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"It is wisdom, above all, that our guilty enemies want to drive from the Republic. To wisdom alone does it belong to consolidate the prosperity of empires. It is for her to guarantee the fruits of our courage."
―Maximilien de Robespierre in a speech during the Festival of the Supreme Being, 1794.

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758 – 1794) was a French lawyer, orator, politician and notable figure of the French Revolution, that launched one of the modern dictatorial systems.

Initially a provincial lawyer, he was elected a deputy at the Estates-General of 1789. As the French Revolution broke out, he aligned himself with the increasingly radical Jacobin Club and was recruited into the Templar Order by Grand Master François-Thomas Germain. In late 1793, Robespierre and the newly-founded Committee of Public Safety started the Reign of Terror, persecuting and often executing thousands of perceived counter-revolutionaries.

Due to the rising tyranny of Robespierre, he and his supporters were overthrown and executed by guillotine in the Thermidorian Reaction of 1794.


Early life

"The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant."
Robespierre was born in Arras in 1758 as the eldest of four children. His mother died when he was six, and his father abandoned the family afterwards, forcing Robespierre to take on the responsibility of raising his siblings.[1] In the meantine, he himself was raised in large part by the teachers at the Oratorian College of Arras which he attended. A hard-working pupil, he acquired a passion for Roman history, to which he would refer almost obsessively in his later speeches.[2] At the age of 11, he was given a scholarship at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, the most prestigious university in France.[1] He would become influenced by the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers such as Denis Diderot.[3]

Revolutionary beginnings

"Any law which violates the inalienable rights of man is essentially unjust and tyrannical; it is not a law at all. [...] Any institution which does not suppose the people good, and the magistrate corruptible, is evil."
―Robespierre, 1793.[src]
After completing his education as a lawyer, Robespierre was admitted to the Arras bar. Although he was seemingly destined for a modest life as a provincial lawyer, a financial crisis broke out in France, leading King Louis XVI to convene the Estates-General. On 20 April 1789, Robespierre was elected the fifth out of eight Third Estate deputies for the province of Artois.[2] He became a critic of the monarchy and advocated societal reform,[1] and founded the National Assembly along with other deputies such as the Comte de Mirabeau, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and the Marquis de Lafayette. During this period, he was also recruited into a radical faction of the Templar Order, led by François-Thomas Germain.[4]
ACU Robespierre in Versailles

Robespierre entering the Palace of Versailles

On 5 May 1789, Robespierre and his fellow Templars attended a private party at the Palace of Versailles. The party was secretly to host the induction of the daughter of the Order's Grand Master, François de la Serre, into the Order. On that same night however, de la Serre was murdered in a coup d'etat led by Germain. Germain's Templars plotted to instigate a widespread revolution across France. They sought to empower the middle class instead of the nobility, and by creating a capitalist society, it would be more easy for the Templars to control humanity.[4]

Robespierre took up residence in Paris, and would only return to Arras once. He became a regular patron at intellectual establishments such as the Café Procope[4] and the Café de la Regence.[5] He joined the newly-founded Jacobin Club and became noted for his unflinching principles and conviction, earning the title of "the incorruptible". He was also known for being a talented speaker who frequently appeared at various galleries, in spite of his harsh voice and Artois accent.[4] He spoke over 5000 times at the National Assembly and gave eloquent arguments against the king's right to veto legislation and religious discrimination, while also defending the rights of the common people. Mirabeau, who was briefly president of the Jacobin Club, said of him, "He will go far. He believes everything he says".[1] Little is known of Robespierre's private life, other than the fact that he had an elegant, but unluxurious lifestyle, preferring to study frequently and maintain good company. His extreme distrust often offended supplicants, although his disinterest in popularity only made him more respected as a political figure.[2]

Rise of the Assassin 13

Robespierre meeting la Touche

In April 1791, the Templars met at the Hôtel de Beauvais, where Robespierre spoke to fellow Jacobins and called for the abolition of capital punishment. After the Templars had finished their meeting, Robespierre met up with Germain and Aloys la Touche. La Touche was placed under Robespierre's services, where he was tasked with spreading revolutionary terror in Versailles once the revolution had grown sufficiently radical and Robespierre had gained power.[4]

Rising power

"We are being watched by all nations; we are debating in the presence of the universe."
―Robespierre on the revolution.[src]
In April 1792, the revolutionary government of France, dominated by the Jacobins' chief rivals, the Girondists, declared war on the kingdoms of Austria and Prussia. Robespierre was one of the first politicians to criticize the war, which the French appeared to be losing.[5] The war also led to increasing distrust towards King Louis and the royal family, and Robespierre called for the abolition of the monarchy.[1] On 10 August 1792, revolutionaries and forces of the insurrectionary Paris Commune stormed the royal residence at the Tuileries Palace, ending the monarchy and marking the birth of the French Republic. Robespierre celebrated the Republic's proclamation at the Café Février.[4]

