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Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

Peter McPhee
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    For some historians and biographers, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94) was a great revolutionary martyr who succeeded in leading the French Republic to safety in the face of overwhelming military odds. For many others, he was the first modern dictator, a fanatic who instigated the murderous Reign of Terror in 1793-94. This masterful biography combines new research into Robespierre's dramatic life with a deep understanding of society and the politics of the French Revolution to arrive at a fresh understanding of the man, his passions, and his tragic shortcomings.

    Peter McPhee gives special attention to Robespierre's formative years and the development of an iron will in a frail boy conceived outside wedlock and on the margins of polite provincial society. Exploring how these experiences formed the young lawyer who arrived in Versailles in 1789, the author discovers not the cold, obsessive Robespierre of legend, but a man of passion with close but platonic friendships with women. Soon immersed in revolutionary conflict, he suffered increasingly lengthy periods of nervous collapse correlating with moments of political crisis, yet Robespierre was tragically unable to step away from the crushing burdens of leadership. Did his ruthless, uncompromising exercise of power reflect a descent into madness in his final year of life? McPhee reevaluates the ideology and reality of "the Terror," what Robespierre intended, and whether it represented an abandonment or a reversal of his early liberalism and sense of justice.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18367-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  7. INTRODUCTION: ‘Clay in the hands of writers’
    (pp. xv-xix)

    Maximilien Robespierre’s best friend was Antoine-Joseph Buissart, like him a lawyer but more than twenty years his senior. Early in November 1789 Robespierre sent his third long letter of that momentous year to Buissart in their home town of Arras, reporting on the developments in Versailles and Paris, where Robespierre was a member of the revolutionary National Assembly. He admitted that Buissart had every right to be annoyed with the infrequent correspondence from ‘the greatest of your friends’. But the revolutionary upheaval had been all-absorbing, and deeply satisfying. The achievements of the people’s representatives had been extraordinary. So much still...

  8. Map of France
    (pp. xx-xx)
  9. CHAPTER 1 A ‘serious, grown-up, hardworking’ little boy: Arras 1758–69
    (pp. 1-12)

    Like other French provincial centres, Arras today is a sprawl of new suburbs and retail shopping complexes fanning out from its quiet old neighbourhoods. Its distinctiveness derives from its special attraction as a tourist centre, especially for those interested in the protracted battles and ingenious defences of the First World War. By contrast, in the eighteenth century the town of twenty thousand people could be walked across in fifteen minutes. The elegant Flemish-style houses that line its famous squares today are faithful copies of the eighteenth century edifices mostly destroyed in the bloody bombardments of May—July 1915, but in...

  10. CHAPTER 2 ‘An extremely strong desire to succeed’: Paris 1769–81
    (pp. 13-26)

    Maximilien’s carriage went south through Bapaume to Amiens, with a connection to Paris via Beauvais. The 120 miles took twenty-four hours, an exhausting trip for a boy whose previous journeys had taken him only as far as the Carraut farm nine miles from Arras.¹ The first sight of a metropolis thirty times the size of his home town, as his carriage approached from the hills to the north, would have been an overwhelming experience for an eleven year old. Then, between St-Denis and its imposing basilica and the walls of the city, there were the ‘false towns’ (faubourgs) to negotiate,...

  11. CHAPTER 3 ‘Such a talented man’: Arras 1781–84
    (pp. 27-40)

    Maximilien returned to his home town in 1781 after an absence of twelve years, a qualified lawyer educated at the best secondary school and university in the country. As a small boy he had experienced Arras by absorbing meanings from his extended family and his schoolmasters and fellow pupils. Now he was returning to his home town as a man, altogether more attuned to structures of power and with the confidence of the boy from the provinces who had made good in mainland Europe’s largest city. Here was a clever, ambitious young man coming home to his beloved sister with...

  12. CHAPTER 4 ‘Bachelorhood seems to encourage rebelliousness’: Arras 1784–89
    (pp. 41-61)

    Robespierre had profound respect for religion and for many of those who practised in its institutions. He had accepted a position on the Episcopal Court in Arras, and in 1784 defended the local Oratorians—his former teachers—against an architect seeking payment for renovations. He also received requests from individual clerics to act in court cases.¹ But he had begun to bother the clerical elite in his home town, and the stars of the Arras bar, like Liborel and FrançoisAndré Desmazières, were increasingly wary of their young colleague. Liborel had sought to assist Robespierre on his return in 1781 but...

  13. CHAPTER 5 ‘We are winning’: Versailles 1789
    (pp. 62-77)

    Almost eight years had passed since Maximilien had taken the road home from Paris to Arras. Now, on the eve of his thirty-first birthday, he was returning south, to the capital of the realm at Versailles, ten miles west of Paris. The editor of theAffiches d’Artois,Barbe-Thérèse Marchand, was to claim later that she had assisted Robespierre move his modest wardrobe to the meeting of the Estates-General:

    a black cloth coat, a satin waistcoat in fairly good condition, a waistcoat of raz de Saint-Maur rather the worse for wear, three pairs of trousers—one of black velvet, one of...

