Thermidorian Reaction

Last updated

The Thermidorian Reaction (French : Réaction thermidorienne or Convention thermidorienne, "Thermidorian Convention") is the common term, in the historiography of the French Revolution, for the period between the ousting of Maximilien Robespierre on 9 Thermidor II, or 27 July 1794, to the inauguration of the French Directory on 1 November 1795. The "Thermidorian Reaction" was named after the month in which the coup took place, and was the latter part of the National Convention's rule of France. It was marked by the end of the Reign of Terror, decentralization of executive powers from the Committee of Public Safety, and a turn from the radical leftist policies of the Montagnard Convention to more conservative positions. Economic and general populism, dechristianization, and harsh wartime measures were largely abandoned, as the members of the Convention, disillusioned and frightened of the centralized government of the Terror, preferred a more stable political order that would have the approval of the affluent. The Reaction saw the Left suppressed by brutal force, including massacres, as well as the disbanding of the Jacobin Club, the dispersal of the sans-culottes, and the renunciation of the Montagnard ideology.


Etymology and definitions

The name Thermidorian originated with 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), the date according to the French Republican Calendar when Maximilien Robespierre and other radical revolutionaries came under concerted attack in the National Convention. Thermidorian Reaction refers to the remaining period until the National Convention was superseded by the Directory; this is also sometimes called the era of the Thermidorian Convention. [1] Prominent figures of Thermidor include Paul Barras, Jean-Lambert Tallien, and Joseph Fouché.


Gendarme Charles-Andre Merda shooting at Maximilien Robespierre Shot.jpg
Gendarme Charles-André Merda shooting at Maximilien Robespierre

Conspiracies against Robespierre, who had dominated the Committee of Public Safety, came together on 9 Thermidor (27 July) 1794. Jean-Lambert Tallien, a member of and previously President of the National Convention, impugned Saint-Just and then went on to denounce the tyranny of Robespierre. The attack was taken up by Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne. Cries went up of "Down with the tyrant! Arrest him!" Robespierre then made his appeal to the deputies of the Right, yet failed. An order was made to arrest Robespierre and his followers.

Troops from the Paris Commune, who were loyal to Robespierre, arrived to liberate him and the other prisoners. The Convention responded by ordering troops of its own under Paul Barras to counteract. The Robespierrists barricaded at the Hôtel de Ville. [2] The Convention declared them to be outlaws, meaning that they could be executed within 24 hours without a trial. The Commune forces at the Hôtel de Ville deserted. The Convention troops under Barras approached the Hôtel around 2 a.m. on 28 July. [2] Robespierre, his jaw broken by a possibly self-inflicted shot, was taken with most of his supporters.

The execution of Robespierre on 28 July 1794 marked the end of the Reign of Terror Execution robespierre, saint just....jpg
The execution of Robespierre on 28 July 1794 marked the end of the Reign of Terror

On that very day, Robespierre was executed with twenty-one of his closest associates, including [3] François Hanriot, ex-commander of the Parisian National Guard; Jean-Baptiste Fleuriot-Lescot, mayor of Paris; Georges Couthon, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just and René-François Dumas, ex-president of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

The Reaction

The events of 9 Thermidor proved a watershed in the revolutionary process. The Thermidorian regime that followed proved to be an unpopular one, facing many rebellions after its execution of Robespierre and his allies, along with seventy members of the Paris Commune, the largest mass execution to have ever taken place in Paris. [4] This led to a very fragile situation in France. [5]

The hostility toward Robespierre did not just vanish with his execution. Instead, the people decided to blame those who were involved with Robespierre in any way, namely the many members of the Jacobin Club, their supporters, and individuals suspected of being past revolutionaries. The massacre of these groups became known as the White Terror, and was partially carried out by the Muscadin, a group of dandyish street fighters organized by the new government. [5]

Often, members of these targeted groups were the victims of prison massacres or put on trial without due process, which were overall similar conditions to those provided to the counter-revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror. At the same time, its economic policies paved the way for rampant inflation. Ultimately, power devolved to the hands of the Directory, an executive of five men who assumed power in France in November 1795 (in year III of the French Revolutionary calendar). [6]

