On This Day 27/7/1794: The Coup of 9 Thermidor

Categories: Features

On the anniversary of the fall of Robespierre and his supporters Gareth Beynon looks at the consequence of this for the French Revolution.


On 27 July 1794, 9 Thermidor Year II by the revolutionary calendar, the most radical period of the French Revolution was brought to an end by the arrest of Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just and their closest supporters. It ushered in the rule of the directory, a five man executive, and paved the way for the White Terror, a wave of politically motivated violence and executions aimed against the left. While the aim of the coup was to reign in the terror while preserving a radical republican legacy its impact was to weaken the revolution and provide succour to the convalescing right and royalists.

Robespierre and Saint Just had been the most significant political figures of the revolution following the fall of the Girondins in May-June 1793. They had used their positions within the Committee for Public Safety to safeguard the republic against conspiracies, counter-revolution and foreign invasion. Following demonstrations and civil disobedience organised by the Paris Commune they introduced laws like the Maximum to keep food prices down, thus winning widespread support from the politicised Parisian poor. While such moves caused a certain amount of resentment amongst moderates and the bourgeoisie, who considered the right to profit out of the misfortune of the poor a fundamental right, they were more fearful that moving against Robespierre, the Commune and the Sans Culottes would trigger instability that would favour the counter-revolution and cost them their heads.

So long as the revolution remained in mortal danger this uneasy coalition held together. Through the course of late 1793 and 1794 the French won a series of military victories against the First Coalition and defeated the revolt in the Vendee, albeit at a bloody price. With the possibility of a counter-revolutionary army marching into Paris to drench the city in blood to avenge the regicide an increasingly distant prospect fractures began to appear. The Enrages, the radical faction which held sway in the Commune, favoured entrenching the gains of 1793 and upholding them by continuing the terror. They advocated increasingly radical strategies, in some cases going so far as to argue for overthrowing the National Convention. Robespierre and his allies came to see them as the prime threat to the revolution. They formed a short lived alliance with forces in the Convention who were to their right and had the leaders of the left arrested, tried and executed for plotting against the republic.

Purging the left was a tactical blunder which left the leadership of the Revolution isolated from its popular base in Paris. For a few months the right were more or less satisfied that the remaining Montagnards were the best candidates to see through the transition from revolutionary government but disagreements soon flared over the pace of change. A plot led by Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins, aiming to deconstruct the apparatus of the terror and shift the course of the revolution rightwards was discovered and the pair were executed along with their supporters. Given the importance of these two figures in the revolution, particularly around the iconic storming of the Bastille, their fall caused confusion and demoralisation amongst revolutionaries. It particularly unsettled the right as it showed that Robespierre and Saint just were still able and willing to move against threats from the right. When Robespierre claimed in a speech to the Convention that he had uncovered further plots which he meant to move against it sparked the coup.

The Convention voted to have Robespierre and his supporters arrested. Amongst those supporting this call was Billaud-Varenne, a supporter of the executed leftist Jacques Hebert. The Thermidorians had succeeded in rallying opponents of Robespierre from both the right and left to their cause. Robespierre and his supporters fled to the Hotel de Ville, seat of the Paris Commune, in an attempt to rally the left to their cause once again. With news that the Convention had organised a large body of soldiers to arrest the men holed up in the Hotel de Ville those revolutionaries the Communards had managed to rally in defence of Robespierre began to disband. Their numbers were too few and they no longer thought this a cause worth being killed for.

Convention soldiers entered the Hotel de Ville early in the morning of 28 July and chaos ensued. Robespierre was shot in the face, his brother Augustin broke his legs when he leapt from a window, Le Bas killed himself and Couthon, who was wheelchair bound, was found sprawled on the floor at the foot of a staircase. 22 of them were executed the next day. Saint Just produced a copy of the radical 1793 Constitution which he had drafted as a means of identification, pointed to it and said ‘I am the one who made that’. It was swiftly replaced by a less democratic document by the Directory.

The repeal of the 1793 constitution was by no means the only reactionary measure taken by the Thermidorian Regime. The Law of the Maximum was repealed in December, leading to a massive bout of inflation. The urban poor were impoverished. Billaud-Varenne, who had been persuaded to support the coup, was sentenced to exile in South America along with other surviving leftists. The Jacobin club was closed and hundreds of its supporters executed, many without trials. Royalist counter-revolutionaries were tolerated leading to an uprising in October 1795 which was put down by a young General named Napoleon Bonaparte, beginning his meteoric rise at the expense of the republic. This was not the end of the left though. Demonstrations and riots broke out in Spring of 1795 in support of the left and for the re-introduction of the Maximum. The Convention was invaded by them at one point. The damage had already been done though. Thermidor was their great defeat.

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