Modern history

D) KILLING ROBESPIERRE, ENDING TERROR

In March 1794, at the same time that the CPS was bolstering its authority by liquidating Hébertists and Dantonists, the directors of Paris’s armaments trade discovered that their musket-makers had defaced a poster recording one of the CPS’s official decrees. At the end of a list of the names of Committee members, a plebeian hand had scrawled the words ‘deceivers of the people, forever stupid brutes, thieves and assassins’. Specifically under the name of Robespierre was inscribed the word ‘cannibal’.44

The putatively omnipotent mainspring of Revolutionary government, it seemed, could not silence nor keep in line workers in its own back yard, nor insulate Robespierre from targeted jeers. Even as the Committee was establishing a position above open criticism in the public sphere, it found its broader popularity in question. As the spring of 1794 wore on, more and more of the political nation would add their voices to a stifled chorus of discontent, and Robespierre would be increasingly represented as a figure who perpetuated and aggravated problems rather than resolved them. By the end of July, individuals from an extremely wide spectrum would unite in believing that the only way for the Revolution to progress involved the liquidation of ‘the Incorruptible’.

The failure of the CPS’s ever more ambitious pensions schemes and welfare programmes, integral part of Robespierre’s strategy of ‘rallying the people’ within the Republic of Virtue was increasingly conspicuous. Beyond the airy rhetoric of ‘beneficence’, the financial demands of the war always won out over the needs of relief programmes, increasing popular ire. Police reports as well as anonymous graffiti highlighted the way the wind was blowing. ‘We’re dying of hunger’, a police spy recorded a Parisian munitions worker as stating, ‘and they mock us with pretty speeches’.45 Despite the CPS’s best efforts, the assignat was still running at around one-third of its face value, fuelling inflation and market disruption, and essential commodities were dear or non-existent. The abolition, in April, of the hoarding commissioners who had policed the Maximum, and the recall of deputies on mission who had been among the most vigorous proponents of economic terror made some believe that the CPS was considering a move towards morelaisser-faire principles. In addition, the decision on 22 July to apply the Maximum on wages in Paris for the first time (the Maximum had hitherto only been applied to prices) implied a worsening of living standards for virtually all the Parisian trades. Social justice and republican virtue seemed to be losing out to a wish to reanimate profit.

It was difficult for the Revolutionary government to gauge the extent of popular discontent because it had destroyed most channels of independent expression. The Bourbon monarchs had at least had their parlements as mouthpieces of public opinion; the Revolutionary government lacked even that. Even before the Law of 14 Frimaire which had centralized power on the CPS spearheaded moves to outlaw dissent, there had been a marked shrinkage in the rights of free expression. Royalist newspapers had been closed down from the summer of 1792, and pro-monarchical, Feuillant, then Girondin clubs and salons were subsequently stopped from meeting or driven underground. The frank expression of dissenting private views risked falling foul of creeping surveillance laws. The lawcourts lost their erstwhile role as channels for popular grievance, and were subordinated to the interests of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The unitary Revolutionary will preached by Robespierre as a way out of the war emergency was meant to embody public opinion, rather than merely respond to it. These developments were part of a wholesale shrinkage in the scope and independence of the public sphere. The acme of political participation had been attained in the summer crisis of 1789, and the level of electoral involvement was unimpressive thereafter: between 20 and 30 per cent of the electorate participated in elections for the Legislative Assembly in 1791, and the comparable figure for elections to the Convention was a miserable 20 per cent. This recovered to a level of between 25 and 30 per cent in the plebiscite for the 1793 constitution in the summer of 1793,46 but even so this still meant that the phase of the Revolution most associated with popular radical intervention witnessed a reduction in the use of the ballot box. There would be no elections under the Revolutionary government.

