Robespierre and the Terror of the Revolution

“Terror, without virtue, is disastrous. Virtue, without terror, is impotent.” Maximilien Robespierre, French politician

There is a profile of a reformer who starts from an essentially radical position, then opts for revolution as a strategy for change. Perhaps the greatest example of this in 18th-century Europe was Maximilien Robespierre, who spearheaded the bloodiest revolutionary period of the First French Republic.

Robespierre was born in a family of lawyers from Artois in 1758. He had four siblings, although the last of them did not survive, following closely behind his mother, Jacqueline, who died in childbirth. It was a very tough blow for the 6-year-old Robespierre, the eldest sibling. It was not the only setback he had to face: his father, tormented by the pain, decided to emigrate alone to Germany, where he worked as an educator until his death. Robespierre’s two sisters were taken in by their paternal aunts, while the two children grew up in their maternal grandfather’s house.

The future revolutionary studied to become a lawyer in Arras, where he started to gain notoriety for his firm opposition to the death penalty and his bold defense of the poor. Later he would earn the nickname of The Incorruptible, which clearly symbolized the apparent strength of his ideals. On May 5, he would appear in Versailles as an elected deputy of the Third Estate in the États généraux general assembly that would mark the prologue to the French Revolution. In the general assembly, his presence and speeches were already raising eyebrows. Mirabeau would say of him, at the conclusion of one such address: “This young man believes in what he says: He will go far.”

This quote from Mirabeau leads us to an initial reflection, since Robespierre went very far indeed, to the pinnacle of power in France, which was previously unattainable for any man not belonging to the aristocracy. Is reaching the pinnacle so important in a person’s life? Is any pinnacle good enough? And, most importantly, is it OK to get there by any means? When all is said and done, what are the real motivations behind all the effort? Are ideologies not ultimately the perfect alibi for certain individuals’ desire for power?

Because Robespierre’s rise was not that of a classic political animal, like Fouché. It was the coronation of the greatest ideologist of the French revolutionaries, the one who most fervently defended the ideal of revolution. We tend to think that the greatest danger in politics is to be corrupted. But Robespierre truly earned the nickname of The Incorruptible, as he never gave in to bribery nor was he married to anyone other than his own aspiration… Indeed, all the atrocities he would later commit were in the name of that aspiration. As Mirabeau rightly claimed, he believed in what he said.

But the sleep of reason produces monsters, as Goya would so aptly depict a few years later. An ideal that does not pass the test of reason and humanity, or respect for reality, can easily become an ideology and an excuse for the unjustifiable. Robespierre’s ideology, like so many others, is rooted in secular religion, an exclusive and ultimately violent creed.

In 1791, King Louis XVI, who secretly tried to regain his status as absolute monarch, fled Paris to gather with loyal troops and put an end to the Revolution. We do not know what Robespierre’s internal reaction was, but from that moment on there was a newfound ferocity in his exercise of power. Perhaps he felt everything that had been built up was now in jeopardy, and he became convinced that no sacrifice or action was too harsh in the effort to preserve the work of the Revolution and perhaps his own power.

The capture of the king allowed the Jacobins (the most radical party of the French Assembly) to assume leadership of the Revolution, and Robespierre knew how to play his cards. He got the parliamentarians to give the king a death sentence, and established the First French Republic, which he himself would lead with an iron fist in the ensuing months.

It was during those very months when Robespierre would have a clear path for instituting his revolution. And it is intriguing to read his political ideal:

“The object of constitutional government is to preserve the Republic; the object of revolutionary government is to establish it. The principal concern of constitutional government is civil liberty; the principal concern of constitutional government is civil liberty. Under a constitutional government little more is required than to protect the individual against abuses by the state, whereas revolutionary government is obliged to defend the state itself against the factions that assail it from every quarter. To good citizens revolutionary government owes the full protection of the state; to the enemies of the people it owes only death[1].”

Every act of government should be aimed at imposing virtue (as defined by Robespierre) in society. And anyone who does not agree with this idea of virtue should be executed. Tragically, the man who was once firmly against the death penalty would end up imposing it on thousands of people, including his own friends and revolutionary comrades Danton and Desmoulins, who would be guillotined after Robespierre considered them opponents of his measures. But it was not only his friends: the massacres of the Civil War in the Vendée and many of those executed were people who had recently requested his services as a lawyer. Those he decided to represent when he ran for the general assembly. The ideology ends up turning against those same people it aims to defend, those it claims to fight for.

Ideology taken to its extreme justifies any measure that seeks to preserve it or carry it out. Ultimately, respect for the lives of others becomes secondary when it might hinder the implementation of the ideologist’s vision. This was Robespierre’s experience, perhaps highly conditioned, as we said, by the threats surrounding the nascent Republic: the Civil War of the Vendée, which Robespierre and his aides ended with a true genocide; and the foreign wars, which gave carte blanche in the eyes of society to do “whatever it took.”

But the evil ends up turning against itself, since it degrades those who perpetrate it. And the very state of terror to which he had subjected the Convention sparked a clandestine opposition movement that, at the first opportunity, arrested Robespierre and his closest collaborators—who showed a fierce resistance with the support of loyal troops. Fortunately, they did not prevail. And the month of Thermidor in year II of the Revolutionary Terror would see the execution of Maximilien Robespierre, whose corpse was covered with quicklime so that no trace of it remained. Hence, the death of The Incorruptible marked the end of the most tragic chapter of the French Revolution, which for generations to come would remain as a warning of the potentially treacherous outcome when an ideology is imposed to the very end, without a trace of humanity or realism.

Here are some of the many notable lessons we can learn from the life of this revolutionary:

  • When an extreme ideology is adopted with a fanatical mindset, even the best intentions turn against the very ideal that was sought after. All extremes create imbalances.
  • The determination of a man to pursue an ideal should be tempered by realism, a sense of humour, respect for those who think differently and affection.
  • When a just end determines any mean, the means become ends. The revolution, a means of reaching a just state, ultimately put an end to Robespierre’s life and that of many others. Sadism, in these cases, is used to fuel sociopathy.
  • The very culture of denunciation and betrayal championed by a tyrant can (quite often) facilitate their downfall.

[1] Robespierre, The Theory of Revolutionary Government.