peoplepill id: maximilien-de-robespierre
1 views today
1 views this week
Maximilien Robespierre

Maximilien Robespierre

French revolutionary lawyer and politician
Maximilien Robespierre
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro French revolutionary lawyer and politician
A.K.A. Maximilien Marie Isidore de Robespierre, Maximilien de Robespierre, Ma...
Was Politician Lawyer Journalist Revolutionary
From France
Type Activism Journalism Law Military Politics
Gender male
Birth 6 May 1758, Arras, Pas-de-Calais, Hauts-de-France, France
Death 28 July 1794, Paris, Seine, Île-de-France, France (aged 36 years)
Politics Jacobin
Father: François de Robespierre
Maximilien Robespierre
The details (from wikipedia)


Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (French: [mak.si.mi.ljɛ̃ fʁɑ̃.swa ma.ʁi i.zi.dɔʁ də ʁɔ.bɛs.pjɛʁ]; 6 May 1758 – 28 July 1794) was a French lawyer and politician, as well as one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution. As a member of the Constituent Assembly, the National Convention and the Jacobin Club, 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 petition. He campaigned for universal suffrage, abolition of celibacy, religious tolerance and the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. Robespierre played an important role after the Storming of the Tuileries, which led to the establishment of the First French Republic on 22 September 1792.

As one of the leading members of the insurrectionary Paris Commune Robespierre was elected as deputy to the National Convention early September 1792, but he is best known for his role during the "reign of Terror" and his disputed role in political trials and executions. When France threatened to fall apart in the summer of 1793, the republic was severely centralized to become "one and indivisible". In July he was named as a member of the powerful Committee of Public Safety and exerted his influence to suppress the Girondins on the right, the Hébertists on the extreme left and the Dantonists in the middle. (As part of his attempts to use extreme measures to control political activity in France, Robespierre moved against his former friends, the more moderate Danton, and Desmoulins who were executed in April 1794.) The Terror ended four months later with Robespierre's arrest on 9 Thermidor and his execution, events that initiated a period in French history known as the Thermidorian Reaction.

Robespierre's personal responsibility for the excesses of the Terror remains the subject of intense debate among historians of the French Revolution. Each time, the controversy is around two different points of view: for some, Robespierre is the incarnation of Terror during Year II of the French Revolutionary calendar; for others, he was its principal ideologist and recalls the first democratic experience, marked by the French Constitution of 1793.

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 notary in Carvin near Arras mid 17th century. 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, on 2 January 1758. Maximilien was the eldest of four children and was conceived out of wedlock. His siblings were Charlotte (1760–1834), Henriette (1761–1780), and Augustin (1763–1794).

Early 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. Until his death, in Munich on 6 November 1777, he reappeared in Arras only occasionally. His two daughters Charlotte and Henriette were brought up by their paternal aunts, and his two sons were taken in by their maternal grandparents.

Already literate at age eight, Maximilien started attending the collège of Arras (middle school). In October 1769, on the recommendation of the bishop, 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 Swiss philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau and was attracted to many ideas, written in his "Contrat Social". Robespierre became intrigued by the idea of a "virtuous self", a man who stands alone accompanied only by his conscience. Robespierre claims to have met with Rousseau in 1778. His study of the classics prompted him to aspire to Roman virtues, but he sought to emulate Rousseau in particular. Robespierre's conception of revolutionary virtue and his programme for constructing political sovereignty out of direct democracy came from Rousseau, Montesquieu and Mably. Robespierre believed that the people of France were fundamentally good and were therefore capable of advancing the public well-being of the nation. Robespierre studied law for three years at the University of Paris. Upon his graduation in May 1781, he received a special prize of 600 livres for exemplary academic success and personal good conduct.

Early politics

The house where Robespierre lived between 1787–1789, now on Rue Maximilien de Robespierre

Three months after having completed his studies, Robespierre was admitted to the bar of Arras. The Bishop of Arras, Louis François Marc Hilaire de Conzié, appointed him criminal judge in the Diocese of Arras in March 1782. Robespierre soon resigned, owing to discomfort in ruling on capital cases arising from his early opposition to the death penalty. Instead, he quickly became a successful advocate, fighting against prejudice: the sidelining of women in academic life, inequality before the law, the indignity of natural children, and the lettres de cachet; Robespierre became the lawyer for the innocent and unfortunate. His most famous case was in 1783 about a lightning rod in St. Omer. His defence was printed and Robespierre sent Benjamin Franklin a copy.

On 15 November 1783 he was elected a member of the literary Academy of Arras. 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. He and Pierre Louis de Lacretelle, an advocate and journalist in Paris, divided the prize. Many of his subsequent essays were less successful. In 1787 he became acquainted with the young officer and engineer Lazare Carnot. In 1793 Carnot would become his colleague on the Committee of Public Safety and would describe him one year later as a "ridiculous dictator".

