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Robespierre: Scoundrel or Scapegoat?

Elphaba, where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it -“history.” A man's called a traitor - or liberator…A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist. Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader? It's all in which label is able to persist. There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities…So we act as though they don't exist!” ~ Lyrics from “Wonderful” (Wicked)

Portrait de Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) (Photo Source: Musée Carnavalet, Paris)
One of the first things I teach my students is that history is not, as many textbooks would have us believe, black and white.  I suppose I take the “yin and yang” approach. Within every event, every person, there is both good and evil and that the truth in history lies in the vast shades of gray. Like the song above says, as human beings, we tend to be intimidated by moral ambiguity and so we take an all or nothing approach. Perhaps we’re lazy or we just haven’t been taught or motivated to think and search for the truth in history. It is easier to just believe in what the annals of history offer us without exception or question. And so it is with this in mind, that I challenge the conventional history about Maximilien Robespierre.

The one-dimensional nature of history has typecast Robespierre as "the bad guy" of the French Revolution as his is the name most closely associated with the French Revolution of 1789, particularly with the Reign of Terror. History teaches that he was a number of things, none of which are considerably flattering. He is consistently portrayed as a tyrant, a dictator, a pretentious snob, a cold-hearted murderer, and an asexual prude who earned the backhanded nickname "The Incorruptible” - in short, a scoundrel.  I would argue that he was none of these things and that the negatively skewed image we have of Robespierre is a product of the black and white, all or nothing thinking of a biased few.

Who Was Robespierre (Really)?
No one can deny that Robespierre, a child of the Enlightenment and devout disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a zealous intellectual and utopian idealist bent on "Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité," nor can anyone deny that he was not without blood on his hands. But, was he the sole mastermind in creating a Reign of Terror that would see thousands (including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) beheaded by the infamous guillotine? Highly unlikely.

When considering how a one-time stand up guy was transformed into an infamous scoundrel, it is highly likely that certain real traits and life-experiences of his played a role. Orphaned by the age of six, Robespierre learned self-reliance early in life.  Shy and socially awkward as a child, he preferred his studies over all else and so procured a scholarship to the prestigious Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris, and later to law school at the Sorbonne’s L’École Droit.

As a lawyer, he tended to represent the underdog and won some impressive cases - and much attention. In 1784, for instance, he represented a poor girl, Clémentine Duteuf, who had been accused by a monk of stealing 2,000 louis d’or (gold coins) from the Saint-Saveur Convent in Atrecht. He won the case when he proved that the monk lied to exact revenge for the girl denying his dishonorable advances (Ten Brink, 61).  As a celebrated attorney, it wasn’t long until he was promoted to judge, and by 1786, he was made President of the Arras Academy (Steele, 55).  Justice and fairness ruled in his courtroom and helped to catapult him to the head of the revolution movement just three years later.

Robespierre always carried with him a copy of Rousseau’s Social ContractHe used the concepts of liberty, democracy, and equality outlined in this book as a basis for the government he would help to create during the revolution. His sister Charlotte quoted him as saying in one of his essays on Rousseau, “Divine master, you have taught me to know myself while quite young, you have made me appreciate the dignity of my own nature, and reflect on the great principles of social order.” (Ten Brink, 59). Robespierre emphatically believed that the state had a responsibility to its people and vice-versa. It is the fact that he felt so passionately about his cause and represented those most in need that makes him an unlikely source of the arrogance of which he is accused. 

Fallacy #1: Robespierre the Pretentious
How, then, did he get this supercilious reputation? His drive to succeed, sharp intellect, and overwhelming intensity that benefited him early on, could easily have been misconstrued as an aloof nature later in life. Mark Steele sheds some light:
As a lawyer he worked fourteen hours each day, and was then visited by a barber who shaved him and powdered his face. Throughout his adult life, he always wore a cravat (carrying a spare in case the first one became creased), lace cuffs and a waistcoat, and carried a hat he never wore in case it disturbed his hair, which was curled into two side-rolls and powdered, while at the back was a pigtail tied in a black satin ribbon. He never drank alcohol…His every action was meticulous and measured…”
Robespierre's Hair, Musée Carnavalet (J.Boyer-Switala)
By today’s standards, Robespierre appears more “metrosexual” than pretentious. However, his enthusiasm toward his appearance, albeit bordering on OCD, is not enough to qualify as a superiority complex. Friedrich Sieburg further contributes to Robespierre’s pretentious reputation in his book The Incorruptible where he cites a letter from Robespierre to a friend:

“Every moment since our arrival has been devoted to pleasure. Ever since Saturday I have eaten tart. What a temptation to spend the night eating even more! … I then reflected upon the beauty of mastering one’s passions.”

