Who makes a million robes per year?
A Frenchman, who died a gruesome death after changing the course of French history. His name was Maximilien Robespierre and it’s doubtful he ever made a robe, let alone a million in one year. Robespierre’s significance reaches far beyond haute couture as he was a central player in the Reign of Terror, and a Jacobin leader during the French Revolution. His death was far more dramatic than anything that has graced a French catwalk.
Maximilien-François-Marie-Isidore de Robespierre was born on May 6, 1758 in Arras, France, and was described as intelligent, altruistic, frugal and well-groomed, but also as dictatorial, a bloodthirsty creature or a timid bourgeois. So how did such a man die such a gruesome death?
A weak voice
Robespierre is remembered for having a weak voice, but he gave voice to the voiceless. He is also remembered for once shooting his mouth off. During meetings of the National Assembly from 1789 onwards, he exhibited simple manners and a soft voice which was often drowned out by those who opposed his views. Nevertheless, in the 500 or so speeches that he made to this assembly angered the conservatives because he advocated universal suffrage and unrestricted admission to the national guard, public offices and the commissioned ranks of the army. He fought for the right to petition and he opposed the royal veto, as well as the abuses of ministerial power, and religious and racial discrimination. These were all burning issues in France at the time and underpinned the desire for revolution and change.
Robespierre also attracted attention after defending actors, Jews and black slaves while working as a lawyer. He entered the legal profession in 1781 after excelling at the college of Oratorians at Arras and then the college of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he studied on a scholarship. He won praise for his work in philosophy and law and was well versed in the writings of the French philosophers of the Enlightenment. He drew inspiration from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and these ideas informed his political thinking.
The law practice he established in Arras with his sister, Charlotte, quickly established a solid reputation, and it was not long before he was appointed a judge at the Salle Épiscopale, a court with jurisdiction over the provostship of the diocese. His legal firm followed in the footsteps of his lawyer father and earned Robespierre a comfortable income and the ability to pursue a life in politics.
It would also lead to his gruesome death.
Robespierre began his political career at the age of 30. His first office was deputy to the Estates General in 1789 as one of the representatives of the Artois region. In 1790 he was elected secretary of the National Assembly and he soon came to preside over the Jacobins, a political club promoting the ideas of the French Revolution. His involvement with the Jacobins would lead to controversy, attacks on his life and clashes with various sections of French society.
The Jacobins were famous for advocating liberty, and clashed with the royal family and their supporters. Robespierre was labelled a dangerous individual for his challenge to the status quo, and when King Louis XVI fled, threats against Robespierre and the Jacobins became violent. As a result, Robespierre hurriedly called for a vote on changes to the constitution. In the ensuing chaos, martial law was proclaimed in France and the national guard opened fire on a group of protestors at Champ-de-Mars who were demanding the abdication of the king.
Friends and enemies
The physical attacks on progressive thinkers placed Robespierre’s life in danger. He took refuge with the family of a cabinet maker, Maurice Duplay, where he considered his next move. The complication was that many of the Jacobins had since joined a rival club. Eventually, the National Assembly dissolved itself and the people of Paris organised a triumphal procession for Robespierre.
Robespierre would soon return to public life in the new Legislative Assembly. Even though he excluded himself and his colleagues from this assembly, he still spoke at the Jacobin Club where he delivered about 100 speeches until August 1792. One topic of his speeches was opposition to the European war that Jacque-Pierre Brissot was proposing in order to spread the aims of the Revolution. For Robespierre, there was still more work to be done in France.
Brissot and Robespierre were to clash repeatedly. Brissot disagreed with Robespierre’s denouncement of the secret intrigues of the court and of the royalists, and their collusion with Austria. Robespierre questioned the preparedness of the army, and suggested that some aristocratic officers had committed treason. At the same time, he defended patriotic soldiers, including those of the Châteauvieux regiment, who were imprisoned after a mutiny at Nancy.
In response to criticism from Brissot, Robespierre founded the newspaper Le Défenseur de la Constitution (“Defense of the Constitution”), in order to win more support from the people. Through the newspaper, Robespierre attacked Marquis de Lafayette, who was now commander of the French army. Robespierre suspected Lafayette of plotting to establish a military dictatorship but was unable to secure Lafayette’s dismissal.
Particular incidents which highlights the contrasting reputation of Robespierre occurred in 1792. Robespierre had long advocated insurrection “only with the sword of the law”, but on August 10 an attack was carried out on the Tuileries Palace, and even though Robespierre did not participate in the attack, he was nominated to the insurrectional commune. A month later, nobles and clergy were imprisoned and murdered during the September Massacres and, as a member of the electoral assembly of Paris, Robespierre exonerated the mob. Soon after, the people of Paris chose him to lead the delegation to the National Convention.
At this stage, Robespierre had attracted many supporters, and many enemies.
Robespierre was accused of a dictatorial leadership style on various occasions. In 1792, The Girondins accused him of dictatorship during his sessions with the National Convention. The Girondins were a political group which favoured political but not social democracy, and clashed with the ideals of the Jacobins. They also controlled the government and the civil service. To support their accusations, the Girdondins cited Robespierre’s call for the death of the king during his trial in December 1792.
