Maximilien Robespierre, Master of the Terror

by Scott McLetchie

The paper was selected by the History Department as the Outstanding Paper for the 1983-1984 Academic Year

Maximilien Robespierre, known to his contemporaries as "the Incorruptible," is one of the most controversial and perhaps misunderstood figures of the French Revolution. His name has become symbolic for that period of the Revolution known as the Reign of Terror; certainly he was a man who wielded great influence and power over the course of events of the French Republic between 1792 and 1794; yet different people in different eras had differing opinions of the man and his power. Some, especially his English and Austrian contemporaries, saw him as the Devil incarnate, while others have hailed him as the champion of liberty and the protector of democracy. Some see in him the origins of twentieth century dictatorship along the lines of Stalin or Hitler. Most agree that, for a time, he was the most important man in the Revolution, and it is clear that the reaction of 9th Thermidor (July 27, 1794), which brought about his downfall and execution, also caused the end of the Terror and brought about a new course for the Revolution itself.

Before his appointment on July 27, 1793, to the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre had held no other official position, despite his activity in the National Assembly (1789 to 1791) and his prominence in the Parisian Jacobin Club. Physically he was unimposing; Stanley Loomis describes his face as catlike: green slanting eyes, a small nose and a pallid complexion. Due to his nearsightedness, he wore spectacles, often keeping them pushed up on his forehead. His dress was fastidious and fashionable, and even after the Revolution, Robespierre continued to sport the powdered hair and styled clothing of the Old Regime <1> -- a curious habit for one of the most important men in the Revolution. The picture one gets from reading various descriptions of the man is not one of a typical wild-eyed radical revolutionary leader, inflaming the crowds with impassioned rhetoric -- quite the opposite. James Michael Eagan describes him more as more of a "talker" than a "doer," and not even, it would seem, extraordinary in his rhetorical skills. "His talk was apt to be muddy, even incoherent, and as often in denunciation of persons who differed with him as in praise of principles or in support of specific measures and policies." <2> One contemporary observer, a man by the name of Fievee, describes one of Robespierre's speeches, before the Jacobin Club in 1793:

Robespierre came slowly forward. . . . His delivery was slow and measured. His phrases were so long that every time he stopped to raise his spectacles one thought that he had nothing more to say, but after looking slowly and searchingly over the audience in every quarter of the room he would readjust his glasses and then add some more phrases to his sentences, which were already of inordinate length. <3>

Moreover, his voice itself was weak and did not carry well outside or in large halls. How did such an unimposing, often nervous and confusing speaker rise to such prominence first in the Jacobin Club and later come to unofficially head the dreaded Committee of Public Safety, responsible for the deaths of thousands during the Terror?

While part of the answer may lie in Robespierre's personality and character, this aspect of the man is somewhat difficult to piece together accurately, due in no small part to the very bad press he received from the Thermidorean reactionaries and most of his European contemporaries (especially the English royalists and authors like Carlyle and Dickens). While it is certainly tempting to dismiss him as a bloodthirsty tyrant who was interested solely in personal power and glory, such an account is too simple and too shallow.

James Eagan identifies a few problems in examining Robespierre's character. <4> It must be recognized that Robespierre was, first and foremost, a nationalist. Like most of his compatriots, his views and policies were colored and shaped by the intense French nationalism sweeping the country. As Eagan puts it, "His sole explanation for every move was that France demanded it." <5> With this fixed firmly in mind, many of Robespierre's actions make perfect sense.

Another problem is Robespierre's continual protestations of completely altruistic motives. Eagan reconciles this with his obvious egotism by suggesting that his "nationalism may well have been a personal egotism imperfectly sublimated into a national egotism. Perhaps he utilized patriotism to satisfy his personal ambition, unconsciously, but none the less actually." <6> Unfortunately, having made such a remarkable and insightful statement, Eagen dismisses it as irrelevant to his study, whereas it is necessarily important to this one.

