MAXIMILIEN ROBESPIERRE 1758 - 1794  (G2, G3a, G3b)

xxxxxThe French lawyer Maximilien Robespierre, a prominent figure in the French Revolution, will always be associated with the Reign of Terror. An uncompromising democrat who was much influenced by the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, he became a member of the States General in 1789 and, a year later, leader of the radical Jacobin Club. He played a part in the overthrow of Louis XVI in August 1792, and did not disguise his support for the September Massacres the following month. He was elected to the National Convention that month, where he called for the execution of the monarch and democratic reforms. In April 1793 he was instrumental in overthrowing the moderate Girondist party, and then virtually seized control of the country on joining the Committee of Public Safety in the July. Here this quiet, learned man revealed a determined, ruthless streak. Having helped to put the country on a war footing, he introduced a Reign of Terror in the September, designed to eliminate any persons suspected of being opposed to the revolution. Thousands were sent to the guillotine, including his opponents in the radical party, led by Hébert, and moderates such as his friend and ally Danton. After ten months of slaughter, a reaction set in against the bloodbath. He was arrested in July 1794, and was himself sent to the guillotine.

xxxxxAlong with Georges Danton, Robespierre’s name is forever linked with the Reign of Terror which gripped the French Revolution from September 1793 to July 1794. This apart, the two men, though united in their unwavering support of the common people, were very different in appearance and temperament. Danton, apart from being a tall, well-built man with an abundance of energy and a voice to match, was not averse to compromise, and became genuinely alarmed at the increasing number of killings being carried out in the name of the revolution. Robespierre, on the other hand, was short in height, learned and quietly spoken in manner, and with a determined, ruthless streak which, when necessary, he willingly employed to further the ideals in which he so passionately believed.

xxxxxHe was born at Arras, full name Maximilien François Marie Isidore Robespierre. He attended the College of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, gaining a law degree in 1781, and, during these formative years, he showed a profound interest in politics. He was totally won over, above all, by the social theories of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, and saw in his writings what was needed to be done to put the world to rights. Man had been born free but, in the course of time, had become little more than a slave. Not surprisingly, Arras chose the young lawyer Robespierre as one of its representatives when the States General was recalled in May 1789, on the eve of the revolution. Here and later in the National Constituent Assembly, he quickly became popular amongst the citizens of Paris for his lack of self-interest - he was dubbed “The Incorruptible” - and for his uncompromising support of democracy. It was the common people alone, he argued in quiet but earnest tones, who possessed the goodness and the necessary sense to govern the nation. He opposed the royal veto, complained of the abuse of ministerial power, and called for universal suffrage and an end to religious and racial discrimination. Understandably, such views caused alarm among the royalists and moderates within the Assembly.

xxxxxIn April 1790 his rise to power received a boost when he was elected president of the Jacobin Club, an extreme republican group, formed the previous year. From this vantage point, he came out as an enemy of the monarchy and an ardent opponent of the moderate Girondists, then seeking compromise and holding sway in the newly formed Legislative Assembly. It was to rid the government of both king and Girondists that in August 1792, as the fear of invasion swept the country, he helped to promote the republican revolution which brought the downfall of the monarchy. Then the following month he gave undisguised support to the slaughter of imprisoned nobles and clergy - the so-called September Massacres - seeing it as an inevitable consequence of the class warfare which was about to erupt.

xxxxxIn September 1792 Robespierre was elected to the National Convention as a deputy for Paris, and he now came out openly in favour of the execution of the king, who was strongly suspected of being in league with both the Austrians and Prussians in their bid to destroy the revolution. Following the king’s execution in early 1793, his opportunity to seize power came in June 1793 when, together with the fanatical Jean Paul Marat (illustrated), he managed to overthrow the Girondists in the National Convention and, the following month, gained election to the Committee of Public Safety. This body, designed to defend the nation and strengthen its resolve, had been formed in April, but with Danton at its head, had attempted to compromise on both fronts. Robespierre, virtually assuming dictatorial powers, changed all that. Quite apart from putting the country on a war footing, and sending armies to put down rebellion in the provinces, he embarked upon a brutal campaign of abject fear as the only means, as he saw it, of eliminating anti-revolutionary elements. As from September, when the Reign of Terror started in earnest, the democratic end justified the gruesome means.

