Modern history

B) REVOLUTION: A USER’S GUIDE

To the political class who had lived through the drama of the Terror, Thermidor gave the Revolution an historic second chance. The goal of the Thermidorians and Directorials was to put the Revolution back on the course on which it had set out so hopefully in 1789, linking up with the universalist assumptions embodied in the 1791 constitution of the Legislative Assembly, and the regenerative impulse at the heart of Revolutionary culture so as to make a ‘new man’. Post-Thermidor politicians had still to work in the context of a European war which had brought down the 1791 constitution and had justified the patriotic outlook and practices apparent since 1792. They had to combine this with a thoroughgoing rejection of what they saw as both the excesses of the Convention and the hated spirit of the Ancien Régime.

The Directorials’ endeavours to fulfil this ambitious programme were inhibited by a larger difficulty which dogged the Revolutionaries throughout the decade, namely, that of squaring the languages of individual rights with those of community interest. The Rights of Man and la patrie were talismanic terms in the lexicon of Revolution; but it proved very difficult to conjugate them together – never more than during the Terror when the very preservation of national identity seemed at threat from external and internal enemies, justifying a dizzyingly swift erosion of personal freedoms – and an equally rapid sanctification of the fatherland. The repressively communitarian politics of the Terror shocked liberal politicians, who stressed the inviolability of individual freedoms, and the Thermidorians sought to make individual rights properly respected. Yet for most Revolutionaries, it ran deeper than this. Many had acquiesced in the popular violence and lynchings of 14 July 1789, the Great Fear, and the overthrow of the monarchy. By the same token, the arch-ideologist of Terror, Robespierre, had been the most dogged defender of liberal freedoms, and a humane opponent of the death penalty, down to the outbreak of war. The clash between liberalism and national communitarianism divided patriots amongst themselves; but it was also a division that each Directorial nurtured within his own breast, a nagging conundrum which none could evade.

The conundrum was all the more intractable in that it linked to a moralism which lay at the heart of Revolutionary culture. The Directorials inherited a thoroughgoing rejection of the very notion of politics. Politics might have been, for Revolutionary legislators (to misquote W. H. Auden), their noon, their midnight, their talk, their song – but it was also something they thought was wrong, a morally indefensible notion which dared not speak its name. No harsher term existed in Revolutionary political life than ‘the spirit of party’, which denoted an un-Revolutionary attachment to sectional interest and private passion. ‘I belong to no party,’ postured the Girondin Conventionnel Boyer-Fonfrède on one highly charged occasion. ‘I wish to belong to no one but my country and my conscience.’4 Throughout the decade, Revolutionaries were certain that what they were doing transcended politics, and they strove to ascend sublime moral peaks with a firm sense of ‘the public interest’ or ‘the national interest’ in their intellectual knapsacks. Their aspiration was for an ethics of government, in which individuals rose above discord based on sectionalism, bad faith and privileged interests. The Constituent Assembly in June 1789 had released the deputies of the Estates General from the binding mandates of their electors precisely because they viewed themselves as representatives of the whole nation, not just a geographical or social splinter within it. Similarly, the Convention’s proclamation of the ‘Republic One and Indivisible’ and the 1795 Constitution’s stipulation that ‘no individual or partial gathering of citizens may ascribe sovereignty to themselves’ highlighted a determination to prevent the fissuring of political unity.5

The perceived redundancy of politics for adjudicating rival claims to authority was linked to a wider belief that 1789 had opened a new phase in the history of mankind in which totally new rules of social interaction applied. The legislators’ guide would be Nature, touchstone of late Enlightenment sensibility, and Reason. The concomitant rejection of historic precedent as a source of political legitimacy had been arguably the most radical of the revolutionary shifts of 1789.6 Enlightenment quarrels between pro-Frankish and pro-Gaulish factions were now a political curio, and only ancient Rome and Greece – so far removed in time and space that they seemed both utopian and achronic – provided any sort of positive historical referent. Cicero and Plutarch would be the most cited pre-revolutionary authors in the debates of the Assemblies: the combined number of references to their work was ten times larger than Montesquieu’s On Spirit of the Laws and over twenty times larger than Rousseau’s Social Contract.7 The increasingly anti-clerical direction which the Revolution took from 1791–2 also removed another source of historically oriented authority – namely, the church – from the scope of Revolutionary discourse. The Revolutionary Calendar introduced in 1793 excised scripture from the recording of time, and gloriously proclaimed the certainty that the vagaries of French political life were of vital significance in the history of humankind. All that had gone before the Revolution could now be lumped together into one undifferentiated ‘former state of things’ or ‘Ancien Régime’. Anything which recalled those ignoble days was irremediably ‘ci-devant’ (‘former’). There was no more dismissive (and, at times, more threatening) Revolutionary adjective.

