VI. THE THERMIDOREANS: JULY 29, 1794 - OCTOBER 26, 1795

On July 29 the victors of the 9th Thermidor sent seventy members of the Paris Commune to death; thereafter the Commune was subject to the Convention. The tyrannical Law of 22 Prairial was revoked (August 1); imprisoned opponents of Robespierre were released; some of his followers took their places.123 The Revolutionary Tribunal was reformed to allow fair trials; Fouquier-Tinville was called upon to defend his record, but his ingenuity preserved his head till May 7, 1795. The Committees of Public Safety and General Security survived, but their claws were clipped. Conservative periodicals bloomed; radical journals died through lack of public support. Tallien, Fouché, and Fréron found that they could share in the new leadership only by getting the Convention to ignore their roles in the Terror. The Jacobin clubs were closed throughout France (November 12). The long-intimidated deputies of the “Plain” moved to the right; the “Mountain” fell from power; and on December 8 seventy-three surviving Girondin delegates were restored to their seats. The bourgeoisie recaptured the Revolution.

The relaxation of government allowed the revival of religion. Aside from that small minority which had received a college education, and that upper middle class which had been touched by the Enlightenment, most Frenchmen, and nearly all Frenchwomen, preferred the saints and ceremonies of the Catholic calendar to the rootless festivals and formless Supreme Being of Robespierre. On February 15, 1795, a treaty of peace was signed with the Vendée rebels, guaranteeing them freedom of worship; a week later this was extended to all France; and the government pledged the separation of Church and state.

More difficult was the problem of simultaneously satisfying those perennial enemies: producers and consumers. The producers clamored for repeal of the maximum on prices; consumers demanded an end to the maximum on wages. The Convention, now controlled by enthusiastic believers in freedom of enterprise, competition, and trade, heard the conflicting appeals, and abolished the maxima (December 24, 1794); now the workers were free to seek higher wages, the peasants and merchants were free to charge all that the traffic would bear. Prices rose on the wings of greed. The government issued new assignats as paper money, but their value fell even more rapidly than before: a bushel of flour that had cost the Parisians two assignats in 1790 cost them 225 in 1795; a pair of shoes rose from five to two hundred, a dozen eggs from sixty-seven to 2,500.124

On April 1, 1795, several localities in Paris broke out once more in riots over the price of bread. An unarmed crowd invaded the Convention, demanding food and an end to the persecution of radicals; several deputies from the melting Mountain supported them. The Convention promised immediate relief, but it summoned the National Guard to disperse the rioters. That night it decreed the deportation of radical leaders—Billaud-Varenne, Collot d’Herbois, Barère, Vadier—to Guiana. Barère and Vadier evaded arrest; Billaud and Collot were carried off to a hard life in the South American colony. There the two anticlericals fell sick, and were cared for by nuns. Collot succumbed. Billaud survived, took a mulatto slave as a wife, became a contented farmer, and died in Haiti in 1819.125

Public protest became violent. Placards appeared calling for insurrection. On May 20 a throng of women and armed men invaded the Convention, crying out for bread, for the liberation of arrested radicals, and finally for the abdication of the government. One deputy was killed by a pistol shot; his severed head, raised on a pike, was presented before the Convention president, Boissy d’Anglas, who gave it a formal salute; then troops and rain drove the petitioners to their homes. On May 22 soldiers under General Pichegru surrounded the working-class Faubourg St.-Antoine and forced the remaining armed rebels to surrender. Eleven Montagnard deputies were arrested, charged with complicity in the uprising; two escaped, four killed themselves, five, dying of self-inflicted wounds, were hurried to the guillotine. A royalist deputy urged the arrest of Carnot; a voice protested, “He organized our victories,” and Carnot survived.

Now—May and June, 1795—a “White Terror” raged in which Jacobins were victims and the judges were bourgeois “Moderates” allied with religious bands: “Companies of Jesus,” “Companies of Jehu,” “Companies of the Sun.” At Lyons (May 5) ninety-seven former Terrorists were massacred in prison; at Aix-en-Provence (May 17) thirty more were butchered “with refinements of barbarity”; similar ceremonies took place at Aries, Avignon, and Marseilles. At Tarascon (May 25) two hundred masked men seized thefortress, bound the prisoners, and flung them into the Rhone. At Toulon the workers rose against the new Terror; Isnard, one of the restored Girondins, led troops against them and exterminated them (May 31).126 The Terror had not ended; it had changed hands.

The victorious bourgeoisie no longer needed proletarian allies, for it had won the support of the generals, and these were winning victories that raised their prestige even with the sansculottes. On January 19, 1795, Pichegru took Amsterdam; Stadtholder William IV fled to England; Holland, for a decade, became the “Batavian Republic” under French tutelage. Other French armies recaptured and held the left bank of the Rhine. The Allies, defeated and quarreling, left France for easier prey in Poland. Prussia, absorbed in preventing Russia from taking everything in the Third Partition (1795), sent emissaries to Paris, then to Basel, to negotiate a separate peace with France. The Convention could afford to be demanding, for it looked with trepidation toward a peace that would bring to Paris or elsewhere thousands of half-brutalized troops who had been living at the expense of conquered lands but would now add to crime, disease, and tumult in cities already crying for work and bread. And the restless generals, swollen with victory—Pichegru, Jourdan, Hoche, Moreau—would they resist the temptation to seize the government through a military coup d’état? So the Convention sent to Basel Marquis François de Barthélemy, with instructions to hold out for French possession of the left bank of the Rhine. Prussia protested and yielded; Saxony, Hanover, and Hesse-Cassel followed suit; and on June 22 Spain ceded to France the eastern part (Santo Domingo) of the island of Hispaniola. War with Austria and England continued—just enough to keep French soldiers at the fronts.

