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Maximilien Robespierre

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (French: [ɛ̃ fʁɑ̃.swa ma.ʁi i.zi.dɔʁ də ʁɔ.bɛs.pjɛʁ]; 6 May 1758 – 28 July 1794) was a French lawyer and politician, as well as one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. As a member of the Estates-General, the Constituent Assembly and the Jacobin Club, Robespierre was an outspoken advocate for the poor and for democratic institutions. He campaigned for universal male suffrage in France, price controls on basic food commodities and the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. He was an ardent opponent of the death penalty, but played an important role in arranging the execution of many political opponents, and of King Louis XVI, which led to the establishment of a French Republic.

Maximilien de Robespierre
Robespierre c. 1790 (anonymous), Musée Carnavalet, Paris
Member of the Committee of Public Safety
In office
27 July 1793 – 28 July 1794
Preceded byThomas-Augustin de Gasparin
Succeeded byJacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne
President of the National Convention
In office
4 June 1794 – 17 June 1794
Preceded byClaude-Antoine Prieur-Duvernois
Succeeded byÉlie Lacoste
In office
22 August 1793 – 5 September 1793
Preceded byMarie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles
Succeeded byJacques-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne
Deputy of the National Convention
In office
20 September 1792 – 27 July 1794
Deputy of the National Constituent Assembly
In office
9 July 1789 – 30 September 1791
Deputy of the National Assembly
In office
17 June 1789 – 9 July 1789
Deputy to the Estates General
for the Third Estate
In office
6 May 1789 – 16 June 1789
Personal details
Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre

(1758-05-06)6 May 1758
Arras, Artois, France
Died28 July 1794(1794-07-28) (aged 36)
Place de la Révolution, Paris, France
Political partyJacobin Club (1789–1794)
Other political
The Mountain (1792–1794)
Alma materCollège Louis-le-Grand
University of Paris
ProfessionLawyer and politician

In August 1792 Robespierre was elected as president of the insurrectionary Paris Commune, but he is perhaps best known for his role during fourteen months of Great Terror. He was named as a member of the powerful Committee of Public Safety launched by his political ally Georges Danton and exerted his influence to suppress the Girondins on the right and the extreme Hébertists on the left. As part of his attempts to use extreme measures to control political activity in France, Robespierre moved against his former friends, the more moderate Danton, and Desmoulins who were executed in April 1794. The Terror ended four months later with Robespierre's arrest on 9 Thermidor and his execution, events that initiated a period in French history known as the Thermidorian Reaction.[1]

Robespierre's personal responsibility for the excesses of the Terror remains the subject of intense debate among historians of the French Revolution.[2][3] Two centuries after his execution, it is impossible to understand Robespierre without undertaking a deconstruction of the legends, iconographic representations, historical or political, which prevailed until our days.[4]


Early life

Maximilien de Robespierre was born in Arras in the old French province of Artois. His family has been traced back to the 12th century in Picardy; some of his ancestors in the male line worked as notaries in Carvin near Arras from the beginning of the 17th century.[5] It has been suggested that he was of Irish descent, his surname possibly a corruption of "Robert Speirs".[6]

His paternal grandfather, also named Maximilien de Robespierre, established himself in Arras as a lawyer. His father, François Maximilien Barthélémy de Robespierre, was a lawyer at the Conseil d'Artois. He married Jacqueline Marguerite Carrault, the daughter of a brewer, on 2 January 1758. Maximilien was the oldest of four children and was conceived out of wedlock. His siblings were Charlotte (born 21 January 1760),[a] Henriette (born 28 December 1761),[b] and Augustin (born 21 January 1763).[7] On 7 July 1764, Madame de Robespierre gave birth to a stillborn son; she died nine days later. Devastated by his wife's death, François de Robespierre left Arras around 1767 and travelled throughout Europe. Until his death in Munich on 6 November 1777, he lived in Arras only occasionally; his two daughters Charlotte and Henriette were brought up by their paternal aunts, and his two sons were taken in by their maternal grandparents.[8]

Already literate at age eight, Maximilien started attending the collège of Arras (middle school).[6][9] In October 1769, on the recommendation of the bishop, he received a scholarship at the Collège Louis-le-Grand and the University of Paris. In school, he learned to admire the idealised Roman Republic and the rhetoric of Cicero, Cato and other figures from classic history. His fellow pupils included Camille Desmoulins and Stanislas Fréron. He also studied the works of the Swiss philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau and was attracted to many ideas, written in his "Contrat Social". Robespierre became intrigued by the idea of a "virtuous self", a man who stands alone accompanied only by his conscience.[10] His study of the classics prompted him to aspire to Roman virtues, but he sought to emulate Rousseau in particular.[11] Robespierre's conception of revolutionary virtue and his programme for constructing political sovereignty out of direct democracy came from Rousseau, Montesquieu and Mably. Robespierre believed that the people of France were fundamentally good and were therefore capable of advancing the public well-being of the nation.[12] Robespierre studied law four years. Upon his graduation in May 1781, he received a special prize of 600 livres for exemplary academic success and personal good conduct.[13]

Early politics

Having completed his studies at the age of 23, Robespierre was admitted to the bar of Arras. The Bishop of Arras, Louis François Marc Hilaire de Conzié, appointed him criminal judge in the Diocese of Arras in March 1782. Robespierre soon resigned, owing to discomfort in ruling on capital cases arising from his early opposition to the death penalty.[10] Instead, he quickly became a successful advocate for poor clients. During court hearings he was often known to promote the ideals of the Enlightenment and to argue for the rights of man.[14] Later in his career, he read widely, and also became interested in political and social theory in general.

In December 1783 he was elected a member of the academy of Arras, the meetings of which he attended regularly. In 1784 the academy of Metz awarded him a medal for his essay on the question of whether the relatives of a condemned criminal should share his disgrace. He and Pierre Louis de Lacretelle, an advocate and journalist in Paris, divided the prize. Many of his subsequent essays were less successful, but Robespierre was compensated for these failures by his popularity in the literary and musical society at Arras, known as the "Rosatia". During one of his trials he became acquainted with the young officer Lazare Carnot, who later became his colleague on the Committee of Public Safety.[15][16]

In August 1788 King Louis XVI announced a gathering of the Estates-General for 1 May 1789 to solve France's financial and taxation problems. Robespierre took part in a discussion of how the French provincial government should be elected, arguing in his Addresse à la nation artésienne, 'Address to the Nation of Artois' that if the former mode of election by the members of the provincial estates was again adopted, the new Estates-General would not represent the people of France. Late February 1789 France was in a most important crisis in its desire for a new constitution, according to gouverneur Morris.[17]

Portrait of Robespierre by Boilly, c. 1791 (Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille)

In the assembly of the bailliage, rivalry ran still higher, but Robespierre had begun to make his mark in politics with his Avis aux habitants de la campagne, 'Notice to the Residents of the Countryside)' of 1789. With this, he secured the support of the country electors. On 26 April 1789 Robespierre was elected as one of deputies for Arras to the Third Estate.[18] He was 31, comparatively poor, and lacking patronage. When the deputies arrived at Versailles they were presented to the King and listened to Jacques Necker's speech. On 13 June Robespierre joined the National Assembly declared by the Third Estate, which transformed itself on 9 July into the National Constituent Assembly and moved to Paris. From October 1789, Robespierre lived at Rue de Saintonge, No. 9 in Le Marais.[19] Before the end of the year 1789 he was seen as one of the leaders of the small body of the extreme left, when he supported as Maillard after the Women's March on Versailles.[20] Robespierre was one of the "the thirty voices", as Mirabeau referred to them with contempt. Madame de Staël described Robespierre as 'very exaggerated in his democratic principles'.[21]

