I asked the only two French friends I have - “Why isn’t there a statue of Maximilien Robespierre in Paris?” One of them shrugged in French, the other one said - “There is one, but nobody knows it’s him because the head’s missing.” Five minutes later when we stopped laughing, he also shrugged in French. Just before he was executed, as Robespierre agonized on the table of the Committee of Public Safety, his adversaries set out to fabricate the monster that would pass into history under his name. Robespierre’s enemies, The Thermidorians, demonized him as a blood thirsty dictator who took power amidst the confusion of the French Revolution and begun to cut off heads left and right. But Robespierre was by no means a dictator. On the contrary, he despised them. He distrusted and denounced military men who aspired to personal power like the marquis de La Fayette, who turned the National Guard against the people, or Charles François Dumouriez, who attempted a coup d’etat against the revolutionary government. The power that he himself wielded was never absolute. Either in the Estates General, the National Assembly, or the Convention, he was only one among many revolutionary politicians. Even at the peak of his power, when he was reluctantly elected to the Committee of Public Safety, he shared the leadership with eleven other members. Robespierre had to wait a long time for power, but personal control of the Revolution was not his goal. He rose to the top slowly and gradually, harnessing his consistent revolutionary views and untainted reputation, against which many men feared to be contrasted, as legitimate tools for a meteoric rise in politics. He eventually achieved great popularity thanks to his eloquent oratory, which he pursued and perfected relentlessly, until his speeches appeared as a collection of solidly linked truths that revealed the purity of his radical revolutionary ideals. Robespierre mastered the art of public speaking to insure a place for himself in the new political arena of the French Revolution. Politicians no longer a selected group of nobles who had nothing to do with the people; they were the people. Politics became a means for society to change and remodel itself. By observing Robespierre’s the political career we witness the birth of the modern politician, for he cultivated public opinion and drew power from the people by means of oratory and the use of revolutionary language and media. Furthermore, he backed all his words with an exemplarily moral life that resonated with the French population. Still, he was no overnight success; indeed, he was kept from power for a long time because of his radicalism. The Revolution was too moderate for him, but he didn’t change his ideals for political gain. Instead, he waited patiently and actively for his time. He knew where the Revolution ultimately resided, so he persuaded “the people” until they became as radical as he was.
The French Revolution altered the political arena. It removed political power from the nobles, rich lawyers, and royal officials of the Old Regime, while placing it in the hands of young professionals: “merchants, lawyers, artisans.”1 The shift was constant but not abrupt. As the revolution became more radical, most of the officials of the Old Regime where replaced by new ones. Little by little, the Revolution replaced old ideas with new ones, and older politicians with younger ones.
The politician became a more familiar figure. Voters “increasingly preferred younger professional…[leaders] to the old local notables”2 for they felt that the latter came from similar backgrounds and were better acquainted with their situation, and consequently, more able representatives. This “circulation of politicians facilitated the creation of a new political class”3, until, in 1792, the nobles disappeared from politics altogether. New times required new men who exercised power in a new way.
The collegial nature of the new Revolutionary body required expertise in the art of persuasion, and the new politicians, aware of the challenges posed by their peers and rivals, set out to master the practice of oratory, “the art of enchanting the soul”4 , according to Socrates. The revolutionary politicians drew inspiration from the great orators of the past like Cicero and Demosthenes who “united the talents of writing and speaking” creating “perfect models of the art.”5 The Comte de Mirabeu was one of the great orators of the revolution. His powerful voice and eloquence deeply moved the audiences. He revealed his strong determination from the first day he appeared as a legislator: when the master of the ceremonies entered and announced the king’s wishes to dissolve the Assembly, Mirabeau defiantly responded - “Tell your master, that we were sent here by the people; and that nothing but the bayonet shall compel us to separate.”6 Another exemplary orator of the time was Georges Danton, whose forte was improvisation. He reportedly had “the most respected pair of lungs in the Revolution.”7 Robespierre was also an adept speaker and enjoyed the respect of his contemporaries, but his achievements were not based on the image irradiated by his persona.
Robespierre was not a natural orator. Indeed, at the beginning of the Revolution, he was burdened by certain, somewhat intrinsic, obstacles: “he spoke with a marked regional accent” and “his voice was too high-pitched…feeble…and lacked tonal variation.”8 But his voice was by no means his only handicap:
His physical stature was unimpressive. He was short and slight, with a large head. He sometimes pushed [his glasses] up onto his forehead while speaking so he could rub his eyes. His gestures… were small… fussy and cramped… and he buried his head on the pile of manuscripts as he read them.9
Robespierre was not made for oratory, but neither was he made for discouragement. He was acutely aware of his limitations and worked diligently to better himself. His strength as an orator did not reside in his presence or delivery, but in the way he organized and expounded his ideas.
