Politically, Robespierre was a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among other Enlightenment philosophes, and a capable articulator of the beliefs of the left-wing bourgeoisie. He was described as physically unimposing and immaculate in attire and personal manners.
His paternal grandfather, Maximilien de Robespierre, established himself in Arras as a lawyer. His father, Maximilien Barthélémy François de Robespierre, also a lawyer at Conseil d'Artois, married Jacqueline Marguerite Carrault, the daughter of a brewer, in 1758. Maximilien was the oldest of four children, and was conceived out of wedlock. To hide the deed as best they could, his father and mother had a rushed wedding (which the grandfather refused to attend). In 1764 Madame de Robespierre, as the name was then spelled, died in childbirth. Her husband left Arras and wandered around Europe until his death in Munich in 1777, leaving the children to be raised by their maternal grandfather and aunts.
Maximilien attended the collège (middle school) of Arras when he was eight years old, already knowing how to read and write. In October of 1769, on the recommendation of the bishop, he obtained a scholarship at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Here he learned to admire the idealized Roman Republic and the rhetoric of Cicero, Cato, and other classic figures. His fellow pupils included Camille Desmoulins and Stanislas Fréron. He also was exposed to Rousseau during this time and adopted many of the same principles. Robespierre became more intrigued by the idea of a virtuous self, a man who stands alone accompanied only by his conscience.
Shortly after his coronation, Louis XVI visited Louis-le-Grand. Robespierre, then 17 years old, had been chosen out of five hundred pupils to deliver a speech to welcome the king; as a prize-winning student, the choice had been clear. On the day of speech, Robespierre and the crowd waited for the king and queen for several hours in the rain. Upon arrival, the royal couple remained in their coach for the ceremony and immediately left thereafter. Later, Robespierre would be one of those who would eventually work towards the death of the king, though it is not clear whether he or others bore animosity as a result of this particular incident.
In December 1783., he was elected a member of the academy of Arras, the meetings of which he attended regularly. In 1784, he obtained a medal from the academy of Metz for his essay on the question of whether the relatives of a condemned criminal should share his disgrace. He and Pierre Louis de Lacretelle, an advocate and journalist in Paris, divided the prize. Many of his subsequent essays were less successful, but Robespierre was compensated for these failures by his popularity in the literary and musical society at Arras, known as the "Rosatia," of which Lazare Carnot, who would be his colleague on the Committee of Public Safety,(CPS), was also a member.
In 1788, he took part in a discussion of how the French government should be elected, showing clearly and forcefully in his Adresse à la nation artésienne that if the former mode of election by the members of the provincial estates were again adopted, the new Estates-General would not represent the people of France. It is possible he addressed this issue so that he could have a chance to take part in the proceedings and thus change the policies of the monarchy. King Louis XVI later announced new elections for all provinces, thus allowing Robespierre to run for the position of deputy for the Third Estate.
Although the leading members of the corporation were elected, Robespierre, their chief opponent, succeeded in getting elected with them. In the assembly of the bailliage rivalry ran still higher, but Robespierre had begun to make his mark in politics with the Avis aux habitants de la campagne (Arras, 1789). With this he secured the support of the country electors, and, although only 30, comparatively poor and lacking patronage, he was elected fifth deputy of the Third Estate of Artois to the Estates-General. When Robespierre arrived at Versailles, he was relatively unknown, but he soon became part of the representative National Assembly which then transformed into the Constituent Assembly.
While the Constituent Assembly occupied itself with drawing up a constitution, Robespierre turned from the assembly of provincial lawyers and wealthy bourgeois to the people of Paris. He was a frequent speaker in the Constituent Assembly; he voiced many ideas for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Constitutional Provisions, often with great success. He was eventually recognized as second only to Pétion de Villeneuve - if second he was - as a leader of the small body of the extreme left; "the thirty voices" as Mirabeau contemptuously called them.
Robespierre soon became involved with the new Society of the Friends of the Constitution, known eventually as the Jacobin Club. This had consisted originally of the Breton deputies only. After the Assembly moved to Paris the Club began to admit various leaders of the Parisian bourgeoisie to its membership. As time went on, many of the more intelligent artisans and small shopkeepers became members of the club. Among such men Robespierre found a sympathetic audience. As the wealthier bourgeois of Paris and right-wing deputies seceded to the Club of 1789, the influence of the old leaders of the Jacobins, such as Barnave, Duport, Alexandre de Lameth, diminished. When they, alarmed at the progress of the Revolution, founded the club of the Feuillants in 1791, the left, including Robespierre and his friends dominated the Jacobin Club.