  14. CHAPTER 6 ‘Daring to clean out the Augean stables’: Paris 1789–91
    (pp. 78-97)

    Early in March 1790, Robespierre wrote again to Antoine Buissart, excusing his silence once more, and referring to the Herculean task of reform: ‘you could not imagine the multitude and difficulty of the matters which justify my silence; … the patriotic deputies to the National Assembly, daring to clean out the Augean stables, are embarked on a project which may be beyond human capacity … I take up my pen more to give you a sign of my eternal friendship, of which you can have no doubt, than to enjoy a sustained conversation with you.’¹

    One stall in the Augean...

  15. CHAPTER 7 ‘Numerous and implacable enemies’: Arras 1791
    (pp. 98-111)

    Maximilien was never much of a traveller. While a lawyer in Arras in the 1780s he had limited himself to his memorable short trip through Lens to Carvin, and visits to relatives and clients in the towns and villages near Arras. There is no evidence that he ventured to other provinces or that he ever saw the sea to the west. But the road from Arras to Paris was very familiar to him from his annual trips to and from the College of Louis-le-Grand in the 1770s. Now in October 1791 he was taking the road again, returning home for...

  16. CHAPTER 8 ‘The Vengeance of the People’: Paris 1791–92
    (pp. 112-132)

    Two days after his return to Paris on 28 November 1791, Robespierre wrote glowingly to Antoine Buissart in Arras about the affection showered on him at the Jacobin Club and in public.¹ On the day of his return, he had gone directly to the Club, where he was made its president on the spot. In particular, he had been delighted to see his friend Jérôme Pétion, victorious over Lafayette in elections for the new mayor of Paris: ‘I supped the same evening at Pétion’s. With what joy we saw each other again! With what delight we embraced! … The burden...

  17. CHAPTER 9 ‘Did you want a Revolution without Revolution?’: Paris 1792–93
    (pp. 133-157)

    Several weeks after the ‘September massacres’, revolutionary armies won their first great victory, at Valmy, just one hundred miles east of Paris, and near where Louis XVI had been recognized and arrested in June 1791. As news arrived of the victory, the new National Convention, elected by universal male suffrage, was convening in a capital haunted by the livid memory of recent slaughter in the prisons and the imminent Prussian threat. Refugees from border regions to the north and east jostled with young volunteers who had responded to the call that ‘the homeland is in danger’ and were on their...

  18. CHAPTER 10 ‘A complete regeneration’: Paris, July–December 1793
    (pp. 158-181)

    In the summer of 1793 the Republic faced an overwhelming crisis. The unchecked insurrection in the Vendée was absorbing much of the military capacity of the nation at the same time as foreign armies were advancing across the southwest, southeast and northeast of the country. An English naval blockade had isolated the Republic from its colonies and American allies. As many as sixty of the eightythree departmental administrations had withdrawn their recognition of the authority of the Convention in outrage at the arrest of leading Girondin deputies. The decline in the purchasing power of theassignatand the need to...

  19. CHAPTER 11 ‘Men with changing tongues’: Paris, January–June 1794
    (pp. 182-203)

    Desmoulins did not learn his lesson from Robespierre, but nor did he want to. On 18 Nivôse (7 January) he was called to the Jacobin Club to justify the praise lavished on Pierre Philippeaux in issue no. 5 of theVieux Cordelier. Philippeaux, a deputy from Sarthe, was increasingly under suspicion for his public attacks on the severity of the repression in the Vendée, especially by the deputy Jean-Baptiste Carrier, and of Collot d’Herbois’ bloodletting in Lyons.¹ Robespierre was caught between his loyalty to government colleagues and his fury that Philippeaux might be right, but criticized Desmoulins for opening his...

  20. CHAPTER 12 ‘The unhappiest man alive’: Paris, July 1794
    (pp. 204-221)

    The Festival of the Supreme Being and the Law of 22 Prairial were Robespierre’s final, desperate attempts to link the inculcation of virtue with merciless intimidation and punishment of those who would undermine it. Two days after the passage of the law, on 12 June 1794, he made a speech referring to conspirators past and present, even among those sitting with the Mountain in the Convention. When Bourdon de I’Oise interjected, ‘I challenge Robespierre to prove …’, Robespierre was evasive but menacing:

    I will name them when I need to. At every moment of the day, at every moment even...

  21. EPILOGUE: ‘That modern Procrustes’
    (pp. 222-234)

    Twenty-one of Robespierre’s associates went to the guillotine with him on 10 Thermidor (28 July). The morning after the executions the president of the Convention reassured the deputies about the momentous decision they had taken the day before: ‘the new tyrant was Robespierre … the fatherland is once more saved’. For the first time, the term ‘the system of the Terror’ was used, by Barère, who was eager to elevate his role in attacking Robespierre on 9 Thermidor into proof that he had not been a ‘terrorist’ himself. The following day the Jacobin Club rounded on the ‘monster’ who had...

  22. Chronology
    (pp. 235-242)
  23. Notes
    (pp. 243-275)
  24. Bibliography
    (pp. 276-291)
  25. Index
    (pp. 292-300)