Robespierre (1758-1794) - Biography

Robespierre (1758-1794) - Biography

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Maximilien de Robespierre is a French politician who played a major role during the Revolution. Idealist and uncompromising, his name is often associated with the period of terror. He is one of the most controversial French revolutionaries, and continues to provoke a number of debates, among historians and politicians. The controversies about him show that while he continues to unleash passions, he is also a key figure, not only of thehistory of the French Revolution, but more broadly from the history of France, to which he has contributed much more than Terror and to the violence to which Robespierre is constantly brought back.

The youth of Robespierre

Maximilien Robespierre was born in 1758 in Arras in a family from the middle class. Son of a poor lawyer and early orphan, Robespierre attracted attention by his great dedication to studies. The abbey of Saint-Vaast thus granted him a modest scholarship to gain the Louis-le-Grand college in Paris where he met Camille Desmoulins. Unlike many of his comrades, Robespierre then lived in great poverty. One of his teachers nicknamed him "the Roman", as much for his austere silence only for his great passion for Roman history which was a metaphorical inspiration throughout his life.

But more than Plutarch, it was the philosophers who were the object of his interest, Montesquieu, Condillac, Mably, and, of course Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And this meeting with the philosopher of natural law is undoubtedly the most important fact of these years for the construction of his ideological conception. Having completed his law studies, he returned to Arras where he distinguished himself as lawyer. Robespierre gave meaning to his material difficulties: contenting himself with providing for his needs through his personal work, without seeking luxury or idleness. By its very temperament it corresponded to the teachings of Rousseau. The local notoriety he acquired as well as his brochure To the Artesian Nation enabled him to be elected deputy of the third in view of States General of 1789 summoned by Louis XVI.

Ideas and principles

By July 14, Robespierre felt that the aristocrats had only apparently capitulated to popular pressure and pretended to applaud to reap the rewards. The defense of popular movements was the leitmotif of his speeches, which aroused enthusiasm in the most revolutionary newspapers. Isolated to the Constituent, he called the People to witness and remained in continual contact with them by publishing his speeches. Posterity has retained from his many interventions the application he had to fight the old aristocratic society and to free from it all the oppressed, for example the slaves of the colonies against the constitutionalization of the slave trade: "So perish your colonies if you keep them at this price ", Even if debates continue around the ambiguity he may have had at times on this subject.

He also appeared as the defender of the natural rights of the people : against the death penalty, on the organization of the clergy, the judicial organization, on the organization of the national guards, speech in which we find the motto of the republic of today: "They will wear these engraved words on their breasts: Le Peuple français, and below: Liberté Egalité Fraternité ". Above all, Robespierre fought the census regime which, after the privilege of birth, introduced the privilege of money into society. To counterbalance this society of the rich Robespierre invariably opposed universal suffrage.

He also had an invariable attachment to Equality principles : « People remember that if in the Republic justice does not reign with an absolute empire, and if the word does not mean love of equality and the homeland, freedom is just a vain word »(Speech of 8 Thermidor year II). This is how he was determined to limit the right of property to the common good, differentiating the vital from the superfluous.

Robespierre made these intangible principles more than a political fight, a moral fight. He had thus attached to these universal laws the principle of public virtue so dear to Montesquieu. "What is the fundamental principle of democratic and popular government, that is to say, the essential mainspring which sustains it and makes it move? This is virtue; I speak of the public virtue which worked so many wonders in Greece and Rome and which must produce many more astonishing ones in republican France; of this virtue which is nothing but love of the country and its laws »(Speech of 17 Pluviôse Year II).

The Incorruptible

Nicknamed the Incorruptible, Robespierre never varied from these principles until his death, which also contributed to his radical and uncompromising image. He who had never doubted the existence of an aristocratic plot since 1789 was the most resolute detractor of the Constituent Assembly, which, following Varennes, preferred to invent an unreliable story of kidnapping. However, he sensed that the Assembly would take advantage of the petition of the Cordeliers popular society calling for the proclamation of the Republic to crush the protest. To this end, martial law was proclaimed on July 17 by the Baillys and Lafayettes who fired at a crowd of unarmed men, women and children of the people gathered on the altar of Liberty.