Revolutionary anti-clericalism and anti-monarchicalism fused into a rejection of any kind of political patriarchalism. The master discourse of the Bourbon polity had been highly paternalistic: the execution of the king either ruled such a discourse out of court, or else displaced it towards filial respect for ‘the fatherland’ (la patrie). The Revolutionaries stressed horizontal rather than vertical ties of dependence in the form of fraternal self-help within the national family. (The adoption of tutoiement – the more intimate form of personal address – and the replacement of ‘Monsieur’ and ‘Madame’ by ‘Citizen’ had much the same intent.) It was a virile band of Revolutionary brothers who urged the regeneration of French society founded on what were seen as natural forms. There opened up a mythic present in which, rejecting any reference to the historic past, the Revolutionaries projected themselves into an unfurling utopian and putatively more natural future. ‘Let us reconstitute nature’, the abbé Grégoire urged his fellow Conventionnels in 1795, ‘by giving it a new stamp.’8 The wish to create something new through the application of human reason was consubstantial with the desire to ground it in the natural world.

In the early 1790s this sense of the rediscovery of the natural explained a widespread feeling that the public spirit was very little removed from the promptings of individuals’ own political consciences. Enormous trust was placed on the principle of election in bringing the two forces in line with each other. It was not that elections were unknown in towns, villages, guilds and corporative bodies prior to 1789; indeed, the Bourbon monarchy was experimenting with representational forms from the 1760s onwards. The national mood stimulated into being by the elective process of 1789 was, however, something new – and something which Revolutionary political culture prized, indeed fetishized, as a symbol of democratic inclusiveness, transparency and accountability. There were elections for the national assembly in the summer of 1791; but before these had taken place, there had already been elections for communal, municipal, district and departmental administrative officials; for various kinds of judges and justices; and for priests and bishops. Electors at Rancon in the Haute-Vienne were called on to do their stuff on no fewer than twelve occasions between February 1790 and December 1792. Procedures were lengthy, quite complex and could get very tedious. Voting was done in the open byappel nominal (roll-call): it was feared that secret balloting would invite lobbying and the ‘obscure manoeuvres of intriguing ambition’.9

The faith in the electoral process to deliver the legislators the loyal support of the national community gave them a feeling that they implicitly represented the general will of the whole community. Successive assemblies, it is true, believed that they had a duty to teach the people as well as to learn from them: ‘The people are good’, stated a Jacobin from Provins, ‘but need educating.’10 ‘We must enlighten opinion,’ agreed Charles de Lameth. ‘We must rule over it so as to render it the benefits we derive from it.’11 Yet it was anticipated that this would be an easy task, for what national assemblies were trying to do was not to impose alien standards on to a recalcitrant population, but – as Robespierre put it – ‘to recall men to nature and to truth’.12 The Revolutionary New Man lay in waiting in the conscience of the man of good faith, ready to be born again unto Revolution through the promptings of individual conscience and through the humanitarian obstetrics of true patriots. Happiness might be, as Saint-Just noted, ‘a new idea in Europe’;13but it was intelligible to all humankind precisely because it was a natural propensity.

Although the politics of the Revolutionary decade highlighted endless, sometimes murderous differences and divergences amongst those involved in public life, this sense of the Revolution as a regenerative process was widely shared throughout the period, representing as it did received wisdom inherited from the late Enlightenment vision of the possibility of making a better world. Human creativity could make that better world, guided by the light of public opinion, the supreme and impartial tribunal of rationality against which deeds and thoughts could be judged and measured. The Revolution witnessed the nation seizing sovereignty from the monarch, and allowing public opinion (or ‘public spirit’, as some Revolutionaries preferred to call it) to triumph over partisan views and interests. Prior to 1789, public opinion had had to make its way through the thickets of Ancien Régime censorship, privileged speech and corporative restriction; now it was a free agent, working for the betterment of society.

Before 1789, the king had controlled words; after 1789, words were king. Free and multi-lateral communication was viewed as crucial to the project of building an enlightened and dynamic national culture. In line with Enlightenment views, print technology was duly sanctified. It was, Condorcet once stated, ‘through the printing process alone that discussion among a great people can truly be one’, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man prefixed to the 1791 constitution had assured citizens that ‘the free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man’.14 The disappearance of the privileges of printers and publishers formerly subsidized by the king caused a mushrooming of publishing activity from 1789 onwards. The number of Parisian printers in work quadrupled over the Revolutionary period, and the number of booksellers and/or publishers tripled. Freedom in production and distribution massively amplified the place of politics in published output. While fiction was not particularly fashionable – news must have seemed more interesting – other genres proved better able to adapt to the taste for the political. Much science now came, for example, in bite-sized pieces of patriotic popularization. Revolutionary fervour also produced a politicization of established forms such as the almanach and the song. The number of political songs rose sharply, for example, expanding fivefold on 1789 levels by 1793, sixfold in 1794 and only falling away towards the end of the decade. There was also an explosion of prints and engravings, with cartoons and caricatures acting, in Lequinio’s words, as ‘the thermometer indicating the temperature of public opinion’.15

The popularity of these less canonical forms highlighted a point which Brissot made in his memoirs, namely, that Revolutionary enlightenment proceeded ‘not through voluminous and well-reasoned works, because people do not read them, but through little works … through a journal which spread[s] light in every direction’.16 A newspaper mailed to its subscribers was, the Girondin Louvet concurred, ‘the easiest, most prompt and least costly way to spread the truth’.17 More newspapers were established in a matter of months in 1789 than in the whole of the 1770s. The phenomenon was most striking in Paris: in 1789, there had been only one daily newspaper, the Journal de Paris, founded in 1777; by 1790, there were twenty-three dailies and as many appearing on a weekly or lesser tempo. The provinces were also affected: the number of provincial titles quadrupled down to 1791 alone, and newspapers flourished not only in big cities but also in relatively out-of-the-way localities. Well over 1,000 new titles appeared during the Revolutionary decade. Readership expanded massively: weekly circulation figures of the Parisian press rose sharply above pre-revolutionary levels of around 100,000 copies (60 per cent of which were sent into the provinces) to about 800,000 by 1794. Given collective reading habits, perhaps as many as 40 per cent of adult males had access to the Revolutionary (and, of course, the counter-revolutionary) press.

The print explosion of the 1790s, unthinkable without the prior impact of the Enlightenment on the politicians of the Revolutionary decade, imparted to the political culture they formulated one of its most striking characteristics: its loquacity. At first, this was not seen as a problem, for it was assumed that Revolutionary language would have a neutral, transparent value. The Revolutionaries of 1789 had seen themselves as having unmasked the cunning artifices of Ancien Régime power, and established a system in which unrhetorical Revolutionary language would allow individuals to have unmediated and sincere relations with each other, unaffected by institutional and inter-personal obstacles. The Revolutionaries prided themselves on a discursive style which rejected the flowery (and therefore, it was assumed, insincere) rhetoric of the Ancien Régime. The pure and transparent style was particularly prized in the Terror: ‘Jacobins speak laconically,’ as one Marseillais patriot stated (laconically).18

Yet this question looked totally different after Thermidor. For the period of the Terror seemed to have irrefutably demonstrated the dangers of too much speech and too much writing. In The New Paris of 1798, jaundiced sequel to his lively, pre-RevolutionaryTableau de Paris, for example, Louis-Sébastien Mercier painted a grim picture of ‘this terrible chaos formed by writers in the Revolution, enormous mass of pages of journals, pamphlets and books, obscure and voluminous depository of conflicting discourses, torrent of invective and sarcasm, jumbled pile in which calumny has drowned itself’, which he compared to an Egyptian plague bringing the nation to its knees.19 This was more than an issue about the volume and variety of writings: print also transformed the nature of politics into a ‘logomachie’ – a ‘war of words’. The Terror had been a verbal delirium, in which words shook themselves loose from their referent and became the substance of conflict, not just conflict’s expression. Just who was a ‘Feuillant’, a ‘suspect’, an ‘aristocrat’, a ‘Brissotin’, a ‘moderate’, a ‘Jacobin’? At different times in the course of the 1790s, these were all words which – literally, as Michelet knew – could kill.

