Robespierre: Tyrant, Politician or Fanatic? (Part 2, by William Miles)

Robespierre: Tyrant, Politician or Fanatic? (Part 2, by William Miles)

The period leading up to the Terror reveals not a man who foresaw or planned the violence that was to plague France in 1794, but rather one driven by outer circumstances, reacting to events around him. The atmosphere of alarm and distrust, magnified as people believed enemies to be hidden in their midst, and driven by fear and hatred of the Republic’s enemies emerged. It is likely that Robespierre shared similar feelings to those of the people but, even if he didn’t, he realised that what the people wanted was a strong government, ready to fight those opposed to the Republic. In a speech on June 21st 1791, Robespierre declared that France needed “One man of honesty and courage, prepared to unmask their plots. One man…who would be happy if his death contributed to the fatherland’. His actions, as we have seen, have followed suit, with both the Vendee rebellion and the Girondins arrest acting as examples of Robespierre reacting to popular demand against those viewed as the Republic’s enemies. In both cases, the pressure to address the public’s demands was a key factor, be it through society’s fear of rebellion or the influence of the sans-culottes. By early 1793, revolutionary tribunals were executing counter-revolutionaries, whilst the removal of the moderate Republicans marked a transition to the more radicalist Jacobinism. Robespierre, through circumstance, had paved the way for the Terror which was to follow.

The pattern seems to remain the same even during the Terror itself, dvidence seems to suggest that Robespierre was not simply out for blood and, in fact, wished to control the use of the guillotine. However, once again, through circumstances beyond his control, Robespierre was forced to alter his original considerations. One example can be seen in early December 1793 when Desmoulins launched his paper, the Vieux Cordelier, to campaign for an end of the Terror. Initially, as a personal friend of Desmoulins, Robespierre seems to have supported the campaign. He read proofs of the paper before they went to press and seemed to approve of their content. At this time, the Terror looked as though it was going to be scaled down . However, the return of Collotd’Herbois on 21st December shattered these plans. Defending his severe handling of the Lyons revolt, Collot attacked critics of the Terror and defended the guillotine as a vital weapon in the fight against counter-revolution . Robespierre feared a split in the Committee of Public Safety over the issue and so he removed his backing of Desmoulins, claiming, on 25th December 1793, in his Report on the Principles of Revolutionary Government, that the revolution was the ‘war of liberty against its enemies’, and terror was essential to its success . Robespierre’s duty to his political stance saw him burdened by the responsibility to smooth over the fractions and make sacrifices of some of his personal beliefs for what he deemed to be the greater good of the populace. A second event followed when, in January 1794, the Committee of General Security discovered that Fabre d’Eglantine had denounced others in order to cover up his own guilt. The discovery increased suspicion of corruption within the moderates and led to Robespierre, on the 8th January 1794, denouncing a ‘new political faction’ with two heads; the moderates and the radicals, both out to wreck the revolution . The result was a political purge of the Indulgents and Herbertistes, but it is the situation regarding the death of Danton that most adds to our analysis. The Convention called for Danton’s arrest after he opposed the trial of the Herbertistes but Robespierre hesitated. He was a close friend of Danton and, in two secret meetings in late March, he desperately implored Danton to remain silent . Danton refused and was subsequently arrested and executed. Through these examples, we once again see a man who wanted to tone down the effects of the Terror and it was only due to circumstances beyond his control that he failed to do so.

However, there is one element of Robespierre that this essay is yet to analyse and this is the side of the radical. So far, evidence has painted a picture of a man forced by circumstance to undergo a policy of Terror. However, during the period of the Terror there are many examples when Robespierre did in fact defend and endorse his actions. On the 5th February 1794, Robespierre preached: “If the basis of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice; it flows then from virtue’. These words of a dictator were highlighted even more clearly in his speech on 24th September 1793, when Robespierre stated that the motives of counter-revolutionaries mattered very little for it was enough that ‘public opinion should accuse a citizen of crimes, no written proof of which existed, whose proof was in the hearts of all the outraged citizens’. Perhaps the most prominent example of Robespierre making a conscious decision to enact terror on the population can be seen through the Law of 22ndPrairial. By Spring 1794, there were no foreign armies left on French soil, no rebellion threatening to undermine centralised government and no open opposition to the Committee of Public Safety’s authority. Yet, despite this, April-July 1794 marked a substantial increase in the number of executions occurring in France, with over thirty taking place each day. Clearly, Robespierre was undertaking a policy of Terror even when circumstance did not force his arm and it is the reasons for this shift in views that the essay will analyse now.

It is by returning to Robespierre’s personality that we can understand how a man who abhorred the death penalty could defend and promote its use just three years later. Mirabeau stated about Robespierre early in his career: ‘That man will go far for he believes everything he says’. It is this quote more than anything that sums up Robespierre’s personality. He was fanatical in his beliefs and there was no changing those beliefs, a fact reinforced by Robespierre’s nickname of ‘incorruptible’, which was coined to reflect the facts that he refused financial rewards and led a modest lifestyle. William Augustus Miles even reported back to London, months before Robespierre’s fall, that ‘I tell you again, he is beyond the reach of gold. I do not think he could have been bought at any period of the Revolution’. The seemingly minute detail of this coined nickname provides the key with which one can begin to understand and explain the motivations underlying Robespierre’s support of the Terror at the end of his career.

Where earlier we have demonstrated Robespierre’s unwillingness undertake the policy of Terror, this does not necessarily mean that these decisions were not Robespierre’s own, and he was by no means a weak man who was afraid to stand his ground. This is acutely highlighted through his rejection of the war in 1792 despite dogged opposition, which means that those decisions he did make were of his own choosing. Indeed, the severe repression of the Vendee had stemmed from a general will to eradicate the enemy but it was a policy chosen by the government as the best means of doing so. In terms of the political struggle with the Girondins, it was Robespierre who took the decision to change economic policies and ally with the people. Even Robespierre’s attempts to limit the use of Terror once it had started required a conscious decision by the man to reverse his policies. He chose to denounce Desmoulins in order to maintain order within the Jacobin club, whilst it was Robespierre who finally agreed to the arrest of Danton once it had become clear that he would not remain quiet. As such, even if the Terror had developed by circumstance, it would have been a policy decided by Robespierre as that which he believed best for the nation and he would have defended it to the bitter end. In the words of Michelet, Robespierre believed ‘the country could not cure itself without the special intervention of a unique doctor who would apply the severe remedies that were necessary… dictatorship…seemed to him a necessary evil’ . Thus, we perceive Robespierre as a fanatic who, whilst he had not intended to take the path of terror, once the path had been envisaged as a necessity to success and achieving his objectives, he pursued it with vigour. With the Spring of 1794 marking two assassination attempts on his life, the need to finish the revolution quickly became even more pertinent and, as such, an increase in terror comes as little surprise.

In an essay of limited words it is simply not possible to fully analyse every aspect of a man who has plagued historians for two hundred years. As such, many important aspects have had to be overlooked; the debatable role of Rousseau in Robespierre’s ideology and the roles of other Revolutionary leaders such as Saint-Just to name but a couple. Instead the essay has focussed on three distinct phases; those of the early years, those before the Terror, and terror itself. In a short essay, this method gives the clearest portrayal of the journey undertaken by Robespierre and, as such, can aid us in our analysis of his actions. Robespierre is a man who has been remembered as one of the villains of history. He masterminded the first state controlled terror and oversaw the death of thousands of political enemies and would probably have killed many more thousands had fate not intervened and ended his career, rather ironically, via the guillotine on 28th July 1794. But perhaps history has been overly cruel to a man not the inherently violent tyrant, hell bent on destruction proposed by Fouché and Merlin, but rather a man who initially preached against both elements during his early political career. Instead, we are able to suggest a broader, more sympathetic portrait of a man guided not only by circumstances, but also by political fanaticism and dedication to his ideology. He was, as Peter Kropotkin stated, a fanatic desperate to achieve his aim of creating a French Utopian society for the good of the people and believed his aims to be the best way to achieve this. This belief he held right up until the end of his career, when, in a speech on 26th July 1794, he pleaded that the revolution could still be saved and the reign of virtue finally triumph with the removal of a small group of “corrupt” men . Rudé viewed Robespierre as simply a good politician who, by chance, led France into the Terror. Indeed, evidence has shown events outside Robespierre’s control channelling France into the summer of 1793 as peasant revolts, foreign invasion and political unrest led to an atmosphere of unease and tension in which Robespierre was forced to take political decisions, many of them correct, which resulted in the radicalisation of the Revolution.

The question remaining to be answered is which element held the greater impact, the fanatic or the politician. This essay believes it to be the latter due to the essential truth that Robespierre did not inherently wish for the Terror. Rather he came to believe that, following events around him, the best solution was state controlled terror. As such, political decisions were the primary driving force behind the beginning of the Terror in 1793. During this period, Robespierre’s fanaticism led to increased executions in the summer of 1794 but it was most certainly a secondary factor in the events of the Revolution. One thing is certain; despite the revolution devouring Robespierre, there were Frenchmen who, during the Thermidor, still believed that Robespierre had loved the people and had been a sincere democrat and that, under his rule, equality had been more than an empty sham. Each of these descriptions can be said to be true.


Primary Sources

• Collotd’Herbois, Speech on 21st December, as quoted in James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works (1871), cited on (19/04/2012)
• Eyewitness account of Robespierre, Summer 1794 as found in Rudé, Robespierre, p199
• General Westermann, Account of the Vendee Revolt as found in P.M. Jones, The Peasantry in the French Revolution (Cambridge 1988) p228
• ‘La Vendee’, Document 8 found in D.G Wright Revolution and Terror, p125
• Marat Jean Paul, Speech on the necessity for violence as found in Wright, Revolution and Terror, p69
• Miles William Augustus, The correspondence of William Augustus Miles on the French Revolution Vol 2 (London 1890)
• Rescript issued by The Committee of Public Safety as found on (26/04/2012)
• Robespierre Maximilien, Speech on free speech, 24th August 1789 as found in Rudé, Robespierre, p21
• Robespierre Maximilien, Speech on the liberty of the press, May 1791 as found on (20/04/2012)
• Robespierre Maximilien, Speech on the right of petition, 9th May 1791 as found on (20/04/12)
• Robespierre Maximilien, Speech on May 30th 1791 on Capital Punishment as found in Eli Sagan, Citizens and Cannibals: The French Revolution, the struggle for Modernity, and the origins of ideological terror (Oxford, 2001),p57
• Robespierre Maximilien, Speech May 1792 as found in Rude, Robespierre, p30
• Robespierre Maximilien, Speech 3rd December 1792 on the King’s trial as found in John Hardman, The French Revolution Sourcebook (London 1981), P161
• Robespierre Maximilien, Speech on June 21st 1791 as quoted by Otto J Scott, Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue (New York 1974) p125
• Robespierre Maximilien, Speech on 24th September 1793 as quoted by Fehér, The Frozen Revolution, p110
• Robespierre Maximilien, ‘Report on the Principles of Revolutionary Government’, 25th December 1793 as found on (21/04/2012)
• Robespierre Maximilien, Speech on 8th January 1794, quoted by Gough, Terror in the Revolution, p51
• Robespierre Maximilien, ‘Justification of the Use of Terror’, 5th February 1794 (15/04/2012)
• Robespierre Maximilien, Speech on 26th July 1794, quoted by Rudé, Robespierre, p50