Robespierre became more and more popular with without panties parisians. The whole of the democratic opposition, societies and patriots, were thus united around the Jacobin club of Paris while bringing to its maker the considerable prestige of the sans culottes of the whole of France.

When it was time for the Constituent to separate, Robespierre had wrested from this assembly the decree which prohibited its members from running for the next legislature. He refused to allow members to retain their mandates indefinitely.

Robespierre and the war

Brissot and his companions, known since Lamartine under the name of Girondins, constituted a large bourgeoisie of bankers, merchants and shipowners from Bordeaux whose difference of interests with the bourgeoisie of the Old Regime structures made them the left wing of the new assembly. And when they proposed to start the conflict with the European powers, Robespierre spoke out from the Jacobins against a conflict which would engender "the death of the body politic ". Knowing that the Girondins were above all eyeing the next exploitation of the ports of the North Sea, he denounced their maneuvers: a war "is good for military officers, for the ambitious, for stockbrokers who speculate on these kinds of events ". Rejecting with the back of his hand the hope of seeing the European populations throw themselves into the arms of their invaders, Robespierre especially warned against the advent of a France reduced to exceptional measures to defend itself, risking sinking. in military dictatorship : « no one likes armed missionaries […] In times of turmoil and faction, army leaders become the arbiters of the fate of their countries, and tip the scales in favor of the party they have embraced. Whether they are Caesars or Cromwells, they seize the authority themselves »(Speech of December 18, 1791).

It was wasted time, the adversaries of the war could not indefinitely face hostile audiences and public opinion gained in this eventuality. War was declarede by revolutionary France "to the King of Bohemia and Hungary" on April 20, 1792. The Revolution was threatened from all sides by its internal enemies in league with foreign powers, the emigrants with the Prussians, the Vendeans awaiting help from the English , the royalists handing over Toulon to them ...

The end of the monarchy

Robespierre’s fight against the war had revealed him to be uncompromising, it was with the same vigor that he prepared public opinion for overthrow the monarchy. On the other hand, he was aware of not being a leader of the insurgency and he preferred to encourage the insurgents by appealing to the Federates gathered in Paris through the voice of the Jacobins and by making them meet the Parisian sans culottes at the carpenter's Duplay. He contributed, like Marat, not only to prepare the spirits for this insurrection but to give it a national character.

After August 10, 1792 he was elected to the General Council of the Commune, a term during which he refused to condemn the September massacres, considering that the responsibility fell on a Legislative Assembly unable to face the foreign invasion at the gates of Paris ( armies who had promised to put the capital to fire and blood on their arrival).

He was elected on September 5 with his brother Augustin, deputy of Paris to the new assembly, the National convention who, at its first meeting on September 21, proclaimed that the monarchy was abolished in France.

The Girondins changed their status from the left wing of the Assembly to that of the right wing. They were then in opposition to the deputies who sat at the top of the bleachers, nicknamed the Mountain. Among them, Danton, Desmoulins, Marat, Robespierre, all newly elected. The start of the battle of valmy in September had offered a short respite to the Revolution. Despite everything, the Gironde was in an extremely serious situation, hoping for part of the rich bourgeoisie who previously lined up behind the Feuillants and who now hoped that the majority of the Convention would offer them a shaky peace with the enemy. , pretext to complete the Revolution for their benefit.

Robespierre and the Montagnards then echoed the people at the Convention. It is a decisive stage of the Revolution. The popular classes were henceforth linked to the salvation of the Republic. Robespierre was finally able to glimpse the application of his social policy, according to him inextricably linked to this salvation. The situation in the Gironde is absolutely untenable in the face of the sans culottes from all over France who feel that their victory on August 10 has been taken from them. Mistrust of the people, repugnant to measures of public safety, the Girondins were overthrown by the denunciations of the Mountain and the National Popular Day of June 2. As Albert Mathiez summarized, "The Girondins were defeated because, in short, they neglected public safety and locked themselves into a class policy for the benefit of the bourgeoisie alone ».

