Robespierre: Tyrant, Politician or Fanatic? (Part 1, by William Miles)

Robespierre: Tyrant, Politician or Fanatic (Part 1, by William Miles)

The circumstances surrounding the Terror in the French Revolution have split historians over the past centuries and continue to arouse debate even in the present day. Hugh Gough, in his aptly named book The Terror in the French Revolution, has summarised the different schools of thought into three distinct spheres. One cluster consists of conservative historians who condemn the revolution as a disaster, of which terror formed an intrinsic part from beginning to end. Conversely, there are socialist historians who perceive the Terror to be a legitimate tactic used to defend France against the threats of counter-revolution and war. Finally, the revisionist stance that considers revolution as an important step towards modern democracy, but argues that terror was an integral and insidious part of the revolution’s ideology from the outset. Gough reduces these positions further, branding them as Catastrophe, Circumstance and Cancer.

A similarly dynamic and diverse debate has revolved around the role of Maximilien Robespierre during the same period. This essay aims to briefly highlight and analyse the views of differing historians regarding him individually, and his endemic role in the Terror. Fouché and Merlin view Robespierre as a bloodthirsty tyrant, devoted to the cult of the guillotine, believing his use of the death penalty to be both excessive and unnecessary for achieving the purposes intended. This is most clearly indicated by Fouché’s assertion: “he had an unquenchable thirst for the blood of his colleagues”. Other historians have adopted very different approaches to Robespierre’s role. George Rudé argues that Robespierre was not the sadistic maniac revelling in terror for its own sake portrayed by Fouché and Merlin, but rather a skilled judge, willing to discriminate between those who were counter-revolutionaries and those who had merely been misled. Mathiez has gone even further in his defence of Robespierre, asserting that he was, in fact, a victim of his time. Mathiez exculpates Robespierre from any direct influence for the Great Terror of 1794, attaching blame instead to the misuse of the 22nd Law of the Prairial by Robespierre’s enemies in the committee of General Security, whilst explaining the events of Thermidor in terms of a conspiracy hatched predominantly by a clique of corrupt and blood thirsty vicious “pro-consuls”. Finally, a third stance is offered through Peter Kropotkin, who, in his book, Great French Revolution (1911), wrote that Robespierre was a fanatic, who “to establish his authority over men’s minds, was ready, if necessary, to pass over the dead bodies of his opponents”. Although Mathiez perhaps goes too far when he absolves Robespierre of any blame, the vast polarity between historians studying the man and his role in the period is demonstrated.

There is no wonder that Robespierre’s role has generated such vast debate, for his importance is clear. In the summer of 1794, a German visitor to Paris, upon viewing Robespierre, recalled: “When he mounts the rostrum, it is not with a studied indifference or exaggerated gravity, nor does he rush upon it like Marat; but he is calm, as though he wished to show from the outset that this is the place which, without challenge, is his by right”. Undeniably, Robespierre was an extremely gifted orator. However, to have influence during the period, this ability alone was not enough, and Robespierre’s individual dedication was instrumental. In 1789 alone, he spoke 68 times, surpassing even this feat when in power, with a reported nine hundred speeches over the course of five years. Such a portfolio propelled Robespierre to the centre of French politics and clearly demonstrates the influence of the man during the Revolution.

As D.G. Wright notes; “The debate about Robespierre’s motives, intentions and influence has now been going on for 200 years and looks like continuing forever”. Indeed, to comprehensively understand a man who has been dead for two centuries is a tenuous task that necessarily prompts debate. Was Robespierre the blood thirsty tyrant of Fouché’s world, or rather the level headed politician proposed by Rudé, or was he simply, as Peter Kropotkin wrote, a fanatic desperate to achieve his aims by any means necessary? In a redress of Gough’s system, we can simplify these views through the labels: tyrant, politician or fanatic? To answer this question, the sources will be analysed chronologically. The reason for this method, as oppose to a thematic appraisal, has stemmed from a realisation that, to understand a man, one must undergo the same journey as the man himself. A mind set cannot be explained by taking thematic examples over a period of time but rather by realising the order of events and, considering how they may have changed or shaped the mind and opinion of the people involved. Through this chronological approach, this essay hopes to further the understanding of Robespierre and will try to deduce something of the thought and motivations encapsulated in the mind of one of the most influential leaders of French history.

It is essential to begin with the instinctive nature of the man himself and the views he purports to have held before the Terror took place. If Robespierre was a bloodthirsty tyrant, inherently enthused by violence, then there must be prior evidence to indicate such tendencies. However, such evidence cannot be found. Instead, Robespierre can be said to fear the danger of a tyrant whilst also appearing to be against the use of violence under any circumstance. In May 1792, Robespierre stated that he preferred a representative Assembly of ‘free citizens’ under a King than an ‘enslaved people’ governed by ‘an aristocratic senate and a dictator’, a view confirmed by his formation of an extreme Left of liberal democrat group to act as watchdogs against bureaucratic abuse and government “tyranny”.