The Thermidorian regime excluded the remaining Montagnards from power, even those who had joined in conspiring against Robespierre and Saint-Just. The White Terror of 1795 resulted in numerous imprisonments and several hundred executions, almost exclusively of people on the political left. These numbers, while significant, were considerably smaller than those associated with the previous Reign of Terror, which killed over 40,000. Many executions took place without a trial. [7]

On July 29 the victors of the 9th Thermidor condemned seventy members of the Paris Commune to death; thereafter the Commune was subject to the Convention. [4]

As part of the reorganization of French politics, practitioners of the terror were called to defend their records; some such as Tallien, Barras, Fouché and Fréron rejoined the leadership. Others such as Billaud-Varenne, Collot d’Herbois, Barère and Vadier were sentenced to exile in South America, though the latter two managed to evade arrest. Many Jacobin clubs were closed. Freedom of worship was extended first to the Vendée and later to all France. On 24 December 1794 the Maximum (controls on prices and wages) was abolished. The government exacerbated this inflationary move by issuing more assignats.

In April and May 1795, protests and riots in support of the radicals broke out culminating in an invasion of the Convention by an insurrectionist mob on 20 May. On 22 May the Convention struck back, having troops under Pichegru surround the Faubourg St-Antoine and force the capitulation of the armed rebels. In May and June 1795, a "White Terror" raged in which Jacobins were victims and the judges were bourgeois "Moderates". [8] Throughout France the events of the September Massacres were repeated, however this time the victims were imprisoned officials of the Terror. In Paris, Royalist sentiments were openly tolerated.

Meanwhile, French armies overran the Netherlands and established the Batavian Republic, occupied the left bank of the Rhine and forced Spain, Prussia and several German States to sue for peace, enhancing the prestige of the Convention. A new constitution called the Constitution of the Year III was drawn up on 22 August 1795, which eased back some of the democratic elements of the constitution of 1793, establishing an electoral college for the election of officials, a bicameral legislature and other provisions designed to protect the current holders of power. On 5 October (13 Vendémiaire), a revolt led by Royalists challenged the Convention. It was put down by Napoleon with a whiff of grapeshot . On 25 October the Convention declared itself dissolved and was replaced by the Directory on 2 November 1795.

Other uses of the term

For historians of revolutionary movements, the term Thermidor has come to mean the phase in some revolutions when power slips from the hands of the original revolutionary leadership and a radical regime is replaced by a more conservative regime, sometimes to the point where the political pendulum may swing back towards something resembling a pre-revolutionary state. In his book The Revolution Betrayed , Leon Trotsky alleges that the rise of Joseph Stalin to power was a Soviet Thermidor.

Related Research Articles

Committee of Public Safety De facto executive government in France (1793–1794)

The Committee of Public Safety, created in April 1793 by the National Convention and then restructured in July 1793, formed the provisional government in France during the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), a phase of the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety succeeded the previous Committee of General Defence and assumed its role of protecting the newly established republic against foreign attacks and internal rebellion. As a wartime measure, the committee was given broad supervisory powers over military, judicial and legislative efforts. It was formed as an administrative body to supervise and expedite the work of the executive bodies of the convention and of the government ministers appointed by the convention.

Jacobin the more radical constitutional reform group in the French Revolution

The Society of the Friends of the Constitution, after 1792 renamed Society of the Jacobins, Friends of Freedom and Equality, commonly known as the Jacobin Club or simply the Jacobins, became the most influential political club during the French Revolution of 1789 and following. The period of their political ascendancy includes the Reign of Terror, during which time well over ten thousand people were put on trial and executed in France, many for political crimes.

National Convention Single-chamber assembly in France from 21 September 1792 to 26 October 1795

The National Convention was the first government of the French Revolution, following the two-year National Constituent Assembly and the one-year Legislative Assembly. Created after the great insurrection of 10 August 1792, it was the first French government organized as a republic, abandoning the monarchy altogether. The Convention sat as a single-chamber assembly from 20 September 1792 to 26 October 1795.