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

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

In the assembly of the bailliage, rivalry ran still higher, but Robespierre had begun to make his mark in politics with his Avis aux habitants de la campagne, 'Notice to the Residents of the Countryside)' of 1789. With this, he secured the support of the country electors. On 26 April 1789 Robespierre was elected as one of 16 deputies for Arras to the Estates-General. 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-hours-long speech about financial health, constitutional monarchy, and institutional and political reforms. The Estates-General was, from the very beginning, confronted by difficulties that seem, at least in retrospect, almost surmountable. 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 18 July 1789 he gave his first, but verbose speech. As one of the few he supported Maillard after the Women's March on Versailles. While the Constituent Assembly occupied itself with male census suffrage on 22 October Robespierre and few more deputies opposed the property requirements for voting and holding office. He turned his attention away from the assembly of provincial lawyers and wealthy bourgeois in favour of the lower classes of France, particularly Protestants, Jews, Blacks, and actors. Before the end of the year 1789 he was seen as one of the leaders of the small body of the extreme left. During this period Robespierre coined the famous motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" (Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity). Robespierre was one of "the thirty voices", as Mirabeau referred to them with contempt.

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. Madame de Staël described Robespierre as 'very exaggerated in his democratic principles'.

Jacobin Club

Terracotta bust of Robespierre by Deseine, 1791 (Musée de la Révolution française)
Courtyard of the house of Maurice Duplay, Robespierre's landlord. Robespierre's room was on the second floor, above the fountain.

From October 1789, Robespierre lived at 9, Rue de Saintonge in Le Marais. For several months Pierre Villiers was his secretary. Robespierre was involved with the new Society of the Friends of the Constitution, known eventually as the Jacobin Club. Originally, this organisation was made up only of deputies from Brittany. After the National Assembly had moved to Paris, the Friends began to admit various leaders of the Parisian bourgeoisie to its membership. As time went on, many of the more educated artisans and small shopkeepers joined the Jacobin club. Among these 1,200 men, Robespierre found a sympathetic audience. In March 1790 Robespierre was elected as their president, according to Aulard. As the wealthier bourgeois of Paris and right-wing deputies seceded from the Patriotic Society of 1789, the influence of the old leaders of the Jacobins diminished.

In April 1791 Robespierre opposed the plans for reorganizing the National Guard restricted to active citizens. Robespierre published a pamphlet in which he argued the case for universal suffrage. The pamphlet catapulted its author to instant fame, and every where Robespierre was hailed as the champion of the poor, the friend of the oppressed and the apostle of equality. On 16 and 18 May 1791, Robespierre proposed and carried the motion that no deputy who sat in the Constituent Assembly could sit in the succeeding Assembly. This self-denying ordinance, designed to demonstrate the disinterested patriotism of the framers of the new constitution, had the effect of accelerating political change as deputies with experience and knowledge of the difficulties faced by France were to be replaced by new and often more enthusiastic men. On 28 May he proposed all Frenchmen should be declared as active citizens and eligible. His steadfast adherence and defence of the views he expressed earned him the nickname l'Incorruptible (The Incorruptible).

On 10 June he was appointed by the Assembly as public prosecutor of Paris. Five days later Pétion became president of the "tribunal criminel", after his friend François Buzot refused. The Flight to Varennes on 20 June and the subsequent arrest of Louis XVI and his family resulted in Robespierre's declaration that he (himself) was "ni monarchiste ni républicain" ("neither monarchist nor republican"). This stance was not unusual at this time, since there were still few republicans among the politicians in France. Alarmed at the progress of the Revolution the moderate Jacobins, promoting a constitutional monarchy, founded the club of the Feuillants in July 1791. As a result, the left, including Robespierre and Danton, dominated the Jacobin Club and radicalized.

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

On 30 September, on the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the people of Paris named Pétion and Robespierre as the two incorruptible patriots in an attempt to honour their purity of principles, their modest ways of living, and their refusal of bribes. With the dissolution of the Assembly, Robespierre returned to Arras for a short visit. On 28 November he was back in the Jacobin club, where he met with a triumphant reception.

Opposition to war with Austria

Robespierre, Danton and Marat by Alfred Loudet
The Conciergerie at the right and Palais de Justice, Paris

On 18 December 1791 Robespierre gave a speech at the Jacobin club against the declaration of war. 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.

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

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

This opposition from expected allies irritated the Girondists, and the war became a major point of contention between the factions. Robespierre countered on 25 January 1792, "A revolutionary war must be waged to free subjects and slaves from unjust tyranny, not for the traditional reasons of defending dynasties and expanding frontiers..." Indeed, argued Robespierre, such a war could only favour the forces of counter-revolution, since it would play into the hands of those who opposed the sovereignty of the people. The risks of Caesarism were clear, for in wartime, the powers of the generals would grow at the expense of ordinary soldiers, and the power of the king and court at the expense of the Assembly. These dangers should not be overlooked, he reminded his listeners, "...in troubled periods of history, generals often became the arbiters of the fate of their countries." Robespierre spoke for many deputies when queried the wisdom of spreading France's commitments too widely, or of risking the uncertainties of foreign war when there were enemies to be rooted out at home. On 11 February 1792 he gave a speech on how to save the State and Liberty; not only the National Guard, but also the people had to be armed, if necessary with pikes. The Assembly decided his speech would not be printed.

Robespierre was accused by Brissot and Guadet of trying to become the idol of the people. He resigned the post of public prosecutor, which he had officially held, but not practised since 15 February. On 20 April 1792 France declared war on the Habsburg Empire; Robespierre's rivals had won. In May, Robespierre started a journal, Le Défenseur de la Constitution (The Defender of the Constitution). The journal served multiple purposes: to counter the influence of the royal court in public policy; to defend Robespierre from the accusations of Girondist leaders; and to give voice to the interests of the broader masses in Paris (Sans-culottes) and defend their rights.