Depending upon the context, these words could be construed as either practicing snobbery or, more positively, self-control. Consider that one of the cornerstones of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity is the value of self-control and Robespierre’s mastery of mind over matter does not seem as pathological.

Fallacy #2: Robespierre the Tyrannical Dictator
The whole concept of Robespierre being a cold-hearted murderer and mastermind of the Reign of Terror is, quite simply, ludicrous. In Robespierre and the Red Terror, Jan Ten Brink discusses the evening in which Madame Elisabeth (Louis XVI's sister) was guillotined. Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety colleague Bertrand Barère went to a bookshop owned by citizen Maret. Maret advised Robespierre that, "There is much grumbling and complaining against you. It is asked what Madame Elisabeth had done to you, what her crimes were, why you sent this innocent and virtuous woman to the scaffold!" Robespierre bitterly responded, "There now! You hear that? It is always I...I assure you my dear Maret, that, far from being the author of Madame Elisabeth's death, I was anxious to save her; it is that scoundrel Collot d'Herbois who took her from me!" (Ten Brink, 16) 

In fact, Robespierre was not able to intervene on anyone's behalf. Ten Brink notes that Robespierre would "gladly have saved" the likes of people like Malesherbes (Louis XVI’s appointed attorney), Lavoisier (father of modern chemistry), and Madame Elisabeth, but his hands were tied. In reality, the power of life and death lay with the Revolutionary Tribunal.

In case there is any doubt as to what Robespierre’s political intentions for France were, one need only look to his speech of February 5, 1794 – just six months before his death – entitled, “Report on the principles of political morality which should guide the National Convention in the internal administration of the Republic.” Historian and author R.R. Palmer states that this “was not only the best expression of Robespierre’s real ideas, but also one of the most notable utterances in the history of democracy.” (Palmer, 275)

Robespierre unequivocally asserts that he wants a state founded on morality, and that democracy alone can ensure this ideal state.

A democracy is a state in which the people, endowed with sovereignty, guided by laws of its own making, does for itself whatever it can do for itself well, and through delegates what it cannot...But, in order to lay the foundations of democracy among us and to consolidate it, in order to arrive at the peaceful reign of constitutional laws, we must finish the war of liberty against tyranny and safely cross through the storms of the revolution.

He goes on to describe the role of Terror in this speech and while some say this is how he justifies terror, it could also be argued that his words have been twisted. It is conceivable that the type of “terror” he calls for is comparable to the metaphorical “war on drugs” declared by Nancy Reagan. In Robespierre’s world, though, the war was on tyranny and those perpetrating it.

Fallacy #3: Robespierre the Virgin
In terms of portraying Robespierre as an asexual prude, history has done him yet another injustice. Even modern historian Patrice Higonnet quips that he “probably died a virgin.” (Higonnet, 194) The truth is that historians can only speculate when it comes to Robespierre’s sex life as there is no known documentation that either confirms or denies his activity level, or lack thereof. This highlights one of the principal concerns when it comes to the truth about Robespierre – evidence. After Robespierre’s death in 1794, Edme Bonaventure Courtois was in charge of sorting his papers. Courtois, a relative of Georges Danton**, “did his job dishonestly, selecting and destroying.” (Mantel)
398 r. Saint-Honoré (J. Boyer-Switala 2009)
What historians do know is that Robespierre was actually affianced to a young woman named Éléonore Duplay. In fact, Robespierre resided with the Duplay family at 398 rue St-Honoré. The feelings of affection were genuine and mutual amongst Robespierre and the Duplay family. Why does this matter? Because to admit that Robespierre was in love and devoted to a woman and her family places him in different light than that of a man who appears devoid of any intimate relationships and incapable of love.

