Maximilien Robespierre
Member of the Committee of Public Safety
In office
27 July 1793 – 27 July 1794
Preceded byThomas-Augustin de Gasparin
Succeeded byJacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne
In office
25 March 1793 – 3 April 1793
Member of Committee of General Defence
24th President of the National Convention
In office
4 June 1794 – 19 June 1794
Preceded byClaude-Antoine Prieur-Duvernois
Succeeded byÉlie Lacoste
In office
22 August 1793 – 7 September 1793
Preceded byMarie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles
Succeeded byJacques-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne
Deputy of the National Convention
In office
20 September 1792 – 27 July 1794
Deputy of the National Constituent Assembly
In office
9 July 1789 – 30 September 1791
Deputy of the National Assembly
In office
17 June 1789 – 9 July 1789
Deputy to the Estates General
for the Third Estate
In office
6 May 1789 – 16 June 1789
President of the Jacobin Club
In office
31 March – 3 June 1790
In office
7 August – 28 August 1793
Personal details
Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre

(1758-05-06)6 May 1758
Arras, Artois, Kingdom of France
Died10 Thermidor, Year II 28 July 1794(1794-07-28) (aged 36)
Place de la Révolution, Paris, France
Cause of deathExecution by guillotine
Political partyThe Mountain (1792–1794)
Other political
Jacobin Club (1789–1794)
Domestic partnerÉléonore Duplay (rumored)
Alma materUniversity of Paris
ProfessionLawyer, politician

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (French: [maksimiljɛ̃ ʁɔbɛspjɛʁ]; 6 May 1758 – 10 Thermidor, Year II 28 July 1794) was a French lawyer and statesman, widely recognized as one of the most influential and controversial figures of the French Revolution. Robespierre fervently campaigned for the voting rights of all men and their unimpeded admission to the National Guard.[1][2][3] Additionally he advocated for the right to petition, the right to bear arms in self-defence, and the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.[4][5][6] He was a radical Jacobin leader who came to prominence as a member of the Committee of Public Safety, the organ of the First French Republic that was primarily responsible for the Reign of Terror. His legacy has been heavily influenced by his participation in these political persecutions but is notable for his progressive views for the time.

As one of the prominent members of the Paris Commune, Robespierre was elected as a deputy to the National Convention in early September 1792. He joined the radical Montagnards, a left-wing faction. However, he faced criticism for purportedly trying to establish either a triumvirate or a dictatorship.[7] In April 1793, Robespierre advocated the mobilization of a sans-culotte army aiming at enforcing revolutionary laws and eliminating any counter-revolutionary elements. This call led to the armed Insurrection of 31 May – 2 June 1793. On 27 July he was appointed a member of the Committee of Public Safety.

Robespierre faced growing disillusionment among others due in part to the politically motivated violence advocated by the Montagnards. Increasingly, members of the Convention turned against him, and accusations piled up on 9 Thermidor. Robespierre was arrested and taken to a prison. Approximately 90 individuals, including Robespierre, were executed without trial in the following days, marking the onset of the Thermidorian Reaction.[8]

A figure deeply divisive during his lifetime, Robespierre's views and policies continue to evoke controversy.[9][10][11] Academic and popular discourse persistently engage in debates surrounding his legacy and reputation.[12][13][14]

Early life

Être suprême, Peuple souverain, République française

Maximilien de Robespierre was baptised on 6 May 1758 in Arras, Artois.[a] His father, François Maximilien Barthélémy de Robespierre, a lawyer, married Jacqueline Marguerite Carrault, the daughter of a brewer, in January 1758. Maximilien, the eldest of four children, was born five months later. His siblings were Charlotte Robespierre,[b] Henriette Robespierre,[c] and Augustin Robespierre.[18][19] Robespierre's mother died on 16 July 1764,[20] after delivering a stillborn daughter at age 29. The death of his mother is, thanks to Charlotte's memoirs, believed to have had a major effect on the young Robespierre. Around 1767, for unknown reasons, his father left the children.[d] His two daughters were raised by their paternal (maiden) aunts, and his two sons by their maternal grandparents.[21]

Demonstrating literacy at an early age, Maximilien commenced his education at the collège of Arras when he was only eight.[22] In October 1769, recommended by the bishop Louis-Hilaire de Conzié, he secured a scholarship at the prestigious Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Among his peers were Camille Desmoulins and Stanislas Fréron. During his schooling, he developed a profound admiration for the Roman Republic and the rhetoric skills of Cicero, Cato and Lucius Junius Brutus. In 1776 he earned the first prize for rhetoric.

His appreciation for the classics inspired him to aspire to Roman virtues, particularly the embodiment of Rousseau's citizen-soldier.[23][24] Robespierre was drawn to the concepts of the influential philosophe regarding political reforms expounded in his work, Contrat Social. Aligning with Rousseau, he considered the general will of the people as the foundation of political legitimacy.[25] Robespierre's vision of revolutionary virtue and his strategy for establishing political authority through direct democracy can be traced back to the ideologies of Montesquieu and Mably.[26][e] While some claim Robespierre coincidentally met Rousseau before the latter's passing, others argue that this account was apocryphal.[30][31][32]

Early politics

Between 1787 and 1789 Robespierre lived in this house, now on Rue Maximilien de Robespierre

During his three-year study of law at the Sorbonne, Robespierre distinguished himself academically, culminating in his graduation in July 1780, where he received a special prize of 600 livres for his exceptional academic achievements and exemplary conduct.[33] Admitted to the bar, he was appointed as one of the five judges in the local criminal court in March 1782. However, Robespierre soon resigned, due to his ethical discomfort in adjudicating capital cases, stemming from his opposition to the death penalty.

Robespierre was elected to the literary Academy of Arras in November 1783.[34] The following year, the Academy of Metz honored him with a medal for his essay pondering collective punishment, thus establishing him as literary figure.[35] (Pierre Louis de Lacretelle and Robespierre shared the prize.)

In 1786 Robespierre passionately addressed inequality before the law, criticizing the indignities faced by illegitimate or natural children, and later denouncing practices like lettres de cachet (imprisonment without a trial) and the marginalization of women in academic circles.[36] Robespierre's social circle expanded to include influential figures such as the lawyer Martial Herman, the officer and engineer Lazare Carnot and the teacher Joseph Fouché, all of whom would hold significance in his later endeavors.[37] His role as the secretary of the Academy of Arras connected him with François-Noël Babeuf, a revolutionary land surveyor in the region.

Maximilien de Robespierre dressed as deputy of the Third Estate by Pierre Roch Vigneron, c. 1790 (Palace of Versailles)
An illustration of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
The revolutionary decrees passed by the Assembly in August 1789 culminated in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

In August 1788, King Louis XVI declared new elections for all provinces and summoned the Estates-General to convene on 1 May 1789, aiming to address France's grave financial and taxation woes. Engaging in discussions on the selection of the French provincial government, Robespierre advocated in his Address to the Nation of Artois that reverting to the former mode of election by the members of the provincial estates would fail to adequately represent the people of France in the new Estates-General. In his electoral district, Robespierre began to assert his influence in politics through his Notice to the Residents of the Countryside in 1789, targeting local authorities and garnering the support of rural electors.[f] This move solidified his position among the country's electors. On 26 April 1789, Robespierre secured his place as one of 16 deputies representing French Flanders in the Estates-General.[39][g]

On 6 June, Robespierre delivered his maiden speech, targeting the hierarchical structure of the church.[40][41] His impassioned oratory prompted observers to comment, "This young man is as yet unexperienced; unaware of when to cease, but possesses an eloquence that sets him apart from the rest."[42] By 13 June, Robespierre aligned with deputies, who later proclaimed themselves the National Assembly, asserting representation for 96% of the nation.[43] On 9 July, the Assembly relocated to Paris and began deliberating a new constitution and taxation system. On 13 July, the National Assembly proposed reinstating the "bourgeois militia" in Paris to quell the unrest.[44][45] The following day, the populace demanded weapons and stormed both the Hôtel des Invalides and the Bastille. The local militia transitioned into the National Guard,[46] a move that distanced the most impoverished citizens from active involvement.[47] During the discussions and an altercation with Lally-Tollendal who advocated for law and order, Robespierre reminded the citizens of their "recent defense of liberty", which paradoxically restricted their access to it.[48][49][50]

In October, alongside Louvet, Robespierre supported Maillard following the Women's March on Versailles.[51] Initially, the group of female protesters conveyed a relatively conciliatory message, yet their ranks were soon reinforced by more militarized and seasoned male factions upon reaching Versailles.[52] While the Constituent Assembly deliberated on male census suffrage on 22 October, Robespierre and a select few deputies opposed the property prerequisites for voting and holding office.[53] Through December and January Robespierre notably drew attention from marginalized groups, particularly Protestants, Jews,[54] individuals of African descent, domestic servants, and actors.[55][56]

As a frequent orator in the Assembly, Robespierre championed the ideals encapsulated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and advocated for constitutional provisions outlined in the Constitution of 1791. However, according to Malcolm Crook, his views rarely garnered majority support among fellow deputies.[35][57] Despite his commitment to democratic principles, Robespierre persistently donned a culotte and retained a meticulously groomed appearance with powdered, curled, and perfumed hair.[58][59] Some accounts described him as "nervous, timid, and suspicious".[60][61] Madame de Staël portrayed Robespierre as someone "very exaggerated in his democratic principles" and "maintained the most absurd propositions with a coolness that had the air of conviction".[62] In October, he assumed the role of a judge at the Versailles tribunal.

Jacobin Club


Jacobin Club in February 1791.[63]

Following the 5 October Women's March on Versailles and the forcible relocation of the King and National Constituent Assembly from Versailles to Paris, Robespierre lived at 30 Rue de Saintonge in Le Marais, a district with relatively wealthy inhabitants.[64] He shared an apartment on the third floor with Pierre Villiers who was his secretary for several months.[65] Robespierre associated with the new Society of the Friends of the Constitution, commonly known as the Jacobin Club. Originally, this organisation (the Club Breton) comprised only deputies from Brittany, but after the National Assembly had moved to Paris, the group admitted non-deputies. Among these 1,200 men, Robespierre found a sympathetic audience. Equality before the law was the keystone of the Jacobin ideology. Beginning in October and continuing through January he made several speeches in response to proposals for property qualifications for voting and officeholding under the proposed constitution. This was a position he vigorously opposed, arguing in a speech on 22 October the position that he derived from Rousseau:

"sovereignty resides in the people, in all the individuals of the people. Each individual therefore has the right to participate in making the law which governs him and in the administration of the public good which is his own. If not, it is not true that all men are equal in rights, that every man is a citizen.[66]"

During the continuing debate on suffrage, Robespierre ended his speech of 25 January 1790 with a blunt assertion that "all Frenchmen must be admissible to all public positions without any other distinction than that of virtues and talents".[67] On 31 March 1790 Robespierre was elected as their president.[68] On 28 April Robespierre proposed to allow an equal number of officers and soldiers in the court martial.[69] Robespierre supported the cooperation of all the National Guards in a general federation on 11 May.[70] On 19 June he was elected secretary of the National Assembly. In July Robespierre demanded "fraternal equality" in salaries.[71] Before the end of the year, he was seen as one of the leaders of the small body of the extreme left. Robespierre was one of "the thirty voices".[72]

On 5 December Robespierre delivered a speech on the urgent topic of the National Guard.[73][74][75] "To be armed for personal defence is the right of every man, to be armed to defend freedom and the existence of the common fatherland is the right of every citizen".[76] Robespierre coined the famous motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" by adding the word fraternity on the flags of the National Guard.[h][78][79]


Discours sur l'organisation des Gardes Nationales.
The National Guard during the riots in Paris in January, 1791

In 1791 Robespierre gave 328 speeches, almost one a day. On 28 January Robespierre discussed in the Assembly the organisation of the National Guard,[80] for three years a hot topic in French newspapers.[81] In early March, provincial militias were abolished and the Paris départment was placed above the Commune in all matters of general order and security. On 27 and 28 April, Robespierre opposed plans to reorganise the National Guard and restrict its membership to active citizens, which was regarded as too aristocratic.[82][83] He demanded the reconstitution of the National Guard on a democratic basis, to abolish the use of decorations and to allow an equal number of officers and soldiers in the court martial.[84] He felt that the National Guard had to become the instrument of defending liberty and no longer be a threat to it.[85] In the same month Robespierre published a pamphlet in which he argued the case for universal manhood suffrage.[86]

On 15 May the Constituent Assembly declared full and equal citizenship for all free people of color. In the debate Robespierre said: "I feel that I am here to defend the rights of men; I cannot consent to any amendment and I ask that the principle be adopted in its entirety." He descended from the rostrum in the middle of the repeated applause of the left and of all the tribunes.[87] On 16–18 May when the elections began, Robespierre proposed and carried the motion that no deputy who sat in the Constituent assembly could sit in the succeeding Legislative assembly.[88] A tactical purpose of this self-denying ordinance was to block the ambitions of the old leaders of the Jacobins, Antoine Barnave, Adrien Duport, and Alexandre de Lameth,[89] aspiring to create a constitutional monarchy roughly similar to that of England.[90][i] On 28 May, Robespierre proposed all Frenchmen should be declared active citizens and eligible to vote.[86] On 30 May, he delivered a speech on abolishing the death penalty without success.[92] The following day, Robespierre attacked Abbé Raynal, who sent an address criticising the work of the Assembly and demanding the restoration of the royal prerogative.

