He is perhaps best known for his role in the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. He was named as a member of the powerful Committee of Public Safety launched by his political ally Georges Danton and exerted his influence to suppress the left-wing Hébertists. As part of his attempts to use extreme measures to control political activity in France, Robespierre later moved against the more moderate Danton, who was accused of corruption and executed in April 1794. The Terror ended a few months later with Robespierre's arrest and execution in July, 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.
Robespierre's reputation has gone through several cycles of re-appraisal. During the Soviet era, Robespierre was used as an example of a Revolutionary figure. His reputation peaked in the 1920s with the influence of French historian Albert Mathiez. In more recent times, his reputation has suffered as historians have associated him with an attempt at a radical purge of politics through the killing of enemies.
Maximilien Robespierre was born in Arras in the old French province of Artois. His family has been traced back to the 12th century in Picardy; some of his ancestors in the male line worked as notaries in Carvin near Arras from the beginning of the 17th century. It has been suggested that he was of Irish descent, his surname possibly a corruption of "Robert Speirs".
His paternal grandfather, also named Maximilien de Robespierre, established himself in Arras as a lawyer. His father, François Maximilien Barthélémy de Robespierre, was a lawyer at the Conseil d'Artois. He married Jacqueline Marguerite Carrault, the daughter of a brewer, on 2 January 1758. Maximilien was the oldest of four children and was conceived out of wedlock. His siblings were Charlotte (born 21 January 1760), Henriette (born 28 December 1761), and Augustin (born 21 January 1763). On 7 July 1764, Madame de Robespierre gave birth to a stillborn son; she died nine days later. Devastated by his wife's death, François de Robespierre subsequently left Arras and travelled throughout Europe. Until his death in Munich on 6 November 1777, he lived in Arras only occasionally; his two daughters Charlotte and Henriette were brought up by their paternal aunts, and his two sons were taken in by their maternal grandparents. The children would visit each other on Sundays.
Already literate at age 8, Maximilien started attending the collège (middle school) of Arras. In October 1769, on the recommendation of the bishop, he received a scholarship at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, University of Paris in Paris. Robespierre studied there until age 23, receiving his training as a lawyer. Upon his graduation, he received a special prize of 600 livres for twelve years of exemplary academic success and personal good conduct.
In school, he learned to admire the idealised Roman Republic and the rhetoric of Cicero, Cato and other figures from classic history. His fellow pupils included Camille Desmoulins and Stanislas Fréron. He also studied the works of the Swiss philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau and was attracted to many of his ideas. Robespierre became intrigued by the idea of a "virtuous self", a man who stands alone accompanied only by his conscience. 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, and in pursuit of these ideals he eventually became known during the Jacobin Republic as "the Incorruptible". Robespierre believed that the people of France were fundamentally good and were therefore capable of advancing the public well-being of the nation.
Having completed his law 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 for poor clients. During court hearings he was often known to promote the ideals of the Enlightenment and to argue for the rights of man. Later in his career, he read widely, and also became interested in political and social theory in general. He became regarded as one of the best writers and most popular young men of Arras.
In December 1783 he was elected a member of the academy of Arras, the meetings of which he attended regularly. In 1784 the academy of Metz awarded him a medal for his essay on the question of whether the relatives of a condemned criminal should share his disgrace. He and Pierre Louis de Lacretelle, an advocate and journalist in Paris, divided the prize. Many of his subsequent essays were less successful, but Robespierre was compensated for these failures by his popularity in the literary and musical society at Arras, known as the "Rosatia". In its meetings he became acquainted with Lazare Carnot, who later became his colleague on the Committee of Public Safety.
In 1788 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. It is possible he brought up this issue so that he could have a chance to take part in the proceedings and thus change the policies of the monarchy. King Louis XVI later announced new elections for all provinces, thus allowing Robespierre to run for the position of deputy for the Third Estate.