On June 27, thirty-six hundred émigrés, brought over from Portsmouth in British ships, landed on the promontory of Quiberon in Brittany, and joined up with royalist “Chouan” bands in an effort to revive the Vendée revolt. Hoche in a brilliant campaign defeated them (July 21), and on a motion by Tallien the Convention had 748 captured émigrés put to death.

On June 8, 1795, the ten-year-old Dauphin died in prison, not demonstrably the result of ill usage, but probably from scrofula and despondency. The royalists thereupon acknowledged the older of Louis XVI’s two surviving brothers, the émigré Comte de Provence, as Louis XVIII, and swore to place him on the throne of France. This unreformed Bourbon announced (July 1, 1795) that if restored he would re-establish the Ancien Régime intact, with absolute monarchy and feudal rights. Hence the united support that the French bourgeoisie, peasantry, and sansculottes gave to Napoleon through a dozen wars.

Nevertheless France was weary of revolution, and began to tolerate monarchist sentiments that were appearing in some journals, salons, and prosperous homes: only a king legitimized by heredity and tradition could bring order and security back to a people fearful and unhappy after three years of political and economic disruption, religious division, constant war, and uncertainty of work, food, and life. Half or more of southern France was deeply alienated from Paris and its politicians. In Paris the section assemblies, once dominated by sansculottes, were now increasingly controlled by businessmen, and some of them had been captured by royalists. At the theaters those lines that spoke of the “good old days” before 1789 were openly applauded. Youngsters, constitutionally rebellious, were now rebelling against revolution; they organized themselves in bands called Jeunesse Dorée (Gilded Youth), Merveilleux (Freaks), or Muscadins (Fruits); proud of their rich or bizarre dress, their long or curly hair, they walked the streets wielding dangerous clubs and boldly proclaiming royalist sentiments. It had become so unfashionable to support the revolutionary government that when a premature report went the rounds that the Convention was breaking up, the news was greeted with joy, and some Parisians danced in the streets.

But the Convention took its time dying. In June, 1795, it began to draw up another constitution, far different from the democratic and never practiced Constitution of 1793. Now it adopted a bicameral legislature, in which the consent of an upper chamber of older and experienced deputies would be required for the enactment of any measure adopted by a lower chamber more directly open to popular movements and new ideas. The people, said Boissy d’Anglas, are not wise or stable enough to determine the policy of a state.127 So this “Constitution of the Year III” (i.e., the year beginning September 22, 1794) revised the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) to check popular delusions of virtue and power; it omitted the proposition that “men are born, and remain, free and equal in rights,” and explained that equality meant merely that “the law is the same for all men.” Election was to be indirect: the voters would choose delegates to the “electoral college” of their department, and these electors would choose the members of the national legislature, the judiciary, and the administrative agencies. Eligibility to the electoral colleges was so limited to owners of property that only thirty thousand Frenchmen chose the national government. Woman suffrage was proposed to the Convention by one deputy, but was disposed of by another deputy’s question “Where is the good wife who dares maintain that the wish of her husband is not her own?”128 State control of the economy was rejected as impractical, as stifling invention and enterprise, and as slowing the growth of national wealth.

This constitution contained some liberal elements: it affirmed religious liberty and, within “safe limits,” the freedom of the press (then largely controlled by the middle class).*Furthermore, the ratification of the constitution was to be left to adult male suffrage, with a surprising proviso: two thirds of the deputies to the new assemblies must be members of the existing Convention, and if that number should not be chosen the re-elected members were to fill the two thirds by cooptation of additional present deputies; this, argued the endangered delegates, was necessary for the continuity of experience and policy. The voters were docile: of 958,226 ballots cast, 941,853 accepted the constitution; and of 263,131 votes on the two-thirds requirement, 167,758 approved.129 On September 23, 1795, the Convention made the new constitution the law of France, and prepared to retire in good order.

It could claim some achievements despite its months of disorder and Terror, of subservience to its committees, of frightened purging of its membership at the command of the sansculottes. It had maintained some rule of law in a city where law had lost its aura and its roots. It had consolidated the empowerment of the bourgeoisie, but it had tried to control the greed of merchants sufficiently to keep a turbulent populace just above starvation. It had organized and trained armies, had raised able and devoted generals, had repelled a powerful coalition, and had won a peace that left France protected by natural frontiers of the Rhine, the Alps and Pyrenees, and the seas. Amid all these consuming efforts it had established the metric system, it had founded or restored the Museum of Natural History, the École Polytechnique, and the School of Medicine; it had inaugurated the Institute of France. It felt that now, after three years of miraculous survival, it deserved a peaceful death and two thirds of a resurrection.

But it was to be a bloody death, in the manner of the time. The plutocrats and royalists, who had captured the Lepeletière section of Paris around the stock exchange, rose in revolt against that legislated rebirth. Other sections, for their own diverse reasons, joined them. Together they improvised a force of 25,000 men, who advanced to positions that commanded the Tuileries and therefore the Convention (13 Vendémiaire, October 5, 1795). The frightened deputies appointed Barras to extemporize a defense. He commissioned the twenty-six-year-old Bonaparte, then idle in Paris, to gather men, supplies, and, above all, artillery. The hero of Toulon knew where the cannon were housed, sent Murat and a force to secure them; they were brought to him, and were placed at points overlooking the advancing insurgents. A command to disperse was broadcast; it was disdained. Napoleon ordered his artillery to fire; between two and three hundred of the besiegers fell; the rest fled. The Convention had survived its last ordeal, and Napoleon, decisive and ruthless, entered upon the most spectacular career in modern history.

On October 26 the Convention declared itself dissolved, and on November 2, 1795, the final phase of the Revolution began.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!