The insurrectionary Commune of Paris

Demonstration of 20 June 1792 at the Tuileries

When the Legislative Assembly declared war against Austria on 20 April 1792, Robespierre responded by working to reduce the political influence of the officer class and the king. While arguing for the welfare of common soldiers, Robespierre urged new promotions to mitigate the domination of the officer class by the aristocratic and royalist École Militaire and the conservative National Guard. Along with other Jacobins, he urged the creation of militias. Their goal was to defend "liberty", maintain order in the sections and educate the members in democratic principles; an idea he borrowed from Jean-Jaques Rousseau. This sentiment reflected the perspective of more radical Jacobins including those of the Marseille Club, who in May and June 1792 wrote to Pétion and the people of Paris, "Here and at Toulon we have debated the possibility of forming a column of 100,000 men to sweep away our enemies... Paris may have need of help. Call on us!"

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, (another one) led by the Marquis de Lafayette, who in June advocated the suppression of the Jacobin Club. Robespierre publicly attacked him in scathing terms: "General, while from the midst of your camp you declared war upon me, which you had thus far spared for the enemies of our state, while you denounced me as an enemy of liberty to the army, national guard and Nation in letters published by your purchased papers, I had thought myself only disputing with a general... but not yet the dictator of France, arbitrator of the state."

In early June 1792, Robespierre proposed an end to the monarchy and the subordination of the Assembly to the General will. Following the king's veto of the Legislative Assembly's efforts to raise a militia and suppress non-juring priests, the monarchy faced an abortive insurrection on 20 June. Sergent-Marceau and Panis, the administrators of police, urged the people to lay down their weapons, telling them it was illegal to present a petition in arms, but the march of Sans-culottes to the Tuileries was not banned. Billaud-Varenne in the Jacobin club, outlined the program following the uprising; the expulsion of the king, the cleansing of the National Guards, the election of the National 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.

At the end of July Fédérés entered Paris without the king's approval. They were allowed to join the reformed National Guard, and focused on the "enemy within". (The "passive" citizens, who had organized themselves in militias still strived for acceptance and the supply of weapons.) Almost all the sections in Paris wanted to dethrone the king and set an ultimatum. At midnight on 9 August the municipal government of the city was dissolved and within a few days each section elected three commissionaires to take seat in the insurrectionary commune. On 10 August 1792, the Fédérés, the sans-culottes and the militias from the sections led a successful assault upon the Tuileries with the intention of overthrowing the monarchy; according to Robespierre a triumph for the "passive" citizens, his constituency. On 11 August the new leaders called for the summoning of a convention chosen by universal male suffrage, to form a new government and reorganize France. Robespierre published the last issue of his magazine "Le Défenseur de la Constitution", both an account and political testament. On 16 August, Robespierre presented a petition to the Legislative Assembly from the Paris Commune to demand the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal that had to deal with the "traitors" and "enemies of the people". The next day Robespierre refused to preside over it; the same man ought not to be a denouncer, an accuser, and a judge. According to Danton and Robespierre royalists who spoke of surrendering or a deal with the Prussian and Austrian army had to be arrested and detained. Likewise the one's who refused to hand over their arms to the men of the militias, since 19 August incorporated in the National Guard.

Under the Commune's direct authority the Paris sections organized themselves as surveillance committees, conducting searches and making arrests. Before September, between 520–1,000 people were taken into custody on the flimsiest warrants. Marat and Robespierre both disliked Condorcet who proposed that the "enemies of the people" belonged to the Nation; that prisoners ought not to be judged by members of the Commune. At the end of August there was a sharp conflict between the Legislative and the Commune and its sections, according to Jonathan Israel. On 30 August Girondins like Roland and Marguerite-Élie Guadet tried to suppress the influence of the Commune; the Assembly, tired of the pressures, declared the Commune illegal and suggested the organization of communal elections. Robespierre was no longer willing to cooperate with the Girondins such as Brissot, who promoted the Duke of Brunswick, and Roland, who proposed that the members of the government should leave Paris. In a letter, Robespierre ordered the sections that they should maintain their posts, and die if necessary. On Sunday morning 2 September the sections of the Commune, gathering in the town hall decided to maintain their seats and have Rolland and Brissot arrested. Madame de Staël, who tried to escape Paris, was forced by the crowd to go to the town hall. She noted that Robespierre was seated that day, assisted by Collot d'Herbois en Billaud-Varenne.

The National Convention

On 2 September 1792 French National Convention election began. In vain Robespierre proposed excluding deputies from the Assembly reelection to the Convention, but royalists were banned. In Paris Girondin and Feuillant candidates were boycotted and became terrified when the September Massacres began in the afternoon. Robespierre visited the Temple prison to check on the security of the royal family. On 5 September, Robespierre was elected deputy for Paris to the National Convention. On 21 September the Jacobins and Cordeliers took the high benches at the back of the former Théâtre des Tuileries, 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. On 26 September, the Girondist Marc-David Lasource accused Robespierre of wanting to form a dictatorship. Rumours spread that Robespierre, Marat and Danton were plotting to establish a triumvirate. (Until September 1792 the French Legislative Assembly saw an unprecedented turnover of six ministers of the interior, seven ministers of foreign affairs, and eight ministers of war.) On 29 October, Louvet de Couvrai attacked Robespierre in a speech, possibly assisted by Madame Roland and her husband. The Girondist accused Robespierre of star allures, and having done nothing to stop the massacre; instead he had used it to have more Montagnards elected. 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.

