“To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty.”
–Maximillien Robespierre (BrainyQuotes.com)
Maximillien Francois-Marie-Isidore de Robespierre was a very harsh and interesting man, if you could not already tell by his very long name. He contributed much to the 18th century French Revolution, however, in light of history, his contributions were not all positive. “Robespierre was by no means the worst character who figured in the Revolution. He was a fanatic, a monster, but he was incorruptible, and incapable of robbing, or causing the deaths of others, either from personal enmity, or a desire of enriching himself. He was an enthusiast; but one who really believed that he was acting right, and died not worth a sou.” – Napoleon Bonaparte (https://www.quora.com)
Over Robespierre’s lifetime, the words of Napoleon played out. He was originally a very kind man and an excellent, if soft-spoken speaker, who as an attorney did not discriminate against those normally discriminated against in late 18th Century France. He worked for the poor and underclass regularly and against the rule of the upper classes. Robespierre was committed to the overthrow of the French monarchy and to the idea that all French could participate in government, not only the privileged few. His role grew from eloquent speaker and agitator to the leader of The Reign of Terror which places him in history as absolutely evil and bloodthirsty which reduces anything positive he did for France almost to nothing.
Robespierre’s early life was somewhat sad and chaotic because he did not have the luxury of being raised by his own two parents. When he was still very young, at the age of six, his mother died nine days after giving birth to a stillborn child. This devastated the family, of course, and led Maximillian Barthélémy François de Robespierre, the father, to abandon his children. Robespierre as well as his brothers and sisters were raised by their maternal grandparents in Artois, which is part of Arras.
The area of Arras, France, is the capital of Pas-de-Calais and is southwest of the Lille River. Arras is notable historically because it was one of the very last towns to surrender to Julius Cesar around the time of 57 BC. Arras had been a politically contested area until it finally became part of France after many years of wars with Spain, Austria and Spain over the area in 1659, by the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Arras also became an English word meaning “tapestry hangings” because of the town was famously known for the beautiful wool tapestries it produced.
Early on Robespierre was recognized for his intellectual strength as a student. He began attending the college of Oratorians at Arras in 1769 and won a scholarship to a very prestigious college called Louis-le-Grande in Paris, where he was admired for his gift of philosophy and eloquence as a lawyer. His father and grandfather had also been lawyers. The quality of Robespierre’s school work quickly made it possible for him to move him from the small town of Arras. He was a remarkable student. He managed to receive his law degree and became a lawyer in Arras in 1781 where he decided to get closer to his family and share a house with his sister, Charlotte. After practicing law for a few years he was then appointed as a judge, which along with his private practice provided well for him financially. Then he was appointed judge to the “Salle Episcopale,” which was a court which judged bishops. This work gave him judicial authority over Catholic Bishops even though he had complete disdain for Catholicism and did not believe in God at all.
Robespierre enjoyed speaking out to encourage political change. He used his voice in many ways but because he was not a loud speaker, the easiest way he could be heard was writing articles, which were in-depth opinion pieces. Although most believed that Robespierre lived a sheltered and isolated life, he was actually very public and open to mingling with nobles and young people in his district. He was a very well dressed and groomed man, because he believed looking good in front of his public was useful. Looking fashionably put together made him seem mature. He was correct in that assumption, and any woman ever will agree.
In 1783 he was accepted into the Arras Academy in France where he first became the chancellor for a short amount of time, and secondly became the president for the entire community. Robespierre was very intelligent and used that gift to win academic competitions. He was very smart and loved writing, especially if it was about his opinion on anything. One piece he wrote, The “Memoire sur les Peines Infamantes”, meaning the “Report of Degrading Punishments” won first place at the Academy of Metz at a sophisticated academic competition.
By 1788 Robespierre was already very popular for both his community work and intelligence. But, he frightened wealthy people because of the way he practiced law and because he willingly represented poor people in court. During his “Report for Lord Dupond,” which was a paper written against arbitrary justice and royal absolutism, people became alarmed about Robespierre’s views because he was challenging the power of the King. He was a revolutionary.
The Estates-General, which had not met since 1614, was called for a meeting. The Estates-General was basically the representative assembly for each area of France. Upon the news of the upcoming Estates-General, Robespierre wrote “A la nation artesienne sur la necessite de reformer les Etats d’Artois”, and in English meaning, “To the people of Artois on the Necessity of Reforming the Estates of Artois.” In 1789 the people of Arras decided on Robespierre to be one of their new representatives and later he was elected as the fifth out of eight in Artois to be a deputy. He then began his political career at the age of thirty.
As previously noted, Robespierre always made himself heard, even in front of a live audience in spite of his soft voice. Many attacks within the royalist press were made against him which showed that he was drawing more attention as well as gaining popularity quickly due to his agreement with the idea of a democratic Assembly. His popularity was sometimes notoriety because people called him an arrogant fool and a liar for his ideas. Robespierre was unfazed by the negative talk.
In June of 1790 he was elected secretary of the National Assembly. In April a few months before, he became leader of the Jacobins, a large political clubs which promoted the ideas of the French Revolution. Jacobins proposed the Monarchy be overthrown and the people be given the power to run the government. Shortly thereafter, in October he was elected to be a judge in the Versailles tribunal. Robespierre was a hard worker and devoted all of his time to his work at the National Assembly. His dedication to the cause meant there were times he worked for over twenty-four hours straight.
Being in favor of liberty and demanding a trial for King Louis XVI made Robespierre increasingly unpopular so he pushed towards a constitutional vote. On September 3, 1791 the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen became the introduction to the French Constitution. Being a just man he was racially and religiously tolerant, which were both rare at the time, and gave him enemies. He defended anyone he thought was worthy to defend. Robespierre’s work in the National Assembly included the introduction of a law that all new deputies be elected again to the next legislature, so they could get the work done they had been elected to do.
“Any law which violates the inalienable rights of man is essentially unjust and tyrannical; it is not a law at all.” –Maximillien Robespierre (OxfordReference.com)
Robespierre’s gift was that of an agitator. He fought with the more conservative, Girondins who were in favor of sparing the King’s life, and won. Robespierre’s natural charisma allowed him to sway the National Convention where he convinced his countrymen to execute the king in 1792 due to consistent loss in wars and a dwindling food supply.
Robespierre’s power was confirmed through the Committee of Public Safety in 1793, which ran the government of France. This leadership role eventually enabled what became known as The Reign of Terror. As the president of the Jacobin Club and the National Convention, he criticized all Parisians who were hording food and using access to food to cause riots in Paris. People were fighting over food. Shortly after that, a law was passed which removed a suspect’s right to both a public trail and legal assistance. All that he previously championed as a defense attorney, he gave up for the Revolution, willingly seeing more of his countrymen sent to the guillotine. Certainly Robespierre had descended into a hellish desire to kill people and considered it justified. That is not how his story as an attorney began.
The once quiet and kind Robespierre was known for liking execution. He preferred using a new invention called the guillotine, which was invented in 1789 by a Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotine who wanted a gentler way of execution. Guillotines were built with a large wooden stable base, and long wooden rails connecting at the top with a large blade in a slanted angle connected to a rope. They thought this made it much easier for the people being executed and also was much cleaner. Cleaner? They must have just ignored all the blood flowing from the freshly executed body. In fact, the Reign of Terror and the Guillotine will always be associated with Robespierre. In his position of power, he had 16,000 supposed enemies of the state executed and had thousands more beaten to death in prisons for daring to oppose the revolution.
Robespierre’s doom was sealed when the National Assembly turned on him and arrested him and his friends. Those very men who had started the mass killing of their countrymen in a purge of anyone who disagreed with their political ideas, were now at risk as of July 27, 1794. In a lucky move for Robespierre, the head jailer refused to lock him up and Robespierre was allowed to escape to the Hotel de Ville. For Robespierre, the fight was over and he declined to rally his supporters to lead another insurrection. The National Assembly declared him an outlaw once his escape was known. He went from hunter to the hunted overnight. In response to his certain death sentence to come, Robespierre tried to shoot himself in the head. Ironically, he failed and only shot himself in the jaw and was in pain when he was finally arrested by the National Convention Troops and returned to Paris.
On July 28, 1794, Robespierre and 21 of his associates were sent to the guillotine with the remaining 82 executed the next day. Thus the Reign of Terror ended dramatically with the blood of its proponent running off the guillotine.
Robespierre’s main claim to fame in history is that of a bloodthirsty dictatorial madman who started the Reign of Terror in 1793. He saw righteousness in arresting 300,000 supposed enemies of the Revolution, allowing 10,000 to perish in jail, and to execute 16,000 by guillotine in the Place de la Revolution in Paris. He used deadly means to remove all political competition. All that from a man who had previously championed the cause that all people are equal and should be able to participate in their government.
Robespierre’s place in history is assured based on the Reign of Terror alone. However, he also championed the rights of “the people” to rule themselves. His peers attempted to remove and destroy all of his written work after his death. But his ideas and writings became popular again in the following centuries because some of his ideas were good, he was a patriot, and he believed he was putting his country first.
Scott, Otto. Robespierre the Fool as Revolutionary Inside the French Revolution. Mason & Lipscomb Publishers, 1974.