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Monster/Martyr...Man? Empty Monster/Martyr...Man?

Post  Bunnies Wed May 08, 2013 6:17 pm

This is something I wrote in commemoration of Maximilien Robespierre's birthday on Monday. I showed it to Ms. Vidal and she invited me to share it on this forum. I'm more than happy to do so but I did want to add a disclaimer that I've actually changed my theory as to Robespierre's motives behind the Dantonist Trial. That said, the one I tout in the piece below is the theory of many historians so it's not as though the theory is fantastic and more importantly: the alteration doesn't impugn the meaning behind the work.

I should also say that the original piece contained some colorful language. The R-Rated version can be read here: http://bunniesandbeheadings.tumblr.com/post/49798349941/maximilien-monster-martyr-man. I personally think the swear words added an organic 'oomph' but I suppose that's a matter of taste.

So, um, please enjoy if you have a few minutes to spare.
“Robespierrists! Anti-Robespierrists! We’ve had enough. We say, for pity’s sake, simply tell us what Robespierre was really like.”

Such was the plea of historian Marc Bloch in 1941. Seventy-two years later, Bloch’s request has still gone unheeded, with the conflicting schools of historiography as rabidly antagonistic as they have ever been. To his detractors, especially his Anglophone detractors, Robespierre was a cloven-footed monster who drenched France with blood to satisfy either his twisted sense of virtue or his selfish ambition. To his admirers, especially his Socialist admirers, Robespierre was the haloed secular saint who stood alone against the counter-revolutionary torrent. It can be difficult to reconcile the idea that the two schools, staffed by the most brilliant historians the past two centuries have had to offer, are in fact discussing the same being.

But for all they mirror each other in a twisted dichotomy, they’re not so different and they suffer from the same fundamental flaw of reasoning. Because whether Robespierre is being castigated as Lucifer or revered as the Angel Gabriel he is not being viewed as human.

Robespierre has been consistently analyzed as an ‘other’, an anomaly, a selfish villain or a selfless hero, a warning or an example but he has been denied the most basic of identifications: that of his species. And therein lies the trouble.

See, I have this theory. And I know that I’m just a blushing twenty-year-old fresh into college and I know that I don’t have a Master’s Degree or a University Chair or a BBC special but I think it has a degree of legitimacy.

I think that Maximilien Robespierre was a human being.

It has been said in the past, by those desperate to silent the pleas of Robespierre’s “apologists” that to deprive Robespierre of his aura of exaggerated authority, of dictatorship or sacrifice, is to castrate him. To insist that it was not his blind idealism that caused the death of thousands of his countrymen or his unworldly purity that brought the advent of Thermidor is to devalue Robespierre. It is belittling to claim that Robespierre alone was not responsible for the sanctification of Human Rights or the hemorrhages of the Terror, to say that there were those equally or more responsible; that it was not his decisions, but a combination of his decisions and a thousand other circumstances that caused the brave/cowardly martyr/tyrant Maimilien Robespierre to become the prototype of both Freedom and Oppression.

But to dub Robespierre as human is not to morph a giant into a pygmy. To be called human is not to be called mediocre. To be human is not necessarily to be talentless or to be dim. Nor is it to be pure and without stain. Robespierre, if one would like to get lofty, was humanity in exaggeration, whose short life explored both the possibilities of man’s intellectual heights and moral depravity. Robespierre was larger than life; that he managed to circumvent death and inspire flared emotions among posterity is testament enough to his magnitude. It stands to reason, then, that his vices and virtues were themselves magnified.

The most consistently cited of Robespierre’s magnified vices is how, at the behest of the Committee of Public Safety, he put his signature to the arrest warrant of the Indulgents and drew out a litany of sins – including a petty reminiscence that Danton had compared Robespierre’s beloved vertu with ‘what he [Danton] did with his wife every night’ – that were to serve as the basis of the death warrant for men who he had once called his friends, for Georges Danton, for Camille Desmoulins, and for several others, including Camille’s darling wife, Lucille.