While the Constituent Assembly occupied itself with drawing up a constitution, Robespierre turned his attention away from the assembly of provincial lawyers and wealthy bourgeois in favour of the lower classes of France, particularly Jews, Blacks, and actors.[22][23] As a frequent speaker in the Constituent Assembly, he voiced many ideas in support of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and constitutional provisions for the Constitution of 1791, often with great success. (For several months Pierre Villiers was his secretary.) During this period Robespierre coined the famous motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity).[c]

Jacobin Club

Terracotta bust of Robespierre by Deseine, 1791 (Musée de la Révolution française)

From October 1789 Robespierre was involved with the new Society of the Friends of the Constitution, known eventually as the Jacobin Club.[24] Originally, this organisation was made up only of deputies from Brittany. After the National Assembly had moved to Paris, the Friends began to admit various leaders of the Parisian bourgeoisie to its membership. As time went on, many of the more educated artisans and small shopkeepers became members.[24] Among these 1,200 men, Robespierre found a sympathetic audience. As the wealthier bourgeois of Paris and right-wing deputies seceded from the Patriotic Society of 1789, the influence of the old leaders of the Jacobins Antoine Barnave, Adrien Duport, and Alexandre de Lameth, diminished. Alarmed at the progress of the Revolution, they founded the club of the Feuillants in 1791.[25] As a result, the left, including Robespierre and his friends, dominated the Jacobin Club. In March 1791 Robespierre was elected as their president.

On 15 May 1791, Robespierre proposed and carried the motion that no deputy who sat in the Constituent Assembly could sit in the succeeding Assembly. This self-denying ordinance, designed to demonstrate the disinterested patriotism of the framers of the new constitution, had the effect of accelerating political change as deputies with experience and knowledge of the difficulties faced by France were to be replaced by new and often more enthusiastic men.[26] Robespierre was a capable articulator of the beliefs of the left-wing bourgeoisie. His steadfast adherence and defence of the views he expressed earned him the nickname l'Incorruptible (The Incorruptible).[27]

On 10 June he was appointed by the Assembly as public prosecutor of Paris.[28] Five days later Pétion became president of the "tribunal criminel". The Flight to Varennes on 20 June and the subsequent arrest of Louis XVI and his family resulted in Robespierre's declaration that he (himself) was "ni monarchiste ni républicain" ("neither monarchist nor republican").[29] This stance was not unusual at this time, since there were still few republicans among the politicians in France.

After the massacre on the Champ de Mars on 17 July 1791, he moved to the house of Maurice Duplay, a cabinetmaker and ardent admirer of Robespierre who lived at 398 Rue Saint-Honoré near the Tuileries.[30] He was motivated by fears for his safety, a desire to live closer to the National Assembly and the meeting place of the Jacobins in the Rue Saint-Jacques. Robespierre lived there until his death on the scaffold, except for a short period in October 1791, when he moved with his sister and brother around the corner in the Rue St Florentin. According to his doctor Joseph Souberbielle, the revolutionary juror Joachim Vilate, and Duplay's daughter Élisabeth, Robespierre became engaged to Duplay's eldest daughter Éléonore, who admired him too, but no marriage ever took place.[31]

On 30 September, on the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the people of Paris named Pétion and Robespierre as the two incorruptible patriots in an attempt to honour their purity of principles, their modest ways of living, and their refusal of bribes.[14] With the dissolution of the Assembly, Robespierre returned to Arras for a short visit, where he met with a triumphant reception.

Opposition to war with Austria

Robespierre, Danton and Marat by Alfred Loudet

On 18 December, 1791 Robespierre held a speech at the Jacobin club against the declaration of war.[32] Robespierre warned against the threat of dictatorship stemming from war, in the following terms:

If they are Caesars or Cromwells, they seize power for themselves. If they are spineless courtiers, uninterested in doing good yet dangerous when they seek to do harm, they go back to lay their power at their master's feet, and help him to resume arbitrary power on condition they become his chief servants.[33]

On 25 December Guadet, the chairman of the Assembly, suggested 1792 to become the first year of universal liberty.[34] Jacques Pierre Brissot stated on 29 December that a war would be a benefit to the nation. He urged that France should declare war against Austria. Jean-Paul Marat and Robespierre opposed him, because they feared the influence of militarism, which might be turned to the advantage of the reactionary forces. Robespierre argued that force was not an effective or proper way of spreading the ideals of the Revolution (2 January 1792):

The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician's head is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign country to make it adopt their laws and their constitution. No one loves armed missionaries... The Declaration of the Rights of Man... is not a lightning bolt which strikes every throne at the same time... I am far from claiming that our Revolution will not eventually influence the fate of the world... But I say that it will not be today.[35]

This opposition from expected allies irritated the Girondists, and the war became a major point of contention between the factions. Robespierre countered on 25 January 1792, "A revolutionary war must be waged to free subjects and slaves from unjust tyranny, not for the traditional reasons of defending dynasties and expanding frontiers..." Indeed, argued Robespierre, such a war could only favour the forces of counter-revolution, since it would play into the hands of those who opposed the sovereignty of the people. The risks of Caesarism were clear, for in wartime, the powers of the generals would grow at the expense of ordinary soldiers, and the power of the king and court at the expense of the Assembly. These dangers should not be overlooked, he reminded his listeners, " troubled periods of history, generals often became the arbiters of the fate of their countries."[36] Robespierre was convinced that the internal stability of the country was more important.

In April Robespierre was accused by Brissot and Guadet of trying to become the idol of the people.[37] He resigned the post of public prosecutor, which he had officially held, but not practised since February. On 20 April 1792 France declared war on the Habsburg Empire; Robespierre's rivals had won.[38] In May, Robespierre started a journal, Le Défenseur de la Constitution (The Defender of the Constitution). The journal served multiple purposes: to counter the influence of the royal court in public policy; to defend Robespierre from the accusations of Girondist leaders; and to give voice to the economic interests of the broader masses in Paris and beyond.[39]

The insurrectionary Commune of Paris

When the Legislative Assembly declared war against Austria on 20 April 1792, Robespierre responded by working to reduce the political influence of the officer class and the king. While arguing for the welfare of common soldiers, Robespierre urged new promotions to mitigate the domination of the officer class by the aristocratic École Militaire. Along with other Jacobins, he also urged the creation of popular militias (staffed by revolutionaries known as the fédérés) to defend France.[40] This sentiment reflected the perspective of more radical Jacobins including those of the Marseille Club, who in May and June 1792 wrote to Pétion and the people of Paris, "Here and at Toulon we have debated the possibility of forming a column of 100,000 men to sweep away our enemies... Paris may have need of help. Call on us!" [41]

