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He was a middle-class lawyer in France, a young man with a powerful mind and an even more formidable voice. His speeches, even during his days in law studies, were legendary. And as an ambitious middle-class man of letters, Robespierre could not have been born into a time with more opportunity for his advancement.
Later in life, Robespierre could recall a story from when he was a law student. The king, Louis XVI, came through in an ornately decorated carriage. Robespierre, an outspoken young man, approached the carriage with a petition. But Louis ignored him, keeping his head held high and not even acknowledging his existence.
Robespierre never forgot this personal slight, nor did he fail to recognize the greater societal issues at stake. When the fires of revolution began to smolder in 1780s France, he was right on the frontlines, elected as a deputy to the National Assembly.
Robespierre’s associations with the Jacobin Club and its powerful members, as well as his fiery orations in the National Assembly and later the National Convention, led to his swift rise as one of France’s most prominent revolutionary figures. He helped lead and inspire France as it struggled with internal insurrection, war with Austria and other nations of Europe, and the trial and execution of the king.
After the destruction of the Girondist political faction in mid-1793, which had been a rival of the Jacobins, Robespierre was added to the Committee of Public Safety, which essentially became a board of dictators orchestrated by Robespierre. The Girondins were just the start of revolutionary forces turning inward on the revolutionaries themselves.
Robespierre launched a series of trials, persecutions, and executions that became known as the Reign of Terror. It started with fairly uncontroversial attacks on political enemies and nobles, but it eventually spiraled out of control. Robespierre began targeting almost indiscriminately, accusing and executing people on loose evidence. Most notoriously, Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins, two great figures whom many saw as heroes of the revolution, were killed by the guillotine in April of 1794.
The guillotine, euphemistically dubbed “Madame,” the device that killed thousands during the French Revolution
Aside from these “purifying” practices to cleanse the revolution of rabble and corruption, Robespierre helped promote efforts to change how people lived. Most famously, he supported changes in the calendar: 7 day weeks became 10 day weeks, the length of the year was altered, and the names of all the months were altered.
Here’s a table if you want to read, but because of this, many events of the French Revolution during and after Robespierre are referred to by weird names like “18 Brumaire.” Oh, and I forgot to mention his so-called “Cult of the Supreme Being,” which was basically a religion of worshiping reason.
Eventually, the deputies of the National Convention decided that Robespierre’s actions had gone too far. The war with Austria had recently ended in a military victory, but Robespierre was unwilling to suspend his wartime powers.
On 8 Thermidor, Year 2 (or 26 July, 1794), Robespierre made a paranoid and accusatory speech to the National Convention. He had made so many of these speeches before, almost each time meeting with thunderous applause, but this day was different. Robespierre hinted at the fact that he sought to target disloyal elements within the Revolution, leading the Convention to fear for yet more purges.
The next day, 9 Thermidor, saw Robespierre shouted down by a majority of the National Convention as he tried to defend himself. They all believed he was a tyrant, and an overwhelming vote was cast to arrest him and four other close associates. Later that day, they were sent off to prison.
But the prisons would not take him and complete the arrest. The five fugitives took up residence in the Hotel de Ville along with other Jacobin loyalists to plan their next move.
As they consulted, though, the National Convention, which was holding a late session, heard the news from the streets that Robespierre was at large. They knew his location, and they sent armed forces into the Hotel de Ville to seize him.
The scene was chaotic. Panic spread across the first floor as the locked doors came crashing open and blue-coated soldiers stormed in. They came only for the five deputies who were to be arrested.
Painting depicting the chaos of the night of 9 Thermidor
Robespierre, who had fled up the stairs, was found in an upper floor room. They found him from the sound of the gunshot. And the subsequent screams of pain.
As the soldiers dragged him onto the floor, the assembled delegates gaped. He was still screaming, unable to say anything. His mouth was gushing blood. He had attempted to kill himself, but had fumbled the pistol and blown half his jaw off.
The next morning, they dragged him up onto the scaffold in the Place de la Revolution.
There was so much ironic and strange about the moment. Robespierre, the consummate executioner responsible for thousands of deaths, was dying by the same device, in the same place, where he had sent so many others to die. It must have been a truly strange spectacle.
But it got worse.
Robespierre’s captors had had the decency to bandage his jaw and tie up the loose flaps of skin to ease the agony. But the executioner found that the cloth was interfering with the mechanism to lower the guillotine blade. So he ripped it off.
Robespierre screamed worse than ever. Guttural screams from hell, only silenced by the fall of the blade.
Strange that a man whose words made him the greatest and most terrible figure of the Revolution… would see those words fail him when he needed them most
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