Robespierre’s Transformation and the French Revolution

Robespierre’s Transformation and the French Revolution

By: Nicole Irace


Robespierre; Enlightened Radical to Terror

The French Revolution began as a sign of hope as intellectuals rushed to see their enlightenment ideas put into action. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, the symbol of the revolution, radically declared rights for all men including that of freedom of speech and the right to vote. However as the Jacobins Club gained control the revolution took a dark turn where the guillotine and blood became the symbol of this radical revolution with Robespierre at its head in what would famously be known as the Reign of Terror.

Robespierre remains a complicated man of history. Before the overthrow of the monarchy Robespierre was a hesitant and anxious lawyer whose physical countenance was fatigued and pale. His natural talents were mediocre and intellectually Robespierre was inferior to the leaders of the revolution, such as, Danton or Mirabeau. Robespierre politically was sympathetic toward the people especially those who were poverty-stricken and thoroughly against the death penalty. As the revolution started Robespierre eagerly joined. Robespierre managed to obtain power and popularity during the revolution and with this growing power old ideals seem to change. As the public acted in violence Robespierre supported and later he would support the execution of Louis XVI. Once Robespierre became the head of The Committee of Public Safety over 2,000 people were executed in a few months. In his last year Robespierre became reclusive and paranoid barely leaving his house. Ultimately Robespierre was ended by the very thing he instigated and he was beheaded on July 28,1794.

This guide will focus on the question of why Robespierre became extremely radical and a proponent of terror. The guide’s focus will be on Robespierre, The French Revolutions ideals and political beliefs, and Robespierre’s associations in the Jacobin Club. Studying these aspects shall aid in understanding Robespierre’s environment, his republican beliefs, social and political pressures, and finally his private life. This guide will consist of secondary sources of journals, articles, and books, and primary sources of Robespierre’s speeches.


Understanding Robespierre Political Theories and that of the Revolution:

This section will focus on Robespierre’s environment giving a general overview of the French Revolution, the period’s radical enlightenment ideals leading to terror, and his political group the Jacobin Club. Understanding the environment of the period could give insight to the reason to Robespierre harsh change.

Edelstein, Dan, The Terror of Natural Rights: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution. London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Edelstein in his book tries to untangle the role of natural right, justice, and terror during the time of the Jacobins of the French Revolution. He tries to separate the republican ideals of the Jacobins and the ultimate terror that they cause, in this Edelstein identifies the Jacobins republicanism. Edelstein starts his analysis by trying to understand natural right and the natural rights discourse in political thought. Part 2 focuses on the terror itself and the roles violence and death had to play.

McPhee, Peter, The French Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2002.

In this source McPhee gives an overall view and analytical analysis to the French Revolution. He begins in the 1780s were the agricultural France obtained terrible crops and resentment toward nobility arose. In his book McPhee goes through the stages of the French revolution by discussing events witnessed and recorded by people. He not only discusses the political change but also goes into the social unrest and analysis the effect it had on the revolutionary France. Chapter 7 page 131 title “The Terror: Revolutionary Defense or Paranoia?” looks into Robespierre himself and his hand at the reign of Terror.

Israel, Jonathon, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Israel discusses origin of modern values, democracy, individual liberty, freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and more in his book. Israel studies what he deems the Radical Enlightenment during the periods of revolutions for 1770s-1790s. Israel analytically investigates the production of these ideas and their ultimate effect.

Doyle, William, The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

This source gives an explicit narrative of the French revolution starting with the rule of the Louis XVI and ending with Napoleon. This book should be used to have a full understanding of the French revolution for it gives maps and chronology but it also illustrates how the revolution affected all the social classes from nobles to peasants. One chapter from, chapter 11, from pages 247-272 discusses the government of terror that Robespierre led

Brinton, Clarence, The Jacobins. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930.

The Jacobins is a detailed analysis of the Revolutionary club that Robespierre was apart of. Brinton goes into detail about the clubs statistics memberships the government regulation of the Jacobins before they obtained power and relations after, the clubs political platform, its rituals, and finally its failure. For a detailed analysis of the Jacobins violence and relations with Governing Bodies during the terror, when Robespierre held power, the information is in chapter IV in parts V and VI.

Linton, Marisa, “Fatal Friendships: The Politics of Jacobin Friendship.” French Historical Studies (2008): 51-76. Accessed July 31, 2013. doi: 10.1215/00161071

This article discusses the friendships of the Jacobin groups with their nefarious plots and betrayals. It illustrates how friendships played a large role in politics especially for Robespierre. This articles shows that Robespierre disdained of using power to benefit friends and that even good friends of Robespierre were not safe during the reign of terror



This section focuses on Robespierre himself. The sources go into high details of his life including before and after his political career. It highlights his cold heartedness and his many attributes such as his anxiety. These close up personals of different view points provide numerous reasons as to why Robespierre changed ranging from paranoia, his “incorruptibleness,” and his devotion to republicanism.

McPhee, Peter, Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life. London: Yale University Press, 2012.

