Maximilien Robespierre: Biography, Facts & Death

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson you will learn about Maximilien Robespierre, a man we remember as the ringleader of the bloody Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. We will look at his early life, rise in French politics, and his downfall.

For a man best known for bringing about a Reign of Terror, you might think that Maximilien Robespierre was a pretty evil guy. Although he was brutal and self-righteous, he was not evil and he was no hypocrite. The Incorruptible Robespierre, as he was nicknamed, was a virtuous but bloody figure in the French Revolution.

Early Life

Maximilien Marie Isidore de Robespierre was born in Arras, France on May 6, 1758. He was the oldest of four children. When he was a young boy, his mother died, and his father abandoned the family. He was bright, and went to the prestigious College Louis-le-Grand in Paris. While at university, he was deeply influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, and the idea of the equality of all men. He believed that virtue and service to your country should count far more than class and personal gains. He believed in creating a Republic of Virtue , which would be a France with a republican government. Equality, liberty, and service to country would be the greatest thing you could do. Robespierre graduated with his law degree in 1780, and set up a law practice back in Arras. Interestingly, he was against the death penalty at that time.

Maximilien Robespierre
Maximilien Robespierre

Early French Revolution

During this time, France was a bit of a mess with massive debt, food shortages, and high taxes on the poor. You may remember that French society had three estates: the first estate was the clergy of the Catholic church, the second estate the aristocracy, and the third estate was everybody else. There was also King Louis XVI up at the top who was an absolute monarch. The three estates came together at the Estates-General to try to figure out how to fix France's problems. In 1789, Robespierre was elected as a deputy for the third estate.

The French Revolution began when the third estate broke off and created the National Assembly. But even within the National Assembly, there was no agreement on how to move forward to make France a more equal, free and prosperous place. Some on the right wanted the king to hang around, while the far left wanted the monarchy gone. Unsurprisingly, Robespierre found himself at home with the far left party, the Jacobins. He rose to prominence speaking passionately about how the goal of the revolution should be to make France a republic of virtue with equality and liberty for all men. He was especially convincing because he really lived out his values. He was nicknamed the Incorruptible because he was not interested in personal wealth or acclaim. He lived in a modest apartment; he walked everywhere, and refused to take carriages.

Meanwhile, things got messy. In 1792, the King was arrested (and later guillotined in 1793), and France declared war on Austria and Prussia. After a power struggle in the revolutionary government, the Jacobins came out on top. They got to put their own members on the Committee of Public Safety , which was tasked with keeping order and helping the revolution progress. Robespierre was chosen to sit on this committee and became its most famous member.

The Reign of Terror

With the war against Austria and Prussia going badly, violent mobs in the countryside, and political disunion in Paris, the Committee of Public Safety used terror to try and control and stabilize France. Robespierre became convinced that in order to save the revolution, blood would need to be shed, and he pushed the Committee of Public Safety to act. Anyone found hindering the progress of the revolution could be executed. Under Robespierre's eye, thousands were sent to the guillotine in what is called the Reign of Terror. The Reign of Terror lasted from approximately September 5, 1793 until July 27, 1794.

Executions at the Guillotine
Executions at the Guillotine

For Robespierre, the terror had an important, moral basis. He was determined to bring about a republic of virtue. In Robespierre's view, people standing in the way of the creation of this republic of virtue had to be eliminated. He famously said, 'If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror.' Robespierre was absolutely convinced that this was best for France, and that the bloody ends justified the means. He even had former friends and colleagues sent to the guillotine if he felt they were hampering the revolution. Remember that for Robespierre, service to the state was the highest virtue, so he would rather kill his friends than see the revolution fail.

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