Maximilien Robespierre

Lawyer, Politician

"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) 100 miles north of Paris. The son of a lawyer, he became a lawyer and distinguished himself in legal practice and as a local official. He had a reputation for compassion representing the poor in court and thereby arousing the suspicions of the local gentry. Their 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.

Content: The Estates-General was divided into three parts. First Estate, clergy, Second Estate, Nobility, Third Estate, the commons. Robespierre served in the Third Estate. From the beginning he made his mark, speaking articulately over 500 times in the National Assembly in behalf of the lower classes, defending the rights of Jews, black slaves, actors, opposing the royal veto and religious discrimination. In 1790 he became closely identified with a left-wing political club, the Jacobins, named for their meeting place, a ancient Catholic monastery. The Jacobins acted something like a political party or radical pressure group within the National Assembly and along with their confederates sat high on the left side of the Chamber. Soon Robespierre and his allies came to be called montagnards or the Mountain. In 1791 King Louis and his family tried to flee the country and then was 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. 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. A 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 determined to rule.

Leading the Committee was Maximilien Robespierre, a north country lawyer turned radical politician. He faced a set of daunting challenges. A coalition of European armies were massed on the border determined to crush the Revolution. Peasants were in revolt, the City of Lyon had rebelled and the Mediterranean naval base at Toulon had been surrendered to the British. 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 peasants were suppressed and Lyon retaken with brutal tactics. In the south, a young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, recaptured the Toulon naval base and at 23 was promoted to brigadier general and his first taste of national acclaim.

To rid the country of internal dissent the Committee instituted the Reign of Terror. Aristocrats, uncooperative priests, monarchist politicians, unsuccessful generals, 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 overweening power made enemies and allies very nervous. A plot emerged and he was arrested on July 27th. Revolutionary justice is swift and the next day the heads of he and 22 of his followers rolled into the bloody baskets on the Place de la Revolution. Caught in the death machine of his own 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.

Birth Location: 
Arras, France
Birth Date: 
Death Location: 
Paris, France
Death Date: