A Thermidorian Reaction

At the Democratic National Convention, history repeats itself ...

Napoleon Bonaparte addresses the Council of Five Hundred during the Coup of 18 Brumaire. (Francois Bouchot / Wikimedia Commons)

On Tuesday, July 26, 2016, Hillary Clinton formally became the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, winning a yearlong struggle with Senator Bernie Sanders for control of the nation’s center-left political party. Some of Sanders’s supporters might find that date appropriate—but only if they check a calendar that shared their revolutionary spirit.

Most western cultures use the Gregorian calendar, named for the 16th-century pope who commissioned it. His calendar soon became the universal standard in Western Europe and the world. But republican activists during the French Revolution despised the calendar for its religious framework. Bolstered by their other successful efforts to modernize French society, a group of revolutionaries and astronomers sought to create a more progressive calendar for their radical era.

The French republican calendar they promulgated in 1793 is an oddity by our standards. It kept the Gregorian calendar’s 12-month scheme but created 10-day weeks and three-week months. Year I began on September 22, 1792, the date of the First Republic’s proclamation. Five “revolutionary” days were also added to the end of each year. The result was impractical and unwieldy, especially when it came to assigning leap years. (The dates in this article use the leap-year method devised by the calendar’s creator, Charles-Gilbert Romme; other methods also exist.) Napoleon formally scrapped the calendar in 1805.

What if the calendar continued to be used in the present day? If it did, the day Clinton, a moderate centrist, finally defeated her more radical opponent Sanders would be 9 Thermidor CCXXIV. For historians of the French Revolution, the day is rich with significance.

On 9 Thermidor II (or July 27, 1795), France’s National Convention turned against Maximilian Robespierre and his extremist left-wing Jacobin faction. He was executed the next day. Robespierre had overseen the Reign of Terror, executing thousands of suspected enemies of the revolution, including the deposed Louis XVI; his wife, Marie Antoinette; and even members of the revolution itself. The Jacobins’ downfall on 9 Thermidor became known as the Thermidorian Reaction—a moderate counterrevolution that overthrew a radical revolutionary regime. Power became concentrated in the Directory, which led France for the next four years.

Sanders is no Robespierre, of course, and even his most passionate fans aren’t Jacobins. (Well, maybe a few.) All the dates have in common is a triumph of relative moderates over passionate leftists. But the republican calendar’s coincidences don’t end there. Fast forward to Election Day, which always falls on the first Tuesday of November. This means Americans will cast their ballots on November 8, 2016.

But on the French republican calendar, the date—18 Brumaire CCXXV—carries a more ominous significance. (A coincidence first pointed out on Twitter.) Eighteen Brumaire is synonymous with a coup d’état led by Napoleon Bonaparte and his allies on that day in 1799. Together, they overthrew the Directory and established a Consulate, led by Napoleon himself as first consul, to take control of the country. Four years later, he crowned himself emperor.

To many French citizens, wearied by years of revolution and war, this was a welcome sight. His reign promised to restore order amid national chaos, to repair the country’s depleted finances, to vanquish its foreign and domestic foes—it pledged, in other words, to make France great again.

But this isn’t the first time some have heard historical echoes in a strongman rising to power by promising to restore law and order. In 1852, Karl Marx wrote his famous essay, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

“Hegel remarks somewhere,” Marx wrote, “that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”