What was brutally concluded with Thermidor is the incandescent phase of the Revolution, in which men of government, sometimes followed and sometimes driven forward by the most conscious section of the people, sought to change material inequities, social relations and ways of life. They did not succeed, to be sure. Their failure and their tragic end were not fundamentally due to the coalition of fripons, but far more to the social fear aroused by their programme, and the contradictions between the realism of the revolutionary government and the demands of the popular movement.
The heirs of the Thermidorians, who have governed and taught us continuously ever since, seek to travesty this history. Against them, let us keep memory alive, and never lose the inspiration of a time when one heard tell that ‘the unfortunate are the powers of the Earth’, that ‘the essence of the Republic or of democracy is equality’, and that ‘the purpose of society is the common happiness’.
1Filippo Buonarroti, Buonarroti’s History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality, London: Hetherington, 1836, p. 37.
3Mathiez’s 1929 book La Réaction thermidorienne (Paris: La Fabrique, 2010) is different from the three volumes of his Histoire, and cannot readily be viewed as a continuation. François Furet’s interpretation of Thermidor also evolved between La Révolution française, written together with Denis Richet in 1963, and Penser la Révolution françaisein 1978. In the first of these books, he wrote: ‘Not only did the revolutionary movement continue to advance; it went beyond itself in seeking to consolidate its conquests – the fundamental liberties and property-ownership without privilege’ (François Furet and Denis Richet, The French Revolution, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970, p. 215). In the second: ‘[Robespierre] may have put the Revolution “on ice” when he silenced the Parisian sections and instigated the trials of the spring of 1794; but it was when he died, in Thermidor, that the Revolution died’ (p. 57).
4Lyons, ‘The 9 Thermidor’, pp. 395, 397, 411.
5Brunel, Thermidor, pp. 127–8.
6Bourbotte, Duquesnoy, Duroy, Goujon, Romme and Soubrany, condemned to death by a military commission after 4 Prairial, all tried to commit suicide. Some of them succeeded, others were taken to the scaffold wounded or dying.
7Yannick Bosc, Le Conflit des libertés. Thomas Paine et le débat sur la Déclaration et la Constitution de l’an III, Université Aix-Marseille I – Université de Provence, 2000.
8A. P., vol. 93, pp. 616–8.
9For the events of Thermidor and Fructidor of year II, see Mathiez, La Réaction thermidorienne, chapter 1.
10A. P., vol. 93, pp. 619–44 and 645–51.
11Official martial law, abolished by the Montagnard Convention, would be re-established by the Constitution of 1798.
12The Committees of public safety, general security, finance, legislation, public instruction, agriculture and arts, trade and supplies, public works, transport and post, army, navy and colonies, public assistance, administrative divisions, minutes and archives, petitions and correspondence, and inspectors of the national palace (A. P., vol. 95, pp. 396–420).
13These were Bréard, Eschasseriaux the elder, Laloi, Thuriot, Treilhard and Tallien.
14Furet and Richet note that the political use of this term appears for the first time in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie (1798): ‘Reaction. Applied figuratively to a party that takes revenge and acts in turn.’
15On 7 Nivôse year III, a parliamentary commission was formed to examine the behaviour during the Terror of Billaud-Varenne, Collot d’Herbois, Barère and Vadier, ‘Robespierre’s tail’. After the Germinal uprising, they were sentenced to deportation.