The structure of his speeches was tightly knit and he chose and polished his language carefully. In preparing his talks he meticulously did his homework. He revised his speeches almost obsessively, for his manuscripts betray many scratches and corrections. He was greatly concerned with details, for “his ideas where dressed, combed, and powdered as carefully as his person before being presented to the world.”10 He chose his words with such skill that even apparent contradictions appeared as logical arguments. In his speech about the “Actions to be Taken against Louis XVI”, he turned his previous rejection of the death penalty into an argument calling for the head of the King. He began by stating the first truth, or fact: “I abhor the penalty of death that your laws so liberally impose…”11 , then tied it to another fact, “I demanded the abolition of the death penalty in the Assembly…”12 , and then trapped his detractors with a rhetorical question: after explaining that the Assembly didn’t listen to him when he opposed the death penalty against common criminals, he asked: “what prompts you now to remember [the moral principles he used to talk about] in order to plead the cause of the greatest of all criminals?”13 The question implied that anybody who opposed the death penalty was a royalist. This masterful manipulation of words was his strength, and he knew all to well not only how he should talk, but also to whom he should speak.
Robespierre’s audience was “the people”, whether he spoke at an open public festival or at the closed National Assembly. Very much like modern politicians who are hyper-aware of the media, Robespierre showed “a careful concern for impact.” 14 In his manuscripts, he “inserted pauses designed to strike his auditors with horror or make them break out in enthusiastic laughter.”15 Above all, he knew that his words were not meant only for the members of the National Assembly in front of him. Persuading them was certainly important, but more pivotal was to make a durable impact on his real auditors, the ones who constituted the source from which he drew his popularity: “the people.” Therefore he “spoke always to those beyond the walls of the Assembly who would have to read or hear accounts of his speeches.”16 He strived to make his words long-lasting to them.
Robespierre developed a style of oratory that facilitated the proper recording of his words. One contemporary journalist explained that because Robespierre often paused to wet his lips the reporter was able to transcribe the speech.17 He achieved great eloquence, and was clearly heard and recorded. He spoke to the public, and even more significantly, often spoke for them.
Robespierre understood who the protagonist of the Revolution was, the French people, and he provided them with a voice. They were the ones who had stormed the Bastille and gave the National Assembly validity and power. They put an end to the monarchy on August 10th (1792) by storming the Tuileries. But they were also a popular mass, and needed an intelligible voice to render a coherent interpretation of their actions. Robespierre provided it. Either through his speeches or his two newspapers, Le Défenseur de la Constitution and Lettres á Ses Commettans, the people found someone who would defend their wishes, morality, intentions, and even their nature: “The people is ‘a stranger to all excess, is always of the party of morality, of justice and of reason’”; “The people ask only for tranquility, justice, the right to live”, “while their enemies demanded ‘distinctions, treasure, voluptuousness.’” 18 Robespierre defended the actions of the people even when he hadn’t instigated them, and he situated himself within the group he defended: “I am not the defender of the people, I am the people myself!”19 It’s not clear if Robespierre ever represented the majority, but he undoubtedly spoke for the most active part of the population. Robespierre constructed his revolutionary persona around the core of the Revolution and exploited the media for this purpose. As a revolutionary “builder”, he made sure to build on solid ground.
Robespierre laid the foundations of his career on his impeccably moral character, clear reputation and virtuous life. Of the many names that contemporary and future generations attached to him, the only one that stuck was “The Incorruptible”, an epithet he himself didn’t invent nor use. His inspiration for a virtuous revolutionary life was Rousseau whom he often cited in his speeches. He “discovered his revolutionary self in the pages of Confessions”20 , where Rousseau exposed his own inner feelings, while daring others to do the same: ”let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and if he dare, aver, I was better than that man."21 Robespierre learned from him the power of a transparent life. In his Dedication to Rousseau he wrote: “Divine man, you have taught me to know myself… You showed me how to appreciate the dignity of my nature…” 22 A good example of his transparency was the purification of the Mountain of 1792, when every member was interrogated extensively to put an end to corruption. Robespierre chose to be the first to be questioned before the nation. He “underwent this public scrutiny and emerged with his reputation unsullied.” 23 A virtuous way of living, together with his oratory, made him virtually unstoppable as a Revolutionary. He finally “had discovered the juxtaposition of eloquence and virtue in Rousseau”, for whom there’s no true felicity without virtue.24 As a virtuous man, a moral man, Robespierre was, and still remains, untouchable.