Although the leading members of the established provincial estates of Artois were elected to the Estates-General, Robespierre succeeded in getting elected with them - even though he was their chief opponent. In the assembly of the bailliage, rivalry ran still higher, but Robespierre had begun to make his mark in politics with the 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. Although he was only thirty, comparatively poor, and lacking patronage, he was elected as the fifth deputy of the Third Estate of Artois to the Estates-General. When Robespierre arrived at Versailles few of the other deputies knew him, but he became part of the representative National Assembly (13 June 1789) declared by the Third Estate, soon to transform itself (9 July 1789) into the National Constituent Assembly.
While the Constituent Assembly occupied itself with drawing up a constitution, Robespierre turned his attention away from the assembly of provincial lawyers and wealthy bourgeois in favour of the lower classes of France, particularly Jews, Blacks, and actors. As a frequent speaker in the Constituent Assembly, he voiced many ideas in support of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Constitutional Provisions, often with great success. During this period Robespierre coined the famous motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" (Freedom, Equality, fraternity). He was eventually recognised as second only to Pétion de Villeneuve as a leader of the small body of the extreme left, "the thirty voices", as Mirabeau referred to them with contempt.
After his arrival in Paris from Versailles in 1789, along with the National Assembly, Robespierre soon became 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 moved to Paris, the Club began to admit various leaders of the Parisian bourgeoisie to its membership. As time went on, many of the more educated artisans and small shopkeepers became members of the club.
Among such men, Robespierre found a sympathetic audience. As the wealthier bourgeois of Paris and right-wing deputies seceded from the club of 1789, the influence of the old leaders of the Jacobins, such as Antoine Barnave, Adrien Duport, and Alexandre de Lameth, diminished. Alarmed at the progress of the Revolution, they founded the club of the Feuillants in 1791. As a result, the left, including Robespierre and his friends, dominated the Jacobin Club.
On 15 May 1791, Robespierre proposed and carried the motion that no deputy who sat in the Constituent Assembly could sit in the succeeding Assembly. This self-denying ordinance, designed to demonstrate the disinterested patriotism of the framers of the new constitution, had the effect of accelerating political change as deputies with experience and knowledge of the difficulties faced by France were to be replaced by new and often more enthusiastic men.
The flight to Varennes on 20 June and the subsequent arrest of Louis XVI and his family resulted in Robespierre's declaration at the Jacobin Club that he 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.
In 1790, Robespierre moved to rue de Saintonge, No. 9 near the Tuileries Palace. 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 in the Rue Saint-Honoré. He was motivated by fears for his safety and a desire to live closer to the National Assembly and the meeting places of the Jacobins. Robespierre lived there until his death except for two short intervals. According to his doctor Joseph Souberbielle, the revolutionary juror Joachim Vilate, and Duplay's daughter Elisabeth, Robespierre became engaged to Duplay's eldest daughter Éléonore, 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, where he met with a triumphant reception. In November, he returned to Paris to take the position of public prosecutor of Paris.
In February 1792, Jacques Pierre Brissot, one of the leaders of the Girondist party in the Legislative assembly, 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 was also convinced that the internal stability of the country was more important. This opposition from expected allies irritated the Girondists, and the war became a major point of contention between the factions. Robespierre countered, "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 warned against the threat of dictatorship stemming from war, in the following terms (1791):
If they are Caesars or Cromwells, they seize power for themselves. If they are spineless courtiers, uninterested in doing good yet dangerous when they seek to do harm, they go back to lay their power at their master's feet, and help him to resume arbitrary power on condition they become his chief servants.
Robespierre also argued that force was not an effective or proper way of spreading the ideals of the Revolution (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.
In April 1792, Robespierre resigned the post of public prosecutor of Versailles, which he had officially held, but not practised since February, and started a journal, Le Défenseur de la Constitution (The Defender of the Constitution). The journal served multiple purposes: to counter the influence of the royal court in public policy; to defend Robespierre from the accusations of Girondist leaders; and to give voice to the economic interests of the broader masses in Paris and beyond.