The flight of Louis XVI and his family on June 20 and his subsequent arrest at Varennes resulted in Robespierre declaring himself at the Jacobin Club to be "ni monarchiste ni républicain" ("neither monarchist nor republican"). But this was not unusual; very few at this point were avowed republicans.
After the massacre of the Champ de Mars on July 17, 1791, in order to be nearer to the Assembly and the Jacobins, he moved to live in the house of Maurice Duplay, a cabinetmaker residing in the Rue Saint-Honoré and an ardent admirer of Robespierre's. Robespierre lived there (with two short intervals excepted) until his death. In fact, according to some sources, including his doctor, Souberbielle, Vilate, a juror on the Revolutionary Tribunal, and his host's youngest daughter (who would later marry Philippe Le Bas of the Committee of General Security), he became engaged to the eldest daughter of his host, Éléonore Duplay.
On September 30, on the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the people of Paris crowned Pétion and Robespierre as the two incorruptible patriots in an attempt to honor their purity of principles, their modest ways of living, and their refusal of bribes.
With the dissolution of the Assembly he returned for a short visit to Arras, where he met with a triumphant reception. In November he returned to Paris to take the position of Public Prosecutor of Paris.
On February 1792, Jacques Pierre Brissot, one of the leaders of the Girondist party in the Legislative Assembly, urged that France should declare war against Austria. Marat and Robespierre opposed him, because they feared the possibility of militarism, which might then be turned to the advantage of the reactionary forces. Robespierre was also convinced the stability of the internal country was more important; he was suspicious of traitors and counter-revolutionaries hidden among the people. This opposition from expected allies irritated the Girondists and political rivalry arose between them.
In April 1792, Robespierre resigned the post of public prosecutor of Versailles, which he had officially held, but never practised, since February, and started a journal, Le Défenseur de la Constitution, in his own defence against the accusations of the Girondist leaders.
Because of his popularity, his reputation for virtue and his influence over the Jacobin Club, the strongmen of the Commune were glad to have Robespierre's aid in the face of food riots and factionalism. On 16 August, Robespierre presented the petition of the Commune of Paris to the Legislative Assembly, demanding the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal and the summoning of a Convention.
Robespierre has often been reproached with failing to stop the September Massacres, but neither he nor any other individual were in any position to have done so. Although some tried to smudge the purity of his name, he was popular enough to be elected first deputy for Paris to the National Convention. Robespierre and his allies took the benches high at the back of the hall, giving them the label 'the Montagnards'; below them were the Manège of the Girondists and then 'the Plain' of the independents.
At the Convention, the Girondists immediately attacked Robespierre. As early as 26 September, the Girondist Marc-David Lasource accused Robespierre of wanting to form a dictatorship. He later heard a rumor that Marat, Danton and himself were plotting to become triumvirs. On 29 October, Louvet de Couvrai attacked Robespierre in a speech, possibly written by Madame Roland. Robespierre easily rebutted the false accusation in this attack on 5 November when he denounced the federalist plans of the Girondists.
Robespierre argued that the king, having betrayed the people when he tried to flee the country—and, indeed, as Robespierre said, in having been a King in the first place—posed a danger to the state of unifying the enemies of the Republic.
In May 1793, Desmoulins, at the behest of Robespierre and Danton, published his Histoire des Brissotins, an elaboration on the earlier article Jean-Pierre Brissot, démasqué, a scathing attack on Brissot and the Girondists. Maximin Isnard declared that Paris must be destroyed if it came out against the provincial deputies. Robespierre preached a moral "insurrection against the corrupt deputies" at the Jacobin Club. On June 2, a large crowd of armed men from the Commune of Paris came to the Convention and arrested thirty-two deputies on charges of counter-revolutionary activities.
Historians disagree on Robespierre's role in the Terror. Some say that he was a minor player in the Committee of Public Safety. Babeuf and Philippe Buonarroti have tried to absolve him by saying he acted only for reasons of practical expediency. Robespierre has often been regarded as the dominant force on the committee. Louis-Sébastien Mercier coined the term "Sanguinocrat" to describe Robespierre. However, after his death many of his colleagues tried to save themselves by blaming him.
He was one of the most popular orators in the Convention and his carefully prepared speeches often made a deep impression. His panegyrics on revolutionary government and his praise of virtue demonstrate his belief that the Terror was necessary, laudable and inevitable. It was Robespierre's belief that the Republic and virtue were of necessity inseparable. He reasoned that the Republic could only be saved by the virtue of its citizens, and that the Terror was virtuous because it attempted to maintain the Revolution and the Republic. For example, in his Report on the Principles of Political Morality, given on February 5th 1794, Robespierre stated,
"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".
Robespierre believed that the Terror was a time of discovering and revealing the enemy within Paris, within France, the enemy that hid in the safety of apparent patriotism. Because he believed that the Revolution was still in progress, and in danger of being sabotaged, he made every attempt to instil in the populace and Convention the urgency of carrying out the Terror. In his Report and others, he brought tales and fears of traitors, monarchists, and saboteurs throughout the Republic and also the Convention itself.
Robespierre expanded the traditional list of the Revolutions' enemies to include moderates and "false revolutionaries". In Robespierres' understanding, these moderates and "false revolutionaries" were not only ignorant of the dangers facing the republic, but also in many cases disguised themselves as active contributors to the Revolution, who simply repeated the work of others, or even impeded the progress of the patriots. Anyone not in step with the decrees of Robespierres' committee is said to have been eventually purged from the Convention, and thoroughly hunted in the general population. While it is debated whether Robespierre targeted moderates to accelerate his own agenda, or out of legitimate concern for France, it is known that his definition of the word "traitor" led to the execution of many of the Revolutions' original and staunchest advocates.
Robespierre saw no room for mercy in his Terror, stating that "slowness of judgements is equal to impunity" and "uncertainty of punishment encourages all the guilty". Throughout his Report on the Principles of Political Morality, Robespierre assailed any stalling of action in defence of the Republic. In his thinking, there was not enough that could be done fast enough in defence against enemies at home and abroad. It is easy to call Robespierre paranoid in his persecution of his contemporaries, but as he states, his actions were geared towards the preservation of the Revolution. Having such a deep learning of Rousseau and the teachings of reason and the social contract, Robespierre believed 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 isn't so much a call for blood as it is a call for the legislative arm of the French Republic to fulfil its end of the social contract and serve the people. Along with his promotion of Terror, the Report also expounds many of the original ideas of the 1789 Revolution. Ideas of political equality, suffrage, and abolition of privilege are as much a part of Robespierres' ethos as was the Terror. Despite executing a good number of his fellow revolutionaries, Robespierre was still one of them in his theory, even if his practice was questionable.
In the winter of 1793–1794, a majority of the Committee decided that the Hébertist party must perish or its 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 "atheism" and bloodthirstiness; for Robespierre such attributes were comparable to the characteristics of the Old Regime aristocracy. On Danton's suggestion, Camille Desmoulins protested the Terror in his third issue of Le Vieux Cordelier (Robespierre had read and approved of the first two issues).
From February 13 to March 13, 1794 Robespierre withdrew from active business on the Committee due to illness. During that time, he decided that the end of the Terror would mean the loss of political power he hoped to use to create the Republic of Virtue. He broke with Danton, on account of his moderate views, and joined in attacks on the Dantonists and the Hébertists. Robespierre charged his opponents with complicity with foreign powers.
On March 15 Robespierre reappeared in the Convention; on March 19 Hébert and nineteen of his followers were arrested and on March 24 they were guillotined. On March 30, Danton, Desmoulins and their friends were arrested, tried on April 2 and guillotined on April 5.
After Danton's execution, Robespierre worked to develop his own policies. He used his influence over the Jacobin Club to dominate the Commune of Paris through his followers. Two of them, Jean-Baptiste Fleuriot-Lescot and Claude-François de Payan, were elected mayor and procurator of the Commune respectively. Robespierre tried to influence the army through his follower Antoine Louis Léon de Richebourg de Saint-Just, whom he sent on a mission to the frontier.
Robespierre's desire for revolutionary change was not limited to the political realm. He sought to instill a spiritual resurgence in the French nation based on Deist beliefs. Accordingly, on May 7, 1794 Robespierre had a decree passed by the Convention that established a Supreme Being. The notion of the Supreme Being was based on ideas that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had outlined in The Social Contract. In honour of the Supreme Being, a celebration was held on June 8. Robespierre, as President of the Convention, walked first in the festival procession and delivered a speech.