War and Terror had sucked any vitality out of public debate. Now, in the spring of 1794, the institutions of popular militancy were progressively muzzled, with sectional societies bullied into closure, the Paris armée révolutionnaire disbanded and the faceless CPS puppet, Fleuriot-Lescot, appointed Paris Mayor. A new chapter was opened in the government’s commitment to centralized authoritarianism when on 16 April Robespierre’s ally, Saint-Just, forced through the Convention a police law which gave the CPS its own policing agency – a move which undercut the police monopoly enjoyed by the Committee of General Security (CGS). In addition, on 8 May, the powers of provincial courts and special commissions for judging counter-revolutionary crimes were transferred to the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal. This spelt the intensification as well as the centralization of the judicial machinery of Terror. The Law of 22 Prairial (10 June) introduced in the Convention by Saint-Just and driven through with Robespierre’s support – in the context of ‘the silence of the legislators rather than by their agreement’, as Barère was later to recall47 – diminished defendants’ rights and speeded up trial proceedings. Its impact was immediate. In January and February combined, there had been 188 executions decreed. For June and July, the figure was 1,584 deaths. More than half the total number of the Tribunal’s victims were despatched in these two months.

Robespierre’s role as ideologist of Terror and as principal CPS spokesman in the Convention made him an obvious target for criticisms of government policy. His ‘pretty speeches’ were, moreover, becoming increasingly cryptic, as government veered unsteadily between the Utopian-philanthropic and the coercive-authoritarian modes, and as Robespierre himself became ever more obsessed by fears of a foreign plot sapping Revolutionary resolve and compromising republican virtue. He devoted much energy to devising a means of ‘regenerating’ the nation, and creating an authentically new Revolutionary Man. He sought to achieve this through a more acceptable Revolutionary cult than either the dechristianizing atheism which the Hébertists had favoured, or a Catholicism still tarnished with counter-revolutionary sentiment. On 7 May (18 Floréal), he introduced a decree establishing a Cult of the Supreme Being, appending a long speech on the Principles of Political Morality in which he outlined the lineaments of civic virtue on which the Republic was to be grounded. He was acting president of the Convention on 8 June (20 Prairial), when the first festival of the new cult was held in Paris, and led the official procession clad stylishly in a sky-blue frockcoat, carrying a bunch of cornflowers.

‘Look at the bugger!’, one sans-culotte was heard to opine, sotto voce, about Robespierre’s starring role in the ceremonies. ‘It’s not enough to be master, he wants to be God as well.’48 Muffled demotic disrespect towards the ‘cannibalistic’ Incorruptible was seemingly infectious. The perpetrator of an attempt on the life of Collot d’Herbois in early May confessed he had Robespierre in his sights too, and a poor mad girl, Cécile Renault, was also discovered to have murderous intent towards him. Around the same time, police spies alighted on a Norman visionary, Catherine Théot, who was alleged to be claiming that Robespierre was the new Messiah. (Many Conventionnels must have allowed themselves a grim private smirk at the thought.) Growing numbers of Robespierre’s colleagues were indeed having qualms at the prospect of both judicial terror and regeneratory, virtue-drenched rhetoric spinning out of control, with an increasingly intolerant Incorruptible at the controls. Robespierre had always cultivated moderates of the Plain in the Convention, and encouraged them to see in him a man to prevent the worst extremes: thus he had supported freedom of religious worship against the dechristianizers, for example, and claimed to have saved many of the supporters of the Girondins from the scaffold. In March, the Landais deputy, Dyzez, wrote of Robespierre that ‘order and tranquillity are in his hands … Public opinion invests him, and only him.’49 Yet by June and July, any confidence that Robespierre was in touch with the public mood was eroding fast, while his role in building up the CPS’s police powers, developing a personal cult and facilitating the workings of the Revolutionary Tribunal on 22 Prairial made moderate Conventionnels feel personally threatened.

The reservations of moderate Conventionnels were fortified by the improvement of the military situation, for it had been military disasters which – along with sans-culotte pressure – had provided the initial rationale for Terror. Victories at Tourcoing and Tournai in May, then, particularly emphatically, at Fleurus on 26 June (8 Messidor) relieved the northern front and allowed French armies under Pichegru to occupy Belgium and force their way into the Netherlands. Improvement was evident in the south too, with republican forces fighting their way into Catalonia. The English fleet defeated the French off Ushant on the ‘Glorious First of June’, but even here there was a silver lining: a sizeable convoy bringing American grain into France was able to slip past the British blockade and to provide a measure of relief to urban markets.