On 10 June, Robespierre delivered a speech on the state of the police and proposed to dismiss officers.[85] On 11 June 1791 he was elected or nominated as (substitute) accuser. Robespierre accepted the function of "public accuser" in the criminal tribunal preparing indictments and ensuring the defence.[93][j] Two days later, L'Ami du Roi, a royalist pamphlet, described Robespierre as a "lawyer for bandits, rebels and murderers".[73] On 15 June, Pétion de Villeneuve became president of the "tribunal criminel provisoire", after Duport refused to work with Robespierre.[96][97]

Fusillade du Champ de Mars (17 juillet 1791)
Courtyard of the house of Maurice Duplay, Robespierre's landlord. Robespierre's room was on the second floor, above the fountain. Other lodgers were his sister, brother and Georges Couthon

After Louis XVI's failed flight to Varennes, the Assembly suspended the king be from his duties on 25 June. Between 13 and 15 July, the Assembly debated the restoration of the king and his constitutional rights.[98] Robespierre declared in the Jacobin Club on 13 July: "The current French constitution is a republic with a monarch.[99] She is therefore neither a monarchy nor a republic. She is both."[100]

On Saturday 17 July, Bailly and Lafayette declared a ban on gathering followed by martial law.[101][102] After the Champ de Mars massacre, the authorities ordered numerous arrests. Robespierre, who attended the Jacobin club, did not go back to the Rue Saintonge where he lodged, and asked Laurent Lecointre if he knew a patriot near the Tuileries who could put him up for the night. Lecointre suggested Duplay's house and took him there.[103] Maurice Duplay, a cabinetmaker and ardent admirer, lived at 398 Rue Saint-Honoré near the Tuileries. After a few days, Robespierre decided to move in permanently.[104]

Madame Roland named Pétion de Villeneuve, François Buzot and Robespierre as the three incorruptible patriots in an attempt to honour their purity of principles, their modest ways of living, and their refusal of bribes.[105] His steadfast adherence and defence of the views he expressed earned him the nickname l'Incorruptible.[106][107][k] According to his friend, the surgeon Joseph Souberbielle, Joachim Vilate,[citation needed] and Duplay's daughter Élisabeth, Robespierre became engaged to Duplay's eldest daughter Éléonore, but his sister Charlotte vigorously denied this; his brother Augustin refused to marry her.[108][109][110][111][clarification needed]

On 3 September, the French Constitution of 1791 was accepted, ten days later by the King also.[112] On 30 September, the day of the dissolution of the Assembly, Robespierre opposed Jean Le Chapelier, who wanted to proclaim an end to the revolution and restrict freedom of expression.[113][l] He succeeded in getting any requirement for inspection out of the constitution's guarantee of freedom of expression: "The freedom of every man to speak, to write, to print and publish his thoughts, without the writings having to be subject to censorship or inspection prior to their publication..."[114] Pétion and Robespierre were brought back in triumph to their homes.[m] On 16 October, Robespierre held a speech in Arras; one week later in Béthune, a small town he wished to settle. He went to a meeting of the Society of Friends of the Constitution, which was held on Sundays. On 28 November, he was back in the Jacobin club, where he met with a triumphant reception. Collot d'Herbois gave his chair to Robespierre, who presided that evening. On 5 December he gave a speech on the organization of the Garde National, which he saw as a unique institution born from the ideals of the French Revolution.[115] On 11 December, Robespierre was finally installed as "accusateur public".[116] In January 1791 Robespierre promoted the idea not only the National Guard but also the people had to be armed.[117][118] The Jacobins decided his speech would not be printed.[119]

Opposition to war with Austria

Portrait of Robespierre (1792) by Jean-Baptist Fouquet. By using a physiognotrace a "grand trait" was produced within a few minutes. This life-size drawing on pink paper was completed by Fouquet.[120]
Terracotta bust of Robespierre by Deseine, 1791 (Musée de la Révolution française)

The Declaration of Pillnitz (27 August 1791) from Austria and Prussia warned the people of France not to harm Louis XVI or these nations would "militarily intervene". Brissot rallied the support of the Legislative Assembly. As Marat, Danton and Robespierre were not elected in the new legislature, thanks to the Self-Denying Ordinance, oppositional politics often took place outside the Assembly. On 18 December 1791, Robespierre gave a second speech at the Jacobin club against the declaration of war.[121] Robespierre warned against the threat of dictatorship stemming from war:

If they are Caesars, Catilines or Cromwells, they seize power for themselves. If they are spineless courtiers, uninterested in doing good yet dangerous when they seek to do harm, they go back to lay their power at their master's feet and help him to resume arbitrary power on condition they become his chief servants.[122]

At the end of December, Guadet, the chairman of the Assembly, suggested that a war would be a benefit to the nation and boost the economy. He urged that France should declare war against Austria. Marat and Robespierre opposed him, arguing that victory would create a dictatorship, while defeat would restore the king to his former powers.[123]

The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician's head is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign country to make it adopt its laws and their constitution. No one loves armed missionaries... The Declaration of the Rights of Man... is not a lightning bolt that strikes every throne at the same time... I am far from claiming that our Revolution will not eventually influence the fate of the world... But I say that it will not be today (2 January 1792).[124]

This opposition from expected allies irritated the Girondins, and the war became a major point of contention between the factions. In his third speech on the war, Robespierre countered on 25 January 1792 in the Jacobin club, "A revolutionary war must be waged to free subjects and slaves from unjust tyranny, not for the traditional reasons of defending dynasties and expanding frontiers..." Robespierre argued such a war could only favour the forces of counter-revolution, since it would play into the hands of those who opposed the sovereignty of the people. The risks of Caesarism were clear: "in troubled periods of history, generals often became the arbiters of the fate of their countries."[125] Already, Robespierre knew that he had lost, as he failed to gather a majority. His speech was nevertheless published and sent to all clubs and Jacobin societies of France.[126]

On 10 February 1792, Robespierre gave a speech on how to save the State and Liberty and did not use the word "war". He began by assuring his audience that everything he intended to propose was strictly constitutional. He then went on to advocate specific measures to strengthen, not so much the national defenses as the forces that could be relied on to defend the revolution.[127] Robespierre promoted a people's army, continuously under arms and able to impose its will on Feuillants and Girondins in the Constitutional Cabinet of Louis XVI and the Legislative Assembly.[128] The Jacobins decided to study his speech before deciding whether it should be printed.[129][n]

On 15 February 1792 Robespierre was not elected in the city council (Conseil général);[131] on the same day the installation of the criminal trial court of the department of Paris, took place.[132] For Robespierre it was an ungrateful position as "public accuser"; it meant he was not allowed to the bar before the jury had spoken their verdict.[133] Robespierre was responsible for the coordination of the local and the federal police in the department and the sections.[134]

On 26 March, Guadet accused Robespierre of superstition, relying on divine providence.[135] Shortly after Robespierre was accused by Brissot and Guadet of 'trying to become the idol of the people'.[136] Being against the war Robespierre was also accused of acting as a secret agent for the "Austrian Committee".[137] The Girondins planned strategies to out-maneuver Robespierre's influence among the Jacobins.[138] On 27 April, as part of his speech responding to the accusations by Brissot and Guadet against him, he threatened to leave the Jacobins, claiming he preferred to continue his mission as an ordinary citizen.[139]

On 17 May, Robespierre released the first issue of his weekly periodical Le Défenseur de la Constitution (The Defender of the Constitution). In this publication, he criticized Brissot and expressed his skepticism over the war movement.[140][141] The periodical, printed by his neighbor Nicolas served multiple purposes: to print his speeches, to counter the influence of the royal court in public policy, and to defend him from the accusations of Girondist leaders;[142] for Soboul its purpose was to give voice to the economic and democratic interests of the broader masses in Paris and defend their rights.[143]

Insurrectionist Commune of Paris, 1792

April to July 1792

Demonstration of 20 June 1792 at the Tuileries
Le Défenseur de la Constitution n° 6 (1792)

When the Legislative Assembly declared war against Austria on 20 April 1792, Robespierre stated that the French people must arm themselves, whether to fight abroad or to prevent despotism at home.[144] An isolated Robespierre responded by working to reduce the political influence of the officer class and the king. On 23 April Robespierre demanded that Marquis de Lafayette, the head of the Army of the Centre, step down. While arguing for the welfare of common soldiers, Robespierre urged new promotions to mitigate the domination of the officer class by the aristocratic and royalist École Militaire and the conservative National Guard.[o] Along with other Jacobins, he urged the creation of an "armée révolutionnaire" in Paris, consisting of at least 20,000–23,000 men,[146][147] to defend the city, "liberty" (the revolution), maintain order and educate the members in democratic and republican principles, an idea he borrowed from Jean-Jacques Rousseau.[148][149] According to Jean Jaures, he considered this even more important than the right to strike.[citation needed][84]

On 29 May 1792, the Assembly dissolved the Constitutional Guard, suspecting it of royalist and counter-revolutionary sympathies. In early June 1792, Robespierre proposed an end to the monarchy and the subordination of the Assembly to the General will.[150] The monarchy faced an abortive demonstration of 20 June.[151][152]

Because French forces suffered disastrous defeats and a series of defections at the onset of the war, Robespierre and Marat feared the possibility of a military coup d'état.[153] One was led by Lafayette, head of the National Guard, who at the end of June advocated the suppression of the Jacobin Club. Robespierre publicly attacked him in scathing terms:

"General, while from the midst of your camp you declared war upon me, which you had thus far spared for the enemies of our state, while you denounced me as an enemy of liberty to the army, National Guard and Nation in letters published by your purchased papers, I had thought myself only disputing with a general... but not yet the dictator of France, arbitrator of the state."[154]

On 2 July, the Assembly authorised the National Guard to go to the Festival of Federation on 14 July, circumventing a royal veto. On 11 July, the Jacobins won an emergency vote in the wavering Assembly, declaring the nation in danger and drafting all Parisians with pikes into the National Guard.[155] On 15 July, Billaud-Varenne in the Jacobin club outlined the program for the next insurrection: the deportation of the Bourbons and "enemies of the people", the cleansing of the National Guard, the election of a Convention, the "transfer of the Royal veto to the people", and exemption of the poorest from taxation. On 24 July a "Central Office of Co-ordination" was formed and the sections received the right to be in a "permanent" session.[156][157]

On 25 July, according to the Logographe, Carnot promoted the use of pikes and provided to every citizen.[158] On 29 July Robespierre called for the deposition of the King and the election of a Convention.[159][160] In late July the Brunswick Manifesto began sweeping through Paris. It was frequently described as unlawful and offensive to national sovereignty. The authorship was frequently in doubt.[161]

August 1792

A sans-culotte with his polearm

On 1 August the Assembly voted on Carnot's proposal, enforcing the distribution of pikes to all citizens, excluding vagabonds.[162][163][164] By 3 August, the mayor and 47 sections demanded the removal of the king. On 5 August Robespierre disclosed the discovery of a plan for the king to escape to Château de Gaillon.[165] Aligning with Robespierre's stance, almost all sections in Paris rallied for the dethronement of the king and issued a decisive ultimatum.[166] Brissot urged the preservation of the constitution, advocating against both the dethronement of the king and the election of a new assembly.[167] On 7 August, Pétion proposed that Robespierre assist in facilitating the departure of Fédérés to pacify the capital, suggesting their more effective service at the front lines.[168] Simultaneously, the Council of Ministers recommended the arrest of Danton, Marat and Robespierre should they attend the Jacobin club.[169]

On 9 August, the commissionaires from several sections assembled in the town hall. Notably absent were Marat, Robespierre and Tallien. The dissolution of the municipal council of the city occurred at midnight. Sulpice Huguenin, a prominent figure among the sans-culottes of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, was appointed provisional president of the Insurrectionary Commune.

