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 statesman who was one of the best-known and most influential figures of the French Revolution. As a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Jacobin Club, he campaigned for universal manhood suffrage,[1] and the abolition both of celibacy for the clergy and of slavery. Robespierre was an outspoken advocate for the citizens without a voice, for their unrestricted admission to the National Guard, to public offices, and for the right to carry arms in self-defence.[2][3][4] He played an important part in the agitation which brought about the fall of the French monarchy in August 1792 and the summoning of a National Convention.[5]

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  19 June 1794
Preceded byClaude-Antoine Prieur-Duvernois
Succeeded byÉlie Lacoste
In office
22 August 1793  7 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
President of the Jacobin Club
In office
31 March  3 June 1790
In office
7 August  28 August 1793
Member of the Commission of Public Safety
In office
26 March 1793  3 April 1793
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
Cause of deathExecution by guillotine
Political partyThe Mountain (1792–1794)
Other political
Jacobin Club (1789–1794)
Alma materCollège Louis-le-Grand
University of Paris
ProfessionLawyer and politician

As one of the leading members of the insurrectionary Paris Commune, Robespierre was elected as a deputy to the French Convention in early September 1792, but was soon criticised for trying to establish either a triumvirate or a dictatorship. In Spring 1793, after the treason of Dumouriez he urged the creation of a "Sans-culotte army" to sweep away any conspirator. In July he was appointed as a member of the powerful Committee of Public Safety.[6]

Robespierre is best known for his role during the "Reign of Terror", during which he exerted his influence to suppress the Girondins to the right, the Hébertists to the left and the Dantonists in the centre. Robespierre was eventually brought down by his obsession with the vision of an ideal republic and his indifference to the human costs of installing it.[7] The Terror ended with Robespierre's arrest on 9 Thermidor and his execution on the day after, events that initiated a period known as the Thermidorian Reaction.[8]

Robespierre's personal responsibility for the excesses of the Terror remains the subject of intense debate among historians of the French Revolution.[9][10] For some, Robespierre was the incarnation of Terror during Year II (of the French Revolutionary calendar); for others, he was its principal ideologist and embodies the country's first democratic experience, marked by the French Constitution of 1793.[11]

Early life

Maximilien de Robespierre was born in Arras in the old French province of Artois. His family has been traced back to the 15th century in Vaudricourt, Pas-de-Calais; one of his ancestors Robert de Robespierre worked as a notary in Carvin mid 17th century.[12] 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 and married the pregnant Jacqueline Marguerite Carrault, the daughter of a brewer. Maximilien was the eldest of four children and was conceived out of wedlock. His siblings were Charlotte (1760–1834),[lower-alpha 1] Henriette (1761–1780),[lower-alpha 2] and Augustin (1763–1794).[13][14]

Early in July 1764, Madame de Robespierre gave birth to a stillborn daughter; she died twelve days later, at the age of 29. Devastated by his wife's death, François de Robespierre left Arras around 1767 and travelled throughout Europe. His two daughters were brought up by their paternal aunts, and his two sons were taken in by their maternal grandparents.[15] Already literate at age eight, Maximilien started attending the collège of Arras (middle school).[16][17] In October 1769, on the recommendation of the bishop Hilaire de Conzié, he received a scholarship at the Collège Louis-le-Grand. His fellow pupils included Camille Desmoulins and Stanislas Fréron. In school, he learned to admire the idealised Roman Republic and the rhetoric of Cicero, Cato and other figures from classical history. He also studied the works of the Genevan 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.[18] His study of the classics prompted him to aspire to Roman virtues, but he sought to emulate Rousseau in particular.[19] Robespierre's conception of revolutionary virtue and his programme for constructing political sovereignty out of direct democracy came from Rousseau, Montesquieu and Mably.[20] Robespierre studied law for three years at the University of Paris. Upon his graduation on 31 July 1780, he received a special prize of 600 livres for exemplary academic success and personal good conduct.[21]

Early politics

On 15 May 1781 Robespierre was admitted to the bar. The Bishop of Arras, Hilaire de Conzié, appointed him as one of the five judges in the criminal court in March 1782. Robespierre soon resigned, owing to discomfort in ruling on capital cases arising from his early opposition to the death penalty.[18] Robespierre never had many cases. The most famous was in May 1783 about a lightning rod in St. Omer. His defense was printed and Robespierre sent Benjamin Franklin a copy.[22]

On 15 November 1783, he was elected a member of the literary Academy of Arras.[23] 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, which made him a man of letters.[24] He and Pierre Louis de Lacretelle, an advocate and journalist in Paris, divided the prize. Robespierre attacked inequality before the law, the indignity of natural children, the lettres de cachet (getting arrested without a trial) and the sidelining of women (Kéralio) in academic life.[25] In 1787 he became acquainted with the young officer and engineer Lazare Carnot and the year after with the teacher Joseph Fouché.[26] Robespierre claimed to have seen Rousseau in Ermenonville, shortly before he died.[27][28]

In August 1788 King Louis XVI announced new elections for all provinces and 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 pressing crisis due to its desire for a new constitution, according to Gouverneur Morris.[29]

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.[lower-alpha 3] He attacked the local authorities. With this, he secured the support of the country electors. On 26 April 1789 Robespierre was elected as one of 16 deputies for Arras to the Estates-General; others were Charles de Lameth and Beaumetz.[31] [lower-alpha 4] He was almost 31, comparatively poor, and lacking patronage. When the deputies arrived at Versailles they were presented to the King and listened to Jacques Necker's three-hour-long speech about institutional and political reforms.[32] They were informed that all voting would be "by power" not "by head", so their double representation — on proposal of Necker — was to be meaningless. They refused this and proceeded to meet separately. 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.

On 13 July the Assembly declared the formation of a "bourgeois militia". On the 14 July the National Guard was created in Paris.[33] On 15 July, Marquis de La Fayette was acclaimed commander-in-chief of the National Guard. On 20 July 1789 the Assembly decided to establish National Guards in every commune in the country.[34][35] Discussing the matter Robespierre defended the armed citizens in Paris.[36][37] In October he was one of the few who supported Maillard after the Women's March on Versailles.[38] While the Constituent Assembly occupied itself with male census suffrage, Robespierre and few more deputies opposed the property requirements for voting and holding office.[39] He turned his attention to the excluded classes, particularly Protestants in France, Jews,[40] blacks, servants and actors.[41][42]

As a frequent speaker in the Assembly, Robespierre voiced many ideas in support of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and constitutional provisions for the Constitution of 1791 but rarely attracted a majority among fellow deputies according to Malcolm Crook.[43][44] Robespierre (always 'poudré, frisé, et parfumé') seems to have been nervous, timid and suspicious. Madame de Staël described Robespierre as 'very exaggerated in his democratic principles'. He supported the most absurd propositions with a coolness that had the air of conviction.[45] Before the end of the year 1789, he was seen as one of the leaders of the small body of the extreme left. Robespierre was one of "the thirty voices", as Mirabeau referred to them with contempt: "That man will go far—he believes everything he says."[46]

Jacobin Club

From October 1789, Robespierre lived at 9, Rue de Saintonge in Le Marais.[47] Pierre Villiers claimed he was his secretary for several months, and they shared the apartment on the third floor.[48] Robespierre was involved with the new Society of the Friends of the Constitution, commonly known as the Jacobin Club. Originally, this organization (the Club Breton) was made up only of deputies from Brittany. After the National Assembly had moved to Paris, the Friends admitted non-deputies, supporting the changes in France. As time went on, many of the more educated artisans and small shopkeepers joined the Jacobin club.[49] Among these 1,200 men, Robespierre found a sympathetic audience. Equality was the keystone of the Jacobin ideology. In January he held several speeches in response to the decision making the exercise of civil rights dependent on a certain sum in the tax. During the debate on the suffrage, Robespierre ended his speech of 25 January 1790 with a blunt assertion that ‘all Frenchmen must be admissible to all public positions without any other distinction than that of virtues and talents’.[50] He began to acquire a reputation and on 31 March 1790 Robespierre was elected as their president.[51] On 5 December 1790 Robespierre held a speech on the urgent topic of the National Guard, a police force, independent from the army.[52][53][54] Robespierre coined the famous motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" by adding fraternity.[lower-alpha 5][56][57]