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?

Execution of Louis XVI

The interrogation of Louis XVI at the National Convention

The Convention's unanimous declaration of a French Republic on 21 September 1792 left open the fate of the king. A commission was therefore established to examine evidence against him while the Convention's Legislation Committee considered legal aspects of any future trial. Most Montagnards favoured judgment and execution, while the Girondins were divided concerning Louis's fate, with some arguing for royal inviolability, others for clemency, and some advocating lesser punishment or death. 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. At his trial he claimed not to recognise documents clearly signed by himself.

Robespierre had been taken ill in November and had done little other than support Saint-Just in his argument against the king's inviolability. Robespierre wrote in his Defenseur de la Constitution that a Constitution which Louis had violated himself, and which declared his inviolability, could not now be used in his defence. 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. Robespierre argued that the king, now dethroned, could function only as a threat to liberty and national peace and that the members of the Assembly were not fair judges, but rather statesmen with responsibility for public safety:

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

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

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

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

Destruction of the Girondists

Journées des 31 Mai, 1er et 2 Juin 1793, an engraving of the riots organized by the Paris Commune
François Hanriot chef de la section des Sans-Culottes by Gabriel, drawing in the Carnavalet Museum

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. On 11 March 1793, a Revolutionary Tribunal was established on proposal of Danton, Robert Lindet and René Levasseur. Dumouriez attempted to persuade his troops to march on Paris and overthrow the revolutionary government. At the end of March Dumouriez fled into the Austrian camp. On 6 April the Committee of Public Safety was installed on proposal of Maximin Isnard, who was supported by Georges Danton. The committee was non-hierarchical, gathered in secret and Danton and Robespierre dominated it. Anyone with "strong presumptions of complicity with the enemies of Liberty" could be arrested. The next day Phillipe Égalité was one of their first victims. Robespierre accused the Girondins Dumouriez and Phillipe Égalité with his two sons of a conspiracy to restore the monarchy. Who was the "true protector" of the Sans-culottes against the rich, Brissot or Robespierre?

The economic situation in France was rapidly deteriorating and the country was almost bankrupt. The Montagnards lost influence in several city councils like in Marseille and Lyon. In Paris all citizens had entered the National Guard; more than 110,000 men in January 1793, about 2,400 men in every section. The Sans-culottes took an especially active interest in the army. The Girondin party got concerned.

As rioting persisted a commission of inquiry of twelve members was set up, to investigate the anarchy in the communes and the activities of the Sansculottes. Brissot proposed closing the Jacobin club and dismissal of the Paris Commune. On 25 May, the Commune demanded that arrested Hébert be released; sections drew the list of 22 prominent Girondins to be removed from the Convention. Maximin Isnard, the leader of the Girondins, declared that Paris would be destroyed if it came out against the provincial deputies. The next day Robespierre preached at the Jacobin Club a moral "insurrection against the corrupt deputies". On 29 May, the delegates representing thirty-three of the Paris sections formed an insurrectionary committee. The Jacobins declared themselves in the state of insurrection on 31 May.

On 2 June, a large force of armed citizens and National Guards led by Hanriot surrounded the Convention. After an attempt of deputies to exit collided with their guns, the deputies resigned themselves to declare the arrest of Girondins. During the insurrection Robespierre had scrawled a note in his memorandum-book:

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

Nearly 100 Girondin deputies were imprisoned, 22 were executed in October; 73 members would return to the Convention early 1795.

Reign of Terror

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

After the fall of the monarchy, the revolutionary French government faced serious internal and external challenges, including the War of the First Coalition and insurrectionary War in the Vendée; 26 of the 83 departments were no longer under the control of Paris (most notably those in the Vendée and the Midi where civil war raged). French revolutionary politicians believed a stable government was needed to quell the chaos. On 6 April, Maximin Isnard and Georges Danton spearheaded the creation of a nine-member Committee of Public Safety to replace the larger Committee of General Defence. The growth of paper money accelerated to almost 9 percent per month. The War forced changes in the monetary-fiscal experiment. Debt payments were suspended indefinitely, and the assignat was converted from its initial purpose to become the main means of financing the war. Robespierre 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. On 27 July 1793, Robespierre was elected to the Committee, although he had not sought the position. 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. Robespierre was primarily responsible for drafting a new Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789). 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. Though the Constitution was overwhelmingly popular and its drafting and ratification buoyed popular support for the Montagnards, the convention set it aside indefinitely on 10 October 1793 until a future peace.

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. (On 21 August Robespierre was elected as their president.) On 5 September 1793 a Sans-culotte army was formed in Paris of 5,000 men. Terror was formally instituted as a legal policy by the Convention in a proclamation that read, "It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counter-revolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty."

The Committee of General Security which was tasked with rooting out crimes and prevailing counterrevolution began to manage the country's internal police. On September 8, the banks and exchange offices were closed to prevent the exchange of forged assignats and the export of capital. On 17 September, the Law of Suspects was passed, which authorized the imprisonment of vaguely defined "suspects". The Revolutionary Tribunal was divided into four sections, of which two were always active at the same time. On September 29, Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne introduced the General maximum or fixed prices, causing inflation to decrease. The two "ultras" introduced severe penalties for hoarding foodstuffs. On 10 October they paved the way for the law recognizing the Committee of Public Safety as the supreme "Revolutionary Government". Saint-Just stated: 'You have to punish not only the traitors, but even those who are indifferent; you have to punish whoever is passive in the republic, and who does nothing for it.'

One day, before 15 October, when Hébert, who became more extreme after the death of Marat, 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 and called Hébert an "imbécile". According to Vilate Robespierre had two or three bodyguards. On 24 October the French Republican Calendar was introduced. At the end of October, several members of the General Security Committee were sent into the provinces to suppress active resistance against the Jacobins. Barras and Fréron went to Marseille and Toulon, his brother and his sister Augustin and Charlotte to the Provence. Fouché and Collot-d'Herbois halted the revolt of Lyon against the National Convention, Jean-Baptiste Carrier ordered the drownings at Nantes. Tallien succeeded feeding the guillotine in Bordeaux and Joseph Lebon in Somme and Pas-de-Calais. Saint-Just and Le Bas visited the Rhine Army to keep an eye on the generals. Early November Brissot, Philippe Égalité and Madame Roland were guillotined; the last seems to have shouted: "O liberty, what crimes are committed in your name." Early on the morning of 14 November 1793 the Montagnard and former friar François Chabot burst into Robespierre's bedroom dragging him from bed with accusations of counter-revolution and 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 an overseas trading concern. 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. Between March 1793 and March 1794, according to McPhee approximately 170,000 Vendéens and 30,000 republican troops died, and in some areas 20% of the buildings were destroyed, especially churches. Controversy has centred on whether this may be called a 'genocide' or 'mass killing'. Saint-Just stated: "Everything that happens is terrible, but necessary."

On 4 December, by the Law of Revolutionary Government, the independence of the départements came to an end, when extensive powers of the Committee of Public Safety were codified. This was seen as a deeply drastic decision against the independence of municipalities and federalism. On 6 December Robespierre warned in the Convention against the dangers of dechristianization; two weeks before he pleaded for religious tolerance. On 5 Nivôse of the year II (25 December 1793) Robespierre, for a long time a staunch believer in the teachings of Rousseau, presented a 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 that threatened the government.

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

According to Donald Clark Hodges this was the first important statement in modern times of a philosophy of dictatorship. 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. By now the revolutionaries feared one another.

The "enemy within"

In December 1793 Camille Desmoulins launched a journal, Le Vieux Cordelier, arguing that the Revolution should return to its original ideals. In January Robespierre came into conflict with his oldest friend, who had taken up for the cause of 200,000 defenceless civilians and had been detained in prisons as a suspect. According to Desmoulins, a Committee of Grace had to be established. (Illicit trade and dearth prevailed during the unfortunate winter of 1793–1794. The prisons were full of shopkeepers.) In Report on the Principles of Political Morality of 5 February 1794, Robespierre praised the revolutionary government and argued that terror and virtue were necessary:

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

Robespierre gave the Terror a philosophical (and perhaps moral) justification. Hanriot ordered the arrest of all those who disregarded the regulations of the Municipality. Transport of goods passing the city gates was intensified by the National Guard. On 26 February it was decided that the goods of people who had been declared as "enemies of the republic" would be confiscated. Elections would not take place in the next five months if seats were released from sections of the Commune. The vacated posts were filled with Jacobins; in many cases appointed by the triumvirate. The influence of the Paris Commune was at its lowest point. There was no money for the provision of food to the poor. At the beginning of March, the treasury was almost empty; besides France was flooded with false English assignats. The Sans-culotte army was dissolved.

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

—Maximilien Robespierre, 5 February 1794

From 13 February to 13 March 1794, Robespierre had withdrawn from active business on the Committee due to illness. Subsequently, he joined in attacks on the Hébertists and the Dantonists. Hébert and 19 of his followers were arrested on 13 March on charges of complicity with foreign powers and guillotined on 24 March. Their death was a sort of carnival, a pleasant spectacle according to Michelet's witnesses. Then he broke with Danton, who had angered many other members of the Committee of Public Safety with his more moderate views on the Terror, but whom Robespierre had, until this point, persisted in defending. Danton, Desmoulins and Hérault de Séchelles, Pierre Philippeaux were arrested on 30 March on charges of conspiracy, theft and corruption; a financial scandal involving the French East India Company provided a "convenient pretext" for Danton's downfall. However, 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 the foreign powers he believed were involved. Saint-Just and Robespierre were of the opinion that Danton should never win his trial in order not to endanger the revolution; it could also mean their own demise. A few days later 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. That was enough evidence for the jury to send her to the scaffold. (Robespierre kept his mouth shut. Robespierre was not only their eldest friend but also witnessed at their marriage.)

