Robespierre and the Goals of the French Revolution

Maximilien Robespierre, the Incorruptible, was the driving force in the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) that took the lives of twenty thousand people.

He dedicated himself to the establishment of a Republic of Virtue. Virtue to Robespierre was essentially what is was to Rousseau - active public spirit and complete devotion to the good of the community. Dazzled by the vision of an ideal society, Robespierre was willing to go to any lengths to realize his dream; terror was but a means of accomplishing a noble end, a means of ridding the community of criminals, traitors, and even the indifferent. Like many modern dictators, Robespierre was convinced that his revolutionary regime was essential until the external and internal enemies of the state were obliterated. In February 1794, while the Terror was raging, Robespierre outlined his aims in a speech.

 

It is time to mark clearly the aim of the Revolution and the end toward which we wish to move; it is time to take stock of ourselves, of the obstacles which we still face, and of the means which we ought to adopt to attain our objectives. . . .

What is the goal for which we strive? A peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the rule of the eternal justice whose laws are engraved, not upon marble or stone, but in the hearts of all men.

We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings aroused; where ambition is the desire to merit glory and to serve one's fatherland; where distinctions are born only of equality itself; where the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the nation safeguards the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of his fatherland; where all spirits are enlarged by the constant exchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where the arts are the adornment of liberty, which ennobles them; and where commerce is the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous opulence for a few families.

In our country we wish to substitute morality for egotism, [truth] for honor, principles for conventions, duties for etiquette, the empire of reason for the tyranny of customs, contempt for vice for contempt for misfortune, pride for insolence, the love of honor for the love of money; . . . that is to say, all the virtues and miracles of the Republic for all the vices and snobbishness of the monarchy.

We wish in a word to fulfill the requirements of nature, to accomplish the destiny of mankind, to make good the promises of philosophy . . . that France, hitherto illustrious among slave states, may eclipse the glory of all free peoples that have existed, become the model of all nations. . . .That is our ambition; that is our aim.

What kind of government can realize these marvels? Only a democratic government. . . . But to found and to consolidate among us this democracy, to realize the peaceable rule of constitutional laws, it is necessary to conclude the war of liberty against tyranny and to pass successfully through the storms of revolution. Such is the aim of the revolutionary system which you have set up. . . .

It is necessary to stifle the domestic and foreign enemies of the Republic or perish with them. Now in these circumstances, the first maxim of our politics ought to be to lead the people by means of reason and the enemies of the people by terror.

If the basis of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing else that swift, severe, indomitable justice; it flows, then, from virtue.

Think About It!

1. Describe Robespierre's justification of terror.

2. Compare Robespierre's speech to Enlightenment ideas.

3. Is there indication of class conflict in Robespierre's speech? Explain.

4. Explain Robespierre's sobriquet, The Incorruptable.

(from Stearns, ed., Pageant of Europe in Eisen, Filler, eds., The Human Adventure: Readings in World History, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York, 1964.)

©William D. Goldman, Teacher, Tottenville H.S., Mr. John Tuminaro, Principal