Maximilien Robespierre was an 18th century revolutionist during the French Revolution, infamous for leading the Reign of Terror that ensued in France during the Revolution.
He was a lawyer by profession and had a career in politics until his execution in July 1794. Robespierre advocated strongly for the abolishment of slavery in French colonies and also campaigned extensively for male suffrage, otherwise known as ‘One man, one vote’.
The Robespierre family was originally from Ireland. The name ‘Robespierre’ is assumed to be a corruption of the Irish version Robert Speirs. Maximillien’s paternal grandfather, with whom he shared the same name, was an established lawyer in the French city of Arras. Maximilien’s father, François MaximilienBarthélémyRobespierre also became a lawyer.
On 2 January 1758, Maximilien’s father and mother, Jacqueline Marguerite Carrault were married. Carrault was already pregnant with her first born child Maximilien who was later born on 6 May 1758. The couple went on to have several other children, Charlotte (born in 1760), Henriette (born in 1761), and Augustin (born in 1763).
Sadly, Madame de Robespierre died in 1764, a few days after giving birth to a stillborn child. Maximilien’s father, Monsieur de Robespierre abandoned his family after the death of his wife. He travelled extensively across Europe and only went back home to Arras occasionally. He followed his wife to the grave in November 1777, leaving the children to be raised by his two sisters.
Maximilien Robespierre received his early training from his aunts and was literate by the age of 8. He was then able to attend Arras’ middle school. Impressed by the young boy’s aptitude, the bishop of Arras recommended him for a scholarship at the distinguished Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. It was here that Robespierre spent his teenage years and early adult years.
A lot of his ideas and revolutionary ideas were shaped during this time from the works that he read. Cicero and Cato’s rhetoric were some of his favorite works, and also any work on the Roman Republic. The person who had the biggest influence on his ideas was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose work and reasoning resonated strongly with Robespierre. Robespierre was fascinated by the concept of a ‘virtuous self’, i.e. a man willing to stand up for what is right based on his conscience.
One of Robespierre’s highlights while in school was ironically the day he was selected to deliver the welcome speech to King Louis XVI who had come to visit the school. King Louis XVI visited Lycée Louis-le-Grandwith his wife, Marie Antoinette.
After completing his studies in law, Robespierre took the bar in Arras. After passing the bar, he was appointed a criminal judge by the Bishop of Arras. Robespierre however didn’t enjoy the work of a judge, largely because he was opposed to the death sentence. He was so against the idea that he chose to resign and preferred instead to be a simple lawyer who defended the poor. He was known for arguing his cases with ideals based on the Enlightenment, as well as fighting for the rights of every man.
By the age of 30, he was now well established and was even elected to be a member of the French legislature, the Estates General. He began voicing his opinions for political change strongly, thus setting him on the course that would see the fall of the French monarchy.
As his career progressed, he took to writing. Several of his works won competitions across the city and he was given several awards. One of his most famous essays addressed the question of whether or not the relatives of someone who had been condemned deserved to be punished alongside the criminal.
Maximilien Robespierre is credited as being the leader and voice for the Reign of Terror.
Other more noteworthy achievements include fighting for the rights of every man to vote (universal male suffrage). He advocated that every man had a right to vote. It didn’t matter his station in life, whether he was rich or poor, or what race, color and religion that person chose to believe in.
Robespierre also campaigned actively against slavery in French colonies. He was able to get slavery abolished. This was a major achievement not only for the people in the different French colonies, but was also a step in the right direction for France as a country.
(Maximilien Robespierre is credited as being the leader an...)
Maximilien Robespierre is credited for having been the one who established what is known as Deism or the Cult of the Supreme Being. Deism is a philosophy that believes in a god who can be seen through nature. Robespierre’s goal in establishing this cult was to propagate principles of the French Revolution and also unite French people no matter their religious affiliation. Catholicism was the reigning religion at the time, and a lot of French people were not receptive of other forms of religion, hence Robespierre hoped that after the revolution, deism would be chosen as the state religion of the recently established French republic.
Maximilien Robespierre had a very tumultuous time in politics. His political career didn’t last long, but during the years that he was active, everyone around him was fully aware of what he stood for. He was a staunch member of the Jacobins, and was subsequently made the spokesman for the group at the National Convention. He was known for not mincing his words and speaking very harshly about the monarchy. His words certainly had an effect in the conviction and sentencing of King Louis XIV and his wife Marie Antoinette to death. Louis XIV was guillotined in January 1793.
The monarchy was not the only group upon which Robespierre unleashed his fury. After the death of the king and queen, Robespierre turned his attention to the Girondins. The Girondins were a group of people who were not in favor of the radical revolutionary changes that were being advocated for by Robespierre and his followers. Even though at the beginning of his career Robespierre had been deeply disturbed by the death sentence, he didn’t seem as concerned in his later years as he fervently fought to have members of the Girondins arrested and guillotined.
It was during this time, in July 1793 that Robespierre was chosen to become a member of the Committee of Public Safety. The Committee was notorious for committing some of the most atrocious crimes. The objective of the Committee was to protect the recently formed republic from the troubles of foreign war and also crush any uprisings in the country that could have potentially led to a civil war. This is the dark period in Robespierre’s life where he sent thousands of people to their death, many without a trial. This was the period known as the Reign of Terror.
Two major groups clashed heavily with Robespierre at this time and opposed his work. They were namely the Hébertists and the Indulgents. Both groups were disconcerted by the strictness of the Reign of Terror, the food rationing and price hikes that had taken place since the start of the revolution. Robespierre dealt with both groups by hunting down their leaders and executing them.
Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s works were largely influential in shaping the Maximilien Robespierre’s philosophy on life. Robespierre’s political career was based on Rousseau’s teachings on living morally and uprightly. These were the ideas that Robespierre carried going into the revolutionary. At the beginning of his career, Robespierre gained a lot of fame for being a man of honor who was deemed incorruptible.
''The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant''.
1792 - 1794
He was a strong believer in Rousseau's teachings, and that it was his duty as a public servant to push the Revolution forward, and that the only rational way to do that was to defend it on all fronts. The Report did not merely call for blood but also expounded many of the original ideas of the 1789 Revolution, such as political equality, suffrage, and abolition of privileges.
“''You will follow us soon! Your house will be beaten down and salt sown in the place where it stood!''
Exclamation of Georges Danton passing Robespierre's house on the way to the guillotine, quoted in the memoirs of Paul vicomte de Barras”
Maximilien Robespierre never officially got married, although he was engaged to Eleonore Duplay, who was the daughter of master carpenter Maurice Duplay and his wife, Francoise-EleonoreVaugeois. Eleonore was born in 1768 in Paris and met Robespierre when he moved into the family home while seeking refuge from persecution.
The two were ‘engaged’ but never got married, although they appeared to have maintained a close friendship. The two shared similar political opinions and Robespierre once said of her, she has a ‘noble soul, she would know how to die as well as she knows how to love.’
It is cited that the pair often enjoyed walks in the Chmapls-Elysées and the shaded woods of Versailles orlssy.
After Robespierre’s death, Eleonore choose to remain single for the rest of her life, and always wore black until her death. Robespierre died at the age of 34 and she went on to live until the age of 64. The two did not have any children together.
Hardman, John. Robespierre. New York: Longman, 1999.
McGowen, Tom. Robespierre and the French Revolution in World History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2000.
Jordan, David P. The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. New York: Free Press, 1985.
Haydon, Colin, and William Doyle, eds. Robespierre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999