Evidence also seems to destroy any view that Robespierre was a man likely to take pleasure in the terror of the populace for its own sake. In 1791, Robespierre noted that war was counter-productive to the Revolution and rallied against it even when faced with opposition in the Assembly . Such a level headed approach provides sound proof that Robespierre was a man concerned not with abstract principles but with the application of ideals to political realities. His speeches also portray a man who was far from fixated on violence. On 30th May 1791, Robespierre declared himself to be against the death penalty, condemning the sentence as ‘repugnant to the Frenchmen’s way of life and to their new constitution’. Robespierre explicitly specifies the execution of Louis XVI to be an exceptional use of capital punishment, unfortunately necessary, yet not in concordance with his political ideology. In his eyes, the King’s death was essential for the Republic’s survival. He proclaimed in a speech given to the Convention on 3rd December 1792 “For myself, I abhor the penalty of death…but neither prison nor exile can destroy the influence that his existence continues to exert…Louis must die in order that our country may live”.

Analysing other political views of Robespierre provides no further evidence to substantiate theories of a man who promoted violence and oppression throughout his political career. Instead, we continue to see in Robespierre the political idealist, determined upon what he viewed was best for the nation. In 1792, Robespierre published his journal Lettres de Maximilien Robespierre a ses Ceommettans, a collection of letters to his constituents. Robespierre writes that the real problem facing the new government was to ‘govern without oppression’ and that the ‘ideal constitution would provide control without the risk of abuse or corruption’. The idealism resounds in the quote: “The temple of liberty must be rebuilt upon the foundations of justice and equality”. Robespierre believed that it was the citizens who made the Republic, and his speeches highlight a priority of the rights of the people. On the 9th May 1791, he argued that the right of petition was ‘the imprescriptible right of every man in society’, condemning the wishes of the Assembly to restrict votes to merely ‘active’ citizens by stating ‘the more unfortunate a man is, the greater is his want and the greater his need to have an answer to his prayers’. Robespierre expanded these views and made greater stipulations. In his speech on 24th August 1789, he opposed all restrictions on the liberty of the press, believing that the ‘freedom of the press goes hand in hand with freedom of speech ’, an argument Robespierre would re-iterate in May 1791 to the Jacobin club, and further debate in the Assembly that August, claiming that every citizen had the right to express his opinion in writing provided he didn’t incite a breach of the law. This attitude was further enlarged in his final speech as a member of the Constituent Assembly, in which he demanded the right of popular societies to publicly criticize government servants.

There seems little evidence in Robespierre’s early political views that indicates any inclination that the atrocities of the Terror would be a foreseeable possibility, much less that they were always implanted within his mind. Conversely, we see an idealistic politician preaching liberty for all. Fouché and Merlin’s view that Robespierre was a bloodthirsty tyrant with a vulgar taste for violence its grounding when one considers this analysis. Robespierre is revealed to fear a tyrant and he remained wary over the threat posed by the Revolution of such a possibility, regularly defending the freedom of press and re-iterating time and time again this threat. Regarding their argument of Robespierre’s inherent violence, there is little evidence that supports this view. When there were debates regarding the use of the death penalty, it was Robespierre who favoured opposition and, when the Assembly clamoured for war in 1792, it was Robespierre who implored that war not be declared, for it would damage the revolution. Here we see a man who actively preached against the use of violence even when it was contrary to popular desire.

However, despite an apparent abhorrence towards violence and tyranny, history has shown that Robespierre was to oversee one of the first examples of a state controlled terror in which thousands of French citizens were executed and many thousands more were locked up. The question is: what circumstances could have wrought such a change? To reach a comprehensive answer, it is imperative to understand the atmosphere in France at that time as an aid to suggest the potential reasoning behind such a vast shift in Robespierre’s viewpoint. From analysis of the September Massacres, it is strikingly clear that evident that France was gripped by an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. Up to 1,400 prisoners were executed in five days by improvised “people’s” tribunals as society took the law into their own hands. It is important to understand that the Massacres had stemmed from the fear of imminent attack from all sides. By late August, following Prussian and Austrian advances, the road to Paris lay open and foreign invasion was a real threat.

Meanwhile, leaders spread claims of plots and conspiracies from within. Even Marat warned volunteers not to leave their women and children alone. The event signposts the extent to which fear had spread. People had feared for their lives and taken law into their own hands, an action supported by The Committee of Public Safety, who defended the massacres: ‘These acts of justice have seemed to the people indispensable, in order, by terror, to restrain the legions of traitors hidden within its walls’ . The extent to which this fear of the enemy infiltrated French society can be seen by General Westermann’s recounting of his severe repression of the Vendee rebellion, in which he boasted ‘It has died beneath our sabres, together with its women and children…I have crushed the children under my hooves, massacred the women – they, at least, will not give birth to anymore brigands’ . Through these examples, we can clearly see how fear and suspicion was rooted within society. Both the Massacres and the Vendee rebellion succumbed to barbaric oppression. It didn’t matter to society that they were fellow Frenchmen. Any enemy of the state was seen as a threat and there was a common desire amongst the people to remove any such enemy.