In this speech, Robespierre made it clear that his concept of a Supreme Being was far different from the traditional God of Christianity. Robespierre's Supreme Being was a radical democrat, like the Jacobins,
Is it not He whose immortal hand, engraving on the heart of man the code of justice and equality, has written there the death sentence of tyrants? Is it not He who, from the beginning of time, decreed for all the ages and for all peoples liberty, good faith, and justice? He did not create kings to devour the human race. He did not create priests to harness us, like vile animals, to the chariots of kings and to give to the world examples of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery, and falsehood. He created the universe to proclaim His power. He created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue."''
Robespierre appeared at the Convention on July 26, the 8th of Thermidor according to the Revolutionary calendar, and delivered a two-hour-long speech. He defended himself against charges of dictatorship and tyranny, and then proceeded to warn of a conspiracy against the Republic. Robespierre implied that members of the Convention were a part of this conspiracy, though when pressed he refused to provide any names. Members who felt that Robespierre was alluding to them tried to prevent the speech from being printed, and a bitter debate ensued until Bertrand Berèreput forced an end to it. Later that evening, Robespierre delivered the same speech again at the Jacobin Club, where it was very well received.
The next day, Saint-Just began to give a speech in support of Robespierre. However, those who saw him working on his speech the night before expected accusations to arise from it. He only had time to give a small part of his speech before Jean-Lambert Tallien interrupted him. While the accusations began to pile up, Saint-Just remained uncharacteristically silent. Robespierre then attempted to secure the tribune to speak but his voice was shouted down. Robespierre soon found himself at a loss for words after one deputy called for his arrest, and another, Marc Guillaume Valdiergave, gave a mocking impression of him. When one deputy realized Robespierre's inability to respond, the man shouted, "The blood of Danton chokes him!
The Convention ordered the arrest of Robespierre, Couthon, Saint-Just, Le Bas, and Hanriot. Troops from the Commune arrived to liberate the prisoners. The Commune troops, under General Coffinhal, then marched against the Convention itself. The Convention responded by ordering troops of its own under Paul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras to be called out. When the Commune's troops heard the news of this, order began to break down, and Hanriot ordered his remaining troops to withdraw to the Hôtel de Ville. Robespierre and his supporters also gathered at the Hôtel de Ville. The Convention declared them to be outlaws, meaning that upon verification the fugitives could be executed within 24 hours without a trial. As the night went on the Commune forces at the Hôtel de Ville deserted until none of them remained. The Convention troops under Barras approached the Hôtel around 2:00 am on July 28. As they came, Robespierre's brother Augustin threw himself out of a window. Couthon was found lying at the bottom of a staircase, crippled by his fall. Le Bas committed suicide. Robespierre was shot in the jaw by a guard therefore shattering it. The great orator had been silenced. one gendarme named Merda claimed to have pulled the trigger. Saint-Just made no attempt at suicide or concealment. Hanriot tried to hide in the Hôtel de Ville's yard, by some sources after being thrown out a window into a stack of latrine and hay, but the Convention troops quickly discovered him and assaulted him badly, allegedly gouging one of his eyes out so that it did hang from its socket. Augustine Robespierre attempted escape through a window but broke his leg and faced arrest as well.
For the remainder of the night Robespierre was moved to a table in the room of the Committee of Public Safety where he awaited execution.
The next day, 10th Thermidor An II (July 28, 1794), Robespierre was guillotined without trial in the Place de la Révolution (and, according to legend, the only man to be guillotined face-up). Couthon, Saint-Just, Hanriot, Augustine Robespierre and twelve other followers were also executed. Gruesomely, in clearing Robespierre's neck the executioner tore off the bandage that was holding his shattered jaw in place, producing an agonised scream until the fall of the blade silenced him. Despite his notoriety and the blame that is apportioned to him for the Terror, the day Robespierre himself was guillotined there were in fact more executions carried out than on any other during this period. His corpse and head both were buried in the common cemetery of Errancis (now the Place de Goubeaux), but were accidentally moved to the Catacombs of Paris.
The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica sums up Robespierre as a bright young theorist out of his depth in the matter of experience:
Reign of Terror by C.H.