On 1 April 1794 Lazare Carnot proposed the executive council be suppressed and be replaced by twelve Committees reporting to the Committee of Public Safety. The proposal was unanimously adopted by the National Convention, and set up by Martial Herman (The one who despises the current government is an agent of the English faction, according to Hanriot on 10 April.) On 16 April 1794 the Committee of Public Safety received the power to search and to bring accused persons before the Revolutionary Tribunal, in the same way as had the Committee of General Security. On 23 April the General Police Bureau was set up, tasked with gathering information and mostly report directly to Robespierre. Within a week Robespierre took over when Saint-Just left Paris for the army in the north.

Georges Couthon, his ally on the Committee, 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. 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 was moved to the Faubourg Saint-Antoine 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. The city also had to solve serious problems on the cemeteries because of the smell. Mid July two new masse graves were dug at Picpus Cemetery in the impermeable ground.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

Cult of the Supreme Being

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

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

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

Throughout the "Festival of the Supreme Being", Robespierre was beaming with joy; not even the negativity of his colleagues could disrupt his delight. He was able to speak of the things about which he was truly passionate, including Virtue and Nature, typical deist beliefs, and his disagreements with atheism. Everything was arranged to the exact specifications that had been drawn up previously set before the ceremony. The choirs were composed by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul and François-Joseph Gossec, with lyrics from the obscure poet Théodore Désorgues. All of the people were placed in the appropriate area designated to them, and everyone was dressed accordingly. (Robespierre was extremely dressed up, with an elegant wig, feathers on his hat, and fruit and flowers in his hands.) Not only was everything going smoothly, but the festival was also Robespierre's first appearance in the public eye as a leader for the people, and also as president of the Convention, to which he had been elected only four days earlier.

While for some it was exciting to see him at his finest, other deputies agreed that Robespierre had played too prominent a role. Multiple sources state that Robespierre came down the mountain in a way that resembled Moses as the leader of the people, and one of his colleagues, Jacques-Alexis Thuriot, was heard saying, "Look at the bugger; it's not enough for him to be master, he has to be God". For him: "Robespierre proclaimed to believe in the Supreme Being, and who only believed in the power of crime." Robespierre was also criticized by Courtois and Fouché, the president of the Jacobins. Five days later Robespierre demanded the heads of nine people, who opposed his republic of virtue. Fouché seems to have hidden himself for a while.


Arrest of Cécile Renaud in the courtyard of Duplay's house on May 22, 1794, etching by Matthias Gottfried Eichler after a drawing by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux
The Committee of General Security was located in Hôtel de Brionne on the right; it gathered on the first floor. (The Tuileries Palace, which housed the Convention, is on the left)
On 9 Thermidor Tallien threatened in the Convention to use his dagger if the National Convention had not the courage to order the arrest of Robespierre.
The Fall of Robespierre in the Convention on 27 July 1794

In the Atlantic campaign of May 1794 France suffered from a series of operations conducted by the British Royal Navy against the French Navy, with the aim of preventing the passage of a strategically important French grain convoy travelling from the United States to France. In the northeast, however, a series of military victories unfolded. On 23 May 1794, Cécile Renault was arrested after having approached Robespierre's residence with two small knives; she was executed one week later. (Robespierre used this assassination attempt against him as a pretext for scapegoating the British.) 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. This law permitted the execution of citizens thought to be counter-revolutionaries, even under simple suspicion and without extensive trials. Moderate judges were dismissed; Robespierre only allowed his creatures. Some of the deputies were uneasy, and asked for the debate to be adjourned so the clauses could be examined. Robespierre refused and demanded immediate discussion. At his insistence the entire decree was voted on, clause by clause and passed. The next day, 11 June, when Robespierre was absent, Bourdon de l'Oise and Merlin de Douai put forward an amendment proclaiming the inalienable right of the Convention to impeach its own members. The amendment was passed. Furious, Robespierre and Couthon returned to the Convention the next day, 12 June, and demanded that the amendment of the previous day be revoked. Robespierre made a number of veiled threats and during the debate clashed particularly with Jean-Lambert Tallien. The Convention acceded to Robespierre's wishes and restored the original text of the decree Couthon had drafted.

Fouché, Collot d'Herbois, Carrier and Tallien feared for their lives, due to the excesses carried out by them in various regions of France in October 1793 to stamp out opposition to the revolutionary government. Robespierre had them recalled to Paris to account for their actions at the end of March. (The victory at Fleurus on 26 June ended the threat of Austrian troops on French soil.) At the end of the month Saint-Just arrived in Paris and discovered that Robespierre's political position had degraded significantly. The revolution threatened to lose its momentum. On 11 July Fouché was expelled from the Jacobin Club, after being elected as their president. To evade arrest Tallien, Barras and Fouché avoided staying at home. (The judge Joachim Vilate was arrested for the crime of having invited Johann David Hermann, the piano-forte teacher of the royal family, to the sessions of the tribunal.) On 22 and 23 July the two committees met in a plenary session. Saint-Just declared in negotiations with Barère that he was prepared to make concessions on the subordinate position of the Committee of General Security. Couthon too 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 divide the two Committees, or take away the authority of the Committee of General Security. Both Committees were responsible for suppressing counterrevolution but ended targeting each other.

