This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
On 10 Thermidor, Year II in the new revolutionary calendar – 28 July 1794 to us today – Maximilien Robespierre climbed the steps to the guillotine stationed in Paris’s Place de la Révolution. The watching crowd roared its approval as he staggered across the plinth, was strapped to the plank, and waited for the blade to fall.
Within seconds, he was dead. But that wasn’t the end of the bloodletting. Over the following three days, more than 100 of Robespierre’s friends, colleagues and supporters were dispatched – damned as traitors – in the biggest mass-guillotining of the French Revolution.
What happened on 28 July 1794 constituted a stunning reversal of fortune. Only 36 hours previously, Robespierre had been one of the most powerful men in France, a dominant figure in the revolution that, from 1789, had swept away the old order.
All that changed when Robespierre took his seat at the National Convention – the French Revolutionary Assembly – on 9 Thermidor (27 July). Soon after his arrival, members of his own radical group, the Jacobins, were shouting him down, preventing him from speaking. Moments later, they ordered his arrest.
Spectacular as it was, Robespierre’s fall from grace came as no great surprise. In fact, Robespierre saw his death coming. The night before his arrest he spoke at the Jacobin Club, the nerve centre of his support, telling the emotional audience that the speech was his “last will and testament”. He would become a martyr for the revolutionary cause to which he had dedicated his life. His parting words were: “I leave you my memory, and you will defend it.”
Yet that memory has been hugely contested. In the 220 years since his death, commentators, especially those on the left, have hailed Robespierre as a heroic, if tragic, figure. To others – probably the great majority – he was the man of terror, a demon whose death was a blessing for the French people.
Robespierre’s reputation is bound up indelibly with the ‘Reign of Terror’ that bedevilled France in the wake of the revolution. Revolutionary terror took a number of forms. By far the biggest loss of life occurred during the civil war of 1793 in the Vendée in western France where counter-revolutionary forces led peasant armies against the revolutionaries. As many as 250,000 insurgents and 200,000 republicans are estimated to have perished in the ensuing carnage.
Terror also took the form of spontaneous violence unleashed by crowds on the streets. The worst outbreak of street violence was that of the September Massacres of 1792, which took place shortly after the fall of the monarchy, against an atmosphere of rising panic at the prospect of invading foreign armies taking Paris. Over several grim days, impromptu gangs invaded the Paris prisons, dragged out prisoners they suspected of being ‘counter-revolutionaries’, and used knives and pikes to butcher them in the streets. About 1,200 died, including priests, women and nobles, as well as some hapless ordinary criminals caught up in the frenzy. Eyewitnesses described piles of bodies by the prisons, and gutters that ran with blood.
However, the ‘Reign of Terror’, the infamous period of bloodletting with which Robespierre is associated, wasn’t unleashed until Year II (beginning September 1793) when the Convention passed a series of coercive laws that enabled the revolutionaries to “rule by iron those who cannot be ruled by justice”.
Thousands perished in the following 12 months – 2,639 alone under the guillotine in Paris. Victims ranged from obscure cooks, servants and peasants – luckless victims of a spiteful denunciation – to courtiers who had once danced at Versailles. One of the latter was the elderly Comtesse du Barry, in former times the beautiful mistress of Louis XV. She went to the guillotine screaming and begging the indifferent crowd to save her.
Some of the most dramatic scenes at the guillotine took place when the victims were former revolutionary leaders. When Madame Roland, a fervent revolutionary and wife of the former minister of the interior, arrived at the guillotine, she saw the plaster statue of Liberty in its prominent position close by and, in a voice that carried to the watching crowd, she cried out: “Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!”
As a leading member of the notorious and hugely powerful Committee of Public Safety – which orchestrated the Terror – Robespierre bears his share of responsibility for its acts. Yet the picture of him as a tyrant gripping France is a caricature. To use terror was a collective choice. Robespierre was one of 12 revolutionaries on the Committee, all of whom were strong-minded radicals, committed to the same policy.
One way of understanding what Robespierre was really like is to look at the kind of man he was before the revolution began. He was a provincial lawyer in his native town of Arras in the north of France. The community in which Robespierre lived was a world away from Versailles, and the cynical, amoral, duplicitous Parisian nobles described in Laclos’s notorious novel Dangerous Liaisons.
Poor man’s lawyer
A hard-working, gentle and studious man, Robespierre took his responsibilities seriously, and shouldered the burden of caring for his younger brother and sister after the early loss of their parents. He was not particularly political before the revolution – few people were – but he had marked sympathies for the poor and downtrodden. He was known as a poor man’s lawyer, rather than one who chose his clientele on the basis of their ability to pay. He was sympathetic to women’s civic equality and was well integrated in Arras society.
Robespierre was just 31 when the revolution began; not yet married, though he engaged in some tentative courting of one or two young women in his circle. In short, he led an unremarkable life. Yet, it was one characterised by a sense of justice and injustice, and sympathy for the underdog, long before the possibility of a career in revolutionary politics made this kind of belief expedient.
