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Thermidorian Reaction

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Thermidorian Reaction

The Thermidorian Reaction was a pivotal moment in the history of the French Revolution. It brought an end to the Reign of Terror that had paralysed France for nearly a year and marked the fall of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the most infamous figures of the Revolution.

But how did this happen? How was such a fierce regime of terror brought down, and by whom? What were the consequences of the Thermidorian Reaction, and what was its impact on the French Revolution?

Key Dates

Date:Event:
18 June - 26 July 1794Maximilien Robespierre took a break from public life, making very few speeches in the National Convention and rarely attending meetings.
26 July 1794Robespierre returned to public life. He made a speech at the National Convention claiming that there was a plot against him but refused to name anyone.
27 July 1794Robespierre attempted to make a speech in the National Convention but was shouted down. The Convention voted to arrest Robespierre and several of his supporters.
28 July 1794Robespierre, along with 21 others, was executed, effectively bringing the Reign of Terror to an end.
1 August 1794The Law of 22 Prairial, which had suspended citizens' rights during the Terror, was repealed.
22 August 1795The Constitution of Year III is created - among other things, it ensures that a dictatorship like that held by Robespierre could never happen again.

What does 'Thermidor' actually mean?

When the French Revolution began, the Revolutionaries instituted a new calendar for the Republic to use. This new calendar had 10 days in a week, and all the months were renamed. The period from 20 July to 20 August was named the month of Thermidor. Since the Reaction occurred on 27 and 28 July, in this period, it was named the Thermidorian Reaction.

thermidorian reaction french revolution studysmarterAn allegory of the month of Thermidor, an illustration by Louis Laffite, Wikimedia Commons.

Those who took part in the Thermidorian Reaction became known as 'Thermidorians'.

Who were the Thermidorians?

The Thermidorians, also known after the Reaction as the Thermidorian Convention, were the group of people who revolted against Maximilien Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in 1794.

The faction did not have one singular ideology. The rate at which Robespierre had been arresting and executing those he perceived as 'enemies' was becoming distressing, even to those who had previously aligned themselves with Robespierre and had supported the Terror. Those close to Robespierre were scared that they would be next to go to the guillotine.

Therefore, those who formed against him were not just his obvious opposition of Moderates, but equally, Montagnards, who had previously supported the Terror, now felt it was going too far. Members of the powerful Committee for Public Safety and Committee for General Security also joined the coup, along with many of the independent deputies, who sat in the middle of the Moderates and the Montagnards.

Background: Causes of the Thermidorian Reaction

Now we will look at why the Thermidorian Reaction happened and why Robespierre had lost so much support in the years 1793-4. He lost support from three important groups: the Catholics, the sans-culottes, and the Revolutionary committees.

Catholics

Although Robespierre did not like the Catholic Church, he was still religious and did believe in a god, and therefore he disliked the anti-religious ideas that were prominent among the sans-culottes. He wanted to unite all of France under a new religion called the Cult of the Supreme Being.

Cult of the Supreme Being:

This new religion was heavily influenced by the religious theories of the Enlightenment. Essentially, it was centred around the belief in a God and the immortality of the soul, like Christianity. However, the worship and ritual of the Catholic Church would be replaced by a faith in reason and an emphasis on doing one's civic duty. Robespierre believed that the belief in an afterlife and higher morality was essential to the longevity of a Republican society.

cult of the supreme being french revolutionStatement of belief of the Cult of the Supreme Being, 'The French people recognise the supreme being and the immortality of the soul', Wikimedia Commons.

This new religion was not popular with anyone. The Catholics, obviously, feared the abolition of their right to worship and were also concerned about the loss of ritual, doctrine and deference to the Pope. Equally, even those in the Committee for General Security who held anti-clerical views were against it; they felt that this new religion would simply be a replacement for Catholicism and would be used to maintain power over the people and aid Robespierre's political agenda.

Sans Culotte

Despite being a traditionally strong area of support for Robespierre, by July 1794, he was losing their favour. This was due to several reasons:

  • Execution of the Hebertists: The Hebertists were a popular political faction that strongly supported the Terror and controlled the Paris Commune. After a slew of accusations against them as well as denouncements from important figures, including Robespierre, the leaders were executed on 24 March 1794. The Hebertists had been popular among the sans-culottes, so this purge was not welcomed.
  • End of the War: The war against Austria had been the main reason for instigating the Terror. However, by spring 1794, all foreign troops had been driven from French soil, and government authority had been restored. Many people began to question whether extreme measures were really necessary anymore and became disturbed at the prolonging of government-supported violence.
  • Changes to the Maximum: The General Maximum, a tax which had been introduced to control prices, was raised in March 1794 - this led to increased inflation and devaluation of the currency. The Maximum was also introduced for wages, which meant people received less money, which was not popular.

Revolutionary Committees

The Committee for General Security (CGS) and the Committee for Public Safety (CPS) were dominant in the government of the Terror. However, by the beginning of 1794, they had become rivals rather than allies.

Firstly, the CPS had set up its own police bureau to find and prosecute officials if needed. The CGS saw this as an unacceptable incursion into their own remit of security and worried that the CPS would use this against the CGS to gain more power.

Many in the CGS were also becoming increasingly concerned with Robespierre's actions, especially his desire to introduce the Cult of the Supreme Being as the new state religion. The executions of former friends and allies of Robespierre, like Georges Danton, had also made others worry about Robespierre's power to have them arrested and executed.

The Thermidorian Reaction

On 27 July 1794, Robespierre was shouted down in the National Convention as he tried to make a speech. The Convention then voted to arrest Robespierre as well as several of his allies, including his brother Augustin and Hanriot, the Commander of the Paris Commune.

It was ordered that Robespierre and his supporters be taken to prisons that were controlled by the Paris Commune. However, the Commune, who still supported Robespierre, refused to allow them to be imprisoned there, and they were released. In the ensuing confusion, both the National Convention and the Paris Commune called on the National Guard to defend both their causes.

thermidorian reaction french revolution studysmarterPainting by Jean-Joseph Francois Tassaert, depicting the arrest of Robespierre during the Thermidorian Reaction, Wikimedia Commons.

Only 17 of the 48 sections of the National Guard arrived. For a while, it looked as if the coup would fail, as several sections rallied behind Hanriot. Yet, it did not remain so for long. Robespierre was unwilling to act, as he doubted that the rebellion would succeed, which gave the Convention time to come up with a plan of action.

The decisive moment came when it was proposed that Robespierre and the other prisoners be named 'outlaws' due to their escape. This decree encouraged more sections of the National Guard to defend the Convention rather than the Paris Commune. Robespierre and the others were recaptured with ease and sent to the guillotine the next day.

Importance of the Thermidorian Reaction

With Robespierre and his supporters now safely out of the way, the Convention put their minds to dismantling the legislation of the Terror and reforming the structure of government so that an event like the Terror could not happen again. The following table details the measures taken by the Convention and their impact.

Action:Explanation:Impact:
Repealing the Law of 22 PrairialThe Law of 22 Prairial had increased the power of the Revolutionary tribunals and limited people's ability to defend themselves against the law. It also made virtually any criticism of the government a crime.Repealing this law restored people's rights and put an end to many of the unnecessary and unfounded accusations, arrests and executions that had been the hallmark of the Terror
Releasing suspects from prisonThere were still many people in prison that had been arrested before the Thermidorian Reaction.The release of these prisoners who had been arrested under the old regime proved the end of the Terror and helped restore trust in the Convention.
Abolishing the Revolutionary TribunalsThe Revolutionary Tribunals had been central to the workings of the Terror and had been responsible for the sentencing and execution of those arrested.Abolishing these tribunals was an important step in dismantling the structures that had made the Terror possible and ensured an end to unfair arrests and executions.
Decentralising power from the CPS and CGSThe centralisation of power in the CPS and CGS was one of the main structures that had upheld the Terror since so much power was in the hands of a relatively small number of people.The Convention decreed that every month, a quarter of the members of each committee had to be changed, so the same group of people would not hold power for an extended period of time. In August 1794, 16 other committees were set up to take over most of the work of the CPS and CGS, ensuring power would not be centralised in a small group of people.
Establishing freedom of religionDuring the Terror, Robespierre had held a firm stance against the Catholic Church and wanted to introduce a religion called the Cult of the Supreme Being. Many people in the CPS and CGS held anti-clerical views as well.The Convention cut ties with the Church and refused to pay clerical salaries, enacting a separation of Church and state. On 21 February 1795, the Convention restored freedom of religion for all religions, ending the persecution brought about by the anti-clerical campaigns during the Terror.
Constitution of Year IIIThis constitution was drawn up by the Thermidorians in 1795 and included many of the foundational tenets of the Revolution, such as declarations of liberty and the rights of man. In order to stop another dictatorship from arising, the constitution created new institutions which made it virtually impossible for one group to monopolise the government. This was done by firmly separating the legislative (Council of 500 and Council of Ancients) and executive (The Directory) branches of government, so they could not be taken over by the same group of people.

Aftermath

The Thermidorian Reaction was a very significant event in the history of the French Revolution. Although many were glad at the end of the Reign of Terror, the Thermidorian regime and new Directory that followed still faced many difficulties.

The harsh winter of 1794-95 and the removal of price controls led to widespread hunger, and people took their anger out on the National Convention. This resulted in the Germinal Uprising on 1 April 1795 and the Prairial Uprising on 20 May 1795, which presented a considerable threat to the Convention. Outbreaks of White Terror around the country also gave the Convention more problems to deal with.

Ultimately, the new regime would last until the rise of Napoleon and the establishment of the First French Empire.

Thermidorian Reaction - Key takeaways

  • The Thermidorian Reaction was a coup that took place from 27-28 July 1794. It was a reaction against the Terror and the policies of Maximilien Robespierre and marked the end of the Reign of Terror in France.
  • On 27 July, Robespierre and several of his supporters were arrested - following a night of confusion, they were eventually executed on 28 July.
  • After the Reaction, the Convention took several steps to dismantle the legislation of the Terror and reform the institutions of government so that it could not happen again.
  • However, the Convention faced several difficulties even after the Thermidorian Reaction, notably the Prairial and Germinal uprisings as well as the White Terror.

Frequently Asked Questions about Thermidorian Reaction

The Thermidorian Reaction refers to the coup that took place from 27-28 July 1794 during the French Revolution, in which Maximilien Robespierre was overthrown and the Reign of Terror ended.

During the Thermidorian Reaction, Maximilien Robespierre was overthrown and the Reign of Terror was ended.

The Thermidorian Reaction was a result of Maximilien Robespierre losing support and trust from his party and much of the French public. They were distressed at the level of violence of the Reign of Terror and wanted it to end.

The month of Thermidor (20th July - 20th August) is most known as the time when the Thermidorian Reaction happened, in which Maximilien Robespierre was overthrown.

None of the groups involved in the Thermidorian Reaction could be considered conservative. It was a reaction against the violence of the Terror by several groups who had mixed political views but had been united in this crisis. 

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