Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de

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Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de (1758-1794): French revolutionary.

The most famous, and most reviled of all of the Jacobin leaders of the French Revolution, Robespierre was a provincial lawyer from Arras, where he was known as an advocate for the poor. In April, 1789, he was elected deputy to the Estates General for the Third Estate. Upon arriving in Paris, he promptly joined the Breton Club, which later became known as the Jacobin Club. Robespierre first came to prominence with a speech attacking the luxurious lifestyles of the Bishops and their lack of charity toward the poor. Subsequently, he became one of the leading spokesmen of the Left in the Constituent Assembly over the next two years, during which, as a democrat and a liberal, he supported adult male suffrage and opposed the death penalty.

Barred from seeking election in 1791 to the new Legislative Assembly by the self-denying ordinance, which he supported, he concentrated his political activities in the Jacobin Club. From there, he opposed France’s popular move to war on the grounds that war would undermine the work of consolidating the revolution at home and that French troops would be greeted with hostility by the peoples they claimed to liberate. He also led the Jacobin campaign for the removal of the King and the election of a National Convention on the basis of adult male suffrage. In September of 1792, he was elected to the newly-formed National Convention, where he called for the speedy execution of the King on the grounds that he had already been judged by the nation. Joined by influential members of the Convention like Danton, Georges, Marat, Jean-Paul and Desmoulins, Camille in his condemnation of Louis XVI, Robespierre averted the Girondins’attempt to save the French monarch. With the deterioration of France’s military fortunes, Robespierre played an important role in the fall of the Girondins (the more moderate revolutionaries led by Brissot, Jacques Pierre, and Vergniaud, Pierre). He was appointed to the Committee of Public Safety in July, 1793 and became its dominant figure until his fall a year later.

Confronted by external invasion and internal rebellion, Robespierre abandoned his liberal support for freedom of speech and the press. Instead, he maintained that the Revolution should be guided by a single will. His fear of aristocratic plots led him to support the repressive measures that came to be known as “The Terror” and led to the suppression by guillotine of his opponents on both his right and his left. On March 14, he had the Ultrarevolutionaries led by Hebert, Jacques arrested and executed ten days later. He viewed many of his former allies as rivals and on 30 March 1794, he had Danton and Desmoulins detained and guillotined on 5 April.

While best known for the Terror, the Committee of Public Safety under Robespierre’s leadership drafted laws involving peasant landholdings, industry, education, and public assistance. Though generally supportive of economic liberalism, it imposed price controls in the form of the general maximum of prices and wages. By the end of his tenure, the Committee had defeated the Revolution’s internal and external opponents and was once again poised to resume the offensive.

Robespierre was heavily influenced by Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and throughout his political activities he was guided by the ideal of a republic of virtue composed of medium and small property-holders, uncorrupted by wealth or poverty. Robespierre’s own reputation for personal probity was such that he became known as “the Incorruptible.” The capstone of this activity was his failed attempt in May-June 1794 to replace Catholicism and combat atheism with a deistic civil religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being, dedicated to the immortality of the soul and inculcation of the social virtues among the citizenry.

As a result of divisions within the Committee of Public Safety and between the Committee and the Convention, Robespierre and several of his colleagues were overthrown in the coup d’etat of 9 Thermidor. In a conspiracy mainly led by Tallien and Barras, the Convention unanimously voted the arrest of the triumvirate, Robespierre, Couthon and Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de. They were guillotined the following day on July 28, 1794.

Further reading:

George Rudé ed., Robespierre, 1967.

J. M. Thompson, Robespierre and the French Revolution, 1962.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University