"Robespierre is an immortal figure not because he reigned supreme over the Revolution for a few months, but because he was the mouthpiece of its purest and most tragic discourse."
— François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution
Maximilien Robespierre was a major figure of The French Revolution
. A lawyer from the town of Arras, he was an advocate of human rights as defined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he admired deeply. As a "lawyer for the common people", he gained respect and prominence among the locals, who eventually elected him to represent them in the Estates-General, France's pre-revolutionary representative body. During this period, he distinguished himself by taking pro-bono cases. Shortly after the Estates-General convened in 1789, the Revolution began with the Tennis Court Oath, in which the representatives of the common people decided to push for a constitution and governmental reform for France. Robespierre was influential in the formation of the intended new government and became a prominent member of the radical Jacobin Club (political "clubs" were in some ways parallel to political parties in modern democratic states). Specifically the faction called "The Mountain", called so because they were seated high up in the seats of the Legislative Assembly. He was particularly famous for his speeches which were often printed in newspapers and pamphlets and became Memetic Mutation
during the Revolution.
During the short lived constitutional monarchy, many revolutionaries including the moderate Girondins advocated going to war in order to spread the ideas of the French Revolution. Robespierre took a hardline stance against the war, warning that "No one loves armed missionaries." However, despite his protests France declared war a few months later on Austria and Prussia. Robespierre became noted during this time for his integrity, his rousing speeches and as such he became highly popular among the French working classes. He also championed causes such as clamping down on anti-Semitism, increased rights for Protestants, abolition of slavery.
The mismanagement of the war by the Girondins and the subsequent chicanery on the part of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette created a chaotic situation, culminating in the mass killings of the September Massacres where instigators called for the deaths of criminals, political prisoners and other saboteurs. Robespierre and the Jacobins subsequently manage to take a majority in the National Convention and ousted the Girondins, after which they found themselves charged with the program of simultaneously advancing the principles of the Revolution and aiding the French war effort, fixing the messes left behind by the Girondins and clamping down on counter-revolutionaries and internal threats.
To do this, the legislative assembly suspended its newly written constitution and formed a de facto emergency government, the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre was chosen to join the committee, and he famously justified its policy of "Terror" as stemming from a wartime necessity:
"If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country ... The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny."
It was this Committee that instituted the Law of Suspects, which provided the legal justification for the Terror
, as an emergency measure to bring the country under control. Robespierre was never actually the dictator or in any way the sole leader of France. He was
the intellectual and moral backbone for the Committee while it ran the country; however, his influence within the Committee was subject to the machinations of other members and tended to ebb and flow. A fact which made him extremely paranoid and started feeding his already considerable sense of self-righteousness.
While Robespierre is usually portrayed (and not without reason) as the personification of the worst excesses of the Revolution, he actually fought as ferociously against radicals as he did royalists. While no devout Christian himself, he eventually came to despise the atheistic bent of many in the French government and had quite a few of them guillotined. He later presided over a Festival of the Supreme Being, which celebrated a kind of middle path between old-style Catholicism and atheism; his performance there led many of his enemies to allege that he considered himself a God. Robespierre also ordered the execution of many proto-socialists, who wanted the new France to abolish private property and share all wealth in common. On the other hand, several people regarded Robespierre as a true revolutionary and a champion of the poor. Gracchus Babeuf, who would later be described as "the first Communist" was a supporter and stated, "To awaken Robespierre is to awaken Democracy".
In short, he considered himself a man walking a narrow, winding path through a dangerous forest, with enemies on both left and right plotting the destruction of France. Seeing foreign plots to snuff out the Revolution everywhere, he violently lashed out at those enemies using the power of the Committee. Eventually, as his former colleague-turned-enemy Danton (who he had guillotined) predicted, the machinery of death he set in motion consumed him, and he was himself guillotined in July (Thermidor) of 1794.
A lesser known fact of Robespierre is that he is in fact the first lawmaker and politician to outright abolish slavery. He did this in February 1794, during the Reign of Terror
, which shows you how ambiguous he is
. This action, done in a time where Haiti was in rebelling against the French government completely changed the nature of Toussaint L'Ouverture's revolution. For this reason, Robespierre is highly respected by the people of Haiti even today, and in other African nations and among some African Americans. Though, abolition was set back when Napoleon came to power, he re-instituted slavery in the colonies and it was only in 1848 that slavery in France's remaining colonies completed his original commitment.