When the Legislative Assembly declared war against Austria on 20 April 1792, Robespierre responded by working to reduce the political influence of the officer class and the king. While arguing for the welfare of common soldiers, Robespierre urged new promotions to mitigate the domination of the officer class by the aristocratic École Militaire. Along with other Jacobins, he also urged the creation of popular militias (staffed by revolutionaries known as the fédérés) to defend France. 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 Danton feared the possibility of a military coup d'état, above all one led by the Marquis de Lafayette, who in June advocated the suppression of the Jacobin Club. Robespierre publicly attacked him in scathing terms: "General, while from the midst of your camp you declared war upon me, which you had thus far spared for the enemies of our state, while you denounced me as an enemy of liberty to the army, National Guard and Nation in letters published by your purchased papers, I had thought myself only disputing with a general... but not yet the dictator of France, arbitrator of the state."
In early June 1792, Robespierre proposed an end to the monarchy and the subordination of the Assembly to the popular 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, exactly three years after the Tennis Court Oath. Fédérés entered Paris without the king's approval, and on 10 August 1792, the insurrectionary National Guard of Paris, fédérés and Sans-culottes led a successful assault upon the Tuileries Palace with the intention of overthrowing the monarchy.
On 16 August, Robespierre presented a petition to the Legislative Assembly from the Paris Commune (the municipal government of the city) to demand the establishment of a Revolutionary Tribunal and the summoning of a convention chosen by universal suffrage. Dismissed from his command of the French Northern Army, Lafayette fled France along with other sympathetic officers.
In September, Robespierre was elected first deputy for Paris to the National Convention. Robespierre and his allies took the benches high at the back of the hall, giving them the label "the Montagnards", or "the Mountaineers"; below them were the "Manège" of the Girondists and then "the Plain" of the independents. The Girondists at the Convention accused Robespierre of failing to stop the September Massacres. 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. On 29 October, Louvet de Couvrai attacked Robespierre in a speech, possibly written by Madame Roland. 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?
Robespierre's speech marked a profound political break between the Montagnards and the Girondins, strengthening the former in the context of an increasingly revolutionary situation punctuated by the fall of Louis XVI, the invasion of France and the September Massacres in Paris. It also heralded increased involvement and intervention by the sans-culottes in revolutionary politics.
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 judgement 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.
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 judgement 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 judgement. Unlike some Girondins, Robespierre specifically opposed judgement 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 until 18 January. During this time, Robespierre worked fervently to ensure the king's execution. Of the 721 deputies who voted, at least 361 had to have voted for death. Louis was executed two days later, on 21 January, in the Place de la Révolution.
After the execution of the king, the influence of Robespierre, Danton and the pragmatic politicians increased at the expense of the Girondists. The Girondists refused to have anything more to do with Danton and because of this the government became more divided.
The economic situation in France was rapidly deteriorating and the Paris populace became restless. Rioting persisted and a commission of inquiry of twelve members was set up, on which only Girondins sat. Popular militants were arrested. On 25 May, the Paris Commune demanded that arrested patriots be released and sections drew the list of 22 prominent Girondists to be removed from the Convention. Maximin Isnard declared that Paris would be destroyed if it came out against the provincial deputies. Robespierre preached a moral "insurrection against the corrupt deputies" at the Jacobin Club. The Jacobins declared themselves in state of insurrection. On 29 May, the delegates representing thirty-three of the Paris sections formed an insurrectionary committee.
On 2 June, 80,000 armed sans-culottes surrounded the Convention. After an attempt of deputies to exit collided with their guns, the deputies resigned themselves to declare the arrest of 29 leading 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.
After the fall of the monarchy, the revolutionary French government faced serious internal and external challenges, including the War of the First Coalition and insurrectionary War in the Vendée. French revolutionary politicians believed a stable government was needed to quell the chaos. On 11 March 1793, a Revolutionary Tribunal was established by Jacobins in the Convention. On 6 April, Maximin Isnard and Georges Danton spearheaded the creation of a nine-member Committee of Public Safety to replace the larger Committee of General Defence. On 27 July 1793, Robespierre was elected to the Committee, although he had not sought the position.
