Maximilien Robespierre

Robespierre, Maximilien Marie Isidore

Maximilien Marie Isidore Robespierre (mäksēmēlyăN´ märē´ ēzēdôr´ rôbĕspyĕr´), 1758–94, one of the leading figures of the French Revolution.

Early Life

A poor youth, he was enabled to study law in Paris through a scholarship. He won admiration for his abilities, but his austerity and dedication isolated him from easy companionship. Returning to his native Arras, he practiced law and gained some reputation. He soon came under the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau's theories of democracy and deism, and Robespierre's emphasis on virtue—which in his mind meant civic morality—later earned him the epithet "the Incorruptible."

Robespierre was elected to the States-General of 1789, and his influence in the Jacobin Club grew steadily until he became its leader (see Jacobins). In the National Constituent Assembly (June, 1789–Sept., 1791), he unsuccessfully championed democratic elections and successfully backed the law that made members of the Constituent Assembly ineligible to sit in the Legislative Assembly, which succeeded it.

In the spring of 1792 Robespierre opposed the war proposals of the Girondists, and his opposition made him lose popularity. This was only temporary, however, and he was elected to the insurrectionary Commune of Paris set up on Aug. 10, 1792. As a deputy from Paris in the National Convention, he played an important part in the struggle for power between the Girondists and the Mountain, as the Jacobins in the assembly were known. He demanded the execution of the king and was instrumental in finally purging (May–June, 1793) the Girondists.

Reign of Terror

On July 27, 1793, Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, where his power and prestige grew. The dangers of foreign invasion and the urgent need to maintain order and unity led the committee to inaugurate the Reign of Terror. Although it was a collective effort, the name of Robespierre is always associated with it because of his prominence on the committee. Robespierre opposed both the extreme left, under Jacques Hébert, and the moderates, led by Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins. Each group was in turn arrested and guillotined (Mar.–Apr., 1794). By this time, however, Robespierre's position was becoming precarious; he was faced by divisions within the Committee of Public Safety and by opposition from the Plain in the Convention. The establishment of a new civic religion, partly to combat the atheism of the Hébertists, also provoked criticism.

The Terror Ends

The law of 22 Prairial (June 10) gave the Revolutionary Tribunal greater powers just when military successes convinced the moderates in the Convention that emergency measures were no longer necessary. In answer to a speech by Robespierre that seemed to threaten further purges, former terrorists and ultrarevolutionaries joined the Plain in a dramatic rising within the Convention on 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794). Robespierre was placed under arrest and was summarily tried and guillotined the next morning (July 28). Robespierre's character and influence have been the subject of great controversy. However, his integrity and devoted republicanism are beyond debate.


There are many biographies of Robespierre, notably those by G. F. E. Rudé (1975; the most favorable), D. Jordan (1979), and N. Hampson (1981); see also study by R. Scurr (2006).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Maximilien Robespierre: Selected full-text books and articles

Robespierre and the French Revolution By J. M. Thompson English Universities Press, 1952
The Fall of Robespierre: And Other Essays By Albert Mathiez Alfred A. Knopf, 1927
Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism By Gregory Dart Cambridge University Press, 1999
The Two French Revolutions, 1789-1796 By Guglielmo Ferrero; Luc Monnier; Samuel J. Hurwitz Basic Books, 1968
Librarian’s tip: "Robespierre" begins on p. 183
The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney Greenwood Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "The Concept of Virtue in Literature and Politics during the French Revolution of 1789: Sade and Robespierre"
The Wish to Be Free: Society, Psyche, and Value Change By Fred Weinstein; Gerald M. Platt University of California Press, 1969
The Rise of Radicalism: The Social Psychology of Messianic Extremism By Eugene H. Methvin Arlington House, 1973
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Robespierre: Demon Certitude Stalks the Earth"
Dictatorship: Its History and Theory By Alfred Cobban Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939
Librarian’s tip: "Revolutionary Dictatorship: Marat and Robespierre" begins on p. 61
Figures of the Revolution By Louis Madelin; Richard Curtis; Karl S. Woerner Macaulay, 1929
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VII "Robespierre and His Friends"
God and Government in an 'Age of Reason' By David Nicholls Routledge, 1995
Librarian’s tip: "Robespierre" begins on p. 77
Moral Purity and Persecution in History By Barrington Moore Jr Princeton University Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: "Purity and Revolutionary Radicalism: Robespierre" begins on p. 68
Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France By David W. Bates Cornell University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: "Robespierre and the Politics of Aberration" begins on p. 140
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