A final problem is found in Robespierre's epithet, "the Incorruptible." He was smug, self-righteous, honest, and, by all accounts, contemporary and modern, completely and incorruptibly moral; the kind of man others almost love to hate. His own personal integrity was instrumental in formulating much of his policy. Robespierre desired to found the French Republic on his own high moral standards of integrity and virtue. <7> R. R. Palmer ascribes to him the virtues and faults of an inquisition: he allowed no room in himself for the possibility of error, and those disagreeing with him were seen as purely wrong; he was generally quick to denounce his opponents by calling their motives into question and charging them with self-serving motivations, of which he himself was, of course, entirely free. <8>

Mirabeau once said of him, "He will go far. He believes everything he says." <9> While his incorruptibility may have proved useful in aiding his rise to power, it also contributed to his shortsightedness and narrow-mindedness, helping to bring about his eventual downfall.

Robespierre's childhood sheds some interesting light on his character development and later political thought. <10> Maximilien Barthelemy Isidore deRobespierre (he dropped the noble prefix "de" after the National Assembly abolished nobility) was born under somewhat inauspicious circumstances on May 6, 1758. His parents, Francois deRobespierre and Jacqueline Carrault, had been married only four months before. The deRobespierres considered the match something of a disgrace as they were a well-respected urban family with somewhat justified claims of nobility, whereas the Carraults were a family of suburban brewers, and this stigma was to have an impression upon the young Maximilien. Francois deRobespierre was a generally respected, if often hot-headed and impetuous lawyer of the town of Arras, some one hundred and fifty miles north of Paris near the Channel; legal tradition ran in the deRobespierre family. Francois and Jacqueline had three more children: Charlotte in 1760, Henriette in 1761, and Augustin in 1763. Jacqueline died giving birth to a fourth child in July of 1764. This child died a few days later.

Jacqueline's death threw Robespierre's father into a deep fit of depression. His behavior became wildly erratic, he took to drinking, and he gave up his law practice. He would often vanish for long periods of time, finally disappearing for good in 1771. His ultimate fate is unknown. Francois' sisters undertook to raise Charlotte and Henriette, while Robespierre's Grandfather Carrault brought up Maximilien and Augustin, although all four remained very close throughout Maximilien's childhood.

The memoirs of Charlotte Robespierre are invaluable in understanding young Robespierre's character, and the effects upon him of his suddenly turbulent home life. She writes:

Whenever we spoke about our mother in our private conversation I heard his voice falter and saw his eyes fill with tears. A complete change came over him. Previously he had been like all boys, scatterbrained, wild, and carefree. But when he realized that he was, as it were, head of the family by virtue of the fact that he was the oldest, he became sober, serious, and hardworking. He spoke to us with a kind of gravity which we respected. When he took part in our games, it was so as to direct them. He loved us tenderly, and he lavished care and caresses on us. <11>

Robespierre was six when his mother died and eight when his father began disappearing; this disruption of a heretofore very happy family life left deep impressions on young Robespierre, forcing him to mature quickly. Perhaps Eagan's earlier remark of Robespierre's imperfectly sublimated egotism finds some justification here. At a very early age he was thrust into, or perhaps importantly, he perceived that he was thrust into a role of responsibility and leadership for his family. It is possible that later, during the Revolution, with the cries of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," ringing in the air, he transferred consciously or unconsciously, the notion of his family onto his notion of the state. Naturally, the role he had assumed for his personal family he should also assume for his "national" family, thus providing motivation for his ambitions.

Robespierre was serious and introspective as a child, and had few friends. Recurrent ill-health and his slight build impelled him to more solitary and intellectual, less social or physical pursuits. These traits carried over into his adult life, and although some have concluded that he was by nature cold (and even inhuman), his sister Charlotte maintains that, while he seldom laughed outright, he often smiled, and was very sensitive, capable of much warmth and affection, despite his serious demeanor. He was also a very bright boy, studious and hardworking, determined, and in October of 1769, at the age of eleven, he left Arras on a scholarship for the College Louis-le-Grand in Paris, France's most respected university.

It was at Louis-le-Grand that Robespierre became exposed to those two factors which were to profoundly influence him for the rest of his life. Both of these factors were products of the Enlightenment: his love of classical tradition, especially Roman jurisprudence, and his passion for the philosophy of the Enlightenment, particularly that of Rousseau.

