Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The true Robespierre

Robespierre is one of the main characteres in the French Revolution, but also that sanguinary tyrant who sent thousands of people to guillotine during the Terror era. However, the ones who write History are usually the winners of the moment, which in this particular moment were the enemies that provoked his downfall. Let's try to be more critical.

A respectable citizen

Maximilien Robespierre was born in Arras, in the French Picardie. From a middle-class family, he could follow Law courses as his grandfather, where he stood out as a particularly brilliant student. While working as a lawyer, he wrote several law books that gave him a good reputation in the town. Being known as an inconditional supporter of Rousseau's revolutionary theories, he was one of the most respectable citizens of the region, being especially known for his correction, honesty and absolute sincerity.
In 1788 revolutionary ideas became more popular, and Robespierre started influencing political ambiances in the town, where he was chosen for several political jobs in Arras and later in Paris, where his position in defense of poor peasants granted him the support of the people while his brilliant speeches. He entered the Jacobins Club, the radical left-wing group, of which he eventually became the spiritual leader after the disappearing of its founding leaders (Barnave, Mirabeau). The attitude Robespierre took during the events that followed, and especially the speeches in which he exposed it, gave him an increasing popularity within the Revolutionary Government, which eventually lead him to be elected as a member of the Public Security Commitee. He had opposed the war with Austria, and had supported the execution of King Louis XVI, by pronouncing his popular sentence "Louis must die, so that the country can live". The failure that the contrary position Girondins took meant their destruction, and the consolidation of Robespierre as the leader of the National Convention, new era of the Revolution.
From 1792 to his downfall two years later, more than 30000 people were guilotined in Paris, denounced by the Convention as traitors to the Revolution. Robespierre and his little buddies increased progressively repressive actions, also among the members of the Government. Danton and Hébert, supporters of Robespierre but from different factions, were executed, and the Government was increasingly pointed out as a dictatorship. Finally, a raising of the people provoked the Convention overthrown and the execution of its tyrant, in July 1794.

A cruel tyrant?

It is uncontested that Robespierre created an authoritary and repressive state, almost a dictatorship in the middle of the Revolution. However, which were the reasons for his actions? Actually, a personal dictatorship does not match with the ideas he defended, and maybe he never really liked sending citizens to the guillotine (he dismissed from a judge job at Criminal Court of Arras to avoid pronouncing death sentences). It is imaginable that after the overthrown of the Convention, many members of the Commitee blamed Robespierre, already dead, for all the atrocities that happened, and so saved their lives.
Robespierre was a theorist and a philosopher. During his political career, he formulated laws, wrote essays and gave speeches. The ideas from his idol Rousseau, which defended the people's power especially over individual freedom, were the defining ideas of his Government, that he described as "the despotism of freedom against tyranny". As a theorist, he tried to apply his ideas in an inflexible way, to the point that he did not hesitate to eliminate his detractors. As a politician without pragmatic sense, he never betrayed his ideas, and was "incorruptible" until his death.


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I had read that Robespierre sent people to the guillotine during the French Revolution. I think he was a very empty and frustrated man