Other critics point to Robespierre’s use of the phrase “une volonté une” or “one single will” as proof of his dictatorship. Robespierre adopted this phrase to unite all of the disparate forces of the revolution, including the warring factions in the Vendee region, the Montagnards and the federalists. Robespierre saw that the foundations of the revolution had been established, and he accepted responsibility for mobilising all of these forces in a combined effort.
The Committee of Public Safety
The Committee of Public Safety also prompted many people to question Robespierre’s legacy. The committee had been set up in April 1793 to essentially maintain public order during the revolution, but critics argued its methods were excessive. The committee utilised vigilance committees to maintain unity among revolutionaries, and Robespierre himself established a revolutionary militia to fight counterrevolutionaries and grain hoarders.
Another aspect of Robespierre’s leaderhip which drew claims of dictatorship was conscription. Robespierre sought to mobilise the masses in order to defeat the counterrevolutionaries and conservatives. The policy of conscription, the management of the economy and the centralisation of power under Robespierre became known as the Reign of Terror.
Robespierre is often regarded as the architect of the Reign of Terror, but it is also accepted that he opposed pointless executions and opposed the arrest of deputies during the arrest of the Girondins, and even the arrest of the king’s sister. He also spoke out against various massacres and demanded that the perpetrators be recalled for “dishonouring the Revolution”.
Meanwhile, tensions were heightened, violence was increasing, and Robespierre’s enemies were circling.
Robespierre regularly justified the centralisation of power, and some interpreted this as a justification of dictatorship. He called for purges of local authorities and other factions which threatened the government, and he clashed with groups such as the Hebertists and the Cordeliers. Some of these groups called for radical actions to secure the revolution, and disagreed with Robespierre on the matter of religion.
Defence of Christianity set Robespierre at odds with other revolutionaries. Various factions called for the de-Christianisation of government and society, but Robespierre modelled himself on the Deist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A report to the National Convention in his name affirmed the existence of God and advocated a civic religion and support for the notion of a supreme being. This increased his popularity among some quarters, but it angered others, so much so that on May 22, Henri Admirat attempted to execute Robespierre. He survived this attempt and was soon elected president of the National Convention, in which capacity he led the festival of the Supreme Being (“Etre suprême”) in the Tuileries Gardens on June 8, further angering his detractors.
Accusations of dictatorship, support for Christianity, leaderhip of the Jacobins and calls for the king to be executed all contributed to a growing list of opponents, and Robespierre’s life was now under genuine threat.
Robespierre fell ill and disappeared from public life for about a month. He returned to denounce the radical leader Jacques-Rene Hebert, who along with foreign agents was executed. Other opponents such as Georges Danton criticised the policies of the Committee of Public Safety and launched violent attacks against Robespierre in order to halt the revolution and end the Reign of Terror. They were unsuccessful and faced the guillotine in April of that year.
Opposition continued to grow. Critics disagreed with the reorganisation of the Revolutionary Tribunal, and they included people he had himself threatened, as well as Georges Couthon, Louis de Saint Just, Joseph Cambon, the minister of finance, and even members of the Committee of Public Safety.
How much longer could Robespierre survive?
The political and military battles and the threats on his life took their toll. Robespierre suffered ill health and he was said to be irritable and distant. Accusations of dictatorship affected him personally and he absented himself from the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety, appearing only at the Jacobin club to denounce counterrevolutionaries.
At the same time, he began to lose the support of the people, whose hardships continued. From his partial retirement, Robespierre followed the unleashing of the Great Terror in the summer of 1794 and the progress of opposition.
In an attempt to win back public support and complete his patriotic work, he reappeared at the Committee of Public Safety on July 23 and at the National Convention on July 26. While his speech at the convention was first greeted with applause, this soon turned to disquiet, then majority opposition. On the same evening he attended a reception at the Jacobin Club where he was well received, but the next day he was prevented from speaking at the Convention. The situation worsened when Robespierre, his brother and three associates were taken to the Luxembourg prison. Even though the warden refused to jail them, the threat to Robespierre’s safety was growing by the day.
Robespierre and his closest allies sought refuge at the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), where he was expected to lead an insurrection utilising the armed contingents from some of the sections of the city who had been summoned by the Paris Commune and were awaiting orders. Robespierre refused, however, and then something strange happened. After being declared an outlaw by the National Convention, Robespierre severely wounded himself by a pistol shot in the jaw.
Chaos reigned as his supporters and allies were thrown into confusion and soldiers of the National Convention attacked the Hôtel de Ville, easily seizing Robespierre and his followers. What had been anticipated for months would finally eventuate.
On the evening of July 28, Robespierre and the first 22 of his condemned supporters were guillotined before a cheering mob on the Place de la Revolution, (now the Place de la Concorde). In total, 108 people would die for their support of Robespierre’s cause.
Maximilien Robespierre left a lasting impression of France. He presided over political organisations which attracted many supporters and just as many critics, and his ideas and actions led to the overthrow of existing power structures, and prompted attacks on his own life. His actions will forever be debated, but his influence of France is undeniable, and is far greater than that of any fashion designer.