The French Revolutionary leader Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758-1794) was the spokesman for the policies of the dictatorial government that ruled France during the crisis brought on by civil and foreign war.
Maximilien de Robespierre was an early proponent of political democracy. His advanced ideas concerning the application of the revolutionary principle of equality won for him the fervent support of the lower middle and working classes (the sans-culottes) and a firm place later in the 19th century in the pantheon of European radical and revolutionary heroes. These ideas and the repressive methods used to implement and defend them, which came to be called the Reign of Terror, and his role as spokesman for this radical and violent phase of the French Revolution also won for him the opprobrium of conservative opponents of the Revolution ever since.
Robespierre was born on May 6, 1758, in the French provincial city of Arras. He was educated first in that city and then at the Colle‧ge Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Upon completing his studies with distinction, he took up his father's profession of law in Arras and soon had a successful practice. But he had developed a sense of social justice, and as the Revolution of 1789 loomed, he assumed a public role as an advocate of political change, contributing to the pamphlet and cahier literature of the day, and being elected at the age of 30 a member of the Third Estate delegation from Arras to the Estates General, where he quickly associated himself with the Patriot party.
During the first period of the Revolution (1789-1791), in which the Estates General became the National (or Constituent) Assembly, Robespierre spoke frequently in that body. But his extremely democratic ideas, his emphasis on civil liberty and equality, his uncompromising rigidity in applying these ideas to the issues of the moment, and his hostility to all authority won him little support in this moderate legislature. He favored giving the vote to all men, not just property owners, and he opposed slavery in the colonies. On both of these issues he lost, being ahead of his time.
Robespierre found more receptive listeners at the Paris Jacobin Club, where throughout his career he had a devoted following that admired him not only for his radical political views but perhaps even more for his simple Spartan life and high sense of personal morality, which won for him the appellation of "the Incorruptible." His appearance was unprepossessing, and his old-fashioned, prerevolutionary style of dress seemed out of place. He lacked the warmth of personality usually associated with a popular political figure. Yet his carefully written and traditionally formal speeches, because of his utter sincerity and deep personal conviction, won him a wide following.
When his term as a legislator ended in September 1791, Robespierre remained in Paris, playing an influential role in the Jacobin Club and shortly founding a weekly political journal. During this period (1791-1792) he was an unremitting critic of the King and the moderates who hoped to make the experiment in limited, constitutional monarchy a success. Robespierre, profoundly and rightly suspicious of the King's intentions, spoke and wrote in opposition to the course of events, until August 1792, when events turned in his favor with the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic.
A Convention was quickly elected to perform the task of drafting a constitution, this time for a democratic republic, and to govern the country in the meantime. Robespierre was elected a member for Paris. As a spokesman for the Mountain, the radical Jacobin faction in the Convention, he played a prominent role in the successive controversies that developed. He was an uncompromising antagonist of the deposed king, who was finally placed on trial, convicted, and executed in January 1793.
The moderate Girondin faction had incurred the enmity of Robespierre and the leaders of the Mountain in the process, and for this and other reasons, both personal and political, there followed months of bitter controversy, climaxed by the victory of the Robespierrist faction, aided by the intervention of the Parisian sans-culottes, with the expulsion from the Convention and arrest of the Girondins (June 2, 1793) and the execution shortly thereafter of their leaders.
The dual crises of foreign war, in which most of Europe was now fighting against the Revolutionary government in France, and civil war, which threatened to overthrow that government, had led to the creation of the crisis machinery of government, the Reign of Terror. The central authority in this government was the Committee of Public Safety. For the crucial months from mid-1793 to mid-1794 Robespierre was one of the dominant members of and the spokesman for this dictatorial body. Under their energetic leadership the crisis was successfully surmounted, and by the spring of 1794 the threat of civil war had been ended and the French army was winning decisive victories.
Political controversy had continued, however, as Robespierre, having prevailed against the moderate Girondins, now faced new opposition on both the left and the right. The Hébertists, a radical faction that controlled the Paris city government and was particularly responsive to the grievances of the sans-culottes concerning wartime shortages and inflation, actively campaigned for rigorous economic controls, which Robespierre opposed. Nor could he support their vigorous anti-Christian campaign and atheistic Religion of Reason. Robespierre and his colleagues on the committee saw them as a threat, and in March 1794 the Hébertist leaders and their allies were tried and executed.
Two weeks later came the turn of the Indulgents, or Dantonists, the moderate Jacobins who, now that the military crisis was ended, felt that the Terror should be relaxed. Georges Jacques Danton, a leading Jacobin and once a close associate of Robespierre, was the most prominent of this group. Robespierre was inflexible, and Danton and those accused with him were convicted and guillotined.
Robespierre and his associates, who included his brother Augustin and his young disciple Louis de Saint-Just, were now in complete control of the national government and seemingly of public opinion. He thus could impose his own ideas concerning the ultimate aims of the Revolution. For him the proper government for France was not simply one based on sovereignty of the people with a democratic franchise, which had been achieved. The final goal was a government based on ethical principles, a Republic of Virtue. He and those of his associates who were truly virtuous would impose such a government, using the machinery of the Terror, which had been streamlined, at Robespierre's insistence, for the purpose. Coupled with this was to be an officially established religion of the Supreme Being, which Robespierre inaugurated in person.
Opposition arose from a variety of sources. There were disaffected Jacobins who had no interest in such a program and had good reason to fear the imposition of such high ethical principles. More and more of the public, now that the military crisis was past, wanted a relaxation, not a heightening, of the Terror. The crisis came in late July 1794. Robespierre spoke in the Convention in vague but threatening terms of the need for another purge in pursuit of his utopian goals. His opponents responded by taking the offensive against him, and on July 27 (9 Thermidor by the Revolutionary calendar) they succeeded in voting his arrest. He and his colleagues were quickly released, however, and they gathered at the city hall to plan a rising of the Parisian sans-culottes against the Convention, such as had prevailed on previous occasions. But the opposition leaders rallied their forces and late that night captured Robespierre and his supporters. In the process Robespierre's jaw was fractured by a bullet, probably from his own hand. Having been declared outlaws, they were guillotined the next day. With this event began the period of the Thermidorian Reaction, during which the Terror was ended and France returned to a more moderate government.
The best, and classic, work on Robespierre in English is the biography by James M. Thompson, Robespierre (2 vols., 1935; repr. 1968). A shorter and more popular study is Thompson's Robespierre and the French Revolution (1953). The imaginative fabrication by Henri Beraud, My Friend Robespierre (1938), provides a perceptive character analysis. Robespierre's role as a member of the Committee of Public Safety is summarized in Robert R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled (1941). Excerpts from widely differing assessments of Robespierre which have been written since the Revolution are compiled by George Rudéin Robespierre (1967). The best advocate for Robespierre's cause was Albert Mathiez, who devoted his scholarly career to Robespierre's defense but who never wrote a biography; see, however, his The Fall of Robespierre and Other Essays (1927) and The French Revolution (1928). A more balanced but not unfriendly estimate of Robespierre's place in the history of the Revolution is in George Lefebvre, The French Revolution (2 vols., 1962-1964); and his place in the history of political thought is analyzed in two essays in Alfred Cobban, Aspects of the French Revolution (1968).