The Committee of General Security began to manage the country's internal police. Terror was formally instituted as a legal policy by the Convention on 5 September 1793 in a proclamation that read, "It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counter-revolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty."
In the winter of 1793–94, a majority of the Committee decided that the Hébertist party would have to perish or its opposition within the Committee would overshadow the other factions due to its influence in the Commune of Paris. Robespierre also had personal reasons for disliking the Hébertists for their "atheism" and "bloodthirstiness", which he associated with the old aristocracy.
In early 1794, he finally 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. Subsequently, he joined in attacks on the Dantonists and the Hébertists. Robespierre charged his opponents with complicity with foreign powers.
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.
From 13 February to 13 March 1794, Robespierre withdrew from active business on the Committee due to illness. On 15 March, he reappeared in the Convention. Hébert and nineteen of his followers were arrested on 19 March and guillotined on 24 March. Danton, Desmoulins and their friends were arrested on 30 March and guillotined on 5 April.
Georges Couthon, his ally on the Committee, introduced and carried on 10 June the drastic Law of 22 Prairial, named for the day it was passed in the French Republican Calendar. Under this law, the Tribunal became a simple court of condemnation without need of witnesses. Historians frequently debate the reasons behind Robespierre's support of the Law of 22 Prairial. Some consider it an attempt to extend his influence into a dictatorship, while others argue it was adopted to expedite the passage of the reformist, land-redistributive Ventôse Decrees.
Though nominally all members of the committee were equal, Robespierre was later presented during the Thermidorian Reaction by the surviving protagonists of the Terror, especially Bertrand Barère, as prominent. They may have exaggerated his role to downplay their own contribution and used him as a scapegoat after his death.
Historian 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.
Robespierre saw no room for mercy in his Terror, stating that "slowness of judgements is equal to impunity" and "uncertainty of punishment encourages all the guilty". Throughout his Report on the Principles of Political Morality, Robespierre assailed any stalling of action in defence of the Republic. The report was a tract that urged the furtherance of the Revolution at all costs. In his thinking, there was not enough that could be done fast enough in defence against enemies at home and abroad. A staunch believer in the teachings of Rousseau, Robespierre believed that it was his duty as a public servant to push the Revolution forward, and that the only rational way to do that was to defend it on all fronts. The Report did not merely call for blood but also expounded many of the original ideas of the 1789 Revolution, such as political equality, suffrage and abolition of privileges.
Throughout the course of the Revolution, Robespierre both ambivalently and outspokenly opposed slavery on French soil or in French territories and played an important role in abolishing it.
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.
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.
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 instill a spiritual resurgence in the French nation based on Deist beliefs. Accordingly, on 7 May 1794, Robespierre supported a decree passed by the Convention that established an official religion, known historically as the Cult of the Supreme Being. The notion of the Supreme Being was based on ideas that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had outlined in The Social Contract. A nationwide "Festival of the Supreme Being" was held on 8 June (which was also the Christian holiday of Pentecost). The festivities in Paris were held in the Champ de Mars, which was renamed the Champ de la Réunion ("Field of Reunion") for that day. This was most likely in honour of the Champ de Mars Massacre, where the Republicans first rallied against the power of the Crown. 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, of course, his disagreements with atheism. Everything was arranged to the exact specifications that had been previously set before the ceremony. The ominous and symbolic guillotine had been moved to the original standing place of the Bastille, all of the people were placed in the appropriate area designated to them, and everyone was dressed accordingly. 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 an excitement to see him at his finest, many other leaders involved in the festival agreed that Robespierre had taken things too far. Multiple sources state that Robespierre came down the mountain in a way that resembled Moses as the leader of the people, and one of his colleagues, Jacques-Alexis Thuriot, was heard saying, "Look at the bugger; it’s not enough for him to be master, he has to be God".
