Revolutions are an interesting thing. They wipe away the old regime in way that often takes on a life of its own and, in the end, usually reflects the path that the revolution took before establishing a new regime. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1918 was born out of despair, poverty and violence and brought to that country an equally despairing and violent regime.

Although violent, the American Revolution was much less brutal and, as a result, the government and society that rose from it have been remarkably stable.

Then there is the French Revolution.

The French Revolution began in 1789 with bright-eyed Enlightenment idealists who took a cue from America and saw their chance to right the wrongs that were occurring in their country.

They wanted to give more voting, property, and other rights to a greater segment of the population and they wanted to help alleviate the poverty and social divisions that were endemic at the time. But as the revolution dragged on, optimism was replaced with brutality.

The “Reign of Terror” was instituted by the revolutionaries in 1793 as a quick and violent means to forever wipe away the old traditions of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church. More than 16,000 Frenchmen and women were executed by the guillotine and another 40,000 were killed in the streets or languishing in prisons.

And behind it all was a man named Maximilien de Robespierre. Robespierre was the head of the Committee of Public Safety (basically the political police) during the Reign of Terror and ruthlessly ruled France from July 27, 1793 to July 28, 1794.

Not a very long reign, was it? Well, the reason for Robespierre’s short time at the top was due to the very crazy decisions he made during the Reign of Terror. After being given a wide latitude by the French people to reform their country, he instead focused on settling old scores, enriching himself, and generally giving in to his sadistic impulses.

The crazy and violent decisions that Robespierre made eventually led to his demise in the same manner as many of the fellow countrymen he had condemned—underneath the guillotine.

Growing up in the Enlightenment

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre, often just referred to as “Robespierre,” was born in 1758 in France, which was a period of great change and social upheaval.

The religious wars of the 1600s were over and in their place; Western Europeans were making scientific advances and questioning the order of things in what is known as the Enlightenment. And France was ground zero for most of the Enlightenment.

Robespierre grew up under a monarchy and in a country with great disparities of wealth and social class on the one hand, but on the other hand, the writing of the philosophers Voltaire and Rosseau were widely read and available.

As a major follower of the general principles of the Enlightenment, Robespierre earned a law degree because he believed that would be the best way to affect change in France.

The young lawyer became a local activist and politician, advocating for social changes and changes to the constitution. Eventually, he caught the eye of more important activists and was asked to join the Jacobians, a society of radical Enlightenment thinkers.

By the time the French Revolution happened, Robespierre was leading the Jacobins and was a major player in the events that took place, but the problem with the French Revolution was that there were too many leaders. Once Louis XVI was overthrown and executed, most couldn’t agree on what to do next.

Robespierre and his allies believed that only more violence was the answer, so when he became a member of the Committee of Public Safety in July 1793, he was finally able to mold France into his own perceived model.

Off with Everyone’s Heads

The Reign of Terror was truly brutal, no doubt, but perhaps what made it even worse was its hypocrisy, which later played a major role in Robespierre’s demise.

In October 1793, Robespierre really got the ball—and heads—rolling, when he began declaring enemy “conspirators” as those who opposed the ideals of the Revolution. Men and women were arrested and tortured, mostly without trial. If they did get a trial, it was usually little more than a formality before they were executed by the guillotine.

When others in the Committee thought the Reign of Terror should end, Robespierre responded by killing more people and going after what was left of the royals, such as Marie Antoinette, and imprisoning members of the Church and other notable people who weren’t even against the initial Revolution.

It was too much for most of the French, but those closest to Robespierre were afraid to speak out lest they too were labeled “conspirators” and sent to the guillotine.

One thing that separates Robespierre from other brutal dictators is that he never denied his brutal acts and he in fact called for more.

After assuming total control of France, Robespierre let the world know just how crazy he was holding a “Festival of the Supreme Being.” As the people of France cowered in fear and wondered where their next meals would come from, Robespierre put on an elaborate spectacle at great expense.

The purpose of the event wasn’t exactly clear to most people. Robespierre said it was to celebrate a new religion that would replace the Catholic Church, but for most people, it had gone too far. It also seemed a lot like Robespierre was positioning himself to be god’s replacement.

Robespierre’s craziness was finally met with enough resistance when the Convention, which was the legislative assembly at the time, voted to arrest the despot and five of his closest followers.

Justice was much quicker for Robespierre than it was for many of his victims. He was arrested and executed by the guillotine the next day. For many in France, it was an ironic and poetic justice.

Did You Know?

  • Robespierre was one of the shortest leaders in world history, standing at only 5’3. He sometimes wore shoes with heels to appear taller.
  • Another crazy thing that Robespierre did was adopting the new “French Republican” calendar. Year one was 1792 and the months were renamed. Robespierre was executed in the month of “Thermidor.”
  • Robespierre never married and had no children. You could say that Maximilien was married to the Revolution.
  • Among the many executions that Robespierre ordered was Georges Jacques Danton (1759–1794). Danton was actually once a good friend of Robespierre and a moderate revolutionary who wanted the Reign of Terror to end. He was accused of being too lenient toward the enemies of the revolution.
  • The period immediately following Robespierre’s execution until November 1, 1795, became known as the “Thermidorian Reaction.” It marked a radical, often violent return to pre-Revolution ideas and the installation of a new government known as the “French Directory.”