Maximilien Robespierre: His Reason Behind the Terror
No figure of the French Revolution has aroused so much controversy as that of Maximilien Robespierre. He is known to most people as the symbol of the Reign of Terror, a period where approximately 17,000 people died while enduring horrible prison conditions or were executed due to the mere suspicion of being a traitor. The question of whether or not these actions were rightfully justified is an important one. Robespierre seems to have thought so. I, however, will show that the use of terror by Robespierre during the French Revolution was not just or necessary, and that he was acting in his own best interest rather than the State’s.
First to understand Robespierre it is important to look into his past. He was born on May 6, 1758 in the town of Arras to Francois Robespierre. Although he belonged to a poor family, he was able to study law in Paris by means of a scholarship. He was highly dedicated to his studies which left him isolated from companionship. Returning to Arras, he practiced law and gained a reputation. He then became familiar of the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s theories of democracy, deism, and virtue (which Robespierre understood as civic morality). These beliefs eventually led to his epithet “the Incorruptible” (Lycos).
In 1789 he was elected into the States-General and attached himself to the extreme left wing. His influence grew over the Jacobin Club and eventually he became its leader. In 1791 he made a law which stated that no member of the current Constituent Assembly would be able to sit in the following Legislative Assembly. For this, he was appointed Public Accuser. Robespierre opposed the Girondist’s war proposals in 1792 which caused him to lose popularity with the public. He resigned as Public Accuser and was then elected as first deputy for Paris to the National Convention where he was bitterly attacked by the Girondists. Robespierre continually opposed the Girondist’s idea of a special appeal to the people on the king’s death. Louis was executed on January 21, 1793, which signaled the beginning of the Jacobin’s triumph. In April of 1793, the Committee of Public Safety came into existence. Robespierre, who was elected in July, then became one of the rulers of France. His authority and prestige increased, and when France became endangered by foreign invasion and chaos, the Committee initiated the Reign of Terror (Lycos).
Robespierre opposed the extreme left, led by Jacques Hebert, and the moderates, led by Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins. By March of 1794, both groups were arrested and sentenced to the guillotine. Robespierre had a strong hold on France and nominated the members of the government committees and placed them in influential positions in the commune of Paris which gave him complete control of the Revolutionary Tribunal (Lycos).
To further mold French society to his liking, Robespierre initiated the Cult of Supreme Reason which later turned into the Cult of the Supreme Being. This was a state-wide religion that demanded that the Convention acknowledge the existence of God. Because of this, Robespierre received much criticism (Lycos).
At this point Robespierre was considered the dictator of France. However, the Convention, who originally passed his decrees, became weary of Robespierre. A speech that he gave threatened more terror, and the members of the Plain (revolutionaries within the Convention) wanted to overthrow Robespierre. He complained that he was being accused of crimes unfairly. At his hearing, a deputy proposed his arrest which led to his downfall. He fled to the Common Hall and the Convention then declared him an outlaw. In an attempt at suicide, he put a gun to his head but missed, leaving him with a broken jaw. The next day, he and nineteen others were sentenced to the guillotine because he himself had became a threat to the State (Lycos).
Once the Terror ended, the question of whether or not the usage of terror was necessary had become an issue of debate. We look to Robespierre’s own reasoning in hope to see his logic. In two of his speeches he addresses the notion of capital punishment. However, it is apparent in these two speeches that he contradicts his beliefs and is, in fact, a hypocrite. In his latter speech he attempts to justify his inconsistency, which only shows that he is willing to compromise his beliefs in order to have his own political agendas carried out.
In his first speech, Robespierre argues for the total abolition of the death penalty on liberal and humanitarian grounds. He tells us:
Listen to the voice of reason and justice; it cries out to us that human judgments are never sure enough for society to be able to put to death a man who has been condemned by fellow men who share his fallibility…The legislator’s first duty is to form and to preserve public morality, which is the source of all liberty and of all social well-being. When in pursuit of a particular goal, he departs from this basic and general aim, he commits the most vulgar and the most disastrous of errors (Robespierre, 1791, p. 26).
According to this argument, Robespierre is stating that humankind does not have the right to put another person to death because people all have the same innate falliabilities. He also says that it is, in fact, the legislator’s duty to preserve public morality which in this case one would assume that he means not to punish people by the means of death.
In another speech one year later, Robespierre makes excuses for why he has changed his opinion of the death penalty in the case of Louis XVI:
You are confusing the rules of civil and positive law with the principles of the law of nations. You are confusing the mutual relationships of citizens with the relationship of a nation with an enemy conspiring against it. You are confusing the situation of a people in revolution with that of a people with a settled government. You are confusing a nation punishing a public official with one that is destroying the government itself…You ask for an exception to the penalty of death for the one man in whose case it would be justified! Yes, the death penalty in general is a crime, and for this one reason: that, according to the indestructible laws of nature, it can be justified only in cases where it is necessary for the security of the person or the State… But Louis must die in order that our country may live (Robespierre, 1792, pp. 27-31).
