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Maximilien Robespierre (1758 – 1794). Pre-revolution background. Born in Arras, son of a barrister, Robespierre attended a prominent school and became a lawyer known for his defence of the poor.

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pre revolution background
Pre-revolution background
  • Born in Arras, son of a barrister, Robespierre attended a prominent school and became a lawyer known for his defence of the poor.
  • Robespierre at the age of 17 had been chosen out of five hundred pupils to deliver a speech to welcome the king. Upon arrival, the royal couple remained in their coach for the ceremony and immediately left thereafter.
  • Robespierre was an admirer of Enlightenment thought, in particular the work of Rousseau. His defence of the poor was a reflection of his Rousseau-influenced idea that the ordinary man is inherently good, that the purpose of government is to ensure general well-being, and that to achieve this government should reflect the ‘general will’.
the jacobin club
The Jacobin Club
  • Robespierre first enters the Revolution as a Deputy for the Third Estate of Arras at the Estates-General of 1789, aged 29. He was elected to the National Assembly, but could not stand in the Legislative Assembly due to his own ‘Self – Denying Ordinance’
  • Though originally elected from the provinces, Robespierre became a major figure in the Jacobin Club, perhaps the most important non-governmental political group of the French Revolution.
  • The Jacobins became the voice of republicanism and of the Paris Sections, and came to be seen as the political expression of the sans-culottes.
involvement in revolutionary events
Involvement in Revolutionary Events
  • Robespierre was a minimal figure during the early days of the Revolution, with little influence over events contained in AOS 1 (1781-Aug 1789)
  • Though he was just a provincial deputy at the Estates-General, by the time David came to produce his image of the ‘Oath of the Tennis Court’, Robespierre was given a prominent position.


revolutionary events cont
Revolutionary Events Cont.
  • Due to his absence from the Legislative Assembly Robespierre had little to do with the events of August 10, 1792
  • The only other ‘events’ of the Revolution at which Robespierre can be placed include:
  • The Festival of the Supreme Being (June 8, 1794)
  • 9-10 Thermidor, Year II (July 27-28, 1794) See slide 13
the festival of the supreme being june 8 1794
The Festival of the Supreme Being (June 8, 1794)
  • Robespierre promoted this festival as the new state religion of the Republic of Virtue (more of which later).
  • A follow on from the de-Christianisation of France, this reflected Robespierre’s belief in the Revolution as a force for moral, as well as political, social and economic, change.
  • Seen by some historians as the moment where Robespierre pushed too far, and lost touch with his support base

“Look at the bugger. It’s not enough for him to be master. He has to be god” - Thuriot

robespierre s ideology
Robespierre’s Ideology
  • ‘Vertu’ (Virtue): “What then is the fundamental principle of democratic or popular government… It is virtue… which is nothing other than the love of the land of your birth and its laws… a preference for the public interests above all particular interests.”
  • Terror: “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue… Does your government… resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed.”
  • The People: Like Rousseau, Robespierre believed that the common man, being close to nature, was less likely to be corrupted by modern society. He saw sans-culottes journees as direct democracy, though the Terror was institutionalised in order to curb the violent excesses of the crowd.
robespierre s personality
Robespierre’s Personality
  • The Incorruptable: Known for his fierce adherence to his principles, such as egalitarianism and patriotism.
  • Though loved by the sans-culottes, Robespierre maintained pre-Revolutionary bourgeois dress and manners, with a powdered wig instead of a bonnet rouge.
  • A great orator, due to his schooling and work as a lawyer, he was said to have a high squeaky voice.
robespierre s revolution
Robespierre’s Revolution
  • “What is the end of our revolution? …

We wish in our country that morality may be substituted for egotism, probity for false honour, principles for usages, duties for good manners, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, a contempt of vice for a contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good people for good company, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for tinsel show, the attractions of happiness for the ennui of sensuality, the grandeur of man for the littleness of the great, a people magnanimous, powerful, happy, for a people amiable, frivolous and miserable; in a word, all the virtues and miracles of a Republic instead of all the vices and absurdities of a Monarchy.

We wish, in a word, to fulfill the intentions of nature and the destiny of man, realize the promises of philosophy, and acquit providence of a long reign of crime and tyranny. That France, once illustrious among enslaved nations, may, by eclipsing the glory of all free countries that ever existed, become a model to nations, a terror to oppressors, a consolation to the oppressed, an ornament of the universe and that, by sealing the work with our blood, we may at least witness the dawn of the bright day of universal happiness. This is our ambition, - this is the end of our efforts....”

(The Purpose of the Revolution – Speech given by Robespierre, Feb 1794)

the terror and the committee of public safety
The Terror and theCommittee of Public Safety
  • Robespierre justified the use of Terror as necessary to preserve the victories of the Revolution and to help facilitate his ‘Republic of Virtue’
  • In July 1793 he joined and came to dominate the Committee of Public Safety, a radical committee that became the executive branch of the National Convention.
  • The role of the Committee of Public Safety (April 6 1793) was to oversee the conduct of the war inside and outside of France, and to control supplies to the military and civilian population. Therefore, the committee, who met in secret and kept no minutes, determined the political and economic policies of France at this time, rather than the National Convention.
  • This arrangement was made official by the Law of Frimaire (December 4, 1793), granting the Committee of Public Safety full executive powers.
law of frimaire law of 22 prairial
Law of FrimaireLaw of 22 Prairial
  • The Law of Frimaire is also known as the ‘Constitution of the Terror’, as it concentrated power into the hands of the Committees, appearing to reject the ideas of 1789. However, Schama has pointed out that it was designed to curtail the violence of the crowd and sans-culotte, and in effect to bring an end to the journees.
  • The Law of 22 Prairial (June 10, 1794) extended the reach of the Revolutionary Tribunal, and limited the ability of the accused to defend themselves, broadening the scope of those who might be brought within the purview of revolutionary justice. The penalty for all offences under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Tribunal was death.
  • It provided for a climate of moral suspicion with the clause which stipulated that: Every citizen is empowered to seize conspirators and counterrevolutionaries, and to bring them before the magistrates. He is required to denounce them as soon as he knows of them.
  • This law was to prove the downfall of Robespierre, as it meant that virtually anybody could be accused and executed.
9 10 thermidor
9-10 Thermidor
  • June and July of 1793 is known as ‘The Great Terror’. 50% of people guillotined in Paris during the Terror were done so in these two months, despite French military victories ensuring the safety of the Revolution and the French Nation.
  • On 8 Thermidor, Robespierre made a speech accusing unnamed Deputies of the National Convention. He increasingly became seen as a dictator, who executed political opponents. His economic policies were not working, and the immediate military threat to France had subsided. Therefore, both Deputies and citizens questioned the need for government by Terror.
  • Robespierre, and accomplices in the Committee of Public Safety, were arrested and executed in accordance with their own laws. The Terror was over.
  • Any discussion about Robespierre can not avoid the Terror; for many historians the man and the era seem synonymous.
  • Though many historians agree that Robespierre’s aim to unite the Revolution during a time of crisis was worthy, most
  • Garrioch argues that during 1793 “Robespierre betrayed most of the principles he stood for”, including the use of capital punishment, religious tolerance and civil liberties.
  • Furet views the Terror as a political movement utilized to keep Jacobins in power, rather than a national counter-revolutionary measure.
  • Schama, however, views the Terror as the logical culmination of the Revolution, which was motored by violence. He also forwards the idea that the Terror was intended to be an institutionalised violence designed to curb the violent excesses of the sans-culottes.