The Mountain political group during the French Revolution

The Mountain was a political group during the French Revolution. Its members, called the Montagnards, sat on the highest benches in the National Assembly.

<i>Sans-culottes</i> radical left-wing partisans of the lower classes during French Revolution

The sans-culottes were the common people of the lower classes in late 18th century France, a great many of whom became radical and militant partisans of the French Revolution in response to their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime. The word sans-culotte, which is opposed to that of the aristocrat, seems to have been used for the first time on 28 February 1791 by officer Gauthier in a derogatory sense, speaking about a "sans-culottes army". The word came in vogue during the demonstration of 20 June 1792.

Jacques-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne French revolutionary leader

Jacques-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne, also known as Jean Nicolas, was a French personality of the Revolutionary period. Though not one of the most well known figures of the French Revolution, Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne was an instrumental figure of the period known as the Reign of Terror. Billaud-Varenne climbed his way up the ladder of power during that period, becoming one of the most militant members of the Committee of Public Safety. He was recognized and worked with French Revolution figures Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, and is often considered one of the key architects of The Terror. "No, we will not step backward, our zeal will only be smothered in the tomb; either the Revolution will triumph or we will all die."

Jean-Lambert Tallien French political figure of the revolutionary period

Jean-Lambert Tallien was a French political figure of the revolutionary period.

François-René-Auguste Mallarmé was a French statesman of the French Revolution and a supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Empire. His career is of particular interest because he was among political figures such as Joseph Fouché who at first aggressively supported the Terror, only to betray its leaders and support the various conservative reactionary régimes that followed. His was a chevalier de l'Empire from 22 November 1808 and a baron de l'Empire from 31 January 1810.

Marc-Guillaume Alexis Vadier French politician

Marc-Guillaume Alexis Vadier was a French politician of the French Revolution.


The term Muscadin, meaning "wearing musk perfume", came to refer to mobs of young men, relatively well-off and dressed in a dandyish manner, who were the street fighters of the Thermidorian Reaction in Paris in the French Revolution. After the coup against Robespierre and the Jacobins of 9 Thermidor Year II, or 27 July 1794, they took on the remaining Jacobins and sans-culottes, and largely succeeded in suppressing them over the next year or two. In prints they are often seen carrying large wooden clubs, which they liked to call "constitutions". They were supposedly organized by the politician and journalist Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron, and eventually numbered 2,000-3,000. They in fact seem to have mostly consisted of the lower middle classes, the sons of "minor officials and small shopkeepers", and were quietly encouraged by the shaky new government, who had good reason to fear Jacobin mobs, and wider unrest as the hard winter of 1794-5 saw increasing hunger among the Parisian working class. The Muscadins are considered to be part of the First White Terror in response to the preceding Reign of Terror of the Jacobins.

Incroyables and Merveilleuses Fashionable aristocratic subculture in Paris during the French Directory (1795–1799)

The Incroyables and their female counterparts, the Merveilleuses, were members of a fashionable aristocratic subculture in Paris during the French Directory (1795–1799). Whether as catharsis or in a need to reconnect with other survivors of the Reign of Terror, they greeted the new regime with an outbreak of luxury, decadence, and even silliness. They held hundreds of balls and started fashion trends in clothing and mannerisms that today seem exaggerated, affected, or even effete. Some devotees of the trend preferred to be called "incoyable" or "meveilleuse", thus avoiding the letter R, as in "révolution." When this period ended, society took a more sober and modest turn.

