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Was Maximillien Robespierre was responsible for the Terror?

Updated on February 8, 2013

The ‘Terror’ on France was caused by the political reign instigated by Maximillien Robespierre’s role in the rampageous republican movement. Robespierre's rising power prior to 1793 including the sentencing of King Louis XVI directly led to the Terror. Historian Crosby Fox stated that publicans hoped “…that should the monarchy not be continued, the French would set up Maximilian in place of Louis."[1] His role in the committee of Public safety and the Jacobin Club made it possible for him to use his political prowess. "In popular conception the Terror seems to be equated with Robespierre. He was in fact only one of twelve members of the Committee of Public Safety."[2] His confident and incorruptible relationship with the crowd kept him in power while the evil deeds were being performed. C. Fox argues that Robespierre was “unassuming in success, simple in manners, negligent in dress, and moderate in his living, he appeared incorruptible to the people.”[3] As the chief spokesperson of the Committee after the death of King Louis, Robespierre sourced the support of the masses in the ‘Terror’ through his political power.

Robespierre's early life as a lawyer and politician placed him in strong stead to bring about the terror by overthrowing the monarchy. His successful academic life provided him with a solid background to become such an influential power in the French Revolution. It was “[t]his success made all those who interested themselves with Robespierre, believe that he would make a brilliant figure in the world.”[4] Through the Committee of Public Safety Robespierre enforced the ruling that any person who provided support to the anti-revolutionary movement may be murdered without trial. The Decree included that “every citizen should be bound to denounce the counter revolutionists, that any citizen might himself arrest a counter revolutionist, that the accused should have no defenders”[5]. He proposed that King Louis XVI be trialed and sentenced for his crimes against the republic. Robespierre announced that “Louis must die so the nation may live”[6], resultantly Louis was executed in 1793. His education in the specifics of politics and law provided the skills to rule over France after the King died on the guillotine.

Robespierre’s position in the Committee of Public Safety and the Jacobin Club made it possible to exercise his political prowess. In 1970 he became president of the middle-class radical Jacobin Club. “The club supported and participated in some of the most shocking events of The Revolution”[7] as it “served as debating societies where politically minded Frenchmen [such as Robespierre] aired their views and discussed current political issues.”[8] Post the death of King Louis, Robespierre joined the Committee of Public Safety which became the effective government of France from 1793 to 1794. Consequently “Robespierre, Marat, Danton, Santerre, and this murderous junto, had ensanguined the streets of Paris with slaughter.”[9] Robespierre silently caused the deaths of thousands of French people through his decisiveness. As Billaud Varennes accusingly said, “[t]his man was a secrecy of the Committee of Public Safety, and robbed the public of 114,000 lives.”[10] These groups which Robespierre governed created a country of bloodshed, but initially the public corroborated their ideals.

Robespierre endeavoured to provide France with security from corruptible sources, attracting the distressed population. He spoke with great stigma and for a brief time the revolutionary crowd adored him and the ideas he pressed about keeping them safe from anti-republican invasion. Robespierre spoke passionately, stating for example the republic was "…a people magnanimous, powerful and happy for a people lovable, frivolous and wretched"[11] when describing his view of France to its people. As Thomas Hobbes established in the Leviathan (1651) it is human nature to consent to a dictatorship or monarchy to keep them safe. His philosophy explains that the public provides consent to the sovereign power for protection, although there may be dangers associated.[12] This is represented directly in Robespierre’s reign and the public’s support of him. This whole relationship with the crowd continued to exist until the crowd realised that he had become a tyrant and therefore should be killed for his crimes. Robespierre was sentenced to death on the guillotine and died on the 28th July, 1794.[13] Robespierre demonstrated a passion for the republic, but as the Terror which he had created became too fierce, he was dissipated along with the Jacobin Club and the National Assembly.

