There was one execution from which Maximilien Robespierre, who had sent so many of his fellow citizens to die on the guillotine during the French Revolution, could not excuse himself.
And that was his own.
Robespierre’s colleagues in France’s revolutionary government, tired of all the killing and worried that any one of their own names might be the next added to the list of the condemned, finally sent the unbending leader to the scaffold on July 28, 1794.
Like countless tumbrels that preceded it on the same route, the open wagon carrying the condemned happened to pass by Robespierre’s own residence at 398 rue Saint-Honoré in the First Arrondissement of Paris to the jeers of the populace.
The apartment’s windows were closed, as on previous occasions. But this time someone from the crowd spattered the famous man’s shutters with a bucket of blood.
Then, one woman grabbed onto the rail of the cart, raised herself up, and cursed the fallen leader to his face: “Monster spewed up from hell. The thought of your punishment intoxicates me with joy.” After he looked at her sadly, she continued, “Go now, evil one, down into your grave loaded with the curses of the wives and mothers of France.”
Once the wagon had arrived at its destination, Robespierre and his fellow prisoners ascended the scaffold one by one. And one by one each met his end at the edge of the “national razor.”
Once Robespierre reached the execution platform, before placing the condemned man’s head under the blade, the public executioner ripped off the bandage covering Robespierre’s dislocated jaw. The fallen leader had been injured the day before in an abortive revolt against the government that had turned on him.
When the bandage came off, Robespierre screamed in pain or perhaps horror. This scream was the last utterance of the leader so unbendingly committed to revolutionary virtue that he’d earned the moniker “the Incorruptible.”
A Reluctant Spiller of Blood
During the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), revolutionary tribunals handed down nearly 17,000 death sentences for French citizens deemed to be enemies of the people. Another 10,000 people arrested for political crimes died in prison. And no man played a bigger role in those deaths than Robespierre, leading member of the ironically named Committee of Public Safety.
For a leader who caused so much blood to be spilled, Robespierre was a reluctant executioner. He began his career in public life by arguing against capital punishment as a barbaric practice from the ancien regime not suited to the new enlightened era of revolution. Later, when public opinion began to turn against Louis XVI, Robespierre argued (unsuccessfully) to spare the King’s life. A devotee of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robespierre believed that human nature was essentially good until corrupted by society.
But in the atmosphere of revolution where real threats from enemies foreign and domestic loomed from every side, the provisional government’s optimistic project of reform descended into defensiveness and paranoia. Ultimately, the Incorruptible led the way to adopting terror to defend the revolution from enemies both real and imagined.
And while other revolutions might have tried to eliminate their enemies as quietly as possible, Robespierre made Terror official government policy. A true believer, he wasn’t ashamed to justify with all candor cutting off as many heads as necessary:
If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie.
To make it easier for revolutionary tribunals to enforce the Terror, Robespierre, trained as a lawyer, also led the way to streamlining the process to accuse, try and condemn the guilty — for example, by shortening or altogether removing opportunities for the accused to speak in their own defense.
When tumbrels filled with the condemned bound for the scaffold rattled past Rousseau’s apartment, the revolutionary leader’s windows were shuttered and he was probably settled quietly inside. Robespierre did not attend the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793, nor the beheading of Queen Marie Antoinette a few months later in October.
It’s understandable that Robespierre absented himself from the killing of his old friend and fellow revolutionary Georges Danton on April 5, 1794. And he certainly didn’t bother to witness the thousands of deaths for crimes against the revolution alleged perpetrated by ordinary citizens such as these:
Jean Baptiste Henry, aged eighteeen, journeyman tailor, convicted of sawing down a tree of liberty, guillotined.
Henrietta Frances de Marboeuf, aged fifty-five, convicted of hoping for the arrival in Paris of the Austrian and Prussian armies and for hoarding provisions for them, guillotined.
Francis Bertrand, aged thirty-seven, convicted of producing “sour wine, injurious to the health of citizens,” guillotined.
Mary Angelica Plaisant, seamstress, guillotined for exclaiming, “A fig for the nation!”
A list of these and others whose heads fell to the national razor opens Ruth Scurr’s biography of Robespierre, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution.
A Deadly Serious Commitment to Liberation
The rest of Scurr’s text is as lively but it’s also evenhanded, presenting the architect of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror as neither monster nor misunderstood humanitarian.
Maximilien Robespierre turns out to be something more interesting. According to Scurr, he was a rare leader who really was as virtuous as he pretended to be.
With no patience for traditional institutions, in hopes of liberating the French people from oppression, Robespierre helped abolish the monarchy and aristocracy. But that was just for starters.
In hopes of freeing the people from the tyranny of old beliefs and customs, Robespierre helped abolish the common calendar and the Catholic church, replacing them, respectively, with the revolutionary calendar (starting in the fall with the month of Vendémiaire) and the Cult of the Supreme Being where “Reason was God.”
When he felt that the progress he’d fought so hard to achieve was under attack, Robespierre sought to purge everyone who didn’t share his commitment to fighting injustice.
Because he lived up to his reputation as the Incorruptible, Robespierre’s story is worth remembering today as a Platonic ideal of the idealistic revolutionary.
The Incorruptible didn’t go into politics for money or sex or glory.
Robespierre was a leader who genuinely wanted to make life better for ordinary people. He loved the people in the abstract so much that he was willing to sacrifice any real people who seemed to stand in the way of the cause of progress.
Convinced that he was always on the side of freedom and justice, Robespierre was proud that he would never compromise with those who disagreed with him. And this is how he managed to go so wrong.
After turning into the kind of tyrant he thought he was fighting, Robespierre descended into paranoia, finding enemies of the people everywhere and sending them straight to the guillotine.
In the end, once he was in the dock as the accused, Robespierre would be hoisted with this own petard. After the revolutionary authorities refused to let him read the speech he’d written in his own defense, prisoner Robespierre found himself streamlined into conviction and execution under the very same rules that he had pushed through the revolutionary legislature only weeks earlier.
Robespierre’s story is a lesson from history that the bloodiest tyrant need not come from the bigotry of the right but can also arise from the idealism of the left.
He can start — and end — with the best intentions, always the ascetic, self-sacrificing idealist ever firm in the nobility of his cause to uplift mankind and break the chains of tradition. Robespierre preached democracy, championed the cause of the poor and loved nature, at least an idealized, noble version of nature he got from Rousseau.
Genuinely sworn to befriend the people, Robespierre shed a tear for the peasant mother who could not afford bread for her children while pampered aristocrats in silks and pompous priests in gilt churches gorged themselves on the wealth of the land. He regretted having to kill so many and promised to end the Reign of Terror as soon as the revolution was safe. But when would that be?
History since the French Revolution offers examples of many latter-day Robespierres, from Lenin to Mao to Pol Pot, who have led revolutionary movements into becoming execution movements. Today, Robespierre’s story should warn us all to be wary of high-minded and uncompromising ideologues who would expunge the sins of the nation by cutting off heads, whether literally or figuratively.
It is right to take down statues of Confederate generals, whose “Lost Cause” was really a cruel revolt of selfish elites intended to destroy the United States and forever protect slavery. We should also be glad to see the end of statues of openly racist modern politicians like Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, who urged citizens in the 1970s to “vote white.” And it’s long past time to reject the Confederate “Southern Cross” battle flag as the symbol of hate and not heritage that it’s always been.
At the same time, we should be suspicious of activists so iconoclastic that they’ll pull down any statue or destroy any tradition, even the ones worth saving.