Because French forces suffered disastrous defeats and a series of defections at the onset of the war, Robespierre and Danton feared the possibility of a military coup d'état,[42] above all one led by the Marquis de Lafayette, who in June advocated the suppression of the Jacobin Club. Robespierre publicly attacked him in scathing terms: "General, while from the midst of your camp you declared war upon me, which you had thus far spared for the enemies of our state, while you denounced me as an enemy of liberty to the army, national guard and Nation in letters published by your purchased papers, I had thought myself only disputing with a general... but not yet the dictator of France, arbitrator of the state."[43]

In early June 1792, Robespierre proposed an end to the monarchy and the subordination of the Assembly to the popular will.[44] Following the king's veto of the Legislative Assembly's efforts to raise a militia and suppress non-juring priests, the monarchy faced an abortive insurrection on 20 June, exactly three years after the Tennis Court Oath.[45] At the end of July fédérés entered Paris without the king's approval, and on 10 August 1792, the insurrectionary National Guard of Paris, fédérés and sans-culottes led a successful assault upon the Tuileries with the intention of overthrowing the monarchy.[46] On 11 August the new leaders called for the summoning of a convention chosen by universal male suffrage,[47] and to form a new government. Robespierre was elected as president of Insurrectional Commune. On 16 August, Robespierre presented a petition to the Legislative Assembly from the Paris Commune (the municipal government of the city) to demand the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal that had to deal with the "traitors" and "enemies of the people". The next day Robespierre refused to preside it.[48] Dismissed from his command of the French Northern Army, Lafayette fled France along with other sympathetic officers. According to Danton and Robespierre royalists who spoke of surrendering or a deal with the Prussian and Austrian army had to be arrested and locked up.

Under the Commune's direct authority the Paris sections organized themselves as surveillance committees, conducting searches and making arrests.[49] Between 17 August and the prison massacres in early September, more than a thousand people were taken into custody on the flimsiest warrants.[50] Marat and Robespierre both disliked Condorcet who proposed that the "enemies of the people" belonged to the Nation; that prisoners ought not be judged by members of the Commune, but by the nation. At the end of August there was a sharp conflict between the Legislative and the Commune and its sections, according to Jonathan Israel.[51] On 30 August Girondins like Roland and Marguerite-Élie Guadet tried to suppress the influence of the Commune; the Assembly, tired of the pressures, declared the Commune illegal and suggested the organization of communal elections.[52] Robespierre was no longer willing to cooperate with the Girondins such as Brissot, who also promoted the Duke of Brunswick, and Roland, who had proposed that the members of the government should leave Paris. In a letter Robespierre suggested to the sections that they should maintain their posts, and die if necessary.[53] On Sunday morning 2 September the sections of the Commune, gathering in the townhall decided to maintain their seats and have Rolland and Brissot arrested.[54] Madame de Staël, who tried to escape Paris, was forced by the crowd to go to the town hall. She noted that Robespierre seated that day, assisted by Collot d'Herbois en Billaud-Varenne.[55]

The National Convention

On 2 September 1792 French National Convention election started; in Paris Girondin and Feuillant candidates were boycotted and terrified when the September Massacres began in the afternoon.[56] On 5 September, Robespierre was elected deputy for Paris to the National Convention. On 21 September Robespierre and his allies took the benches high at the back of the hall, giving them the label the "Montagnards", or "the Mountaineers"; below them were the "Manège" of the Girondists and then the Plain of the independents. On 26 September, the Girondist Marc-David Lasource accused Robespierre of wanting to form a dictatorship.[57] Rumours spread that Robespierre, Marat and Danton were plotting to establish a triumvirate. (Until September 1792 the French Legislative Assembly saw an unprecedented turnover of six ministers of the interior, seven ministers of foreign affairs, and eight ministers of war.[58]) On 29 October, Louvet de Couvrai attacked Robespierre in a speech, possibly written by Madame Roland. The Girondists at the Convention accused Robespierre of star allures,[59] and having done nothing to stop the massacre; in stead he had used it to have more Montagnards elected.[60] Robespierre was given a week to respond. On 5 November, Robespierre defended himself, the Jacobin Club and his supporters in and beyond Paris:

Upon the Jacobins I exercise, if we are to believe my accusers, a despotism of opinion, which can be regarded as nothing other than the forerunner of dictatorship. Firstly, I do not know what a dictatorship of opinion is, above all in a society of free men... unless this describes nothing more than the natural compulsion of principles. In fact, this compulsion hardly belongs to the man who enunciates them; it belongs to universal reason and to all men who wish to listen to its voice. It belongs to my colleagues of the Constituent Assembly, to the patriots of the Legislative Assembly, to all citizens who will invariably defend the cause of liberty. Experience has proven, despite Louis XVI and his allies, that the opinion of the Jacobins and of the popular clubs were those of the French Nation; no citizen has made them, and I did nothing other than share in them.[61]

Turning the accusations upon his accusers, Robespierre delivered one of the most famous lines of the French Revolution to the Assembly:

I will not remind you that the sole object of contention dividing us is that you have instinctively defended all acts of new ministers, and we, of principles; that you seemed to prefer power, and we equality... Why don't you prosecute the Commune, the Legislative Assembly, the Sections of Paris, the Assemblies of the Cantons and all who imitated us? For all these things have been illegal, as illegal as the Revolution, as the fall of the Monarchy and of the Bastille, as illegal as liberty itself... Citizens, do you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution which has directed itself against those who freed us from chains?[62]

Execution of Louis XVI

The interrogation of Louis XVI at the National Convention

The Convention's unanimous declaration of a French Republic on 21 September 1792 left open the fate of the king. A commission was therefore established to examine evidence against him while the Convention's Legislation Committee considered legal aspects of any future trial. Most Montagnards favoured judgment and execution, while the Girondins were divided concerning Louis's fate, with some arguing for royal inviolability, others for clemency, and some advocating lesser punishment or death.[63] On 20 November, opinion turned sharply against Louis following the discovery of a secret cache of 726 documents consisting of Louis's personal communications with bankers and ministers.[64]

Robespierre had been taken ill in November and had done little other than support Saint-Just in his argument against the king's inviolability. Robespierre wrote in his Defenseur de la Constitution that a Constitution which Louis had violated himself, and which declared his inviolability, could not now be used in his defence.[65] Now, with the question of the king's fate occupying public discourse, Robespierre on 3 December delivered a speech that would define the rhetoric and course of Louis's trial.[66] Robespierre argued that the king, now dethroned, could function only as a threat to liberty and national peace, and that the members of the Assembly were not fair judges, but rather statesmen with responsibility for public safety:

Louis was a king, and our republic is established; the critical question concerning you must be decided by these words alone. Louis was dethroned by his crimes; Louis denounced the French people as rebels; he appealed to chains, to the armies of tyrants who are his brothers; the victory of the people established that Louis alone was a rebel; Louis cannot therefore be judged; he already is judged. He is condemned, or the republic cannot be absolved. To propose to have a trial of Louis XVI, in whatever manner one may, is to retrogress to royal despotism and constitutionality; it is a counter-revolutionary idea because it places the revolution itself in litigation. In effect, if Louis may still be given a trial, he may be absolved, and innocent. What am I to say? He is presumed to be so until he is judged. But if Louis is absolved, if he may be presumed innocent, what becomes of the revolution? If Louis is innocent, all the defenders of liberty become slanderers. Our enemies have been friends of the people and of truth and defenders of innocence oppressed; all the declarations of foreign courts are nothing more than the legitimate claims against an illegal faction. Even the detention that Louis has endured is, then, an unjust vexation; the fédérés, the people of Paris, all the patriots of the French Empire are guilty; and this great trial in the court of nature judging between crime and virtue, liberty and tyranny, is at last decided in favour of crime and tyranny. Citizens, take warning; you are being fooled by false notions; you confuse positive, civil rights with the principles of the rights of mankind; you confuse the relationships of citizens amongst themselves with the connections between nations and an enemy that conspires against it; you confuse the situation of a people in revolution with that of a people whose government is affirmed; you confuse a nation that punishes a public functionary to conserve its form of government, and one that destroys the government itself. We are falling back upon ideas familiar to us, in an extraordinary case that depends upon principles we have never yet applied.[67]

