Academic journal article The Historian

Revolutionary Connection: "The Incorruptible" Maximilian Robespierre and the "Schoolmaster of Chartism" Bronterre O'Brien

Academic journal article The Historian

Revolutionary Connection: "The Incorruptible" Maximilian Robespierre and the "Schoolmaster of Chartism" Bronterre O'Brien

Article excerpt

CHARTISM WAS THE most important popular reform mobilization in nineteenth-century Britain, but it was not exclusively British and, in recent decades, historians have been paying more attention to its international connections. Clearly, Chartists were influenced by events in the empire, Europe, and the United States. Much remains to be learned about the international aspects of Chartist ideology and, in particular, the linkages that were made between Chartism and the examples and inspiration presented by revolutions abroad. Nobody did more to explain and justify these linkages than Bronterre O'Brien (1804-64), who was dubbed "the schoolmaster of Chartism," because of his attempts to clarify the movement's intellectual basis. O'Brien was one of the few Chartist leaders who had celebrity status, though he broke with other leaders--and, indeed, mainstream Chartism--in the early 1840s. His reputation among historians is somewhat mixed, but his thoughts about revolution offer suggestive revelations about the gap between Chartist achievement and Chartist potential, and about the figure of Maximilian Robespierre (1758-94), the most controversial ruler of Revolutionary France during the 1790s. Robespierre was O'Brien's idol. He featured regularly in O'Brien's newspapers and was the subject of a major book by O'Brien and two substantial pamphlets. What follows is an exploration of O'Brien's use of Robespierre as a model revolutionary and O'Brien's efforts to persuade British radicals that Robespierre's goals and principles offered the best route to political, social, and economic democracy.

During the 1790s and subsequently, Robespierre's name was blackened by his enemies. As the French Revolution changed course several times, it was Robespierre who came to be regarded as the author of the Terror. His path to power opened up in the spring of 1793, and responsibility for repressive dictatorship and reckless bloodletting was placed upon him. July 1794, which saw his overthrow and execution, was a watershed in French history, and in due course his career gave rise to conflicting interpretations. Modern scholars have tried to get beyond conventional accounts and to understand more clearly Robespierre's background, motives, and methods. John Hardman, for example, has examined his administrative machine, recognizing that Robespierre's public image and speeches can only reveal so much. (1) Ruth Scurr stresses his fixation with virtue. (2) He took no bribes. He did not seek sexual partners. Nothing mattered more than the Revolution. In making himself "the Incorruptible," however, he became an extremist, unable to tolerate ideas or behavior that did not accord with what he thought the Revolution should be. To Peter McPhee, Robespierre's early life did much to shape his political career. (3) He was from a broken home and experienced first-hand the pain inflicted by social inequality. Later, he tried to eradicate these problems for the good of everybody.

Contrary to these dispassionate assessments, Robespierre's reputation was contested ground in the nineteenth century, when the legacy of the French Revolution was still very palpable. To offer a verdict on Robespierre was to make plain one's own position for or against democracy and reform. His character and values became rhetorical devices that could be used for present political purposes. Outside France, Robespierre had no more devoted apologist than Bronterre O'Brien. Once O'Brien had a public platform, he determined to use it to popularize what he took to be Robespierre's principles and to apply them to contemporary Britain.

Despite O'Brien's prominence, he remains an elusive figure. Unpublished personal material is rare, which necessitates reliance on his publications. He completed few of his large writing projects, however, and important shorter pieces from the early part of his career were not expanded later. There is only one modern biography of O'Brien, appearing in 1971 but mostly written before the Second World War. …

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