On 27 April 1791, Robespierre opposed the plans for reorganizing the National Guard and restricting its membership to active citizens.[58] He demanded the reconstitution of the army on a democratic basis,[59] allowing passive citizens. The army had to become the instrument of defence of the Revolution, and no longer a threat to it.[60] On 28 April, despite Robespierre's intensive campaign, the principle of an armed bourgeois militia was definitively enacted in the Assembly.[61]

On 9 May the Assembly discussed the right to petition.[62] Article III specifically recognised the right of active citizens to meet together to draw up petitions and addresses and present them to municipal authorities.[63] On 12 May the National Assembly gave citizenship to mulattos, but the colonial whites refused the implement the decree.[64] On 16-18 May when the elections began Robespierre proposed and carried the motion that no deputy who sat in the Constituent assembly could sit in the succeeding Legislative assembly.[65] This self-denying ordinance, designed to demonstrate the disinterested patriotism of the framers of the new constitution, had the effect of accelerating political change.[66] Its principal tactical purpose was to block the ambitions of the old leaders of the Jacobins, Antoine Barnave, Adrien Duport, and Alexandre de Lameth.[67][lower-alpha 6] On 28 May Robespierre proposed all Frenchmen should be declared active citizens and eligible to vote.[69] On 30 May he delivered a speech on the abolishment of death penalty without success.[70] On 31 May Robespierre attacked Abbé Raynal who sent an address, critizising the work of the Constituent Assembly and demanding the restoration of the royal prerogative.

On 10 June Robespierre delivered a speech on the state of the army and proposed to dismiss officers.[60] Five days later Pétion became president of the "tribunal criminel provisoire", after Duport refused to work with Robespierre.[71] On 14 June the abolition of the guild system was sealed; the Le Chapelier Law prohibited any kind of workers' coalition or assembly. (It concerned in the first instance as much collective petitioning by the political clubs as trade associations.[72]) Proclaiming free enterprise as the norm upset Marat, but not the urban labourer nor Robespierre.[73] On the 18th he was elected by the public as the public prosecutor of Paris.[74] A royalist pamphlet described Robespierre as a "lawyer for bandits, rebels and murderers".

The Flight to Varennes was followed by the Assembly's decree that the king be suspended from his duties on 25 June until further notice. On 13, 14 and 15 July the Assembly debated on the restoration of Louis XVI in his constitutional rights.[75] Robespierre's declared that he (himself) was "ni monarchiste ni républicain" ("neither monarchist nor republican").[76] Robespierre frowned on the efforts to promote republican ideology, but had not yet acquired that unchallenged grip over the Jacobins. The crowd on the Champ de Mars approved a petition calling for Louis's trial. Alarmed at the progress of the Revolution the moderate Jacobins, promoting a constitutional monarchy, founded the club of the Feuillants on the next day, taking with them 264 deputies. In the evening the King was restored in his functions. The Commune banned all gatherings.

On the 17 July La Fayette declared martial law.[77] After the Champ de Mars massacre, the authorities ordered numerous arrests. Robespierre, who attended the Jacobin club, did not dare to go back to the rue Saintonge where he lodged, and so asked Laurent Lecointre if he knew a patriot near the Tuileries who could put him up for the night. Lecointre suggested Duplay's house and took him there.[78] Maurice Duplay, a cabinetmaker and ardent admirer lived at 398 Rue Saint-Honoré near the Tuileries. After a few days Robespierre decided to move in permanently, although he lived there in the backyard so that he was constantly exposed to the sound of working.[79] He was motivated by a desire to live closer to the Assembly and the meeting place of the Jacobins in the Rue Saint-Jacques. [lower-alpha 7] According to his friend, the surgeon Joseph Souberbielle, Joachim Vilate, and Duplay's daughter Élisabeth, Robespierre became engaged to Duplay's eldest daughter Éléonore, but his sister Charlotte vigorously denied this; also his brother Augustin refused to marry her.[80][81][82]

On 29 September, on the day before the dissolution of the Assembly, Robespierre opposed Jean Le Chapelier, who wanted to proclaim an end to the revolution and restrict the freedom of the clubs. Robespierre had been carefully preparing for this confrontation. It was the climax of his political career up to this point.[83] Pétion and Robespierre were brought back in triumph to their homes. On 14 October a law passed to reorganize the National Guard in cantons and districts; officers and sub-officers were to be elected for only one year. On 16 October Robespierre arrived in Arras. On 28 November he was back in the Jacobin club, where he met with a triumphant reception. Collot d'Herbois gave his chair to Robespierre, who presided that evening.

Opposition to war with Austria

Since Marat, Danton and Robespierre were no longer delegates of the Assembly, politics often took place outside the meeting hall. On 18 December 1791 Robespierre gave a speech at the Jacobin club against the declaration of war.[84] Robespierre warned against the threat of dictatorship stemming from war, in the following terms:

If they are Caesars, Catilinas 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.[85]

On 25 December Guadet, the chairman of the Assembly, suggested that 1792 should be the first year of universal liberty.[86] Jacques Pierre Brissot stated on 29 December that a war would be a benefit to the nation and boost the economy. He urged that France should declare war against Austria. Marat and Robespierre opposed him, arguing that victory would throw up a dictator while defeat would restore the king to his former powers; neither end, he said, would serve the revolution.[87]

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 (2 January 1792).[88]

This opposition from expected allies irritated the Girondins, and the war became a major point of contention between the factions. In his third speech on the war, Robespierre countered in the Jacobin club, "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."[89] Already by then Robespierre knew he lost as he failed to gather a majority. His speech was nevertheless published and sent to all clubs and Jacobin societies of France.[90]

On 10 February 1792 he gave a speech on how to save the State and Liberty, and did not use the word war. He began by assuring his audience that everything he intended to propose was strictly constitutional. He then went on to advocate specific measures to strengthen, not so much the national defences as the forces that could be relied on to defend the revolution.[91] Not only the National Guard but also the people had to be armed, if necessary with pikes. Robespierre promoted a people's army, continuously under arms and able to impose its will on Feuillants and Girondins in the Constitutional Cabinet of Louis XVI and in the Legislative Assembly.[92] The Jacobins decided to study his speech before deciding whether it should be printed.[93]

The Girondins planned strategies for out-manoeuvring Robespierre's influence in the Jacobins.[94] He was accused by Brissot and Guadet of trying to become the idol of the people.[95] On 26 March the latter accused Robespierre of superstition, relying on divine providence;[96] he was also accused of acting as a secret agent for the Austrian Committee.[97] On 10 April Robespierre resigned the post of public prosecutor, which he officially held since 15 February.[98] He explained his resignation to the Jacobin Club, on 27 April, as part of his speech in response to the accusations against him. He threatened to leave the Jacobins, claiming he preferred to continue his mission as an ordinary citizen.[99]

On 17 May, Robespierre published the first issue of his journal Le Défenseur de la Constitution (The Defender of the Constitution), in which he attacked Brissot and publicised his scepticism over the whole war movement.[100][101] The journal served multiple purposes: first of all to print his speeches, to counter the influence of the royal court in public policy, to defend him from the accusations of Girondist leaders and to give voice to the economic and democratic interests of the broader masses in Paris and defend their rights.[102][103]

The insurrectionary Commune of Paris

When the Legislative Assembly declared war against Austria on 20 April 1792, Robespierre stated that the French people must rise up and arm themselves completely, whether to fight abroad or to keep a lookout for despotism at home.[104] 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 and royalist École Militaire and the conservative National Guard.[lower-alpha 8] Along with other Jacobins, he urged in his magazine the creation of an "armée révolutionnaire" in Paris, consisting of 20,000 men,[106] with the goal to defend "liberty" (the revolution), maintain order in the sections and educate the members in democratic principles; an idea he borrowed from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Machiavelli.[107] According to Jean Jaures, he considered this even more important than the right to strike.[59]

