Historical Figures

Maximilien de Robespierre - Biography

Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-1794) is by far the best known of the French revolutionaries. Head of the Jacobins club, he sat in the Assembly as a Montagnard when he voted for the death of the king and war on the European monarchies. In June 1793, the Committee of Public Safety, of which he was one of the most influential members, established the regime of Terror and had all those suspected of counter-revolution guillotined. Robespierre himself died at the guillotine in 1794. The controversies about him show that if he continued to unleash passions, he was also an essential figure, not only in the history of the French Revolution , but more broadly of the history of France.

Robespierre's first steps in politics

Born May 6, 1758 into a family of robins and merchants, Maximilien de Robespierre, motherless and neglected early on by his father, first enjoyed academic success - he obtains a grant to study at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, in Paris, where he frequents Camille Desmoulins - then social success in his hometown. A lawyer from 1781, he won cases there and became a member of the Académie des belles-lettres (perpetual secretary, then elected director in 1786). This rise, all in all modest, however comes up against local ostracism, which he provokes by his abrupt denunciations of the shortcomings of his contemporaries. He accentuates his exclusion from society through writings in which he criticizes the clientelism of the professions of justice then, in 1788, the will of the notables of Arras to protect their privileges in the states of Artois.

This entry into politics under the sign of radicalism is reflected in his election - difficult - at the Estates General of 1789 as deputy of the Third. He will be noticed there by many speeches (more than a thousand between 1789 and 1794), independently of his qualities as an orator, which remain controversial. His life will now merge with a public commitment at all times. As for the absence of a private life, it corresponds to an inclination, but also to a choice which explains his subsequent commitments and gives the man an extraordinary personality:living frugally with the carpenter Duplay in Paris, Robespierre was able to - with good reason - to be called "the incorruptible".

Ideas and principles

By July 14, 1789, Robespierre felt that the aristocrats had only seemingly capitulated to the popular upsurge and were pretending to applaud to reap the rewards. The defense of popular movements was the leitmotif of his speeches, which aroused enthusiasm in the most revolutionary newspapers. Isolated to the Constituent , he called the People to witness and remained in continual contact with them by publishing his speeches. Posterity has retained from his many interventions the application he had to fight the old aristocratic society and to liberate all the oppressed, for example the slaves of the colonies against the constitutionalization of the slave trade:“So your colonies perish if you keep them at this price », even if debates continue around the ambiguity that he may have had at times on this subject.

He also appeared as the defender of the natural rights of the people :against the death penalty, on the organization of the clergy, on the organization of the judiciary, on the organization of the national guards, a speech in which we find the motto of the republic today:"They will bear on their chest these words engraved:The French People, and below:Liberty Equality Fraternity ". Above all, Robespierre fought the tax system which, after the privilege of birth, introduced the privilege of money into society. To counterbalance this society of the rich he invariably opposed universal suffrage.

He also had an invariable attachment to the principles of Equality "People remember that if in the Republic, justice does not reign with an absolute empire, and if the word does not mean the love of equality and the fatherland, freedom is only a vain word (speech of 8 Thermidor Year II). This is how he was determined to limit the right of property to the common utility, differentiating the vital from the superfluous.

Robespierre made these intangible principles more than a political fight, a moral fight. He had thus attached to these universal laws the principle of public virtue so dear to Montesquieu. “What is the fundamental principle of democratic and popular government, that is to say, the essential spring that sustains it and makes it move? This is virtue; I speak of public virtue which worked so many wonders in Greece and Rome and which is to produce much more astonishing ones in republican France; of this virtue which is nothing other than the love of the fatherland and its laws (speech of 17 Pluviôse Year II).

The Incorruptible

Nicknamed The Incorruptible , Robespierre never varied from these principles until his death, which also contributed to his radical and uncompromising image. He who had never doubted the existence of an aristocratic plot since 1789 was the most resolute detractor of the Constituent Assembly which, following Varennes, preferred to invent an implausible story of kidnapping. However, he foresaw that the Assembly would take advantage of the petition from the popular society of the Cordeliers demanding the proclamation of the Republic to crush the dispute. To this end, martial law was proclaimed on July 17, by the Baillys and the Lafayettes, who fired on a crowd of unarmed men, women and children of the people gathered on the altar of Liberty.