The Incorruptible yearned for a virtuous Revolution, but virtue alone was weak, and it needed to arm itself against its foes. Once Robespierre reached a high level of popularity through the use of oratory, transparency, and the utilization of the media, he was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, where he advocated the use of “Terror” against the counterrevolution:
If virtue be the spring of a popular government in
times of peace, the spring of that government
during a revolution is virtue combined with terror:
virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent.25
The “Terror” he spoke of was not that of a dictator who sought to perpetuate his power, but the practical application of the strength which Rousseau had described in his Social Contract: “the strong is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.”26 For Robespierre, it was nothing but strength applied to bring France out of crisis and into the realm of liberty: by the time Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety assumed power the French were loosing all of their wars and famine was rampant. And in a relatively short period of time, by the beginning of 1794, the Committee’s uncompromising rule had brought victory to France, and given bread to the poor. Terror had succeeded. Robespierre cultivated his reputation and political persona for many years through his speeches, newspapers and example, and when the wait was over, and he was called to serve the Revolution, he did it with consummate skill.
But when the crisis was over, his uncompromising character ceased to be needed. The French Revolution had fought against its enemies from the beginning, but never so efficiently as during the Reign of Terror. After an assassination attempt on May 22nd 1974 against two Committee members, Robespierre and Collot d’Herbois, the terror escalated to ghastly levels in retaliation: 1,376 victims of the Great Terror were killed in a period of seventeen days. The fear of the guillotine had reached everybody including some politicians who on 9 Thermidor (July 27th), panic stricken, took action. The day before, Robespierre had showed a paper containing the names of the next enemies of the Revolution to be guillotined, but he made the mistake of not revealing the list, which made many officials think that they may be on it. As a result, “a small and unlikely parliamentary conspiracy, substituting desperation for planning, toppled and executed Robespierre, his friends and followers.”27 The conspirators interrupted the speech of Saint-Just, a robespierriste, yelling the prearranged “Down with the tyrant!”28 Soon, everybody joined in. The effectiveness of a conspiracy that was almost improvised the day before reveals that Robespierre was not a tyrant with absolute power and control over his people. He was easily toppled because he was not an almighty despot. Robespierre was a revolutionary politician who had never been truly popular within the walls of the parliament, and on 9 Thermidor, as all of the Convention called for his blood, he “and his friends… stood mute and dumbfounded.”29 His radicalism had served a purpose, but now the time had come for most of his fellow revolutionaries to turn back, and make a radical cut towards moderation.
Robespierre achieved great recognition towards the end of his career and life, and the tools he used for this purpose are still used by politicians today. He cultivated public opinion, captivated audiences with apparently sacred truths, controlled the printed versions of the speeches he gave, and was paragon of morality. He was a model of the pure revolutionary politician. To this day however, he doesn’t have a monument and his name doesn’t appear on a memorial, even in the streets of Paris. My French friends recently asked me if I found an answer to my question. I think so. Over the years after Robespierre’s death, French politics certainly changed directions several times, sometimes violently: the Thermidorians, Napoleon, the Monarchy again, democracy, etc… But the Republic never needed to go back to the radical extremes that were so necessary at the time they called Robespierre into power. Maximilien Robespierre was an inflexible and incorruptible radical revolutionary, and I don’t believe France wants to remember how badly it once needed him. The portrait the Thermidorians painted of him after he was guillotined is the image that was preserved. Even after they cut off his head, his fame as a blood thirsty killer grew; as if he had come back from the dead to continue, headless now, his rampant killing.
Hunt, Lynn Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkley: University of California Press, 1984).
Jordan, David The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre (New York: The Free Press, 1985).
McKay, John and Bennett, Hill and John Buckler A History of Western Society: From Absolutism to the Present (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003).
Plato, Symposium and Phaedrus, (New York: Dover Publications, INC., 1993)
Robespierre Maximilien, On the Action to be Taken Against Louis XVI" (Dec. 3, 1792) http://reserves.bmcc.cuny.edu/loaddoc.asp?doctype=R&docformat=pdf&cid=135&docid
=1589&crid=0&ctrlid=actionagainst%5F6p%2Epdf&clinkid=135&dlinkid= (accessed 12/1/06).
Robespierre Maximilien, Speech to the Convention (Feb. 5th. 1794) http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/413/
Rousseau Jean Jacques, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1782) http://philosophy.eserver.org/rousseau-confessions.txt
Rousseau Jean Jacques, The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right (1762) http://www.constitution.org/jjr/socon.htm
Tudor William, The North American Review Vol. XV, New Series Vol. VI (Boston: Oliver Everett, 1822).
Lynn Hunt , Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution
(Berkley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 151.
4 Plato, Symposium and Phaedrus, (New York: Dover Publications, INC., 1993), p. 84
5 William Tudor, The North American Review Vol. V, New Series Vol. VI (Boston: Oliver Everett, 1822), p. 82.
7 David Jordan, The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre (New York: The Free Press, 1985), p. 247.
11 Maximilien Robespierre, On the Action to be Taken Against Louis XVI" (Dec. 3, 1792), p. 87.
21 Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1782), p. 1.
25 Maximilien Robespierre, Speech to the Convention (Feb. 5th. 1794)
26 Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right (1762), p. 3.