In arguing for a judgment by the elected Convention without trial, Robespierre supported the recommendations of Jean-Baptiste Mailhe, who headed the commission reporting on legal aspects of Louis's trial or judgment. Unlike some Girondins, Robespierre specifically opposed judgment by primary assemblies or a referendum, believing that this could cause civil war.[68] While he called for a trial of queen Marie Antoinette and the imprisonment of the Dauphin, Robespierre argued for the death penalty in the case of the king:

As for myself, I abhor the death penalty administered by your laws, and for Louis I have neither love, nor hate; I hate only his crimes. I have demanded the abolition of the death penalty at your Constituent Assembly, and am not to blame if the first principles of reason appeared to you moral and political heresies. But if you will never reclaim these principles in favour of so much evil, the crimes of which belong less to you and more to the government, by what fatal error would you remember yourselves and plead for the greatest of criminals? You ask an exception to the death penalty for him alone who could legitimise it? Yes, the death penalty is in general a crime, unjustifiable by the indestructible principles of nature, except in cases protecting the safety of individuals or the society altogether. Ordinary misdemeanours have never threatened public safety because society may always protect itself by other means, making those culpable powerless to harm it. But for a king dethroned in the bosom of a revolution, which is as yet cemented only by laws; a king whose name attracts the scourge of war upon a troubled nation; neither prison, nor exile can render his existence inconsequential to public happiness; this cruel exception to the ordinary laws avowed by justice can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes. With regret I pronounce this fatal truth: Louis must die so that the nation may live.[69]

On 14 January 1793, the king was unanimously voted guilty of conspiracy and attacks upon public safety. On 15 January, the call for a referendum was defeated by 424 votes to 287, which was led by Robespierre. On 16 January, voting began for the king's sentence, and the session continued for 24 hours. During this time, Robespierre worked fervently to ensure the king's execution. Of the 721 deputies who voted, at least 361 had to have voted for death. Louis was executed two days later, on 21 January, at the Place de la Révolution.[70]

Destruction of the Girondists

Journées des 31 Mai, 1er et 2 Juin 1793, an engraving of the riots organized by the Commune

After the execution of the king, the influence of Robespierre, Danton and the pragmatic politicians increased at the expense of the Girondins. The Girondins refused to have anything more to do with Danton and because of this the government became more divided.

The economic situation in France was rapidly deteriorating and the country was almost bankrupt. The Paris populace became restless. Rioting persisted and a commission of inquiry of twelve members was set up, on which only Girondins sat. Popular militants were arrested. On 25 May, the Paris Commune demanded that arrested patriots be released and sections drew the list of 22 prominent Girondins to be removed from the Convention. Maximin Isnard declared that Paris would be destroyed if it came out against the provincial deputies. Robespierre preached a moral "insurrection against the corrupt deputies" at the Jacobin Club. The Jacobins declared themselves in state of insurrection. On 29 May, the delegates representing thirty-three of the Paris sections formed an insurrectionary committee.[71]

On 2 June, 80,000 armed sans-culottes surrounded the Convention. After an attempt of deputies to exit collided with their guns, the deputies resigned themselves to declare the arrest of Girondins. During the insurrection Robespierre had scrawled a note in his memorandum-book:

What we need is a single will (il faut une volonté une). It must be either republican or royalist. If it is to be republican, we must have republican ministers, republican papers, republican deputies, a republican government. The internal dangers come from the middle classes; in order to defeat the middle classes we must rally the people. ... The people must ally itself with the Convention, and the Convention must make use of the people.[72][d]

Nearly a hundred Girondin deputies were imprisoned, twenty-two were executed in October. (The other members would return to the Convention early 1795.)

Reign of Terror

Cartoon showing Robespierre guillotining the executioner after having guillotined everyone else in France.

After the fall of the monarchy, the revolutionary French government faced serious internal and external challenges, including the War of the First Coalition and insurrectionary War in the Vendée. French revolutionary politicians believed a stable government was needed to quell the chaos.[14] On 11 March 1793, a Revolutionary Tribunal was established on proposal of Danton, Robert Lindet and René Levasseur. On 6 April, Maximin Isnard and Georges Danton spearheaded the creation of a nine-member Committee of Public Safety to replace the larger Committee of General Defence. On 27 July 1793, Robespierre was elected to the Committee, although he had not sought the position.[73] On 21 August Robespierre was elected as president of the Convention.[74] On 4 and 5 September, the Sans-culottes again invaded the Convention. They demanded tougher measures against rising prices and the setting up of Terror to combat the counter-revolution.

Terror was formally instituted as a legal policy by the Convention on 5 September 1793 in a proclamation that read, "It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counter-revolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty."[73]

The Committee of General Security began to manage the country's internal police. The Revolutionary Tribunal was divided into four sections, of which two were always active at the same time. On September 8, the banks and exchange offices were closed to prevent the exchange of forged assignats and the export of capital. On 17 September, the Law of Suspects was passed, which authorized the imprisonment of vaguely defined "suspects". On September 29, maximum or fixed prices were introduced, causing inflation to decrease. Severe penalties were introduced for hoarding foodstuffs.

In October when Hébert accused Marie-Antoinette during her trial of incest with her son, Robespierre had dinner with Barère, Saint-Just and Joachim Vilate. Robespierre broke his plate and called Hébert a fool ("imbécile").[75][76][77] According to Vilate Robespierre had two or three body-guards. On 25 November 1793 the remains of Mirabeau were removed from the Pantheon on the initiative of Robespierre when it became known that in his last months the count had secretly conspired with the court of Louis XVI. Between March and December 1793 approximately 170,000–200,000 were killed and 20% of the houses and farms were burnt in the Vendée and other départments in what has been called an "ideological genocide".[78][79] Saint-Just said: "Everything that happens is terrible, but necessary."

On 4 December, the independence of the départements came to an end; a deeply drastic decision against the independence of municipalities and federalism. On 5 Nivôse of the year II (25 December 1793) Robespierre, for a long time a staunch believer in the teachings of Rousseau, presented a rapport to the Convention on the principles of the revolutionary government, justifying the collective dictatorship of the National Convention, administrative centralization, and the purging of local authorities. He protested against the various factions that threatened the government.[80]

The theory of the revolutionary government is as new as the revolution that brought it. We must not look for it in the books of political writers, who have not foreseen this revolution, nor in the laws of tyrants who, content to abuse their power, do little to seek its legitimacy..." He would suppress chaos and anarchy. For him "it owes to the enemies of the people only death."[81]

In the winter of 1793–94, a majority of the Committee decided that the ultra-left Hébertists would have to perish or its opposition within the Committee would overshadow the other factions due to its influence in the Commune of Paris. Robespierre also had personal reasons for disliking the Hébertists for their "atheism" and "bloodthirstiness", which he associated with the old aristocracy.[82]

In January 1794, Robespierre ran into collision with his friend Camille Desmoulins, who had taken it up for defenseless civilians who had been detained in prisons as suspect. According to Desmoulins, a Committee of Grace had to be established. (Illicite trade and lack raged especially in the unfortunate winter of 1793-1794. The prisons were full of shopkeepers.) In Report on the Principles of Political Morality of 5 February 1794, Robespierre praised the revolutionary government and argued that terror and virtue were necessary:

If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country ... The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.[83]

In February 1794 in the entire country no church was available for religious worship. On 26 February it was decided that the goods of people who had been declared as "enemies of the republic" would be confiscated. Elections would not take place in the next five months if seats were released from sections of the Commune. The vacated posts were filled with Jacobins; in many cases appointed by the triumvirate. The influence of the Paris Commune was at it lowest. There was no money for the provision of food to the poor. At the beginning of March the treasury was almost empty, besides France was flooded with false assignats.

From 13 February to 13 March 1794, Robespierre had withdrawn from active business on the Committee due to illness. On 15 March, he reappeared in the Convention. Subsequently, he joined in attacks on the Hébertists and the Dantonists.[10] Hébert and nineteen of his followers were arrested on 19 March on charges of complicity with foreign powers and guillotined on 24 March. Then he broke with Danton, who had angered many other members of the Committee of Public Safety with his more moderate views on the Terror, but whom Robespierre had, until this point, persisted in defending. Danton, Desmoulins and their friends were arrested on 30 March on charges of conspiracy, theft and corruption. Saint-Just and Robespierre were of the opinion that Danton should never win his trial in order not to endanger the revolution; it could also mean their own demise.[citation needed] A few days later Lucie Desmoulins was imprisoned. She was accused of trying to raise money to free her husband and Danton. She admitted to having warned the prisoners of a course of events as in September 1792, and that it was her duty to revolt against it. That was enough evidence for the jury to send her to the scaffold. (Robespierre kept his mouth shut. Robespierre was not only their eldest friend, but also witnessed at their marriage.[84][85][86])

To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is barbarity.

—Maximilien Robespierre, 1794[87]

Georges Couthon, his ally on the Committee, introduced and carried on 10 June the drastic Law of 22 Prairial. Under this law, the Tribunal became a simple court of condemnation without need of witnesses if there was written evidence. Historians frequently debate the reasons behind Robespierre's support of the Law of 22 Prairial, named for the day it was passed in the French Republican Calendar. According to François Furet the prisons were overpopulated; they housed over 8,000 "suspects" at the beginning of Thermidor year II.[88]

Abolition of slavery

Throughout the course of the Revolution, Robespierre both ambivalently and outspokenly opposed slavery on French soil or in French territories and played an important role in abolishing it.[89][90]

In May 1791 Robespierre argued passionately in the National Assembly against the Colonial Committee, dominated by slaveholders in the Caribbean. The colonial lobby declared that political rights for blacks would cause France to lose her colonies. Robespierre responded, "We should not compromise the interests humanity holds most dear, the sacred rights of a significant number of our fellow citizens," later shouting, "Death to the colonies!"[91] Robespierre was furious that the assembly gave "constitutional sanction to slavery in the colonies," and argued for equal political rights regardless of skin colour.[92] Robespierre did not argue for slavery's immediate abolition. Nevertheless, pro-slavery advocates in France regarded Robespierre as a "bloodthirsty innovator" and as a traitor plotting to give French colonies to England.[91] Only months later, hundreds of thousands of slaves in St Domingue led a revolution against slavery and colonial rule.[93]

In the following years, the slaves of St. Domingue effectively liberated themselves and formed an army to oppose re-enslavement. Robespierre denounced the slave trade in a speech before the Convention in April 1793.[94] The radical 1793 constitution supported by Robespierre and the Montagnards, which was ratified by a national referendum, granted universal suffrage to French men and explicitly condemned slavery. But the constitution was never implemented.[94] In November 1793, Robespierre gave his support to a proposal to investigate the colonial general Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, a Girondist who had freed slaves in the colonies.[94] At the same time, Robespierre denounced the French minister to the newly formed United States, Edmond-Charles Genêt, who had sided with Sonthonax.[94]

By 1794, French debates concerning slavery reached their apogee. In late January, delegations representing both former slaveholders and former slaves arrived in France to petition for slavery or its abolition.[94] Briefly imprisoned, the delegation opposing slavery was freed on the orders of the Committee of Public Safety, on which Robespierre sat. Receiving the delegation on their release, the National Convention passed a decree banning slavery on 4 February.[94] Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, at the same time, heard a petition from the slaveholders, which they did not act upon. On the day after the emancipation decree, Robespierre delivered a speech to the National Convention in which he praised the French as the first to "summon all men to equality and liberty, and their full rights as citizens," using the word slavery twice but without specifically mentioning the French colonies.[94] Despite petitions from the slaveholding delegation, Robespierre and the Committee decided to endorse the decree in full.[94]

Several weeks later, in a speech before the committee of public safety, Robespierre linked the cruelty of slavery with serfdom:

Ask a merchant of human flesh what is property; he will answer by showing you that long coffin he calls a ship... Ask a gentleman [the same] who has lands and vassals... and he will give you almost the identical ideas.

— Robespierre, "The Principles of Property", 24 April 1794.[95][96]

He attended a meeting of the Jacobin club in June 1794 to support a decree ending slavery, and later signed orders to ratify it.[95] The decree led to a surge in popularity for the Republic among blacks in St-Domingue, most of whom had already freed themselves and were seeking military alliances to guarantee their freedom.[92]

Cult of the Supreme Being

The Festival of the Supreme Being, by Pierre-Antoine Demachy (1794)

Robespierre's desire for revolutionary change was not limited to the political realm. He opposed the power of the Catholic Church and the pope, particularly in opposition to their celibacy policies.[97] Having denounced the excesses of dechristianisation, he sought to instill a spiritual resurgence in the French nation based on Deist beliefs. Accordingly, on 7 May 1794, Robespierre supported a decree passed by the Convention that established an official religion, known historically as the Cult of the Supreme Being. The notion of the Supreme Being was based on ideas that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had outlined in The Social Contract. A nationwide "Festival of the Supreme Being" was held on 8 June (which was also the Christian holiday of Pentecost). The festivities in Paris were held in the Champ de Mars, which was renamed the Champ de la Réunion ("Field of Reunion") for that day. This was most likely in honour of the Champ de Mars Massacre, where the Republicans first rallied against the power of the Crown.[98] Robespierre, who happened to be president of the Convention that week, walked first in the festival procession and delivered a speech in which he emphasised his concept of a Supreme Being:

Is it not He whose immortal hand, engraving on the heart of man the code of justice and equality, has written there the death sentence of tyrants? Is it not He who, from the beginning of time, decreed for all the ages and for all peoples liberty, good faith, and justice? He did not create kings to devour the human race. He did not create priests to harness us, like vile animals, to the chariots of kings and to give to the world examples of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery and falsehood. He created the universe to proclaim His power. He created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue.[99]

