History has cast a shadow upon the memory of Maximilien Robespierre--a
humanitarian who sought to create the utopia described by his hero Rousseau
in 18th Century France. He championed liberty, equality, and fraternity
above all else, including the lives of tens of thousands of French citizens.
At the end of his reign of terror in 1793-94, the people of France decided
that the ends that Robespierre sought, no matter how noble, did not justify
the means by which he endeavored to meet them.
The French political scene was becoming increasingly fragmented as Robespierre lived out his childhood in Arras, France. The absolutist reign of Louis XIV had ended in 1715 leaving a void of power that no succeeding French king proved himself able to fill. The French treasury was exhausted by war with England and aid to the American Revolution. Without the power to raise taxes, Louis XVI was forced into the position of calling the Estates General for the first time since 1614 in order to fund the government. This governing body was the representation of the citizens of France. For the first time in decades, the French people found themselves in political power.
The French people also felt the need for political change. The Enlightenment
of the 1700's had developed and spread radical philosophies concerning
politics. Rousseau, Montesquieu, and others proposed the idea that the
monarchy may not be the epitome of government. The newly formed American
state had successfully put these ideas into practice. Much of France was
prepared to do the same.
Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore de Robespierre was born into a self-destructing family within a France of increasing political tension. Six years after his birth on May 6, 1758, Robespierre's mother died from complications during the birth of her fifth child. His father was devastated. Though a successful lawyer in his town of Arras, France, Robespierre's father became so grieved at the death of his wife that his law practice deteriorated, and in 1766, he left his four remaining children in the care of relatives. He left Arras. Robespierre was raised by two aunts who cultivated his intellectual potential. In 1769, he won for himself a scholarship to one of France's premiere universities: Louis-le-Grand. There he excelled as a student, especially in the area of classical languages. But his true intellectual love was political philosophly. He incessantly read the essays of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other philsophes. Throughout his life, much of Robespierre's political thinking can be attributed to Rousseau's ideology.
From early in his life, Robespierre abhorred violence. While employed as a judge in rural France, Robespierre was torn when his duty called him to condemn a convicted murderer to death. He resigned his position as judge in direct response to this event. Even in the early stages of the revolution Robespierre was pleased that the revolt in which he participated had been able to be successful without the evil of bloodshed. One can only conjecture what caused him to change from the peace loving rational of the early phases of the revolution into the bloodthirsty tyrant who history remembers. Many see his transformation stemming from his further inquiry into Rousseau's politics. The usually nonviolent Rousseau does advocate execution of any who claim to believe in the "Supreme Being" but act as an unbeliever. This stance of Rousseau explains Robespierre's increased vigilence of executing his enemies after his May 7, 1794 proposal that the government recognize the existence of a Supreme Being and that the state adopt an official religion called the Cult of the Supreme Being. But what first compelled this usually calm nonviolent man to begin the practice of taking lives in the name of the state?
Rousseau's philosophy can once again be pointed to as motivation for Robespierre's transformation. Rousseau believed that the will of the people could lie in an enlightened minority that acts on whatever the people desire. Robespierre believed himself to lead that enlightened minority in his Committee of Public Safety. Therefore, if the people want the king to die, the enlightened minority must make it so. A bit of Montesquieu can also become evident in Robespierre's transformation. Montesquieu felt that virtue could be found in the citizens of a republic. The best rules are those that are willingly adopted by the citizens. Robespierre and his supporters envisioned a utopian France without class distinction or poverty in which virtue would reign. Service to the state would be the aim of every citizen. Robespierre wished it to be so because he felt that the people of France wished it to be so. He felt that his duty was to do that which the people willed.
Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793. Robespierre had, for months, represented the radical faction of the National Assembly, the governing body of the time, that advocated convicting the king of treason and punishing him with death. He rationalized the killing of the king as the manifestation of the will of the people. In September of the previous year, the people had quite emphatically shown that they backed the efforts of the radical left. Prompted by rumors of insurrection by aristocrats from within prisons, the French poor stormed jails and killed countless political prisoners. Robespierre and many others interpreted the September Massacres as a public outcry that more radical action had to be taken.
Robespierre emerged from the execution of Louis XVI as the unquestioned leader of the radical faction of the revolution. On July 27, 1793 Robespierre was appointed to the Committee of Public Safety. He was one of twelve members. In the Committee lay the power of judge, jury, and executioner for suspected enemies of the revolution. As Robespierre began to monopolize the power of the Committee, the number of executions rose dramatically (21 in September of 1793, 688 in June of 1794). The Terror had begun.
Robespierre's first targets were his enemies: aristocrats, clergy, royalists,
conservatives. But as the Terror intensified, its victims increasingly
came to be ordinary citizens essentially accused of capitalist behavior.
Robespierre began to be criticized by his colleagues in the Committee of
Public Safety. While defending his policies against attack on July 27,
1794, Robespierre met the wrath of the Ninth of the Thermidor--the mobilization
of his enemies. They had assembled and were able to courageously interrupt
Robespierre's speech with cries of "Down with the Tyrant!" His arrest was
decreed, and his execution soon followed. On July 28, 1794, Robespierre
and nineteen of his supporters went to the gilloutine.
Before Lenin...before Marx...the French Revolution gave scholars an
historical example of intense class struggle, radical democracy, and its
subsequent collapse. At the heart of the radical phase of the French Revolution
was Maximilien Robespierre, and at the heart of Maximilien Robespierre
was the intense desire that the people be equal. Through the use of the
podium, the press, and the gilloutine, Robespierre made his voice heard.
Before his influence, the ideas of equality, liberty, and fraternity for
Europe were thought of as radical, left-wing notions, but Robespierre's
leadership established them in their most extreme forms. So much did Robespierre
value these abstract concepts that he was willing to sacrifice untold amounts
to secure them for himself and his fellow Frenchmen. Because of the great
lengths he went to propogate his beliefs, which he held in common with
the vast majority of the Frenchmen of his day, he is called a tyrant, a
monster, a ruthless dictator. He differed with his contemporaries in one
important respect: his tactics were far more radical than any they would
have justified. In violation of Macchiavelian political theory, Robespierre's
less-radical accomplices felt his ends agreeable, but his means atrocious
violations of virtue. Neither valiant ends nor pure motives can excuse
the methods employed by Maximilien Robespierre.
Baczko, Bronislaw. Ending the Terror: The French Revolution after Robespierre. Trans by Michel Petheram.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Hardman, John. Robespierre. London: Longman, 1999.
Jordan, David P. The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. New York: The Free Press, 1985.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans and ed by Robert M Adams. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1977.
Rude George. Robespierre: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat. New York: The Viking Press, 1975.
Thomson, J. M. Robespierre and the French Revolution. London:
The English Universities Press Ltd., 1965
Kreis, Steven. "Maximilien Robespiere, 1758-1794". From Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. Last Revised 07 Aug, 2000. <http://www.pagesz.net/~stevek/intellect/robespierre.html>. Concise biography illustrating Robespierre's rise and fall.
Halsall, Paul. "Maximilien Robespierre: The Cult of the Supreme Being". Accompanies a Robespierre speech. From Modern History Sourcebook. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/robespierre-supreme.html>. Speech itself presents Robespierre's view on religion and the power of state.
McLetchie, Scott. "Maximilien Robespierre, Master of the Terror". <http://beta.loyno.edu/history/journal/1983-4/mcletchie.htm>. Detailed explaination of the politics of the Revolution.
Searle, Rowena. Maximilien Robespierre: "What Were The Motives Behind the Man?". <http://members.aol.com/agentmess/frenchrev/robespierre.html>. A good examination of Robespierre's obsessive admiration of Rousseau.
University of Maryland Libraries, Rare Books Department. "What is the Third Estate?: Robespierre and the Reign of Terror". <http://www.lib.umd.edu/UMCP/RARE/797hmpg18.html>. Examines Robespierre's descent from national hero to tyrant.
Site created by: J Scholl