—Dubois de Fosseux
These affectionate lines, written by French reformer Dubois de Fosseux to his friend Maximilien Robespierre, are difficult to reconcile with the Robespierre of popular imagination. From the hour of his death on July 28, 1794, which we commemorate today, the man’s name has been made synonymous with the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror” and the carnage of the guillotine. Yet before he came to be viewed as a ruthless dictator, Robespierre was widely known as “The Incorruptible” for his unwavering devotion to the ideals of the Revolution. These extremes have led to a heated debate among historians as to what our remembrance of the man should be. Was Robespierre a tyrant or a martyr? Did he sacrifice his Revolutionary ideals, or was he sacrificed to the Revolution – held accountable for the evil things which had been done by many men?
In his new biography, Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life, historian Peter McPhee acknowledges that Robespierre’s zealotry earned him his legacy as a polarized figure. However, in his own attitude toward the infamous French politician, McPhee joins ranks with eminent French historian Marc Bloch, who wrote: “Can we be sure of ourselves and our times as we distinguish between the just and the damned among our forebears? …Robespierrists, anti-Robespierrists, we beg for mercy: for pity’s sake, just tell us who was Robespierre?” Like Bloch, McPhee sees value in remembering Robespierre not merely as a vessel of revolutionary ideology – for good or ill – but as a man with ordinary human relationships and sympathies.
Thus, in McPhee’s hands, a portrait of Robespierre emerges that is admirably well-rounded. Born out of wedlock to a family of modest means in the northern countryside town of Arras, Robespierre went to university in Paris on scholarship, where he excelled. When he returned to his home region to set up business as a country lawyer, he soon garnered a reputation from extreme rhetoric in the courtroom. Yet McPhee demonstrates how the young idealist also earned a reputation as a thoughtful, compassionate defender of those who had been relegated to the fringes of French society. “M. de Robespierre is not interested in making money. He is, and will always remain, the lawyer only of the poor” wrote fellow reformer Francois-Noel Babeuf. Among other causes, Robespierre fought for women’s admission to the academy, the basic rights of colonial slaves, and the rights of children, like himself, who were born out of wedlock.
McPhee also challenges the predominant notion that Robespierre was passionate about ideas but cold and unaffected in his relationships with individuals, both personally and professionally. He cites numerous examples of Robespierre using the French familiar “tu” rather than the formal “vous” with his family and a close circle of friends in Paris, whom he lived among and corresponded with in the most affectionate language.
“Rely on my loving attachment, but make some allowance for the state of weariness and despondency into which my painful work sometimes plunges me” Robespierre wrote to Francois-Victor Aigoin in 1793. While the man was certainly an idealist willing to sacrifice much for his political vision, McPhee also shows us how desperately Robespierre struggled with the moral dilemmas his political power eventually burdened him with. In reflecting on what the fate of the deposed Louis XVI should be, he wrote: “What penalty shall we impose on Louis?…For myself, I abhor the death penalty …it can be justified only in cases where it is necessary to the safety of individuals or society. Louis must die because the homeland must live.”
Such details from Robespierre’s life and work emphasize his humanity and humanism. Yet McPhee is careful to contextualize them within the ruthless political climate of the Revolution, along with more traditional evidence of Robespierre’s fanaticism. His work aims not to exonerate Robespierre but to give him a more balanced appraisal.