Grave site of Eléonore Duplay - Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris (J. Boyer-Switala 2009)
So, Who Had It Out For Robespierre?
History points its finger at a group of radicals and thugs, the Thermadorians - namely two of their ringleaders Joseph Fouché and Jean-Lambert Tallien. The Thermadorians were responsible for the downfall of Robespierre and “not only blackened his memory, but possibly also exaggerated his importance for posterity.” (Haydon, 5)  In other words, once dead, Robespierre would be the perfect scapegoat for the excesses of the Terror, but “the blame would only stick if he could be shown to be a powerful, singular figure.” (Mantel)

These men took to heart the concept of the Terror and needlessly butchered many. Robespierre had personally sent Fouché to oversee a rebellion in Lyon, where Fouché wasn’t satisfied with the pace of the guillotine. Between November 4 and 5, 1793, Fouché earned the nickname “Butcher of Lyon” when he ordered the brutal shooting deaths of 273 men and had spent fifteen million francs on explosives so that he could destroy homes that were valued at 300 million francs (Ten Brink, 70).  When a furious Robespierre condemned his actions, the two became enemies. Until this point Fouché had been courting Robespierre’s sister Charlotte with Robespierre’s blessing - it is probably safe to say that after the Lyon incident, that romance was over!

Tallien’s reasons for hating Robespierre were motivated by vengeance, as well. The handsome Tallien, a reputed ladies’ man, was head over heels in love with the beautiful and charming Thérézia Cabarrus, wife of Marquis de Fontenay (Ten Brink, 38). As was the fate of many of the Second Estate (nobility) the Marquise was arrested and put in jail. It was under these circumstances that Tallien first met Thérézia and was so moved by her beauty that he saved her from her fate.  It probably didn’t hurt that Thérézia was a bit of an exhibitionist and was known to roam through streets and parks with her bare breasts exposed. Together, they would rule Bordeaux with no mercy and in extraordinary luxury. This rumored decadence made its way back to Paris and Tallien was immediately summoned back. While Tallien was scolded, the Marquise was arrested (this most likely meant a date with the guillotine, which held true for her by then ex-husband the Marquis who was executed) and imprisoned (note of interest: her cellmate was none other than Josephine Beauharnais, the future Mme. Bonaparte). Although Robespierre was one of four who had signed her arrest warrant, he is the one Tallien held responsible and vowed to bring down – probably because from her jail cell, Thérézia sent Tallien a sword with a note asking that he overthrow Robespierre and save her. 

With personal scores to settle and animosity towards Robespierre’s growing popularity and power, the two set to planning his fall from grace. Although the majority of the Committee of Public Safety supported Robespierre, Fouché knew how to manipulate the situation to his advantage. In his memoirs, Fouché states, “I went straight to those of Robespierre’s colleagues in the government of the Terreur whom I knew to be envious and afraid of his boundless popularity.” (Ten Brink, 72)

The plan was based on two main accusations against Robespierre. First, his enemies accused Robespierre of being a dictator and tyrant who plotted to destroy the Convention. Second, they claimed that he had turned counter-revolutionary by signing a decree that acknowledged the existence of a Supreme Being.

By June 4, 1794, Robespierre had been elected president of the Convention and as such would lead the Festival of the Supreme Being. Since organized religion had been outlawed, the Cult of the Supreme Being (based on the belief in Reason) had taken its place. It is this festival that would serve as the means of Robespierre’s undoing. During the Festival of the Supreme Being he made a speech that illustrated his noble intentions:

“Let us be generous to the good, kind towards the unfortunate, inexorable towards the wicked, and just toward all! Let us not count on prosperity without admixture, nor on triumph without obstacles, nor on anything that depends on the fortune or perversity of another. Let us rest only in our own constancy and our own virtue…let us crush the tyrannical league of kings by the greatness of our character, rather than by the force of our arms!” (Palmer, 329)