Robespierre’s ideals blinded him from the Terror he was causing through the dictated reign of the Committee of Public Safety. His early political life placed him in a position to overthrow the King, inciting the Terror between 1793 and 1794. It was at this manoeuvre that Robespierre’s rule began leading to the sanguineous period that would follow. It was the force that the Jacobin Club and the Committee provided that allowed Robespierre’s dictatorship to proceed where it did. Robespierre gained the reinforcement of the French population for a period of time due to his assuring attitude. As T. Hobbes’ reasoning explains, when the fear of the sovereign becomes greater the fear of internal external threats, the public will revolt against the sovereign power as they did when Robespierre’s campaign became too punitive. This all goes to show that the ‘Terror’ was Maximillien Robespierre’s responsibility, but without the public reinforcement this gruesome period may not have escalated as it did.

[1] Fox B., Crosby. 1794. The History of Robespierre: Political and Personal.

[2] Fenwick, J, and Anderson, J.,2006, Revolution: France, HTAC, Collingwood, pp 176

[3] Montjoie, Galart de. 1796. History of the Conspiracy of Maximilian Robespierre.

[4] Fox B., Crosby. 1794. The History of Robespierre: Political and Personal.

[5] Montjoie, Galart de. 1796. History of the Conspiracy of Maximilian Robespierre.

[6] Maximillien Robespierre (unsourced quote)

[7] https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/kat_anna/jacobins.html

[8] https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/kat_anna/jacobins.html

[9] Fox B., Crosby. 1794. The History of Robespierre: Political and Personal.

[10] Fox B., Crosby. 1794. The History of Robespierre: Political and Personal.

[11] Richard Overy, 2010

[12] Melvyn Bragg and Guests. In Our Time: Philosophy. BBC Radio 4

[13] http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/robespierre.html

Bibliography

Fox B., Crosby. 1794. The History of Robespierre: Political and Personal. C. Whittingham, London. [online pdf book]
http://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=6ctDAAAAYAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=Robespierre+instigated+the+&ots=mwPkSRO_47&sig=mpFbh22Tri9Tyt2F2aoKlNVGudE#v=onepage&q=Robespierre%20instigated%20the&f=true

Montjoie, Galart de. (translated from the French of Monsr Montjoye). 1796. History of the Conspiracy of Maximilian Robespierre. London. [online pdf book]
http://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=dxRFAAAAYAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=Robespierre+instigated+the+&ots=71U9jFiP_o&sig=tCyv4JIgc-Jvk2-NFPYrcbcAHTI#v=onepage&q=Robespierre%20instigated%20the&f=false

Deutsch, Eberhand P. [online] (1970) Republique Francaise v. Louis Capet.

Elizabeth Knowles (2009) Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Vol 7. Oxford University Press. p 389

Fenwick, J, and Anderson, J.,2006, Revolution: France, HTAC, Collingwood.

The Cambridge Modern History. 1934. VII The French Revolution. Cambridge University Press.

The Reign of Terror in France, 1792-94. Chapter 2

Melvyn Bragg and Guests. In Our Time: Philosophy. BBC Radio 4

Richard Overy. 2010. Complete History of the World. Eighth Edition. Times Books, London. p 226-7

http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/robespierre.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/robespierre_maximilien.shtml

http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/abaj56&div=93&id=&page=

http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Communism/Robespierre%20Quotes.htm

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/kat_anna/jacobins.html

www.google.com/webdefinitions

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilien_Robespierre

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacobin

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    • unverm profile image

      unverm 20 months ago

      Good job Chrae, thank you for sharing your search. I support that wise people should be kings and kings should be wise. Otherwise one could be a bloody dictator if he reach to power. Thanks again Chrae.

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      Jean Valerie Kotzur nee Stoneman 4 years ago from Germany

      This is a well researched topic. It is well known that the Royalty of this period (and many other eras) had no real contact to the rest of the population. The French Royalty did not know and had no real interest in the fact that the rest of the nation were slowly starving while they were living in luxury. We shouldn't forget though, that the people who come to power on a wave of discontent are often worse than the previous Rulers themselves. Just look around at our world now. I can pick out at least three modern Robespierres.