A friend of Robespierre's, Camille Desmoulins, describes the tremendous impact of the university professors and their classical republican teachings not just upon Robespierre himself, but upon many young men at the college:

The republicans were for the most part young men who, nourished by reading Cicero in the colleges, conceived a passion for freedom there. We were brought up in the schools of Rome and Athens, and in the pride of the Republic, only to live in the abjection of the monarchy and under the reign of a Claudius and a Vitellius. It was foolish to imagine that we would be inspired by the fathers of the fatherland of the Capitol, without feeling horror at the maneaters of Versailles, and that we would admire the past without condemning the present. <12>

It is not difficult to see the embryonic ideas of the Revolution forming here. From the Roman Republican ideals of virtue, especially the example of Brutus, Robespierre began to extract his belief that government was for the good of la Patrie, the nation. From Cicero he derived the rhetorical device at which he was perhaps most adept: denunciation. <13>

The teachings and philosophy of the eighteenth -century enlightened philosophers, especially Rousseau and to a lesser extent Montesquieu, were to play an even larger role in shaping Robespierre's philosophical outlook. Palmer asserts that Robespierre and his compatriots on the Committee of Public Safety (Barere, Billaud-Varenne, Carnot, Collet d'Herbois, Couthon, Herault, Lindet, Prieur of the Cote-d'Or, Prieur of the Marne, Saint-Andre and Saint-Just) were not only similar in middle-class background, legal tradition (eight were lawyers; all had university education), never having suffered from want or political oppression, and age, but all were also intellectuals, "steeped in the philosophy of the eighteenth-century, a body of ideas so pervasive that even a Protestant minister [Saint-Andre] and an actor-playwright [Collot d'Herbois) could hardly escape it." <14>

The importance of Rousseau and his teachings to Robespierre cannot be overemphasized. Perhaps it can best be seen in Robespierre's own writing about the philosopher, from his diary during the Estates-General:

Divine man! It was you who taught me to know myself. When I was young you brought me to appreciate the true dignity of my nature and to reflect on the great principles which govern the social order . . . . I saw you in your last days and for me the recollection of the time will always be a source of proud joy. I contemplated your august features and saw there the imprint of those dark griefs which the injustice of man inflicted on you. <15>

From Rousseau, Robespierre adopted the Social Contract theory of government, which was later to be accepted by the Jacobins. Man is by nature good, but becomes corrupt through unjust institutions and laws; he is born free, but becomes a slave to injustice. <16> Government is literally a contract entered into by people; each individual brings into the larger group a share of its power and authority. Moreover, the contract can be changed at any time the "general will" desires. <17> Sovereignty rests in the general community and any executive power is merely subservient to the sovereign -- the people. The nation's will is expressed in law. <18> But the individual is not to be placed above the state. In such cases where an opponent consistently resists or rejects the general will as expressed in law, Rousseau recommends death: "When the entire nation is in danger . . . a thing which is a crime at other times becomes a praiseworthy action. Lenience toward conspirators is treason against the people." <19> The state can, at times, exercise tremendous power over the individual members: "The state, in regard to its members, is master of all their goods. The sovereign -- that it to say the people -- may legitimately take away the goods of everyone, as was done at Sparta in the time of Lycurgus." <20>

One of Rousseau's dictims that Robespierre took to heart in particular is the following: "The spirit of the people may reside in an enlightened minority, who consequently have the right to act for the political advantage." <21> It is easy to see how this belief enticed Robespierre, who already knew that he was not wrong, whose care for la Patrie was his chief concern, who saw himself as the inheritor of Rousseau and, by extension, the general will. It became the basis for all his actions while in power; it is virtually the same as asserting that he did what he did "because France demanded it."

Welded firmly in Robespierre's mind with Rousseau's political and ethical philosophy was Montesquieu's concept of republican virtue:

Virtue in a republic is a most simple thing; it is love of the republic; it is a sensation, and not a consequence of acquired knowledge, a sensation that may be felt by the meanest as well as by the highest person in the state. When the common people adopt good maxims, they adhere to them more steadily than those whom we call gentlemen . . . The love of our country is favorable to a purity of morals, and the latter is again conducive to the former. <22>