Marc-Guillaume Alexis Vadier used a report to the Convention on Catherine Théot as an opportunity to attack Robespierre and his beliefs. Théot was a seventy-eight-year-old, self-declared "prophetess" who had, at one point, been imprisoned in the Bastille. By stating that Robespierre was the "herald of the Last Days, prophet of the New Dawn"(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. Many of her followers were also supporters or friends of Robespierre, which made it seem as if he was attempting to create a new religion, with him as its god. Although Robespierre had nothing to do with Catherine Théot or her followers, many assumed that he was on a path to dictatorship, and it sent a current of fear throughout the Convention, contributing to his downfall the following July.
On 23 May 1794, one day after the attempted assassination of Collot d'Herbois, another member of the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre's life was also in danger: a young woman by the name of Cécile Renault was arrested after having approached his place of residence with two small knives; she was executed one month later. At this point, the Law of 22 Prairial was introduced to the public without consultation from the Committee of General Security, which, in turn, doubled the number of executions permitted by the Committee of Public Safety.
This law permitted the execution of citizens thought to be counter-revolutionaries, even under simple suspicion and without extensive trials. When the Committee of Public Safety allowed the law to be passed, the Convention began to question it out of fear that Robespierre and his allies might come after certain members of the Convention, and even the Committee itself, due to the excesses carried out by its representatives, such as Joseph Fouché, Jean-Baptiste Carrier and Jean-Lambert Tallien, who had been sent to various regions of France to stamp out opposition to the revolutionary government in Paris. Robespierre worked tirelessly (and almost alone) to curb their excesses against the opposition of others who condemned him for his moderation in defending revolutionary ideals. He had them recalled to Paris to account for their actions and expelled from the Jacobin Club. Nonetheless, they were able to evade arrest. Fouché spent the evenings moving house to house, warning members of the Convention that Robespierre was after them while organising his own coup d'état.
Robespierre appeared at the Convention on 26 July (8 Thermidor, according to the French Republican Calendar), and delivered a two-hour-long speech. He defended himself against charges of dictatorship and tyranny, and then proceeded to warn of a conspiracy against the Republic. Specifically, he railed against the bloody excesses he had observed during the Terror. He also implied that members of the Convention were a part of this conspiracy, though when pressed, he refused to provide any names. The speech alarmed members, particularly given Fouché's warnings. The members who felt that Robespierre was alluding to them tried to prevent the speech from being printed, and a bitter debate ensued until Barère forced an end to it. Later that evening, Robespierre delivered the same speech again at the Jacobin Club, where it was very well received.
The following day, Saint-Just began to give a speech in support of Robespierre in the Convention. Those who had seen him working on his speech the night before expected accusations to arise from it. Saint-Just had time to give only a small part of his speech before Tallien interrupted him. While the accusations began to pile up, Saint-Just remained uncharacteristically silent. Robespierre then attempted to secure the tribune to speak, but his voice was shouted down. Robespierre soon found himself at a loss for words after one deputy called for his arrest and Vadier gave a mocking impression of him. When one deputy witnessed Robespierre's inability to respond, the man 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?"
The Convention ordered the arrest of Robespierre that same day, 27 July, along with his brother Augustin, Couthon, Saint-Just, François Hanriot, and Philippe-François-Joseph Le Bas. Troops from the Paris Commune, under General Coffinhal, arrived to free the prisoners and then marched against the Convention itself. The Convention responded by ordering troops of its own under Paul Barras to be called out. When the troops of the Paris Commune heard this news, order began to break down, and Hanriot ordered his remaining troops to withdraw to the Hôtel de Ville (headquarters of the Paris Commune), where Robespierre and his supporters also gathered. The Convention declared them to be outlaws, meaning that upon verification, the fugitives could be executed within twenty-four hours without a trial. As the night went on, the forces of the Paris Commune deserted the Hôtel de Ville and, at around two in the morning, those of the Convention under the command of Barras arrived there. In order to avoid capture, Augustin Robespierre threw himself out a window, only to break both of his legs; Couthon was found lying at the bottom of a staircase, having fallen from his wheelchair; Le Bas committed suicide by shooting himself in the head; and Hanriot jumped from another window and landed in an open sewer, but did not die as a result of the fall. Robespierre tried to kill himself with a pistol, but only managed to shatter his lower jaw, although some eyewitnesses claimed that he was shot by Charles-André Merda.
