Thursday, December 31, 2020

Robespierre and the French Revolution (Part 1)


If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at the same time both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is fatal; without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. Robespierre, February 1794.

Robespierre was the leading proponent of state terror during the French Revolution, who ironically fell under his own apparatus of Terror in July, 1794. A defender of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, he later saw fit to violate these basic rights in his pursuit of what he thought was a struggle for the survival of the Revolution. He thought of himself eventually as the only one able to steer the Revolution between reactionary monarchial forces, foreign and domestic and the extreme populist movements calling for violent social leveling and de-Christianizing programs. And it will be seen that the fundamental basis of the American Republic stands in antagonism to the Robespierre’s faith in populist infallibility.

Specifically, his revolution was anchored on his idea of Virtue, something akin to ancient civic virtue of the Romans and Greeks. “Now what is the fundamental principle of democratic, or popular government -- that is to say, the essential mainspring upon which it depends and makes it function? It is virtue: I mean public virtue... that virtue which is nothing else but love of fatherland and its laws....”, Robespierre would say.

Robespierre (1758-1794) born in Arras, in the northeast of France. He came out of a middle class background. His father was an attorney in the Arras court system, married a brewer’s daughter, when she was six months pregnant. The bride’s parents didn’t attend the wedding. His mother would die of child birth, when he was six and his father would eventually disappear and not be heard from again. He was raised by his paternal grandparents. He was fortunate enough to have gotten a scholarship to attend the prestigious College de Louis-Le-Grand, a Jesuit inspired academy in Paris. He spent twelve years there completing his education as an attorney at twenty three.

He encountered the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who famously wrote, “man is born free but he is everywhere in chains”. The implication is that natural, primordial man is good and pure, but only the constraints of society and institutions have enslaved him. Robespierre would have undying belief in the authority of the people and desire to overthrow established noble and religious institutions. He would call for reform and later destruction the monarchy.

He returned to Arras, France in 1781 to have a moderately successful legal career. Not part of the ruling local elite, Robespierre on several occasions felt compelled to include egalitarian sentiments in his cases. The most renowned was the lightning case. Neighbors of the defended sued to have him cease experiments regarding lightning. He didn’t endear himself to the local Arras elites, who maintained social ties, that Robespierre was not part of.  There was some social disapproval for being conceived out of wedlock, despite his parents being married by the time of this birth. That disapproval and lack of access to the local ruling elite undoubtedly lead significantly to his republican sympathies.

After the American Revolution in which France joined to wage war on Great Britain, the French finances were in shambles. Even before the French Monarchy tipped over into the precipice in 1789, the Parliament of Paris (a French court originally assigned to register laws) clashed with Louis XVI in March 1776, in which the nobility resisted the beginning of certain reforms that would remove their privileges, notably their exemption from taxes. The French Parlements were loci of resistance to centralization of the Monarchy and repository of the privileges of the Nobility. Possessing an antique heritage, the Parlement of Paris had a seven century history, founded in 1260. Ironically, their check on the absolutism of the French Monarchy would become a fatal impediment to its reform, leading to its own demise and the demise of the French Nobility.  

In February 1787 the current Finance Minister Calonne called an Assembly of Notables to gain a consensus on the need for reform and tax assessments on the Nobility and Church. Tragically the Assembly of Notables rejected efforts to assess taxes. The nobles and the Church hierarchy were jealous of their privileges and resisted reforms purposed by the Monarchy. Historically they retained exemption from taxation gained as a compromise made after the Fronde (1648-1653), a revolt of the nobility against royal power. As a result of their defeat in the Fronde, the nobility were essentially rendered powerless and would be consigned to live under the aegis of the Louis XIV in Versailles. An absolute monarch would rule his kingdom through his appointed Intendants for much of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Initially the aristocracy fought the French absolutist monarchy through the vehicle of the Parlements, a judicial panel that registered laws in the various provinces. Some argued for some unspoken fundamental constitution that embodied a higher law than even the dictate of the absolutist monarch. This fundamental law was narrowly interpreted to grant rights of protest to the aristocracy, something far different than the democratic representative rights of the people that would soon be advocated in the upcoming Estates General. The Church leadership and the Nobility essentially kicked the can down the road and called for this Estates General to decide any major reforms. Ironically, the failure to support the Monarchy in preliminary stirrings of unrest would open up the flood gates of change and soon precipitate their destruction. Due to the Assembly failure to act and Court intrigue, the Finance Minister Calonne resigned.

Parlements continued their intransigence to reforms that touched on Noble privileges and new taxation, arguing only the Estates General could authorize new taxes. Riots in Paris, Grenoble as well as wide spread food riots took place in 1788 due to the poor harvest.