From 13 June and for roughly six weeks Robespierre hardly showed up in the Convention but signed decrees by the Committee of Public Safety and visited the Jacobin club. To escape from the pressure and the heat it seems he occasionally went to Maisons-Alfort, 12 km outside of Paris, and stayed on a farm, owned by François-Pierre Deschamps, his courrier and the aide-the-camp of Hanriot. Robespierre walked through the fields or along the Marne with his Newfoundland dog. He was losing his grip, both on himself and on power. (N.B. His former colleagues Petion de Villeneuve and François Buzot committed suicide in a forest; their bodies were found on 18 June.) He had four friends in the revolutionary government, Couthon and Saint-Just in the "Comité de Salut Public" and the painter Jacques-Louis David and Joseph Le Bas in the "Comité de Sureté Générale".

On Saturday 26 July Robespierre suddenly reappeared at the Convention and delivered a two-hour-long speech. Dressed in the same skyblue 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. Not only England but also members of the Committee of General Security were involved in an intrigue to bring him down. "Punish the traitors, renovate the Committee of General Security, purge its members, its bureaucracy and subordinate it to the Committee of Public Safety". 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.

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. Robespierre was surprised that his speech would be sent to the very deputies he had intended to sue. A bitter debate ensued until Barère forced an end to it. In the evening, Robespierre delivered the same speech at the Jacobin Club, where it was very well received. Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne were driven out because of their opposition to the printing and distribution of the text. They set off to Tuileries, where they found Saint-Just working on his speech. Saint-Just refused to show them his notes, or replied he sent the beginning to a friend. Collot d'Herbois, who chaired the Convention, decided not to let him speak and to make sure he could not be heard on the next day. Gathering in secret nine members of the two committees decided that it was all or nothing; Robespierre had to be voted off the next day. Each one of them prepared his part in the attack, according to Laurent Lecointre, the instigator of the coup. His fellow members were: Barère, Fréron, Barras, Tallien, Thuriot, Courtois, Rovère, Garnier de l’Aube and Guffroy; Fouché was no longer involved. They decided that Hanriot, his aide-de-camps Lavalette and Servain Beaudoin Boulanger, Dumas, the family Duplay and the printer Charles-Léopold Nicolas had to be arrested first, so Robespierre would be without support.

At eleven Saint-Just arrived at the Convention and began: "I am not a faction; I will fight them all. The circumstances are delicate and difficult." According to Billaud Robespierre tried to dominate them. As the accusations began to pile up, Saint-Just remained silent. Robespierre had attempted to secure the tribune to speak, but his voice was shouted down. Robespierre soon found himself at a loss for words after Vadier gave a mocking impression of him pulling up the story about Théot. When Garnier witnessed Robespierre's inability to respond, he shouted, "The blood of Danton chokes him!" 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?"


Saint-Just and Robespierre at the Hôtel de Ville of Paris on the night of 9 to 10 Thermidor Year II (July 27 to 28, 1794). Painting by Jean-Joseph Weerts
Couthon, who hesitated because of his handicap, was invited by the others after midnight around one. Proclamation Commune de Paris 10 Thermidor An II.
The troops of Convention nationale attack the Commune, on 10 thermidor an II. Print by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault and Jean Duplessis-Bertaux (1804).
Valery Jacobi's painting showing the wounded Robespierre
Closing of the Jacobin Club by Louis Legendre, in the early morning of 28 July 1794, or 10 Thermidor, year II of the Republic

Someone called for Robespierre's arrest and the whole Convention agreed including the two other members of the triumvirate, Couthon and Saint-Just. Augustin Robespierre, and Philippe-François-Joseph Le Bas demanded to share their fate. Robespierre shouted that the revolution was lost, when he descended the tribune. The five deputies were taken to Hôtel de Brionne and questioned. Around three in the afternoon Hanriot was told he was under arrest; the messenger was sent back to the Convention. On horseback Hanriot warned the sections and that they would try to murder Robespierre and mobilized three thousand militants in front of the townhall. What had happened was not very clear to the officers of the militias; either the Convention was closed down or the Paris Commune. Nobody explained anything, and their commander Hanriot did not show up since he had been arrested in front of the Committee of General Security. Between six and seven o'clock the five deputies were taken between to different prisons; Robespierre to Palais Luxembourg , Augustin to "La Force", Couthon to "La Bourbe", Saint-Just to the "Écossais", LeBas to the Conciergerie. The Convention resumed the session without any Montagnard. Not long afterward the vice-president of the Tribunal Coffinhal went to Hôtel de Brionne with a few thousand men from the sections and several cannons, but only Hanriot was carried off by force.

How did the five deputies escape from being imprisoned? According to Courtois, and Fouquier-Tinville the police administration was responsible. Louis Blanc mentioned a secret order by the insurrectionary Commune which sent municipals to the jailors. 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. Escorted by two municipals Augustin was the first to arrive. At eight Robespierre arrived at the police administration on Île de la Cité, but seems to have hesitated for legal reasons before he was taken to the town hall by an "administrateur de police". Saint-Just was delivered by a "municipal", after which Le Bas and Dumas were brought in by two "administrateurs". At ten in the evening the Convention declared the deputies (plus the supporting members of the "Conseil-Général", like Payan, Dumas, Hanriot, Coffinhal and Lescot-Fleuriot) to be outlaws, meaning that upon identification, those arrested could be executed within twenty-four hours; the sections were told not to summon without an authorisation by the two committees. The Convention appointed Barras, and ordered troops (1,500 men) to be called out which happened around midnight. When the Paris' Guardsmen heard this news, order began to break down, they became divided. All the gunners decided to defend the Convention instead of the Commune and turned their pieces in the direction of the townhall.

