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Maximilien Robespierre

      Maximilien Isidore Robespierre, the leader of the most violent of those theorizers who overthrew the French monarchy, the exponent of all that deep-rooted hatred which the commoners of France, as the result of long centuries of oppression, harbored against their king, nobles, and clergy; Robespierre, who ruled the infant republic during her first bold defiance of united Europe, yet whose name has become, even among his countrymen, a symbol of horror, was born at Arras, in 1758. His father was an advocate in the supreme council of Artois, and, ruined by his dissipation, had left France long before the revolution. An orphan at the age of nine, and without fortune, Maximilien was indebted to the benevolent protection of the Bishop of Arras, M. de Conzie, for the situation of bursar of the College of Louis XIV. We are assured that from his infancy he manifested a cruel, reserved, and timid disposition, and an ardent love of liberty and independence. After having passed through his studies, and obtained the honor of being chosen by his fellow-students to address Louis XVI., upon the entrance of that prince into Paris, he returned to Arras, where, having become an advocate of the council of Artois, he composed strictures against the magistrates of that province. A daring enthusiast, in 1789 he was elected, on account of his revolutionary principles, by the third estate of Artois, to a seat in the Constituent Assembly. We shall not follow him in detail in that assembly: we shall simply remark, that he spoke much without obtaining any particular influence and evinced himself constantly the enthusiastic champion of the people. Robespierre, in all his harangues, appears to foresee events. The avowed enemy of royalty, we behold him on the side of republicanism, of which he ventured to alter the name on the day when the Assembly decreed the French government monarchical. We behold him again, after the arrest of the king at Varennes, resuming his projects for the destruction of that monarch, preparing the movements which took place at the Champ-de-Mars, on July 14, 16, 17, 1791, and attacking, on the 14th, in the Assembly, the principle of the inviolability of the sovereign, in the hope of having him arraigned; but at the end of the sitting, finding his opinion rejected, he began to tremble for his temerity, and required that they should not provoke the ruin of persons who had engaged in that affair.

      If Robespierre was unable to distinguish himself among the orators of the Constituent Assembly; if his principles appeared obnoxious to the innovators acting from sentiment in 1789; if they often drew upon him the indignation of his colleagues; they were the means of his acquiring among the Jacobins that reputation and favor which, daily increasing, rendered him at last the idol of the people and the ruler of the government. He was called "The Incorruptible." The day of the closing of the Assembly, the populace surrounded him on his coming out of the hall, put a crown of oak upon his head, placed him in a carriage, and, taking out the horses, dragged him to his house, exclaiming as they moved, "Behold the friend of the people, the great defender of Liberty!" Robespierre was fully sensible of the advantages which might result from his alliance with the Jacobins. He devoted himself entirely to the direction of a club bearing that name, and refused, in order to give up his whole time to the objects they had in view, the office of accuser in the criminal tribunal at Paris, to which he had been appointed. Until his election to a seat in the Convention, he was never seen personally to engage in those insurrections which produced the atrocious attack upon the king, nor in the horrible massacres which, in 1792, covered Paris with murder and blood, and the French name with eternal opprobrium. He refused even to preside at the tribunal of August 10th, because, as he said, "He had long since denounced and accused the conspirators, whom this tribunal was ordained to judge." But he had scarcely entered the Convention when he resolved to raise his faction upon the ruins of all the others, and his power upon the destruction of those factions which he might employ. To attain this end, he was seen at first to strengthen the ties by which he had already been united to Marat and Danton, and to avail himself particularly of the latter, in order to overthrow the Girondins, who, from the fifth session, had suspected his ambition, and accused him of aspiring to the dictatorship. It was during this struggle that Louvet pronounced against him that very eloquent harangue, which Madame Roland called the "Robespierreiad." Assisted by his brother and by Danton, Robespierre, in the sitting of November 5th, overpowered the Girondins, and went to the Jacobins to enjoy the fruits of his victory, where Merlin de Thionville declared him an eagle, and a barbarous reptile. From that moment he never ceased to promote the death of Louis XVI., with an asperity and a perseverance almost incredible. In short, until the fatal day of the martyrdom of that amiable and unfortunate prince, he continually importuned the tribune to pronounce upon him (according to the expression of one of his colleagues) des vociferations de cannibale, and the most atrocious prejudgments. It is almost superfluous to add, that he voted for his death on the day of the nominal appeal to the nation.

Robespierre's arrest.

      Within any moderate limits, it would be impossible to give the details of this monstrous proceeding. Of all the disorders which had occurred during the stormy period which had seen him on the throne of France, Louis was accused. He was assigned counsel; and MM. Tronchet, Lamoignon, Malesherbes, and De Seze, with his approbation, undertook his defence. Their exertions, though creditable to themselves, were of no avail; and on January 16, 1793, after hearing them in his defence, and his solemn denial of the crimes laid to his charge, and after a sitting of nearly thirty-four hours, the punishment of death was awarded.

      Constant in his hatred of the Girondins, Robespierre attacked them with great vehemence until May 31st, when he obtained a complete triumph. His most dangerous enemies among the men of that faction were outlawed, and others arrested. The success of this day rendered him absolute ruler of the Convention, and founded that tyrannical empire which only terminated with his life.

      Among the factions which had lent him their assistance, the Hebertistes were the first that separated from his cause. This faction aspired to sole dominion, but the good fortune or the address of Robespierre was able at once to oppose to it the Jacobins and the Cordeliers, and it sunk in March, 1794, under their united efforts. Danton, who had been particularly serviceable on this occasion, whose energy had been of such utility, who had aided him in sweeping away the other factions; Danton, in short, whom he ought to have considered as the instrument of his power, became a formidable enemy, after being for a length of time a most devoted friend and faithful ally. The two parties were at issue; one or the other must necessarily be overcome. The cunning of Robespierre triumphed over the inconsiderate ardor of his rival, whom he took pains to render unpopular by sending him to enrich himself in Belgium. A few days afterward he was accused, arrested, and conveyed to the scaffold with Desmoulins, La Croix, Fabre, and others. In the course of the same month (April, 1794) he delivered over to the Revolutionary Tribunal the remainder of the party of the Hebertistes, and that of the Cordeliers, whom he degraded by the name of Atheists, and from that moment to the period of his downfall he met no opposition. It was then that his language assumed a different tone. "I must be," "it is necessary," "I will," were his general expressions; and the Convention, as he himself called it, was only his machine a decrets. What is worthy of remark is, that France, groaning under the struggles of different parties, should applaud the conduct of Robespierre, from an idea that she would be less miserable under a single tyrant. His new plan of religion, ridiculous as it was, gained him some adherents; but it must be evident to every reflecting mind that Robespierre must have conceived himself at the head of the government, since he, whose sole object had hitherto been to destroy, attempted to rebuild. It is impossible to conjecture how long his power might have continued, had he spared his colleagues, and if he had not incited to resistance men who, until then, had blindly executed his orders, and who desired nothing more than to continue to serve and obey him; but in sacrificing the leaders of the Revolutionary Government, Robespierre sought a support in the moderate party. This policy ruined him; those whose destruction he had meditated occasioned his downfall. Danger, however, inspired him with courage. From June 10th, Ruamps and Bourdon de l'Oise, in particular, had expressed some distrust of the Committee of Public Safety, which produced a discussion in which Robespierre, speaking with an air of despotism, had the good fortune to silence them.

      This was the moment he should have chosen to overwhelm the party, which redoubled its intrigues for his destruction; and at whose head Tallien rendered himself remarkable. His friend, St. Just, advised him to strike the first blow. Robespierre had passed several days in retirement, occupied in projecting, at a moment when he ought to have acted. When he reappeared on the 26th, at the Convention, his partisans abandoned him; he in vain endeavored to regain the ground he had lost. Sensible of the danger which threatened him, he called together his most intimate friends on the night of the 26th. St. Just pressed him immediately to act. He hesitated for twenty-four hours, and this delay was the sentence of his death. The next day Billaud-Varennes removed the veil, and Robespierre having rushed to the tribune to reply to him, the cries of "Down with the tyrant!" drove him instantly from the assembly. A few minutes after a decree was passed for his arrest, and that of St. Just, Couthon, and Lebas. "The robbers triumph," he exclaimed, on turning to the side of the conquerors. He was afterward conducted to the Luxembourg, and in a little time removed from that palace and conveyed to the tribune which had delivered him up. He for some instants cherished the hopes of a triumph; the national guard, under the command of Henriot, assembled in his defence. But the Convention having put him out of the protection of the law, the Parisians abandoned him, and at three o'clock in the morning he found himself with his accomplices in the power of the officers of the Convention. At the moment he was about to be seized he discharged a pistol at his head, which only fractured his lower jaw; others say it was fired by Medal, one of the gendarmes, who had stepped forward to arrest him, and against whom he defended himself. He was immediately conducted to the Commune, from thence conveyed to the Conciergerie, and executed on the same day, July 28, 1794.

      His last moments presented a terrific scene; his mouth full of blood, his eyes half closed, his head bound up with a bloody handkerchief, he was thrown into the same cell which had been successively inhabited by Hebert, Danton, and Chaumette. When he quitted the prison to meet his punishment, the proscribed persons obstructing the passage, the jailer cried out, "Make way for monsieur the incorruptible!" He was conveyed in a cart between Henriot and Couthon; the people halted before the house, two women danced before the wagon, and one of them exclaimed; "Your sufferings intoxicate us with joy! You will descend to hell, accompanied by the curses of all wives and mothers." The executioner, in order to dispatch him, rudely tore away the bandage from his wound. He uttered a cry of horror; his lower jaw separated itself from the upper. The blood again flowed, and his head exhibited a spectacle of the most frightful kind. He died at the age of thirty-six.

      Robespierre was not a monster; his life attests it; nor was he solely guilty of the atrocities which signalized his reign. By his downfall he was loaded with all those iniquities which, had he triumphed, he would have attributed to his opponents.

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