On 29 May 1792, the Assembly dissolved the Constitutional Guard, suspecting it of royalist and counter-revolutionary sympathies. In early June 1792, Robespierre proposed an end to the monarchy and the subordination of the Assembly to the General will.[108] Following the king's veto of the Assembly's efforts to suppress nonjuring priests on 27 May, to raise a militia of volunteers on 8 June, and the reinstatement of Brissotin ministers dismissed on 12 June, the monarchy faced an abortive demonstration of 20 June.[109] Sergent-Marceau and Panis, the administrators of police, were sent out by Pétion to urge the Sans-culottes to lay down their weapons, telling them it was illegal to present a petition in arms, although their march to the Tuileries was not banned. They invited the officials join the procession and march along with them.[110]

Because French forces suffered disastrous defeats and a series of defections at the onset of the war, Robespierre and Marat feared the possibility of a military coup d'état. One was led by the Marquis de Lafayette, head of the National Guard, who at the end of 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."[111]

On 2 July, the Assembly authorized the National Guard to go to the Festival of Federation on 14 July, thus circumventing a royal veto. On 11 July, the Jacobins won an emergency vote in the wavering Assembly, declaring the nation in danger and drafting all Parisians with pikes or pistols into the National Guard.[112] Billaud-Varenne in the Jacobin club on 15 July, outlined the program following the uprising; the deportation of all the Bourbons, the cleansing of the National Guard, the election of a Convention, the transfer of the Royal veto to the people, the deportation of all enemies of the people and exemption of the poorest from taxation. On 24 July a "Central Office of Co-ordination" was formed and the sections got the right to be in "permanent" session.[113][114] On 25 July, the allied commander, Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, issued a ferociously belligerent manifesto designed to spread panic in France, as it did.[115] This sentiment reflected the perspective of more radical Jacobins including those of the Marseille Club, who wrote to the deposed mayor 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!" [116] At the end of July more than 3,000 Fédérés entered Paris useful in provoking various measures, notably the overthrow of the king. On 29 July Robespierre called for the deposition of the King and the election of a Convention.[117][118]

On 1 August news of the Brunswick Manifesto began sweeping through Paris. The assembly ordered the municipalities that pikes should be made and issued to all citizens. On 3 August 47 sections demanded the deposition of the king. On 5 August Robespierre announced the uncovering of a plan for the king to escape to Château de Gaillon.[119] On 7 August Pétion suggested to Robespierre to contribute to the departure of Fédérés in order to appease the capital.[120] On the evening of 9 August around 80 commissionaires of 28 sections (Billaud-Varenne, Chaumette, Robespierre, Hébert, Hanriot, Fleuriot-Lescot, Pache, Bourdon) gathered in the town hall. At midnight the municipal government of the city was dissolved. Sulpice Huguenin, head of the sans-culottes of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, was appointed provisional president of the Insurrectionary Commune.

Early in the morning (Friday, 10 August) 30,000 Fédérés and Sans-culottes militants from the sections led a successful assault upon the Tuileries;[121] according to Robespierre a triumph for the "passive" (non-voting) citizens. On the night of 11 August Robespierre was elected to the Paris Commune as a representative for the "Section de Piques". The governing committee called for the summoning of a convention chosen by universal male suffrage,[122] to form a new government and reorganize France. On 13 August Robespierre declared himself against the strengthening of the départments.[123] On 14 August Danton invited him to join the Council of Justice. Robespierre published the twelfth and last issue of "Le Défenseur de la Constitution", both an account and political testament.[124] On 16 August, Robespierre presented a petition to the Legislative Assembly from the Paris Commune to demand the establishment of a provisional Revolutionary Tribunal that had to deal with the "traitors" and "enemies of the people". The next day Robespierre refused to preside over it.[125] He declined any position that might take him out of the political arena.[126] The Prussian army crossed the French frontier on 19 August. The Paris militias were incorporated in 48 battalions of the National Guard under Santerre. On 27 August a ceremony was held for the victims of 10 August; tout-Paris was present.

The passive citizens still strived for acceptance and the supply of weapons. Danton proposed that the Assembly should authorize house searches ‘to distribute to the defenders of the patrie the weapons that indolent or ill-disposed citizens may be hiding’.[125] The Paris sections organized themselves as surveillance committees, conducting searches and making arrests.[127] These raids began on the evening of 29 August and went on for another two days.[125] Marat, head of the Committee of Surveillance and Robespierre both disliked Condorcet who proposed that the "enemies of the people" belonged to the whole nation and should be judged constitutionally in its name.[128] A sharp conflict developed between the Legislative and the Commune and its sections.[129][126] On 30 August the Girondin minister of Interior 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.[130]

Robespierre was no longer willing to cooperate with Brissot, who promoted the Duke of Brunswick, and Roland, who proposed that the members of the government should leave Paris, taking the treasury and the king with it.[125] On Sunday morning 2 September the members of the Commune, gathering in the town hall to proceed the election of deputies to the national Convention, decided to maintain their seats and have Rolland and Brissot arrested.[131][132] Madame de Staël who tried to escape Paris was forced by the crowd to go to the town hall. She noted that Robespierre was in the chair that day, assisted by Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne as secretaries.[133] However, according to Maximilien's sister Charlotte, he never presided over the insurrectionary commune.[48]

The National Convention

On 2 September 1792 French National Convention election began. In vain Robespierre proposed excluding deputies from the Assembly re-election to the Convention but succeeded in banning royalists.[134][135] In Paris suspected Girondin and Feuillant candidates were boycotted; Robespierre made sure Brissot could not be elected in Paris.[136] In the afternoon the September Massacres began.[137] Not an outburst of passion, but coldly and carefully organized, according to Adolphe Thiers, George Long and Stanley Loomis.[138][139] Charlotte Corday held Marat responsible, Madame Roland Danton. Robespierre visited the Temple prison to check on the security of the royal family.[140] On 5 September, Robespierre and Pétion were elected deputy to the National Convention by their constituency. According to his sister, Robespierre refused to talk to Pétion de Villeneuve, who finally rallied to Brissot. [141]

On 21 September the Jacobins and Cordeliers took the high benches at the back of the former Salle du Manège, giving them the label the "Montagnards", or "the Mountaineers"; below them were the "Manège" of the Girondists, moderate Republicans and then the Plain of the independents, virtually leaderless and dominated by the radical Mountain.[142] On 26 September, the Girondist Marc-David Lasource accused Robespierre of wanting to form a dictatorship.[143] Rumours spread that Robespierre, Marat and Danton were plotting to establish a triumvirate. (From October 1791 until September 1792 the French Legislative Assembly saw an unprecedented turnover of four ministers of Justice, four ministers of Navy, six ministers of the interior, seven ministers of foreign affairs, and eight ministers of war.[144]) On 29 October, Louvet de Couvrai attacked Robespierre.[145] He accused Robespierre of star allures,[146] and having done nothing to stop the September massacre; instead, he had used it to have more Montagnards elected.[147] 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.[148]

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?[149]

As his opponents knew well, Robespierre had a strong base of support among the women of Paris. John Moore (Scottish physician) was sitting in the galleries, and noted that the audience was ‘almost entirely filled with women’.[150][151] Condorcet stated: It is that the French Revolution is a religion and Robespierre is making it into a cult. He is a priest who has his devotees; but it is evident that all of his power lies in the distaff. Robespierre tried to appeal to women because in the early days of the Revolution, when he had tried to appeal to men, he had failed.[150]

Execution of Louis XVI

The Convention's unanimous declaration of a French Republic on 21 September 1792 left open the fate of the former king. A commission was therefore established to examine the 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 banishment.[152] On 13 November Robespierre stated in the Convention that a Constitution which Louis had violated himself, and which declared his inviolability, could not now be used in his defence.[153] Robespierre had been taken ill and had done little other than support Saint-Just, who gave his first major speech, in his argument against the king's inviolability. 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.[154] At his trial, he claimed not to recognize documents clearly signed by himself.[155]

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.[156] All the deputies from the Mountain were asked to be present. 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. [157]

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 a civil war.[158] 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:

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.[159]

The day of the last hearing of the king was 26 December 1792. On 14 January 1793, he 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 vote for death. The Jacobins successfully defeated the Girondins' final appeal for clemency[160] and Louis was executed two days later, on 21 January, at the Place de la Révolution.[161]

Destruction of the Girondists

After the execution of the king, the influence of Robespierre, Danton and the pragmatic politicians increased at the expense of the Girondins who were largely seen as responsible for the inadequate response to the Flanders Campaign they had themselves initiated. At the end of February more than thousand shops were plundered in Paris. Protesters claimed that the Girondins were responsible for the high prices.[162] On 24 February the Convention decreed a Levee en Masse. In March, the attempt to draft new troops set off an uprising in rural France. The Montagnards lost influence in Marseille, Toulon and Lyon. On 10 March 1793, a provisional Revolutionary Tribunal was established; the Convention appointed Fouquier-Tinville as the public prosecutor and Fleuriot-Lescot as his assistant.

On 12 March Charles-François Dumouriez criticized the interference of officials of the War Ministry which employed many Jacobins.[163] The Jacobin leaders were quite sure that, after Battle of Neerwinden (1793), France had come close to a military coup mounted by Dumouriez and supported by the Girondins. On 22 March Dumouriez urged the Duke of Chartres to join his plan to dissolve the Convention, to restore the French Constitution of 1791, the restoration of a constitutional monarchy and to free Marie-Antoinette and her children.[164][165] On 26 March Robespierre became one of the 25 members of the Commission of Public Safety The Montagnards launched a vigorous campaign against the Girondins by associating them with Dumouriez, who refused to surrender himself to the Revolutionary Tribunal.[166] Suspicion rose against Phillipe Égalité, because of the friendship of his eldest son, with Dumouriez. On 3 April Robespierre declared before the Convention, the whole war as a prepared game between Dumouriez and Brissot with the aim of overthrowing the Republic. He left the Commission of Public Safety after eight days, not willing to cooperate with Brissot. On 6 April the Committee of Public Safety was installed with mainly members from the Plain. Robespierre was pessimistic about the prospects of parliamentary action and told the Jacobins that it was necessary to raise an army of Sans-culottes to defend Paris and arrest infidel deputies. He mentioned the Duke of Orleans, Brissot, Vergniaud, Guadet and Armand Gensonné.[167] Robespierre's speeches during the month of April 1793 reflect his growing radicalization. "I ask the sections to raise an army large enough to form the kernel of a Revolutionary Army that will draw all the sans-culottes from the departments to exterminate the rebels …"[168] "Force the government to arm the people, who in vain demanded arms for two years."[169] Robespierre held furious speeches, denouncing the Girondins, encouraging hoarding and deliberately supporting the interests of the rich against the poor.[170] On 24 April 1793 Robespierre presented his version for the new Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793 with four articles on the right of property; he advocated a progressive tax and fraternity between the people of all the nations.[171]

On 1 May the crowds threatened armed insurrection if the emergency measures demanded were not adopted.[172] On 8 and 12 May Robespierre repeated in the Jacobin club the necessity of founding a revolutionary army consisting of Sans-culottes, paid by a tax on the rich, to beat the aristocrats inside France and the Convention. Every public square should be used to produce arms and pikes.[173] The Girondin party became concerned. On 18 May Guadet proposed to examine the "exactions" and to replace municipal authorities.[174][175][176] A commission of inquiry of twelve members, with a very strong Girondin majority, was set up on 21 May to examine all the prisoners taken last month and their plots against the Convention.[177] Hébert, the editor of Le Père Duchesne, was arrested for attacking the representatives. The next day, the Commune demanded that Hébert be released. Maximin Isnard threatened then with the total destruction of Paris. On 26 May Robespierre delivered one of the most decisive speeches of his career.[178] He openly called at the Jacobin Club "to place themselves in insurrection against corrupt deputies".[179] Isnard declared that the Convention would not be influenced by any violence. Paris had to respect the representatives from the rest of France.[180] The Convention decided Robespierre would not be heard. Isnard hindered him to speak. The atmosphere became extremely agitated; some deputies were willing to kill if Isnard had the courage to declare civil war. On 28 May the Commune accepted the creation of a sans-culottes army to enforce revolutionary laws.[179] On 29 May, the delegates representing thirty-three of the Paris sections formed an insurrectionary committee.[181] Robespierre urged the arrest of the Girondists. "If the Commune does not unite closely with the people, it violates its most sacred duty."[182] On Friday 31 May 1793 the Commune appointed Hanriot to the position of provisionary "Commandant-General" of the Parisian National Guard.[183] The next day all Paris was in arms. The Convention met at the sound of the tocsin and drumming. Marat led the attack on the representatives to be removed from the Convention. He called for the arrest of nine members of the Commission of Twelve and repeated his call for expulsion of 22 Girondins, who in January had voted against the execution of the King.[184]

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 newspapers, 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.[185][186]

The commune declaring itself duped, demanded and prepared a "Supplement" to the revolution. Hanriot was ordered to march his National Guard, by this time mostly existing of Sans-culottes, from the town hall to the Palais National.[187] In the evening on 2 June, a large force of supposedly 80,000 armed men surrounded the Convention with 160 cannons. "The armed force", Hanriot said, "will retire only when the Convention has delivered to the people the deputies denounced by the Commune."[188] The Girondins attempted to exit, walked round the Palace in a theatrical procession and confronted on all sides by bayonets and pikes, returned to the meeting hall and submitted to the inevitable. With Marat presiding, the Twenty-Two were seized one by one after some juggling with names.[189] They decided that 31 deputies were not to be arrested, but were called upon to voluntarily to suspend the exercise of their functions. The Montagnards now had unchallenged control of the Convention. The Girondins, going to the provinces, joined the counter-revolution.[190]

Reign of Terror

After the fall of the Girondins, the French government faced serious internal challenges, when four provincial cities—Caen, Bordeaux, Lyon, and Marseille—rebelled against the more radical revolutionaries in Paris, threatening to plunge France into civil war. In July France threatened to fall apart, attacked by the aristocracy in Vendée and Brittany, by federalism in Lyon, in Le Midi and in Normandy, in a struggle with all Europe and the foreign factions;[191] 26 of the 83 departments were no longer under the control of Paris. French revolutionary politicians believed a stable government was needed to quell counterrevolutionary sentiments and activities.[192][193] On 1 August, on a report by Barère, the Convention decreed the systematic destruction of the Vendée.[194]

On 13 July the day that Marat was murdered Robespierre defended the plans of Louis-Michel le Peletier to teach revolutionary ideas in schools.[195] He denounced the schemes of the Parisian radicals known as the Enragés, who were using the rising inflation and food shortage to stir up the Paris sections.[3] On 27 July 1793, Robespierre was added to the Committee of Public Safety, after Gasparin resigned his place on the Committee "for reasons of health".[196] He himself said he joined reluctantly. It was the first time he held any executive office. Robespierre became a kind of Minister without Portfolio,[197] apparently as the unofficial prime-minister—the committee was non-hierarchical.[198] On 4 August the French Constitution of 1793 passed through the Convention, containing four articles by Robespierre which affirm the unity of the human race, the need for solidarity between the peoples and the rejection of the kings.[11] The right of association, right to work and public assistance, right to public education, right of rebellion (and duty to rebel when the government violates the right of the people), and the abolition of slavery, were all written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793.[199] Though the Constitution was overwhelmingly popular and its drafting and ratification buoyed popular support for the Montagnards, the convention set it aside indefinitely until a future peace.[200]

On 4 September, the Sans-culottes again invaded the Convention. They demanded tougher measures against rising prices and the setting up of a system of terror to root out the counter-revolution.[201] On 5 September Terror was formally instituted as a legal policy by the Convention. A "Sans-culotte army" was formed in Paris, to sweep away conspirators.[202] Barère voiced the Committee of Public Safety's support for the measures desired by the assembly: he presented a decree that was passed immediately, establishing a paid armed force of 6,000 men and 1,000 gunners ‘designed to crush the counter-revolutionaries, to execute wherever the need arises the revolutionary laws and the measures of public safety that are decreed by the National Convention, and to protect provisions’[194] In a proclamation, Barère said, "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." The next day the ultra's Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne were elected in the Committee of Public Safety.[203]

Robespierre was particularly concerned that the public officials should be virtuous.[204] He had sent his younger brother (and sister) to Nice in the Provence.[205]

The Committee of General Security which was tasked with rooting out crimes and preventing counter-revolution began to manage the country's internal police and finance. On 8 September, the banks and exchange offices were closed to prevent the exchange of forged assignats and the export of capital.[206] On 17 September, the Law of Suspects was passed, which authorized the imprisonment of vaguely defined "suspects". The Revolutionary Tribunal was divided into four sections, of which two were always active at the same time.

On 11 and 29 September, Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne introduced the General maximum,[202] particularly in the area which supplied Paris.[207] On 10 October they paved the way for the law recognizing the Committee of Public Safety as the supreme "Revolutionary Government".[208] The provisional government would be revolutionary until peace. Commissioners were ordered not to report to the Convention, but to the Committee of Public Safety. Danton quit politics, decided to leave Paris and set off to Arcis-sur-Aube (with his 16-year-old wife).[209]

On 12 October when Hébert accused Marie-Antoinette during her trial of incest with her son, Robespierre had dinner with Barère, Saint-Just and Joachim Vilate. Discussing the matter, Robespierre broke his plate with his fork and called Hébert an "imbécile".[210][211][212] According to Vilate Robespierre then had already two or three bodyguards. On 25 October the Revolutionary government was accused of doing nothing.[213] At the end of the month, several members of the General Security Committee assisted by armées revolutionnaires were sent into the provinces to suppress active resistance against the Jacobins. Barras and Fréron went to Marseille and Toulon. Fouché and Collot-d'Herbois halted the revolt of Lyon against the National Convention, Jean-Baptiste Carrier ordered the drownings at Nantes. Tallien succeeded in feeding the guillotine in Bordeaux and Joseph Lebon in Somme and Pas-de-Calais. Saint-Just and Le Bas visited the Rhine Army to watch the generals and punish officers for the least sign of treasonous timidity, or lack of initiative.[214] On 31 October Brissot and 21 Girondins were guillotined in 36 minutes.

On the morning of 14 November 1793 François Chabot burst into Robespierre's room dragging him from bed with accusations of counter-revolution and a foreign conspiracy, waving a hundred thousand livres in assignat notes, claiming that a band of royalist plotters gave it to him to buy Fabre d'Eglantine's vote, along with others, to liquidate some stock in the French East India Company.[215][216] Chabot was arrested three days later; Courtois urged Danton to return to Paris immediately. On 25 November 1793, the remains of Comte de 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.[217]

On 4 December, by the Law of Revolutionary Government, the independence of the départements came to an end, when extensive powers of Committee of Public Safety were codified. This law, submitted by Billaud, was seen as a deeply drastic decision against the independence of municipalities and federalism; stability and centralization became more important than democratic principles. The departmental armées revolutionnaires (except in Paris) were banned on proposal of Tallien.[218][219][220][221] The sections lost all rights to control their delegates and officials. On 12 December the Indulgents mounted an attack on the Committee of Public Safety.[222] Robespierre replied to Danton's plea for an end to the Terror on 25 December (5 Nivôse, year II). Robespierre presented a report 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 [Hébertists and Dantonists] that threatened the government.[223][224] Robespierre strongly believed that the Terror should be increased in intensity, rather than diminished.:

The theory of the revolutionary government is as new as the revolution that created 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..." Robespierre would suppress chaos and anarchy; "the Government has to defend itself" and "to the enemies of the people it owns only death.”[225][226][227]

According to Donald Clark Hodges, this was the first important statement in modern times of a philosophy of dictatorship.[228] The Committee became a War Cabinet with unprecedented powers over the economic as well as the political life of the nation, but it had to get the approval of the Convention for any legislation and could be changed any time.[229] In the winter of 1793–94, a majority of the Committee decided that the ultra-left Hébertists would have to perish or their 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.[230] Under intense emotional pressure from Lyonnaise women, Robespierre suggested that a secret commission be set up to examine the cases of the Lyon rebels, to see if injustices had been committed. This is the closest he came to adopting a public position against the use of terror.[231] Early January Robespierre the younger was shocked at the changed atmosphere in the Jacobin club.[232][233] By now the revolutionaries feared one another.[234]

The "enemy within"

In December 1793 the journalist Camille Desmoulins launched a new journal, Le Vieux Cordelier, attacking François Chabot in the first issue. He defended Danton and warned not to exaggerate the revolution in the second issue. In the next he compared Robespierre with Julius Caesar and arguing that the Revolution should return to its original ideas en vogue around 10 August 1792.[235] Robespierre came into conflict with Desmoulins, who had taken up the cause of the 200,000 defenceless civilians and had been detained in prisons as suspects.[236] According to Desmoulins, a Committee of Grace had to be established. On 7 January Robespierre proposed that copies of Le Vieux Cordelier be burned in the brazier of the Jacobin club, but decided to withdraw this suggestion after heavy attacks on the freedom of the press. Robespierre attacked the authenticity of Desmoulins by giving the blackest interpretation to words and actions that he had witnessed from the privileged position of being a trusted friend.[237] Desmoulins counselled Robespierre not to attempt to build the Republic on such a rare quality as virtue.

In his 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.[238]

Virtue meant devotion to family, to work, to the ideals of the Revolution. It also meant getting rid of the enemies of Virtue. "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']."[239] Aulard sums up the Jacobin train of thought, "All politics, according to Robespierre, must tend to establish the reign of virtue and confound vice. He reasoned thus: those who are virtuous are right; error is a corruption of the heart; error cannot be sincere; error is always deliberate."[240][241] According to the German journalist K.E. Oelsner, Robespierre behaved "more like a leader of a religious sect than of a political party. He can be eloquent but most of the time he is boring, especially when he goes on too long, which is often the case."[242]

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

—Maximilien Robespierre, 5 February 1794[243]

On 26 February 1794, Saint-Just delivered a speech before the Convention in which he directed the assault against Danton, claiming that the Dantonists wanted to slow down the Terror and the Revolution. Self-indulgent over-eating, especially when flaunted in public, was an indication of suspect political loyalties, according to Saint-Just.

From 13 February to 13 March 1794, Robespierre had withdrawn from active business on the Committee due to illness.[244] (On 19 February, Maximilien decided therefor to return to the Duplays.[245]) On 15 March, he reappeared in the Convention. Subsequently, he joined Saint-Just in attacks on the Hébertists.[18] Hébert, the voice of the Sans-culottes, had been using the latest issue of Le Père Duchesne to criticise Robespierre. On the same evening, 13–14 March, Hébert and 18 of his followers were arrested on charges of complicity with foreign powers and guillotined on 24 March. (Hanriot was denounced by the Revolutionary Tribunal as an accomplice of Hébert, but protected by Robespierre.[246]) Their death was a sort of carnival, a pleasant spectacle according to Michelet's witnesses.

