Maximilien Robespierre

May 1, 2012 | | Comments Off on Maximilien Robespierre

Violence, mass executions, mob rule, and injustice: the French Revolution was one of the most convulsive time periods in the history of the world. Radicals seized control of the government, and thousands of innocent people lost their lives, all in the name of democracy. The man at the head of the infamous “Reign of Terror” quietly observed it all.

Maximilien Robespierre was born on May 6, 1758 in the bustling city of Arras, located in the northernmost tip of France. Born of a poor family, Robespierre’s mother died while he was at the tender age of nine. His father, devastated by the loss, abandoned Robespierre and his siblings to be brought up by various relatives. Though impoverished, Robespierre was able to study at a local college, where he quickly rose above his peers through hard work and studiousness. A scholarship enabled him to study law in Paris. The early years of his life read like a good storybook: an impoverished boy transcends his circumstances to become a respected lawyer.

Robespierre was heavily influenced by the theories of the popular philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau. This led to Robespierre’s belief in deism, democracy, and the natural goodness in man. French kings of the last century had elevated Roman Catholicism with its corruptions while persecuting Huguenots and other French Protestants. Given this history, Robespierre’s skill as an anti-Catholic and anti-monarchial orator increased the popularity of his call for secular democracy. His political influence grew as he was elected to positions of authority; in May 1789, with the French Revolution on the brink of exploding onto the already disordered political scene, he was elected a deputy of the Estates-General, a body of representatives in the French government. Soon afterwards he served in France’s new governing body, the National Constituent Assembly. Once again, his gift of oratory brought him much recognition among the leaders of the fledgling republic. In 1790, Robespierre was elected president of the Jacobin political party. He fiercely advocated radical social theories, and a power struggle with the more moderate Girondins developed. Robespierre, riding the wave of popular opinion he had mustered through his speeches, emerged victorious, and the Girondins were cast out, leaving the power solely with the Jacobins. Before this revolution the Catholic Church had seized so much Protestant property that fully one fifth of all of France belonged to Rome. Now all church property was taken back by the state. Catholic clergy lost power after the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy”, backed by the guillotine, placed papal power into the hands of the the Assembly.

Power and the unavoidable responsibility that came with it now lay in Robespierre’s hands. So began the most violent and chaotic time periods in French history. The “Reign of Terror” caused thousands of people to lose their lives (many of them innocent of the charges brought against them), and forever made Robespierre’s name one of the most notorious the world has ever known. Robespierre demanded that the king be put to death for the good of the French Republic, and in January 1793, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded. Under Robespierre’s leadership, droves of people suspected of being resistant to the Jacobin party’s policies were systematically killed during bloody public executions. He even created a national religion based on deism, “The Cult of the Supreme Being”. He sought to use the cult as a tool to unify the masses against the Revolution’s enemies.

Why were the French so reticent to accept Robespierre’s leadership? The French people had been denied access to the Scriptures by Pope Clement XI in his “Bull Unigentius” and therefore had no absolute authority of morality accept what was told to them by an increasingly corrupt priesthood. This corruption gave way to Robespierre’s “Terror” that went from mid-1793 to mid-1794. Toward the end of his autocratic rule, even one-time supporters and revolutionary leaders (including Georges Jacques Danton and Jacques René Hébert) were executed on his command. His supporters began to fear for their lives, and his power base quickly dissolved.

Robespierre was banned from the National Convention (France’s governing body) and placed under house arrest on July 27, 1794. A last attempt by his die-hard followers to free him failed. He attempted suicide but only managed to shoot off his lower jaw. A few hours later, on July 28, Maximilien Robespierre died on the very piece of equipment that would become a symbol for the “Reign of Terror” and of his bloody regime: he was executed on the guillotine. The following day, those suspected of following Robespierre’s policies were also executed. So ended the dictator’s reign.

Looking back on Maximilien Robespierre’s life, we see a man of paradoxes. The man who opposed the tyranny of monarchial governments became a tyrant; the man who desired democracy violently crushed all opposition. He provided more death than liberty (the slogan of the French revolution was “Unity, liberty, equality, and fraternity–or death), and he twisted belief in God to his own advantage with his “Cult of the Supreme Being”. He trusted in the virtue of human nature, not acknowledging that human nature is corrupt. Based on human nature, his regime and visions of the future inevitably crumbled to dust. Once again, history demonstrates that only the unchanging character of God can act as the surest foundation for a government. While the United States experienced a wave of revival during their second “Great Awakening”, France experienced bloody anarchy. Robespierre’s abuse of state power under the guise of deism gave rise to Napoleon and other destructive leaders.

– Gabriel Hunter-Chang


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