For the remainder of the night, Robespierre was laid on a table in the room of the Committee of Public Safety, where he awaited execution. He lay on the table bleeding profusely until a doctor was brought in to attempt to staunch the bleeding from his jaw. Robespierre's last recorded words may have been "Merci, monsieur" ("Thank you, sir") to a man who had given him a handkerchief for the blood on his face and clothing. Later, Robespierre was placed in the cell where Marie Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI, had been held.
The same day, 28 July 1794, in the afternoon, Robespierre was guillotined without trial in the Place de la Révolution. His brother Augustin, Couthon, Saint-Just, Hanriot, and twelve other followers, among them the cobbler Antoine Simon, the jailor of Louis-Charles, Dauphin of France, were also executed. When clearing Robespierre's neck, the executioner 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. Together with those executed with him, he was buried in a common grave at the newly opened Errancis Cemetery (near what is now the Place Prosper-Goubaux). 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.
At the time of his death, Robespierre had no debts, and his property was sold at auction in the Palais Royal early in 1796, fetching 38,601 livres (over £100).
Robespierre's reputation has gone through several cycles of re-appraisal. During the Soviet era, he was used as an example of a Revolutionary figure. It peaked in the 1920s after the influential French historian 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, historian 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 twenty towns, there are no memorials or monuments to him in France. By making himself the embodiment of virtue and of total commitment, he took control of the Revolution in its most radical and bloody phase: the Jacobin republic. His goal in the Terror was to use the guillotine to create what he called a "republic of virtue", wherein terror and virtue would be imposed at the same time. He argued, "Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie [the "fatherland"]."
Terror was thus a tool to accomplish his overarching goals for democracy. Historian 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 historian 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, according to Ishay, argues that he and Saint-Just "were too preoccupied in defeating the interest of the bourgeoisie to give their total support to the sans-culottes, and yet too attentive to the needs of the sans-culottes to get support from the middle class." For Marxists like Soboul, Robespierre's petit-bourgeois class interests were fatal to his mission.
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."
Robespierre has continued to fascinate biographers. Recent books in English include Colin Haydon and William Doyle's Robespierre (1999), John Hardman's Robespierre (1999), Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, Otto J. Scott's Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue (2011), and most recently Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life by Peter McPhee (2012).