On 30 March the two committees decided to arrest Danton and Desmoulins without chance to be heard in the Convention.[247] On 2 April the trial began on charges of conspiracy, theft and corruption; a financial scandal involving the French East India Company provided a "convenient pretext" for Danton's downfall.[248] The Dantonists, in Robespierre's eyes, had become false patriots who had preferred personal and foreign interests to the welfare of the nation. Robespierre was sharply critical of Amar's report, which presented the scandal as purely a matter of fraud. Robespierre insisted that it was a foreign plot, demanded that the report be re-written, and used the scandal as the basis for rhetorical attacks on William Pitt the Younger he believed was involved.[249] Legendre attempted to defend Danton in the Convention but was silenced by Robespierre. No friend of the Dantonists dared speak up in case he too should be accused of putting friendship before virtue.[250] The juror Souberbielle asked himself: "Which of the two, Robespierre or Danton, is the more useful to the Republic?"[251] The death of Hébert had rendered Robespierre master of the Paris Commune; the death of Danton, master of the Convention.[252]

On the day her husband was executed Lucile 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. Robespierre was not only their eldest friend but also witnessed at their marriage in December 1790, together with Pétion and Brissot.[253][254]

On 1 April 1794 Lazare Carnot proposed the executive council be suppressed and the ministries be replaced by twelve Committees reporting to the Committee of Public Safety.[171] The proposal was unanimously adopted by the National Convention and set up by Martial Herman from 8 April. When Barras and Fréron paid a visit to Robespierre, they were received extremely unfriendly. (Robespierre was without the spectacles he usually wore in public.) On 16 April, the Committee of Public Safety received the power to search and to bring accused persons before the Revolutionary Tribunal. On 23 April a General Police Bureau was set up, tasked with gathering information and mostly report directly to Robespierre.[255][256] Within a week Robespierre took over the running and expanded its remit when Saint-Just left Paris for the army in the north.[257] The decree of 8 May suspended the revolutionary court in the provinces and brought all political cases for trial in the capital.[258]

Georges Couthon introduced the drastic Law of 22 Prairial, which was enacted on 10 June. Under this law, the Tribunal became a simple court of condemnation refusing suspects the right of counsel and allowing only one of two verdicts – complete acquittal or death and that based not on evidence but on the moral conviction of the jurors.[259] On 11 July the shopkeepers, craftsmen, etc. were temporarily released from prison. In the next three days, 156 people were sent in batches to the guillotine, which had been moved to the Faubourg Saint-Antoine three weeks before in order to stand out less. According to François Furet, the prisons were overpopulated; they housed over 8,000 "suspects" at the beginning of Thermidor year II.[260] The city also had to solve serious problems on the cemeteries because of the smell. Mid-July two new mass graves were dug at Picpus Cemetery in the impermeable ground.[261][262]

Abolition of slavery

Throughout the course of the Revolution, Robespierre (at times ambivalently and outspokenly) opposed slavery on French soil or in French territories and he played an important role in abolishing it.[263][264]

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!"[265] Robespierre was furious that the assembly gave "constitutional sanction to slavery in the colonies," and argued for equal political rights regardless of skin colour.[266] 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.[265] Only months later, hundreds of thousands of slaves in St Domingue led a revolution against slavery and colonial rule.[267]

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.[268] 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.[268] 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.[268] At the same time, Robespierre denounced the French minister to the newly formed United States, Edmond-Charles Genêt, who had sided with Sonthonax.[268]

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.[268] 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.[268] 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.[268] Despite petitions from the slaveholding delegation, Robespierre and the Committee decided to endorse the decree in full.[268]

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.[269][270]

He attended a meeting of the Jacobin club in June 1794 to support a decree ending slavery, and later signed orders to ratify it.[269] 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.[266]

Cult of the Supreme Being

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.[271] Having denounced the excesses of dechristianization, he sought to instill a spiritual resurgence in the French nation based on Deist beliefs. On 6 May 1794 Robespierre announced to the Convention that in the name of the French people the Committee of Public Safety had decided to recognize the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul. Accordingly, on 7 May, Robespierre delivered a long presentation to the Convention ‘on the relation of religious and moral ideas to republican principles, and on national festivals’.[171] Robespierre supported a decree passed by the Convention that established an official religion, known as the Cult of the Supreme Being. The notion of the Supreme Being was based on the creed of the Savoy chaplain that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had outlined in Book IV of Emile.

In the morning of 8 June which was also the Christian holiday of Pentecost he was invited for breakfast by Joachim Vilate in the Pavillon de Flore; Robespierre hardly ate anything. A nationwide "Festival of the Supreme Being" was held in the afternoon. The festivities started at the Tuileries and ended on the Champ de Mars, which was renamed the Champ de la Réunion ("Field of Reunion") for that day. Robespierre delivered two speeches in which he emphasized 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.[272]

Throughout the "Festival of the Supreme Being", Robespierre was beaming with joy. 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 drawn up previously set before the ceremony. 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.[273] He was extremely dressed up, with feathers on his hat, and fruit and flowers in his hands. Robespierre walked first in the festival procession. Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers with their babies were specifically invited to walk in the procession.[274] The choirs were composed by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul and François-Joseph Gossec, with lyrics from the obscure poet fr:Théodore Désorgues.

The Convention, preceded by Robespierre, climbed to the summit, where a liberty tree had been planted.[171] Robespierre came down the mountain in a way that resembled Moses as the leader of the people. For his small stature (5’3"), he had elevated shoes with silver buckles. . While for some it was exciting to see him at his finest, other deputies agreed that Robespierre had played too prominent a role. Thuriot, was heard saying, "Look at the bugger; it's not enough for him to be master, he has to be God".[275] Five days later, on 15 June, the president of the Committee of General Security Vadier on behalf of the two committees, presented a report on a "new conspiracy". He insinuated that Robespierre fitted the prophecies by Catherine Théot.[276] Robespierre with his ‘tyrannical habit of judging’ demanded the heads of nine people, who opposed his republic of virtue.[277] According to Madame de Staël from that time he was lost.[278]


On 20 May Robespierre personally signed the warrant for Theresa Cabarrus' arrest. Never did Robespierre pursue a victim more remorselessly.[279] On 23 May, Cécile Renault was arrested after having approached Robespierre's residence with two penknives; dressed in a red smock she was executed together with her parents (and 52 others) one week later. Robespierre used this assassination attempt against him as a pretext for scapegoating the British.[280]

On 10 June the Law of 22 Prairial was introduced without consultation from the Committee of General Security, which deepened the conflict between the two committees and doubled the number of executions.[281] Collot d'Herbois, Carrier and Tallien feared for their lives, due to the excesses carried out by them in various regions of France to stamp out opposition to the revolutionary government.[282] Almost all the deputies agreed it had become dangerous. Some were uneasy and asked for the debate to be adjourned so the clauses could be examined. Robespierre refused and demanded immediate discussion. On 11 June Robespierre attacked Fouché, accusing him of leading a conspiracy. Carnot and Cambon proposed to end the terror. Carnot described Saint-Just and Robespierre as "ridiculous dictators".[171] [283] On 1 July Robespierre denounced in the Jacobin club a conspiracy against him: "In London I am denounced to the French army as a dictator; the same slanders have been repeated in Paris."[171] On 3 July he left the Committee slamming the door and shouting "Then save the country without me".[284] He attacked Tallien and Dubois-Crancé and had them excluded from the Jacobins on 11 July.[285] He made no secret of the fact that he intended to have them punished. On 14 July Robespierre had Fouché, who refused to meet his enemy face to face, expelled from the Jacobin Club. To evade arrest, which usually took place during the night, about fifty deputies avoided staying at home. On 22 and 23 July, the two committees met in a plenary session. Both Committees were responsible for suppressing counterrevolution, but ended targeting each other.[208][286] Saint-Just declared in negotiations with Barère that he was prepared to make concessions on the subordinate position of the Committee of General Security.[287][288] Couthon agreed to more cooperation between the two committees. For Robespierre, the Committee of General Security had to remain subordinate to the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre wanted to take away the authority of the Committee of General Security.[289]

For forty days - it seems - Robespierre rarely appeared in the Convention, but signed five decrees by the Committee of Public Safety, and continued his work with the police bureau till the end of June 1794.[290] Not long after Robespierre decided to make himself clear in a new report.

