The great scream of pain that Maximilien Robespierre emitted as he was guillotined in July 1794 has echoed down the years. His political career has become emblematic of the dedicated revolutionary willing to sacrifice both friends, and ultimately himself, for the good of the cause.
Robespierre has divided opinion among his numerous biographers, just as he provoked profoundly conflicting responses from his contemporaries. He has always inspired and repelled in equal measure. Yet all too often Robespierre is wrenched out of context, a psychiatric case whose personal incorruptibility deprived him of human sympathy, the first in a line of ideological fanatics which led to Lenin and Pol Pot. Peter McPhee prefers to place Robespierre on precise historical terrain, a task for which he is eminently well qualified, having written extensively on the French revolution. He conducts his examination of the evidence scrupulously, quoting copiously from his prolix subject, in a highly absorbing fashion.
Much initial space is devoted to Robespierre’s 30 years of prerevolutionary life. A hardworking, scholarship boy, educated in Paris, he returned to a relatively unexceptional life as a lawyer in his native Arras. The 1789 revolution afforded him, like many obscure provincials, the unexpected opportunity to participate in national politics. He scarcely left the limelight in the capital during the next five years.
Though not a natural orator, he spoke frequently in both the National Assembly and the Jacobin club, where he tested the waters with like-minded radicals. His obstinate dedication to principle, notably the defence of equality enshrined in the Rights of Man and a universal male franchise, endeared him to ordinary Parisians, but infuriated parliamentary colleagues. Indeed, his opposition to war in 1792 further isolated him, only to elevate his stature when the conflict exacerbated the very tensions it was intended to diminish, just as he had predicted.
Ironically, the disastrous war he had so strenuously opposed propelled him to power, though hardly in the most propitious circumstances. It was during a brief but momentous period for the infant First Republic, from 1793 to 1794, that Robespierre enjoyed office, as a member of the supreme Committee of Public Safety. Lacking a specific portfolio, he was responsible for justifying draconian emergency measures known as the Terror, adopting a role that has excited controversy ever since. “Did you want a revolution without revolution?” he once declared. However, he always stressed that his task involved inculcating ‘virtue’ (generally accepted as the requisite moral foundation for a republican regime), as well as the need to administer repression.
Robespierre presided over a period of democratic experimentation as well as violence, with welfare and educational initiatives accompanying the bloodshed, but it was difficult to resist the temptation of forcing regeneration on the benighted masses. Above all, he failed to acknowledge that patriotic unity was dissolving as the crises that had catapulted him to the forefront were brutally resolved. By the summer of 1794 he was losing support, among politicians and people, yet seemed incapable of indicating an alternative course.
The ease of his overthrow in the Thermidor coup should scotch any notion of a Robespierrist dictatorship. He had no party, nor gang at his disposal. He was a poor tactician and decisiveness was never his forte: he agonised when faced with the overturning of the monarchy in 1792, or the expulsion of Girondin deputies from the National Convention in 1793. Inaction proved fatal as he came to grief and, for an individual who relied so heavily on words to command authority, it was a particular tragedy to be rendered speechless, after a gunshot shattered his jaw when he was arrested.
McPhee brilliantly evokes the weaknesses as well as the strengths of this thin-skinned, diminutive figure, who suffered recurrent bouts of nervous exhaustion and withdrew from the fray at vital moments. As this stimulating book shows, those who come to play a leading part in times of upheaval are shaped by events rather than controlling them.
Full of lofty idealism yet plagued by insecurity, cut down prematurely then posthumously dogged by notoriety, Robespierre incarnates the very essence of a revolutionary life.
Malcolm Crook is professor of French history at Keele University. Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life by Peter McPhee is published by Yale University Press.