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.Andress, David (2006). The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 9780374273415. Bean, Jennifer M.; Horak, Laura; Kapse, Anupama (2014). Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253015075. Bell, David (2007). The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Brink, Jan ten (1899). Robespierre and the Red Terror. Hutchinson & Company. Carr, John Laurence (1972). Robespierre; the force of circumstance. St. Martin's Press. Courtois, Edme-Bonaventure; Robespierre, Maximilien (1828). Papiers inédits trouvés chez Robespierre, Saint-Just, Payan, etc: supprimés ou omis par Courtois; précédés du rapport de ce député à la Convention nationale; avec un grand nombre de fac-similé et les signatures des principaux personnages de la révolution (in French). Baudouin frères. Doyle, William (2002). The Oxford History of the French Revolution. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780191608292. Dunn, Susan (2000). Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light. Macmillan. ISBN 9780571199891. Furet, François (1989a). Interpreting the French Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0521280494. Retrieved 26 January 2014. Furet, François; Ozouf, Mona (1989b). A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674177284. Gauthier, Florence (1992). Triomphe et mort du droit naturel en Révolution : 1789, 1795, 1802 (1. éd. ed.). Paris: Presses Univ. de France. ISBN 978-2130446934. Hampson, Norman (1974). The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre. Duckworth. ISBN 9780715607411. Haydon, Colin; Doyle, William (2006). Robespierre. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521026055. A collection of essays covering not only Robespierre's thoughts and deeds but also the way he has been portrayed by historians and fictional writers alike.Reviewed at the Wayback Machine (archived 9 June 2007) by Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books, Vol. 22, No. 7, p. 30 March 2000.Hunt, Lynn Avery (2004). Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520241565. Ishay, Micheline (1995). Internationalism and Its Betrayal. U. of Minnesota Press. Israel, Jonathan (2014). Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400849994. Jenkins, Cecil (2011). A Brief History of France. Running Press. ISBN 978-0762441204. Jordan, David P. (2013). Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781476725710. Kennedy, Michael L. (1988). The Jacobin clubs in the French Revolution: the Middle Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691055262. Kerr, Gordon (2013). Leaders Who Changed the World: The extraordinary inspiration of those who create history. Canary Press eBooks. ISBN 9781907795305. Laurent, Gustave (1939). Oeuvres Completes de Robespierre (in French). Nancy: Imprimerie de G. Thomas. OCLC 459859442. Martin, Jean-Clément (2006). Violence et Révolution : essai sur la naissance d'un mythe national (in French). Paris: Éd. du Seuil. ISBN 978-2020438421. Mathiez, Albert (1927). The French Revolution. Williams and Norgate. Mathiez, Albert (1977). "ROBESPIERRE: L'HISTOIRE ET LA LEGENDE". Annales historiques de la Révolution française. 49 (227): 5–31. Mathiez, Albert (1988). Etudes sur Robespierre : 1758–1794. Paris: Messidor. ISBN 978-2209060498. Matrat, Jean (1975). Robespierre : or, The tyranny of the majority. New York: Scribner. ISBN 978-0684140551. McPhee, Peter (2012). Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300118112. Pfeiffer, Laura Belle (1913). The Uprising of June 20, 1792. University of Nebraska. Robespierre, Charlotte (2006). Mémoires (Nouv. éd. ed.). Paris: Nouveau monde éd. ISBN 978-2847361766. Robespierre, Maximilien de (1958). Bouloiseau, Marc; Lefebvre, Georges; Soboul, Albert; Dautry, Jean, eds. Oeuvres de Maximilien Robespierre (in French). PUF. Rudé, George F. E. (1975). Robespierre: portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat. Collins. political portrait of Robespierre, examining his changing image among historians and the different aspects of Robespierre as an 'ideologue', as a political democrat, as a social democrat, as a practitioner of revolution, as a politician and as a popular leader/leader of revolution, it also touches on his legacy for the future revolutionary leaders Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong.Schama, Simon (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-55948-7. Scott, Otto J. (1974). Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 9781412849166. Scurr, Ruth (2006). Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 9780805082616. Reviewed at the Wayback Machine (archived 9 June 2007) by Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books, Vol. 28 No. 8, 20 April 2006.Reviewed by Sudhir Hazareesingh in the Times Literary Supplement, 7 June 2006.Serna, Pierre (2005). La République des girouettes : (1789–1815 ... et au-delà) : une anomalie politique: la France de l'extrême centre. Seyssel: Champ Vallon. ISBN 9782876734135. Soboul, Albert (2005). Dictionnaire historique de la Révolution française (1. éd. ed.). Paris: Quadrige / PUF. ISBN 978-2130536055. Soboul, Albert (1974). The French Revolution, 1787–1799: from the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. Vintage Books. ISBN 9780394712208. Thompson, J.M. (1988). Robespierre. New York, NY: B. Blackwell. ISBN 978-0631155041. Popkin, Jeremy D. (2010). You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521517225. Vovelle, Michel (2011). La Révolution française (1789–1799) (in French). Armand Colin. ISBN 9782200271183.