‘Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life’
FOR A MAN often vilified as one of the greatest monsters in European history, Maximilien Robespierre lived the first five-sixths of his life in remarkably conventional fashion. As an earnest, prizewinning scholarship boy, and then an ambitious young provincial lawyer in late eighteenth-century France, he gave few hints that he would soon become the major figure in a revolutionary Reign of Terror. His early life did have its share of destabilizing tragedies: the death of his mother when he was six, followed by his father’s effective abandonment of the family. But whatever demons these events engendered manifested themselves mostly in a ferocious work ethic, personal rigidity, and quite possibly a severe case of sexual repression. By the time he was thirty, in 1788, Robespierre was heading smoothly towards a future as a lonely, irritable pillar of his small town bar association.
A year later, his world changed. The Old Regime collapsed, creating a political vacuum filled in large part by the 1,200 members of a raucous, newly-elected National Assembly, many from backgrounds as obscure as Robespierre’s own. (Edmund Burke, not entirely inaccurately, ridiculed them as “fomenters and conductors of the petty war of village vexation.”) In this company, men who worked hard and spoke persuasively, along a consistent line of argument, quickly drew attention. Robespierre was one of them, all the more so because the line he advocated was daringly radical. Among other things, he argued that France should abolish the death penalty, renounce aggressive warfare, and move towards the elimination of slavery in its colonies. Although ridiculed as verbose, pedantic, and physically unprepossessing (he was short and had an embarrassing facial twitch), Robespierre slowly gained a reputation for rigid, unswerving dedication to the public good. He even acquired a flattering nickname: “the Incorruptible.” The British observer William Augustus Miles called him “a character to be contemplated,” and predicted he would be “a man of sway in a short time, and govern the million.”
He gained his opportunity in 1793-94, after successive efforts to end the Revolution and establish a stable new constitutional regime had failed. Instead, France’s new republican regime seemed to teeter on the edge of catastrophe, threatened by an armed coalition of European powers, and a series of dangerous domestic rebellions. Under these conditions, power passed increasingly into the hands of a dictatorial “Committee of Public Safety” that claimed sweeping emergency power. Tens of thousands of political opponents were executed, and many more perished in the repression of the provincial uprisings. Christian worship was suppressed, and utopian projects introduced for making the French, in Robespierre’s own words, into “a new people.” Robespierre himself virtually invented a new, deist religion for France: the Cult of the Supreme Being.
He never held the dictatorial power his enemies attributed to him, but he did the most of anyone to set the Terror in motion, and after the autumn of 1793 he fell into the grip of something approaching paranoia. As Peter McPhee puts it in this new biography: “Robespierre’s mental universe was crowded with unrelenting conspiracies.” By mid-summer 1794, enough members of the National Convention feared for their lives to stage a coup against him and his allies. From the crest of the revolutionary movement, he was swept under and crushed, dying on the guillotine to which he had sent so many of his enemies.
Robespierre makes an exceptionally difficult figure for biographers. Colorless, intensely private, and doctrinaire, a creature of cold, high abstraction, his political success is mysterious. Not only did little in his previous life foreshadow it, he seemed largely lacking in political ambition of the ordinary sort. He disliked the adulation that increasingly came his way, and lived ascetically, and was driven close to physical and mental collapse by the pressures of revolutionary politics. While many fine historians have tried their hands at his life, including Ruth Scurr in a lively volume in 2006, none have been truly successful. The best of them, like Scurr, have echoed his enemy, the philosopher and politician Condorcet, who in 1792 already grasped a key aspect of Robespierre’s mindset:
Robespierre preaches, Robespierre censures, he is furious, grave, melancholy, shamming exaltation, logical in his thoughts and conduct; he thunders against the rich and the great; he lives frugally and feels no physical needs; he has but a single mission, which is to speak and he speaks almost all the time … He has all the characteristics, not of a religious leader, but of the leader of a sect; he has built up for himself a reputation for austerity which borders on sainthood … Robespierre is a priest and will never be anything else.
But as the great historian François Furet perceptively observed, the best way of all to understand Robespierre may simply be as a pure, unalloyed conductor of revolutionary ideology. In that case, what matters is not so much to understand the man himself but the Revolution that spoke through him.