The anxiety about the direction the Terror was taking had spread, moreover, into the heart of the Revolutionary government. By the summer of 1794, the members of the CPS and the CGS had been living on their collective nerves for a year, holding the republic together under incredible pressure. The strain was telling – and seemed to be getting through to Robespierre, whose personal conduct grew ever more erratic. Boundary disputes between the two committees of government had amplified when the CPS developed its own police and spy apparatus, and then initiated a civic cult which some members of the CGS (such as the fervent atheist Vadier) found offensive and politically suspect. Joseph Cambon, chair of the Finance Committee, which retained a great deal of autonomy from the CPS, regarded the economic effects of Robespierre’s policies as damaging, and his ill-feeling was amply reciprocated. There was growing concern too, which was shared by the more politically conservative members of the CPS such as Carnot, Prieur de la Cote d’Or and Lindet, that Robespierre was allowing a personality cult to develop around him, backed up by devoted factionaries in the Revolutionary Tribunal and the state bureaucracy. In a scarcely collegial exchange in early June, Carnot called Robespierre ‘a silly dictator’ to his face.50

By the end of July, a range of very differing agendas was shaping up over the future course of Revolutionary government: a left-wing call for the state to deliver on its ‘fair shares’ welfare promises; a moderate wish for an alleviation of the Terror in the light of the improved security position; and a move to drive energetically onwards toward regeneratory virtue. The shadow of Robespierre’s dark intentions hovered uncertainly over the Revolution’s future, all the more as he was reputed to be compiling a list of patriots for preferment – and an accompanying list of candidates for proscription. Beneath the enforced ideological unity of the regime, faction was pullulating wildly. Whatever their political persuasions, no one in the Convention could feel safe: ‘it was not’, Conventionnel Baudot subsequently noted of the mood of his colleagues at this time, ‘a question of principles; it was about killing’.51

On 27 July 1794 – 9 Thermidor II under the new dispensation – the killing was done. In the event, Robespierre brought it upon himself. The previous day, with tensions mounting, he had delivered a policy speech in the Convention calling for redoubled Revolutionary efforts, and had enigmatically alluded to a list of individuals to be proscribed. But he refused to announce to the nerve-racked Conventionnels, their stomachs churning, just whom he had in mind. That signal omission turned the proscription list into a suicide note. The same evening, individuals from all sectors of the political spectrum came together, under the guidance of dechristianizing former deputy on mission Fouché to plot his assassination. ‘It is between Robespierre and myself,’ prophesied an emotional Joseph Cambon, one of the conspirators, in a midnight letter to friends in Montpellier, ‘tomorrow one or other of us will be dead.’52 And so it came to pass. A Convention which had sat cowed and sullen through Robespierre’s earlier pronouncements refused to come to his aid when the conspirators – in an impressive coup de théâtre – moved on to the offensive. Saint-Just was silenced in mid-sentence, and then Robespierre and his associates (notably Saint-Just and Couthon from the CPS, and, from the CGS, his brother Augustin and his ally Lebas) were ordered to be imprisoned as enemies of the state.

The fun was not yet, however, at an end. Robespierre and his cronies managed to evade the prison’s lock. On the loose and desperate, they made an appeal, through the Commune, for the Parisian sans-culottes to come to their aid in a new show of popular sovereignty. The sans-culottes, whose vitality the Revolutionary government had spent months sapping, failed to pull Robespierre’s chestnuts out of the fire. Despair overtook the outlaws. That night they were discovered bereft and disconsolate in a room in the Hôtel de Ville. The crippled Couthon had tried to kill himself by throwing himself down some stairs. Saint-Just was standing open-mouthed gawping at a poster of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. And Robespierre had tried to blow his brains out, but had succeeded only in almost detaching his jaw from his face – horridly apposite self-mutilation for one whose career had been grounded in his rhetorical skills. Shrieking in pain like a fatally wounded animal, he would be conveyed to the guillotine next day along with his allies. Over the next week, the executioner worked overtime, despatching around 100 alleged Robespierrists from the Commune and from the ministries.

