Robespierre (Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre)
was born on May 6th, 1758, in Arras where his father was based as an
advocate. Robespierre and his three younger siblings were brought up
by diverse relatives after their father dramatically lost his way in
life after the death of his wife in chilbirth in 1767. Robespierre was
educated for a short time at a College in Arras and then in Paris initially
at the very prestigious College of Louis-le-Grand and later at the College
as an advocate in 1781 and sought to establish a legal practice at his
home town of Arras. He became known both as a successful advocate and
as a participant in local literary and philosophic circles. He was elected
as a "Third Estate" (i.e. a Commoner rather than an Aristocratic
or Clerical) deputy of Artois to the Estates-General that convened at
the Palace of Versailles, on May 5th 1789, on the eve of the French
Revolution, and subsequently served in the National Constituent Assembly,
where his earnest and skillful oratory soon commanded attention.
As he had grown
into manhood Robespierre had become a fanatical devotee of the social
theories of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. He and some
thirty other like-minded deputies became associated in a "Society
of the Friends of the Constitution" later known as the Jacobin
Club. In April 1790 he was elected president of the Jacobin Club and
became increasingly popular as an enemy of the monarchy and as an advocate
of democratic reforms. When the Constituent Assembly was dissolved on
September 30th 1791 Robespierre and another prominent Jacobin Petion
de Villeneuve were the only outgoing deputies recognised as "incorruptible
patriots" by the more radically inclined amongst the people of
Paris. Robespierre "The Incorruptible" subsequently opposed
the more moderate Girondists, the dominant faction in the newly formed
Legislative Assembly, particularly over their support for war with Austria.
In June 1791 King
Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette attempted to flee from France in
order to seek refuge with powers opposed to the revolution - they were
however recognised and detained at Varennes. Robespierre had hitherto
been content with the sort of constitutional monarchy that had been
in operation in France. The King's attempted defection altered the way
he was perceived by Robespierre and others.
In late August
1792 France was threatened with invasion by a mixed Austrian, Prussian,
and French émigré force. The leader of this force, the
Duke of Brunswick, issued the so-called " Brunswick Manifesto "
which threatened all Frenchmen with dire punishment if they defended
themselves against the advance of Brunswick's forces and threatened
to lay waste to Paris if the French royal family were harmed. Given
that King Louis XVI was suspect since his abortive " flight to
Varennes " there was a move led by Danton and others for the overthrow
of the French monarchy. The palace of Versailles was stormed and the
royal family were arrested after seeking refuge with the assembly.
On September 21st
a recently elected new assembly that called itself the Convention declared
that the French monarchy was abolished and France was a Republic. On
September 25th the Convention proclaimed that the "French Republic
is one and indivisible".
at King Louis XVI's trial as follows:-
not to pass sentence for or against a single man, but you have to take
a resolution on a question of the public safety, and to decide a question
of national foresight. It is with regret that I pronounce a fatal truth:
Louis ought to perish rather than a hundred thousand virtuous citizens;
Louis must die that the country may live."
Citizen Louis Capet (formerly known as King Louis XVI) was subsequently
sent to the guillotine on 21st January 1793.
Girondin led France
had little success in conflicts with foreign adversaries. There was
an open "royalist" revolt against the central authority in
the Vendée and there were demands for greater 'federalist' autonomy
expressed by interests in southern regions of France.
Over the last days
of May and first days of June 1793, Robespierre, supported by the Commune
of Paris, forced the expulsion of the Girondists from the National Convention.
On July 27th he was elected a member of the chief executive body, the
Committee of Public Safety. Although Robespierre was from one point
of view only one of twelve members of the committee he was the only
one who, through the full support he enjoyed from the Jacobin Clubs
and the Commune of Paris, represented a close link to the more radical
supporters of the Revolution.
France was in turmoil,
and with the aim of restoring order and reducing the danger of invasion
from abroad, Robespierre, backed by the committee, proceeded to ruthlessly
eliminate all whom he considered to be enemies of the Revolution, both
extremists and moderates. This policy led to the so-called Reign of
Terror and to the execution of the revolutionary leaders Jacques René
Hébert (March 24th 1794) and Georges Jacques Danton (April 6th
1794). Both Hébert and Danton were politicians whose preferred
policies were inconsistent with the pure Rousseauism that was Robespierre's
guiding principle. The Hébertists had been suspected of preparing
for a coup d'état and this may have contributed to the harshness
with which they were treated. Danton was one of several prominent persons
who were suspected of financial corruption thus polluting the virtue
of the Revolution. Whilst the aims of the Terror were perhaps laudable
from Robespierre's revolutionary perspective the means adopted towards
those ends were terrible indeed.
On May 7th, at
Robespierre's insistence, the National Convention proclaimed as an official
religion the Cult of the Supreme Being, which was based on Rousseau's
theory of Deism. This decree antagonized both Roman Catholics and atheists,
but Robespierre still had the powerful backing of the Commune of Paris.