Robespierre's social democracy

Robespierre could, within the revolutionary government, conduct social policy based on its convictions and principles. With the young conventional Saint-Just, he was one of the protagonists of social democracy. Proposing a new declaration of human rights as a preamble to the future Constitution of Year I, he declared that property was no longer a natural and imprescriptible right but a social fact defined by law: "the right to property is limited like all others by the obligation to respect the rights of others ". Speaking of the declaration of 1789: "your declaration seems made not for men but for the rich, for the monopolists, for the stock-makers and for the tyrants ».

However, inequalities and the privilege of wealth remained because of the play of economic laws. In this context, Robespierre was at the origin of the entry of the concept of social law in the construction of the Republic. The Nation became responsible for controlling the right to property and responsible for establishing relative equality with the reconstitution of small property. The law ensured an equal division of the inheritances to divide the fortunes. Above all, Robespierre was the defender of the laws of Ventôse An II presented by Saint-Just which gave the destitute the goods confiscated from the suspects.

The Incorruptible was one of the architects of a new society recognizing his debt to the people. The duty she had was to educate her citizens. In this sense, on July 29, 1793, Robespierre presented to the Convention the education project composed by Saint-Fargeau. A century before Jules Ferry, this project allowed everyone access to a common base of instruction, free, compulsory, freed from the shackles of the Church. The law of 22 Floréal (May 11, 1794) organized "national charity" and applied the declaration of 1793 to the letter: free medical assistance, home help for the elderly, allowance for work-related accidents, for the families of the dead. for the homeland. It was an application of this first article of the Bill of Rights of 1793 proposed by Robespierre: "The goal of society is common happiness ". Saint-Just also wanted "give all French people the means to obtain the basic necessities of life without depending on anything other than laws ».

Finally, slavery was abolished, on 16 Pluviôse Year II.

Terror "

While an entirely new company was being formed, members of the Public Safety Committee, which Robespierre joined on July 27, 1793, were to lead revolutionary France to victory in civil war and foreign war, while mitigating the effects of this war felt by the populations. To this end, the dictatorship of public safety of the revolutionary government. Like many Convention members, Robespierre saw only a solution to bring the Revolution and its achievements to victory, exceptional measures; exceptional measures that we know today as "Terror".

Robespierre believed since 1790 that the Nation could have recourse to exceptional force to achieve its goal. He summed up this thought in a famous speech on 25 Nivose: “the aim of constitutional government is to preserve the Republic, that of revolutionary government is to found it. The Revolution is the war of freedom against its enemies […] The revolutionary government needs extraordinary activity because it is at war ". Knowing the dangers of these exceptional measures, he gives them as a line a moral line already mentioned, Civic Virtue: "If the mainspring of popular government in peace is virtue, the mainspring of popular government in revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is fatal, terror without which virtue is powerless […] It is less a particular principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to the most pressing needs of the fatherland ».

To feed the people, this government resorted to requisitions, and determined a general maximum for the prices of basic necessities. He ensured his independence by nationalizing the war fabrications. Let us add that the various measures of imprisonment of suspects, of judgment of enemies of the Revolution by the revolutionary tribunal were a substitute for disorganized and fragile popular violence. This legal terrorMoreover, it was often accompanied by speeches whose accents were more vehement than their applications.

Contradictions and ruptures

The approach of victory in April 1794 revealed differences within the revolutionary government and confronted Robespierre with the contradictions of his policy. In the spring of Year II, the Revolution saw the emergence of factions that fell victim to the vigilance of the revolutionary government. The hot journalist Hébert, editor of Père Duchesne, very close to popular circles, had fought the revolutionary government considered too compromised with the bourgeoisie. He was guillotined with his companions. Danton, whom Robespierre defended until the day before his arrest, also fell for having taken on a role of leader of a motley faction of corrupt, demanding a clemency committee, especially for them ... "The Revolution is frozen »Wrote Saint-Just.