In the early hours of (Friday, 10 August) 30,000 Fédérés (volunteers hailing from the countryside) and Sans-culottes (militant citizens from the Paris) orchestrated a successful assault upon the Tuileries.[170] Robespierre considered it a triumph for the "passive" (non-voting) citizens. The Assembly, rattled by the events, suspended the king and sanctioned the election of a National Convention to supplant its authority.[171] On the night of 11 August. Robespierre secured a position in the Paris Commune, representing the Section de Piques, his residential district.[172] The governing committee advocated for the convening of a Convention, selected via universal male suffrage,[173] tasked with establishing a new government and restructering France. Despite Camille Desmoulins' belief that the turmoil had concluded, Robespierre asserted that it marked merely the beginning. By 13 August, Robespierre openly opposed the reinforcement of the départements.[174] Subsequently, Danton invited him to join the Council of Justice. Robespierre published the twelfth and final edition of Le Défenseur de la Constitution, serving as an account and political testament.[175][176]

On 16 August, Robespierre submitted a petition to the Legislative Assembly, endorsed by the Paris Commune urging the establishment of a provisional Revolutionary Tribunal specifically tasked with dealing with perceived "traitors" and "enemies of the people". The following day, he was appointed as one of eight judges for this tribunal. However, citing a lack of impartiality, Robespierre declined to preside over it.[177][p] This decision drew criticism.[179][180]

The Prussian army breached the French frontier on 19 August. To fortify defense, the Paris armed sections were integrated into 48 battalions of the National Guard under Santerre's command. The Assembly decreed that all the non-juring priests must leave Paris within a week and leave the country within two weeks.[181] On 28 August, the assembly ordered a curfew for the next two days.[182] The city gates were closed; all communication with the country was stopped. At the behest of Justice Minister Danton, thirty commissioners from the sections were ordered to search in every suspect house for weapons, munitions, swords, carriages, and horses.[183][184] "As a result of this inquisition, more than 1,000 "suspects" were added to the immense body of political prisoners already confined in the jails and convents of the city".[185] Marat and Robespierre both disliked Condorcet who proposed that the "enemies of the people" belonged to the whole nation and should be judged constitutionally in its name.[186] On 30 August the interim minister of Interior Roland and Guadet tried to suppress the influence of the Commune because the sections had exhausted the searches. The Assembly, tired of the pressures, declared the Commune illegal and suggested the organisation of communal elections.[187]

Robespierre was no longer willing to cooperate with Brissot and Roland. On Sunday morning 2 September the members of the Commune, gathering in the town hall to proceed the election of deputies to the National Convention, decided to maintain their seats and have Roland and Brissot arrested.[188][189]

National Convention

Main article: National Convention


Imaginary meeting between Robespierre, Danton and Marat (illustrating Victor Hugo's novel Ninety-Three) by Alfred Loudet

On 2 September the 1792 French National Convention election began. Paris was organising its defence, but it was confronted with a lack of arms for the thousands of volunteers. Danton delivered a speech in the assembly and possibly referring to the Swiss inmates: "We ask that anyone who refuses to serve in person, or to surrender their weapons, is punished with death."[190][191] His speech acted as a call for direct action among the citizens, as well as a strike against the external enemy.[192] Not long after the September Massacres began.[193] Robespierre and Manuel, the public prosecutor, responsible for the police administration, visited the Temple prison to check on the security of the royal family.[194]

In Paris suspected Girondin and royalist candidates were boycotted;[195] Robespierre contributed to Brissot (and his fellow Brissotins Pétion and Condorcet's) inability to be elected in Paris.[196] According to Charlotte Robespierre, her brother stopped talking to his former friend, mayor Pétion de Villeneuve. Pétion was accused of conspicuous consumption by Desmoulins,[197] and finally rallied to Brissot.[198] On 5 September, Robespierre was elected deputy to the National Convention but Danton and Collot d'Herbois received more votes than Robespierre.[q] Madame Roland wrote to a friend: "We are under the knife of Robespierre and Marat, those who would agitate the people."[199] The election were not the triumph for the Montagnard Jacobins that they had anticipated, but during the next nine months they gradually eliminated their opponents and gained control of the Convention.[200]

On 21 September Pétion was elected as president of the Convention. The Montagnard Jacobins and Cordeliers took the high benches at the back of the former Salle du Manège, giving them the label the Montagnards ("the Mountain"); below them were the "Manège" of the Girondists, the moderate Republicans. The majority the Plain was formed by independents (as Barère, Cambon and Carnot) but dominated by the radical Mountain.[201] On 25 and 26 September, Barbaroux and the Girondist Lasource accused Robespierre of wanting to form a dictatorship.[202] Rumours spread that Robespierre, Marat, and Danton were plotting to establish a triumvirate to save the First French Republic, although there is no evidence to support this claim.

On 30 September Robespierre advocated for several laws; the registration of marriages, births, and burials was withdrawn from the church. On 29 October, Louvet de Couvrai attacked Robespierre.[203] He accused him of governing the Paris "Conseil Général" and having done nothing to stop the September massacre; instead, according to him, he had used it to have more Montagnards elected;[204] allegedly paying the septembriseurs to gain more votes.[205] Robespierre, who was sick, was given a week to respond. On 5 November, Robespierre defended himself, the Jacobin Club, and his supporters:

Upon the Jacobins, I exercise, if we are to believe my accusers, a despotism of opinion, which can be regarded as nothing other than the forerunner of dictatorship. Firstly, I do not know what a dictatorship of opinion is, above all in a society of free men... unless this describes nothing more than the natural compulsion of principles. This compulsion hardly belongs to the man who enunciates them; it belongs to universal reason and to all men who wish to listen to its voice. It belongs to my colleagues of the Constituent Assembly, to the patriots of the Legislative Assembly, to all citizens who will invariably defend the cause of liberty. Experience has proven, despite Louis XVI and his allies, that the opinion of the Jacobins and the popular clubs were those of the French Nation; no citizen has made them, and I did nothing other than share in them.[206]

Turning the accusations upon his accusers, Robespierre delivered one of the most famous lines of the French Revolution to the Assembly:

I will not remind you that the sole object of contention dividing us is that you have instinctively defended all acts of new ministers, and we, of principles; that you seemed to prefer power, and we equality... Why don't you prosecute the Commune, the Legislative Assembly, the Sections of Paris, the Assemblies of the Cantons and all who imitated us? For all these things have been illegal, as illegal as the Revolution, as the fall of the Monarchy and of the Bastille, as illegal as liberty itself... Citizens, do you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution which has directed itself against those who freed us from chains?[207]

After publishing his speech "A Maximilien Robespierre et à ses royalistes (accusation)", Louvet was no longer admitted to the Jacobin Club.[208] Condorcet considered the French Revolution as a religion and believed that Robespierre had all the characteristics of a leader of a sect,[209][210] or a cult.[211][r] As his opponents knew well, Robespierre had a strong base of support among the women of Paris called tricoteuses (knitters).[213][214] According to Moore "He [Robespierre] refuses offices in which he might be of service, takes those where he can govern; appears when he can make a figure, disappears when others occupy the stage".[215]

Execution of Louis XVI

Main article: Execution of Louis XVI

Louis XVI stands trial before the Convention, as Robespierre watches from the first row. Engraving by Reinier Vinkeles
Execution of Louis XVI

After the Convention's unanimous declaration of a French Republic on 21 September 1792, a commission was established to examine the evidence against the former king while the Convention's Legislation Committee considered legal aspects of any future trial.[216] On 20 November, opinion turned sharply against Louis following the discovery of a secret cache of 726 documents consisting of Louis's communications with bankers and ministers.[217] On a proposal of Claude Bazire, a Dantonist, the National Convention decreed that Louis XVI be tried by its members.[218] On 28 December, Robespierre was asked to repeat his speech on the fate of the king in the Jacobin club. On 14 January 1793, the king was unanimously voted guilty of conspiracy and attacks upon public safety.[219]

On 15 January the call for a referendum was defeated by 424 votes to 287, which Robespierre led. On 16 January, voting began to determine the king's sentence; Robespierre worked fervently to ensure the king's execution. The Jacobins successfully defeated the Girondins' final appeal for clemency.[220] On 20 January half of the deputies voted for immediate death. The next day Louis XVI was guillotined.

Following the execution of the king, Robespierre, Danton, and the Montagnards surged in influence, overshadowing the Girondins.[221]

March/April 1793

Louis Philippe in 1792, by Léon Cogniet (1834)
The defection of Dumouriez.

On 24 February the Convention decreed the first albeit unsuccessful Levée en masse, triggering uprisings in rural France. Protesters, supported by the Enragés, accused the Girondins of instigating the unrest and soaring prices.[221] In early March 1793, the War in the Vendée and the War of the Pyrenees began. Meanwhile the population of the Austrian Netherlands, who were terrorized by an Army of Sans-Culottes, resisted the French invasion.[222]

On the evening of 9 March, a crowd gathered outside the Convention, shouting threats and calling for the removal of all "traitorous" deputies who had failed to vote for the execution of the king. On 12 March 1793, a provisional Revolutionary Tribunal was established; three days later the Convention appointed Fouquier-Tinville as the accusateur public and Fleuriot-Lescot as his assistant. Robespierre was not enthusiastic and feared that it might become the political instrument of a faction.[223] Robespierre believed that all institutions are bad if they are not founded on the assumption that the people are good and their magistrates corruptible.[224]

On 11 March, Charles François Dumouriez addressed the Brussels assembly, apologising for the actions of the French commissioners and soldiers.[225] Dumouriez promised the Austrians the French army would leave Belgium by the end of March without permission of the Convention.[226] He urged the Duke of Chartres to join his plan to negotiate peace, dissolve the Convention, restore the French Constitution of 1791 and a constitutional monarchy, and to free Marie-Antoinette and her children.[227][228] The Jacobin leaders were quite sure that France had come close to a military coup mounted by Dumouriez and supported by the Girondins.

On 25 March Robespierre became one of the 25 members of the Committee of General Defence to coordinate the war effort.[229] Robespierre called for the removal of Dumouriez, who in his eyes aspired to become a Belgian dictator or chief of state, and was placed under arrest.[230] He demanded that relatives of the king should leave France, but Marie-Antoinette should be judged.[231] He spoke of vigorous measures to save the Convention but left the committee within a few days. Marat began to promote a more radical approach, war on the Girondins.[232] The Montagnards launched a vigorous campaign against the Girondins, after the defection of General Dumouriez, who refused to surrender himself to the Revolutionary Tribunal.[233] On 3 April Robespierre declared before the Convention that the whole war was a prepared game between Dumouriez and Brissot to overthrow the Republic.[234]

On 6 April the Committee of Public Safety was installed on the proposal of Maximin Isnard, supported by Georges Danton. The Committee was composed of nine deputies from the Plaine and the Dantonists, but no Girondins or Robespierrists.[235] As one of the first acts of the Committee, Marat, president of the Jacobin club, called for the expulsion of twenty-two Girondins.[236] Robespierre, who was not elected, was pessimistic about the prospects of parliamentary action and told the Jacobins that it was necessary to raise an army of sans-culottes to defend Paris and arrest disloyal deputies.[237] There were only two parties according to Robespierre: the people and their enemies.[238] On 10 April Robespierre accused Dumouriez in a speech: "He and his supporters have brought a fatal blow to the public fortune, preventing circulation of assignats in Belgium".[239] Robespierre's speeches during April 1793 reflect the growing radicalisation. "I ask the sections to raise an army large enough to form the kernel of a Revolutionary Army that will draw all the sans-culottes from the departments to exterminate the rebels..."[240][241] Suspecting further treason, Robespierre invited the Convention to vote the death penalty against anyone who would propose negotiating with the enemy.[242] Marat was imprisoned calling for a military tribunal as well as the suspension of the Convention.[243] On 15 April the Convention was stormed again by the people from the sections, demanding the removal of those Girondins who had defended the King. Until 17 April, the Convention discussed the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1793, a political document that preceded the first republican constitution of 1793. On 18 April the Commune announced an insurrection against the Convention after the arrest of Marat. On 19 April Robespierre opposed article 7 on equality before the law; on 22 April the Convention discussed article 29 on the right of resistance.[244] On 24 April Robespierre presented his version with four articles on the right of property.[s] He was in effect questioning the individual right of ownership,[247] and advocated a progressive tax and fraternity between the people of all the nations.[240] Robespierre declared himself against the agrarian law.