Robespierre’s nemeses then turned to the actions of a delusional (but harmless) elderly woman, Catherine Théot. On June 15, 1794 a member of the Committee of General Safety reported to the Convention a newly formed “society of fanatics.” (Ten Brink, 33)  The Convention was well aware of Théot, whom they mockingly dubbed “Théos” (divinity). The Committee of General Safety representative presented to the Convention a letter* that Théot had written to Robespierre in which she had addressed him as “the Son of the Supreme Being, the Eternal Word, the Redeemer of Mankind, the Messiah foretold by the prophets.” (Ten Brink, 34) His enemies felt that this proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that in his worship of the Supreme Being, that he meant to deify himself (Palmer, 368)

Robespierre was well aware of the plots and animosity and had made remarks using words like “martyrdom” that indicated he understood his fate. However, perhaps naively, Robespierre trusted his fate completely to the government he so deeply believed in and had a hand in creating. On the morning of Robespierre’s arrest - 9 Thermidor, Year II (July 27, 1794) – he did little to save himself.

At the Convention that morning, it was none other than Tallien who struck first at Robespierre and his followers. It took very little for many members of the Convention to join in the accusations. When Robespierre finally stepped forward to speak, he was drowned out by shouts of “Down with the tyrant!” (Palmer, 377) Robespierre was denounced and a member of the Convention called for his arrest, as well as the arrest of his brother and closest colleagues – five in total. By 10 Thermidor, all five were dead either by suicide or guillotine.

By executing Robespierre, men like Fouché and Tallien, thought that France and her government would prosper. They were sorely mistaken. Personal agendas were settled, but at the cost of liberty, equality and fraternity. Robespierre was dead, as was any hope for France as a democracy. Chaos and pandemonium ensued in the weeks and months that followed 9-10 Thermidor, and within a few years, France was under the rule of another despot – Napoleon Bonaparte. It was people like Fouché and Tallien that were left alive to document a biased perspective of the French Revolution – a perspective in which Robespierre was a scoundrel. That image of Robespierre has pervaded common history, but isn’t necessarily the truth. By vilifying Robespierre, his adversaries not only tarnish his reputation, but in doing so make their foul actions appear heroic. It is for this reason, Robespierre very well may not be a scoundrel, but instead, a scapegoat.

*Ten Brink noted that this letter was most likely a “pure invention of Robespierre’s enemies” as Théot “could not as much write her own name.”
**One time close friends and colleagues, Robespierre is often seen as responsible for the execution of Danton and the Dantonists..
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Works Cited

Haydon, Colin and William Doyle. Robespierre (Cambridge, 1999)
Higonnet, Patrice L.R. Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins During the French Revolution (Harvard University, 1998)
Mantel, Hilary. London Review of Books “What a man this is with his crowd of women around him!”
Palmer, R.R. Twelve Who Ruled (Princeton, 1941)
Robespierre, Maximilien. “On Political Morality” (speech of February 5,1794)
Sieburg, Friedrich. The Incorruptible (New York, 1938)
Steel, Mark. Vive la Revolution (Chicago, 2006)
Ten Brink, Jan. Robespierre and the Red Terror (London, 1899)


Bogdan Groze said…
This is a very interesting article. The thermidorians have created a monster in order to distance themselves from the excesses of the Reign of Terror, which they highly supported before. I was wondering, as an historian, which biography of Robespierre do you find the most credible and less biased? Thank you.
(If there are spelling errors, I'm sorry. My English is not perfect).
Jennifer said…
Hi Bogdan. Thank you for your comments...and your English/spelling is very good! Regarding unbiased biographies on Robespierre, I'm not sure that such a creature exists. I would suggest "Robespierre and the Red Terror" by Jan Ten Brink as it is one that offers a more positive view and is full of primary source evidence to back up most of it. Some scholars believe there are some slight errors, but he wrote it in 1899, so there was a little more challenge in researching than there is today. One book that has been recommended to me, but I have not yet read, is Norman Hampson’s “The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre." Many feel it is one of the better biographies with the least amount of bias. I would stay away from Simon Schama's writings about Robespierre as he is very biased against him (as well as many other revolutionaries... he tends to have Edmund Burke's view of the French Revolution). While he discusses fact, he infuses it with a lot of personal opinions and assumptions that, in my opinion, discredit much of what he has to say. Hope that is helpful!
Anonymous said…
Great article. I admit I have a slightly irrational passion for Robespierre and hate to see him routinely derided as he is. No fair.

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