Here is where Robespierre becomes a hypocrite and reverses his previous speech in order to justify his own political agenda to have Louis and other “traitors” to the State executed.
In his earlier days, Robespierre stressed the importance of virtue in politics. To him, virtue is essentially what contributes to the public good which encompasses the love of your country and the subjection of the private to the public interest. His idea of revolution was to create a republic of socially independent citizens, exercise a common sovereignty, to restore government by allowing a person’s natural and inalienable rights of personal freedom, and to create political equality. Robespierre believed in the natural goodness of people, but distrusted representation. His main concern was equality. However, during the Revolution he was constantly looking for signs of treason and conspiracy for counter-revolutions. He instituted the use of terror because he believed it to be virtuous. Robespierre called it justice that was swift and merciless (Rude, 1975).
This is where Robespierre’s justification of the use of terror comes into question. How can a man who believes in virtue possibly institute terror as a way to mold society to his liking? If he is so concerned with the equality of all citizens, then based on his own arguments, how is anyone capable of sentencing another person to death if we all share the same faliabilities? His arguments are obviously illogical and inconsistent. He seems to think that the world is split into two categories: the social and the political. According to him each category is governed by a different set of laws, which, even Plato would have to disagree with. Robespierre expects ethics to bend at his own will, but any rationalist can see how illogical and naïve that is. It is because of this inconsistency and naiveté that I believe that Robespierre’s use of terror was unnecessary and unjustified.
The means that Robespierre sought out traitors greatly resembles the later Salem witch trials. He had an agenda: to promote his own power by instilling fear in the citizens and to kill off any threats by others who challenged his authority. His use of terror was not to promote a more peaceful state or to “rescue” the State from Louis. He knew that he could abuse his power and accuse any person or group that he wanted, and he would in turn become more powerful. He accused people even if they were slightly suspected of being a traitor. He did not offer a fair trial to these suspects, if a trial was even offered. Because of his skewed logic, he felt that it was better to send suspects to the guillotine. Although the accused were less important offenders, Robespierre still gave the same argument he gave against Louis for their execution (Rude, 1967). The same logic that was used in the witch trials, namely that a suspect was better off dead than to take a chance, was completely abused in the case of the Terror. Robespierre was “on a roll” with executions, and found no reason to stop because his power over the citizens kept increasing. This man who claimed to be a servant to the State was simply power-hungry.
Another reason why Robespierre’s justification for the use of terror is illegitimate is because it appears that his logic runs parallel to a similar concept known as the pragmatic theory of truth. This theory states that something is true if it accomplishes one’s personal goals. In the case of Robespierre, he compromised his belief that the death penalty is wrong to accomplish his goal of ridding the State of possible opposition thus making himself more powerful. Assuming that there is a singular normative ethic, his actions were unnecessary and tyrannical. He was not acting in the best interest of the State, rather, himself.
It is ironic that Robespierre was executed for the same reasons that he had Louis executed for. Robespierre had become a tyrant in his own idealistic society. His obsession with gaining more power over the citizens of France led him to commit unnecessary and illogical acts that contradicted his prior beliefs of virtue. He had become a hypocrite and a power-hungry monster. His explanation for the use of terror still goes unjustified because of his critical flaws in logic. Does the end really justify the means? In Robespierre’s case, no. The means he used were to promote his own power, not to protect the State. The lack of logic in his own justifications is his major flaw. Perhaps it is proper, though, that he was persecuted with his own logic.
Lycos. Robespierre, Maximilien Marie Isidore. Infoplease.com [On-line]. Available: http://lycos.infoplease.com/ce5/CE44361.html
Robespierre, Maximilien Marie Isidore de. (1791). On the abolition of the death penalty. In Gerald Emanuel Stearn (Series Ed.) & George Rude (Vol. Ed.), Great Lives Observed. Robespierre (pp. 23-27). Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Robespierre, Maximilien Marie Isidore de. (1972). On the action to be taken against Louis XVI. In Gerald Emanuel Stearn (Series Ed.) & George Rude (Vol. Ed.), Great Lives Observed. Robespierre (pp. 27-31). Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Rude, George. (1967). On capital punishment. In Gerald Emanuel Stearn (Series Ed.) & George Rude (Vol. Ed.), Great Lives Observed. Robespierre (p. 23). Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Rude, George. (1975). Robespierre: Portrait of a revolutionary democrat (p. 119). New York, NY: The Viking Press.