May 1793

Main article: Insurrection of 31 May – 2 June 1793

On 1 May 1793, according to the Girondin deputé Jacques-Antoine Dulaure, 8,000 armed men surrounded the Convention and threatened not to leave if the emergency measures they demanded (a decent salary and maximum on food prices) were not adopted.[248][249] On 4 May the Convention agreed to support the families of soldiers and sailors who left their home to fight the enemy. Robespierre pressed ahead with his strategy of class war.[250] On 8 and 12 May in the Jacobin Club, Robespierre restated the necessity of founding a revolutionary army, that would search for grain, to be funded by a tax on the rich, and would be intended to defeat aristocrats and counter-revolutionaries. He said that public squares should be used to produce arms and pikes.[251] In mid-May, Marat and the Commune supported him publicly and secretly.[252] The Convention decided to set up a commission of inquiry of twelve members, with a very strong Girondin majority.[253] Jacques Hébert, the editor of Le Père Duchesne, was arrested after attacking or calling for the death of the twenty-two Girondins. The next day, the Commune demanded that Hébert be released.

On 26 May, after a week of silence, Robespierre delivered one of the most decisive speeches of his career.[254] He called on the Jacobin Club "to place themselves in insurrection against corrupt deputies".[255] Isnard declared that the Convention would not be influenced by any violence and that Paris had to respect the representatives from elsewhere in France.[256] The Convention decided Robespierre would not be heard. The atmosphere became extremely agitated. Some deputies were willing to kill if Isnard dared to declare civil war in Paris; the president was asked to give up his seat.

On 28 May a weak Robespierre excused himself twice for his physical condition but attacked in particular Brissot of royalism.[257][258] Robespierre left the Convention after applause from the left side and went to the town hall.[232] There he called for an armed insurrection against the majority of the Convention. "If the Commune does not unite closely with the people, it violates its most sacred duty", he said.[259] In the afternoon the Commune demanded the creation of a revolutionary army of sans-culottes in every town of France, including 20,000 men to defend Paris.[260][255][261]

On 29 May, Robespierre was occupied in preparing the public mind. He attacked Charles Jean Marie Barbaroux, but admitted he almost gave up his political career because of his anxieties.[232] The delegates representing thirty-three of the Paris sections formed an insurrectionary committee.[262] They declared themselves in a state of insurrection, dissolved the general council of the commune, and immediately reconstituted it, making it take a new oath; Francois Hanriot was elected as Commandant-Général of the Parisian National Guard. Saint-Just was added to the Committee of Public Safety; Couthon became secretary.

The next day the tocsin in the Notre-Dame was rung and the city gates were closed; the Insurrection of 31 May – 2 June began. Hanriot was ordered to fire a cannon on the Pont-Neuf as a sign of alarm. Around ten in the morning 12,000 armed citizens appeared to protect the Convention against the arrest of Girondin deputies.

On Saturday 1 June the Commune gathered almost all day and devoted it to the preparation of a great movement. The Comité insurrectionnel ordered Hanriot to surround the Convention "with a respectable armed force".[263] In the evening 40,000 men surrounded the building to force the arrest. Marat led the attack on the representatives, who had voted against the execution of the King and since then paralyzed the Convention.[264][236] The Commune decided to petition the Convention. The Convention decided to allow men to carry arms on days of crisis and pay them for each day and promised to indemnify the workers for the interruption in the past four days.[265]

Unsatisfied with the result the Commune demanded and prepared a "Supplement" to the revolution. Hanriot offered (or was ordered) to march the National Guard from the town hall to the National Palace.[266] The next morning a large force of armed citizens (some estimated 80,000 or 100,000, but Danton spoke of only 30,000)[267] surrounded the Convention with artillery. "The armed force", Hanriot said, "will retire only when the Convention has delivered to the people the deputies denounced by the Commune."[268] The Girondins believed they were protected by the law, but the people in the galleries called for their arrest. Twenty-two Girondins were seized.[269]

The Montagnards now had control of the Convention.[270] The Girondins, going to the provinces, joined the counter-revolution.[271]

During the insurrection Robespierre had scrawled a note in his memorandum-book:

What we need is a single will (il faut une volonté une). It must be either republican or royalist. If it is to be republican, we must have republican ministers, republican newspapers, republican deputies, a republican government. ... The internal dangers come from the middle classes; to defeat the middle classes we must rally the people. ... The people must ally themselves with the Convention, and the Convention must make use of the people.[272][273]

On 3 June French the Convention decided to split up the land belonging to Émigrés and sell it to farmers. On 12 June, Robespierre announced his intention to resign due to health issues.[274] On 13 July Robespierre defended the plans of Le Peletier to teach revolutionary ideas in boarding schools.[275][t] On the following day the Convention rushed to praise Marat – who had been murdered in his bathtub – for his fervor and revolutionary diligence. Opposing Pierre-Louis Bentabole, Robespierre simply called for an inquiry into the circumstances of Marat's death.[277] On 17 or 22 July the property of the Émigres were expropriated by decree; proofs of ownership had to be collected and burnt.

Reign of Terror

Main article: Reign of Terror

The Pavillon de Flore, the seat of the Committee of Public Safety and General Police Bureau. Joachim Vilate lived there in an apartment. Drawing in brown ink (1814)
Peasants and commoners (insurgent royalists or Chouans) in the Vendée, Maine, the south of Normandy or the eastern part of Brittany defending a Catholic church. Artist unknown

The French government confronted significant internal challenges as the provincial cities rebelled against the more radical revolutionaries in Paris. Marat and Le Peletier were assassinated, instilling fear in Robespierre and other prominent figures for their own safety. Corsica formally seceded from France and sought protection from the British government. In July, France teetered on the brink of civil war, besieged by aristocratic uprisings in Vendée and Brittany, by federalist revolts in Lyon, Le Midi, and Normandy, and confronted with hostility from across Europe and foreign factions.[278][279][280]

June and July 1793

At the end of June, Robespierre launched an attack on Jacques Roux, portraying him as a foreign agent, which led to Roux's expulsion from the Jacobin Club. On 13 July, the same day Marat was assassinated, Robespierre voiced support for Louis-Michel le Peletier's proposals to introduce revolutionary concepts into schools.[275] He also condemned the initiatives of the Parisian radicals, known as the Enragés, who exploited rising inflation and food shortages to incite unrest among the Paris sections.[5]

On 27 July 1793, Robespierre finally joined the Committee, replacing Thomas-Augustin de Gasparin. This marked Robespierre's second stint in an executive position to oversee the war effort. While Robespierre was generally considered the most recognizable member of the Committee, it operated without a hierarchical structure.[281]

August 1793

On 4 August, the Convention promulgated the French Constitution of 1793.[u] However, by the end of August, the rebellious cities of Marseille, Bordeaux and Lyon had not yet accepted the new Constitution. French historian Soboul suggests that Robespierre opposed its implementation before the rebellious départements had acknowledged it.[283] By mid-September, the Jacobin Club proposed that the Constitution should not be published, arguing that the general will was absent, despite an overwhelming majority favoring it.[284]

On 21 August, Robespierre was elected as president of the Convention.[285] Two days later, on 23 August Lazare Carnot was appointed to the committee and the provisional government introduced the Levée en masse against the enemies of the republic. Couthon proposed a law punishing any person who sold assignats at less than their nominal value with twenty years imprisonment in chains. Robespierre was particularly concerned with ensuring the virtue of public officials.[286] He had dispatched his brother Augustin, also a representative, and sister Charlotte to Marseille and Nice to quell the federalist insurrection.[287]

September 1793

On 4 September, the sans-culottes once again stormed the Convention, demanding stricter measures against rising prices, even though the circulating assignats had doubled in the preceding months.[288] They also called for the establishment of a system of terror to eradicate counter-revolution.

During the session on 5 September 1793, Robespierre yielded the chair to Thuriot, as he needed to attend the Committee of Public Safety to supervise the report on the constitution of the revolutionary army.[289] On that day's session, the Convention, upon a proposal by Chaumette and supported by Billaud and Danton, decided to form a revolutionary army of 6,000 men in Paris.[290] Barère, representing the Committee of Public Safety, introduced a decree that was promptly passed, establishing a paid armed force of 6,000 men and 1,200 gunners "tasked with crushing counter-revolutionaries, enforcing revolutionary laws and public safety measures decreed by the National Convention, and safeguarding provisions."[240]

The Committee of General Security, responsible for rooting out crimes and preventing domestic counter-revolution, began overseeing the National Gendarmerie and financial matters. A decree was issued for the arrest of all foreigners in the country. On 8 September, banks and exchange offices were shuttered to curb the circulation of counterfeit assignats and the outflow of capital,[291] with investments in foreign countries punishable by death.

On 11 September, the authority of the Committee of Public Safety was extended for one month. Robespierre threw his support behind Hanriot in the Jacobin Club and voiced opposition to the appointment of Lazare Carnot on 23 August to the committee, citing Carnot's non-membership in the Jacobin Club and his refusal to endorse the events of 31 May.[292][293] Robespierre also called for the punishment of the leaders involved in the Bordeaux conspiracy.

Jacques Thuriot resigned on 20 September due to irreconcilable differences with Robespierre, becoming one of his more vocal opponents.[294] The Revolutionary Tribunal underwent reorganization, being divided into four sections, with two sections always active simultaneously. On 29 September, the Committee introduced the price controls, particularly in the area supplying Paris.[295] According to Augustin Cochin (historian) shops were emptied within a week due to these measures.[296]

On 1 October, the Convention resolved to eradicate the "brigands" in the Vendée before the month's end.

October 1793

On 3 October Robespierre perceived the Convention as split into two factions: those aligned with the people and those he deemed conspirators.[297] He defended seventy-three Girondins "as useful",[298] but over twenty were subsequently brought to trial. He criticized Danton, who had declined a seat on the Committee of Public Safety, advocating instead for a stable government capable of resisting the Committee's directives.[299] Danton, who had been dangerously ill for a few weeks,[300] withdrew from politics and departed for Arcis-sur-Aube.[301] By 8 October the Convention resolved to arrest Brissot and the Girondins.

On 10 October the Convention officially recognised the Committee of Public Safety as the supreme "Revolutionary Government",[302][better source needed] a designation that was solidified on 4 December.[303] Despite the overwhelming popularity of the Constitution and its drafting, which bolstered support for the Montagnards, the Convention, on 10 October, suspended it indefinitely until a future peace could be achieved.[304] The Committee of Public Safety transformed into a war cabinet with unprecedented authority over the economy and the political life of the nation. However, it remained accountable to the Convention for any legislative measures and could be replaced at any time.[305]

On 12 October, amid accusations by Hébert implicating Marie-Antoinette in incest with her son, Robespierre shared a meal with staunch supporters including Barère, Saint-Just, and Joachim Vilate. During the discussion, Robespierre, visibly incensed, broke his plate with his fork and denounced Hébert as an "imbécile".[306][307][308] The verdict on the former queen was delivered by the jury of the Revolutionary Tribunal on 16 October, at four o'clock in the morning and she was guillotined at noon.[309] Courtois reportedly discovered Marie-Antoinette's will among Robespierre's papers, concealed beneath his bed.[310]

On 25 October the Revolutionary government faced accusations of inaction.[311] Several members of the Committee of General Security, aided by armées revolutionnaires, were dispatched to quell active resistance against the Revolution in the provinces.[312] Robespierre's landlord, Maurice Duplay, became a member of the Revolutionary Tribunal. On 31 October Brissot and twenty-one other Girondins were guillotined.[313]

November 1793

On the morning of 14 November François Chabot allegedly barged into Robespierre's room dragging him from bed with accusations of counter-revolution and a foreign conspiracy. Chabot waved a hundred thousand livres in assignat notes, claiming that a group of royalist plotters had given it to him to buy votes.[314][315] Chabot was arrested three days later; Courtois urged Danton to return to Paris immediately.

