Book explores leader life
The name Robespierre is usually associated with that part of the French Revolution called “the Terror.” That was when hundreds were sent to the guillotine on charges of disloyalty to the country. A biography of Robespierre out this year makes a pretty good point that, while Robespierre was prominent during that time in the 1790s, he was not the bloodthirsty tyrant he was sometimes depicted as being.
The author, Peter McPhee, is a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He has written extensively about French history and, in research for this biography, managed to read nearly everything Robespierre wrote, from speeches in Paris gatherings to personal letters to friends and family members. He also studied letters that various people wrote to him.
Maximilien Robespierre was born May 6, 1758, in the province of Artois in northwestern France. It was a territory that had been disputed between France and the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium) over the centuries, and had only been returned officially to France about 100 years before the birth of Robespierre. (His own first name, incidentally, was spelled with an “e” as the next-to-last letter). His mother was five months pregnant before his parents were married and, while it didn’t have any great effect on his career, the knowledge of that situation was commonly discussed in the family, so he must have known about it.
After studying in Artois and Paris, Robespierre became a lawyer and, in his early 30s, was one of the delegates to the national assembly called to decide the direction of French activity in 1789. He was a member of the so-called Third Estate, as the commoners were called. A letter to a friend in Artois describes his satisfaction at action of the commoners in refusing to meet separately from the aristocrats and church delegates.
Robespierre joined a political club called the Jacobins and, over the succeeding years, became more and more prominent in that group. At a time when some of the delegates were seeking to use their positions for personal gain, Robespierre acquired the nickname of “Incorruptible.” That quality carried over into his political beliefs, when he held to certain standards and refused to deviate from them.
The French Revolution is replete with instances where disagreement became disloyalty, or was at least considered as such by those in charge. In this respect, Robespierre foreshadowed another revolutionary, Lenin, who also held strong political opinions and refused to compromise by accepting views different from his. In this analogy, Napoleon would become the precursor of Stalin, adapting revolutionary principles for his own aggrandizement.
Some of Robespierre’s friends tried to get him to agree that other opinions might have some validity. One woman wrote a chastisement which McPhee, the biographer, quotes at length:
“I have never found you to be esteemed the less for seeing things from a different point of view. I have bemoaned your prejudices ... you have avoided me, you have told me nothing and in this interval you raise public opinion against those who do not think like you. I am too frank not to acknowledge that this course did not seem right to me.”
During the time of Robespierre’s prominence, foreign armies had invaded France from the east and a revolt had broken out in Brittany, so, in his mind, the question of national patriotism became linked to the questions of personal political belief.
By 1794, some of Robespierre’s associates began to fear that they might incur his displeasure, so a plot developed and he and several of his close associates were quickly tried and executed. Those plotters spent some time blaming Robespierre for some of the actions they themselves had perpetrated, thus contributing to his reputation as a terrible person.
One of the nice things McPhee does in his narrative is correlate the dates that events took place between the traditional calendar months and the months of the calendar produced by the revolutionaries. For those of us not fully acquainted with the month names of the latter, it helps to know that something took place on July 26 when that is included in parentheses after the month-name of the new calendar.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.