Throughout the "Festival of the Supreme Being", Robespierre was beaming with joy; not even the negativity of his colleagues could disrupt his delight. He was able to speak of the things about which he was truly passionate, including Virtue and Nature, typical deist beliefs, and his disagreements with atheism. Everything was arranged to the exact specifications that had been previously set before the ceremony. The ominous and symbolic guillotine had been moved to the original standing place of the Bastille, all of the people were placed in the appropriate area designated to them, and everyone was dressed accordingly.[100] Not only was everything going smoothly, but the festival was also Robespierre's first appearance in the public eye as a leader for the people, and also as president of the Convention, to which he had been elected only four days earlier.[100]

While for some it was an excitement to see him at his finest, many other leaders involved in the festival agreed that Robespierre had taken things too far. Multiple sources state that Robespierre came down the mountain in a way that resembled Moses as the leader of the people, and one of his colleagues, Jacques-Alexis Thuriot, was heard saying, "Look at the bugger; it's not enough for him to be master, he has to be God".[101]

Marc-Guillaume Alexis Vadier used a report to the Convention on Catherine Théot as an opportunity to attack Robespierre and his beliefs. [102] Théot was a seventy-eight-year-old, self-declared "prophetess" who had, at one point, been imprisoned in the Bastille.[102] By stating that Robespierre was the "herald of the Last Days, prophet of the New Dawn"[102] (because his festival had fallen on the Pentecost, traditionally a day revealing "divine manifestation"), Catherine Théot made it seem that Robespierre had made these claims himself, to her. She also claimed that he was a reincarnation of Saul, the saviour of Israel, and the chosen of God.[103] Many of her followers were also supporters or friends of Robespierre, which made it seem as if he was attempting to create a new religion, with him as its god. Although Robespierre had nothing to do with Catherine Théot or her followers, many assumed that he was on a path to dictatorship, and it sent a current of fear throughout the Convention, contributing to his downfall the following July.


On 23 May 1794, one day after the attempted assassination of Collot d'Herbois, another member of the Committee of Public Safety, Cécile Renault was arrested after having approached Robespierre's residence with two small knives; she was executed one month later. At this point, the Law of 22 Prairial was introduced to the public without consultation from the Committee of General Security, which, in turn, doubled the number of executions permitted by the Committee of Public Safety.[104]

This law permitted the execution of citizens thought to be counter-revolutionaries, even under simple suspicion and without extensive trials. When the Committee of Public Safety allowed the law to be passed, the Convention began to question it out of fear that Robespierre and his allies might come after certain members of the Convention, and even the Committee itself, due to the excesses carried out by its representatives, such as Joseph Fouché, Jean-Baptiste Carrier and Jean-Lambert Tallien, who had been sent to various regions of France in October 1793 to stamp out opposition to the revolutionary government in Paris.[105] Robespierre worked tirelessly (and almost alone) to curb their excesses against the opposition of others who condemned him for his moderation in defending revolutionary ideals. He had them recalled to Paris to account for their actions and Fouché expelled from the Jacobin Club.[106] To evade arrest Tallien, Barras and Fouché feared to stay at home. Fouché warned members of the Convention that Robespierre was after them while organising his own coup d'état.[107] On 22 and 23 July the two committees met in a plenary session. Saint-Just declared in negotiations with Barère to be prepared to make concessions on the subordinate position of the Committee of general security.[108][109] Couthon agreed with more cooperation between the two committees. For Robespierre, the Committee of General Security had to remain subordinate to the Committee of Public Safety.

From 13 June Robespierre hardly showed up in the Convention or at the Committee of Public Safety.[106] Occasionally he went to Maisons-Alfort, 12 km outside of Paris, and walked through the fields or along the Marne with his Newfoundland dog. He had only four friends, Couthon and Saint-Just in the Comité de Salut Public and the painter Jacques-Louis David and LeBas in the Comité de Sécurité Generale. He reappeared at the Convention on 26 July (8 Thermidor), and delivered a two-hour-long speech.[110] He defended himself against charges of dictatorship and tyranny, and then proceeded to warn of a conspiracy against the Republic. Specifically, he railed against the bloody excesses he had observed during the Terror. Not only England but also members of the Committee of Public Security were involved in an intrigue to bring him down. Robespierre proposed to keep the two committees at light, announcing a new wave of purification. Though when pressed, he refused to provide any names. The Convention decided not to have the text printed as Robespierre's speech had first to be submitted to the two committees. Robespierre was surprised that his speech would be sent to the very deputies he had intended to sue. A bitter debate ensued until Barère forced an end to it. In the evening, Robespierre delivered the same speech at the Jacobin Club, where it was very well received.[111] Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne were sent outside because of their opposition to the printing and distribution of the text. Collot d'Herbois, who chaired the Convention, decided not to let him speak and to make sure he could not be heard on the next day.[112] During the night from Friday to Saturday the members of the two committees decided that it was all or nothing; Robespierre had to be voted off the next day. (Indeed, rumors that Robespierre wanted to marry Marie-Thérèse of France were circulating in Paris.[113])

The following day, Saint-Just began to give his speech in the Convention. Those who had seen him working on his speech the night before expected accusations to arise from it. Saint-Just had time to give only a small part of his speech before Tallien interrupted him and began the attack. According to Antoine Claire Thibaudeau the leaders were terrified of one another and divided amongst themselves. You had to be the first to attack, because whoever stayed on the defensive was lost. While the accusations began to pile up, Saint-Just remained silent. Robespierre then attempted to secure the tribune to speak, but his voice was shouted down. Robespierre soon found himself at a loss for words after one deputy called for his arrest and Vadier gave a mocking impression of him pulling up the story about Théot. When one deputy witnessed Robespierre's inability to respond, the man shouted, "The blood of Danton chokes him!"[114] Robespierre then finally regained his voice to reply with his one recorded statement of the morning, a demand to know why he was now being blamed for the other man's death: "Is it Danton you regret? ... Cowards! Why didn't you defend him?"[115]


Closing of the Jacobin Club, during the night of 27-28 July 1794, or 9-10 Thermidor, year II of the Republic
Painting of Charles-André Merda shooting Robespierre
Valery Jacobi's painting "Ninth Thermidor" showing the wounded Robespierre
Proclamation Commune de Paris 10 Thermidor An II

The Convention ordered the arrest of Robespierre, Couthon and Saint-Just, that same day, 27 July or 9 Thermidor. His brother Augustin, and Philippe-François-Joseph Le Bas joined them. The five were questioned and after dinner taken to the prison; Robespierre to Palais Luxembourg. When François Hanriot arrived at the Committee of General Security he was too late, and arrested him self. In the early evening troops from the Paris Commune, under General Coffinhal, arrived with 200 men and twelve cannons to free the arrested, but he only succeeded to free Hanriot.[116] In between the janitors of the prisons had received a message from the townhall not to lock up any member from the Convention.[117] It seems Robespierre was driven to the mayor or to the prefecture and from there (by Coffinhal?[118]) to the townhall.[119][120] Somehow Augustin, Saint-Just and Lebas arrived there too. (Couton, who hesitated because of his handicap, was invited by the others after midnight around one.[121]) The Convention responded by replacing Hanriot with Paul Barras and ordering troops to be called out. The Convention declared them to be outlaws, meaning that upon identification, the fugitives could be executed within twenty-four hours without a trial.[122] When the troops under Hanriot heard this news, order began to break down; they became divided. Hanriot ordered his National Guards to withdraw to the Hôtel de Ville, headquarters of the insurrectional Paris Commune.