On 25 November, the remains of the Comte de Mirabeau were removed from the Pantheon and replaced with those of Jean-Paul Marat.[316] Robespierre initiated this change upon discovering that Mirabeau had secretly conspired with the court of Louis XVI in his final months.[317] At the end of November, under intense emotional pressure from Lyonnaise women, who protested and gathered 10,000 signatures, Robespierre proposed the establishment of a secret commission to examine the cases of the Lyon rebels, to investigate potential injustices.

December 1793

On 3 December Robespierre accused Danton in the Jacobin Club of feigning an illness to emigrate to Switzerland.[citation needed] Danton, according to him, showed too often his vices and not his virtue. Robespierre was stopped in his attack. The gathering was closed after applause for Danton.[318] On 4 December, by the Law of Revolutionary Government, the independence of departmental and local authorities came to an end, when extensive powers of the Committee of Public Safety were codified. Submitted by Billaud and implemented within 24 hours, the law was a drastic decision against the independence of deputies and commissionaires on a mission; coordinated action among the sections became illegal.[319] On 5 December the journalist Camille Desmoulins launched a new journal, Le Vieux Cordelier. He defended Danton, attacked the de-Christianisers and later compared Robespierre with Julius Caesar as dictator.[320] Robespierre made a counterproposal, to set up a Committee of Justice to examine some of the cases under the Law of Suspects.[321] Seventy-three deputies who had voted against the insurrection on 2 June were allowed to take their seats in the Convention.[322] On 6 December Robespierre warned in the Convention against the dangers of dechristianization, and attacked "all violence or threats contrary to the freedom of religion".

Triumvirate of : (L-R) Saint-Just, Robespierre, and Couthon
Print representing a Comité de surveillance of the Parisian section of the year II, after Jean-Baptiste Huet. (National Library of France, Paris.)

On 12 December Robespierre attacked the wealthy foreigner Cloots in the Jacobin club of being a Prussian spy.[323] Robespierre denounced the "de-Christianisers" as foreign enemies. The Indulgents mounted an attack on the Committee of Public Safety, accusing them of being murderers.[324] Desmoulins addressed Robespierre directly, writing, "My dear Robespierre... my old school friend... Remember the lessons of history and philosophy: love is stronger, more lasting than fear."[325][326]

On 25 December, provoked by Desmoulins' insistent challenges, Robespierre produced his "Report on the Principles of Revolutionary Government".[321] Robespierre replied to the plea for an end to the Terror, justifying the collective authority of the National Convention, administrative centralisation, and the purging of local authorities. He said he had to avoid two cliffs: indulgence and severity. He could not consult the 18th-century political authors, because they had not foreseen such a course of events. He protested against the various factions that he believed threatened the government, such as the Hébertists and Dantonists.[327][328] Robespierre strongly believed that the strict legal system was still necessary:

The theory of the revolutionary government is as new as the revolution from which this government was born. This theory may not be found in the books of the political writers who were unable to predict the Revolution, nor in the law books of the tyrants...

The goal of a constitutional government is the protection of the Republic; that of a revolutionary government is the establishment of the Republic.

The Revolution is the war waged by liberty against its foes—but the Constitution is the régime of victorious and peaceful freedom.

The Revolutionary Government will need to put forth extraordinary activity, because it is at war. It is subject to no constant laws, since the circumstances under which it prevails are those of a storm, and change with every moment. This government is obliged unceasingly to disclose new sources of energy to oppose the rapidly changing face of danger.[329]

Robespierre would suppress chaos and anarchy: "the Government has to defend itself" [against conspirators] and "to the enemies of the people it owes only death".[330][331][332] According to R.R. Palmer and Donald C. Hodges, this was the first important statement in modern times of a philosophy of dictatorship.[333][334] Others see it as a natural consequence of political instability and conspiracy.

February and March 1794

In his Report on the Principles of Political Morality of 5 February 1794, Robespierre praised the revolutionary government and argued that terror and virtue were necessary:

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty's despotism against tyranny. Is force made only to protect crime? And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud?[335]

To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is barbarity.[336]

Aulard sums up the Jacobin train of thought, "All politics, according to Robespierre, must tend to establish the reign of virtue and confound vice. He reasoned thus: those who are virtuous are right; error is a corruption of the heart; error cannot be sincere; error is always deliberate."[337][338] According to the German journalist K.E. Oelsner, Robespierre behaved "more like a leader of a religious sect than of a political party. He can be eloquent but most of the time he is boring, especially when he goes on too long, which is often the case."[339]

From 13 February to 13 March 1794, Robespierre had withdrawn from active business on the Committee due to illness.[67] Robespierre seems to have suffered from acute physical and mental exhaustion, exacerbated by an austere personal regime according to McPhee. Saint-Just was elected president of the Convention for the next two weeks. On 19 February, Robespierre decided to return to the Duplays.[340]

In early March in a speech at the Cordeliers Club, Hébert attacked both Robespierre and Danton as being too soft. Hébert used the latest issue of Le Père Duchesne to criticise Robespierre. There were queues and near-riots at the shops and in the markets; there were strikes and threatening public demonstrations. Some of the Hébertistes and their friends were calling for a new insurrection.[341] Robespierre managed to acquire a small army of secret agents, which reported to him.[342]

A majority of the Committee decided that the ultra-left Hébertists would have to perish or their opposition within the committee would overshadow the other factions due to its influence in the Commune of Paris. Robespierre also had personal reasons for disliking the Hébertists for their "bloodthirstiness" and atheism, which he associated with the old aristocracy.[343] On the night of 13–14 March, Hébert and 18 of his followers were arrested as the agents of foreign powers. On 15 March, Robespierre reappeared in the Convention.[v] The next day Robespierre denounced a petition demanding that all merchants should be excluded from public offices whilst the war lasted.[345] Subsequently, he joined Saint-Just in his attacks on Hébert.[346] The leaders of the "armées révolutionnaires" were denounced by the Revolutionary Tribunal as accomplices of Hébert.[347] Their armies were dissolved on 27 March. Robespierre protected Hanriot, the commander of the Paris National Guards, and Pache.[348][w] Around twenty people, including Hébert, Cloots and De Kock), were guillotined on the evening of 24 March. On 25 March Condorcet was arrested as he was seen as an enemy of the Revolution; he committed suicide two days later.

On 29 March Danton met again with Robespierre privately.[353] On 30 March the two committees decided to arrest Danton and Desmoulins.[354] On 31 March Saint-Just publicly attacked both. In the Convention, criticism was voiced against the arrests, which Robespierre silenced with "whoever trembles at this moment is guilty."[355] Legendre suggested that "before you listen to any report, you send for the prisoners, and hear them". Robespierre replied "It would be violating the laws of impartiality to grant to Danton what was refused to others, who had an equal right to make the same demand. This answer silenced at once all solicitations in his favour."[356] No friend of the Dantonists dared speak up in case he too should be accused of putting friendship before virtue.[357]

April 1794

Cartoon showing Robespierre guillotining the executioner after having guillotined everyone else in France.

Danton, Desmoulins, and several others faced trial from 3 to 5 April before the Revolutionary Tribunal, presided over by Martial Herman. Described as more politically charged than criminally focused, the trial proceeded in an irregular manner.[358] Hanriot had been informed not to arrest the president and the "public accuser" of the Revolutionary Tribunal.[359] The accusations of theft, corruption, and the scandal involving the French East India Company paved the way for Danton's downfall,[360] accusing him of conspiracy with count Mirabeau, Marquis de Lafayette, the Duke of Orléans and Dumouriez.[361] In Robespierre's eyes, the Dantonists had ceased to be true patriots prioritizing personal and foreign interests over the nation's welfare.[358] Following Robespierre's advice, a decree was accepted to present Saint-Just's account on Danton's alleged royalist tendencies at the tribunal, effectively ending further debates and restraining any further insults to justice by the accused.[362]

Fouquier-Tinville asked the tribunal to order the defendants who "confused the hearing" and insulted "National Justice" to the guillotine. Desmoulins struggled to accept his fate and accused Robespierre, the Committee of General Security, and the Revolutionary Tribunal. He was dragged up the scaffold by force.

On the last day of their trial, Desmoulins's wife, Lucile Desmoulins, was imprisoned. She was accused of organising a revolt against the patriots and the tribunal to free her husband and Danton. She admitted to having warned the prisoners of a course of events as in September 1792, and that it was her duty to revolt against it. Robespierre was not only his school friend but also had witnessed at their marriage in December 1790, together with Pétion and Brissot.[363][364][67] Following the executions of Danton and Desmoulins on 5 April, Robespierre had a partial withdrawal from public life. He did not reappear until 7 May. The withdrawal may have been an indication of health issues.[363]

On 1 April Lazare Carnot proposed the provisional executive council of six ministers be suppressed and the ministries be replaced by twelve Committees reporting to the Committee of Public Safety.[365] The proposal was unanimously adopted by the National Convention and set up by Martial Herman on 8 April. On 3 April Fouché was invited to Paris. On 9 April he appeared in the Convention; in the evening he visited Robespierre at home. On 12 April his report was discussed in the Convention; according to Robespierre, it was incomplete.[366] When Barras and Fréron paid a visit to Robespierre, they were received in an extremely unfriendly manner.[367] At the request of Robespierre, the Convention ordered the transfer of the ashes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the Panthéon.

On 22 April Malesherbes, a lawyer who had defended the king and the deputés Isaac René Guy le Chapelier and Jacques Guillaume Thouret, four times elected president of the Constituent Assembly were taken to the scaffold.[368] The decree of 8 May suppressed the revolutionary courts and committees in the provinces and brought all political cases for trial in the capital.[369] The police bureau, directed by Martial Herman, became a serious rival of the Committee of General Security after a month.[370] Payan, even advised to Robespierre to get rid of the Committee of General Security, which, he said, broke the unity of action of the government.[368]

June 1794

On 10 June, Georges Couthon introduced the Law of 22 Prairial to liberate the Revolutionary Tribunals from Convention control while severely restricting suspects' ability to defend themselves. The law significantly expanded the scope of charges, criminalizing virtually any criticism of the government.[371] Legal defence was sidelined in favor of efficiency and centralisation, as all assistance for defendants before the revolutionary tribunal was outlawed.[372] The Tribunal transformed into a court of condemnation, denying suspects the right to counsel and offering only two verdicts: complete acquittal or death, often based more on jurors' moral convictions than evidence.[373][374] Within three days, 156 people were sent in batches to the guillotine, including all the members of Parlement of Toulouse.[375][376] On 11 July, shopkeepers, craftsmen, and others were temporarily released from prison due to overcrowding, with over 8,000 "suspects" initially confined by the start of Thermidor Year II, according to François Furet.[377] Paris saw a doubling of death sentences.[378]

Abolition of slavery

Main article: Abolition of slavery

Réglements de la Société des Amis des Noirs, 1788–1789
Décret d'abolition de l'esclavage du 16 pluviôse an II (4 February 1794)

Robespierre's stance on abolition exhibits certain contradictions, prompting doubts about his intentions regarding slavery.[379][380][381][382]

On 13 May 1791, he opposed the inclusion of the term "slaves" in a law, vehemently denouncing the slave trade.[383] He emphasized that slavery contradicted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.[382] On 15 May 1791, the Constituent Assembly granted citizenship to "all people of colour born of free parents".[384] Robespierre passionately argued in the Assembly against the Colonial Committee, which was composed predominantly of plantation owners and slaveholders in the Caribbean.[385] The colonial lobby contented that granting political rights to black individuals would lead to France losing her colonies. In response, Robespierre asserted, "We should not compromise the interests humanity holds most dear, the sacred rights of a significant number of our fellow citizens," later exclaiming, "Perish the colonies, if it will cost you your happiness, your glory, your freedom. Perish the colonies!"[383][386] Robespierre expressed fury at the assembly's decision to grant "constitutional sanction to slavery in the colonies", and advocating for equal political rights regardless of skin colour.[387] Despite the decree, the colonial whites refused to comply the decree,[388] leading them to contemplate separation from France thereafter.