Louis XVI was left to call the Estates General for the first time in nearly two centuries, composed of the three medieval orders, the Church, Nobles and the Commoners in the Third Estate in 1789; Robespierre vigorously campaigned to be a delegate and was elected to represent Arras. This meeting of the three estates quickly led to the disintegration of the French political order. The delegates of the Third Estate opposed having the Orders vote separately and wanted the assembly to vote ensemble. On June 17, 1789 the unruly Third Estate declared it represented the nation, standing for 98% of the people.  It was locked out and decided to meet separately in the now famous Tennis Court on June 20, 1789 and swear to continue to meet until they had formulated a constitution.

The country in was in the midst of a failure in the harvest and economic downturn and the peasants were starving. The peasants revolted in Paris; the peasants looking for gunpowder, stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789. A pitched battle followed where some 100 peasants were killed; thanks to the mutiny of the troops protecting the fortress, the peasants got the upper hand. The Bastille was occupied and the head of the military governor of the Bastille, Launay was paraded around on a pike.

In the countryside, the peasants saw dwindling spring grain supplies due to the poor harvest of 1788. Rumors circulated that the summer’s harvest was being sabotaged by the aristocracy to stage a famine plot to starve them. A widespread revolt, La Grande Peur (The Great Fear) ensued, where documents of the feudal privileges, granting the feudal lords their feudal privileges over the peasants were sought to be destroyed. Many chateaux were attacked and burnt down in the search. Shortly thereafter, August 10, 1789 the representatives of the Third Estate, now the National Assembly dismantled the Feudal system of corvee (forced labor), seigniorial fees owed to the manor, the tithe (10%) to the Church, serfdom, etc. The revolution to overturn the Ancien Regime (the old monarchy) would continue inexorably. All hereditary nobility and titles would be abolished in June of the next year.

A new constitution was drawn up, in which the right of suffrage was limited between “Active” and “Passive” citizen. The selection of delegates got progressively restrictive for level toward selection of the members of the National Assembly.  Robespierre opposed this exclusion of “passive” citizens (those who failed to pay the minimum threshold of tax) to vote. He would suggest that the members of the new Legislative Assembly would exclude any member of the National Assembly, including himself. 

There was widespread support to engage in an aggressive war against foreign powers, specifically Austria. The Girondins thought this would unite the country behind their revolutionary cause and eliminate a foreign threat to the Revolution. General Lafayette, whom Marie Antoinette hated, was also in favor, thinking that this war would strengthen the constitutional monarchy. King Louis in fact supported the conflict in hopes France would lose and foreign powers rescue him, retaining him as the absolutist monarch. Robespierre, representing a minority, voiced heated opposition to war, declaring the Revolution was not ready to fight a foreign.

War was declared on Austria in April 1791 and surprisingly Prussia, an erstwhile enemy, joined Austria in June. Early on France encountered military defeats and suddenly enemy forces were only a 150 miles from Paris. Charges of betrayal by monarchist generals were heard. France’s military defeats proved Robespierre correct, granting him additional popularity.

Robespierre consistently took the side of the people, even condoning their mob violence. He saw the people, as the fount of all good governance. When mob violence would break out, he would admonish his critics to save some tears for the countless millions who have suffered the torments of oppression over the centuries. This particular response was generated in response to the honor being bestowed on a M. Simonneau, Mayor of Etampes, killed by the mob in a food riot, April 1792.             

Always a critic of entrenched privilege, he’d criticized of the wealth of the Catholic Bishops, calling into question their authority.  On February 20, 1790, once again maintaining his support of populist protest, he went on record opposing imposition of martial law, as proposed by deputy LeChapelier. The law would dispatch troops and issue martial law in regions with unrest. Bands of armed peasants in regions in the south and parts of Brittany had been attacking chateaux. Robespierre would say if a few chateaux in Brittany had been burned, then it was because their owners were those most hostile to the Revolution.

Robespierre’s support of the Parisian mob, termed the sans-culottes, and defense of the Revolution in numerous speeches at either the Jacobin Club or the Assembly propelled his rise to popularity. Sans-culottes, common people of the lower classes were termed as such, because they lacked the knee-breeches, commonly worn by the nobility. He grants full confidence in them saying, “Again, it may be said, that to love justice and equality the people need no great effort of virtue; it is sufficient that they love themselves.”  It must be said that this is in stark contrast to the constraints embodied in the American Constitution, which would in no way conform to Robespierre’s rosy assessment of the people’s inherent virtue. That said, Robespierre’s close link with the sans-culottes was a basic component of his rise to prominence.

The intellectual font of his sentiments towards the morality of an egalitarian society was greatly influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacque Rousseau, author of the Social Contract, whose thoughts can be summed up by the statement, man is born free and yet everywhere is in chains. The primitive state of humankind was tranquil and harmonious. The civilized state was the reverse, a state of oppression and brutality. The nobility and the Church with their privileges was the enemy of the revolution.