Robespierre and his compatriots, especially Louis-Antoine Saint-Just and George Couthon, envisioned a French Republic based on virtue, wherein economic class distinctions would cease, wherein it would be criminal to own an excess of wealth, wherein the highest and noblest goal of any citizen would be service to the state. <23> Reason would predominate, but not prevail; for Robespierre believed, as did Rousseau, in a sort of deism, faith in a Supreme Being who guided the course of the nation. Faith in the divine was necessary for the health of the nation, both spiritually and politically. Atheism they considered immoral and punishable by death; it was a form of treason and as such in opposition and potentially harmful to the general will. <24> Will Durant demonstrates that this belief would lead ultimately to Robespierre's clash with the Dechristianizing Herbertists in 1793, a conflict which Durant identifies as between the philosophies of Rousseau (Robespierre) and the philosophes, especially Voltaire (Herbert)." <25>

Of course, these ideas did not take hold of Robespierre's intellect all at once; many came about as responses to prevailing political or intellectual trends. Some of his ideas crystallized during his period of law practice in Arras. Robespierre received his bachelor of law degree on July 31, 1780 and his license on May 15, 1781; he was admitted to the Paris bar three months later. <26> Like his father and grandfather before him, he set up a moderately successful law practice in Arras, and it seems he was well respected in the community. His practice of law increased his growing concern for humanity. As he told Charlotte,

The duty of pleading the case of the weak against the strong is that of every heart not so poisoned by egoism and corruption. My life's task will be to aid those who suffer and to pursue with vengeful words those who, without pity for humanity, enjoy the suffering of others. <27>

It was during his practice that he first began to seriously consider ways in which he might better the lot of his fellow human beings. There is evidence from this period that the sense of absolute conviction that so colored his later years was not yet fixed with rigidity. Charlotte reports one incident that occurred while Robespierre was serving a term as Episcopal Judge in 1782. "My elder brother," she writes, "came home with despair in his heart and ate nothing for two days. He kept repeating, 'I know he is to blame. He is a rascal . . . but to kill a man . . .' " If we are to believe Charlotte, Robespierre's dismay at having to condemn a man to death caused him to tender his resignation as judge. <28> It seems he was not yet far along enough in his political thought and career to where he identified himself as the protector of the State, which must be defended at all costs.

After his resignation as Episcopal judge, Robespierre enjoyed immediate success in his practice and earned a reputation as a protector of the poor and downtrodden, a reputation which he carefully cultivated. <29> Both Belloc and Eagan point out that he most often went behind the letter of the law to the spirit, often making sweeping statements which, at first glance, seemed to have little or no bearing on the case at hand. Nonetheless, he usually won his cases, and his success (and the example of Rousseau) inspired him to publish many of them. These pamphlets served to further increase his notoriety and reputation. <30>

It is not surprising that, when news came in August of 1788 of the imminent meetings of the Estates-General, Robespierre decided to somehow get elected as a delegate from his province of Artois. He took to active campaigning, especially through his personal manifesto, "An appeal to the Artesian People." The election process itself was extraordinarily complicated, beginning on April 20, 1789; suffice to say that Robespierre was eventually chosen as one of the eight delegates of the Third Estate from Artois. He accomplished this through skillful political maneuvering and popular oratory, appealing to the prevailing opinions and spirit of change in the air. <31> On May 1, 1789, the delegation left for Versailles. As Robespierre remarked at the time, "Everything in France is going to change now." <32>

At the Estates-General, Robespierre involved himself in much but accomplished little at first. <33> As an anonymous barrister from a provincial town he caused little excitement. He was also somewhat disillusioned by many of the prominent and popular leaders Mounier, Target, Malouse -- who did not seem to him revolutionary at all. Robespierre played almost no part in the events leading up to the Tennis Court Oath of June 20 (after which the Estates-General came to be called the National Constituent Assembly) or the storming of the Bastille on July 14. His speeches shortly after this, though, began to express his belief that the guilty must be executed as traitors, so the people would not lose faith in the laws. His patriotic speeches began to win him the support of the common people who flocked each day to the proceedings.

By autumn the Assembly had split into four definite camps. On the extreme right were the monarchist, totally opposed to any reform. They soon realized their impotence, however, and eventually ceased attending. The second group was made up of those monarchists who had begun the Revolution but who now felt it had gone too far and should be stopped. The third group, and the majority, were constitutional monarchists, who advocated more reforms and a system of government balanced between the king and the assembly (the feudal class structure had been abolished in early August). These included Mirabeau, Lafayette, Thouret, Target and Camus. The fourth group consisted of the extreme leftists, unknown radicals who had gained the ear of the public: Abbe Gregoire, Petion, Euzot, Dubois-Crance, Prieur of the Marne and Robespierre.

A settlement might have been forthcoming, which would have resulted in a victory for the moderates, had not Louis XVI been so obstinately opposed to compromise. At last, with high prices and rumors of famine circulating throughout Paris, a mob of angry Parisian women five or six thousand strong marched on Versailles, at the instigation of Marat, and "escorted" the royal family to Paris where they could be watched. Needless to say, Louis was now more open to suggestion. A few days later, the Assembly also transferred to Paris in order to be closer to the king for debate and negotiation.

In Paris, Robespierre began his rise to prominence in the Jacobin Club. He turned to the Jacobins because he was neglected and frustrated by the Assembly. <34> Many political clubs had surfaced throughout France; the great boost to Robespierre's career came in the Jacobins. The Jacobins owe much of their success to Robespierre; it was he who effected the organization of provincial branches of the club through personal visits, letters and his published speeches. (Part of the reason lies in the fact that the Jacobins were more willing to use force and terror than their opponents such as the Girondists and the Dantonists). Robespierre encouraged the provincial club members to make their voices heard as much as possible in the Assembly; by shouting the loudest, they appeared to be the majority. <35>

Robespierre's rise in the Jacobins also increased his visibility and popularity with the general public, with whom he constantly identified himself. The Jacobins became the molders of public opinion -- there is much truth to the saying that whoever controlled the mob in Paris controlled the Revolution. The Jacobins provided Robespierre with a power base more than anything else. <36> Robespierre's single-minded devotion to his principles and his fervent quasi-religious belief in himself aided his rise in the Jacobin Club greatly. He provided for them a sense of stability, a rallying-point, as it were, in a chaotic, confused time. <37>

The subsequent general course of events of the Revolution is well known. In September of 1791 the Constitution of 1791 was adopted; the National Assembly was replaced by the Legislative Assembly. This lasted for a year. In September of 1792, the Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention and the monarchy was officially abolished. At this time, the insurrectionary Paris Commune gained control of the convention and established the Revolutionary Tribunal (the forerunner of the Committee of Public Safety) to deliver summary justice to enemies of the Revolution. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded as a traitor to the French people. On July 27, 1793, Maximilien Robespierre was appointed to the Committee of Public Safety. <38>

Throughout November and December of 1792, Robespierre suffered attacks from the Girondists, a group he had previously driven out of Paris. They reappeared after the elections to the Convention. Robespierre appealed to the Jacobins and the people, who, as usual, rallied around him. The following months were marked by hot disputes between Robespierre's radical revolutionaries and the moderate Girondists. A key question of debate was the fate of the king. Robespierre and his faction scored a major victory when Louis was found guilty of treason and beheaded despite attempts by the Girondists to save him by delaying his trial. Up until Louis' execution, the Girondists had still been pushing for a constitutional monarchy (even though monarchy in France had already been abolished), but now all hope of that was gone. Part of the reason for Robespierre's success was the war that France was fighting with most of Europe; the European allies had announced their intentions of restoring the Bourbon monarchy, but the French Republican army had been winning victories of late and so popular sentiment was very anti-royalist. <39>

Robespierre emerged from this struggle the unquestioned leader of the Mountain faction in the Convention (so named because they always sat in the highest seats in the hall). In attacking the Mountain faction, the Girondists had also specifically attacked Robespierre as their leader. Where Robespierre and the Mountain had merely cooperated before, Robespierre now assumed leadership as the two factions joined against the common enemy. By attempting to overthrow Robespierre and weaken the Mountain, the Girondists had accomplished the exact opposite -- Robespierre was stronger than before. <40>

Robespierre's appointment to the Committee of Public Safety afforded him even greater power. However, it must be emphasized that Robespierre did not hold supreme power in the Committee. In theory, the power was divided more or less equally among its twelve members, each with his own area of specialization; in practice, some tended to wield more power than others. The Committee possessed a collective responsibility in that any one member might sign for all the others as well; consequently R. R. Palmer asserts that it is not easy to discover who exactly did what. Moreover, not everyone on the Committee liked or even approved of Robespierre; several times he met with strong opposition. However, Palmer also asserts that despite all this, Robespierre was the most valuable member because "as political expert he protected the others from hostile party onslaught." <41> Robespierre simply ran interference for the others.

