Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794)
Trained as an advocate and elected to the Estates General in 1789 by Artois he joined the left wing and became darling of the mob. He was looked up as a savior for the wrong reason and killed for having lost to the march of events that had outwitted the Moderate and Extreme factions alike. He was Gladstone of sans culottes. Like the liberal Prime Minister across the channel the mob liked the cant. But how long?
His life is a fitting example how man is a pawn in the hands of events,- saint and the devil alike.
In 1791 Robespierre carried the motion that no member of the present Assembly should be eligible for the next, and was appointed public accuser. Next followed the flight of the Royal family to Varennes (June 21) but were stopped and brought back. Events moved swiftly. Among these we follow Lafayette’s last effort to control the right of insurrection on the Champ-de-Mars (July 17), the abject terror of Robespierre, his hysterical appeal to the Club, the theatrical oath taken by every member to defend his life, and his conduct home in triumph by the mob at the close of the Constituent Assembly (September 30).
The Girondist leaders were for sparing the lives of the royal couple. He was elected first deputy for Paris to the national Convention, where the bitter attacks upon him by the Girondists threw him into closer union with Danton. Robespierre vigorously opposed the Girondist idea of a special appeal to the people on the king’s death, and Louis’s execution on January 21, 1793, opened up the final stages of the struggle, which ended in a complete triumph of the Jacobins on June 2.
The first Committee of Public Safety was decreed in April 1793, and Robespierre, elected in July, was now one of the actual rulers of France (along with the rest of the Twelve). Next came the dark intrigues and desperate struggles that sent Hébert and his friends to the guillotine in March 1794, and Danton and Camille Desmoulins in April. The next three months Robespierre reigned supreme. He nominated all the members of the Government Committees, placed his men in all places of influence in the commune of Paris, and assumed complete control of the Revolutionary Tribunal.
However, as his power increased, his popularity waned.
Reign of Terror followed next while public finance and government generally drifted to ruin, and Saint-Just demanded the creation of a dictatorship in the person of Robespierre. On July 26, the dictator delivered a long harangue complaining that he was being accused of crimes unjustly. The Convention, after at first obediently passing his decrees, next rescinded them and referred his proposals to the committees. That night at the Jacobin Club his party again triumphed. At the Convention the following day, Saint-Just could not obtain a hearing, and Robespierre was vehemently attacked (the 9th of Thermidor). A deputy proposed his arrest; at the fatal word Robespierre’s power came to an end.
He fled to the Common Hall, whereupon the Convention declared him an outlaw. The National Guard under Barras turned out to protect the Convention, and Robespierre had his lower jaw broken by a shot fired by a gendarme. The next day (July 28, the 10th of Thermidor), he was sent to the guillotine along with Saint-Just, Couthon, and nineteen others.
The reign of terror created its recoil and death of Robespierre was its result.Only with the advent of Napoleon the Republic became stable and it since then had one article of faith ‘glory’ that in practice would prove as a poison chalice.
Revolution and Napoleon
External threat from several European states in a way brought the citizens already heady with revolutionary fervor to fight as one. French Revolutionary Wars of 1792-1802 could be said as the baptism of fire that brought the fledgling Republic to manhood. In 1793 France suffered severe reverses at first. They were driven out of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium), and serious revolts flared in the west and south of France. One of these, at Toulon, was the first serious taste of action for an unknown young artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte.
It had a positive effect on the course of the Revolution. What undermined the Incorruptible Robespierre but lack of fresh ideas? He had none except bloodletting that went on. Meanwhile Napoleon’s success in defeating the European coalition gave the Republic a new hope.
The aim of European coalition was to restore the French Monarchy and there were besides the external threat, France faced simultaneously civil war and counterrevolutionary guerillas between royalists and republicans. Their success in the military campaigns in 1794 brought a change in the public mood, and sealed the fate of Maximilian Robespierre. Royalists tried to seize power in Paris but were crushed by Napoleon in 1795. A new constitution placed executive power in a Directory of five members. The war and schisms in the Directory led to disputes that were settled by coups d’état, chiefly those of 1797 and in 1799, in which Napoleon abolished the Directory and declared himself leader of France. He would crown himself as the emperor in 1804 after he defended France brilliantly in the second coalition war, the treaty of Amiens in 1802 is generally considered to be the point of transition between the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.
The First French Republic, starting from a position precariously near occupation and collapse, had defeated all its enemies and produced a revolutionary army that would take the other powers years to emulate. With the conquest of the left bank of the Rhine and domination of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy, the Republic had achieved nearly all the territorial goals that had eluded the Valois and Bourbon monarchs for centuries.
This glory factor however shortchanged the true spirit of the Revolution from being absorbed into the body politics. Napoleon’s empire was a distraction which would explain the debacle of Sedan 1871. Bismarck was adamant to cut the French Army to size and prove their talk of glory was hollow. It happened in the Franco-Prussian war and finally played out in 1940 when the army of Hitler walked over in six weeks to Paris.