Robespierre’s revolution was to be a rebirth of society.

We seek an order of things in which all the base and cruel passions are enchained, all the beneficent and generous passions are awakened by the laws…We want…to accomplish the destiny of humanity [and] keep the promises of philosophy, absolve providence from the long reign of crime and tyranny.

In contrast the American Founders had no fantasies about renewing human attributes. All efforts were made to protect the society from unrestrained government directed by an unrestrained rule of the majority. Mankind was granted Natural Rights under God, but mankind was fallible and prone to permit misrule. Thus, a republican government of checks and balances was implemented, that’s endured over five centuries.

Robespierre, again in stark contrast to the Founders, places all confidence in the “people” expressing a Rousseau like General Will.

We must know how to profit from the sublime elan of the people who press in around us. I know that when the people present their needs… we must take only the measures they themselves present: for it is the genius of the nation which has dictated them.

Thus, Robespierre and the French arrived at an unrestrained National Assembly, swayed by Parisian mob violence, results of which would be terrible indeed.


Initially Robespierre, as were most, a monarchist, defined within the framework of constitutional restraints. The king greatly eroded his legitimacy by attempting to flee the country in June 1791. He journeyed to Varennes near Verdun, 31 miles from their destination at the royalist fortress Montmedy.  He was recognized and brought back to Paris. Nonetheless, the Girondins didn’t see an alternative for the executive power of the King and continued to support him, excusing the attempted escape, saying it was a kidnapping. Meanwhile, the people had lost faith in him. His monarchy would fall under a popular insurrection fourteen months later. For the time being he would become a weak constitutional monarch, given a suspensive veto delaying legislation for four years and powers to declare war. The constitutional monarchy for what little it was, lasted for the period of October 1791 to August 1792.  



In August of 1792 Robespierre was elected to the Paris Commune (city government). Paris politically was segmented into 48 sections, each had popularly elected representatives. He would represent the Section des Piques (Pikes) in August 1792. The Paris mob had a profound influence over the revolution. Robespierre said that the Commune alone could be understood as the sovereign people expressing the general will.

Incited by recent military defeats (blamed on the King’s generals), a threat by Prussia and Austria, under the Brunswick Manifesto (vengeance if the French King was harmed), and unpopular vetoes by the King incited the Parisian mob. This mob accompanied by a French volunteer militia, the Federes, (a Revolutionary replacement for the National Guard), attacked his palace on August 10, 1792. Some twenty thousand fought his Swiss Guard of 1200. The Swiss Guard was defeated and some 600 were brutally butchered. Some 200-400 French were killed in the fighting. In the aftermath Robespierre offered the suggestion of a pyramid on Place Vendôme to memorialize the Parisian attackers that died 10 August.

On August 29, 1792 the Prussians took Verdun only 150 miles east of Paris; the way was open to Paris. Georges Danton, justice minister, ordered the arrest on the flimsiest pretexts of conspirators within Paris, some thousand suspects were picked up prior to September 2. Rumors circulated that inmates in the prisons of Paris were conspiring with the Prussians and counterrevolutionaries. September 2-6, 1792 the Paris mob ran rampant, emptying the jails and summarily executing 1100-1600 prisoners, including 240 nonjuring priests. Most of those executed were common criminals, oddly enough. A dramatic victory led by General Dumouriez at Valmy, 20th September, 1792, saved France from invasion and relieved a great deal of pressure on the Revolution.   

The Republic was proclaimed on September 21, 1792. Robespierre would be elected to the newly convened National Convention (September 1792 to July 1794). Members of the National Assembly, of which Robespierre was a member, had been excluded from the Legislative Assembly (October 1791-September 1792); Robespierre was thus not a delegate again until this National Convention in September 1792; his notoriety consisted of being a leading member of the Jacobin Club during the interim and publisher of the Le Défenseur de la Constitution. 

After the King’s deposition a debate raged as to the nature of his punishment. Should it be exile or execution, or as some Girondins supposed retain him as a figure head, fearing the populist upheaval of a republic? Many times the Girondins, advocates of Revolution nonetheless, wanted to put brakes on the influence of the sans-culottes. Robespierre argued for summary execution of the King, despite ironically being on the record as opposing capital punishment. The King must die so the country can live, he’d say.

King Louis XVI would be put on trial as traitor. While at trial, his residence at the Tuileries Palace was searched; secret papers were discovered behind a wooden panel in an iron safe, letters attempting to bribe delegates and secret plans for counter revolution. His fate was set; he would be convicted a traitor to his country with no negative votes. A majority of the delegates voted for his execution. He was guillotined January 23, 1793.

The monarchies of Europe were outraged; this propelled England and Holland to declare war on February 1, 1793. Spain a month later on March 7, France was fighting the whole weight of Europe.