In this study, I will discuss the reasons that led Maximilien de Robespierre, Jacobin leader and one of the principal figures of the French Revolution, to distort the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and to rationalize the so called “Reign of Terror” between 1793 and 1794.
I will examine how and why, under the influence of philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s work “The Social Contract” (1762), Robespierre theorized the necessity of terror to enable virtue in society, leading to the deaths of thousands during the French Revolution.
This source, chosen for detailed analysis, is particularly relevant as it shows the determination of Robespierre and, through him, the National Convention which governed France at the time, in its attempts to maintain authority in the context of wide spread protests and social instability. As such it represents a tipping point of Robespierre’s thinking as, in the pursuit of an uncompromising Republic, he concluded that a full-fledged dictatorship was necessary to enforce and to protect its ideals.
Obviously, as we consider this primary source, it should be carefully situated within the historical timeline of the fast unfolding events over the period in question. As mentioned earlier, the challenging question is that of Robespierre’s thought process evolution, which seems to have taken him from the ideals of freedom and equality to what could be described as ruthless fanaticism. Therefore, this one speech, while an important building block along that process, is just a snap shot of Robespierre’s ideological evolution.
It is therefore indispensable to supplement our primary source with context, chronology and understanding of who Robespierre was as a person. To that end, I will refer to a secondary source titled “Robespierre, l’homme qui nous divise le plus” (Robespierre: The man who divides us the most), a book by French editor Gallimard released in October 2018. The author Marcel Gauchet is a French historian, philosopher, and sociologist. He is a professor at the Centre de Recherches Politiques Raymond Aron of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and the head of the periodical Le Débat.
In his book, Marcel Gauchet analyzes the duality of Robespierre: on the one hand, “The Incorruptible” was a man who blindly believed in the work of Rousseau and in his political philosophy, encouraging people to fight for their rights, and on the other hand, “The Tyrant” who was responsible for the excesses of the Terror and of the deaths of 17,000 people officially executed under the guillotine. Marcel Gauchet tries to establish a link between the two facets of this most controversial figure of the French Revolution.
The author is an accomplished specialist of French history, making this source a valuable one. However, this secondary source has some limitations in that the author chose to approach its content from his personal point of view rather than as a historian. We should therefore keep in mind the questionable objectivity of Marcel Gauchet in his analysis.
1789 – The French Revolution has started and the monarchy has been toppled. On August 26, representatives of the revolutionary French people organized under the National Assembly of France, approve the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which will serve as a preamble to the 1791 Constitution. The Declaration is a charter of human rights and liberties, notably putting forward that people should have the ultimate power over government and that government should protect their rights.
Three main Enlightenment ideas have influenced and structured the ideology underpinning the French Revolution: sovereignty of the people, individual freedoms and equality before the law. These were found in the writings of the Age of Enlightenment philosophers, who motivated some of the Revolution’s most notable political leaders. Maximilien de Robespierre was one of them and much of his ideology was derived from concepts developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, such as the state being the representation of the general will of the citizens or the essential goodness, or virtue, of the human being.
I will examine how Rousseau’s political philosophy influenced Robespierre and how, combined with Robespierre’s own personality and love of virtue, it eventually led to the tyrannical rule of the Convention whose power was more absolute than the old monarchy had ever claimed.
Described as chaste and somber, of a taciturn and melancholy disposition, and delighting, above all, in the enjoyment of a family or of a small circle of friends, Robespierre was quite naturally attracted by Rousseau’s teachings. The young lawyer had turned his attention to the poor social classes and frequently attacked inequality before the law. Interestingly considering what was to come, he was opposed to the death penalty.
Having emerged as a revolutionary leader thanks in part to his powerful ideological framework, on March 31, 1790, Robespierre became president of the Jacobin Club, initially founded by anti-royalists and which had grown into a nationwide republican movement. Equality was their keystone.
