Robespierre (1758-1794) was one of the most interesting people of his time.
Robespierre Portrait by Anonymous (1790)
Robespierre early life
Robespierre was born at Arras, in the north of France and was soon respected for his high academics rates. He studied the law and became a lawyer at 21 years old. His main goal was to defend people's rights, especially the more modest people's ones.
In 1783, Robespierre decided to go to Paris to defend his favorite cause. He volunteered to represent the poorest congregation of the "Third Estate" during the Estates General in March 1789.
One of his main requests was the right for everyone to vote. He was in admiration before the big ideas of freedom and equality brought by the "Lumieres" or enlightment, a movement of French philosophers (Voltaire, Rousseau, etc) who wanted to change the world. His virtues made him earn the nickname of the incorruptible, as he never gave up against the huge task of reforming France's policy.
The Estates General meeting and the beginning of the French Revolution
Robespierre appearances in front of the court were numerous. He began to be one of the most imminent speakers for the poorest people. He had a real talent in debates and succeeded in captivating his audience with a very elegant touch. He became very popular and the mob considered him as one of its main power to overcome the King's hegemony.
In 1791, he participated in the writing of the Declaration of the rights of man and citizen, of the most important civil text never wrote in France, a foundation of the French constitution. He was opposed to the death penalty and to slavery, which he considered barbaric. Pretty amazing knowing that death penalty was abolished only in 1981.
He chose to be part of the Jacobins group, one of the more radical movements of the new assembly, and beame rapidly one of their most respected members. France was at the time a constitutional monarchy, and the King was forced to agree with other parties, especially the third estate and was forced to sign laws that diminish his power consistently.
Few days after Louis XVI tried to escape and was arrested in Varennes, Robespierre stood up in front of the Assembly and declared that he opposed the death penalty against the traitor.
The day after, a huge mob rallied to the "Champ de Mars" to call for the implementation of the "Republique". The martial law was on at that time and La Fayatte ordonned the mob be torn apart by firing at it. Robespierre was accused by La Fayette of organizing this riot. He resigned from his position but gained a huge recognition from the French population.
After few weeks, the Constituent Assembly was dissolute and he was named Public Prosecutor of Paris. But a lot had changed already. New deputies, the Girondists had joined the group and were imposing their ideas. They were way more radical than Robespierre and wanted to destroy any trace of the previous regime.
Robespierre opposed a lot of decisions, like the entry of France in the war against Austria, that he considered being way too expensive and out of focus at the time. France was a raging country, in a terrible economic crisis and still shaking from the past year's events. He thought the war was an excuse for La Fayette to restore some kind of military power in his weak country.
Robespierre and the Commune de Paris
So, he decided to act strongly by resigning from his position and joined the strongmen of the "Commune" in August 1792. He presented the petition of the "Commune de Paris" where he demanded that La Fayette should be dismissed and declared a traitor, the people of France should come together and ask for a collective convention. Robespierre joined Danton and Marat at the national assembly or "Convention Nationale". Their political battle turned quickly to a physical offensive against the Girondist. In October 1792, rioters from the Commune de Paris arrested 32 Girondin deputies in the Convention and accused them of counter-revolutionary activities.
The dark days of Robespierre started there. After the elimination of the Girondists, new enemies were threatening Robespierre plans of funding the free and equal nation he always dreamed of. The Austrian monarchy was the border, ready to invade this weak country with no king and then, no real army. In the Communes itself, signs of discords were emerging. Danton was in favor of a war when Robespierre opposed it.
Robespierre and the Terror
The Terror began in September 1793, a cruel period when France was killing its people by hundreds in a frightening movement of rage and decadence. People were arrested and executed without trial if they were accused of being enemies of the revolution. It is estimated that about 40,000 people died during this 15 months period.
These events led to the termination of the newly build constitution. Robespierre was then pictured by many as a despot who was capable of the worst actions to support his ideas of the revolution. He became a supporter of the death penalty even though he fought against it during the early stage of the revolution. Censorship was reinstalled in the press and Robespierre launched a dechristianisation campaign all around the country. One of the symbols of this act was the adoption of the Revolutionary Calendar (also known as the Republican Calendar) with epoch starting on September 22nd, 1792 the day the first Republic was proclaimed.
Danton himself was considered too moderate and then, was arrested and executed.
After the terror and the elimination of the most radical members of his group, Robespierre tried once again to impose his ideas of a democracy, where all the people had a right to possess their land and everybody was free and considered equal.
In July 1794, Robespierre was evicted from the Convention and accused of dictatorship and tyranny. The members voted his eviction and his death at the same time, without allowing him to defend himself. The same day, he was decapitated under the ovation of the people of Paris. His death was the symbol of the end of the Terror and the end of the democratic movement at the same time.