On Saturday 26 July Robespierre reappeared at the Convention and delivered a two-hour-long vague and disjointed speech on the villainous factions.[291] Dressed in the same sky-blue coat and nankeen trousers which he had worn on the proclamation of the Supreme Being, he defended himself against charges of dictatorship and tyranny, and then proceeded to warn of a conspiracy against the Committee of Public Safety. Calumny, he charged, had forced him to retire for a time from the Committee of Public Safety; he found himself the most unhappy of men. He complained of being blamed for everything.[292] Not only England but also members of the Committee of General Security were involved in intrigue to bring him down. Specifically, he railed against the bloody excesses he had observed during the Terror.[293] Finishing his speech with "Punish the traitors, purge the bureaux of the Committee of General Security, purge the Committee itself, and subordinate it to the Committee of Public Safety, purge the Committee of Public Safety itself and create a unified government under the supreme authority of the Convention".[294]

Intoxicated with his virtue, Robespierre proposed to keep the two committees going, announcing a new wave of purification. When called upon to name those whom he was accusing, however, he refused. Cambon flew to the rostrum. "One man paralyzes the will of the National Convention".[295]

The Convention decided not to have the text printed, as Robespierre's speech had first to be submitted to the two committees. It contained matters sufficiently weighty that it needed to first be examined.[296] Robespierre was surprised that his speech would be sent to the very deputies he had intended to sue. In the evening, Robespierre delivered the same speech, which he called his last will and testament, at the Jacobin Club, where it was very well received.[297] He spoke of drinking hemlock, and David, the painter, cried out: ‘I will drink it with you.’ According to Couthon, not his speech, but the conspiracy had to be examined. Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne were driven out because of their opposition to the printing and distribution of the text. Billaud managed to escape before he was assaulted, but Collot was knocked down and his clothes torn to shreds. They set off to the Committee of Public Safety, where they found Saint-Just working on his speech. Saint-Just replied he sent the beginning to a friend and refused to show them his notes. Gathering in secret at five in the morning nine members of the two committees decided that it was all or nothing; Robespierre had to be voted off. Barras said they would all die if Robespierre did not. Each one of them prepared his part in the attack, according to Laurent Lecointre, the instigator of the coup.[298] His fellow members were: Barère, Fréron, Barras, Tallien, Thuriot, Courtois, Rovère, Garnier de l’Aube and Guffroy; Fouché was no longer involved and had hidden himself.[299] They decided that Hanriot, his aides-de-camp, Lavalette and Boulanger,[300] the public prosecutor Dumas, the family Duplay and the printer Charles-Léopold Nicolas had to be arrested first, so Robespierre would be without support.[298]

At eleven Saint-Just arrived at the Convention, prepared to blame everything on Billaud, Collot and Carnot.[301] He began: "I am from no faction; I will contend against them all.[246] [293] After a few minutes, Tallien —having a double reason for desiring Robespierre's end, as, on the evening before, Robespierre refused to release Theresa Cabarrus — interrupted him and began the attack on him. "Yesterday a member of the government was left quite isolated and made a speech in his own name; today another one has done the same thing." "Yesterday, the president of the revolutionary tribunal openly proposed to the Jacobins that they should drive all impure men from the Convention." For Billaud-Varennes, they had organized a spy system among the representatives of the people whom they wanted to destroy. According to Barère the committees asked themselves why there still existed a military regime in the midst of Paris; why all these permanent commanders, with staffs, and immense armed forces? The committees have thought it best to restore to the National Guard its democratic organization.[302] For Tallien "Robespierre wanted to attack us by turns, to isolate us, and finally he would be left one day only with the base and abandoned and debauched men who serve him" and demanded the arrest of Hanriot and Dumas. As the accusations began to pile up, Saint-Just remained silent. Robespierre rushed toward the rostrum, appealed to the Plain to defend him against the Montagnards, but his voice was shouted down. Robespierre rushed to the benches of the Left but someone cried: "Get away from here; Condorcet used to sit here". He soon found himself at a loss for words after Vadier gave a mocking impression of him referring to the discovery of a letter under the mattress of the illiterate Catherine Théot.[lower-alpha 9] When Garnier witnessed Robespierre's inability to respond, he shouted, "The blood of Danton chokes him!"[306] 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?"[307]


Around two in the afternoon fr:Louis Louchet called for Robespierre's arrest; Robespierre the Younger and Le Bas demanded to share his fate. The whole Convention agreed including the two other members of the triumvirate, Couthon and Saint-Just. Robespierre shouted that the revolution was lost, when he descended the tribune. The five deputies were taken to the Committee of General Security and questioned. Around three in the afternoon Hanriot was ordered to appear in the Convention; Hanriot said he would only show up accompanied by a crowd. On horseback, Hanriot warned the sections that there would be an attempt to murder Robespierre and mobilized three thousand National Guards in front of the town hall.[171][310][311] What had happened was not very clear; either the Convention was closed down or the Paris Commune. Nobody explained anything.[312] The Paris Commune had closed the gates and summoned an immediate meeting of the sections to consider the dangers threatening the fatherland.[313]

Around seven o'clock the five deputies were taken to different prisons. Robespierre to Palais Luxembourg, Couthon to "La Bourbe" and Saint-Just to the "Écossais". Augustin was taken from Prison Saint-Lazare to La Force Prison,[314] like Le Bas who was refused at the Conciergerie.[315][316][79] The Paris Commune was in league with the Jacobins to bring off an insurrection, asking them to send over reinforcements from the galleries, ‘even the women who are regulars there’.[150] The Jacobins and the Convention had declared themselves to be in continuous session. Around eight Hanriot appeared at the Place du Carrousel in front of the Committee but Hanriot was taken prisoner by Philippe Rühl when he entered the building.[310] According to fr:Eric Hazan: "Now came the turning-point of this journée: instead of taking advantage of its superiority, in both guns and men, to invade the nearby hall where the Convention was sitting, the column, lacking orders or leaders, returned to the Maison-Commune."[171] After nine the vice-president of the Tribunal Coffinhal went to Committee of General Security; he succeeded in freeing Hanriot and his adjutants.[317][318]

How the five deputies escaped from prison was disputed. According to Courtois,[315] and Fouquier-Tinville the police administration was responsible.[319] Louis Blanc mentioned a secret order by the insurrectionary Commune who sent municipals to the jailors.[320] According to Louis Madelin the mayor Lescot-Fleuriot was responsible. Possibly their jailors, faced with two contradictory orders and uncertain of where the real power in France lay that afternoon, complied with the Commune's orders and released their charges.[321] Escorted by two municipals Robespierre the younger was the first to arrive.[322][323] Around eight Robespierre the older arrived at the police administration on Île de la Cité, and insisted being received in a prison.[324] He hesitated for legal reasons for possibly two hours. Around ten in the evening, the mayor appointed a delegation to go and convince Robespierre to join the Commune movement.[171] Robespierre was taken to the town hall by an "administrateur de police".[320][325][326] Around eleven Saint-Just was delivered by a "municipal",[327] after which Le Bas and Dumas were brought in by two "administrateurs".[315] An Executive Committee was established to save the country. Both Hanriot and Le Bas suggested attacking the Convention.[328] The Convention declared the five deputies (plus the supporting members of the "Conseil-Général", like Payan, Dumas, Hanriot, Coffinhal and Lescot-Fleuriot) to be outlaws. The Convention then appointed Barras, and ordered troops (4,000 men) to be called out.[329]

After a warm day spent waiting in vain for action by the Commune, losing time in bootless deliberation, without supplies or instructions, the men began to disperse. According to Colin Jones apathy prevailed with most of them drifting back to their homes.[323] Around 400 men from three sections seem to have stayed on the Place de Grève according to Courtois, whose report has a poor reputation.[330][331] At one a.m. a crowd moved in the direction of the town hall, but the street was blocked by a gunner.[332] At around two in the morning, Barras, his troops and six members of the Convention (Fréron, Rovère, Legendre, Féraud, the two brothers Marc and Léonard Bourdon), arrived in two columns. Barras deliberately advanced slowly, in the hope of avoiding conflict by a display of force.[331][329] Grenadiers burst into the Hotel de Ville; 51 insurgents were gathering in the main hall on the first floor. It seems Robespierre and his allies had withdrawn in the smaller "secrétariat".[333]

While some (Barère) argued that Robespierre tried to commit suicide with a pistol,[334][335][316] according to Bourdon he was shot by Méda, who wounded him in the left jaw,[336] and also succeeded hitting Couthon's helper in his leg.[337][338][333][312][339][lower-alpha 10] Couthon was found lying at the bottom of a staircase in a corner, having fallen from the back of his helper. In order to avoid capture, Augustin Robespierre took off his shoes and jumped from a broad cornice.[340] He landed on some bayonets resulting in a pelvic fracture and several serious head contusions, in an alarming state of "weakness and anxiety".[341] Le Bas committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The unperturbed Saint-Just gave himself up without a word. Dumas and 15-20 conspirators were locked up in a room inside the town hall.[342] Most sources say that Hanriot was thrown out of a window by Coffinhal after being accused of the disaster. (According to Ernest Hamel it is one of the many legends spread by Barère.[343]) Hanriot seems to have landed in a small courtyard on a heap of glass or manure.[312] He had strength enough to crawl into a drain where he was found in the early afternoon.[312] One of his eyes came out of its socket when he was arrested. Coffinhal, the only one who succeeded escaping, was arrested seven days later, totally exhausted.[344][345]