Hours before Lucile was led to the scaffold, her mother wrote a frantic letter to the ‘Incorruptible’ pleading for her child’s life:

Robespierre, is it not enough to have assassinated your best friend [Camille Desmoulins]; do you desire also the blood of his wife, of my daughter? Your master, Fouquier Tinville, has just ordered her to be led to the scaffold. Two hours more and she will not be in existence. Robespierre, if you are not a tiger in human shape, if the blood of Camille has not inebriated you to the point of losing your reason entirely, if you recall still our evenings of intimacy, if you recall to yourself the caresses you lavished upon the little Horace [Camille’s son; Robespierre’s godchild], and how you delighted to hold him upon your knees, and if you remember that you were to have been my son-in-law [Robespierre had briefly courted Lucile’s sister, Adèle], spare an innocent victim!

But if your fury is that of a lion, come and take us also, myself, Adèle, and Horace. Come and tear us away with your hands still reeking in the blood of Camille. Come, come, and let us be reunited in one single tomb.

The letter was never sent; even had it been it is unlikely Robespierre would have stopped the execution.

Little defense can be raised. Explanations can be, sure. The Indulgents were a threat, their witticisms a siren’s lure to anarchy at best. Robespierre would have had fair reason to believe in their dishonesty, possessing tangible evidence of their corruption, their embezzlement of government funds and documented penchants for violence not transforming them into the most convincing of avatars for mercy. The Committee may not have orchestrated their end using the most pristine of methods, but it could be said that the making of the Indulgent Purge was a bit like making a hot dog: You don’t want to know the recipe but you want to enjoy the result. Robespierre’s ingredients weren’t kosher but they made a delicious dish.

Such has the Indulgent Purge been defended by schools of posterity. But whatever the merits of such icy pragmatism they do not attach to Robespierre. They attach to men such as Billaud-Varenne, who masterminded the operation and as early as December 1793 demanded the heads of the quarrelsome indulgents only to have Robespierre rise “up like a wild man and accuse [him] of the trying to murder the most worthy of patriots!” Portending a pattern, the scene would repeat itself over the next five months as Robespierre was consistently buffered with demands from the street and from the Committee to throw his support behind a purge: for five months, Robespierre’s reluctance stayed the blade.

And so Robespierre is simultaneously exonerated both from the tenuous charges of personally executing dissidents because they annoyed him or of seeking the death of the Indulgents to protect the Republic. But this exoneration is almost more damning. In the former case, assuming Robespierre had been a psychopath senselessly hounding his victims to the death house he could lay claim to almost an unholy innocence: of being absolutely incapable of discerning right from wrong, of lacking the essential component of humanity that bequeaths a conscience. In the latter case, Robespierre’s role could be cited as evidence of his incorruptibility, of shuttling his friends to his death in order to consolidate – at the very least – what he believed to be the greater good.

But neither stands to scrutiny. Because Robespierre, he patently didn’t believe that the Indulgents necessarily had to be killed to be defeated. In submitting to the execution of Danton, Robespierre was being neither malicious nor pragmatic. He was being cowardly.

“You can risk being guillotined if you like,” one colleague sneered when Robespierre began quibbling over formalities, “but I don’t intend to.”

And so Robespierre signed the warrant for his friends’ arrest and swarmed into the Convention to give an impromptu speech silencing the objections raised by the legislative branch of government. It has been called Robespierre’s blackest moment, the most prototypical example of his dictatorial posturing. It was a violent tirade, almost gleefully harkening back to previous purges as though previous bloodshed justified that of the future. When the deputy Legendre demanded that Danton have his case heard before the Convention Robespierre swatted him down with a hiss, “He who trembles is guilty!”

Legendre hastily surrendered his friend and scurried back to his seat, frightened by the Incorruptible mouthpiece for the Committee of Public Safety. Legendre was not the only man trembling. Legendre surrendered Danton because of his fear of Robespierre, Robespierre surrendered Danton because of his fear of the Committee of Public Safety and, perhaps, of Danton himself. Legendre and Robespierre would be antagonists until the end of their lives but their roles here were identical.