A Grand Fête in honour of the Supreme Being was celebrated on
8th June 1794 where Robespierre, who had been elected as the President
of the Convention four days previously, played a major role.
of justice the revolutionary tribunals that had been set up to investigate
people's political loyalties may have had prior to these times a law
of June 10th 1794 established a situation where witnesses could no longer
be called for the defence and where such tribunals effectively became
committees of condemnation. Between June 12th and July 28th almost 1300
people were sent to the Guillotine (an average of 28 beheadings a day).
of the Reign of Terror, caused many influential members of the Convention
and of the Jacobin Club to fear for their own safety. In recent months
French military fortunes had been transformed largely as a result of
a mass levy of all unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25 that
had been authorised by the Convention on 23rd August 1793. A series
of significant French military victories that were reported from diverse
battlefields made the extreme security measures that had been followed
seem less imperative, and a conspiracy was formed for the overthrow
On July 27th 1794
Robespierre was accused of tyranny, barred from speaking at the National
Convention, and was placed under arrest as were several key supporters.
Although these captives were promptly rescued by soldiers loyal to the
Commune of Paris and brought to the Hotêl de Ville the Convention
ordered the National Guard to move to recapture Robespierre who subsequently
received a gunshot wound to the lower jaw during his recapture.
On July 28th Robespierre
together with his closest associates Louis Saint-Just and Georges Couthon
and nineteen other supporters died on the guillotine.
Eighty more followers of Robespierre were executed the next day.
Thus perished a
man who had been a successful, popular, and cultured provincial lawyer
but who gained power in turbulent times and was able to pursue certain
unproven social theories with a singleness of mind that could tolerate
grievious human suffering if it was perceived as 'necessary' to the
realisation and defence of a theoretically ideal society.
With the demise
of Robespierre the truly Revolutionary phase of the Revolution in France
more or less came to an end. Power shifted away from the radicals and
towards the conservatives. The Jacobin Clubs were closed down in November
and freedom of worship was restored in February 1795.
ISIDORE DE ROBESPIERRE was born on the 6th of May, 1758, at Arras, where
his father was an unsuccessful advocate. Having distinguished himself
at the college of his native place, he was sent, through the influence
of a canon of the cathedral of Arras, to complete his education in Paris,
at the college of Louis le Grand. In his studies he was noted for diligence,
regularity and intelligence; on the completion of his course at college,
he devoted himself to the study of jurisprudence. After some years thus
passed, he returned to Arras, to follow the profession of his father.
In this his success was decided and previous to the commencement of
his more public career, he had become a person of considerable local
On the memorable
convocation of the States-general in 1789, he had local influence sufficient
to secure his election as one of the deputies, in which capacity he
immediately repaired to Versailles. Though in the Constitutional Assembly
he spoke frequently, and - despite the disadvantages of a mean person,
a harsh, shrill voice, and an ungainly manner - always with increasing
acceptance, it was outside, as a popular demagogue and leader in the
famous Jacobin Club, that his chief activity was exerted, and in this
field his influence speedily became immense. In May, 1791, he proposed
and carried the decree by which members of the assembly were excluded
from a place in the legislature; a measure obviously disastrous, as
deteriorating the quality of the assembly, and more and more insuring
its subjection to the Jacobins, of whom Robespierre was now the idol.
On the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in October, 1791, Robespierre,
now famous, revisited his native town, where he was received with enthusiasm.
After a stay of seven weeks; he returned to Paris and resumed his activity
as leader of the Jacobin Club. To the National Convention, which was
now formed, he was returned as the head of the Paris deputies, and as
recognized chief of the extreme party, called the Mountain, he was one
of the main agents in procuring the execution of the king, which took
place in December, 1792. In the year following, occurred his final struggle
with the Girondists, who had twice before attacked him with a view to
compass his destruction, and the chief men among whom he now triumphantly
sent to the scaffold. The period of "the Terror" followed;
Marie Antoinette and the infamous Duke of Orleans were the first victims;
Petion, Danton, and Camille Desmoulins were next immolated, on a suspicion
of favoring a reactionary policy; and for months, under the so-called
Committee of Public Safety, Paris became the scene of an indiscriminate,
quasi-judicial slaughter, in which some thousands of lives were sacrificed.
With these enormous atrocities, the name of Robespierre, along with
those of his friends, Couthon, and St. Just, remains peculiarly associated.
But the end was near; men were weary of "the Terror," and
the general sense of insecurity it induced. Robespierre had many enemies;
in particular the friends of Danton were eager to avenge his death.
A conspiracy was organized against "the tyrant," as he was
now called, and after a scene of fierce tumult in the Convention, his
arrest was accomplished. A rescue by the populace followed, but he lacked
the courage and promptitude to turn the opportunity to account; while
he hesitated, his enemies acted, and in July, 1794, he closed his career
on the scaffold to which he had sent so many others.
Birth Date: May
Death Date: July
Place of Birth:
Place of Death:
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.