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Maximilien Robespierre: Quotes & Speeches

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will examine Maximilien Robespierre, a leading figure in the French Revolution. We will explore his life, and focus specifically on his speeches and quotes. We will learn what he believed about politics and society.

Who Was Maximilien Robespierre?

Have you ever heard the saying ''Live by the sword. Die by the sword''? These words are attributed to Jesus Christ, and are usually used to imply that he who engages in violence toward others will himself be the subject of violence. This proverb very much sums up the life of Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), who was a French politician and a leading figure in the French Revolution. See, during the bloody French Revolution (1789-1799), Robespierre was responsible for sending many innocent men and women to their deaths.

Robespierre was a leader of the French Revolution and was responsible for the execution of thousands.
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The guillotine had recently been perfected. This efficient killing machine used a blade brought down by the force of gravity to behead people strapped to a plank. During the French Revolution, the guillotine was deemed a ''humane'' method of executing political prisoners (which could be basically anyone who did not support the revolution, or was even suspected of being ''counter-revolutionary''). Despite Robespierre's power and influence, when the tide of political opinion turned against him, Robespierre himself was guillotined, meeting the same fate he prescribed for so many.

Robespierre's Speeches and Political Activity

Robespierre was a complex figure. During his life he was called ''The Incorruptible'' because of devotion to honesty and his efforts to help the lower classes. Yet, he has also said to have been the ''soul of the terror'' (referring to the Reign of Terror, the period when political opponents of the revolution were arrested and guillotined). Robespierre viewed the Terror as a good thing because it purged society of what he regarded as evil. He was adamant that terror was necessary to maintain public virtue. We could spend more than a lesson just discussing his life and worldview. However, in this lesson we will focus primarily on his political activity as related in his speeches and quotes.

Robespierre served in a variety of capacities throughout the French Revolution. He was a Deputy of the National Assembly, President of the National Convention, and as a member of the Committee of Public Safety he exercised almost dictatorial powers. Not surprisingly he gave a lot of speeches. Let's examine some of them.

While many revolutionaries in 1792 supported a French declaration of war against Austria, Robespierre did not. He felt war might bring further instability to an already unstable France. He also feared that war could led to a military dictatorship. Warning the young republic, he said: ''In troubled periods of history, generals often became the arbiters of the fate of their countries.''

Robespierre was directly involved in the process of arresting, trying, and executing King Louis XVI. In late 1792 he waxed eloquent about his abhorrence for the death penalty, but went on to argue that in this case an exception should be made, and that the King of France should be executed: ''With regret I pronounce this fatal truth: Louis must die so that the nation may live.''

Again, we should stress the complexities and apparent contradictions of Robespierre. For example, he was an outspoken opponent of slavery. In a 1794 speech titled '`'The Principles of Property'' he argued that France should make slavery illegal. Robespierre and the government were successful in banning slavery, and this was much celebrated.

Anti-religious sentiment was strongly tied to the French Revolution. The revolutionaries despised the Catholic Church, and many adopted Deism. Deism is the view that a Supreme Being exists, but that this Being does not interact with the physical world in a supernatural way. Robespierre worked to establish Deism as the official state religion of France. He even organized a massive celebration called the Festival of the Supreme Being. During the 1794 festival, he gave a speech in which he boldly proclaimed: ''He (the Supreme Being) did not create kings to devour the human race. He did not create priests to harness us, like vile animals, to the chariots of kings and to give to the world examples of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery, and falsehood. He created the universe to proclaim His power. He created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue.''

The Festival of the Supreme Being in 1794.
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