Robespierre became increasingly popular with sans culottes parisiens . All of the democratic opposition, companies and patriots, were thus united around the Jacobins club in Paris while bringing to its craftsman the considerable prestige of the sans culottes of the whole of France. When it was time for the Constituent Assembly to separate, he had extracted from this assembly the decree which forbade its members to stand for the next legislature. He refused to allow deputies to retain their mandates indefinitely.

Robespierre and the war

Brissot and his companions, known since Lamartine as the Girondins , constituted a large bourgeoisie of bankers, merchants and shipowners of Bordeaux whose difference of interests with the bourgeoisie of the structures of the Ancien Régime made them the left wing of the new assembly. And when they proposed to start the conflict with the European powers, Robespierre rose from the Jacobins against a conflict which would generate "the death of the body politic ". Knowing that the Girondins were eyeing above all on the future exploitation of the ports of the North Sea, he denounced their maneuvers:a war “is good for military officers, for the ambitious, for speculators who speculate on these sorts of things. 'events .

Rejecting out of hand the hope of seeing European populations throw themselves into the arms of their invaders, Robespierre warned above all against the advent of a reduced to exceptional measures to defend themselves, risking falling into a military dictatorshipno one likes armed missionaries […] In times of trouble and factions, the leaders of the armies become the arbiters of the fate of their countries, and tip the scales in favor of the party they have embraced. If they are Caesars or Cromwells, they seize authority themselves (speech of December 18, 1791).

It was a waste of time, the opponents of the war could not indefinitely face hostile audiences and a public opinion won over to this eventuality. War was declared e by revolutionary France "to the King of Bohemia and Hungary" on April 20, 1792. The Revolution was threatened on all sides by its internal enemies in league with foreign powers, the emigrants with the Prussians, the Vendeans waiting for the help of the English , the royalists delivering Toulon to them…

The end of the monarchy

Robespierre's fight against the war had revealed him to be intransigent, it was with the same vigor that he prepared public opinion to overthrow the monarchy . On the other hand, he was aware of not being a leader of the insurrection and he preferred to encourage the insurgents by appealing to the Fédérés gathered in Paris by the voice of the Jacobins and by making them meet the Parisian Sans culottes at the carpenter Duplay. He contributed, like Marat, not only to preparing minds for this insurrection but to giving it a national character.

After August 10, 1792, he was elected to the General Council of the Commune, a mandate during which he refused to condemn the September massacres, believing that the responsibility fell to an incapable Legislative Assembly to face the foreign invasion at the gates of Paris (armies which had moreover promised to put the capital to fire and sword on their arrival).

He was elected on September 5 with his brother Augustin, MP for Paris to the new assembly, the National Convention which, at its first session of September 21, proclaimed that the monarchy was abolished in France.

The Girondins changed their status from the left wing of the Assembly to that of the right wing. They were then in opposition with the deputies who sat at the top of the bleachers, nicknamed the Mountain. Among them, Danton, Desmoulins, Marat, Robespierr e, all newly elected. The outbreak of the Battle of Valmy in September had offered a short-lived respite to the Revolution. In an extremely serious situation despite everything, the Gironde made the hope of a part of the rich bourgeoisie who previously lined up behind the Feuillants and who now hoped that the majority of the Convention would offer him a shaky peace with the enemy. , a pretext to complete the Revolution for their benefit.

Robespierre and the Montagnards then echoed the people at the Convention. This is a decisive stage of the Revolution. The popular classes now found themselves linked to the salvation of the Republic. He was finally able to see the application of his social policy, which he believed to be inextricably linked to this salvation. The situation of the Gironde is absolutely untenable in the face of the sans culottes of all France who feel that their victory of August 10 is confiscated from them. Distrustful of the people, reluctant to take measures of public safety, the Girondins were overthrown by the denunciations of the Mountain and the national popular day of June 2. As summarized by Albert Mathiez, "the Girondins were defeated because, in a word, they neglected the public safety and they locked themselves in a class policy for the benefit of the bourgeoisie alone .