The new republic was governed by the National Convention, in which Robespierre served as a deputy and represented Paris. He continued agitating revolutionaries to rise up against aristocrats and reversed his stance on capital punishment, now calling for the execution of the deposed King Louis.[1] When the Convention tried Louis for a number of offenses, Robespierre and his fellow Templar Louis-Michel le Peletier voted for execution, and the King was executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793.[4]

Tensions grew in the Convention, and Robespierre became obsessed with conspiracies against the revolution, particularly among political opponents such as the Girondists, whose power diminished as they suffered numerous political defeats. His faction in the Convention, consisting of radicals such as Georges Danton, Jean-Paul Marat and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, was named "the Mountain" due to their position in the upper galleries of the meeting hall. The Girondist Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvrai accused Robespierre and Danton of plotting to form a dictatorship, an accusation that was strongly denied by the Jacobins.[4]

In March 1793, the Convention founded the Committee of Public Safety to protect the republic from both internal and external threats. As the Committee began executing people on increasingly dubious charges, the Girondists spoke out against Robespierre and the Committee. In response, Robespierre ordered the arrest of all Girondists, alienating his ally and friend Danton. Under the command of François Hanriot, the National Guard and the Paris Commune brought about the downfall of the Girondists, whose leaders were executed a few months later, serving as one of starting points of the Reign of Terror. Following the restructuring of the Committee in July 1793, Robespierre became a leading member along with Saint-Just, Georges Couthon and Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois. Around this period, Robespierre also read le Peletier's draft on education before the Convention and denounced the radical priest Jacques Roux, whom he had thrown out of the Cordeliers Club. When the drummer boy Joseph Bara was killed by royalists, Robespierre said of him, "Only the French have thirteen-year-old heroes".[4]

The Reign of Terror

Heading the Committee

"Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice."
―Robespierre during a speech, 1794.[src]
Having reached the peak of his power, Robespierre shed his previously moderate public image as well as his opposition to the death penalty, and used terror and revolutionary extremism to maintain his influence. Already having praised the educational aspect of theatrical arts,[4] he collaborated with the painter Jacques-Louis David, who was also his friend and fellow Jacobin, to use culture and art as a political tool.[5] When David was mocked by André Chénier in the satirical poems known as Le Jeu de Paume, the infuriated painter called in favors with Robespierre, who had several thugs take over Chénier's house and guard the poems, only for them to be stolen by the Assassin Arno Dorian. Dorian had previously killed a group of Robespierre's allies at the Café Procope, where they met to plan an overthrow of the Legislative Assembly.[4]

Although the artillery officer Napoleon Bonaparte had been supported by Robespierre's brother, Augustin, Robespierre himself had a falling out with the commander, and plotted with Saint-Just to end Bonaparte's career. Saint-Just had tricked workshops into using defective materials in the manufacture of armamants, which would then be delivered to the commander. However, Dorian also managed to foil this plot.[4]

In September 1793, Robespierre and the Committee introduced the Law of Suspects, sparking a new level of paranoia and broadening the grounds for prosecution of suspected counter-revolutionaries. During this period, Robespierre personally received information on suspected counter-revolutionaries from the spy Didier Paton, who eventually discovered the existence of the Templar Order and its influence in the revolutionary government, listing Templars in his notebook. Unaware of Robespierre's membership within the Order, Paton presented this information to him, only for Robespierre to have him arrested and sentenced to death. However, Dorian and a group of Assassins were able to recover the notebook and rescue Paton.[4]

Eliminating Danton

"You follow us shortly, Robespierre! Your house shall be beaten down and sowed with salt!"
―Danton to Robespierre on the way to the guillotine, 1794.[src]
Although Robespierre had grown highly powerful and even abolished slavery in France and its colonies in February 1794,[6] he faced growing opposition. Danton and his allies, whom Robespierre and Saint-Just accused of excessive moderatism, had begun opposing the Terror by early 1794, and prints were published depicting Robespierre as a Roman dictator. The Committee decided to take action against Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Fabre d'Églantine and several other "indulgents" opposed to the Terror, and had them arrested and tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Robespierre used the previous corruption of Danton and d'Églantine to his advantage. He had already accused d'Églantine of fiddling with army supplies and said of him, "Talented, but with no soul. Skilled in the art of depicting men, even more skillful in deceiving them". Danton was accused of implication in d'Églantine's previous fraudulent affairs with the French East India Company, and he and his allies were sentenced to death.[4]

