French Revolution
French Revolution

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French Revolution

6 The Thermidorian Settlement and the end of the Revolution

In Thermidor (July) 1794 there was a further political coup, this time engineered by deputies in the Convention who felt that Jacobin fanaticism, mob violence and bloodshed had got wildly out of hand and feared for their own lives. They succeeded in outmanoeuvring Robespierre, who was arrested and (after a botched suicide attempt) guillotined together with over 100 other Jacobins. The Thermidorians then put a stop to show trials and bloodletting. They also called in the army to put down the sans-culottes: ‘for the first time since 1789 the authorities felt they could rely on soldiers to restore domestic order’ (Doyle, 2001, p. 59). When the Paris sans-culottes twice took to the streets in 1795, they were ruthlessly suppressed. The slaughter continued in a so-called White Terror (so-called from the white flag of the Bourbons) by counter-revolutionaries in Lyons, Nǐmes and Marseilles avenging themselves on their former persecutors.

Yet another constitution was introduced in 1795 which dismantled the dictatorship of the Terror and established a ruling executive committee, or Directory, of five and a bicameral legislature consisting of a Council of 500 and an upper house, or Council of Elders or ‘Ancients’. Eligibility for public office was restricted to some 30,000 men of property. Francois Boissy d'Anglas (1756–1826), who drew up the constitution, equated ‘a country ruled by property-owners’ with rule by ‘the best … those with most education’, concerned with law and order (Hampson, 1969, p. 118). The franchise of four and a half million male taxpayers was nonetheless still the widest in Europe.

In the words of Richard Cobb, 1795 was ‘the decisive year of the whole revolutionary period, for it was basically the Thermidorian Settlement that survived into the Restauration’ [Bourbon restoration of 1815] (Cobb, 1970, p. 197). The main beneficiaries of the Revolution were in a broad sense bourgeois, but they were a landowning bourgeoisie, who had bought up land made available by the sequestration of church property, not an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. The Revolution was disastrous to trade and industry, and a mercantile and industrial bourgeoisie did not come into its own in France before the 1830s. Men of means who qualified for the franchise – that is ‘property-owners’ and ‘those with most education’ – included members of the nobility, who re-emerged after Thermidor. The men of 1789 included nobles who had joined with the Third Estate and willingly jettisoned their privileges, and while events after 1789 had driven many nobles abroad, the émigrés constituted no more than 7 to 8 per cent of the French nobility. Most nobles remained, survived the Terror, participated in and even benefited from the Revolution – for example, as generals during the Revolutionary Wars. By the turn of the century, ‘most of the wealthiest landowners in France were still the nobles of the Old Regime’ (Blanning, 1987, p. 55).

The energies of the French people as a whole were directed into spreading the Revolution abroad. As Gwynne Lewis puts it: ‘after 1795, the French Revolution continued, but wearing a military uniform and without the active support of ‘the masses’ (Lewis, 1993, p. 52). In so far as ‘the masses’ were identified with the excesses of the sans-culottes, the ruling classes were glad to see them put in their place.

In 1799 a fresh constitution entrusted supreme power to one of the successful generals who had been spreading the Revolution by military conquest in the neighbouring states: Napoleon Bonaparte. The author of this latest constitution was the abbé Sieyès, whom we met ten years earlier at the summoning of the Estates-General as the champion of the Third Estate. All that seemed a world away now, so much had happened in the meantime. Sieyès was asked, what did you do during the Revolution? ‘I survived,’ he replied (Caratini, 1988, p. 507). What the propertied governing class in France desired now was to enjoy the gains which the Revolution had brought them and to keep them safe from the mob at home, from counter-revolution abroad, and from the possibility of a restoration of the Old Regime. Bonaparte would guarantee the new order in France and spread the Revolution abroad, incidentally securing France's ‘natural frontier’ on the Rhine. With Bonaparte's help – a ‘whiff of grape-shot’ – the lower chamber, which had royalist leanings, was dispersed in October 1795. In a coup d'état on 18 Brumaire (9 November) 1799, the upper chamber surrendered power to three ‘consuls’, the first of whom was Bonaparte. On 15 December Bonaparte issued a proclamation claiming that ‘the Revolution is established on the principles with which it began. It is over’ (Tulard, 1987, p. 498).

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