The Terror had been marked by a growing control over language, as part of a wider desire to control and manipulate public opinion. ‘To take the pulse of the public spirit’, Mercier ironized, in a shaft of Directorial hindsight, ‘demands a very subtle touch’. Successive national assemblies had ‘somehow got their fingers round the thermometer while consulting it, and [had mistaken] the temperature of their own hands for that of the surrounding air’.20 The process of news management was undoubtedly accelerated by the demands of war, internal and external, on public morale. The Bureau de l’esprit public which worked under Girondin Interior Minister Roland in late 1792 set new standards of government sponsorship of propaganda and news management, which would be taken up enthusiastically by the Girondins’ successors in government. Roland had grasped that, to be effective, the news and information which it supplied to the nation profited from some supplementary propagandistic spin. He and his successors would deny, evento themselves, that they were doing anything more than ‘enlightening’ the public. The declaration of Revolutionary government in October 1793, in particular by putting the electoral process on hold until peace was signed, removed the reality check that opinion could have on legislators claiming to represent it.

The growing sense of the need to ‘enlighten’ public opinion, when faced with internal and external war, had made the Conventionnels look increasingly askance at the institutions of voluntary sociability which had formerly served as relays and supports of public opinion. The secrecy and organizational privacy which had shielded these bodies from state interference within the Bourbon polity looked out of date after 1789. Thus the Revolution confirmed the demise, already prefigured by the 1780s, of the salon as a choice venue of opinion-formation. Indeed, the gatherings organized by would-be salonnières Madame de Staël, daughter of Necker, and of the Girondine Madame Roland were seen as revoltingly – maybe even treasonously – partisan. They were also socially elitist, a charge also levelled against academies, which were abolished in 1793 as nests of privileged ‘aristocrats of science’. Free-masonic lodges, which had constituted one of the most dynamic fora of Enlightenment sociability in the 1780s, also underwent eclipse: the Grand Orient was closed down in 1793. A good number of individual lodges, their clandestine operations regarded as sinning against the prized value of transparency, metamorphosed into political clubs.

One location of political sociability came to triumph over all others after 1792, namely, the political club, affiliated to the Jacobins. The plethora of clubs of differing political complexions which sprang up in the early years of the Revolution did not survive the fall of the monarchy and the drift to war. Even before the electoral process was suspended under the Convention, the charge was frequently made – notably by Louis XVI in his letter when fleeing Paris in June 1791, by Lafayette and Dumouriez in seeking to lead their troops on Paris, and by hostile Girondins in 1792 and 1793 – that the Jacobins had fractured public opinion and subverted national spirit. From the vantage point of the Directory, Jacobin clubs seemed to have become institutions to suppress individual freedoms rather than to express opinion. The Parisian Jacobin Club had developed out of the political caucus, the Breton Club, in the early days of the Constituent Assembly, and following the Feuillant schism of July 1791 developed into a kind of counter-Assembly, in which first Brissot and the Girondins and then Robespierre and his grouping developed a critique of the moderate majority of the Legislative Assembly. Once the Republic was declared, however, the Jacobins housed the ultra-patriotic Montagnard grouping from the Convention, and made growing representative claims for itself. Robespierre’s younger brother, Augustin, crowed in April 1793 that the Club was ‘by its very nature incorruptible. It deliberates before an audience of 4,000 persons, so that its whole power lies in public opinion and it cannot betray the interests of the people.’21 Similarly, the radical Dufourny argued that ‘the National Assembly cannot be allowed to direct public opinion because they must be guided by it. Their task is to pass decrees and not to create the public spirit.’22 The latter was clearly a job for the Jacobins. They – and provincial clubs under their tutelage – served as laboratories of patriotic apprenticeship for vast numbers of Frenchmen, spreading the Revolutionary good news, but also interpreting it and making it real and relevant for ordinary citizens.

The Jacobin club network was an important component of the Terrorist public sphere, which grew up on the ruins of the bourgeois public sphere triumphant in 1789. This aimed to instil a pedagogy of fear, emblematically through the use of the guillotine. A public execution was ‘a tragedy … meant to fill the spectator with awe’,23 a role which explained its hyper-theatricality – the charged tumbril making its way through Parisian streets, for example, the raising of the guillotine blade, the showing of the severed head to the crowds … Yet the Terror scared Frenchmen and women into political conformity not simply by the public mise-en-scène of the apparatus of killing; after all, many had witnessed far worse prior to 1789 – the execution of Damiens, as well as a myriad of breakings on the wheel and judicial tortures. In fact, the guillotine was only one institution within a broader Terrorist public sphere comprising the Revolutionary government’s committees, its clubs, its tribunals, its sponsored news-sheets, its orchestrated festivals. The category of political suspect – on which hung decisions of imprisonment, arraignment and, during the Great Terror, probable execution – could increasingly be applied on the basis of the most intimate and innermost thoughts. Speech was no longer free – one in ten victims of Revolutionary justice was executed for talking in a way which was adjudged counter-revolutionary. The press was heavily censored and cowed into conformism. The surveillance of informers and spies ensured that sociability was conducted only in formally approved gatherings such as Jacobin Clubs and Revolutionary festivals.

‘If Terror is the order of the day for patriots,’ noted the Jacobins at Metz in May 1794, ‘that would be the end of liberty.’24 Yet, ironically, this was precisely what was occurring at that very moment, in the shape of the repression of Dantonists, Hébertists andsans-culotte militants, followed by the infamous Law of 22 Prairial. By this time, moreover, the Revolutionary government was also increasingly sucking the vitality out of the Jacobin club network, changing the role of club from voluntary association to government agency. The clubs lost thereby their potential for expressing public opinion, a force which Robespierre argued, before a cowed Jacobin Club and Convention, was embodied within the Revolutionary government (and indeed increasingly in his own virtuous self).

A similar trajectory was traced by Revolutionary festivals, which, like the spread of Jacobin clubs, seemed initially to constitute comforting signs of public opinion’s conformity with the Revolutionary project, but which by 1794 were increasingly locked into the apparatus of Terror. The Constituent and Legislative Assemblies had placed great store on developing forms and rituals which distanced the Revolution from the constitutional ceremonialism of the Bourbon polity. The transfer of the king from the Bourbon solar temple at Versailles to Paris, capital city of the bourgeois public sphere, had been only part of a larger rejection of existing types of monarchical ceremony. The sacred centre of state ritual was no longer the undying ceremonial body of the ruler. This left the field clear for a good deal of Revolutionary inventiveness, grounded in nature rather than history. New ritual forms strove to recapitulate – and to be born again into – that mythic moment of contract which had soldered together society and government. State ceremonies aimed to induce a sense of respectful awe and emotional surrender in participants by an increasingly orchestrated and theatrical ceremonialism.

‘Man responds to impressions rather than reasoning,’ Mirabeau had remarked. ‘[He] has to be moved rather than convinced.’25 The apparently somewhat cynical, almost Louis-Quatorzian note of this comment overlay a conviction drawn direct from Lockean and Enlightenment empiricist premises. The new man was to be a kind of Revolutionary Émile, whose personality would be formed by the ‘natural’ and patriotic sensations with which the national sensorium was bombarded. A model in this respect was the Fête de la Fédération of 14 July 1790, commemorating the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. An enormous public amphitheatre was thrown together on the Champ de Mars in Paris, in which a quarter of a million Parisians witnessed a celebration of national unity, headed by the king, blessed by the church through a formal mass taking place on a prominent ‘altar of the fatherland’ (autel de la patrie), and with a stirring march-past by departmental delegations of the National Guard. Deprived of a commemorable history prior to 1789 – public history before that time was now viewed merely as the chronicle of the crimes of kings and priests – the Revolution’s own past was appropriately festivized. Added to the memorialization of key Revolutionary journées was the use of the Pantheon church in Paris as a repository for the tombs of great men. Stately ceremonies accompanied a series of ‘Pantheonizations’, many of them staged by the artist David, pageant-master extraordinaire to the Revolution, starting with Voltaire in July 1791, and including philosophers Descartes and Rousseau, Mirabeau (subsequently ignominiously ejected), and Marat and Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau (both assassination victims), plus sundry patriotic heroes (such as the teenager Bara, who died heroically in a Vendéan ambush).

