French Revolutionaries - Robespierre - 'L'Incorruptible'

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Perhaps the single name most widely associated with the French Revolution is that of Robespierre (1758-1794). Although not particularly influential in the flurry of political reform that overturned the Ancien Regime in 1789, he was an early radical thinker and speaker in the Constituent and Legislative Assemblies. He built up his political power-base as a successful speaker at the parisian revolutionary 'club' known as the Jacobin Club. He was the rising star there in 1790 and dominated until his death in 1794. It was not until his election to the Convention in 1792 that this rigid republican began directly to control events at a national level, though.

The period for which Robespierre is best known corresponds with the year during which he first replaced Danton as the leading policy-maker of the Committee for Public Safety (CPS) and over the course of which he and his closest supporters arguably saved the revolution by the imposition of a bloody totalitarian regime that is known to history simply as The Terror. Nicknamed 'the incorruptible' because of his claim to act purely in the interests of 'the Republic', Robespierre held the reigns of power during the period that is best recognised in the image of crowds of raving Parisians cheering as each new victim lost their head to the Guillotine, to be held aloft by the people's favourite executioner, Samson. Could he have suspected that he too would take his turn? Or that the crowds would greet their former hero's decapitation with no less enthusiasm than they had that of former Quenn Marie-Antoinette?

An early radical

Maximilien de Robespierre, born in Arras on April 6th, 1758, came to the Estates-General as a young and full of the new ideas. As a promising law student Rousseau had been his great hero and when he was elected to represent the Third Estate at the E-G he immediately began to demand greater freedom of expression denounced censorship of the press and called for the right to hold mass-meetings. He was against the royal veto from the outset and after the fall of the Tuileries he was one of the first to advocate the exectution of the King.

Political success

In 1792 a Paris 'section' (electoral constituency) elected the vociferous and ever more radical revolutionary to represent them in the Convention, where he immediately found his place with the extreme left 'Montagne'. The more conservative Girondin party accused him in the Chamber of aspiring to dictatorial power but only succeeded in getting themselves expelled from the influential Club des Jacobins where Robespierre was now a leading figure.

Robespierre had proposed to his peers in the chamber that the King be summarily executed, on the authority of a decree from the Convention, but it was decided that a trial should be held. When the time came, the now zealous revolutionary voted Louis' execution without compunction and turned his attention to the matter of governing revolutionary France. Having first arranged to have Danton removed from the CPS, the man who would initiate and prosecute the regime of swift and terrible 'revolutionary justice' known as the Terror took his place as effective head of the revolutionary government and effectively assumed absolute power.

Robespierre in power - The Terror

Robespierre believed that the only way to steer France safely through this period of counter-revolution at home and war with the European powers abroad was a strong centralised executive authority - basically himself and his chosen colleagues on the CPS. Inspired by his revolutionary ideals, he believed that the ends justified the means and that only a regime of Terror waged by men of great moral virtue and pure republican ideals could save France. His peers respected his integrity and austere lifestyle (he was nick-named 'The Incorruptible' for his lack of interest in money), but feared his stubbornly dogmatic attitudes.

In the course of his year at the head of the CPS and thus as effective dictator of France Robespierre was merciless in his political purges. He refused the radical demands of the 'Enragés', who had supported him many times in the past and were now calling for him to implement radical economic reforms promised in the past. To put an end to these demands, he had the 'Hébertistes' (a group of radical deputies centred around a vitriolic revolutionary journalist-turned radical revolutionary named Hébert) arrested and guillotined on March 24 1794. The pendulum then swung the other way when Robespierre and St Just had Danton's moderate 'Indulgents', including another popular revolutionary journalist named Camille Desmoulins, sent to the scaffold as well. This left Robespierre and his trusted associates with their hands untied and able to carry the Terror to new heights. The 22 Prarial Law reduced what was already a show-trial to a simple sentencing before the revolutionary judge. The body-count mounted more and more quickly.

The Cult of the Supreme Being

Although he will not be remembered for it, one of Robespierre's chief personal aims was to give revolutionary France a new religion; The Cult of the Supreme Being. Despite his anti-clerical attitudes, he wanted to erect a morally pure and virtuous republic and he believed that the way to do so was to give the nation new spiritual foundations and perhaps divine authority to the revolution itself. So the Incorruptible unnofficial dictator of France had the Convention pass a law proclaiming the existence of a supreme being and the immortality of the soul, then organised a quasi-religious ceremony at which he himself presided.

9th Thermidor - the fall of Robespierre

With heads falling 'like roof-slates', in the words of one politician of the time, the rest of the Convention deputies began to feel uneasy with Robespierre and his junta. The war was going well and an important victory at the Battle of Fleurus on June 26 made the danger of foreign invasion slight. Robespierre was aware that plots were being hatched and chose not to attend the chamber for several days. On July 27th he returned and made a speech denouncing those who plotted against him, but without naming names. This proved to be a mistake because it enabled the plotters to persuade the doubters that the time had come to act against the Robespierre faction.

The next day St Just was interrupted in the midst of trying to read a report when Tallien spoke up and denounced Robespierre as a tyrant. St Just tried to defend his colleague but was prevented by the president of the assembly, also in on the plot. After a tumultuous session Robespierre and co were arrested, but the radical Paris Municipal Council (always a source of strong support for Robespierre) refused to accept this. They formed the sans-culottes into their national guard sections and rescued the prisoners, who took refuge in the Town Hall. The Convention responded by declaring them outlaws and sent their own forces to re-arrest them.

This time Robespierre saw that there was no hope and attempted to commit suicide with a pistol. He succeeded only in shattering his jaw and was taken to the Tuileries where he was laid out on a table. The next evening, along with his associates St Just, Couthon, and his brother Augustin, Maximilien de Robespierre was put to the guillotine, to the delighted cheers of the usual crowd of onlookers. The Incorruptible had fallen and at last the end of the Terror was in sight.

This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.

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