Robespierre believed the people to be by nature responsible, reasonable, and virtuous; he even stated that all virtue and reason resided in the people. By extension, he proclaimed that the people were never wrong. In the context of the French Revolution, this obviously meant that Robespierre considered the Revolution as an act of nature, which had to be defended at all cost in order to remain free of corruption.
This is where Robespierre fundamentally diverged from Rousseau’s principles. Rousseau deemed that human compassion and pity were incompatible with violence. To Robespierre, violence is the just means of advancement and protection of the virtuous “General Will”, or the uncorrupted collective will of the people. But resorting to violence in order to achieve or maintain that general will was never prescribed by Rousseau.
Once established that all politics, according to Robespierre, must tend toward the reign of virtue and confound vice, we logically reach the conclusion that there are only two parties: good and bad citizens, with the Republic representing the former. Consequently, all those who oppose or threaten the Republic must be eliminated. They are evil-intentioned and unsociable people. Virtue has become the justification for violence.
This thinking is evident through Robespierre’s 1793 speech: “The Republic has all the virtues on its side. The virtues are simple, poor, often ignorant, sometimes brutal.” He further declared: “There are only two parties in France: the people and its enemies. We must exterminate those miserable villains who are eternally conspiring against the rights of man. . . We must exterminate all our enemies”.
In the words of Marcel Gauchet, “The Incorruptible” defender of human liberties had become “The Tyrant”, leading the betrayal of the Revolution’s initial ideals and its transformation into a murderous ideological tyranny. From his original aim to build a society in which “the immortal principles of equality, justice and reason” would prevail, Robespierre simply dropped liberty and fraternity, substituting whatever he regarded as justice and reason.
Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) was against the idea that monarchs were divinely empowered to legislate. We have seen how this ideological framework helped inspire Robespierre in his purpose to purge France of enemies of the Revolution. Because Robespierre became obsessed by the ideal of national unity and Virtue, from a fundamentally non-violent person he ended up consenting to a regime of oppression, persecution and mass executions.
In retrospect, it seems clear that, initially at least, Robespierre was genuine in this relentless attempt to give freedom and equality their most complete translation possible. The mental slippage that brought him to call for terrorist violence in order to forcefully bridge the gap between this ideal and reality, remains difficult to understand. In fact, this represents such a distortion of his own philosophy that other less honorable explanations could rightfully be put forward. This was already the case immediately following his 1793 speech, where opponents argued his assumption of virtue was no more than a mask to hide his ambition. Even more simply, The Terror could have represented a gruesome act of self-preservation by those in power at the time – including Robespierre.
The legacy of Robespierre is still the subject of intense debate among historians and philosophers. Within the limited scope of my research, trying to reach a conclusion that would answer the question of “why” Robespierre ended up distorting the Revolutionary ideals to such an extent, proved an impossible task. As we have seen, invoking his moral integrity and full devotion to the pursuit of virtue is only one of many plausible explanations leading to the Reign of Terror.
Over the course of this study, my attempt to reach an answer through the reconstruction of Robespierre’s words, actions and thought process, with primary sources and the potentially subjective analyzes of others, has provided me with great insight into the challenging work of the historian.
In this case, the exploration of primary source materials was eased by the fact that Robespierre has left memorable political speeches and quotes. These can fairly easily be accessed on the internet. While they certainly convey the impact of his words and the intensity of his ideology, the difficulty was to exploit this representation of the past without tainting the interpretation by our contemporary views. Contextualizing my primary sources and trying to imagine myself as Robespierre at the time and under the same circumstances, was key to avoiding that pitfall as much as possible.
This was greatly aided by the many secondary sources I consulted, providing me with a variety of perspectives into the events and situations of the time. However, given the abundance of information on the topics of Robespierre and the French Revolution, selecting sources based on their quality and reliability proved challenging. I resorted to the reputation of their authors and cross-verifying critical facts over multiple independent sources, as a way to validate my research.
Overall, besides greatly expanding my knowledge of the French Revolution, this exercise in historical research was in itself an interesting experience. It will cause me to approach future historical accounts with more awareness of the challenge of separating facts, interpretations and assumptions that inevitably come together to recount the past.