Robespierre

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (IPA: [ma.ksi.mi.ljɛ̃ fʁɑ̃.swa ma.ʁi i.zi.dɔʁ də ʁɔ.bɛs.pjɛʁ]; 6 May 1758 – 28 July 1794) was a French lawyer and politician, and one of the best-known and most influential figures of the French Revolution.

As a member of the Estates-General, the Constituent Assembly and the Jacobin Club, he advocated against the death penalty and for the abolition of slavery, while supporting equality of rights, universal suffrage and the establishment of a republic. He opposed war with Austria and the possibility of a coup by the Marquis de Lafayette. As a member of the Committee of Public Safety, he was an important figure during the period of the Revolution commonly known as the Reign of Terror, which ended a few months after his arrest and execution in July 1794.

Influenced by 18th-century Enlightenment philosophes such as Rousseau and Montesquieu, he was a capable articulator of the beliefs of the left-wing bourgeoisie. His supporters called him "The Incorruptible", while his adversaries called him dictateur sanguinaire (bloodthirsty dictator). His reputation has gone through cycles. It peaked in the 1920s when the influential French historian Albert Mathiez rejected the common view of Robespierre as demagogic, dictatorial, and fanatical. Mathiez argued he was an eloquent spokesman for the poor and oppressed, an enemy of royalist intrigues, a vigilant adversary of dishonest and corrupt politicians, a guardian of the French Republic, an intrepid leader of the French Revolutionary government, and a prophet of a socially responsible state. In recent decades his reputation has suffered from his association with radical purification of politics by killing his enemies.

Maximilien de Robespierre was born in Arras, in the old province of Artois, France. His family has been traced back to the 12th century in Picardy; some of his direct ancestors in the male line were notaries in the village of Carvin near Arras from the beginning of the 17th century. He is sometimes rumoured to have been of Irish descent, and it has been suggested that his surname could be a corruption of "Robert Speirs".George Henry Lewes, Ernest Hamel, Jules Michelet, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Hilaire Belloc have all cited this theory although there appears to be little supporting evidence.

His paternal grandfather, Maximilien de Robespierre, established himself in Arras as a lawyer. His father, Maximilien Barthélémy François de Robespierre, also a lawyer at the 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; his siblings were Charlotte, Henriette, and Augustin. In 1764, Madame de Robespierre died in childbirth. Her husband subsequently left Arras and traveled throughout Europe, only occasionally living in Arras, until his death in Munich in 1777; the children were brought up 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 1769, on the recommendation of the bishop, he obtained a scholarship at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Robespierre studied there until age twenty-three, receiving his training as a lawyer. Upon his graduation, he received a 600-livre special prize for twelve years of exemplary academic success and personal good conduct.

In school he learned to admire the idealised 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 the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau during this time and adopted many of his philosophical 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, King Louis XVI visited Louis-le-Grand. Robespierre, then 17 years old and a prize-winning student, had been chosen out of five hundred pupils to deliver a speech to welcome the king. Perhaps due to rain, the royal couple remained in their coach throughout the ceremony and promptly left at its completion.

Early politics[edit source | edit]

As an adult, and possibly even as a young man, the greatest influence on Robespierre's political ideas was Jean Jacques Rousseau. Robespierre's conception of revolutionary virtue and his program for constructing political sovereignty out of direct democracy came from Rousseau; and, in pursuit of these ideals, he eventually became known during the Jacobin Republic as "the Incorruptible". Robespierre believed that the people of France were fundamentally good and were therefore capable of advancing the public well-being of the nation.

After having completed his law studies, Robespierre was admitted to the Arras bar. The Bishop of Arras, Louis François Marc Hilaire de Conzié, appointed him criminal judge in the Diocese of Arras in March 1782. Although this appointment did not prevent him from practicing at the bar, he soon resigned owing to discomfort in ruling on capital cases arising from his early opposition to the death penalty. He quickly became a successful advocate and chose, in principle, to represent the poor. During court hearings, he was known often to advocate the ideals of the Enlightenment and argue for the rights of man. Later in his career, he read widely, and also became interested in society in general. He became regarded as one of the best writers and most popular young men of Arras.

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". In its meetings he became acquainted with Lazare Carnot, who would later become his colleague on the Committee of Public Safety.

In 1788, he took part in a discussion of how the French provincial government should be elected, arguing in his Addresse 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.