First White Terror counter-revolution in France in 1795

The White Terror was a period during the French Revolution in 1795, when a wave of violent attacks swept across much of France. The victims of this violence were people identified as being associated with the Reign of Terror – followers of Robespierre and Marat, and members of local Jacobin clubs. The violence was perpetrated primarily by those whose relatives or associates had been victims of the Great Terror, or whose lives and livelihoods had been threatened by the government and its supporters before the Thermidorean Reaction. Principally these were, in Paris, the Muscadins, and in the countryside, monarchists, supporters of the Girondins, those who opposed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and those otherwise hostile to the Jacobin political agenda. The Great Terror had been largely an organised political programme, based on laws such as the Law of 22 Prairial, and enacted through official institutions such as the Revolutionary Tribunal, but the White Terror was essentially a series of uncoordinated attacks by local activists who shared common perspectives but no central organisation. In particular locations, there were however more organised counter-revolutionary movements such as the Companions of Jehu in Lyon and the Companions of the Sun in Provence. The name 'White Terror' derives from the white cockades worn in the hats of royalists.

Maximilien Robespierre French revolutionary lawyer and politician

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre was a French lawyer and statesman who was one of the best-known and most influential figures of the French Revolution. As a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Jacobin Club, he campaigned for universal manhood suffrage, and the abolition both of celibacy for the clergy and of slavery. Robespierre was an outspoken advocate for the citizens without a voice, for their unrestricted admission to the National Guard, to public offices, and for the right to carry arms in self-defence. He played an important part in the agitation which brought about the fall of the French monarchy in August 1792 and the summoning of a National Convention.

The Thermidorians, known also a Thermidorian Convention, was a French political group active during the French Revolution between 1794 and 1799.

Insurrection of 12 Germinal, Year III revolt during the French Revolution

The insurrection of 12 Germinal Year III was a popular revolt in Paris on 1 April 1795 against the policies of the Thermidorian Convention. It was provoked by poverty and hunger resulting from the abandonment of the controlled economy after dismantling of the Revolutionary Government during Thermidorian Reaction.

Pierre-Louis Bentabole French politician

Pierre Louis Bentabole was a revolutionary Frenchman, born in Landau Haut Rhin on 4 June 1756 and died in Paris on 22 April 1798. As lawyer, he presided practiced in the district of Hagenau and Saverne; he was deputy of the Bas-Rhin to the National Convention on 4 September 1792. He voted to execute Louis XVI. On 6 October 1794, he was appointed to the Committee of Public Safety.

Fall of Maximilien Robespierre The coup detat of 27 July 1794 (9 Thermidor II) which deposed Robespierre.

The Coup d'état of 9 Thermidor or the Fall of Maximilien Robespierre refers to the series of events beginning with Maximilien Robespierre's address to the National Convention on 8 Thermidor Year II, his arrest the next day, and his execution on 10 Thermidor Year II. In the speech of 8 Thermidor, Robespierre spoke of the existence of internal enemies, conspirators, and calumniators, within the Convention and the governing Committees. He refused to name them, which alarmed the deputies who feared Robespierre was preparing another purge of the Convention.


  1. For the definition of the Thermidorian Reaction as the 15-month period following Robespierre's demise, see: Peter McPhee (ed.), A Companion to the French Revolution. Wiley-Blackwell (2012). p. 311; David Andress (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution. Oxford University Press (2015). pp. 522-523.; Mona Ozouf, François Furet (ed.), A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Harvard University Press (1989). p. 400.
  2. 1 2 Merriman, John(2004). "Thermidor"(2nd ed.). A history of modern Europe: from the Renaissance to the present, p. 507. W.W. Norton & Company Ltd. ISBN   0-393-92495-5
  3. Beauchesne, Alcide; Dupanloup, Félix (1868). Louis XVII, sa vie, son agonie, sa mort: captivité de la famille royale au Temple. pp. 218–9.
  4. 1 2 Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Napoleon (New York:Simon & Schuster, 1975), p. 83.
  5. 1 2 McPhee, P. (2012). "The White Terror". The White Terror, in A Companion to the French Revolution. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. pp. 359–377. doi:10.1002/9781118316399.ch22. ISBN   9781118316399.
  6. Sutherland (2003) ch. 8.
  7. Brown (2010).
  8. Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Napoleon (New York:Simon & Schuster, 1975), p. 84.

Further reading


In French