Festive culture associated with the Revolution’s own sense of itself played an important role in the popularization of the Revolutionary cause, as a form of propaganda by the deed. It also registered the emergence of genuine patriotic sentiments at grass-roots level, which linked up with the evolution of open-air mass entertainments prior to 1789.26 Like those, it was highly inclusive: the festivals’ mass dimension was extended to include women and children as well as men, and the organizing principles were based on natural distinctions (the aged, children, widowed, etc.) rather than social hierarchies. The Fédération festivals which commemorated 14 July became popular and widespread from 1790 onwards, particularly the associated ceremony of swearing a civic oath on the altar of the fatherland. A similar combination of spontaneity and organization surrounded the act of planting a liberty tree, which started off as a peasant celebration in the Périgord in 1790 before becoming adopted more widely, with the associated act of singing of the ‘Carmagnole’. Some 60,000 liberty trees were planted throughout the length and breadth of the country.

The growing discredit of the church led to the replacement of Christian Sundays by the Revolutionary Calendar’s décadis for the celebration of the cult of the patrie. Yet efforts to fashion an authentically Revolutionary religion out of this failed to establish themselves, and became increasingly out of touch and sinister in their operations. The Paris Commune dechristianizers organized an infamous Festival of Reason at Notre-Dame cathedral in November 1793, but were stopped from developing this into a more substantial cult by Robespierre and Danton. The cult of Marat and other Revolutionary martyrs never really got much further than the placing of plaster busts of the ‘Friend of the People’ in sundry Jacobin clubs. Robespierre originated and did his best to popularize the Cult of the Supreme Being in spring 1794. Its apparent wish to dictate to consciences never won adherents, and it died with him.

The Terrorist public sphere evolving after 1792 derived much of its effect from the diffuse and subtle threat it imposed over private life and belief, dissolving the line which separated public from personal. This was evident in the Jacobin, then Revolutionary government’s, wish for greater uniformity as regards individuals’ use of Revolutionary symbols. A striking feature of the culture emergent in 1789 had been the extension of the images and symbols of Revolution into the paraphernalia of private life. The Bastille, for example, symbol of despotism, was metamorphosed into a symbol of the overthrow of that oppression, and turned up in countless paintings, engravings, sculptures and songs but also on buttons, plates, coffee-pots, razors, playing-cards, children’s games, ladies’ fans and wall-papers, testifying to a strong consumer demand for Revolutionary insignia. The latter increasingly mixed Revolutionary references – the tricolour cockade, the red cap, tablets with the Rights of Man inscribed on them – with other influences, popular (the Gallic cock), masonic (the set square symbolizing equality, the eye of vigilance), Antique (the fasces of union and authority) and so on. Contemporaries remarked on the alacrity with which individuals proclaimed their identification with the values of the Revolution by refashioning their appearances: sporting red caps, for example, cockades, sans-culotte trousers, unpowdered (and ergo unaristocratic) hairstyles and the like.

The political trust placed in symbols was, however, severely shaken at the height of the Terror. The wearing of the tricolour cockade had been made obligatory for adult males in July 1792, and this was reaffirmed on 3 April 1793 and extended to women in September. But there was a danger that this level of conformity would produce a backlash. Red caps could hide intriguers rather than patriots, as Saint-Just noted, and Revolutionary symbols could lose their status as emblems of adoptive political identity.27Consequently, the apparatus of Terror redoubled efforts to get beneath surface appearances and sought to attain the consciences of individuals, where good or bad faith could be adjudicated. Prosecutors for the Revolutionary Tribunal, for example, scrutinized the private letters of suspects with particular care, and even lukewarm sentiments towards the Revolution could lead to conviction, since the private letter still retained its Enlightenment function as a pure window into the heart. The archives of the Terror are full of individuals – in court, at a club, in a crowd, in print, before a charity committee – justifying themselves at extraordinary length, narrating their involvement with the Revolution in ways which purported to show, sometimes through the most serpentine of public manoeuvres, an adamantine faith in the Revolution.

By adopting policies and procedures which conflated public and private in this way, the adepts of Terror were entering a political and existential black hole. The quest to ensure loyalty and good faith in the hearts of individuals only redoubled anxiety about plots and conspiracies and stimulated exaggeration and deceit in equal measure. For by setting the Revolutionary bar at a such a height of translucent purity, the Revolutionary government ensured that even the warmest of patriots (let alone the politically antagonistic or apathetic) could not feel secure. There was a limit to the number of times even the most inventive of Revolutionary self-fashioners could ‘make themselves another political virginity’.28 In a world in which everyone was fast becoming a suspect, Robespierre’s paranoia became perfectly intelligible.

The almost audible sigh of relief which greeted Thermidor among the political nation also marked a rediscovery of argument and information rather than force and deterrence as means of developing consensus. Characteristically, when Robespierre fell, one of the most telling charges against him was that he had sought ‘to dominate public opinion’. Only public opinion’, now opined Barère, post Thermidor, ‘has the right to rule the nation.’29 Thermidor was simultaneously the revenge of public opinion which had tired of being putatively embodied in the frame of the virtuous Incorruptible and the assertive reclamation by the conspirator deputies, from the Jacobin Club and the Committee of Public Safety, of the Convention’s monopolistic right to represent public spirit. Given therole which the Jacobin Club played in the Terrorist public sphere, its closure in December 1794 could thus be represented to be a move for greater rather than less freedom of speech.

By seeking to reject the use of force and the threat of violence as prime instruments of Revolutionary regeneration, the Thermidorians and Directorials joined up with the spirit of the early part of the Revolution, and sought to replace the Terrorist public sphere with something more akin to the bourgeois public sphere of the Enlightenment. The desire to penetrate consciences evident in the Terror was dissipated, and distance once more emerged between private and public, allowing the re-emergence of the institutions of communication and sociability of the bourgeois public sphere. Thermidor released a fresh babble of exchange: despite the vagaries of government policy, for example, there were 190 new journals established in Year V alone, and newspaper readership stayed high at around 700,000 in 1799. New political clubs emerged which were no longer under the shadow of the Jacobins and which boasted pedigrees of both the Right and the Left (though these might be suppressed if they echoed the overweening claims of the old Jacobins). The Constitutional church re-emerged, along with – sporadically at least – refractory Catholicism and its confraternities. Coffee-houses prospered again, the conversations of their denizens less the object of police spying. Freemasonry recovered, with the Grand Orient resuming activity in 1796. Salons – out of style since the Legislative Assembly – also came back into being. They ranged from the studiously academic (Mesdames Helvétius, Condorcet and de Staël) through to the venal and hedonistic (Madame Récamier). Following the shipwreck of the Revolutionary government’s plans for a pensions-based welfare state, private charitable organizations re-emerged, and alms-giving became respectable again.

With terror ruled out as a means of influencing opinion, greater emphasis was placed again on the principle of education. Even the Revolutionary government had argued that education had a key role to play in forming the new man. Just before his assassination in January 1793, the Montagnard ex-marquis Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau had unveiled extremely ambitious plans for the recasting of the whole educational system and on 19 December 1793, the Bouquier Law established the principle of free primary schooling. Cash, however, was scarce for educational innovation at primary and secondary level while there was still a war to win, and little was achieved.

Madame de Staël was pretty representative of the post-Thermidorian mood in arguing that ‘the Republic has forestalled the Enlightenment; we must hasten the work of time by all true means of public education’.30 Yet the Directorials found that their efforts to resume the Enlightenment’s work were frustratingly restricted by local dissension over the issue of private schools staffed by ex-religious, at both secondary and primary levels. Swings to the Left in Directorial policy were accompanied by sporadic harassment of pro-Catholic schoolteachers. The educational domain on which the Thermidorians and Directorials placed greater emphasis – and more funding – was the higher education and the research establishment. Although they still sought a moral basis in politics, the Directorials downplayed the feverish emotionalism which had fuelled Robespierre’s regenerative efforts. Still holding a touching belief that their fellow citizens would listen to reason, they privileged scientific and rational inquiry as the basis of their approach to making a new man. Under the Terror, the scientific knowledge of numerous savants had been mobilized, but the regime had also been distrustful of ‘aristocrats of science’, and many of the old elitist scientific institutions of the Bourbon polity had been abolished or silenced. Post-Thermidorian governments revived the scientific establishment.31