As the night went on, it began pouring rain. The forces of the Paris Commune deserted the Place de Grève and, at around two in the morning, six members of the Convention (Léonard Bourdon) and a regiment of Gendarmes under the command of Barras arrived.[123] About 50 insurgents were gathering inside on the first floor.[124] The story goes that Robespierre tried to kill himself with a pistol,[125] but he only managed to shatter his lower jaw and was bleeding from a hole in his cheek.[126] Eyewitnesses claimed that he was shot by the gendarme Charles-André Merda, who also succeeded to hit Couthon's helper in his leg.[127][128] In order to avoid capture, Augustin Robespierre took off his shoes and stepped out a window, only to break both of his legs. Couthon was found lying at the bottom of a staircase in a corner, having fallen from the back of his helper. Le Bas committed suicide by shooting himself in the head; Saint-Just played with his pistol. Hanriot seems to be captured in an alley, but the story by Barras differs how and where.[129]


Le 10 Thermidor by Lucien-Étienne Mélingue (Salon de 1877)
The execution of Robespierre. The beheaded man is not Robespierre, but Couthon; the body of La Bas is shown lying on the ground; Robespierre {#10} is shown sitting on the cart closest to the scaffold holding a handkerchief to his mouth.

For the remainder of the night, Robespierre was laid on a table near the room of the Committee of General Security, according to Barras and Albert Mathiez.[130] He lay on the table with his head on a provision box bleeding profusely. In the morning he was taken to Hôtel-Dieu de Paris to see a doctor in an attempt to stanch the bleeding from his mouth.[131][132] Then Robespierre was placed in the cell in the Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette had been held.

On 10 Thermidor, 28 July 1794, in the morning the Revolutionary Tribunal condemned the group by the rules of the law of 22 Prairial. The public prosecutor only needed to establish their identity by means of two independent witnesses. In the late afternoon, Robespierre was taken to the Place de la Révolution as his younger brother, Couthon, Saint-Just, Hanriot, the mayor Fleuriot-Lescot, the president of the Jacobins and the cobbler Antoine Simon, the jailor of the Dauphin of France.[133] When clearing Robespierre's neck, Charles-Henri Sanson tore off the bandage that was holding his shattered jaw in place, causing Robespierre to produce an agonised scream until the fall of the blade silenced him.[134] According to executioner's son it all happened very carefully, but Robespierre roared like a tiger.[135] The journalist Louis Sébastien Mercier wrote the applaus lasted 15 minutes.[citation needed] Later they were buried in a common grave at the newly opened Errancis Cemetery (near what is now the Place Prosper-Goubaux).[136] On 23 Thermidor an order was given to examine the papers of Robespierre, LeBas and Saint-Just.[137]

Legacy and memory

La Place Robespierre in Marseille with inscription: "Lawyer, born in Arras in 1758, guillotined without trial on 27 July 1794. Nicknamed L'Incorruptible. Defender of the people. Author of our republican motto: Liberté Égalité Fraternité".

The day after his death, Barère described him as the "tyrant". A month later, for reasons policies and politicians, one of his rivals, Tallien, announced that all that the country has just been through is "the Terror," and that the "monster" Robespierre, the "king" of the Revolution, was the orchestrator.

Robespierre's reputation has gone through several cycles of re-appraisal, starting with Jules Michelet and Jean Jaurès. It peaked in the 1920s after the influential French marxist Albert Mathiez argued that he was an eloquent spokesman for the poor and oppressed, an enemy of royalist intrigues, a vigilant adversary of dishonest and corrupt politicians, a guardian of the French Republic, an intrepid leader of the French Revolutionary government, and a prophet of a socially responsible state.[138] In more recent times, his reputation has suffered as historians have associated him with an attempt at a radical purification of politics through the killing of enemies.[139][10] In 1989, Francois Furet argued that this reappraisal of Robespierre has been technically inaccurate:

There are two ways of totally misunderstanding Robespierre as historical figure: one is to detest the man, the other is to make too much of him. It is absurd, of course, to see the lawyer from Arras as a monstrous usurper, the recluse as a demagogue, the moderate as bloodthirsty tyrant, the democrat as a dictator. On the other hand, what is explained about his destiny once it is proved that he really was the Incorruptible? The misconception common to both schools arises from the fact that they attribute to the psychological traits of the man the historical role into which he was thrust by events and the language he borrowed from them. Robespierre is an immortal figure not because he reigned supreme over the Revolution for a few months, but because he was the mouthpiece of its purest and most tragic discourse.[140]

Nevertheless, Robespierre remains controversial to this day. Apart from one Metro station in Montreuil (a Paris suburb) and several streets named after him in about twenty towns, there are no memorials or monuments to him in France. By making himself the embodiment of virtue and of total commitment, he took control of the Revolution in its most radical and bloody phase: the Jacobin republic. His goal in the Terror was to use the guillotine to create what he called a "republic of virtue", wherein terror and virtue would be imposed at the same time. He argued, "Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie [the 'fatherland']."[141]

Terror was thus a tool to accomplish his overarching goals for democracy. Ruth Scurr wrote that, as for Robespierre's vision for France, he wanted a "democracy for the people, who are intrinsically good and pure of heart; a democracy in which poverty is honourable, power innocuous, and the vulnerable safe from oppression; a democracy that worships nature—not nature as it really is, cruel and disgusting, but nature sanitised, majestic, and, above all, good."[142]

In terms of historiography, he has several defenders. Marxist Albert Soboul viewed most of the measures of the Committee for Public Safety as necessary for the defence of the Revolution and mainly regretted the destruction of the Hébertists and other enragés:

Robespierre's main ideal was to ensure the virtue and sovereignty of the people. He disapproved of any acts which could be seen as exposing the nation to counter-revolutionaries and traitors, and became increasingly fearful of the defeat of the Revolution. He instigated the Terror and the deaths of his peers as a measure of ensuring a Republic of Virtue; but his ideals went beyond the needs and wants of the people of France. He became a threat to what he had wanted to ensure and the result was his downfall.[10]

Soboul, according to Ishay, argues that he and Saint-Just "were too preoccupied in defeating the interest of the bourgeoisie to give their total support to the sans-culottes, and yet too attentive to the needs of the sans-culottes to get support from the middle class."[143] For Marxists like Soboul, Robespierre's petit-bourgeois class interests were fatal to his mission.[144]

Jonathan Israel is sharply critical of Robespierre for repudiating the true values of the radical Enlightenment. He argues, "Jacobin ideology and culture under Robespierre was an obsessive Rousseauiste moral Puritanism steeped in authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia, and it repudiated free expression, basic human rights, and democracy."[145]

Though nominally all members of the committee were equal, during the Thermidorian Reaction Robespierre was presented as the most responsible by the surviving protagonists of the Terror, especially Bertrand Barère, a prominent member of the Plain. They may have exaggerated his role to downplay their own contribution and used him as a scapegoat after his death.[146][147]

William Doyle writes, "It is not violent fulminations that characterise Robespierre's speeches on the Terror. It is the language of unmasking, unveiling, revealing, discovering, exposing the enemy within, the enemy hidden behind patriotic posturings, the language of suspicion.[148] Doyle argues that Robespierre was never a dictator nor meant to become one, but that his own paranoia, in the face of plots and assassination attempts, drove him into mortal conflict with his political opponents in the Revolution.[148]

Robespierre has continued to fascinate biographers. Recent books in English include Colin Haydon and William Doyle's Robespierre (1999), John Hardman's Robespierre (1999), Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, Otto J. Scott's Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue (2011), and most recently Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life by Peter McPhee (2012).

In the Soviet era, he was used as an example of a Revolutionary figure.[149] During the October Revolution and Red Terror, Robespierre found ample praise in the Soviet Union, resulting in the construction of two statues of him: one in Saint Petersburg, and another in Moscow (the Robespierre Monument). The monument was commissioned by Vladimir Lenin, who referred to Robespierre as a "Bolshevik avant la lettre" or a "Bolshevik before his time".[96] Due to the poor construction of the monument (it was made of tubes and common concrete), it crumbled within three days of its unveiling and was never replaced.[149]


  1. ^ Born Marie Marguerite Charlotte de Robespierre, at the time of her brother's prominence, she was betrothed to Joseph Fouché, who broke the engagement after the events of Thermidor. Charlotte became unmarriageable due to her name; she remained single until her death on 1 August 1834, aged 74.
  2. ^ Born Henriette Eulalie Françoise de Robespierre, she became a nun and entered in the couvent des Manarres on 4 June 1773. She died on 5 March 1780 aged 18.
  3. ^ The first use of the motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" was in Robespierre's speech "On the organisation of the National Guard" (French: Discours sur l'organisation des gardes nationales) on 5 December 1790, article XVI, and disseminated widely throughout France by the popular Societies.
  4. ^ Original in French:
    «Il faut une volonté une. Il faut qu'elle soit républicaine ou royaliste. Pour qu'elle soit républicaine, il faut des ministres républicains, des papiers républicains, des députés républicains, un gouvernement républicain. La guerre étrangère est une maladie mortelle (fléau mortel), tandis que le corps politique est malade de la révolution et de la division des volontés. Les dangers intérieurs viennent des bourgeois, pour vaincre les bourgeois il faut y rallier le peuple... insurrection actuelle continue, jusqu'à ce que les mesures nécessaires pour sauver la République aient été prises. Il faut que le peuple salue à la Convention et que la Convention se serve du peuple...»
    Courtois & Robespierre 1828, p. 15
    Interesting to note the usage of the term «bourgeois» in the original and «the middle classes» in translation in view of ongoing debate on the issue over «bourgeois Revolution»


  1. ^ Serna 2005, p. 370.
  2. ^ Mathiez 1988, p. 63,70.
  3. ^ Martin 2006, p. 224.
  4. ^ Jean-Clément Martin (2016) Robespierre. La fabrication d’un monstre. Paris, Perrin
  5. ^ "Généalogie de Robespierre". Archived from the original on 27 January 2006.
  6. ^ a b Carr 1972, p. 10.
  7. ^ "In Memory Of Maximillien (The Incorruptible) De Robespierre". Christian Memorials. Retrieved 10 April 2009.
  8. ^ Scurr 2006, p. 20.
  9. ^ Gérard Walter, Maximilien de Robespierre, Paris, Gallimard, 1989, p. 17
  10. ^ a b c d e Scurr 2006.
  11. ^ Jenkins 2011.
  12. ^ Hunt 1984, p. 73.
  13. ^ Scurr 2006, p. 22, 35.
  14. ^ a b c Rudé 1975.
  15. ^ Robespierre et la «Mère de Dieu Wikisource
  16. ^ Britannica
  17. ^ The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution publ. by David Andress
  18. ^ Jean Massin (1959) Robespierre, p. 21
  19. ^ La Maison de Robespierre, rue de Saintonge, à Paris by Georges Michon. In: Annales historiques de la Révolution française (Janvier-Février 1924), pp. 64-66
  20. ^ J. Michelet (1847) Histoire de la Révolution française (tome II), p. 321
  21. ^ Robespierre et la «Mère de Dieu
  22. ^ "Robespierre, "Speech Denouncing the New Conditions of Eligibility," 22 October 1789", George Mason University. Retrieved 26 February 2017
  23. ^ "Maximilien Robespierre", Department of History. Ohio State University. 1998. Retrieved 26 February 2017
  24. ^ a b Scurr 2006, p. 114.
  25. ^ Scurr 2006, p. 150.
  26. ^ Scurr 2006, p. 136.
  27. ^ Thompson 1988, p. 174.
  28. ^ Histoire de Robespierre: La Constituante by Ernest Hamel
  29. ^ Renoult-Saint-André, Nouvelle biographie générale depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu'à nos jours, Firmin Didot 1866, vol. 42, p. 407.
  30. ^ Scurr 2006, p. 155.
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  32. ^ Wikisource
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Works cited

Further reading

  • Bienvenu, Richard, ed. The Ninth of Thermidor: the fall of Robespierre (Oxford University Press, 1968)
  • Brinton, Crane. The Jacobins: An Essay in the New History. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2011.
  • Cobban, Alfred. "The Fundamental Ideas of Robespierre," English Historical Review Vol. 63, No. 246 (January 1948), pp. 29–51 JSTOR
  • Cobban, Alfred. "The Political Ideas of Maximilien Robespierre during the Period of the Convention," English Historical Review Vol. 61, No. 239 (January 1946), pp. 45–80 in JSTOR
  • Eagan, James Michael (1978). Maximilien Robespierre: Nationalist Dictator. New York: Octagon Books. ISBN 0-374-92440-6. Presents Robespierre as the origin of Fascist dictators.
  • Everdell, William R. The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Goldstein Sepinwall, Alyssa. "Robespierre, Old Regime Feminist? Gender, the Late Eighteenth Century, and the French Revolution Revisited," Journal of Modern History Vol. 82, No. 1 (March 2010), pp. 1–29 in JSTOR argues he was an early feminist, but by 1793 he joined the other Jacobins who excluded women from political and intellectual life.
  • Hampson, Norman (1974). The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre. London: Duckworth. ISBN 0-7156-0741-3. Presents three contrasting views
  • Linton, Marisa. "Robespierre and the Terror", History Today, August 2006, Volume 56, Issue 8, pp. 23–29 online at the Wayback Machine (archived 13 March 2007)
  • Linton, Marisa, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Linton, Marisa, 'Robespierre et l'authenticité révolutionnaire', Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française, 371 (janvier-mars 2013): 153–73.
  • Palmer, R. R. (1941). Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-05119-4. A sympathetic study of the Committee of Public Safety.
  • Robespierre, Maximilien; Žižek, Slavoj (2017). Ducange, Jean, ed. Virtue and Terror. Revolutions. Translated by Howe, John. Verso. ISBN 978-1786633378.
  • Shulim, Joseph I. "Robespierre and the French Revolution," American Historical Review (1977) 82#1 pp. 20–38 in JSTOR
  • Soboul, Albert. "Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793–4", Past and Present, No. 5. (May 1954), pp. 54–70. in JSTOR
  • Tishkoff, Doris (2011). Empire of Beauty. New Haven: Press.

External links