"Robespierre was either a tyrant or a servant of the people; a savior of the Revolution or the devil incarnate. Yet, like so many figures of the past, the truth of the matter is somewhat more complex. "
Robespierre grew up in Arras (a 'ras) roughly 100 miles north of Paris. The son of a lawyer, he became a lawyer and distinguished himself both in legal practice and as a local official. The young lawyer had a reputation for compassion representing the poor in court which aroused the suspicions of the local gentry. The distrust was further inflamed when he put himself forward as a candidate to represent the province in the Estates'-General, France's parliament in 1789. For the first time since 1614, King Louis XVI, facing national financial bankruptcy and deep-seated social unrest, had called the Estates-General to meet at Versailles and deliberate on the future of France. As the fifth of eight deputies elected from Artois, Robespierre took his seat with the Third Estate and began his political career and meteoric rise to ultimate power.
Context: The Estates-General consisted of three parts, First Estate, Clergy, Second Estate, Nobility, Third Estate, and the Commons. Robespierre served in the Third Estate. From the beginning, he made his mark, speaking articulately over 500 times in the National Assembly on behalf of the lower classes, defending the rights of Jews, black slaves, and actors, and opposing royal veto and religious discrimination. In 1790 he became closely identified with a left-wing political club, the Jacobins, named for their meeting place, an ancient Catholic monastery. The Jacobins acted akin to a political party or radical pressure group within the National Assembly with their confederates sat high on the left side of the Chamber. Eventually, Robespierre and his allies were called Montagnards or the Mountain. In 1791 King Louis and his family tried to flee the country and then were proven to be plotting with the foreign enemies of France. After the outbreak of war with Austria and the so-called Second Revolution in 1792, Robespierre successfully argued for the King's execution.
In the Spring of 1793, France faced a series of problems that would have broken any other power. Effectively, a coalition of European armies threatening the border, food riots in Paris, a peasant revolt in the southwest, the City of Lyon in rebellion, and the Mediterranean naval base at Toulon surrendered to the British. The Committee of Safety was formed and by summer it was led by Robespierre, but for the first time since Louis XIV, France had a government that was determined to rule.
Robespierre faced a coalition of European armies amassed on the border determined to crush the Revolution peasants were in revolt, and the City of Lyon had rebelled and the Mediterranean naval base at Toulon had been surrendered to the British. In an attempt to deal with the external threat, the Committee called the entire nation to arms, the so-called levee en masse. By 1794 850,000 men were under arms, dwarfing and defeating enemy armies. The peasantry was suppressed, and Lyon retaken with brutal tactics. In the south, a young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, recaptured the Toulon naval base and was promoted to brigadier general and his first taste of national acclaim.
In an effort to rid the country of internal dissent, the Committee instituted the Reign of Terror. Aristocrats, uncooperative priests, monarchist politicians, unsuccessful generals, and anyone too moderate or not extreme enough had their necks shaved by the guillotine. Robespierre's journalist friend Desmoulins, wrote of this period, "the gods are thirsty." By the summer of 1794, an estimated 40,000 had died. Robespierre was elected President of the National Convention on June 4th, but his overwhelming power made enemies and allies nervous. Eventually, a plot emerged, and he was arrested on July 27th. Revolutionary justice was swift, and the next day the heads of Robespierre and 22 of his followers rolled into the bloody baskets on the Place de la Revolution. In the end, he was caught in the death machine of his creation. Robespierre would in the early years be condemned as a bloodthirsty tyrant, but later historical reflection softened this analysis and he is also remembered as a champion of the poor, destitute, and politically oppressed.
Copyright 1998 by Educational Broadcast, Inc.
[Edited by Hannah Holbert, 2023]