Robespierre embraced the revolution from the outset. Like so many others, he was exhilarated by the possibility that the world he knew might be transformed for the better. Not content to observe from a distance, he was elected to what became the first National Assembly. Here it was no easy matter to gain a political voice. He was an unknown deputy among 1,200 others. He had no connections, no wealth, no influence – only his skill with words. He set out to make his reputation as a speaker. It was a long process, which he undertook with persistence and self-belief.
Robespierre was a radical democrat. In contrast to the moderates who dominated the early years of the revolution, he argued that all men should have a vote – even the poor – and opposed slavery in the French colonies. He deplored the death penalty as a barbaric and cruel punishment, but – and here was the crucial point – he made an exception for traitors who committed crimes against their country. In such cases, the public good could justify their deaths.
Robespierre gradually won the people’s support by convincing them that he was on their side. He could not be co-opted into the ruling elite, or bought by promises of wealth and powerful jobs. He became known as ‘the Incorruptible’, a tribute to his integrity. Though he certainly had flaws – he could be self-righteous, thin-skinned, and obdurate – for most of his revolutionary career he showed sound political judgment, and cautioned against violent extremism that could make the revolution hated. Unlike some of the reckless radicals, he believed until relatively late that the monarchy should be retained. He was almost a lone voice in opposing the declaration of war with Austria in April 1792, a conflict that brought about the overthrow of the monarchy, destabilised the country, and sent the revolution hurtling towards terror.
The key to Robespierre’s transformation does not lie in some flaw in his personality, but in the politics of the revolution itself. When the Jacobins came to power they wrote the most democratic, egalitarian and libertarian constitution that the world had yet seen. Then they shelved it “until the peace”. Robespierre did not cease to be a democrat. But he thought that other things were more important – chief of which was the survival of the republic. Everything must be subordinated to that. The summer of 1793 saw a major crisis in the revolution. France was now at war with a number of European powers. There was civil war in the Vendée and uprisings against the Jacobin government. France’s leading general, Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez, had attempted to lead his army on Paris to overthrow the Convention. The revolutionaries were beset on all sides. In this context, the Convention itself voted for stringent measures that permitted terror in time of extreme danger for the country.
While some Committee members were more practical organisers, Robespierre was the man whose speeches provided the legal and moral justification of terror, a role for which he would pay dearly. He became its public apologist.
What makes idealistic men choose terror? It is a problem as relevant today as it was in the late 18th century. As Robespierre’s most recent biographer, Peter McPhee, argues, rather than thinking of Robespierre as the man who ruined the revolution, we should see him as a man that the revolution ruined.
To understand why Robespierre and other revolutionary leaders supported such extreme measures we must unravel the tangled, toxic world of revolutionary politics in the Year II. Like his colleagues, Robespierre was motivated by conviction – but also by fear. The revolutionary leaders were under intense pressure. Any political activist who was seen to fall short of complete dedication to the revolutionary cause, who was denounced for having personal ambitions, for being open to corruption, for putting his own friends before the public good, for being in the pay of France’s enemies, risked the guillotine. The integrity of their words and actions was judged by suspicious observers. This could be a spectator in the public galleries, a member of the crowds on the streets, a revolutionary journalist, or, indeed, one of his readers.
Above all, revolutionary politicians were in danger of being denounced by one another. The guillotine cast a long shadow and, of all the cases that came before the Revolutionary Tribunal during Year II, none were pursued more ruthlessly than those involving France’s new leaders. Once they appeared before it, they were doomed, and a succession of political factions passed under the guillotine.
Of all Robespierre’s actions, his role in the deaths of fellow leading revolutionaries Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins, both of whom had been his personal friends, did most to stain his reputation. Robespierre had tried to save them, but when it came to a choice between his friends and what he believed to be the security of the revolution, he chose the latter. Once he had made up his mind to agree to their arrest, there would be no turning back, no mercy. He used his knowledge of their private lives to add weight to the denunciation made against them; and he supported the decision to arrest them without warning, giving them scant chance to defend themselves.
One possible interpretation of Robespierre’s actions in his final weeks is that he was having some kind of breakdown. Certainly he had lost his political judgment. Yet had he really been the ‘tyrant’ he is so often damned as being, he would have taken the precaution of having his enemies arrested before making his final address to the Convention.
Instead he arrived with only his speech in his hand to defend himself. Much of this address consisted of an anguished protest at how his integrity had been undermined by his enemies.
He also brandished a list of Jacobins whom he wanted to denounce in a further purge. Yet he refused to give their names and, in doing so, gave much of his audience the impression that they were next in line for the guillotine. It was a fatal miscalculation on his part. When the deputies called Robespierre a tyrant it was not because of his part in the laws instigating the Terror, it was because they feared that he would denounce them, as he had denounced the Dantonists. They were afraid for their own lives. As one of the deputies said later: “Thermidor… was not a question of principles, but of killing.” The survivors pinned the blame on Robespierre. Robespierre was the fall guy whose death enabled other men with blood on their hands to wind down the Terror and to rehabilitate their own reputations.
Had Robespierre died in 1792, even early 1793, we would have remembered him as a principled man, inspired by the ideals of liberty and equality. But he did not die then. He lived on to take his place in a government that made use of terror, he defended the use of terror and, ultimately, he too was destroyed by it.
Marisa Linton is reader in history at Kingston University. She is author of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, June 2013)