Robespierre did not advocate for the immediate abolition of slavery. However, proponents of slavery in France viewed Robespierre as a "bloodthirsty innovator" and accused him of conspiring to surrender French colonies to England.[386] On 4 April 1792, Louis XVI affirmed the Jacobin decree, which granted equal political rights to free blacks and mulattoes in Saint-Domingue.[389] On 2 June 1792, the National Assembly appointed a three-man Civil Commission, led by Léger Félicité Sonthonax, to travel to Saint-Domingue and ensure the enforcement of the 4 April decree. However, the commission eventually issued a proclamation of general emancipation that included black slaves.[390] Robespierre condemned the slave trade in a speech before the Convention in April 1793.[391]

Ask a merchant of human flesh what is property; he will answer by showing you that long coffin he calls a ship... Ask a gentleman [the same] who has lands and vassals... and he will give you almost the identical ideas.

— Robespierre, "The Principles of Property", 24 April 1793.[392][6]

Babeuf urged Chaumette to spearhead efforts to persuade the Convention to adopt the seven additional articles proposed by Maximilien Robespierre on 24 April 1793, regarding the scale and scope of property rights, to be incorporated into the new Declaration of Rights.[393] On 3 June 1793, Robespierre attended a Jacobin meeting to lend support for a decree aimed at ending slavery.[394] On 4 June 1793, a delegation of sans-culottes and men of colour, led by Chaumette, presented a petition to the Convention requesting the general emancipation of the blacks in the colonies. The abolition of slavery was officially included into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793.[246] The radical 1793 constitution, championed by Robespierre and the Montagnards, was ratified in August through a national referendum. It granted universal suffrage to French men and explicitly condemned slavery. However, the French Constitution of 1793 was never put in effect.

Starting in August, former slaves in St Domingue were granted "all the rights of French citizens". In August 1793, an increasing number of slaves in St Domingue initiated a Haitian revolution against slavery and colonial domination.[395] Robespierre, however, prioritized the rights of free people of color over those of the enslaved.[396] On 31 October 1793, slavery was officially abolished in St Domingue. Robespierre criticised the actions of the former governor of Saint-Domingue Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, who initially had freed slaves in Haïti, but then proposed arming them.[397] Robespierre also cautioned the Committee against relying on white individuals to govern the colony.[398] In 1794 the National Convention passed a decree abolishing slavery in all the colonies.[399][400] On the day following the emancipation decree, Robespierre addressed the Convention, lauding the French as pioneers to "summon all men to equality and liberty, and their full rights as citizens". Although Robespierre mentioned slavery twice in his speech, he did not specifically reference the French colonies.[401] Despite petitions from the slaveholding delegation, the Convention resolved to fully endorse the decree. However, its implementation and application were limited to St Domingue (1793), Guadeloupe (December 1794) and French Guiana.[402][403]

The National Convention declares the abolition of negro slavery in all the Colonies; consequently it decrees that all men, without distinction of color, domiciled in the Colonies, are French citizens, and will enjoy all the rights assured by the constitution.[404]

Robespierre's stance on the decree of 16 Pluviose year II regarding the emancipation of the slaves, remains a topic of contention. French historian Claude Mazauric interpreted Robespierre's cautious approach in February 1794 toward the abolition decree as an attempt to avoid controversy.[405] On 11 April 1794, the decree underwent alterations,[406] with Robespierre endorsing orders to ratify it.[407] This decree significantly bolstered the Republic's popularity among Black individuals in St. Domingue, many of whom had already liberated themselves and sought military alliances to safeguard their freedom.[387] In May 1794, Toussaint Louverture aligned with the French after the Spanish declined to take actions against slavery and in repelling the English. Following the events of 9–10 Thermidor, an anti-slavery campaign emerged targeting Robespierre. Critics accused him of attempting to perpetuate slavery, despite its abolition by the Convention on 4 February 1794, following the precedent set by Sonthonax's abolition decree in August 1793 in St. Domingue.[408]

Cult of the Supreme Being

Main article: Cult of the Supreme Being

Stage of the Festival of the Supreme Being constructed by Maurice Duplay.[409]
The Festival of the Supreme Being, by Pierre-Antoine Demachy (1794)

Robespierre's quest for revolutionary change extended beyond politics to his opposition to the Catholic Church and its policies, particularly clerical celibacy.[410] Despite denouncing excesses in the dechristianisation efforts of his political adversaries, he aimed to rejuvenate spirituality in France through Deist beliefs. On 6 May 1794 Robespierre announced the Committee of Public Safety's recognition of the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul. The following day, he delivered a detailed presentation to the Convention on religious and moral principles intertwined with republican ideals, introducing festivals dedicated to the Supreme Being and other virtues.[365]

On 8 June, during the "Festival of the Supreme Being," Robespierre made his public debut as a leader and Convention president, expressing his passion for virtue, nature, and deist beliefs.[411] Climaxing at the Champ de Mars, he delivered speeches emphasizing his concept of a Supreme Being devoid of religious figures like Christ or Mohammed.[412] Criticism ensued, with some accusing him of aspiring to godhood and creating a new religion, particularly after allegations of involvement in Catherine Théot's prophecy conspiracy. The Cult of the Supreme Being he championed aroused suspicion among anticlericals and political factions, leading to doubts about his grasp on reality and ultimately contributing to his downfall. According to Madame de Staël, this period marked Robespierre's decline.[413]


Further information: Fall of Maximilien Robespierre

May and June 1794

On 20 May, Robespierre signed Theresa Cabarrus's arrest warrant, and on 23 May, following an attempted assassination on Collot d'Herbois, Cécile Renault was arrested near Robespierre's residence with two penknives.[414] She was executed on 17 June.[415][416][417] Robespierre refused to reunite dispersed families in different prisons in a common detention facilities,[418] citing security concerns after the assassination attempt.[419]

The Law of 22 Prairial introduced on 10 June without consultation from the Committee of General Security, intensified the conflict between the two committees,[420] and led to a doubling of executions in Paris. Moderate judges were dismissed; Robespierre ensured only his supporters became judges,[421] marking the beginning of the "Great Terror". Between 10 June and 27 July, another 1,366 were executed.[422] There was widespread agreement among deputies that their parliamentary immunity, in place since 1 April 1793, had become perilous.[423]

On 11 June Robespierre accused Fouché of leading a conspiracy and on 12 June, he appeared in the Convention to denounce his opponents for trying to turn the Montagnards against the government, claiming a conspiracy to discredit him. Facing minority opposition on 12 and 13 June, Robespierre withdrew, vowing not to return to the committee while the conflict persisted.[424] His presidency of the Convention ended on 18 June. Robespierre also censured the journalists of the Moniteur Universel.[425][419] By the end of June, Saint-Just, realizing Robespierre's political decline, was recalled hastily. Robespierre's deteriorating health and increasing irrationality,[426] led to calls for more purges, ultimately losing favor within the committees. Carnot described Saint-Just and Robespierre as "ridiculous dictators".[427][342][428] Carnot and Cambon proposed to end the terror.

July 1794

On 1 July, Robespierre addressed the Jacobin club, denouncing slanders against him in London and Paris.[365] He stormed out of a Committee meeting on 3 July, expressing resignation from saving the country without his involvement.[429][430] The following day he lamented his failing health and excluded Tallien from the Jacobin club.[431] On 14 July Robespierre had Fouché expelled.

He rarely appeared in the Convention for forty days but signed decrees by the Committee of Public Safety; he stopped working with the police bureau at the end of June.[432] Robespierre occasionally sought refuge in Maisons-Alfort, 12 km (7.5 mi) outside of Paris.[433] He walked through the fields and along the Marne river with his Danish dog. He had four friends in the revolutionary government, Couthon and Saint-Just in the Committee of Public Safety, and the painter Jacques-Louis David and Joseph Le Bas in the Committee of General Security, with whom he met privately, as they lived under the same roof.

Robespierre desired to maintain the Committee of General Security's subordination to the Committee of Public Safety, viewing them as acting as two separate governments.[434][435] Saint-Just negotiated concessions with Barère, proposing more cooperation between committees.[436][437] On 22 and 23 July he attended a plenary session of the committees but underestimated his opponents' strength.[438] Feeling his grip on power slipping,[439] he commenced an attack in the Convention and decided to make himself clear with a new report. Robespierre was compared to Catiline; he himself preferred the virtues of Cato the Younger.[440]

On Saturday, 26 July, Robespierre reappeared at the Convention and delivered a two-hour-long speech on the villainous factions.[441] He defended himself against charges of dictatorship and tyranny and then proceeded to warn of a conspiracy against the Committee of Public Safety. Collot questioned Robespierre's motives, accusing him of seeking to become a dictator.[442] When called upon to name those whom he accused, Robespierre simply refused, except referring to Joseph Cambon, who flew to the rostrum: "One man paralyses the will of the National Convention".[443] His vehemence changed the course of the debate.[444] At length Lecointre of Versailles arose and proposed that the speech should be printed. This motion was the signal for agitation, discussion, and resistance. The Convention decided not to have the text printed, as Robespierre's speech had first to be submitted to the two committees. It contained matters sufficiently weighty that it needed to first be examined.[445] Robespierre was surprised that his speech would be sent to the very deputies he had intended to sue. According to Saint-Just, he understood nothing of the reasons for his persecution; he knew only his misery. A bitter debate ensued until Barère forced an end to it.[446][447] According to Couthon, not his speech, but the conspiracy had to be examined. Saint-Just promised to prepare a report how to break the deadlock.

In the evening, Robespierre delivered the same speech, which he regarded as his last will, at the Jacobin Club, where it was very well received.[448] He spoke of drinking hemlock, and Jacques-Louis David cried out: "I will drink it with you." Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne were driven out because of their opposition to the printing and distribution of the text. Billaud managed to escape before he was assaulted, but Collot d'Herbois was knocked down. They set off to the Committee of Public Safety, where they found Saint-Just working. They asked him if he was drawing up their bill of indictment. Saint-Just promised to show them his speech before the session began.[449][450] Collot d'Herbois, who chaired the Convention, decided not to let him speak and to make sure he could not be heard on the next day.[451]

Gathering in secret, nine members of the two committees decided that it was all or nothing; to protect themselves, Robespierre had to be arrested. Barras said they would all die if Robespierre did not die. The crucial factor that drove them to make up their minds to join the conspiracy seems in most cases to have been emotional rather than ideological — fear of Robespierre's intentions towards them, or enmity, or revenge.[318][452][453] The Convention had lost 144 delegates in 13 months; 67 were executed, committed suicide, or died in prison. The Convention often insisted on deputies' executions as the final steps in a process of political revival through purging.[454] Now extremists and indulgents joined against him. Laurent Lecointre was the instigator of the coup.[455] He contacted Robert Lindet on the 6th, and Vadier on the 7th Thermidor. Lecointre was assisted by Barère, Fréron, Barras, Tallien, Thuriot, Courtois, Rovère, Garnier de l'Aube and Guffroy. Each one of them prepared his part in the attack. They decided that Hanriot, his aides-de-camp, Lavalette and Boulanger,[456] the public prosecutor Dumas, the family Duplay and the printer Charles-Léopold Nicolas had to be arrested first, so Robespierre would be without support.[455] (Fouché was seen as the leader of the conspiracy but hid in a garret at the rue Saint-Honoré;[457][458] little is known about his part on the actual day.)

