‘One leads the people by reason, and the enemies of the people by terror…. If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the mainspring of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe, and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie.’
Robespierre, – OEuvres, X, pp. 356–7.
I recently visited Robespierre‘s hometown of Arras. I already knew a little about Robespierre through studying history but here’s a refresher for those who are interested (the phrase that stuck in my fifteen year old’s brain was “rivers of blood flowed through assembly…” and I thought to myself what a nice bunch these French).
Maximilien Robespierre was born, of Irish origin (bien sur) at Arras May 6, 1758. He was elected a deputy of the estates-general (a form of parliament, but without real power) that met in May 1789, and subsequently served in the National Constituent Assembly.
He was primarily behind the Reign of Terror (1793-94) where over 40,000 French men and women were executed by the guillotine, incited by rivalry between two political factions (the Girondins and the Jacobites) following the overthrowing of the monarchy.
Note: Let’s not forget one man/woman cannot possibly be responsible for a grand deed such as this and it is entirely plausible that his role was exaggerated so others didn’t have to take their share of accountability, but it can be under no doubt that his inflammatory speeches did not light the match.
He was heavily influenced by 18th century Enlightenment philosophies from Jean Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu. He saw virtue in revolution and he maintained that the Terror was virtuous as it was an attempt to maintain the Revolution and the Republic. His supporters called him “the Incorruptible,” while his adversaries called him the blood thirsty dictator. Indeed.
Fun fact: he has been described as being “physically unimposing…” what is it with short French men being little bolloxes, they are really trying to over-compensate for something aren’t they!! Fascinating..
If his antics (acting morally superior, introducing a new religion entitled the Cult of the Supreme Being, murdering people etc.) are starting to piss anyone off, no worries. After capture by the Convention on the 28 July 1794, he was guillotined without trial and buried in a common grave (he is now however in the Catacombs of Paris). If you’re interested in the Cult of the Supreme Being google it, needless to say I have zero patience for people establishing new religions as I think we have rather enough trouble with the old ones don’t you think?
Of course, I don’t think Robespierre was power-hungry (but one can never know) he seemed to genuinely want to maintain the Revolution in order to save the Republic as he figured one was inconclusive without the other. As usual regarding extremists, he had good ideas but was all wrong in his pursuit of them (finding people to blame just for the sake of it, execution etc). It seems naive to say it, but there isn’t a revolution in history that was bloodless. For anything to begin anew, there must first be destruction of the old, and as the old is almost always human beings it is certain to involve death. If there was a way for there to be victors in war without violence, the inventor of this miraculous feat would surely have discovered the mysteries of the universe, the secret of black holes, and could travel at the speed of sound. I don’t have the answers I merely wish to engender debate.
I spent a morning strolling around Monsieur Robespierre’s birthplace and there wasn’t a severed head in sight. An entirely (I think I have used that word over three times in this article, I’m feeling entirely “something” today it would seem) charming town, and the weather was pleasant which is always encouraging when in the North of France. A little Dutch and Belgian in architecture as it lies so close to the border.
Here’s a few photographs which I took – maybe you will see where Napolean and such got their ideas for their silly hats !