Robespierre speech was not his leading the offensive against men he rightfully or wrongfully believed to be threats; his speech was something more akin to a patched olive branch to wave at ‘his’ Committee. It’s Robespierre’s apology for his behavior for the past five months – Robespierre said he was sorry. He was kidding, it wasn’t real, he was sorry – of course, you’re right, Billaud, there are no innocent people in the prisons, I was just misled! Oh no, Barere, of course I didn’t mean to impugn the wisdom of the Tribunal —- the Indulgents lied to me, they told me the Terror was out of control, they told me I was going to make everything okay again, but everything is already under control and okay!

“Robespierre did not want the death of Danton,” one deputy observed after listening to Robespierre’s speech, “he’s only frightened.” Another man familiar with the interior of the Committee of Public Safety observed that “From his emotion, from the vehemence and the fierce severity of this new accuser, I under[stand] very clearly that he was speaking under the influence of a conviction instilled into him by his colleagues: all is lost if we flinch.” The Terror trickled down. Even Danton, the victim, recognized Robespierre’s role was that of reluctant accomplice. During his trial he snarled that he meant to lampoon the “men who have misled Robespierre!” After his conviction, understandably feeling less indulgent, he noted idly: “If I could but leave my balls to Robespierre the country might actually be saved.”

For all that Robespierre’s speech has since been cited as a symbol of his absolutism, it was recognized contemporarily as a cry of defeat.

Such was the cowardice of Robespierre. Admittedly, few honest people could say that they would not have done the same thing in the same circumstances. But it is equally true that there are men littered throughout history who would certainly have held their ground against what they recognized to be tyranny.

And was Robespierre’s only contribution to the history texts his surrender of Danton, his reputation as the ferocious lion drunk on the blood of the French or of the eternally sniveling coward would be just. But it’s only half the equation, the other half too-often ignored. Robespierre’s alleged 20th century heir, Joseph Stalin, once made a chilling declaration: The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic. Morally bankrupt or not, the history books have implicitly held Stalin’s analysis to be true.

While we like focusing on the giants, the Great Men of History who are being crushed by other Great Men of History, Robespierre had a penchant for the Little Guys.

And in 1792 no less than 28,000 Little Guys had signed a petition pleading to spare King Louis XVI’s life. Their signatures bore on the document; their royalism was a published fact. All comparatively harmless in 1792, but come the Terror and the petition for the king’s life had become an accomplished death warrant in the eyes of the Parisian Jacobin Club. The logic is clear if not moral: The signers are confessed royalists, as loyal to the throne as the Austrian herself. Why not chop their heads off?

And the answer was this: We won’t chop their heads off because Robespierre says no.

This was not a fait accompli, and it was not as though Robespierre’s exalted position shielded him from danger or criticism. Proposals for moderation were being derided ‘a la Robespierre.’ The Hebertists had nearly organized an uprising, citing one of their quarrels with the government being a certain member of the Committee of Public Safety’s “tyrannical clemency.”

The Terror lapped at Robespierre’s heels as it did everyone else’s; he was more its prisoner than its architect. Despite this, despite the risk of his popularity – which was his sole source of security and power – and of his head, and despite how his behavior at other junctures indicates that this was patently a concern of his, Robespierre still pleaded for the lives of thousands of people who likely felt nothing but disgust for his person, his role in the execution of the king they evidently adored, and for the Republic he adored.

And so Robespierre was merciful to his fallen enemies and declares “we must not inflate the ranks of the guilty.”

This story tends to be confined to a footnote in Robespierre’s biographies. And in general works on the Revolution, it’s usually omitted: after all, the hemorrhage didn’t happen, and histories report the positive and not the negative.

But wait a moment. Throughout the actual Terror, the one that did happen, the one that is in our history books, there were 17,000 executions sanctioned by the government.

What all this means, of course, is that even if every other positive word ever written about Robespierre is a bald-faced lie lifted from a biased source or a product of his admirers’ fantastical imagination and even if every charge raised against him is the gospel truth, Robespierre still did more good than harm. Even if Robespierre pranced about Paris in skin-sewn breeches, even if he patted Collot’s head and cooed ‘good boy’ after hearing of the Lyons Massacres, even if he ordered a genocide in the Vendee for poops and giggles, even if even if even if: Even Robespierre’s hands alone are stained with the blood of 17,000 innocent Frenchmen who never hurt anybody ever he still cut the Terror into a fraction of what it would have been and saved 11,000 more innocent Frenchmen who never hurt anybody than he ever killed.

Even if even if even if: even if the Jacobins were exaggerating their zeal for the 28,000 heads, even if they ‘only’ decapitated one fifth of their estimate (the Revolutionary Tribunal, on average, had a 20% rate of execution), Robespierre’s intervention still preserved 5,600 lives.

But we’re going to say Robespierre was the unredeemable monster because while he was saving 5,600 Little Guys he forgot to save an important one in Georges Danton.

Because beyond a few names scribbled on a parchment, we don’t know anything about those 5,600-28,000 petitioners. We know about Georges Danton, we know that he had a big laugh and a bigger heart, we know that he loved his children and disliked bulls. But we don’t know about Gabrielle Roux, we don’t know whether she had dimples when she smiled or had a husband she adored or liked swimming or sewing or raised rabbits or raised children or —- we don’t know anything, anything beyond that her name is on a document pleading for the king’s life and that the Jacobins wanted to kill her and Robespierre saved her. She, alongside the other 27,999 petitioners, amounts to little more than a statistic in our history books. Georges Danton, he’s a person and Robespierre helped kill him.

Saving 28,000 human beings is a footnote, killing one is a chapter of France’s political history.

Saving 28,000 lives is a statistic but surrendering Danton is a crime against humanity.

And just as signing Danton’s arrest warrant wasn’t Robespierre’s sole contribution to the man’s death, sparing the 28,000 wasn’t his only statistic. Hundreds of immigrants owed their omission on the Law of Suspects to his intervention. Playhouses owed a pardon against the excessive censorship laws to his protest. Prisoners owed their not-being-blown-up by Collot d’Herbois to Robespierre’s objections. Countless Christians were spared violent persecution due to Robespierre’s singleminded determination to sanctify their freedom of religion – come the 1850s, some Catholic historians claimed that Robespierre’s only flaw was his refusal to adopt the True Faith. 77 Girondins owed him their lives – not quite so grateful to their benefactor, they would spend their unexpectedly extended lives calumniating their savior. Half a dozen vicious proconsuls owed him their recall – the proconsuls became his enemies, but Robespierre’s mailbag flooded with letters of gratitude from their almost-victims. During his lifetime, whatever his posthumous reputation, Robespierre enjoyed a reputation for clemency, rarely being listed among the blooddrinkers of the Republic. And so women traipsed from as far as Nantes to tug on his coattail and request intervention for their family. He often did, and his individual acts of clemency started to grow so numerous and so troubling that it is a known fact that at least two letters addressed to Robespierre that pleaded for mercy were lifted en route by agents of his colleagues and never reached him. One of these was of political importance, addressed from the soldier Hoche of future Napoleanic fame. After Thermidor Carnot would spend the rest of his life apologizing to Hoche for how the tyranny of Robespierre victimized him so. It wasn’t until all the parties were dead, in the 19th century, that Hoche’s arrest warrant was finally discovered: Robespierre’s signature didn’t bear on the document.

But Carnot’s did.

But Carnot, for all that his involvement in the Terror was very direct and very brutal, has generally been shrouded as one of France’s heroes. The reason for this is evident: as Hoche’s story illustrates, Carnot had the opportunity to write his own history.

And Robespierre, he could have had the opportunity to write his own history. Undeniably narcissistic, he would have enjoyed drafting his memoirs and parading his virtue before posterity. This narcissism, combined with his well-documented cowardice, makes what he did in July 1794 all the more impressive.

Come July 1794, Robespierre had been absent from the deliberations of the Committee of Public Safety for over a month, evidently dissatisfied with the course of affairs. Contrary to popular belief, he had even quarreled with Saint Just, his closest friend, effectively cutting the tendril holding him to the executive of government.

One member of the Committee of Public Safety recognized the danger of the split and arranged for Robespierre to meet with his colleagues and discuss the matter. ‘Discuss the matter’ here meaning to receive a threat: Come back to us or else. He did go, he did discuss the matter with them. The reports of this mysterious meeting vary, some witnesses going as far as to say that Robespierre bluntly demanded the dictatorship and other witnesses reporting that Robespierre accused the Committee of executing innocent people, only to earn the reply: “If you disagree with our choice of victims you should come and help us choose them!”

Whatever really happened, Robespierre received a document from the Committee of Public Safety. Signing it was to be tantamount to an acceptance of the peace offering.

It was an order for the immediate trial of 318 prisoners.

And Maximilien Robespierre, the sanguinary dictator who killed Danton and who apologized for trying to be clement, refused to sign it.

But here we go again: that’s only half the equation.

His signature does not bear on the trial warrant, but it does bear on another official document.

Robespierre drew up a list and released 320 prisoners, inverting the Committee’s demand, adding two, and calling it a good evening.

Or wait, no. He’s still not done.

To add insult to injury, Robespierre capped off with an order for the arrest of the brutal terrorist who put them there.

Robespierre was many things, but he was not a fool and had to have known that the warrant of release was his warrant for death. And sure enough: days later, his head was in a basket.

Now, it could be argued that for all Robespierre’s break from the Committee of Public Safety showed personal dignity, it also illustrated a degree of political ineptitude. It would have been better for him to either organize an opposition from the outside or sit within it and contribute to its meetings. And some might be saying that Thermidor was a far more complicated affair than Robespierre-Not-Wanting-To-Help-Behead-Some-300-People-And-The-Committee-Getting-Mad.

And my reply is: Of course. For every man who wrote to his friend about how “what convinced [him] of this monster’s depravity was his treatment of Collot and Fouche! He must have employed every method of depravity in order to spare the Lyonnais from the wrath of the nation” there was probably one who genuinely thought Robespierre’s Terror-And-Virtue speech was a tad alarming. And for every person who thought the Terror was too mellow or too harsh and that killing Robespierre would solve the problem, there were two that thought Robespierre was interfering too much in foreign policy and for every man who quarreled with Robespierre’s foreign policy there were three who had economic quibbles with his touted Laws of Ventose, or the Maximum Wage.

It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of the story of Thermidor, which is part of the story of Robespierre, who was, despite – or rather, because of — all his contradictions, still a human being. For all George Washington has been consistently adored, few of his modern-day biographers would exalt his owning slaves. But that is just as an integral part of his person as his leading the fight for American Independence. For all Joseph Stalin has been justly scorned, few of his modern-day biographers would begrudge his genuine and heartfelt feelings for his wife. Why should Robespierre’s story alone be told in halves, in broad strokes of black and white, with never a splash of nuanced gray?

None of the events I described, as varied as they are, excuses or omits the others. That Robespierre saved Gabrielle Roux and her peers does not change how he abandoned Danton. But that he abandoned Danton does not change how he saved Gabrielle Roux and her peers. To examine only one facet is to reduce a man to a caricature, a cardboard villain or trite martyr: but it is not to examine a historical figure, because the historical figure is Robespierre and Robespierre was a human.

Categorizing Robespierre as a member of humanity is the only way to understand him, because no other label can truly encompass the Sanguinary Incorruptible. No other label can explain how one creature could be so shy as to flee from an admiring crowd but rise as a dominant political figure during a Revolutionary Epoch. Humanity is the only adjective that will allow that a being who shivered in distress at the idea of public speaking would stir the mob as a riotous demagogue. Robespierre was not Satan or Saint but something more earthy, more tangible, but more elusive: a ruthlessly idealistic pragmatist, a cynically clement optimist, a sarcastic politic/disobedient/charming/awkward/naïve/smart being, who both climbed to the nadir and plummeted to the depths of the word ‘human’ but who somehow managed to happen, for both good and ill, over 200 years ago. Robespierre was once a living, breathing, tangible human being – and human beings are notoriously contradictory.

And until this is recognized, Robespierre will remain elusive. His detractors will always be able to argue his Absolute Evil and his Admirers will always be able to argue his Absolute Heroism. And the two schools will always manage to disprove one another’s thesis because both theses are fundamentally flawed and hinge on the possibility of a single adjective summarizing a man’s entire life. Robespierrists, Anti-Robespierrists: The truth lies in between.

The idea is an uncomfortable one. We would like our heroes and villains cleanly cut, the saints standing on side and the monsters on the other. Thermidor, depending on your political bias, is either the triumph of the former or the latter grouping. Both schools of thought find it difficult to tolerate any reservations as to Robespierre’s absolute depravity or absolute valor.

But by serving this yearning for unqualified nobility or villainy, the wealth of history is cheapened and the past’s capacity for teaching the future is curtailed and turned into a simple formula that will always fail since it applies to comfortable fantasy and not complicated reality.

Robespierre’s dominion was reality.

So Happy Birthday, Robespierre. Here’s to your being welcomed back into the population of the human race you so adored by the posterity you so trusted within the next 255 years.

Last edited by Bunnies on Tue May 21, 2013 12:28 am; edited 4 times in total (Reason for editing : If you think someone can write something this long and never edit it you're a lunatic)

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Post  Sophie Sun May 12, 2013 7:44 pm

It took a bit long, but at least I managed to read this. I also saved it for my collection of historical articles, because it's something I should read over and over again Smile Your argument is really good, I like the way you show us this "new" Robespierre, although I always tried to see historical characters as human beings. In the case of Robespierre, I don't think it was/is his own fault - he just did that he was determinated for. And yes, he did it in a spectacularly human way. (Although I also don't think he ever went mad, I'm sure his personality was changed due to his last 2-3 years of power...) This is my favourite sentence of your analysis:

It is belittling to claim that Robespierre alone was not responsible for the sanctification of Human Rights or the hemorrhages of the Terror, to say that there were those equally or more responsible; that it was not his decisions, but a combination of his decisions and a thousand other circumstances that caused the brave/cowardly martyr/tyrant Maimilien Robespierre to become the prototype of both Freedom and Oppression.

I have a graduate historian and ex-teacher in my family who always feels angry if people think about history as a chain of human affairs rather than complex processes. Blaming only one person means that you don't understand the circumstances that led someone to fulfill this necessary historical role, and also that you deprive humanity (or in our meso level: the 18. century French people) from taking their own responsibility for things that happened these days.

If it wasn't for Robespierre, than someone else with a similar personality would have done the same (or nearly the same) things. With someone else, it could have been that Danton "wins". It also couldn't have been able to change the processes that formed all the uncontrollable events and the certain human reactions on them. So instead of blaming Robespierre, I rather want to find out all the correlations that managed to lead a normal (but a doubless larger than life) man to find himself in such a historical role.

We know about Georges Danton, we know that he had a big laugh and a bigger heart, we know that he loved his children and disliked bulls. But we don’t know about Gabrielle Roux, we don’t know whether she had dimples when she smiled or had a husband she adored or liked swimming or sewing or raised rabbits or raised children or —- we don’t know anything, anything beyond that her name is on a document pleading for the king’s life and that the Jacobins wanted to kill her and Robespierre saved her.

Thank you for sharing this! I must admit I hear her name for the first time, too... so you're all right, we are mislead with our half-truths and false innervation. She surely wasn't "worthless", not only comparing her to Danton, but to other royalist, girondist or idealist martyrs who receive a better press from posterity. Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday, Lucile Desmoulins, if we only mention some other women... so why is this whole story so accurately swept away from public minds? Just because it doesn't fit well to the "image"?

