Robespierre and his way of terror

Updated: Jul 30


Robespierre was a French lawyer and statesman who campaigned for universal manhood suffrage. He was a follower of many of Rousseau’s beliefs, and fought for the abolition both of celibacy for the clergy, and slavery. In 1791, Robespierre became an outspoken advocate for the citizens without a political voice, for their unrestricted admission to the National Guard, to public offices, and for the right to carry arms in self-defence. He played an important part in the agitation which brought about the fall of the French monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the summoning of a National Convention. He also coined the famous motto "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" by adding the word fraternity on the flags of the National Guard. This remains the motto of today’s France.


Robespierre did not feel that he owed anything to the bureaucracy and his goal was to create a united and indivisible France, equality before the law, to abolish prerogatives and to defend the principles of direct democracy. Robespierre was eventually undone by his obsession with the vision of an ideal republic and his indifference to the human costs of installing it, which turned both members of the Convention and the French public against him. At the peak of his power, he famously said in a speech that marked the name of this time period:



“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 [homeland, fatherland].”

- Robespierre 1794


In order to understand Robespierre’s fidelity to his ideals, we should understand where they came from.Like said before, one of his major influences was Rousseau's Social Contract, which argued that each person was born with rights, and they would come together to form a government that would then protect those rights. Under the social contract, the government was required to act for the general will, which represented the interests of everyone rather than a few factions.


Drawing from the idea of a general will, Robespierre felt that the French Revolution could result in a Republic built for the general will but only once those who fought this ideal were expelled. Other sources that laid the foundation to the Reign of Terror’s ideas came from many Enlightenment thinkers. Enlightenment thought emphasized the importance of rational thinking and began challenging legal and moral foundations of society, providing the leaders of the Reign of Terror with new ideas about the role and structure of government.


His post-revolution ideas were so radical that the y decided to start a new Calendar, marketing as year 1, renaming all the months and extending the week from 7 days to 10. French Revolutionary calendar (calendrier révolutionnaire français), was a calendar created and implemented during the French Revolution, and used by the French government for about 12 years from late 1793 to 1805, and for 18 days by the Paris Commune (another revolution) in 1871. Immediately following 14 July 1789, papers and pamphlets started calling 1789 year I of Liberty and the following years II and III.


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