Opposition was usually dealt with through systematic purges, both of the Convention and the Jacobin Club. <42> Before assuming his position on the Committee, purging rarely involved executions for what I see as two reasons: first, it was not really necessary; all Robespierre had to do was have the opposite expelled from either the Convention or the Club, sufficing to render them powerless, at least temporarily; and second, Robespierre did not really have the authority to order executions until he was on the Committee. Once on the Committee, however, authority was given and Robespierre often took advantage of the expedience of having opposition permanently disposed of. Of course, he always maintained that he was acting in the best interest of the state and according to the general will, and again, he probably believed he was. But while his motives may have been pure, his methods were bloody. Before Danton's death in April of 1794, the Terror had only one hundred and sixteen victims; between late April and early June five hundred more were added; and between June 10 (22nd Prairial) and July 27 (9th Thermidor) another one thousand three hundred and sixty-six were executed. There is every indication that had Robespierre lived, the numbers would have risen ever higher. <43>

The attack on Danton and the Hebertists marks a high point in Robespierre's power. Previously, the Dantonist faction had aligned itself with the Robespierrist in order to purge the Convention of Girondists. On February 26, 1794, the attack began. Saint-Just delivered a speech before the Convention (Robespierre and Couthon were ill, and Saint-Just was the most ardent disciple of Robespierre) in which he advocated implementation of Hebertists Terrorist plans. He directed the assault against Danton, claiming that the Dantonists wanted to slow down the Terror and the Revolution. Such a course, argued Saint-Just, would only lead to reactionism. The Republic must be strong, and Terror was the strength of the Republic (see the appendix for Robespierre's speech of February 5, 1794 for his view of the goals of the Revolution and the use of Terror). Saint-Just then turned his invective against the Hebertists, denouncing them as self-serving parasites, a crowd of "profitmongers," revolutionaries only so far as it benefited them." <44>

Eagan maintains that Robespierre attacked the Hebertists primarily because of their anti-Christian atheistic ideology. While perhaps not a Christian himself, Robespierre certainly had faith in the Supreme Being, and anyone who did not was a subversive. Robespierre also charged the Hebertists and the Dantonists with complicity in a plot with William Pitt to undermine the French Republic. Whether or not this accusation is true is not known for certain; Eagan believes it is merely something of a formality -- all the accused during the Terror were charged with foreign conspiracy, among other things. However, Eagan sees no "fundamental" reason for the attack on the Dantonists, claiming they were as patriotic and nationalistic as Robespierre. (Belloc asserts, however, that by this time Danton was intent on halting the Terror. <45>) Eagan demonstrates that by now Robespierre had fallen into true tyranny, proscribing anyone who disagreed with him on false charges to hide the real reason: difference of opinion. <46> Even so, it is almost certain that Robespierre actually saw Danton as a threat to France, simply because he saw his former friend as a threat to his own power. It is quite clear that by this point in time, Robespierre identified his beliefs as the expression of the general will; naturally any attack on him personally would be viewed as an attack on France. Nonetheless, after Danton's trial and execution, Robespierre had ceased to be a leader and had become instead a tyrant, a wielder of brute force.

Thus it was that Robespierre doomed himself to fall. His own shortsightedness and narrow-mindedness, once so essential to his rise, took away his objectivity and blinded him to the inevitable end of the course he had chosen. Of course, the mere fact that the number of executions increased so dramatically after Danton's fall may indicate that subconsciously Robespierre realized the tenuousness of his hold and that he was trying to hold on in the only way he knew how: more Terror. While it is unquestionable that many admired Robespierre, it is equally unquestionable that he had also made a great number of enemies. The famous law of 22nd Prairial (June 10, 1794) gave him a virtual carte blanche to indict anyone on the flimsiest of charges:

The enemies of the Revolution are those who by any means whatever and under no matter what pretext have tried to hamper the progress of the Revolution and prevent the establishment of the Republic. The due penalty for this crime is death; the proofs requisite for condemnation are all information, of no matter what kind, which may convince a reasonable man and a friend of liberty. The guide for passing sentence lies in the conscience of the judge, enlightened by love of justice and of his country, their aim being the public welfare and the destruction of the enemies of the fatherland. <47>

Fear was one of the key elements in Robespierre's Terror, but as Matrat points out, it was this very fear that drove his enemies, giving them courage; after all, they had nothing to lose. The opposition to Robespierre was "disparate and disunited;" it basically included "everyone who felt threatened by him," including some of his compatriots on the Committee, old friends of Danton, and members of the Assembly whom Robespierre had hinted might soon be up before the Tribunal. In addition, it included those members of the Assembly who had originally understood that the Terror was necessary so long as France was at war, but no longer necessary now that she was winning. <48>

Robespierre's opponents attempted a conciliation with the Incorruptible, even winning Saint-Just to their side. Robespierre apparently agreed on 4th Thermidor (July 22), but on 8th Thermidor (July 26) denounced his opponents before the Convention to thunderous applause. It seemed the Incorruptible would soon add "the Invincible" to his name. That evening at the Jacobin Club he had Billaud-Varenne and Collot d'Herbois expelled and apparently intended for them to go before the Tribunal. With the Jacobins on his side he refused to listen to the advice of some friends asking that he use soldiers to purge his opposition, confident that he would be victorious in the conflict that everyone knew would come the following day.

Saint-Just opened the Convention on 9th Thermidor by denouncing Billaud-Varenne, Carnot and Collot. But he was interrupted by Tallien who was supported by the Convention and Saint-Just spoke no more that day. Billaud-Varenne then began his indictment of Robespierre, revealing past actions of his contrary to the pride of the Convention. Robespierre tried to speak but was shouted down. While others spoke against him, he continually tried to speak, but was continually shouted down. His arrest, along with that of Saint-Just and Couthon, was decreed. The three were guillotined the following day along with Robespierre's brother Augustin, to cries from the crowds of "Down with the tyrant!" The Terror was broken. <49>

Robespierre's failure can be viewed as that of a man so narrow-minded in his views that eventually he cannot conceive of anything outside of them, a man so firmly convinced of his own absolute rightness that he cannot see the glaring errors he makes. It had grown inconceivable to him that anyone should oppose him successfully, and when someone did, the blow numbed him into inaction for a while. Although he started out with the best of motives, it came to the point where protection of the ideals for which he stood was everything to him, whereas protection of the people whom the ideals were originally to protect meant nothing.

Before the Terror it seems that Robespierre's leadership was of the type James MacGregor Burns describes as transforming. <50> Certainly the leader and his followers engaged in such a way that France became inspired by Robespierre's notion of morality. It also followed the process of Burns' concept of revolutionary leadership. <51> Both France and Robespierre engaged in the raising of the nation's social and political consciousness. The fault of his leadership was that after a point it was no longer adaptable to his followers' political and social development. It stagnated, and along with it, so did his rule.


Excerpts of Robespierre's speech of February 5, 1794

It is time to mark clearly the aim of the Revolution and the end toward which we wish to move; it is time to take stock of ourselves, of the obstacles which we still face, and of the means which we ought to adopt to attain our objective . . . .

What is the goal for which we strive? A peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the rule of that eternal justice whose laws are engraved, not upon marble or stone, but in the hearts of all men.

We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings aroused; where ambition is the desire to merit glory and to serve one's fatherland; where distinctions are born only of equality itself; where' the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the nation safeguards the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of the fatherland; where all spirits are enlarged by constant exchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where the arts are the adornment of liberty, which ennobles them; and where commerce is the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous opulence for a few families.

In our country we wish to substitute morality for egotism, probity for honor, principles for conventions, duties for etiquette, the empire of reason for the tyranny of customs, contempt for vice for contempt for misfortune, pride for insolence, the love of honor for the love of money . . . that is to say, all the virtues and miracles of the Republic for all the vices and snobbishness of the monarchy.

We wish in a word to fulfill the requirements of nature, to accomplish the destiny of mankind, to make good the promises of philosophy . . . that France, hitherto illustrious among slave states, may eclipse the glory of all free peoples that have enlisted, become the model for all nations . . . . That is our ambition; that is our aim.

