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The Core Curriculum

Maximilien Robespierre

1758 CE – 1794 CE

  A satirical engraving shows Robespierre guillotining the executioner, having guillotined everyone else in France, late 18th C. (Wikimedia Commons) A satirical engraving shows Robespierre guillotining the executioner, having guillotined everyone else in France, late 18th C. (Wikimedia Commons) Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (May 6, 1758 – July 28, 1794) was a French revolutionary leader. He was born on May 6, 1758 in Arras. Raised and educated in that city early on, Robespierre matriculated at Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris and, having graduated with distinction, took up his father’s law practice. He soon became active politically, and at age thirty he was elected to represent the Third Estate delegation to the Estates General of 1789. Robespierre played a key role in the Estates General, and later in the National Assembly. But his uncompromising stances on democratic ideas and equality did not make him politically popular. Robespierre was, in this sense, a visionary, for he favored extending the right to vote to all men, not just property owners, and he opposed slavery in France’s colonies.

He also was opposed to the King. So when the monarchy was overthrown in August of 1792, Robespierre was elected to the Convention that was to draft a Constitution. As his political faction grew in power, Robespierre enlisted the help of the sans-culottes, radical militants from the lower classes of French society. The pressure of fighting two wars, international and civil, along with the ever-present possibility of government upheaval, led to the creation of the state that became known as the Reign of Terror. During the Reign of Terror, Robespierre systematically convicted and guillotined members of rival factions in the name of bringing his utopian democratic ideal to life.

Opposition arose, however, and in late July of 1794, members of the Convention voted for his arrest. Robespierre was imprisoned, but then released. He tried to rally the sans-culottes in his support again, but the opposition leaders marshaled their forces in time to capture Robespierre and his associates. Having been designated an outlaw, Robespierre was put to death the next day.

In the process of being captured, Robespierre suffered a gunshot wound to the jaw, likely from his own hand. On the day of his execution, when the executioner went to clear Robespierre’s neck, he removed the bandage that was holding his shattered jaw in place. Robespierre screamed in agony until his head was separated from his body by his own favored machine of death, the guillotine.

 

Written by Patrick Comstock, Philosophy and Education, Teachers College,  Columbia University

 

Works Consulted:

Lynn Hunt, Jack R. Censer, James A. Leith. “French Revolution: An Overview.” Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, edited by Alan Charles Kors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Oxford Reference Online

“Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de.” Encyclopedia of European Social History, edited by Peter N. Stearns. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001: 300-301