Did killing Robespierre signify the end of the Terror? While many of those who conspired against him on 9 Thermidor, such as Fouché and Collot d’Herbois, felt that he stood in the way of advancement of the welfare and egalitarian ideals of Revolutionary government, many who welcomed his overthrow were all too eager to throw the Terrorist bathwater out with the Robespierrist baby. The months following Thermidor – as Year II became Year III53 – saw a complex and shifting power-game being played out, with rival groupings contesting the meaning of what had just transpired. Robespierre’s name now possessed a powerful charge of negative charisma. Whatever the future might hold, all seemed agreed that it should not include anything within the former vision of the deceased Incorruptible, at whose door even his closest colleagues were now happy to lay blame for the misdeeds of Year II. Mainspring of Revolutionary government, the CPS was now brought to a state of semi-paralysis. The Convention determined that the Committee’s personnel should be renewed quarterly, and it soon voted off those with Robespierrist or sans-culotte associations. The CGS was similarly de Robespierrized. The new men at the helm included ex-Dantonists like Thuriot and Bréard, repentant Terrorists such as Tallien and former back-bench moderates. On 24 August, a new law revising the 14 Frimaire Law on Revolutionary government restricted the role of the CPS to war and diplomacy, and the hitherto obscure Committee of Legislation assumed a more prominent role in policy-formation and in appointment to administrative posts. The machinery as well as the personnel of Terror also received thoroughgoing reform. Revolutionary justice in particular was scaled down. The Law of 22 Prairial was repealed almost immediately, and the Revolutionary Tribunal was speedily reorganized, with Fouquier-Tinville, public prosecutor for all the political trials of Year II, arrested and, in May 1795, executed. Tighter and less inclusive definitions of political suspects helped bring the notion of a fair trial back into vogue. Prison doors were opened to release many of those arrested and detained often on the vaguest of pretexts – and the Convention further highlighted the mood of restitution by allowing back into its own ranks nearly eighty deputies who had been excluded for protesting against the purge of the Girondins in June 1793. In March 1795, proscribed Girondin deputies were allowed to take up their seats again.

With Terrorism increasingly a spent force, and with moderate republicans and political victims of Year II now back in circulation and free to express their views, the political mood was transformed. Thermidor had given the lie to the Robespierrist claim that the Revolutionary government embodied public opinion – indeed, the coup was to some extent public opinion’s revenge on a government increasingly out of touch. Royalist views now still needed to be heavily coded, but on the Left, neo-Hébertist groupings, which had rallied together in the Electoral Club, produced newspapers such as Babeuf’s Le Tribun du Peuple, which urged the immediate implementation of the radical Constitution of 1793.

The hope that Thermidor might unleash policies more amenable to the views of the sans-culottes did not, however, take long to dispel, and the radicals soon found themselves outgunned by the Right. Babeuf admitted he had been among the keenest to remove Robespierre, but, he added mournfully, ‘I far from imagined that I was helping to build an edifice which … would be no less harmful to the people.’54 Radicals were ousted by moderates in many Paris sections, and the tempo of the streets was no longer set bysans-culottes but by rowdy gangs of right-wing youths. Combining petty bourgeois, young professionals and deserters and draft-dodgers, the jeunesse dorée (‘gilded youth’), as they were soon labelled, were coordinated by the Conventionnel Fréron, who was becoming as extremist in anti-Terrorism as he had been in Terrorism only months before. The gangs engaged in attacks on anything which smacked of the radical days of Year II: sectional personnel, symbols of popular radicalism, institutions of Terror. No person wearing the red cap of liberty on the streets of Paris could feel safe from a ragging at their hands. Theatres became the sites of brawls, as the jeunesse’s singing of ‘Le Réveil du Peuple’ (‘The Re-Awakening of the People’) strove to drown out the ‘Marseillaise’. Publicly-displayed busts of ‘martyred’ Marat had to be taken down. On 12 November (22 Brumaire III), the youths achieved their greatest success, namely, the final closure of the Paris Jacobin Club, which was totally out of its element in the new political environment.

