One of the most influential figures of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) was a radical idealist who successfully agitated for revolution and embodied many of the core beliefs of the revolutionaries. Others, however, remember him for his role in the notorious Reign of Terror – a string of public executions in 1793-1794 – and his unwavering desire to create a perfect republic, no matter the human cost.
Either way, Robespierre was a core figure in revolutionary France and he is perhaps the best remembered of the leaders of the French Revolution itself.
Here are 10 facts about one of France’s most famous revolutionaries, Maximilien Robespierre.
1. He was a bright child
Robespierre was born in Arras, northern France, to a middle class family. The eldest of four children, he was largely brought up by his grandparents after his mother died in childbirth.
Robespierre showed an aptitude for learning and won a scholarship to the Collège Louis-le-Grand, a prestigious secondary school in Paris, where he won a prize for rhetoric. He went on to study law at the Sorbonne, where he won prizes for academic success and good conduct.
2. Ancient Rome provided him with political inspiration
Whilst at school, Robespierre studied the Roman Republic and the works of some of its greatest orators. He increasingly began to idealise and aspire to Roman virtues.
Figures of the Enlightenment also inspired his thought. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau talked about concepts of revolutionary virtue and direct democracy, which Robespierre built upon in his own theories. He particularly believed in the concept of volonté générale (the will of the people) as being a key basis for political legitimacy.
3. He was elected to the Estates-General in 1789
King Louis XVI announced he was calling the Estates-General in the summer of 1788 amidst growing unrest. Robespierre saw this as an opportunity for reform, and quickly began arguing that it was necessary for new methods of election to the Estates-General to be implemented, otherwise it would not represent the people.
In 1789, after writing several pamphlets on the subject, Robespierre was elected as one of Pas-de-Calais’ 16 deputies to the Estates-General. Robespierre drew attention through several speeches, and joined the group that would become the National Assembly, moving to Paris to discuss a new taxation system and the implementation of a constitution.
4. He was a member of the Jacobins
The first and foremost principle of the Jacobins, a revolutionary faction, was that of equality before the law. By 1790, Robespierre was elected president of the Jacobins, and was known for his fiery speeches and uncompromising stances of certain issues. He advocated a meritocratic society, where men could be elected to office based on their skills and talents rather than their social status.
Robespierre was also key in broadening the appeal of the revolution to wider groups beyond white Catholic men: he supported the Womens’ March and actively appealed to Protestants, Jews, people of colour and servants.
5. He was ideologically uncompromising
Describing himself as a ‘defender of the rights of men’, Robespierre had strong opinions on how France should be governed, the rights its people should have and the laws that should rule it. He believed factions other than the Jacobins were weak, misguided or just wrong.
6. He pushed for the execution of King Louis XVI
After the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution, the fate of the former king, Louis XVI, remained open to debate. There was no consensus on what should be done with the royal family, and many had originally hoped that they could be kept on as a constitutional monarch, following the lead of Britain.
Following the royal family’s attempted flight to Varennes and their recapture, Robespierre became an outspoken advocate for the removal of the king, arguing before his trial:
“But if Louis is absolved, if he may be presumed innocent, what becomes of the revolution? If Louis is innocent, all the defenders of liberty become slanderers.”
Robespierre was determined to convince the jurors to execute Louis, and his skills of persuasion did the job. Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793.
7. He led the Committee of Public Safety
The Committee of Public Safety was revolutionary France’s provisional government, led by Robespierre. Formed following the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793, it was tasked with the protection of the new republic from both foreign and domestic enemies, with wide legislative powers to allow it to do so.
During his time on the Committee, Robespierre signed over 500 death warrants as part of his ‘duty’ to rid France of anyone not actively defending the new republic.
8. He is strongly associated with the Reign of Terror
The Reign of Terror is one of the most infamous periods of the revolution: between 1793 and 1794 a series of massacres and mass executions took place of those accused of anything remotely anti-revolutionary, either in sentiment or activity.
Robespierre became a de facto unelected prime minister and oversaw the rooting out of counter-revolutionary activity. He was also a supporter of the idea that every citizen had the right to bear arms, and this period saw groups of ‘armies’ form to enforce the will of the government.
9. He played an important role in the abolition of slavery
Throughout his political career, Robespierre was an outspoken critic of slavery, and actively worked to ensure that people of colour had the same rights as the white population, as set out in the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen.
He denounced slavery repeatedly and publicly, condemning the practice on French soil and in French territories. In 1794, in part thanks to Robespierre’s ongoing petitions, slavery was banned by decree of the National Convention: whilst this never quite reached all French colonies, it did see the emancipation of slaves in Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe and French Guyane.
10. He was eventually executed through his own laws
Robespierre was increasingly viewed as a liability and a threat to the revolution by his friends and allies: his uncompromising stances, dogged pursuit of enemies and dictatorial attitudes, they believed, would see them all go to the guillotine if they were not careful.
They organised a coup and arrested Robespierre. In his attempts to escape, he tried to commit suicide, but only ended up shooting himself in the jaw. He was captured and tried, along with 12 other so-called ‘Robespierre-ists’ for counter-revolutionary activity. They were condemned to death by the rules of the law of 22 Prairial, one of the laws introduced during the Terror with Robespierre’s approval.
He was beheaded by the guillotine, and reportedly the crowd cheered for a solid 15 minutes following his execution.