What kind of government can realize these marvels? Only a democratic government . . . . But to found and to consolidate among us this democracy, to realize the peaceable rule of constitutional laws, it is necessary to conclude the war of liberty against tyranny and to pass successfully through the storms of revolution. Such is the aim of the revolutionary system which you have set up . . . .

Now what is the fundamental principle of democratic, or popular government -- that is to say, the essential mainspring upon which it depends and which makes it function? It is virtue: I mean public virtue . . . that virtues which is nothing else but a love of fatherland and its law . . . .

The splendor of the goal of the French Revolution is simultaneously the source of our strength and of our weakness: our strength, because it gives us an ascendancy of truth over falsehood, and of public rights over private interests; our weakness, because it rallies against us all vicious men, all those who in their hearts seek to despoil the people . . . . . It is necessary to stifle the domestic and foreign enemies of the Republic or perish with them. Now in these circumstances, the first maxim of our politics ought to be to lead the people by means of reason and the enemies of the people by terror.

If the basis of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice; it flows, then, from virtue.

Taken from Pageant of Europe: Sources and Selections from the Renaissance to the Present Day, by Raymond Phineas Stearns (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1947).


1 Stanley Loomis, Paris in the Terror: June 1793-July 1794 (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1964), p. 276.

2 James Michael Eagan, Maximilien Robespierre: Nationalist Dictator (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978), p. 12.

3 Fievee, quoted in Loomis, p. 276.

4 The material following is taken from Eagan, pp. 11-13.

5 Eagan, p. 11.

6 Eagan, p. 12.

7 Eagan, p. 13.

8 R. R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), pp. 6-7.

9 Mirabeau, quoted in Jean Matrat, Robespierre, or the Tyranny of the Majority, trans. Alan Kendall (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), p. 51.

10 The following information on Robespierre's childhood is drawn from Matrat, pp. 11-16; Hilaire Belloc, Robespierre: A Study (New York: Caxton Press, 1901), pp. 39-46; Loomis, pp. 264-66.

11 Charlotte Robespierre, quoted in Matrat, p. 14.

12 Camille Desmoulins, quoted in Matrat, p. 17.

13 Eagan, p. 15.

14 Palmer, pp. 17-18.

15 Robespierre, quoted in Loomis, p. 266.

16 Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Napoleon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975), p. 7.

17 Eagan, p. 17.

18 Belloc, p. 26.

19 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, quoted in Matrat, p. 63.

20 Rousseau, quoted in Matrat, p. 17.

21 Rousseau, quoted in Matrat, p. 69.

22 Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, B. V., c. ii, quoted in Eagan, p. 25-26.

23 Leo Gershoy, The French Revolution and Napoleon (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1933), p. 284.

24 Eagan, p. 31.

25 Will and Ariel Durant, Rousseau and Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), p. 890.

26 Matrat, p. 19.

27 Robespierre, quoted in Eagan, p. 17.

28 Charlotte Robespierre, quoted in Eagan, p. 18.

29 Belloc, p. 63.

30 Eagan, p. 17-19; Belloc, p. 63-64.

31 Belloc, pp. 66-67; Matrat, pp. 50-5 1.

32 Robespierre, quoted in Matrat, p. 50.

33 The following information on Robespierre at the Estates-General is drawn from Matrat, pp. 51-75.

34 Loomis, p. 277.

35 Eagan, pp. 52-55.

36 Belloc, p. 96.

37 Belloc, p. 107.

38 These events are covered more fully in almost every book on the French Revolution. This summary was gathered from Walbank, Civilization Past and Present, 8th ed. (Glenview: Scott, Forseman, 1981), pp. 80-84.

39 Matrat, pp. 177-189; Belloc, pp. 222-227.

40 Kropotkin, p. 337.

41 Palmer, p. 109.

42 Matrat, p. 181.

43 Loomis, p. 328.

44 Kropotkin, p. 543.

45 Belloc, p. 227-78.

46 Eagan, pp. 129-131.

47 Kropotkin, p. 537 n.

48 Matrat, pp. 267, 269.

49 Matrat, pp. 270-288; Belloc, pp. 331-367; Loomis, pp. 382-403.

50 James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 20.

51 Burns, p. 203.

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