Robespierre is an enigmatic character, whose political and ideological beliefs changed throughout his lifetime. An examination of issues arising from his move to the left from June 1791 to August 1792 (Jordan, “Robespierre” 285) offers insight into Robespierre’s shifting political viewpoints. I argue that this period reveals a man unable to stand by his convictions. As such, Robespierre should be considered a naïve thinker whose belief system was not suited to political leadership. My argument is supported by a reading of primary and secondary sources pertaining to four issues: authority, the government’s role in protecting the people it represents, popular movements, and the death penalty.
Citing five key speeches, Cobban notes that an essential characteristic of Robespierre’s writings and speeches from the early years of the Revolution was “a radical hostility to all authority” (46). However, once a member of the Convention, Robespierre hastily became a supporter of authority and advocated the strengthening of the government (Cobban 47), a change in position that can only be attributed to his own rise to power. Cobban goes one step further to show how Robespierre’s specific guidelines for strengthening the legislative branch were derived from the principles of Rousseau (48).
In The Social Contract, Rousseau argues that participatory democracy would only work in unique settings. As human beings are prone to errors in judgment, he advocates representative democracy (Barzun 385). This is one manifestation of Rousseau’s impact on Robespierre. As Jordan notes, Robespierre remarked that “the people as a whole cannot govern themselves” (Revolutionary Career, 151). His speech of 1792, “On Subsistence Goods,” reveals how he envisioned the government protecting the people it represented. In this speech, he asserted that all people have an inalienable right to the necessities of life (2), and that, in order to protect this right, the government must see that the wealthy do not inhibit the circulation of these necessities (4).
However, the people, in Robespierre’s estimation, do not have the right to protest in order to draw attention to the unequal distribution of the wealth (Jordan, “Robespierre” 290). This is a significant departure from his views from the early years of the Revolution when he often served as an “apologist for popular violence” (Cobban 50). Cobban attributes this change to Robespierre’s being more effective as an opposition leader, noting that when he assumed a position in the Convention, he found that popular violence was being directed towards himself (52). The motivation for this change bears similarities with his changing beliefs about authority: authority is disdainful when someone else is in power, and this authority should be confronted by popular uprisings. However, when he himself is in power, it should not be challenged by protest movements.
A similar change occurs in Robespierre’s beliefs on the death penalty. In 1791, Robespierre strongly argued against the death penalty, saying that it is essentially unjust and ineffective in the prevention of crimes (1). However, once he had attained more political power, he supported the execution of the King and the purging of the Convention. These actions reveal how he willingly changed his beliefs in order to suit his political situation.
This essay has shown that Robespierre was unable to reconcile his idealized political beliefs derived from the ideals of the Enlightenment as exposed by Rousseau with the realities of Revolution and political leadership. This incapacity led him to turn his back on one of his primary beliefs, namely his disdain for the death-penalty.
Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to
the Present. New York: Perennial, 2001.
Cobban, Alfred. “The Political Ideas of Maximilien Robespierre during the Period of the
Convention.” The English Historical Review 61 (Jan. 1946) no. 239: 45-80.
Jordan, David P. The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1989.
________. “Robespierre.” The Journal of Modern History 49 (June 1977) no. 2: 282-291.
Robespierre, Maximilien. “On Subsistence Goods.” From Robespierre, Discours et
rapports à la Convention (Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions, 1988). Trans. Mitch Abidor. Retrieved March 10, 2009. http://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/robespierre/1792/subsi..
________. “On the Death Penalty.” Speech at the Constituent Assembly
June 22, 1791. Trans. Mitch Abidor. Retrieved March 10, 2009. http://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/robespierre/1791/deat…