Secondary Sources

Books and Articles

• Cobban Alfred, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (Cambridge 1964)
• Ellery Eloise, Brissot de Warville: A Study in the History of the French Revolution (New York, 1970)
• FeherFerenc, The Frozen Revolution (Cambridge 1987)
• Fremont-Barnes Gregory, Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies Volume 1, 1760-1815 (Connecticut, 2007)
• Gough Hugh, The Terror in the French Revolution (Hampshire 1998)
• Hampson Norman, Prelude to Terror: The Constituent Assembly and the Failure of Consensus (Oxford 1988)
• Hardman John, The French Revolution Sourcebook (London 1981)
• Haydon Colin and William Doyle, Robespierre (Cambridge 1999)
• Jones P.M, The Peasantry in the French Revolution (Cambridge 1988)
• Korngold Ralph, Robespierre: The First Modern Dictator (London 1937)
• Kropotkin Peter, The Great French Revolution 1789-1793 (New York, 2009)
• Mathiez Albert, The French Revolution (New York 1927)
• McCarthy Rose, Dictatorship: A Primary Source Analysis (New York, 2005)
• Rudé George, Robespierre (London 1975)
• Sagan Eli, Citizens and Cannibals: The French Revolution, the struggle for Modernity, and the origins of ideological terror (Oxford, 2001)
• Scott Otto J., Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue (New York 1974)
• Simpson William and Martin Jones, Europe 1783-1914 (New York, 2000)
• Thompson J.M, Robespierre and the French Revolution (London 1952)
• Warwick Charles F, Mirabeau and the French Revolution (Philadelphia 1905)
• Wright D.G, Revolution and Terror in France 1789-1795 2nd Edition (New York 1990)
• Bax Belfort Ernest, ‘Jean Paul Marat, The People’s Friend’ (26/04/2012)
• Laponneraye Albert, ‘Discours par Maximilien Robespierre’ (20/04/1992)
• Mackintosh James, The Miscellaneous Works (1871) (19/04/2012)
• ‘Report on the Principles of Revolutionary Government’

5 thoughts on “Robespierre: Tyrant, Politician or Fanatic? (Part 2, by William Miles)

  1. We must remember that Robespierre’s entire philosophy was based on Godlessness. That would explain why he did the things that he did.

    • If I remember right, Robespierre partly fell out of favor with other revolutionaries toward the end because he refused to be as godless as he originally professed to be. He clung to the notion of a god at the end.

      • Questionbeggar – Well sort of I guess. There was a real ambiguity about the cult of the “Supreme being”, which was supposed to replace mainstream religion and weaken the Church’s influence. Essentially, this religion was to worship the perfect, universal man, the symbol of the Revolution. So this wasn’t a person so much as an ideal. However, the way in which Robespierre tried to organise it left his opponents wondering whether he saw himself as the Supreme being .

        There was a famous episode in Paris, the Festival of the Supreme being where Robespierre was so much in the focus of public attention one of his colleague is quoted as having said “Look at the bugger, it is not enough for him to be master, he has to be God”.

        Consequently, people began to fear he was creating a cult of himself and turning into a dictator, which in the end contributed to his downfall. I guess we will never know what his real intentions were in establishing the Supreme being. But I guess that you’re right in that his notion of god (whatever that might have entailed) contributed to his death.

    • Sbyvl – I’m not sure what you mean by that. Do you mean that the lack of God within his ideology contributed the crime Robespierre committed? Surely this argument can be turned the other way, and one can point to the many instances when crime were committed and justified by the idea of God. Don’t you think?

  2. Interesting post. Robespierre abhorred the death penalty in an intellectual way, but intellectual positions often interact in remarkable ways with “circumstances on the ground.” At some point, Robespierre committed to the revolution and once he did, he was along for the ride, wherever the revolution went. Even to (the) death (penalty).

    Is that the only way TO commit to a revolution? So that even death is a tolerable result? Kind of scary, but it seems like an ideology that revolutionaries share.

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