Personally, Robespierre was a slight, somewhat fastidious man who maintained immaculate dress and cleanliness at all times, although said dress was perpetually worn and out of fashion. His nickname was "The Incorruptible," and it was not ironic in any way. One biography of Robespierre is entitled "Fatal Purity."
A highly controversial person, the level of sympathy allotted to him depends on the work. Compare with Richard of Gloucester
, the English king similarly known for falling anywhere between a villain and a Silent Scapegoat
depending on the author's perspective. He also has a number of similarities with Vladimir Lenin
It's worth noting that many of the morality tropes listed here differ in different works/character representations.
Works featuring Robespierre:
Provides examples of:
- Accidental Misnaming: At the beginning of his political career, journalists chronicling the goings-on at the National Assemby called him everything from Robespierrot to Robests-piesse, Robertz-Pierre to Rabesse-Pierre.
- Affably Evil
- A God Am I: During the Festival of the Supreme Being, as he came down with the festival procession, Jacques-Alexis Thuriot is quoted as saying "Look at the bugger; it's not enough for him to be master, he has to be God."
- Alternative Character Interpretation: in different works.
- Anti-Hero: Type III during the first years of the revolution, type IV after the murder of Marat and type V during his last year.
- Armor-Piercing Question: He issued a famous real-life one during a speech defending himself from accusations by the Girondins. After defending himself spiritedly, he called the Girondins out for not doing enough to uphold the needs of the common people:
"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?"
- Asexuality: One popular theory. However, historians have suggested that he was in a relationship with Eleonore Duplay, a young woman who was the daughter of the Duplay family which had given Robespierre housing. The two were often seen walking in gardens during the early 1790s and upon his death, she dressed in black all her life, earning the label, "la Veuve Robespierre"(Robespierre's Widow).
- Civil Warcraft: Spent most of the Revolution engaged in it to one degree or another, and it was one of the major reasons why he was slowly pushed towards the terror.
- Crusading Lawyer: He built his reputation as "L'Incorruptible" for defending the poor in pro-bono work, because of which he was fairly poor, until his election to the National Convention.
- The Dandy
- Dark Messiah: The real-life poster boy.
- Draco in Leather Pants: He seems to be fairly popular in France. Or at least much more balanced in view and less disliked than in England and America, where the media portrayal is overwhelmingly negative.
- Many left-wing intellectuals in France have/had a sordid tendency to idealize the Reign of Terror and Robespierre. To them, anyone who thinks he was tyrannical and/or represented the rising liberal bourgeoisie is labelled... a right-wing bourgeois reactionary, a collaborator of capital, etc. Left-wing criticisms of Robespierre and the French revolution tend to come from the anarchist/left-libertarian tradition, which has a history of clashing with authoritarian Marxism as well (Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc).
- The fact that Robespierre would probably have hated most authoritarian Marxists (with the radical expansionism, totalitarian rule, die hard atheism, and the like) is one of the final ironies.
- Everyone Went to School Together: Robespierre and his friend-turned-political-enemy Camille Desmoulins were schoolmates, and even classmates. Robespierre then had Camille Desmoulins' head off. Napoleon and Robes' younger brother Augustin were friends, as well.
- In fact Robespierre served as best man at Desmoulin's wedding.
- Also, he was the best Latin student at his school. This meant he was supposed to give a welcoming speech to the newly crowned....King Louis XVI.
- The Extremist Was Right: The Marxist defense of it. Objectively, towards the end of the Reign, the economy was stabilizing, largely due to the assignat system of fixed bread prices he placed in and the wealth redistribution measures were coming in as well. The Army which he was controlling via Committee Overseers Saint-Just and his brother Augustin was becoming professional despite featuring a mass of raw recruits and rookies, largely thanks to the organization of Lazare Carnot but also on account of Robespierre's rigid demands of meritocracy. This resulted, ironically, in Napoleon's first major appointment (a fact which he was always grateful for to Robespierre, though he kept his praises private). After Thermidor, the Directory government saw rapid inflation and widespread unpopularity and the continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars via military adventurism, creating the climate for Napoleon to take over.
- Famous Last Words: Robespierre's jaws were shattered by a gunshot so he did not have conventional last words. But the last things he said in public was during the Thermidor Reaction, where his former allies and fellow participants in the Reign of Terror, some of whom had more blood on his hands than him, mocked the fact that he was silenced by outrage, remarked:
Man in Crowd: "It is Danton's blood that is choking you!"
Robespierre: "Danton! It is Danton then you regret? Cowards! Why did you not defend him?"
- Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Zero Soul is probably an overestimation, but by the end he was no innocent.
- French Revolution: Obviously.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: Who would have thought a pale, meek milquetoast would become one of the most feared revolutionaries in history?
- Full-Circle Revolution: His downfall was related to one. So much so that Marxists often called this a "Thermidorian Reaction".
- God Is Dead: He took part in the de-Christianisation of France when he tried to establish the Cult of Reason and the Supreme Being. That is, state deism. He did so because while he saw Christianity (especially the Church) as a threat for the Revolution, he also disapproved of atheism which was promoted by hard-liners revolutionaries (like Hébert) in the Cult of Reason.
- Robespierre was initially opposed to de-Christianisation because he felt that the people of France were not ready and it would reject people for taking it too far.
- Good Is Not Nice / Pure Is Not Good : (depending on one's perspective).
- Green Eyes: Was stated to have had eyes of sea-green, he augmented the effect with green tinted glasses that he wore.
- He Who Fights Monsters: He was actually against the death penalty in his early years, but during the French Revolutionary Wars he began to use the guillotine against France's enemies, including the royal family. It got worse when Marat was murdered by a supporter of the rival Girondin Club.
- Historical-Domain Character - Historical Villain Upgrade in most works.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: He was eventually executed via guillotine, the fate he and his regime assigned to so many others.
- I Did What I Had to Do: The common defense he has to this day, including opposing what he believed was more than what had to be done.
- Irony: Despite the vast number of people he had beheaded, he couldn't stand the sight of blood. His entire life is one major one, since he eventually argued for and put in place the very things he argued against in the beginning of the Revolution, believing it as part of a necessity.
- Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Going from 'lawyer highly respected by the common people' to 'main figure in a Reign of Terror who winds up being Hoisted By His Own Petard' would be bad enough, but a little bit of irony makes it worse: in the early phases of the Revolution, Robespierre wrote a little pamphlet about how the death penalty is wrong, and should not be usednote . More generally, his actions throughout his revolutionary career were directed at creating a just society and preserving a nation in crisis. He jumped off the slope (according to some) by using terror to achieve this.
- Just the First Citizen: Deputy and Member of the Committee of Public Safety.
- Knight Templar
- Mis-blamed: He actually vehemently opposed a lot of the actions that were attributed to him (like the drownings in Nantes) and was by no means the main instigator of The Terror originally. He wasn't even the one who signed the most execution orders among the Committee. In his final speeches in the Assembly and the Jacobin Club, he started criticizing the excesses of the Terror, and implicitly warned against Fouche and Tallien who were much worse than him. Both of them betrayed Robespierre and the Terror and started a posthumous smear campaign against him.
- Off with His Head!: The Terror regime he served sent many, many people to the guillotine. And it was his ultimate fate.
- Overly Long Name: See Unfortunate Names below.
- Promotion to Parent: After the death of his mother and his father running away, Robespierre, the eldest of a family of five became this to them. He was especially close to his brother Augustin, who got executed alongside him, and his sister Charlotte who later wrote memoirs of growing up Robespierre...
- Scary Shiny Glasses: Because of poor eyesight he had to wear green tinted glasses, a fact that most depictions ignore. This eventually led him to have an aura of fear with one colleague, Merlin de Thionville, who was part of the Thermidorian Reactionary faction stating, "If you had seen those green eyes of his".
- Reign of Terror: A participant in the original; notably, he and his allies actually called it by that name.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized
- Toxic Friend Influence: The jury is still out if he was this to Saint-Just or Saint-Just was this to him. The two of them were pretty much the only best friends either had at the end.
- Full-Circle Revolution: Was brought down by the former Trope Namer, The Thermidor.
- Unfortunate Names: Maximilien François Marie Isidore Robespierre.
- Justified in context as most 18th Century French names were like this. Compare Lafayette's real name: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette.
- The Republic of Virtue Justifies The Means
- We Are Struggling Together: A very accurate description of the Revolutionaries as a whole, and France in general at the time.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist