Robespierre & the Terror

The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror officially began on this day in 1793, when the Jacobin-led National Convention endorsed the popular demand to form a citizens’ army with a broad mandate:

Let this army form its core in Paris immediately, and from every department through which it passes, let all men join who want a republic united and indivisible. Let an incorruptible and formidable tribunal follow this army, as well as that deadly tool which, with a single stroke, ends both the conspiracies and the days of the conspirators. Let this tribunal be tasked with making avarice and cupidity cough up the wealth of the land, that inexhaustible wet nurse of all children. Let it bear the following words on its standards, which shall be its constant order: “Peace to men of good will; war on those who would starve people; protection for the weak; war on tyrants; justice; and no oppression!”

Over the next eleven months, the Committee of Public Safety would arrest over 300,000 and execute some 40,000, almost half of these by “the deadly tool”; and then, on a wave of new fears and counter-factions, Robespierre, Chaumette (spokesperson of the passage above), and many other leaders were themselves put to the guillotine.

Robespierre’s complex personality and controversial reputation are the focus of Ruth Scurr’s Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (2006). Scurr describes a “meticulously unflamboyant” person, one who “should have drowned in the Revolution’s flood of epoch-shattering events and personalities”:

Instead Robespierre became the living embodiment of the Revolution at its most feral and justified the Terror as an emanation of republican virtue, a necessary step on the path to the ideal society that he was determined to establish in France. However hopelessly utopian, politically misguided, or historically premature Robespierre’s vision of this ideal society may have been, he made a unique contribution to events that shaped the future of Europe. To understand him is to begin to understand the French Revolution. It is also to cast a light on the uneasy coincidence of democracy and fanaticism present at the birth of modern European politics.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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