With this understanding of the heightened and fragile emotions within society during this period, we can begin to consider the lead up to the terror, not as a calculated political move by a blood-thirsty Robespierre, but rather as a defensive, reactionary outcome to events plaguing France at the time. It is through analysis of the Vendee rebellion that we can further facilitate our understanding of the Terror as a reactionary event as it was in response to this revolt that the government augmented the first use of the Terror. The threat posed by the rebellion was clear as it spread through more than six hundred villages and captured some of the towns in the region. In a report from two refugees from Saint-Pierre-de-Chemille, we can see the threat posed by these armed bands. They recall how the rebels called for the return of the King and the old regime and, in their ‘terrifyingly large’ size, ‘wanted to kill off all patriots’ . Such a drastic situation forced the Government to take drastic measures. Eighty-two deputies were sent to the provinces with the mission to enforce the February conscription law, a Revolutionary Tribunal was set up to deal with counter-revolutionary offences, the punishment for which was death, and, on 6th April, the Committee of Public Safety was created to co-ordinate policy.

Such actions were described by the Girondins as ‘dictatorship’, but they can also be seen as an induced response to the environment at the time. The people supported the suppression, Marat believing it a necessity for ‘Liberty must be established by violence, and the moment has come for the temporary organisation of the despotism of liberty, to destroy the despotism of the Kings’ . The reason behind this development of severe oppression could be argued to be twofold and can again be traced back to the impossibly tense and provocative atmosphere of society at the time. Firstly, as we have stated, Marat continuously preached about ‘the enemy in our midst’ and, for the first time, the government was witnessing it. The Vendee rebels used guerrilla warfare to fight the Republic. Thick hedges, sunken roads and clumps of trees were utilized to snipe at Republican forces before melting away into the friendly countryside. As a result, there was no longer suspicion, but now knowledge that the enemy was amongst the population, information that could only served to intensify the fear of society and the government. Secondly, with the history of the September Massacres still fresh in the minds of the revolution leaders, they acted swiftly with a political machinery of terror to pre-empt popular violence and prevent society from taking actions into their own hands once again.

Terror as reactionary can also be seen in the political situation in 1793. As mentioned, suspicion was rife throughout France, the government included. The case of Louis’s trial and death shows how these suspicions between political parties began to increase. The Girondins wished to keep the King alive, believing he could be a useful negotiating piece in future peace talks. The Jacobins however considered that the King had already been tried by the people and therefore must be put to death. Louis’ death on the 21st January 1793 ended the debate. However, the disagreement left increasing Jacobin suspicions that the protection of Louis was due to the Girondins position as crypto-royalists, whose commitment to a new republic was fraudulent . These suspicions increased when the Girondins opposed many of the actions of the Jacobins during the Vendee revolt, further stimulating political tensions.

Therefore, when the Girondins attempted to regain power through the attempted arrest of Marat and the subsequent investigations into Jacobin political activities, Robespierre was left with no choice but to react. This reaction came in the form of an alliance between the Jacobins and the sans-cullottes. In March 1793, the excessive printing of money by the Girondins for the war effort had caused the currency to plummet to 30% of its face value. Meanwhile, slave revolt in the Caribbean caused sugar and coffee prices to more than double in price and the economic crisis led to a sans-culottes revolt. Robespierre was left with a choice: he could continue the Jacobin and Girondin policy of a free economy or swallow his liberal economic principles and decree a Maximum. Following a great popular demonstration on 4th March 1793 demanding control of food prices, Robespierre chose to side with the masses. An alliance with the sans-culottes radicalised the revolution as, on 8th May, Robespierre, to appease the sans-culottes, endorsed popular demand for the creation of an armée revolutionnaire, a decision which led to the arrest of 29 Girondins after 70,000 National Guard surrounded the Convention. It is highly likely the removal of the Girondins was carried out by the sans-culottes for they offered, in reality, little threat to the Jacobins and, as such, this event can be seen as Robespierre reacting to events around him. When faced with a choice, he sided with the people and, in effect, radicalised the revolution as the moderate Republicans were swept from politics and the country teetered on the edge of the Terror.

End of Part 1


One thought on “Robespierre: Tyrant, Politician or Fanatic? (Part 1, by William Miles)

  1. I take your point that Robespierre cannot be convicted of wanting “blood for blood’s sake” but very few people do. When someone is called a murderous tyrant, rarely is it meant that the person hungers for blood as a pleasureful object. Usually what is meant is that the person’s psychology has been warped in such a way as to permit killing where it is not needed and to perceive the importance and need for death when it is not there.

    On these counts, it seems that Robespierre could be convicted. He became increasingly paranoid as he aged, and one of the reason for his opponents wild schemes and plans is that they were tired of dying at the drop of a hat when the political winds changed. Robespierre relished his nickname “incorruptible” because he was sanctimonious beyond measure. He thought he was good and right, and that others were not, and this became a kind of delusion. In the end, he was so confident in his own virtue and that of the revolution that he put one of his best friend’s to death (Danton) rather than soil his inccoruptibility.

    You’re right, bloodthirsty is not the right word, but there was something calculating, disturbed, and angry about Robespierre.

    I look forward to reading what comes next.

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