Robespierre's social democracy

Robespierre put, within the revolutionary government , conduct social policy based on its convictions and principles. With the young conventional Saint-Just , he was one of the protagonists of social democracy. Proposing a new declaration of human rights as a preamble to the future Constitution of Year I, he declared that property was no longer a natural and imprescriptible right but a social fact defined by law:"the right of ownership is limited like all others by the obligation to respect the rights of others ". Speaking of the declaration of 1789:"your declaration seems made not for men but for the rich, for the hoarders, for the speculators and for the tyrants .

However, inequality and the privilege of wealth remained because of the play of economic laws. In this context, Robespierre was at the origin of the entry of the notion of social law in building the Republic. The Nation became responsible for controlling the right to property and responsible for establishing relative equality with the reconstitution of small property. The law ensured an equal division of the estates to divide the fortunes. Above all, Robespierre was the defender of the laws of Ventôse Year II presented by Saint-Just which gave to the indigent the property confiscated from suspects.

The Incorruptible was one of the architects of a new society recognizing its debt to the people. The duty it had was to educate its citizens. In this sense, on July 29, 1793, Robespierre presented to the Convention the project of education composed by Saint-Fargeau. A century before Jules Ferry, this project allowed everyone access to a common base of education, free, compulsory, freed from the shackles of the Church. The law of 22 Floréal (May 11, 1794) organized “national benevolence” and applied the declaration of 1793 to the letter:free medical assistance, home help for the elderly, allowance for injured workers, for the families of the dead for the homeland. It was an application of this first article of the 1793 Declaration of Rights proposed by Robespierre:“The goal of society is the common happiness ". Saint-Just also wanted to "give all French people the means to obtain the basic necessities of life without depending on anything other than the laws .

Finally, slavery was abolished , 16 Pluviôse Year II.

The “Terror”

While an entirely new society was created, the members of the Comité de Salut public , which Robespierre joined on July 27, 1793, were to lead revolutionary France to victory in the civil war and the foreign war, while mitigating the effects of this war felt by the populations. To this end was established, the dictatorship of public safety of the revolutionary government . Like many Convention members, he saw only one solution to bring the Revolution and its gains to victory, exceptional measures; exceptional measures that we know today as “Terror”.

Robespierre had believed since 1790 that the Nation could use exceptional force to achieve its goal. He summed up this thought in a famous speech of 25 Nivôse:“the goal of constitutional government is to preserve the Republic, that of revolutionary government is to found it. The Revolution is the war of Liberty against its enemies […] The revolutionary government needs extraordinary activity because it is at war ". Knowing the dangers of these exceptional measures, he gives them as a line a moral line already mentioned, civic Virtue:"If the mainspring of popular government in peace is virtue, the mainspring of popular government in revolution is both virtue and terror:virtue without which terror is fatal, terror without which virtue is powerless […] It is less a particular principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to the most pressing needs of the fatherland .

To feed the people, this government resorted to requisitions, and set a general maximum price for basic necessities. He ensured his independence by nationalizing wartime manufacturing. Let us add that the various measures of imprisonment of the suspects, judgment of the enemies of the Revolution by the revolutionary court were a substitute for the disorganized and fragile popular violence. This legal terror It was often accompanied by speeches whose accents were more vehement than their applications.

Contradictions and ruptures

The approach of victory in April 1794, revealed differences within the revolutionary government and confronted Robespierre with the contradictions of his policy. In the spring of Year II, the Revolution saw the emergence of factions that fell victim to the vigilance of the revolutionary government. The fiery journalist Hébert, editor of Père Duchesne, very close to popular circles, had fought the revolutionary government deemed too compromised with the bourgeoisie. He was guillotined with his companions. Danton, whom Robespierre defended until the day before his arrest, also fell for having taken on the role of leader of a motley faction of corrupt people, demanding a clemency committee, especially for them..."The Revolution is frozen> wrote Saint-Just.