Robespierre also wished to eliminate Danton's friends, however. After Hanriot recovered personal correspondence from the latter's possessions, Robespierre tauntingly showed the letters to him while he was in his cell. As Danton and his allies were driven to the guillotine on 5 April, they passed by Robespierre outside the latter's residence, where Danton said that "his house [would] be beaten down and sowed with salt". Although Danton and his supporters were guillotined, Dorian and a group of Assassins were able to rescue Danton's friends and also recovered the letters from Robespierre's house. At the same time, Robespierre had retired to his rooms, and his guards noted that he seemed tired and ill, possibly showing regret at having executed his old friend. He had also scattered the letters across the house. Even though Robespierre had eliminated one of his key opponents with the execution of Danton, his own popularity suffered greatly as a result.[4]

Law of 22 Prairial and other activities

When the Templars discovered incriminating evidence of Mirabeau's correspondences with the deceased King, Robespierre took the opportunity to expose this evidence to the public in May 1794, coupled with other forms of slander. This publicly disgraced Mirabeau, and the Templars infiltrated the Panthéon to claim Mirabeau's relics, hoping to find any information on the Assassins, only to have the operation foiled by Dorian and a group of Assassins who moved the relics.[4]

On 23 May, Cécile Renault attempted to kill Robespierre, only to fail and be executed a month later. In response, Robespierre and the Committee introduced the Law of 22 Prairial, which effectively doubled the permitted number of executions and initiated the period known as the "Great Terror".[7] Although the treat of foreign invasion had largely disappeared,[1] common necessities such as a public trial and proof of guilt were removed in many cases, and Robespierre's popularity suffered even further. Members of the Committee turned against him, some believing that his policies were not radical enough, others regarding him as a deranged tyrant who had killed more of his own people than actual foreign counter-revolutionary enemies.[7]

Cult of the Supreme Being

"The eternally happy day which the French people consecrates to the Supreme Being has finally arrived. Never has the world he created offered him a sight so worthy of his eyes. He has seen tyranny, crime, and deception reign on earth. At this moment, he sees an entire nation, at war with all the oppressors of the human race, suspend its heroic efforts in order to raise its thoughts and vows to the Great Being who gave it the mission to undertake these efforts and the strength to execute them. Did not his immortal hand, by engraving in the hearts of men the code of justice and equality, write there the death sentence of tyrants? Did not his voice, at the very beginning of time, decree the republic, making liberty, good faith, and justice the order of the day for all centuries and for all peoples?"
―Robespierre speaking at the festival, 1794.[src]
ACU The Supreme Being 9

Robespierre giving a speech at the Festival of the Supreme Being

In May 1794, Robespierre founded the Cult of the Supreme Being, a deist religion in which the Supreme Being was meant to represent the patriotic spirit of nature, and was described as being capable of uniting people with "pure and feeling hearts".[5] The themes of civic duty were supposedly a loose interpretation of Templar doctrine,[4] and the Cult was meant to counter the influence of the atheistic Cult of Reason, its ultimate purpose being to eliminate political dissenters.[1] Due to the dechristianization that had taken place during the revolution, Robespierre was able to use the new religion to promote himself and the Jacobins.[5] The Cult was made the official religion of France and festivals were set to be held across the country on 8 June. Robespierre nominated himself the president of the Festival of the Supreme Being in Paris.[5]

The event was held at the Champ de Mars and was staged by David. The artist constructed a plaster and cardboard mountain, topped with a 50-foot column bearing a statue of Hercules. A procession of girls carried fruit baskets along an avenue lined with roses below the mountain, while Robespierre lead the singing of a hymn dedicated to the Supreme Being from the mountain,[8] accompanied by 2400 singers. The hymn was written by the opera composer François-Joseph Gossec and the dramatist Marie-Joseph Chénier, brother of André Chénier.[5] Marie-Joseph had written the "Hymne à la Liberté", which Robespierre had praised as "magnificent poetry" and renamed "Le Chant du Départ".[4] This time however, Robespierre was dissatisfied with Chénier's lyrics and replaced him with Théodore Désorgues,[5] and the resulting song was named "Hymne à l'Être Suprème".[8] At this time, Marie-Joseph wrote a letter to Robespierre, begging that André be spared from execution, although this was to no avail. Germain also wrote to Robespierre, reminding him not to let personal ambitions overshadow his service to the Templars and their plans for the revolution.[4]

Élise de la Serre, the daughter of the deceased Grand Master, was present at the festival along with her lover, Arno Dorian. Having learned of Robespierre's Templar affiliations, they sought to bring about his downfall, knowing that he would be weak and more likely to give up information about Germain's whereabouts. To tarnish Robespierre's already damaged image, Dorian stole lists of political enemies that the former planned to execute, including Jean-Lambert Tallien, François Louis Bourdon and Philippe-Antoine Merlin de Douai, and distributed them among prominent people opposed to the revolutionary leader.[4] As he gave a speech to the audience dressed in a "republican costume" consisting of a blue coat, tricolor sash and plumed hat,[8] Élise spiked Robespierre's drink with powdered ergot, causing him to experience random hallucinations and give the audience the belief that he was insane and unstable.[4] After the speech, an effigy representing atheism was burned to reveal a statue representing wisdom.[8]