After a warm day spent waiting in vain for action by the Commune, the 3,000 Guardsmen began to disperse. According to Colin Jones it did not rain; apathy prevailed with most of them drifting back to their homes. At around two in the morning, Barras accompanied by 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. The Grenadiers burst into the Hotel de Ville without a fight; 51 insurgents were gathering on the first floor. Robespierre and some friends had withdrawn in the "secrétariat".

While some have argued that Robespierre tried to commit suicide with a pistol, it is more likely that he was shot by Méda, who wounded him in the jaw, and also succeeded hitting Couthon's helper in his leg. In order to avoid capture, Augustin Robespierre took off his shoes and jumped from a ledge. He landed on the steps and on some bayonets resulting in a pelvic fracture and several serious head contusions, in an alarming state of "weakness and anxiety". Couthon was found lying at the bottom of a staircase in a corner, having fallen from the back of his helper. Le Bas committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The unperturbed Saint-Just gave himself up without a word. Fifteen conspirators were locked up in a room inside the town hall. According to Méda Hanriot escaped by a concealed staircase. 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. Hanriot landed in a small court yard on a heap of manure. He had strength enough to crawl into a drain where he was found in the early afternoon. One of his eyes came out its socket when he was arrested. Coffinhal succeeded escaping, but gave himself in nine days later, totally exhausted.


Lying on a table, wounded, in a room of the Convention, Robespierre is the object of the curiosity and quips of Thermidorians, painting by Lucien-Étienne Mélingue (Salon de 1877)(Musée de la Révolution française)
The execution of Couthon; the body of Adrien Nicolas Gobeau, ex-substitute of the public prosecutor Fouquier and member of the Commune, the first who suffered, is shown lying on the ground; Robespierre {#10} is shown holding a handkerchief to his mouth. Hanriot {#9} is covering his eye.

For the remainder of the night, Robespierre was laid in an antechamber of the Committee of General Security. He lay on the table with his head on a deal-box bleeding profusely from a bullet wound in his cheek. At five in the morning he and Couthon were taken to Hôtel-Dieu de Paris to see a doctor in an attempt to stanch the bleeding. Robespierre was placed in the cell in the Conciergerie and he was deposited on the bed in which Danton had slept one night.

In the afternoon of 10 Thermidor (a décadi, a day of rest and festivity) the Revolutionary Tribunal condemned 21 or 22 "Robespierrists" (c.q. 13 members of the insurrectionary Commune) by the rules of the law of 22 Prairial; their average age was about 34 years old. Half way Fouquier-Tinville took of his robe, who did not want to trial his friend the mayor Fleuriot-Lescot. In the late afternoon, the convicts were taken to the Place de la Révolution as well as Hanriot, Dumas, the last president of the Jacobins Nicolas Francois Vivier, Lavalette, and the cobbler Antoine Simon, the jailor of the dauphin. 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 whatever. 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. According to the executioner's son the pain must have been horrible, but it all happened very carefully; Robespierre did roar like a tiger. The applause and shouts of joy lasted 15 minutes. Later they were buried in a common grave at the newly opened Errancis Cemetery (near what is now the Place Prosper-Goubaux).

Legacy and memory

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

The day after his death, Barère described him as the "tyrant". On 12 Thermidor (30 July) 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. On 1 August the Law of 22 Prairial was abolished. For Carnot: "this monster was above all a hypocrite; it is because he knew how to seduce the people. Four weeks later, for reasons policies and politicians, Tallien, announced that all that the country has just been through was the "Terror" and that the "monster" Robespierre, the "king" of the Revolution, was the orchestrator. On 23 Thermidor Courtois was appointed by the Convention to collect evidence against Robespierre, Le Bas and Saint-Just. Coleridge started to write the first act of The Fall of Robespierre.

Robespierre's reputation has gone through several cycles of re-appraisal, starting with Louis Blanc, Alphonse de Lamartine and Jean Jaurès. (For Jules Michelet he was the "priest Robespierre" and for Alphonse Aulard Maximilien was a "bigot monomane" and "mystic assassin".) 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. 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. In 1989, Francois Furet argued that this reappraisal of Robespierre has been technically inaccurate:

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

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. On 5 February 1794 he argued, "Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie [the 'fatherland']. 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."

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

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.

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." For Peter McPhee, Robespierre's petit-bourgeois class interests were fatal to his mission. Other scholars who defend Robespierre against unjustified accusations are Marisa Linton, Timothy Tackett, and Hervé Leuwers.

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."

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

William Doyle writes, "It is not violent fulminations that characterise Robespierre's speeches on the Terror. It is the language of unmasking, unveiling, revealing, discovering, exposing the enemy within, the enemy hidden behind patriotic posturings, the language of suspicion. 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.

In the Soviet era, he was used as an example of a Revolutionary figure. 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". 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.

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.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
comments so far.
From our partners
Reference sources
arrow-left arrow-right instagram whatsapp myspace quora soundcloud spotify tumblr vk website youtube pandora tunein iheart itunes