The Convention registered these seismic shifts in Parisian popular politics with a sharpening sense of revenge. The powers of the Paris Commune were cut back. The National Guard was reshaped so that it could be more loyal to government dictates and less responsive to street pressure. Former activists were rooted out of the Paris sections and the ministries. The Thermidorian spirit of revenge focused particularly on the most extreme – and most unrepentant – former Terrorists within the Convention. The first scapegoat was Carrier, of noyades infamy. Tried for terrorist crimes in November, he was executed in December. By then, the Thermidorians’ sights were already trained on a further target, namely, ‘the Four’, as they became known: Billaud-Varenne, Collot d’Herbois and Barère from the old CPS and Vadier from the CGS. These ex-Terrorists had their fates debated in the Convention in December 1794, and they were indicted in March 1795.

The departments had needed no prompting from the top to begin the settling of scores. Initially there had been some uncertainty about what the Thermidor coup implied and in certain localities the policies of Terror actually intensified. But it did not take long for the Thermidorian penny to drop. Localities discovered that the removal of the figure most identified with the centralization of state power meant that the regime of endlessly obeying orders had passed. Popular radicalism was the first casualty. The powers and numbers of surveillance committees were reduced, and their coordination through correspondence was prohibited. Provincial outposts of Fréron’s jeunesse dorée helped put local militants on the back foot, while the clandestine return of many non-juring priests andémigrés contributed to the local atmosphere of revenge. In the south-east, overtly anti-republican and pro-royalist groupings entered the picture. From the Haute-Loire through to the Bouches-du-Rhône department, semi-clandestine murder gangs known as the Companies of Jehu, of the Sun and of Jesus operated against Year II radicals and purchasers of national lands. Their task was facilitated by the law of 23 February 1795 (7 Ventôse III) which ordered every official discharged since 9 Thermidor to return to their home communes to remain under municipal surveillance. This was tantamount to sending radical activists back to face the fury of local vengeance. A spate of grisly massacres of political prisoners in the regions – Lyon, Nîmes, Marseille, Toulon, Aix, Tarascon – unfolded over the spring of 1795. Central government seemed unworried about such incidents. Indeed, certain deputies on mission in the region – notably ex-Girondin Isnard and Boisset – turned a blind eye to score-settling, and even tacitly encouraged it.

The forces of popular radicalism were further demoralized by the appalling social and economic conditions of the winter of 1794–5. Late autumnal downpours hit the harvest, and bitterly cold winter weather brought conditions which were widely compared with the terrible 1709–10 winter. Misery owed as much to men as to nature. The General Maximum’s requisitioning had caused many farmers to cut back on their operations: there was little point of working hard to produce a surplus, if that surplus was only going to be expropriated. The effects of deliberate under-production were amplified by the gradual relaxation and then, in December 1794, the outright abolition of the Maximum. Economic deregulation encouraged the customary blights of the eighteenth-century economy: hoarding, speculation, and black-market operations. When grain and other prime commodities such as firewood and salt managed to reach the marketplace, moreover, consumers had to pay the high prices demanded either in specie or else in massively depreciated paper money. The assignat’s débâcle over this winter was frighteningly rapid. Trading at around one-third of its value at Robespierre’s fall, it had fallen to 20 per cent in December 1794, 10 per cent in April 1795 and it subsequently spiralled remorselessly downwards to less than 1 per cent by the end of the year. Wary of the sullen resentment caused by such distress, but lacking guidance from a government keener on economic deregulation than welfare schemes, local authorities fell back on a variety of bread-dole and rationing programmes.