xxxxxBy the New Year his overriding passion for social reform began to know no bounds. InxApril, he pounced upon the extreme radical group led by Jacques-René Hébert (1757-1794), and, anticipating his attempt at a coup, sent him and his adherents to the guillotine. The following month, likewise fearful of the threat from the other extreme, he turned upon the “Indulgents”, those who, weakening in resolve, were prepared to call a halt to the killings. Fifteen were sentenced to death, including his one-time friend and ally Danton. By now however, there was rising indignation over the scale of the slaughter, made the greater when on June 10th he put forward the infamous Law that denied a prisoner a defence lawyer and made death the sole penalty. This, together with the introduction of an official religion based on the cult of the Supreme Being - a measure deeply angering the Roman Catholics - sealed his fate. He was elected president of the National Convention in June 1794, but on the 26th a republican victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Fleurus made extreme security measures less urgent. A conspiracy was formed against him, and the following month orders went out for his arrest. Trapped in the city hall, he attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, but he only succeeded in shattering his jaw. (Though some accounts have it that he was shot at the time of his arrest - as in the illustration above). The next day, his face covered in bandages, he was led to the guillotine. In the space of two days one hundred of his collaborators had followed him. Their execution marked the end of the Terreur as a recognised measure of repression.

xxxxxIncidentally, guillotined along with Robespierre was his loyal friend and fanatical supporter Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (1767-1794). An eloquent and ruthless leader of the Revolution, he was a powerful advocate of the king’s execution, was elected president of the National Convention in 1793, and played a prominent part in the defeat of the Austrians at the Battle of Fleurus the following year. His ruthless participation in the Reign of Terror earned him the title “The Angel of Death”. Aptly described as a man with “a brain of fire and a heart of ice”, he is chiefly remembered today for his The Spirit of the Revolution, published in 1791. ……

xxxxx…… The Jacobin Club, a highly radical political group which played a prominent part in the French Revolution, was known as the Society of Friends of the Constitution when first formed in 1789. It later took on the name Jacobin from the place where it established its Paris headquarters, a former Jacobin (Dominican) monastery. ……

xxxxx…… Itxwas in the year of Robespierre’s execution that the French philosopher and encyclopedist Marie Jean Condorcet (1743-1794) wrote his A Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In this he traced the progress made by man to date, and, despite the times he lived in, looked forward optimistically to a world inspired by brotherly love. An ardent social reformer, his salon, presided over by his talented wife Sophie, was an important intellectual centre of the day. ......


xxxxx…… Andxit was in 1794 that an English fleet under the command of Admiral Lord Howe (1726-1799) won the so-called “Battle of the Glorious First of June”, the first and largest naval conflict of the Revolutionary Wars. At the end of May, 26 French warships were sighted in mid-Atlantic, and in the running battle that followed, a dozen ships on both sides were badly damaged. In addition, one French warship was sunk and six captured. The French commander, Vice-Admiral Villaret, was forced to take his Atlantic Fleet to port, and this left the British free to blockade the French coast for the remainder of the war. However, the encounter had not prevented a much needed food convoy from America from reaching Brest, and a number of British captains were later criticised for their “lack of zeal”. Thexillustration is by Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821), an English artist well known for his detailed paintings of naval battles of this period.


Robespierre: c1790, artist unknown – Carnavalet Museum, Paris. Marat: by the French portrait painter Joseph Boze (c1746-1826), 1793 – Carnavalet Museum, Paris. Arrest: detail, English engraving, 18th century, artist unknown – Carnavalet Museum, Paris. Execution: by the Italian engraver Giacomo Aliprandi (1775-1855), published 1799, after a painting by the Italian artist Giacomo Beys (active 1799) – Carnavalet Museum, Paris. Saint-Just: by the French painter Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823), 1793 – Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon, France. First of June: by the English marine artist Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821), 1795 – Royal Museums, Greenwich, London.