Thursday, August 5, 2010

Robespierre the Incorruptible

"Pity is treason."
Born as Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre in 1758 in Arras, France, out of wedlock (his parents later married), after his mother’s death when he was six years old he was raised by his maternal grandmother and aunts. In October of 1769, on the recommendation of the bishop, he obtained a scholarship at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. At the age of seventeen he was chosen from five hundred pupils to deliver a speech to welcome King Louis XVI to the school, shortly after the king’s coronation. On the day of the speech, Robespierre and the crowd waited for the king and queen for several hours in the rain. Upon arrival, the royal couple remained in their coach for the ceremony and immediately left thereafter. After having completed his law studies, Robespierre was admitted to the Arras bar. The Bishop of Arras appointed him criminal judge in the Diocese of Arras in March 1782. This appointment, which he soon resigned to avoid pronouncing a sentence of death, did not prevent his practicing at the bar. He quickly became a successful advocate and chose in principle to represent the poor. During court hearings he was known to often advocate the ideals of the Enlightenment and argue for the rights of man: i.e. his clients. Later in his career he read widely and also became interested in society in general and became regarded as one of the best writers and most popular young men of Arras. In December 1783 he was elected a member of the academy of Arras, the meetings of which he attended regularly. In 1784, he obtained a medal from the academy of Metz for his essay on the question of whether the relatives of a condemned criminal should share his disgrace. He and Pierre Louis de Lacretelle, an advocate and journalist in Paris, divided the prize. Many of his subsequent essays were less successful, but Robespierre was compensated for these failures by his popularity in the literary and musical society at Arras. In 1788 he took part in a discussion of how the French provincial government should be elected, showing clearly and forcefully in his Addresse à la nation artésienne that if the former mode of election by the members of the provincial estates were again adopted, the new Estates-General would not represent the people of France. It is possible he addressed this issue so that he could have a chance to take part in the proceedings and thus change the policies of the monarchy. King Louis XVI later announced new elections for all provinces; although only thirty, comparatively poor and lacking patronage, Robespierre was elected fifth deputy of the Third Estate of Artois to the Estates-General.

When he arrived at Versailles, he was relatively unknown, but he soon became part of the representative National Assembly which then transformed into the Constituent Assembly. He was a frequent speaker in the Constituent Assembly; he voiced many ideas for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Constitutional Provisions, often with great success. The flight on June 20, 1791, and the subsequent arrest at Varennes of Louis XVI and his family, resulted in Robespierre declaring himself at the Jacobin Club to be “ni monarchiste ni républicain” (“neither monarchist nor republican”). On September30, 1791, on the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the people of Paris crowned him as one of the two incorruptible patriots in an attempt to honor their purity of principles, their modest ways of living, and their refusal of bribes. With the dissolution of the Assembly he returned to Arras for a short visit, where he met with a triumphant reception. In November he returned to Paris to take the position of Public Prosecutor of Paris. In September 1792 he was elected first deputy for Paris to the National Convention. In December 1792, King Louis XVI was put on trial; the position of Robespierre was that if one man’s life had to be sacrificed to save the Revolution, there was no alternative: it had to be that of King Louis. The King was guillotined in January 1793. On March 11, 1793, a Revolutionary Tribunal was established in Paris. On April 6, 1793, the nine-member Committee of Public Safety replaced the larger Committee of General Defense. On July 27, 1793, the Convention elected Robespierre to the Committee, although he had not sought the position; the Committee of General Security began to manage the country’s internal police, and the election of Robespierre election marked the beginning of the Reign of Terror. Though nominally all members of the committee were equal, Robespierre has often been regarded as the dominant force and, as such, the de facto dictator of the country and the driving force behind the Reign of Terror. As an orator, he praised revolutionary government and argued that the Terror was necessary, laudable and inevitable. It was Robespierre’s belief that the Republic and virtue were of necessity inseparable. He reasoned that the Republic could only be saved by the virtue of its citizens, and that the Terror was virtuous because it attempted to maintain the Revolution and the Republic. Robespierre believed that the Terror was a time of discovering and revealing the enemy within Paris, within France, the enemy that hid in the safety of apparent patriotism. Because he believed that the Revolution was still in progress, and in danger of being sabotaged, he made every attempt to instill in the populace and Convention the urgency of carrying out the Terror. He expanded the traditional list of the Revolution’s enemies to include moderates and “false revolutionaries”. Anyone not in step with the decrees of Robespierre’s committee is said to have been eventually purged from the Convention, and thoroughly hunted in the general population. Throughout his Report on the Principles of Political Morality, Robespierre assailed any stalling of action in defence of the Republic. In his thinking, there was not enough that could be done fast enough in defence against enemies at home and abroad. A staunch believer in the teachings of Rousseau, Robespierre believed that it was his duty as a public servant to push the Revolution forward, and that the only rational way to do that was to defend it on all fronts.  To secure his aims, another ally on the Committee, Georges Couthon, introduced and carried on June 10, 1794,  the drastic Law of 22 Prairial. Under this law, the Tribunal became a simple court of condemnation without need of witnesses, and in the next 57 days 1,285 victims were guillotined in Paris. In the wake of the unrest caused by this law, Robespierre appeared at the Convention on July 26, 1794 (8th Thermidor, year II, according to the Revolutionary calendar), and delivered a two-hour-long speech. He defended himself against charges of dictatorship and tyranny, and then proceeded to warn of a conspiracy against the Republic. The Convention ordered his arrest the next day; he tried to kill himself with a pistol but only managed to shatter his jaw. The next day he was guillotined without trial in the Place de la Révolution, along with his brother and some fifteen followers; only Robespierre was guillotined face-up. When clearing his neck the executioner tore off the bandage that was holding his shattered jaw in place, producing an agonised scream until the fall of the blade silenced him and ended the year-long Reign of Terror, which killed at least 16,000 people, and perhaps as many as 40,000 (died 1794): “Pity is treason.”


lara77 said...

The article on Robespierre is fascinating; in all honesty when I see his name in print I generally turn the page immediately! I cannot believe all the people that man sent to their deaths; starting with King Louis XVI.I never knew that he faced the guillotine face up and in excruciating pain with his jaw shattered. How horrible and yet at the same time it is so difficult to feel very sympathetic for such evil wrapped in fanaticism.

Unknown said...

Robespierre is fascinating - his life is a demonstration of the contradictions of age. Quitting his position for fear of executing a guilty man, then leading the charge against Louis XVI calling for his death. A Catholic man, then a man of the Supreme Being. In Ireland, our school children are taught that he came from an Irish heritage, perhaps linked to the flight of the Earls in 1607. I generally skip over this page when I'm teaching - his family history rests solely in French territory.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, Lara, and in many ways he was the prototype for the fanatical ideologues of modern times.