In ferocious social conditions which were producing high levels of mortality, malnutrition and epidemic disease, political activism became something of a luxury for which most people had neither time nor energy. Yet the Convention still remained nervous about the possibility of a sans-culotte come-back. In February 1795, Babeuf was imprisoned for calling for a ‘peaceful insurrection’ to provide food for the people and the introduction of the 1793 constitution. The latter document was in fact acquiring iconic status on the Left, which feared that a step away from the democratic values embodied in that unimplemented document was not far away. On 1 April (12 Germinal III), a rather aimless popular demonstration for ‘bread and the 1793 constitution’ spilled into the Convention hall. The deputies sat tight until it had run its course. They then agreed to establish a committee to revise the constitution, but also declared a state of siege and appointed General Pichegru Commander-in-Chief. The next day, they steeled themselves to deport the indicted ‘Four’ to Guiana, and went on to order arrests of other ex-Terrorists, including Amar, Thuriot and Cambon.

The ‘journées of Germinal’ acted to stiffen the anti-Terrorist resolve of the majority in the Convention in a way likely to aggrieve the relics of the once-powerful sans-culotte movement. Conflict was sharpened by the provocative decision on 18 April to pack the ‘Commission of Eleven’ created to revise the 1793 constitution with moderate republicans and even a handful of known constitutional monarchists; and by reductions in bread-doles at the end of that month. On 20–21 May, the ‘journées of Prairial’ (1–2 Prairial III) saw further poorly coordinated popular invasions of the Convention hall. The severed head of one deputy, Féraud, was waved rather unsteadily, on the end of a pike, in the face of the President of the Assembly, Boissy d’Anglas, who with considerable sangfroid doffed his hat at it. The pressure of the crowd was such that the vestigial Jacobin grouping of deputies leapt forward to propose measures in line with popular demands. By doing so, they put their own heads on the block. For the majority of the Convention subsequently cleared the hall, won back the initiative and three days later unleashed a bout of savage repression. The rebellious sections were overrun by troops who disarmed all activists, while the arrest was ordered of the ex-Jacobin Conventionnels who had compromised themselves by supporting the journées. Some had fled, but six were tried and sentenced to death. On their way to the guillotine on 17 June, they would attempt a collective suicide.

The stoical gesture of these ‘martyrs of Prairial’ highlighted the depths of impotence and despair to which the Left had been reduced within a year of 9 Thermidor. The Right was now firmly ensconced in power, and over the spring and summer of 1795, it continued its policy of dismantling of the machinery of Terror. The post of deputy on mission was abolished, for example, the Revolutionary Tribunal was wound up, and all political clubs were closed. From 12 June 1795 (24 Prairial III), it was forbidden to use the word ‘revolutionary’ in respect of any government institution. It was as if the Republic had become nervous of referring to its origins, for fear of inflaming ‘extremists’.

The Right benefited as well from the much-improved domestic and international situations. The death in the Temple prison in Paris on 8 June 1795 of ‘Louis XVII’ – Louis XVI’s young dauphin – served the Republic’s interests very neatly. The succession passed to the émigré comte de Provence, who took the title of Louis XVIII. The new king’s ‘Verona Declaration’ in June was massively misjudged: he promised – threatened was perhaps the word – the integral restoration of the Ancien Régime, with only vaguely denominated ‘abuses’ being corrected, plus the execution of the ‘regicides’ (those who had voted the execution of his brother). The glaring absence of an olive branch put compromise or negotiation out of the question. Affairs in western France had much the same effect. In the quest for pacification of this troubled area, General Hoche had been allying firmness and conciliation, and his efforts were crowned with some degree of success. Truces were signed with the remnants of the Vendéan forces and with the Chouan guerillas in Brittany, and an amnesty was agreed which also granted local freedom of worship even for non-juring priests – a concession only made for the rest of the country later in 1795. This seemed a badly chosen moment for the exiled pretender to undertake a military venture in the region. His plan, which involved coordinating an émigré landing with a further bout of local insurrection, was badly conceived, execrably implemented and duly turned out a fiasco: the invading royalist troops and their rebel allies were routed at Quiberon Bay in late June 1795.

