Background

Take a moment to picture the ideal, perfect world. Odds are you thought about world peace, global health, the end of poverty, and an overall raised standard of living. However, we’d likely each rank these aspects differently. When it comes to implementing the ideal, we all have different priorities and thus might compromise or forsake a lower goal or two in order to achieve what’s most important to us.

Reason

We see this constantly throughout history. Revolutionaries are willing to give up safety for enhanced liberties and freedoms while leaders during turbulent times do the opposite. Because of these exchanges and our own personal biases, historical figures can quickly become contested on whether they did more harm than good to their society. When it comes to the French Revolution and its ensuing years, there’s no one more controversial than Maximilien Robespierre.

Maximilien Robespierre

First known for his talent as a lawyer, Robespierre quickly became involved in the French political sphere. A persuasive writer but a mediocre speaker, Maximilien Robespierre was most influential behind the scenes rather than in direct spotlight. He’s commonly credited as an instrumental figure in both the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Maximilien Robespierre used a wide array of methods of varying morality in his pursuit of creating a united France.

The History

While Robespierre attended the National Assembly first as a deputy and then as a secretary, he didn’t have any great authority until after King Louis XVI’s execution. The Committee of Public Safety held a great deal of power over France, and, as a member of the committee, so did Robespierre.

From his days as a lawyer, Robespierre believed in the importance of equality before the law as well as the need to have direct elections when selecting officials. Now that the people of France had risen as, more or less, one group against their oppressors, it was vital to keep them united under a strong central power. In order to achieve an ideal society, Robespierre determined that there could be no splintering factions, only one expressed will.

The Reign of Terror was the roughly one year-long period during the French Revolution when many public executions and massacres were carried out by the Revolutionary government. Commonly cited causes of this murderous time are the growing anticlerical sentiment of France, the overall revolutionary fervor, and the large count of treasonous claims made by Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. The extent of Robespierre’s influence during the Reign of Terror has long been debated. After all, he was one man among many who were part of the powerful committee. On the other hand, he certainly helped create laws and decrees like the Law of Suspects, the Decree on Emergency Government, and the Law of Frimaire, all of which gave the committee more power while taking it from the people. 

It was the passing of the Law of 22 Prairial that sent Robespierre in particular out of public favor. The law doubled the number of executions of accused traitors to France and stripped their trials of nearly everything but their name, leaving only trial farces. Around the same time, Robespierre had insisted upon the need for a new official religion of France based on Deist beliefs. He made a public appearance where he preached about this new Cult of the Supreme Being. These two greatly unpopular moves sealed Robespierre’s fate. He was arrested and subsequently guillotined without trial along with twenty-two of his supporters on July 28, 1794.

So What

Robespierre first made a name for himself as a lawyer of the people. He defended Jews and black slaves and strongly believed in equality for all in the eyes of the law. Those familiar with his career remarked that Robespierre fought for the poor common man. He wanted to do away with economic disparity and increase the standard of living through education. Robespierre seems to have stood for everything the Enlightenment was about.

Yet his remarkable ability to incite those around him to action was not always used for good. Regardless of how much authority Robespierre actually held in the Committee of Public Safety, he still played a role in the Reign of Terror. Not all scholars can agree upon the legitimacy of the trials that took place, but it cannot be denied that a large number of those found guilty of treason and treachery were detractors of Robespierre. Furthermore, given his prestigious law career, he had to have helped draft many of the legal writings of the committee. The Law of Suspects passed in September 1793 provided a legal basis for the executions. The Decree on Emergency Government passed in October 1793 suspended the French constitution as well as the rights of individuals. The Law of Frimaire passed in December 1793 further condensed government power into the Committee of Public Safety. Robespiere played a key part in making these documents a reality. It’s hard to reconcile these acts with the personal beliefs and actions of the man just a few years prior. 

There aren’t always clear cut answers to ethical queries or even historical questions. To this day, historians hold divided opinions on Robespierre. Some insist that Robespierre was a scapegoat for the gross injustices that occurred. Others insist that Robespierre was a master manipulator who orchestrated bloody action. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, though we’ll never know for sure. He wasn’t the only leader who caused the Reign of Terror but he did play a large role. Robespierre championed a lot of noble causes but he likely made some concessions in the pursuit of the ideal. 

Sometimes we get so focused on building a better future that we don’t notice, or outright ignore, the mess we’re making in the present. Take a step back from your musings and be sure you’re not sacrificing your present for an uncertain future.

    Learn More

    1. Israel, Jonathan. Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre. Princeton University Press, March 2014. ISBN: 978-1-4008-4999-4.
    2. Jones, Colin. “The Overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre and the “Indifference” of the People.” The American Historical Review, vol 119, issue 3, pp 689–713, June 2014. Doi: 10.1093/ahr/119.3.689.
    3. Jordan, David P. The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. The University of Chicago Press, 1989. ISBN: 0-226-41037-4.
    4. Lynch, Kevin. “A Plagued Mind: The Justification of Violence within the Principles of Maximilien Robespierre.” Providence College, Spring 2013.
    5. McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life. Yale University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-300-11811-7.

    Think Further

    1. What was Robespierre’s greatest accomplishment? His greatest detriment?
    2. How do you view Robespierre? Why?
    3. How do you think Robespierre compares to other Enlightenment thinkers?

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