Robespierre, during this period continued his policy by seeking to give a transcendental dimension to the Revolution, introducing the cult of the supreme being, on 18 Floréal year II: "The French People recognize the existence of the supreme being and the immortality of the soul ". Although this cult enjoyed the approval of the government, it stirred up differences over religion. Robespierre was a deist, he believed in the free exercise of worship, loathing an atheistic de-Christianization which he considered nihilist and far from the concerns of the people: "Priests have been denounced for having said mass! They will say it even more if we prevent them from saying it. Whoever wants to prevent them is more fanatic than the one who says mass ". This conflict introduced a muted hostility into the Convention which was felt even in the Parisian sections.

These sections began to scold against a law which imposed the Maximum Wages. As the war receded, the bourgeoisie lobbied to break certain gains made by the wage earners, which they obtained. Despite a certain blindness of the robespierrists, the revolution remained bourgeois. In the prelude to this fall, we must add the bureaucratization of revolutionary bodies which distanced them from their original militancy and led them towards an official detached from the popular movement. All this slowed down democracy in the sections and accentuated the weariness of the masses for their institutions. It was the fundamental contradiction that prepared the fall of Thermidor.

9 Thermidor: the fall of Robespierre

In the institutions themselves, in addition to attempted attacks, there were slander and slander. The two Committees accused each other of mutual encroachment. The Law of Prairial Year II (June 1794), known as the "great Terror Was deliberately diverted from its initial aim, namely to limit recourse to revolutionary government, to discredit Robespierre and Couthon who were behind it. During a meeting and yet another argument within the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre slammed the door to sink into a physical and psychological illness that kept him bedridden. Fouché and Tallien, who had good reason to believe that their survival depended on fall of Robespierre, took advantage of his absence to galvanize the right-wing deputies, the majority of deputies who were neither Montagnards nor Girondins.

Undoubtedly aware of all these contradictions and wishing to rely solely on national representation, Robespierre pronounced a testament speech on 8 Thermidor Year II in which he defended his principles and denounced without naming certain members of the government. The next day, Saint-Just was interrupted in reading a report and a faction of deputies made decree the robespierrists who were taken to prison. They were freed from it by the Paris Commune and taken to the Town Hall. Refusing to lead an insurrection against national representation, the Robespierrists saw their meager defense disperse throughout the evening, at the end of which Robespierre attempted to commit suicide and was arrested with his companions. The victors did not bother for long with these cumbersome accused and made them guillotine the next day July 28, 1794, to the cheers of the more bourgeois sections of western Paris.

An anecdote by Michelet, which cannot be accused of Robespierrism, has been repeated many times: "A few days after Thermidor, a ten-year-old boy was taken by his parents to the theater […] People in jackets, hats off said to the outgoing spectators “Do we need a car, my master? The child did not understand these new terms. He was only told that there had been a big change since Robespierre's death ».

A dictator ?

Robespierre, in spite of his contradictions, in spite of his errors and his mistakes, was considered by many and often the poorest as a watchtower of democracy. Faced with the pragmatism of the liberal bourgeoisie, it laid the foundations for a society outside their utilitarian and profane frameworks by including the Revolution in a universal legitimacy of justice, reason and morality. And it is this legitimacy that Robespierre designated by the Supreme Being. Therein lies all the meaning, the struggle, the real constant, the life of Robespierre. A vision which gives its goal to the Revolution. An invariable faith in democracy as he will describe it the day before his death in his last speech.


On Robespierre:

- Schmidt, Joël, Robespierre, Folio, 2011.

- Zizek, Slavoj, Robespierre, between Vertu and Terreur, Stock, 2008

- Biard, M., Bourdin, P. (dir), Robespierre, crossed portraits, A. Colin, 2012.

You can also always find an edition of his complete works:

- Robespierre, Maximilien, Complete Works, Society of Robespierrist Studies, 2007

Video: ROBESPIERRE - Le interviste impossibili


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