The Republic was no longer under military pressure on the frontiers either. Indeed, the war of national defence of 1792–4 was mutating into a conflict in which it had become possible to envision not merely peace, but even peace with honour – and conquests. The battle of Fleurus (8 June 1794) had unlocked the door into the Low Countries, and by January 1795 Pichegru had begun to occupy part of Holland, capturing the Dutch fleet on the frozen Texel with a cavalry charge. The 1795 campaign in the east began well too, with General Jourdan advancing deep into Germany. Austria and England still stood fast, but their allies were beginning to crumble in the face of French successes. Prussia was preoccupied with developments in eastern Europe, where it was negotiating the third partition of Poland with Austria and Russia, and in April it came to terms of disengagement from the war with France. Treaties were subsequently signed with Holland in May and Spain in July. France agreed to the Prussian demand that it should evacuate the right bank of the Rhine, but secret clauses allowed the Republic to retain the left bank if and when peace eventuated. A regime whose watchword had all too recently been transparency seemed to be habituating itself to the byways of secret, Ancien Régime-style diplomacy: in the treaty with Holland, the Dutch agreed to finance the upkeep of 25,000 troops for the French cause; while in October, it was secretly determined that Belgium would be annexed into France.

Secure on the frontiers, triumphant over the forces of popular radicalism and authoritarian centralism, and happy beneficiary of the policy fiascos of the Bourbons, the Thermidorians profited from this fragile moment of stability to frame a new constitution. Their aim was to link up with the liberal spirit of 1791 – and to a considerable degree in fact with the monarchien project of the summer of 1789. The new regime should enshrine constitutional legality rather than Revolutionary exceptionalism. And it should avoid like the plague any hint of unified government which recalled the putatively democratic authoritarianism of Year II, as well as the absolutist polity of the Bourbons. The Commission of the Eleven came up with a complex system of checks and balances tailored to avoid the perceived abuses of the recent, and not-so-recent past. The ‘Constitution of Year III’ (or 1795), instituted a monarchien-style bi-cameral legislature, based on a property franchise rather than universal manhood suffrage. Executive power was shared by a committee of five Directors, one of whom, designated by lot, would be replaced each year. The Thermidorians themselves looked to provide the careful handling which the new regime seemed to require: the Law of Two-Thirds decreed in August along with the new constitution stipulated that two-thirds of the new legislature would be drawn from the ranks of the Convention.

Ratification for the new constitution and the Law of Two-Thirds was sought in a plebiscite. Even though both decrees were passed, turnout was extremely low. Only 49,000 individuals voted against the new constitution, as against over 1 million in favour. Around 200,000 voted in favour of the Law of Two-Thirds, with over 100,000 against. The latter figures were arrived at, moreover, only after some dubious counting procedures: no fewer then forty-seven of Paris’s forty-eight sections voted against the Law. Only days after its ratification was agreed in the Convention, there was a royalist rising of the Paris sections on 5 October (13 Vendémiaire IV) ostensibly in objection to it. The Convention was, however, developing intestinal fortitude in such cases: it appointed one of its members, Barras, to oversee its defence, and he used the military expertise of Napoleon Bonaparte to disperse the rioting crowds with – in Bonaparte’s famous words – ‘a whiff of grapeshot’. The Vendémiaire journée signalled the final act of one of the most dramatic periods of rule in French parliamentary history. In their final session, on 26 October (4 Brumaire IV), the Conventionnels offered a fitting gift to a Directorial regime whose destiny seemed to lie in the Right-to-centrist policies they had come round to espousing: a political amnesty. Yet those who were excluded from the amnesty – counterfeiters of assignats, the royalist rebels of Vendémiaire, all émigrés, and the deported ex-Conventionnels, Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois – were as revealing as those who were included. For they highlighted what would prove to be the continuing bugbears of the post-Terror republic: an economy shot to pieces by rampant inflation and currency depreciation, and men of violence on the Left and the Right.

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