For the remainder of the night, Robespierre was laid in an antechamber of the Committee of General Security.[346] He lay on the table with his head on a deal-box bleeding profusely. At five in the morning, his brother and Couthon seem to have been taken to the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris to see a doctor. Barras denied that Robespierre himself went; the circumstances did not permit it.[347] At six a doctor was invited to check Robespierre; he removed some of his teeth. Robespierre was then placed in the cell in the Conciergerie and he was deposited on the bed in which Danton had slept one night.[312]

In the afternoon of 10 Thermidor (a décadi, a day of rest and festivity) the Revolutionary Tribunal condemned Robespierre and 21 "Robespierrists" (c.q. 13 members of the insurrectionary Commune) by the rules of the law of 22 Prairial, only checking their identity. Halfway through the proceedings Fouquier-Tinville, who did not want to try his friend the mayor Fleuriot-Lescot, took off his official robe.[348] In the late afternoon, the convicts, their average age was about 34 years old, were taken to the Place de la Révolution along with the last president of the Jacobins, Nicolas Francois Vivier, and the cobbler Antoine Simon, the jailor of the Dauphin. A vast mob screaming curses followed them right up to the scaffold. Robespierre kept his eyes closed. His face was swollen. He was the tenth to appear on the platform and went up the steps of the scaffold without any assistance.[312] 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.[349] According to the executioner's grandson, it was all done very carefully but Robespierre did roar like a tiger.[312] The applause and shouts of joy seem to have lasted 15 minutes.[350][351] Later they were buried in a common grave at the newly opened Errancis Cemetery (near what is now the Place Prosper-Goubaux).[lower-alpha 11]

Legacy and memory

The day after his death, Barère described him as the "tyrant" and "the Terror itself". For Carnot: "this monster was above all a hypocrite; it is because he knew how to seduce the people."[352] On that day half of the delegates of the Paris commune (conseil-général), around 70 people, were sent to the guillotine. The following day, on Thuriot's proposal, the Revolutionary Tribunal, ‘peopled by Robespierre’s creatures’, was suspended and replaced by a temporary commission.[353] On 30 July (12 Thermidor ) Courtois took in custody Robespierre's books by Corneille, Voltaire, Rousseau, Mably, Locke, Bacon, Pope, articles by Addison and Steele in The Spectator, an English and Italian dictionary, an English grammar and a bible, etc.[354] On 1 August the Law of 22 Prairial was abolished. Four weeks later Tallien announced that all that the country had just been through was the "Terror" and that the "monster" Robespierre, the "king" of the Revolution, was the orchestrator. In fact, a whole new political mythology was being created.[355] On 23 Thermidor Courtois was appointed by the Convention to collect evidence against Robespierre, Le Bas and Saint-Just.[356]

Robespierre's reputation has gone through several cycles of re-appraisal, starting with Louis Blanc, Alphonse de Lamartine and Jean Jaurès.[357] For Jules Michelet, he was the "priest Robespierre" and for Alphonse Aulard Maximilien was a "bigot monomaniac" and "mystic assassin".[358] François Crouzet collected many interesting detail from French historians dealing with Robespierre.[359] 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.[360] 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.[361][18] In 1989, Francois Furet argued that this reappraisal of Robespierre has been technically inaccurate:

There are two ways of totally misunderstanding Robespierre as a 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 a 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.[362]

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 20 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.

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 sanitized, majestic, and, above all, good."[363]

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.[18]

Soboul 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."[364] For Peter McPhee, Robespierre's petit-bourgeois class interests were fatal to his mission.[365] Other scholars who defend Robespierre against unjustified accusations are Marisa Linton, Timothy Tackett and Hervé Leuwers. Other members of the Committee, together with members of the Committee of General Security, were as much responsible for the running of the Terror as Robespierre."[366] For Fouché seeing Robespierre as a dictator was doing him too much honour; he had no plan, nor design.[367]

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."[368]

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 by 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.[369][370]

William Doyle writes, "It is not violent fulminations that characterize 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."[371] 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.[371]

In the Soviet era, he was used as an example of a Revolutionary figure.[372][373] 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".[270] 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.[372]

In Arras itself, Robespierre's memory no longer arouses the discord it did in 1933 when a bust of Robespierre presented to the town had to be locked in a basement. Today there is a Lycée Robespierre (from 1969) and a small museum in his honour.[374]


  1. Baptized 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 9 Thermidor. Charlotte became unmarriageable due to her name; she remained single until her death, aged 74.
  2. Baptized Henriette Eulalie Françoise de Robespierre, she became a nun and entered in the couvent des Manarres on 4 June 1773. She died age 18.
  3. According to himself he was elected as president of the Academy early 1789.[30]
  4. The Third Estate had as many deputies as the other two orders together (in the ratio 4:4:8) on instigation of Jacques Necker.
  5. The first use of the motto "Liberté, égalité, et fraternité" was in Robespierre's speech "On the organisation of the National Guard" on 5 December 1790, article XVI,[55] and disseminated widely throughout France by Camille Desmoulin in his journal "Les révolutions de France et de Brabant" among the associated Societies.
  6. They shared the general view that the "new" France would not survive repeated physical intimidation from the Paris sections, unrestrained polemics from the clubs and the press and most important of all, the democratization of discipline in the army and navy.[68]
  7. In September 1792 his younger sister and brother joined him and lived in the front house, but Charlotte insisted moving to 5 Rue St Florentin because of his increased prestige and her tensions with Madame Duplay.[48]
  8. The selling of all sorts of positions, military or otherwise, was rampant in the courts of the Ancien Régime and so the officer corps’ mass exodus from France naturally coincided with that of the aristocrats. Not all aristocrats were officers, but all officers were aristocrats.[105]
  9. On 9 Thermidor Vadier used a letter—supposedly found under the mattress of Théot—as an opportunity to attack Robespierre and his beliefs.[303] This letter announced to him that his mission had been prophesied in Ezekiel, that the re-establishment of religion, freed of priests, was owning to him.[304] By stating that Robespierre was the "herald of the Last Days, prophet of the New Dawn"[303] (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.[305]
  10. The story told by Méda contains a chronology given in decimal time, but mixed it with standard time. In 1802 Méda was allowed to distribute his book, but only among friends and relatives.[333]
  11. (in French) A plaque indicating the former site of this cemetery is located at 97 rue de Monceau, Paris. Between 1844 and 1859 (probably in 1848), the remains of all those buried there were moved to the Catacombs of Paris.


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Further reading

According to David P. Jordan: "Any comprehensive bibliography would be virtually impossible. In 1936 Gérard Walter drew up a list of over 10,000 works on Robespierre, and much has been done since."

  • 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 555187
  • Richard Cobb, Les armées révolutionnaires. Instrument de la Terreur dans les départements. Avril 1793-Floréal An II, Paris-La Haye, Mouton and C°, 1961–1963, 2 volumes in-8°, VIII–1017, présentation en ligne, présentation en ligne.
  • 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 JSTOR 554837
  • Eagan, James Michael (1978). Maximilien Robespierre: Nationalist Dictator. New York: Octagon Books. ISBN 978-0-374-92440-9. 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 JSTOR 10.1086/650505 argues he was an early feminist, but by 1793 he joined the other Jacobins who excluded women from political and intellectual life.
  • Hodges, Donald Clark (2003) Deep Republicanism: Prelude to Professionalism. Lexington Books.
  • 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, '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 University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-05119-2. 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 JSTOR 1857136
  • Soboul, Albert. "Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793–4", Past and Present, No. 5. (May 1954), pp. 54–70. JSTOR 649823
  • Tishkoff, Doris (2011). Empire of Beauty. New Haven: Press.
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