But that he abandoned Danton does not change how he saved Gabrielle Roux and her peers.

True. So everything is based on how we interpret things, one doesn't need to technically lie in order to falsify something... only with a wrong and biased perspective. We are all biased, more or less, but we could try to reduce this human failure.

Thank you very much for writing and posting this! sunny

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Post  Susan Abernethy Sat May 18, 2013 6:52 pm

Dear Bunnies:

I read this piece with great interest. I love your argument about Robespierre being human! Amen to that. He's a living example of "power corrupts".

A few things come to mind when reading this. It is mentioned that some on Committee were afraid of Robespierre. Do you think this is how he operated? Was his human personality so frightening it led people to kill so many others? I've always wondered how so many people could be executed without the crowd trying to stop it. Couldn't the masses overwhelm the executioners and halt the executions? I have to agree with Sophie's point too that if Robespierre hadn't come along, someone else would have. I remember an exam in college for a French history course I took. The teacher wrote on the board: "Was the French Revolution inevitable?" The answer was the exam and I remember arguing "Yes".

The letter from the woman's mother is heartbreaking.

Thanks for sharing this.


Susan Abernethy
Susan Abernethy

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Post  Bunnies Sun May 19, 2013 3:17 pm

A few things come to mind when reading this. It is mentioned that some on Committee were afraid of Robespierre. Do you think this is how he operated? Was his human personality so frightening it led people to kill so many others?

I can't think of a member of the Committee of Public Safety who was ever afraid of Robespierre. Carnot, Napoleon's "Organizer of Victory"? Collot d'Herbois, the butcher of Lyons? Robert "I am here to feed the patriots, not slaughter them" Lindet? Billaud-Varennes was gifted with Machiavellian brilliance and Caesarian courage; he's not bowing to Robespierre. Even Robespierre's alleged disciples, Saint Just and Couthon, felt comfortable quarreling with him and acted contrary to his interests on numerous occasions, implying that their bond was coincidental, the three being of similar mind but not acting as a hierarchy. These are not personalities that could be bullied.

The Committee of Public Safety was not afraid of Robespierre.

The Convention? The Convention's a different story. This was a body that was absolutely afraid of Robespierre. In my piece above, I recounted Robespierre's speech which shuttled the Dantonist Trial forward. He acted similarly when he spoke in support of 22 Prairial.

He had a penchant for denouncing dissidents at the rostrum, which is certainly a scare tactic that warrants discussion. There was one incident in late 1793 where Robespierre denounced some Jacobin at the Parisian Club. Immediately, the clubbists rose up and demanded the victim's head. Robespierre scurried back to the rostrum and insisted that he wasn't trying to kill anybody, he was just complaining and --- geeze, could you guys calm down? "What is all this talk of the guillotine?" he said.

Apparently, on that occasion, Robespierre overshot his mark. It seems his goal was to frighten the wayward Jacobin into abandoning his current path but actually decapitating him hadn't even entered his mind. And, looking at other events, even when the wayward Revolutionary doesn't come back into line, it doesn't seem that Robespierre does much more than bark at them. He denounced Dubois-Crance for acting in a counter-revolutionary manner. Did Dubois stop? No. Was Dubois arrested? No. Is Dubois' story unusual? Only insofar as men, in general, backed down after one of Robespierre's denouncements. But there are other men who paid Robespierre just as little heed. Were they arrested?


This method had its merits and detriments. In one sense, it was both more humane and efficient, allowing Robespierre to curb opposition to the Committee without actually hurting anyone. But on the other end of the scale, it did make Robespierre the face of the Terror and focused government dissension on his person. Robespierre meant to only frighten "counter-revolutionaries" but he frightened the Convention as a whole, even the "virtuous majority" he revered. Like the time he was trying to frighten a dissident Jacobin only to accidentally rile the mob into a frenzy for his head, Robespierre overshot his mark.