Robespierre, during this period continued his policy by seeking to give a transcendental dimension to the Revolution, introducing the cult of the supreme being , 18 Floréal Year II:“The French people recognize the existence of the supreme being and the immortality of the soul ". Although this cult enjoyed the consent of the government, it aroused differences about religion. He was a deist, he believed in the free exercise of worship, reluctant to an atheistic dechristianization that he considered nihilistic and far from the concerns of the people:“We denounced priests for having said mass! They will say it even more if they are prevented from saying it. He who wants to prevent them is more fanatical than he who says mass ". This conflict introduced into the Convention a secret hostility which was felt even in the Parisian sections.

These sections began to rumble against a law that imposed the Maximum Wages. With the war receding, the bourgeoisie pressed to break some gains made by the wage earners, which they obtained. Despite a certain blindness of the Robespierrists, the revolution remained bourgeois . In the prelude to this fall, we must add the bureaucratization of the revolutionary authorities which distanced them from their original militancy and led them towards a civil service detached from the popular movement. All this slows down democracy in the sections and accentuates a weariness of the masses for their institutions. This is the fundamental contradiction that prepared the downfall of Thermidor.

9 Thermidor:the fall and death of Robespierre

In the institutions themselves, to the attempted attacks were added gossip and slander. The two Committees accused each other of mutual encroachment. The Law of Prairial Year II (June 1794), known as the "Great Terror was purposely diverted from its original purpose, namely to limit recourse to revolutionary government, in order to discredit Robespierre and Couthon, who were behind it. During a meeting and yet another argument within the Committee of Public Safety, he slammed the door to sink into a physical and psychological illness that kept him bedridden. Fouché and Tallien, who had good reason to believe that their survival depended on the fall of Robespierre , took advantage of his absence to galvanize the deputies on the right, the majority of the deputies neither from the mountains nor from the Girondins.

No doubt aware of all these contradictions and wanting to rely solely on national representation, Robespierre pronounced a discourse on 8 Thermidor Year II in which he defended his principles and denounced without naming certain members of the government. The next day, Saint-Just was interrupted while reading a report and a faction of deputies had decreed charges against the Robespierrists who were taken to prison. They were freed from it by the Paris Commune and taken to the Hôtel de Ville.

Refusing to lead an insurrection against national representation, the Robespierrists saw their meager defense dispersed throughout the evening, at the end of which Robespierre attempted to commit suicide and was arrested with his companions. The victors did not long bother with these cumbersome defendants and had them guillotined the next day, July 28, 1794 , to the cheers of the most bourgeois sections of western Paris.

An anecdote by Michelet, which cannot be accused of Robespierrism, has been repeated many times:"A few days after Thermidor, a ten-year-old boy was taken by his parents at the theater […] People in jackets, hats down said to outgoing spectators “Do I need a car, my master? The child did not understand these new terms. He was only told that there had been a great change since the death of Robespierre .

Robespierre, despite his contradictions, despite his mistakes and mistakes, was considered by many, and often the poorest, as a watchtower of democracy. Faced with the pragmatism of the liberal bourgeoisie, he laid the foundations of a society outside their utilitarian and profane frameworks by including the Revolution in a universal Legitimacy of justice, reason and morals. And it is this legitimacy that he designated by the Supreme Being. There is all the meaning, the fight, the real constant, the life of Robespierre. A vision that gives purpose to the Revolution. An invariable faith in democracy as he will describe it the day before his death in his last speech.


- Schmidt, Joël, Robespierre, Folio, 2011.

- Zizek, Slavoj, Robespierre, between Virtue and Terror, Stock, 2008

- Biard, M., Bourdin, P. (dir), Robespierre, cross portraits, A. Colin, 2012.

You can also always find an edition of his complete works:

- Robespierre, Maximilien, Complete Works, Society for Robespierrist Studies, 2007