9 Thermidor

Saint-Just and Robespierre at the Hôtel de Ville on the night of 9 to 10 Thermidor Year II. Painting by Jean-Joseph Weerts
Proclamation by the Commune, found in the pocket of Couthon. Couthon was invited by Robespierre, for which they used official police writing paper.
The troops of Convention Nationale attack the Commune. Print by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault and Jean Duplessis-Bertaux (1804)

At noon Saint-Just entered the Convention, prepared to place blame on Billaud, Collot d'Herbois and Carnot.[460][461] After a few minutes, Tallien – having a double reason for desiring Robespierre's end, as, on the evening before, Robespierre refused to release Theresa Cabarrus – interrupted him and began the attack. LeBas attempted to speak in defence of the triumvirs (Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Couthon); he was not allowed to do so, and Billaud continued. "Yesterday, the president of the revolutionary tribunal [Dumas] openly proposed to the Jacobins that they should drive all impure men from the Convention."[x]

According to Tallien "Robespierre wanted to attack us by turns, to isolate us, and finally he would be left one day only with the base and abandoned and debauched men who serve him". Almost thirty-five deputies spoke against Robespierre that day, most of them from the Mountain.[463] As the accusations began to pile up, Saint-Just remained silent. Robespierre rushed toward the rostrum, appealed to the Plain to defend him against the Montagnards, but his voice was shouted down. Robespierre rushed to the benches of the Left but someone cried: "Get away from here; Condorcet used to sit here". He soon found himself at a loss for words after Vadier gave a mocking impression of him referring to the discovery of a letter under the mattress of the illiterate Catherine Théot.[y]

When Robespierre, very upset, was unable to speak, Garnier shouted, "The blood of Danton chokes him!"[467] Robespierre then regained his voice: "Is it Danton you regret? [...] Cowards! Why didn't you defend him?"[468] At some time Louis Louchet called for Robespierre's arrest; Augustin Robespierre demanded to share his fate. The whole Convention agreed, including Couthon, and Saint-Just. Le Bas decided to join Saint-Just. Robespierre shouted that the revolution was lost when he descended the tribune. The five deputies were taken to the Committee of General Security and questioned.

Not long after, Hanriot was ordered to appear in the Convention; he or someone else suggested to show up only accompanied by a crowd. On horseback, Hanriot warned the sections that there would be an attempt to murder Robespierre, and mobilised 2,400 National Guards in front of the town hall.[469][470][471] What had happened was not very clear to their officers; either the Convention was closed down or the Paris Commune.[472] Around six o'clock the city council summoned an immediate meeting to consider the dangers threatening the fatherland.[473] It gave orders to close the gates and to ring the tocsin. For the Convention, that was an illegal action without the permission of the two committees. It was decreed that anyone leading an "armed force" against the Convention would be regarded as an outlaw. The city council was in league with the Jacobins to bring off an insurrection, asking them to send over reinforcements from the galleries, "even the women who are regulars there".[214]


Painting by Jean-Joseph-François Tassaert of Charles-André Méda shooting Robespierre
Apprehension of Robespierre, who on being seized by a Gendarme fired a pistol into his mouth, but did not wound himself mortally.
Valery Jacobi's painting showing the wounded Robespierre
Lying on a table Robespierre is the object of the curiosity and quips of Thermidorians, painting by Lucien-Étienne Mélingue (Salon de 1877) (Musée de la Révolution française)

In the early evening, the five deputies were taken in a cab to different prisons; Robespierre to the Palais du Luxembourg, Couthon to "La Bourbe" and Saint-Just to the "Écossais". Augustin Robespierre was taken from Prison Saint-Lazare to La Force Prison,[474] like Le Bas who was refused at the Conciergerie.[475][476][104] Around 8 p.m., Hanriot appeared at the Place du Carrousel in front of the Convention with forty armed men on horses,[477] but was taken prisoner. After 9 p.m., the vice-president of the Tribunal Coffinhal went to the Committee of General Security with 3,000 men and their artillery.[478] As Robespierre and his allies had been taken to a prison in the meantime, he succeeded only in freeing Hanriot and his adjutants.[479][480]

How the five deputies escaped from prison was disputed. According to Le Moniteur Universel, the jailers refused to follow the order of arrest, taken by the Convention.[459] According to Courtois[475] and Fouquier-Tinville, the police administration was responsible for any in custody or release.[481] Around 8 p.m. Robespierre was taken to the police administration on Île de la Cité but refused to go to the Hôtel de Ville and insisted on being received in a prison.[482] He hesitated for legal reasons for possibly two hours. At around 10 p.m., the mayor sent a second delegation to go and convince Robespierre to join the Commune movement.[483] Robespierre was taken to the Hôtel de Ville.[484][485] The Convention declared the five deputies (plus the supporting members) to be outlaws. It then appointed Barras and ordered troops (4,000 men) to be called out.[486]

After a whole evening spent waiting in vain for action by the Commune, losing time in fruitless deliberation, without supplies or instructions, the armed sections began to disperse. Around 400 men seem to have stayed on the Place de Grève, according to Courtois.[487][488] At around 2 a.m., Barras and Bourdon, accompanied by several members of the Convention, arrived in two columns. Barras deliberately advanced slowly, in the hope of avoiding conflict by a display of force.[488][486] Then Grenadiers burst into the Hôtel de Ville, followed by Léonard Bourdon and the Gendarmes.[489] Fifty-one insurgents were gathering on the first floor.[490] Robespierre and his allies withdrew to the smaller secrétariat.[491]

There are many stories about what happened next, but it seems in order to avoid capture, Augustin Robespierre took off his shoes and jumped from a broad cornice. He landed on some bayonets and a citizen, resulting in a pelvic fracture, several serious head contusions, and an alarming state of "weakness and anxiety".[492][493] LeBas handed a pistol to Robespierre, then killed himself with another pistol.[494] According to Barras and Courtois, Robespierre wounded himself when he tried to commit suicide[495][496][497] by pointing the pistol at his mouth, but the gendarme Méda prevented him killing himself successfully.[498][499] Couthon was found lying at the bottom of a staircase. Saint-Just gave himself up without a word.[500] According to Méda, Hanriot tried to escape by a concealed staircase.[501] Most sources say that Hanriot was thrown out of a window by Coffinhal after being accused of the disaster. (According to Ernest Hamel, it is one of the many legends spread by Barère.[502]) Whatever the case, Hanriot landed in a small courtyard on a heap of glass.[472] He had strength enough to crawl into a drain where he was found twelve hours later and taken to the Conciergerie.[472] Coffinhal, who had successfully escaped, was arrested seven days later.[503][504]


Robespierre spent the remainder of the night at the antechamber of the Committee of General Security.[505] He lay on the table, his head on a pine box, his shirt stained with blood. By 5 a.m. his brother and Couthon were transported to the nearest hospital, Hôtel-Dieu de Paris.[506][507][508] However, Barras prohibited Robespierre from being taken there.[509] At ten in the morning a military doctor was summoned and extracted some of his teeth and fragments of his broken jaw. Subsequently, Robespierre was confined to a cell in the Conciergerie.[472]

On 10 Thermidor the Revolutionary Tribunal assembled around noon.[472] By 2 p.m. Robespierre and twenty-one "Robespierrists" faced accusations of counter-revolution and were sentenced to death under the provisions of the law of 22 Prairial. At approximately 6 p.m., the condemned were conveyed in three carts to the Place de la Révolution for execution, alongside Nicolas Francois Vivier, the final president of the Jacobins, and Antoine Simon, the cobbler who served as the jailer of the Dauphin. A furious mob, hurling curses, accompanied the grim procession.

Robespierre was the tenth to ascend the platform.[472] During the preparation for his execution, the executioner Charles-Henri Sanson, dislodged the bandage securing his shattered jaw, eliciting an anguished scream until his demise.[510] Following his beheading, the crowd erupted in applause and jubilant cries, which reportedly endured for fifteen minutes.[511][512] Robespierre and his associates were interred in a mass grave at the newly established Errancis Cemetery.[z] Between 1844 and 1859 (likely in 1848), the remains of all those buried there were transferred to the Catacombs of Paris.[513]

Legacy and memory

Robespierre is best known for his role as a member of the Committee of Public Safety.[aa] He exerted his influence to suppress the republican Girondins to the right, the radical Hébertists to the left and the indulgent Dantonists in the centre. Though nominally all members of the committee were equally responsible, the Thermidorians held Robespierre as the most culpable for the bloodshed. For Carnot: "this monster was above all a hypocrite; it is because he knew how to seduce the people".[515] On Thuriot's proposal, the Revolutionary Tribunal was suspended and replaced by a temporary commission.[365] On 1 August, the Law of 22 Prairial was abolished. Fouquier-Tinville was arrested and not long after solicitors were reintroduced in the courtroom. On 5 August, the Law of Suspects was disbanded;[516] the Convention decided to release all the prisoners against whom weighed no charge.

In mid-August Courtois was appointed by the Convention to collect evidence against Robespierre, Le Bas and Saint-Just, whose report has a poor reputation, selecting and destroying papers.[517] At the end of the month, Tallien stated that all that the country had just been through was the "Terror" and that the "monster" Robespierre, the "king" of the Revolution, was the orchestrator. According to Charles Barbaroux, who visited him early August 1792, his pretty boudoir was full of images of himself in every form and art; a painting, a drawing, a bust, a relief and six physionotraces on the tables.[518] The eyewitness Helen Maria Williams attributed all the grim events to his hypocrisy and cunning. She described him as the great conspirator against the liberty of France.[519] For Samuel Coleridge, one of the authors of The Fall of Robespierre, he was worse than Oliver Cromwell.[520] For Madame de Staël: "Robespierre acquired the reputation of high democratic virtue and so was believed to be incapable of personal views. As soon as he was suspected of having them, his power was at an end."[62] Vanity was Robespierre's ruling passion according to Sir Walter Scott.[521]

In fact, a whole new political mythology was being created.[522] On 23 Thermidor, Coleridge started to write the first act of The Fall of Robespierre. Vilate, who exaggerated the numbers, raged against keeping 300,000 people in prison and trying to execute two or three hundred people every day.[523] To preach the ideals of '93 after Thermidor was to expose oneself to suspicions of Robespierrism, suspicions which had to be avoided above all others. Two contrasting legends around Robespierre developed: a critical one that held Robespierre as an irresponsible, self-serving figure whose ambitions generated widespread calamity, and a supportive one that held him as an early friend of the proletariat, about to embark on economic revolution when he fell.[524]

Robespierre's reputation has experienced several cycles of re-appraisal.[525] His name peaked in the press in the middle of the 19th century, between 1880 and 1910 and in 1940.[526] The laborious Buchez, a democratic mystic, was producing volumes in which the Incorruptible rose up as the Messiah and sacrificial being of the Revolution.[527] For Jules Michelet, he was the "priest Robespierre" and for Alphonse Aulard Maximilien was a "bigot monomaniac" and "mystic assassin".[528] For Mary Duclaux he was the "apostle of Unity" and Saint-Just a prophet.

Robespierre did not thunder like Danton or scream like Marat. But his clear, shrill voice enunciated calmly syllables that the ears of his listeners retained forever. And it is owned that, in this as in other things, Robespierre had a strange provision of the future; as a thinker at least, as a seer, he made few mistakes.[243]

His reputation peaked in the 1920s, during the Third French Republic when the influential French historian Albert Mathiez rejected the common view of Robespierre as demagogic, dictatorial, and fanatical. Mathiez argued he was an eloquent spokesman for the poor and oppressed, an enemy of royalist intrigues, a vigilant adversary of dishonest and corrupt politicians, a guardian of the First French Republic, an intrepid leader of the French Revolutionary government, and a prophet of a socially responsible state.[529] Lenin referred to Robespierre as a "Bolshevik avant la lettre" (before the term was coined) and erected the Robespierre Monument to him in 1918.[530][531] In the Soviet Union, he was used as an example of a revolutionary figure.[532][533] However the Marxist approach that portrayed Robespierre as a hero has largely faded away.[534]

In 1941 Marc Bloch, a French historian, sighed disillusioned (a year before he decided to join the French Resistance): "Robespierrists, anti-robespierrists ... for pity's sake, just tell us who was Robespierre?"[535] According to R.R. Palmer: the easiest way to justify Robespierre is to represent the other Revolutionists in an unfavourable or disgraceful light. This was the method used by Robespierre himself.[536] Soboul argues that Robespierre and Saint-Just "were too preoccupied in defeating the interest of the bourgeoisie to give their total support to the sans-culottes, and yet too attentive to the needs of the sans-culottes to get support from the middle class".[537] For Peter McPhee, Robespierre's achievements were monumental, but so was the tragedy of his final weeks of indecision.[67] The members of the committee, together with members of the Committee of General Security, were as much responsible for the running of the Terror as Robespierre.[538] They may have exaggerated his role to downplay their own contribution and used him as a scapegoat after his death.[539][540] J-C. Martin and McPhee interpret the repression of the revolutionary government as a response to anarchy and popular violence, and not as the assertion of a precise ideology.[541] Martin holds Tallien responsible for Robespierre's bad reputation, and that the "Thermidorians" invented the "Terror" as there is no law that proves its introduction.[542]

He is a major figure in the history of France, and a controversial subject, studied by the favorable Jacobin School and the unfavorable neo-liberal school, by "lawyers and prosecutors".[543] François Crouzet collected many interesting details from French historians dealing with Robespierre.[544] In an interview Marcel Gauchet said that Robespierre confused his private opinion and virtue.[citation needed] The sale at Sotheby's in 2011 of selected manuscripts, including speeches, draft newspaper articles, drafts of reports to be read at the Convention, a fragment of the speech of 8 Thermidor and a letter on virtue and happiness, kept by the Le Bas family after the death of Robespierre, sparked mobilization among historians and politicians;[545] Pierre Serna published an article entitled: "We must save Robespierre!" in Le Monde,[546] and the Society of Robespierrist Studies launched a call for subscriptions, while the French Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the Radical Party of the Left alerted the French Ministry of Culture.[547]

Maximilien Robespierre, physiognotrace by Chrétien, the inventor.[548] By adjusting the needles of a pantograph he achieved a reduction ratio. This device was connected to an engraving needle. Thus it enabled the production of multiple portrait copies.[549]

Many historians neglected Robespierre's attitude towards the French National Guard from July 1789, and as "public accuser", responsible for the officers within the police till April 1792. He then began promoting civilian armament and the creation of a revolutionary army of 23,000 men in his periodical.[176][ab] He defended the right of revolution and promoted a revolutionary armed force.[550] Dubois-Crancé described Robespierre as the general of the Sans-culottes.[551] The revisionist historian Furet thought that Terror was inherent in the ideology of the French Revolution and was not just a violent episode. Equally important is his conclusion that revolutionary violence is connected with extreme voluntarism.[552][9] Furet was especially critical of the "Marxist line" of Albert Soboul.[553]

Indeed, he failed in his opposition to two decisions which resulted in the greatest bloodshed and dissension during the Revolution: the declaration of war on the European monarchies and the dechristianization movement. Regarding the former, Robespierre feared that initiating a war of liberation would consolidate and intensify European opposition to the Revolution and risk a possible defeat. He argued against Brissot that, even if victorious, the invading French troops would be welcomed as liberators. Further, he presciently argued that war would create the groundwork for a military dictatorship, as indeed it ultimately did. Regarding dechristianization, he saw it as a gratuitous affront to the genuine religious needs of the people, especially outside Paris, and would only drive them into the arms of the refractory clergy, which is exactly what happened with disastrous results in the Vendée.[554]

Historians enamored of Robespierre have been at pains to try to prove that he was not the dictator of France in the year II.[555] McPhee stated on several previous occasions Robespierre had admitted that he was worn out; his personal and tactical judgment, once so acute, seem to have deserted him.

Robespierre fell ill many times: in the spring of 1790, in November 1792 (more than three weeks); in September–October 1793 (two weeks); in February/March 1794 (more than a month);[67] in April/May (about three weeks) and in June/July (more than three weeks). These illnesses not only explain Robespierre's repeated absences from committees and from the Convention during important periods, especially in 1794 when the Great Terror occurred but also the fact that his faculty of judgment deteriorated – as did his moods.[541]

The assassination attempts made him suspicious to the point of obsession.[67] There is a long line of historians "who blame Robespierre for all the less attractive episodes of the Revolution."[556] Robespierre was not part of the celebrations of the bicentenary of the revolution. Jonathan Israel is sharply critical of Robespierre for repudiating the true values of the radical Enlightenment. He argues, "Jacobin ideology and culture under Robespierre was an obsessive Rousseauiste moral Puritanism steeped in authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia, and it repudiated free expression, basic human rights, and democracy."[557][558] He refers to the Girondin deputies Thomas Paine, Condorcet, Daunou, Cloots, Destutt and Abbé Gregoire denouncing Robespierre's ruthlessness, hypocrisy, dishonesty, lust for power and intellectual mediocrity.[559] According to Jeremy Popkin, he was undone by his obsession with the vision of an ideal republic.[560] Zhu Xueqin became famous for his 1994 book titled The Demise of the Republic of Virtue: From Rousseau to Robespierre. This work has attracted countless readers and is still being read in China today.[561] For Aldous Huxley "Robespierre achieved the most superficial kind of revolution, the political."[562] Georges Lefebvre believed Robespierre to be a "staunch defender of democracy, a determined opponent of foreign war, saviour of the Republic and man of integrity and vision. Robespierre remains as controversial as ever, two centuries after his death."[563][564]


Over 300 actors have portrayed Robespierre, in both French and English. Prominent examples include:[565][566][567][568][569]



  1. ^ His family has been traced back to the 15th century in Vaudricourt, Pas-de-Calais.[15]
  2. ^ For some time Marie Marguerite Charlotte de Robespierre was betrothed to Joseph Fouché, but he moved to Nantes where he married in September 1792.[16] Charlotte never married and died aged 74.
  3. ^ Baptized Henriette Eulalie Françoise de Robespierre, was educated with Charlotte at the couvent des Manarres in Tournai and died in 1780.[17]
  4. ^ Returning at intervals, living in Mannheim around 1770, he was buried on 6 November 1777 in the Salvatorkirche in Munich.
  5. ^ De Montesquieu praised the virtues of the citizen-soldier in his "Reflections on the Grandeur and Decline of the Romans" (1734).[27] In 1762 Rousseau published The Social Contract and Emile, or On Education which were both burned and banned. At the end of the Seven Years' War Mably published his "Conversations with Phocion" in Amsterdam (1763). He wished (for Classical Athens but it looks like Sparta): May our republic be a military one; may each citizen be designed to defend his fatherland; may he be exercised each day how to handle his weapons; may he learn in the town the discipline that is necessary for the camp. By such a policy you would not only educate invincible soldiers but you would give another new force to law and to civic virtues.[28][29] Rousseau and Gabriel Bonnot de Mably were both invited to submit suggestions for the reformation of Poland's unique "Golden Liberty", leading to Rousseau's Considerations on the Government of Poland (1772). In the same year Guibert defined the citizen-in-arms as virtuous by his attachment to the community (in contrast to the mercenary).
  6. ^ According to apocryphal Mémoires authentiques he was elected as president of the Arras Academy early 1789.[38]
  7. ^ The Third Estate had as many deputies as the other two orders together (in the ratio 4:4:8) on the instigation of Jacques Necker.
  8. ^ The first use of the motto "Liberté, égalité, et fraternité" was in Robespierre's speech "On the organisation of the National Guard" on 5 December 1790, article XVI,[77] and disseminated widely throughout France by Camille Desmoulin in his journal "Les révolutions de France et de Brabant" among the associated Societies.
  9. ^ They shared the general view that the "new" France would not survive repeated physical intimidation from the Paris sections, unrestrained polemics from the clubs and the press and, most important of all, the democratization of discipline in the army and navy.[91]
  10. ^ The public accuser may not give the first impulse to justice. These are the police officers who are responsible for receiving complaints and bringing them to the jury indictment; it is only after the jury has spoken, that begins the ministry of the accuser public.[94] The public accuser will supervise all the police officers of the department; in case of negligence on their part, he will warn them; in case of a more serious offence, he will refer them to the criminal court, which, according to the nature of the offence, will pronounce the correctional punishment determined by the law.[95]
  11. ^ In September 1792, his younger sister and brother joined him and lived in the front house, but within a few weeks Charlotte insisted on moving to 5 Rue Saint-Florentin because of his increased prestige and her tensions with Madame Duplay.[65]
  12. ^ A law restricting the rights of popular societies to undertake concerted political action passed on 29 September 1791 and by the virtue of obeying this law the moderate Feuillants embraced obsolescence. By ignoring it, the radical Jacobins emerged as the most vital political force of the French Revolution.[citation needed]
  13. ^ On 16 November 1791 Pétion de Villeneuve was elected mayor of Paris in a contest against Lafayette.
  14. ^ Under pressure from the Assembly, the king accepted several Girondin ministers into his cabinet. The French had to deal with serious inflation and Étienne Clavière was appointed as minister of finance. According to Louvet it was only due to a smear campaign by Robespierre and his followers that he was not also appointed.[130]
  15. ^ The selling of all sorts of positions, military or otherwise, was rampant in the courts of the Ancien Régime and so the officer corps' mass exodus from France naturally coincided with that of the aristocrats. Not all aristocrats were officers, but all officers were aristocrats.[145]
  16. ^ On 27 August Robespierre was elected as president of his section and explained in a letter to Le Moniteur Universel two motives. "I could not be the judge of those of which I was the adversary; but I had to remember that if they were the enemies of the fatherland, they had also declared themselves mine. This maxim, good in all circumstances, is especially applicable to this one: the justice of the people must bear a character worthy of it; it must be imposing as well as prompt and terrible.
    The exercise of these new functions was incompatible with that of representative of the Commune which had been entrusted to me; it was necessary to choose; I remained at the post where I was, convinced that it was there that I should currently serve the fatherland."[178]
  17. ^ The average age of the 24 deputies from Paris was 43. Robespierre was 34, Danton 33 and Marat 49.
  18. ^ On 5 February 1791 Robespierre declared: "True religion consists in punishing for the happiness of all those who disturb society."[212]
  19. ^ Perhaps seven?[245] On 24 April 1793 the right of association, right to work and public assistance, right to public education, right of rebellion (and duty to rebel when the government violates the right of the people), and the abolition of slavery, were all written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793.[246]
  20. ^ All children would be taken away from their parents and placed in a boarding school from the age of five, until the age of eleven for girls for girls, twelve for boys, and subjected to work. "The boys will be trained in addition to the handling of weapons."[276]
  21. ^ Four articles by Robespierre affirm the unity of the human race, universal male suffrage, the need for solidarity between the peoples, and the rejection of kings.[282]
  22. ^ On 16 March Robespierre was sharply critical of Amar's report, which presented the scandal around Fabre and Chabot as purely a matter of fraud. Robespierre insisted that it was a foreign plot, demanded that the report be re-written, and used the scandal as the basis for rhetorical attacks on William Pitt the Younger whom he believed was involved.[344]
  23. ^ On 27 March on the proposal of Barère the armée revolutionnaire, for seven months active in Paris and surroundings, was disbanded, except their artillery.[349][350][351][352] Their infantry and cavalry seem to be merged with other regiments.
  24. ^ Tallien went on: One wanted to destroy, to butcher the Convention, and this intention was so real, that one had organised an espionage of the representatives of the people which one wanted to butcher. It is villainous to speak of justice and virtue, when one defies them and when one only becomes enthused when one is stopped or vexed. Next Robespierre rushed to the tribune.[462]
  25. ^ On 9 Thermidor Vadier used a letter—supposedly found under the mattress of Théot—as an opportunity to attack Robespierre and his beliefs.[464] This letter announced to him that his mission had been prophesied in Ezekiel, that the re-establishment of religion, freed of priests, was owing to him.[465] Vadier becoming increasingly trivial was stopped by Tallien.[466]
  26. ^ (in French) A plaque indicating the former site of this cemetery is located at 97 rue de Monceau, Paris.
  27. ^ He signed 542 arrests, especially in the spring and summer of 1794. Most of the arrests came from Bertrand Barère, Lazare Carnot and Pierre Louis Prieur.[514]
  28. ^ In those days an issue as the 2nd United States Congress enacted Militia Acts of 1792 for the organization of state militias and the conscription of every "free able-bodied white male citizen" between the ages of 18 and 45.


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