The End of the TerrorHistorians in the News
tags: French Revolution, Robespierre, Thermidorean Reaction
by Colin Jones
Oxford University Press, 571 pp., $32.95
Imagine a government divided between two ferociously opposed political forces, both of which claim the right to power. A crisis develops, with many officials caught between the two sides, confused and uncertain which to support. There are threats of violence, previously inviolable political spaces are invaded, and blood is shed. Anxious onlookers predict civil war. The United States experienced a crisis of this sort on January 6, 2021, when pro-Trump rioters attacked the Capitol to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s election as president.
The pattern is a familiar historical one, but such crises have often had far more devastating outcomes than the one in Washington did. In England in the 1640s, King Charles I dramatically invaded the meeting hall of Parliament in an attempt to arrest its insubordinate leaders. In Russia in 1917, Bolsheviks stormed the headquarters of the Provisional Government in the name of the popular councils called Soviets. In both cases, an enormously destructive civil war followed.
Then there was the crisis immortalized by its date in the short-lived French revolutionary calendar: 9 Thermidor Year II (Sunday, July 27, 1794). On that day, the National Convention—the effective revolutionary government—voted to purge several of its members, most prominently the radical leader Maximilien Robespierre. The men managed to escape to the Paris Maison Commune (the revolutionary name for the Hôtel de Ville, or city hall), where the municipal government, proclaiming itself the true representative of the French people, called for an insurrection.
Both sides appealed to the urban militants known as sans-culottes. After hours of considerable confusion and scattered violence the Convention prevailed, and the next day Robespierre and his allies went to the guillotine. This spelled the end of the most radical phase of the French Revolution, which the victors quickly labeled the Terror. Civil war did not follow, but revolutionary turmoil continued, and five years later Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d’état.
The victorious “Thermidorians” said they had acted to protect France from a monstrous, bloodthirsty dictator, but in truth the day boasted few heroes. Still, it did pose, very explicitly, a central question of modern democratic politics: Do militants who claim to speak for “the people” ever have the right to defy or perhaps even overthrow democratically elected governments, as Robespierre and his allies tried to do?
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