Peter McPhee explores the life of Robespierre and his transformation from popular diplomat to hated radical. In this source McPhee studies Robespierre before and during the revolution using information about Robespierre from acquaintances and using numerous speeches and texts from Robespierre himself. This book gives a highly detailed look about Robespierre and illustrates his growing rift between associates.  The last chapters especially pages 122 onward illustrate Robespierre’s political views and the change that would occur caused by both political and social pressures that led to Robespierre radical transformation.

John Hardman, Robespierre. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1999.

John Hardman mainly begins his analysis with an older Robespierre at school. Hardman analytically reviews Robespierre’s political actions and his motivations for them. Hardman also discusses the general unrest of the time of social and political upheaval during and before Robespierre came on the scene.  In part two of the book Hardman focuses his analysis on Robespierre deskwork instead of that of speeches. This will focus on orders given at the desk especially orders given for the police bureau.  This source gives reasons and actions as to the motivation of Robespierre to gain political power but also it gives an analysis of the overall government and societal reactions.

Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.

Scurr in this book depicts Robespierre from his beginning to end. Starting as a hesitant, fragile, anxious man who strongly opposed the death penalty to becoming the living embodiment of the revolution who himself put forth the death penalty on a daily basis. She reveals Robespierre’s paranoia that ultimately led to his downfall but remains open enough to insist that he deserves to be called “incorruptible.” In this she represents both the good and the bad of Robespierre as she tries to answer such questions as he and the public became so hypnotized on the public Robespierre.

Warwick, Robespierre and the French Revolution. Philadelphia: George W Jacobs and Company Publishers, 1909.

The last of a three part series based on leading men of the revolution, the first two being Mirabeau and Danton, this source looks at the end of the revolution controlled by Robespierre. With a brief introduction of Robespierre in the first chapter the books portrays his political period and his growing power and popularity. In this book Warwick highlights that Robespierre is not the high intellectuals of previous leaders but earns his name as “incorruptible” for his deeds both virtuous and evil. Warwick shows Robespierre cold hearted and vainness with his singular purpose of obtaining power and republicanism.

Mathiez, Albert, The Fall of Robespierre: and Other Essays. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1968.

Albert Mathiez has collected a series of essays that critically studies documents of Robespierre. In this endeavor Mathiez works to defend Robespierre’s name. These essays go into discussions of such things as Robespierre’s brother releasing prisoners, a study of an account given to Robespierre by a friend of gossip, a discussion on the Cult of the Supreme Being and Robespierre’s struggle with religions, studies of relationships of Robespierre’s, and Robespierre’s unpublished works and others. In this there is a wide view of different aspects of Robespierre’s and illustrates what is effecting both on the outside and in and gives an analysis on his actions.

Linton, Marisa, “Robespierre and the Terror.” History Today, August 2006.

This article portrays Robespierre as a continuous supporter of the poor a radical who believed in rights for all including that of the poor and the slave. Marisa depicts his belief in conspiracies and the breaking of the revolution. The articles illustrates with multiple paintings and pictures.

Andress, David, “Living the revolutionary Melodrama: Robespierre’s sensibility and the construction of political commitment in the French revolution.” Representations 114 (2011): 103-128. Accessed July 31, 2013. Doi: 10.1525/rep.2011.114.1.103

David Andress investigates the impact of the social movement of sentimentalism on Robespierre in order to understand him. Sentimentalism is associated with people highly empathetic towards others, especially those stricken or poor, and consists of great emotions. This article explores how sentimentalism affected Robespierre in both his political views and his actions.


Primary Sources

Robespierre, Maximilien. On the Death Penalty

Marxist Internet Archive. “Maximillien Robespierre Archive.” Last Modified 2004.

In his speech made in 1791 Robespierre condemns the death penalty unjust and uneffective. In this speech he goes into detail on the reasons why the death penalty should no longer be used. This is before his true gain of power and illustrates just the amount of change occurrs.

Robespierre, Maximilien. Virtue and Terror.

Marxist Internet Archive. “Maximillien Robespierre Archive.” Last Modified 1997.

The Committee of Public Safety responding to counter-revolutionary uprisings began the reign of terror. Robespierre in his speech Virtue and Terror discusses this issue. Robespierre is impatient in the progress of the revolution and states that the public is over the individual and the reasoning for terror itself. The speech was given after revolutionary tribunal in Paris executed 238 men and 31 women.


Robespierre, Maximilien. Report made to the National Convention of France, in the name of the Committee of Public Safety, on the political situation of France.

Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Boston University Libraries. 7 Aug. 2013

Robespierre discusses countries the French revolutionary government must deal with. He goes into such things as the XYZ affair that occurs and revolutionaries who can be seen as traitorous. In this he goes into details of enemy countries and the dealings of the Committee of the Public Safety. His high intensity against governemt enemies portrays his growing paranoia.


Robespierre, Maximilien. Reports upon the principles of Political Morality.

Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Boston University Libraries. 7 Aug. 2013

Robespierre praises the democratic and republican government putting it ahead of all governments. By putting the government ahead it illustrates his belief of republican idealism over the individual. He details the purpose of France after the revolution is finished and its need to befriend other countries