But how could it be otherwise? This method of Robespierre's was arguably the catalyst that had him decapitated. His last speech contained numerous references to unnamed patriots, making everyone assume he was thinking of them. Some scholars speculate that Robespierre mentioned no names...because he wasn't trying to kill anyone at all. In any case, while this litany of denouncements managed to alarm individuals, Robespierre rarely employed it to press forward any agenda and coerce people into becoming his accomplices in murder. The only tenuous example is the Prairial Law, but that's just it: it's tenuous, and it's clear that the government's primary objection to it wasn't that it had the capacity to shift the line for execution into the express lane but because Robespierre neglected to ask the Committee of General Security for its opinion before he presented it and because it threatened parliamentary immunity. The former trouble was mended after a massive quarrel around the Green Room table and the latter was mended the day after by vote. Similar legislation had been theorized by Saint Just, Carnot, and even Robert Lindet. So citing it as Robespierre's work is not an argument without dissension --- so no, it doesn't seem as though Robespierre used fear to press his agenda forward. If anything, he used it to prevent other people from pressing their agenda forward, which is consistent with his role throughout the Revolution as a creature of the Opposition.

Anyway, back on topic, it seems as though the men who worked in close-quarters with Robespierre, such as the Committee of Public Safety, found nothing in him to be frightened of. Quite the opposite, they derided him on Thermidor above all for protesting against some of their proposed executions.

It was those who looked at him from afar who thought him to be ghoulish. As to his latter reputation being deserved, I think it is worth comparing him to another member of the CSP, Bertrand Barère. Barère spoke just as often as Robespierre did. Barère used phrasing of equal violence as Robespierre did. Barère's role in the Law of Frimaire is just as direct as Robespierre's role in 22 Prairial. On the individual scale, Barère signed twice as many warrants of arrest as Robespierre. As far as the Terror goes, Barère is more than Robespierre's equal.

But nobody was frightened of Barère - and it wasn't due to his being pacifistic, for as I mentioned, he was filling the prisons with glee. And this is one of those things that is only speculative, but it may have been because they knew Barère. He was an extroverted guy, always friendly and smiling. Even reading his memoirs, he makes me laugh despite myself. After the Convention, Barère would take you out to a local tavern and ask about your wife and kids. You knew Barère -- why would you ever believe that this jovial man would ever hurt you?

Robespierre, meanwhile, was aloof and would go home after the Convention. You don't know him. Barère talks about Terror but he showed another side to him in public. Robespierre talks about Terror and takes the other side of him home, lavishing it on his fiance and her family.

The result of this is that Barère was beloved and Robespierre was feared even though they were driving for the same ends and using the same means. We could actually make a good case that Barère was worse. Where Robespierre would chase opposition around with denouncements Barère would just throw them in prison, sans ceremony, and call it a day -- but he's smiling while he does it and isn't it nice to see someone enjoying their work so much?

This is a lesson in public relations if nothing else.

I've always wondered how so many people could be executed without the crowd trying to stop it. Couldn't the masses overwhelm the executioners and halt the executions?

If they wanted to stop them, sure, but in general the crowd implicitly supported them. Oh, our novels are filled with tales of the crowd growing averse to the sharp increase in executions, but looking at the police reports of the time it's clear that people were primarily concerned with comparatively paltry things like the Maximum wage. Ironically, during the sharp increase of executions in Prairial, there was only one speech given condemning the upsurge: and it was given by Robespierre. It's either his speech of 12 or 21 Messidor; I've forgotten which [edit: It was the speech of 23 Messidor. Oops] To everyone else, it seemed as though business was going on as usual (and numerically speaking, over the whole of France, it was - it seemed as though the executions had increased because they were all being conducted in Paris, but the total was lower than the monthly average).

The Terror is the most piqued device on the political scene to us, in posterity. But contemporarily? It was a footnote and the parties weren't even divided into 'pro' and 'anti' Terror. There were some men who disagreed on all things, economics, foreign policy, centralization, vertu, ..but who agreed on the necessity of a Terror.

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