The enlightening mission of the Directorials, like their predecessors back to 1789, was intended to ‘electrify’ (to cite a modish and much-utilized verb, which carried the desired connotations of energy, dynamism and scientific direction) the French nation with the spirit of liberty and equality. The Directorials thus renewed with the late Enlightenment desire to use human reason as a means of making life prosperous and comfortable as much as virtuous. They were far more relaxed than the Terrorists about the notion of ‘luxury’, but felt that something had to be done to restrict the exponentially expanding set of needs which commercial society brought in its train. They rejected material poverty and regarded begging and vagrancy as unseemly symptoms of aristocratic values. Viewing agriculture as enthusiastically as the Physiocrats as a source of national wealth, they waxed eulogistic about virtuous small farmers, developing a sense that a social structure grounded in the soil would act as a moral check on the expansion of wants and desires. At the same time, they also valorized all forms of manufacture and exchange, and highlighted the need for an infrastructure for them to flourish, such as road and canal building and better mail services.

If these educational and infrastructural reforms were going to be genuinely regenerative, it would be in the long rather than the short term – and time was what Thermidorians and Directorials most lacked. They therefore flanked their educational initiatives with a re-commitment to devising ceremonial forms and rituals which would have a pedagogic effect on all French men and women. From 1796, the Director La Révellière-Lépeaux threw his weight behind the cult of Theophilanthropy, a somewhat whimsical form of philosophical Deism. It failed either to find loyal adherents or to check the revival of Catholicism, and after the Fructidor coup in 1797, the Directors began to renew efforts to enracinate the decadal cult: on the décadi official uniforms were to be worn, liberty-trees to be planted, patriotic hymns were to be sung, recent laws to be read out and marriages to be celebrated.

It soon became clear, however, that Revolutionary festivals divided as much as they united the nation. For every locality enthusiastic about the décadi there was at least one sullenly formulaic and subversively conformist. And counter-revolutionaries took great pleasure in assailing the Revolution’s festive and putatively unifying symbolic forms. In the White Terror, for example, jeunesse dorée and vigilante gangs not only launched personal attacks against Year II Terrorists, they also resisted the Revolution’s festive culture on its own ground by loudly singing their theme tune, ‘Le Réveil du Peuple’ over the intonation of the ‘Marseillaise’; by ostentatiously observing Sundays rather than décadis as a day of rest; by removing busts of Marat; and by chopping down, carving slogans on or urinating against trees of liberty. Rituals and symbols which in a more innocent past had sought to unify communities now alienated and fragmented them.

Most telling, perhaps, of the failure of efforts after Thermidor to forge a unifying national culture was the Right’s subversion of what was probably the Revolution’s most innovative contribution to political culture, namely, the act of election. In the early part of the Revolution, elections had affirmed the unified sense of community which lay at the heart of the new political culture and played a key role in civic pedagogy. As divisive issues became more envenomed, however, electoral procedures seemed to stimulate rather than allay local antagonisms, and to muddy the pristine waters of political transparency. This was probably a factor in growing voter apathy, highlighted by lower turnouts. Participation rates in 1790 had averaged nearly 50 per cent, though elections for the Legislative Assembly in 1791 attracted only around a quarter of voters, and in many locations voting for the Convention fell to under 10 per cent. The move away from the principle of election in the period of Revolutionary government was vigorously countered by the Thermidorians and Directorials. The 1795 Constitution actually stipulated elections on an annual basis. Yet voter response was little more than pathetic. The plebiscites in 1795 on the constitution and (in particular) the Two-Thirds Law attracted no enthusiasm. Annual turnout thereafter proved too demanding, especially as procedural changes made the electoral ritual even more laborious. Furthermore, as both constitutional royalists and, at the other extreme, ex-Terrorists anxious to protect their local position were quick to appreciate, declining participation opened the door to determined minorities imposing the sectional will. The constitutional royalists were spectacularly successful in the Year V (1797) elections.

The shock of counter-revolution defeating the Revolutionaries on their own hallowed ground of election was so great that, as we have seen,32 the Directors reacted by launching the Fructidor coup, purging deputies, administrators and judges who were accounted to be on the Right. The forces of neo-Jacobinism may have rejoiced, but this illegal act in a regime which had stressed its foundation in constitutional rectitude rather than Revolutionary governmental force immensely damaged its overall credibility. The continuation of this kind of electoral game, in which sundry Directors, when they saw fit, played the coercive trump card could only lead to a further decrease in electoral enthusiasm and turnout. The regime of the rule of law had turned lawless, and seemed to encourage a sectionalism which the unifying political culture of the Revolution had always rejected.

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