Robespierre, Maximilien François de
ROBESPIERRE, MAXIMILIEN FRANÇOIS DE
French Revolutionary leader; b. Arras, May 6, 1758;d. Paris, July 28, 1794. Orphaned at nine, he studied law and became a judge in criminal cases. He was elected to the Estates-General (1789) and later to the National Convention. His rise to prominence during the french revolution was gradual. A champion of the rights of the people and of natural virtue, he espoused the reforms of Aug. 4, 1789, and advocated confiscation of ecclesiastical property and the death sentence for Louis XVI. When the revolution deteriorated toward extremism after June 1792, Robespierre upheld the constitution of 1791 and opposed war and military dictatorship. In the power struggle after the king's execution (Jan. 21, 1793), Robespierre conceived the Committee of Public Safety. Under his Jacobin leadership it prevented foreign invasion; established peace and prosperity; instituted republican government; and purged the Girondins, the radical Hebertists, and the conservative Dantonists, thereby placing the Jacobins in supreme control. Mounting problems necessitated stern legislative measures to further the distribution of state-appropriated lands and the expedition of justice; but these measures increased the savagery of this period of terror.
As a believer in natural religion and a follower of Jean Jacques rousseau, Robespierre instituted the Republic of Virtue (June 1794) and the cult of the supreme being as an alternative to Catholicism, atheism, and the cult of the goddess reason; but popular enthusiasm was slight. Instead, the innovation precipitated a reaction and a conspiracy among the deputies that culminated in Robespierre's downfall and execution by guillotine.
Bibliography: Oeuvres complètes, ed. e. dÉprez et al. (Paris 1910–). l. e. hamel, Histoire de Robespierre, 3 v. (Paris 1865–67). a. mathiez, Études robespierristes, 2 v. (Paris 1917–18); The Fall of Robespierre, and Other Essays, tr. from Fr. (New York 1927). j. m. thompson, Robespierre, 2 v. (Oxford 1935); Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York 1953). g. walter, Robespierre, 2 v. (def. ed. Paris 1961). r. r. palmer, Twelve Who Ruled (Princeton 1941). h. belloc, Robespierre (2d ed. London 1927). m. bouloiseau et al., eds., Discours de Maximilien Robespierre, 4 v. (Paris 1950–59).
[r. j. maras]