Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2010
The years of Thermidor, from the fall of Robespierre in July 1794 to the coup that brought Bonaparte to power in November 1799, were dominated by an atmosphere of political instability and ideological confusion which makes it difficult to see them, even from a distant historical perspective, as a moment of theoretical elaboration. Predictably the attention of historians has been focused upon the conspiracies, the trials, the wild fluctuations in public opinion and the difficult functioning of the political system designed in the Constitution of the year III (22 August 1795), while intellectually Thermidor remains a transitional period, with no clear identity of its own, apart from its practical and ideological opportunism.
In particular the Thermidorian experience can hardly be taken to illustrate the triumph of republican institutions in France: on the contrary, it displays their fragility, their shaky foundations, their tenacious authoritarian vocation inherited from the monarchy of the ancien régime. Yet it is in this period that the republican government created by the revolution became for the first time the object of a serious retrospective assessment which clarified its content and implications, setting it against previous historical experiences and intellectual traditions. Until 1794 the fortunes of the French republic were closely bound up with those of the revolution: it was only after Thermidor that the republic acquired an identity of its own, as a political system which must survive the passing of the revolutionary phase.