The duo's plan worked, and the festival was regarded as an extreme and hyperbolic display staged by an insane tyrant.[1] An anonymous engraving opposing the Terror showed Robespierre in his republican costume and was named "Robespierre guillotining the executioner after having guillotined everyone else in France". In the background of the engraving was an obelisk with the words "Here Lies All France".[8]

Downfall and execution

"Be it known that the Paris Commune, by dint of its actions protecting the criminal Robespierre, is now in open rebellion against the nation. Soldiers under the command of the National Convention have been dispatched to apprehend the traitor Robespierre and his followers. Citizens are advised to stay in their homes while justice is carried out. Be it further known that Citizen Robespierre, Citizen Hanriot, and all their allies are declared outlaw! Any citizen found to be aiding these criminals will share their fate upon the guillotine. Revolutionary justice shall prevail!"
―An official declaring Robespierre and his allies outlaws, 1794.[src]
As Robespierre's popularity faded, several people began to plot his overthrow, including Paul Barras. On 26 July, Robespierre held a speech before the Convention, warning of a conspiracy against the republic and made vague threats of purging "enemies of the state". In response, and having finally had enough of him, both the Convention and the Committee turned against Robespierre and had him arrested and sentenced to death the following day.[4] As he was taken away, he shouted out that he had "powerful friends".[1]

While Robespierre was driven to the Luxembourg Palace to be held, he was freed by troops of the Paris Commune and fled to the Hôtel de Ville, where he holed himself up with his close allies, including Saint-Just, Hanriot[4] and his own brother, Augustin.[7] There, he wrote a new list of his personal enemies, and received word that he and his collaborators had been declared outlaws.[1] Unbeknownst to him, he was pursued by both Arno and Élise, who aimed to procure Germain's location from him. Robespierre desperately tried to contact Germain for safety, but the Grand Master had already predicted his downfall and believed that Robespierre and the Terror had served their purpose, instead abandoning his last follower.[4]

ACU The Fall of Robespierre 4

Robespierre being interrogated after being shot in his jaw

As the Convention's troops under command of Barras closed in on the Hôtel de Ville, most of Robespierre's guards had either deserted or been killed. As he paced in his office, fretting over his fate and Germain's lack of help, Arno and Élise entered and demanded Germain's location, though Robespierre refused to talk. Élise, in no mood to trifle, pulled out her pistol and shot him in the jaw. Staggered and fearful of his life, Robespierre weakly wrote down Germain's location, the Temple. As the two left, Convention troops apprehended Robespierre.[4]

In the meantime, Augustin attempted to escape by jumping through a window, only to break both legs. It was believed that Robespierre had attempted to shoot himself to escape the guillotine, and his wound was hastily bandaged with cloth on a table inside the Committee's building, where he bled profusely. He was then imprisoned in the Conciergerie in the cell that had held Marie Antoinette.[7]

Jacobin Raid 3

Robespierre guillotined

Robespierre and his followers were guillotined without trial on 28 July. The executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, tore off the bandage that held Robespierre's jaw together, causing the latter to scream in the moments before his death.[7] The sculptor Marie Tussaud later made a death mask of him.[5]


During the Reign of Terror, which lasted less than a year, Robespierre was directly or indirectly responsible for the arrest of around 300,000 people, 40,000 of whom were executed. He became associated with extremism,[1] the Terror having been planned by the Templars as a way to demonstrate the chaos of a revolution and as such deter the populace from starting another one.[4]

Personality and characteristics

"Take care that you do not allow your personal ambitions to come before the Great Work. That which we do, we do not for our own glory, but to remake the world in de Molay's image."
―Germain in a letter to Robespierre, 1794.[src]
Charismatic, yet reclusive, and disinterested in popularity, Robespierre commanded a great deal of respect from other revolutionaries. However, he could also be arrogant, snobbish and cruel, taunting and threatening Georges Danton when the latter was imprisoned and sentenced to death. Robespierre could also be extremely petty, ordering the executions of Danton's friends merely because of their association with him and labelling the Girondists as enemies of the state because they didn't agree with him. At one point, Germain even wrote to Robespierre and reminded him to place the interests and visions of the Templars above personal ambitions. Robespierre often acted solely on Germain's orders and was something of a puppet to him. During the Thermidorian Reaction, he relied on Germain to rescue him, and was left weakened when the Grand Master abandoned him.[4]


  • Historically, Maximilien de Robespierre's wound to his jaw on the night of his arrest was caused either by an attempted suicide or from being shot by French soldier Charles-André Merda.




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