Robespierre's Last Accusation (2005)
From the Modern History Sourcebook -- "Justification of the Use of Terror":
Maximilien Robespierre (1758 1794) was the leader of the twelveman Committee of Public Safety elected by the National Convention, and which effectively governed France at the height of the radical phase of the revolution. He had once been a fairly straightforward liberal thinker -- reputedly he slept with a copy of Rousseau's Social Contract at his side. But his own purity of belief led him to impatience with others.
The committee was among the most creative executive bodies ever seen -- and rapidly put into effect policies which stabilized the French economy and began the formation of the very successful French army. It also directed it energies against counter-revolutionary uprisings, especially in the south and west of France. In doing so it unleashed the reign of terror. Here, Robespierre, in his speech of February 5,1794, from which excerpts are given here, discussed this issue. The figures behind this speech indicate that in the five months from September, 1793, to February 5, 1794, the revolutionary tribunal in Paris convicted and executed 238 men and 31 women and acquitted 190 persons, and that on February 5 there were 5,434 individuals in the prisons in Paris awaiting trial.
Robespierre was frustrated with the progress of the revolution. After issuing threats to the National Convention, he himself was arrested in July 1794. He tried to shoot himself but missed, and spent his last few hours with his jaw hanging off. He was guillotined, as a victim of the terror, on July 28, 1794.
"Republican virtue can be considered in relation to the people and in relation to the government; it is necessary in both. When only the govenment lacks virtue, there remains a resource in the people's virtue; but when the people itself is corrupted, liberty is already lost.
Fortunately virtue is natural to the people, notwithstanding aristocratic prejudices. A nation is truly corrupted when, having by degrees lost its character and its liberty, it passes from democracy to aristocracy or to monarchy; that is the decrepitude and death of the body politic...."
Executioner of King Louis XVI Shows the Head of the King of France to Crowd.
From French Revolution -- Robespierre and the Legacy of Terror:
Domestic carnage, now filled the whole year
With feast days, old men from the chimney-nook.
The maiden from the busom of her love,
The mother from the cradle of her babe,
The warrior from the field -- all perished, all --
Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,
Head after head, and never heads enough
For those that bade them fall.
--William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Book Tenth, "Residence in France")
Wordsworth came to suffer the disillusion of young revolutionaries in all ages who discover that in shedding an ocean of blood they have more often than not done more harm than good. If the French revolution was the end of monarchy and aristocratic privilege and the emergence of the common man and democratic rights, it was also the beginnings of modern totalitarian government and large-scale executions of "enemies of the People" by impersonal government entities (Robespierre's "Committee of Public Safety"). This legacy would not reach its fullest bloom until the tragic arrival of the German Nazis and Soviet and Chinese communists of the 20th century.
In fact, Rousseau has been called the precursor of the modern pseudo-democrats such as Stalin and Hitler and the "people's democracies." His call for the "sovereign" to force men to be free if necessary in the interests of the "General Will" harks back to the Lycurgus of Sparta instead of to the pluralism of Athens; the legacy of Rousseau is Robespierre and the radical Jacobins of the Terror who followed and worshipped him passionately. In the 20th century, his influence is further felt by tyrants who would arouse the egalitarian passions of the masses not so much in the interests of social justice as social control. Let us take Rousseau for the literary genius he was and appreciate his contribution to history; let us look at his political philosophy with great skepticism.
The picture above may not be accurate. Some historians claim Robespierre was guillotined face up.
From The History Guide:
Robespierre's turn had come at last. By fawning upon the people he had become their idol, and this will happen to any man who declaims against the rich, causing the people to hope for a division of the spoils. Through the populace, he ruled the Jacobin Club; through the Jacobin Club, the Convention and through the Convention, France. He dictated decrees and directed the administration. Nothing was done except by his orders or with his approval. His caprices were flattered, and his very manias were praised. The tribunal beheaded those he designated without investigation. His power seemed too terrible to his accomplices as it did to his victims. A number had been sacrificed already and others feared the same fate. They banded together to pull down the idol they themselves had set up.
[The committee of general security] ordered that he [Robespierre] be taken to the prison of the Conciergerie. His trial was short. On the following day he was guillotined, together with Saint-Just, Couthon, and his other accomplices. It was quite a distance from the Palais de Justice to the scaffold, and the immensity of the long Rue Saint-Honore had to be traversed. Along the whole course, the people pursued Robespierre with hoots and maledictions. He had been given a conspicuous place in the tumbril, his face half covered by a dirty, bloodstained cloth which enveloped his jaw. It may be said that this man, who had brought so much anguish to others, suffered during these twenty-four hours all the pain and agony that a mortal can experience.
Today's image suggests there are multiple ways to lose one's head -- both theoretical and practical.
Morever, Robespierre's rise and fall has historical lessons for today's suicide bombers and holy warriors on the dangers inherent in seeking to use terror to bring out justice -- and, perhaps, for an administration determined to fight terror by curtailing civil liberties and advocating torture. In both cases, the innocent generally suffer -- and justice gets blown up or locked up.