Law Hall of Fame logoThis French avocat (lawyer) is often referred to as the architect, or the most important figure of the French Revolution, which started in 1789.

In any event, rare is the lawyer who lived law and justice, albeit in a sometimes misguided way, under such constant pressure of life and death.

Maximilien DeRobespierre was born on May 6, 1758 in Arras, France.

According to one story, in July of 1775, as a young student, he was humiliated by the then-newly crowned Louis XVI. Having won an oral composition contest for which he was to speak to the King, Louis XVI arrived in the middle of a rain storm and then refused to leave his carriage to enter the auditorium where the young Derobespierre waited in vain, with all his family in attendance, to make his presentation. Derobespierre had to kneel in the rain and make his brief speech in Latin, while the king and Marie-Antoinette listened under the cover of their royal carriage.

His father studied law at the University of Douai in Northern France. The younger Derobespierre studied in Paris at the Collège Louis-le-Grand and earned his law degree in 1780 and his practise license in 1781. He returned home to Arras, joined the Bar and established a successful practise, as had his father and grand-father before him. By March of 1782, he was a judge of the Episcopal Court in Arras, all the while keeping his private practise.

Robespierre was greatly taken by the writings of Cicero and the Roman experiences in popular government. Robespierre also read the Geneva-based philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau; particularly his theories that the common people - not just nobles - were apt to govern themselves.

Maximilien RobespierreBut he was also vain. A meticulous dresser, he fussing over his dress and hair daily, making sure his hair was brushed and powdered white.

Once, when he won a legal case, he persuaded his client to order the transcript of his arguments and had them published and sent wide and far - even sending a copy to Benjamin Franklin in  America.

He also changed his surname from Derobespierre to the less uppity, he reasoned, Robespierre.

As the initial sparks of the French revolution flew, Robespierre found a niche for his personal belief that government ought to be an unalienable right of the people, and not the exclusive domain of monarchy or such similar hereditary peer system.

Only 30 years old, Robespierre was elected to the Estates General convened in 1789 by King Louis XVI to deal with the Royal Court's ongoing financial crisis.

The elected members demanded constitutional reform and defied the king's orders to disband. Thus, they changed the course of legal history. They reconstituted themselves as an independent body, the National Assembly (which included Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes).

Robespierre never looked back eventually becoming the most adept, and tyrannical, politician of the first few years of the French revolution.

His political career started with a flourish of goodness.

He was a member of the National Assembly which passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man on August 26, 1789, based upon the model of the American Bill of Rights, and benefiting from the assistance of Thomas Jefferson who was at the time, American Ambassador to France.

In June of 1791, Louis XVI was arrested for attempting to flee, while Robespierre was named as public prosecutor of Paris.

But events Robespierre had set in motion would soon overtake even him.

When a vicious dispute erupted over the prospect of war with Austria, Louis XVI stood trial for treason, Robespierre, a former foe of the death penalty, sought it nonetheless explaining at the king's trial that:

"This is no trial. Louis is not a prisoner at the bar. You are not judges. You are - you cannot but be - statesmen, and the representatives of the nation. You have not to pass sentence for or against a single man, but you have to take a resolution on a question of the public safety, and to decide a question of national foresight. It is with regret that I pronounce, the fatal truth: Louis ought to perish rather than a hundred thousand virtuous citizens; Louis must die, so that the country may live."

For all his protestations against the abuses of monarchy, Robespierre was a firm believer and proponent of ruthless state violence.

In that, he pushed for two diabolical institutions: a cabinet of influential politicians called the Committee of Public Safety and the ominously-named Revolutionary Tribunal.

Soon, he was heading the Committee and the hunt was on for anyone who was so much as suspected of anti-revolutionary thoughts. So zealous was this summary justice that French generals were guillotined for losing battles in the skirmishes against Austria.

Of his fondness for swift "justice" and a liberal use of the guillotine, he wrote:guillotine

"If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror.

"Virtue, without which terror is destructive.

"Terror, without which virtue is impotent.

"Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible. It is then an emanation of virtue. Iit is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.

"To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty."

One innovation he was credited with was in criminal procedure which no longer needed to hear from witnesses to pass judgment.

It was supported by a Loi des suspects (Law of Suspects) of September 17, 1793 which made all nobles or aristocrats or seemingly rich persons automatically enemies of the Revolution.

This sparked a rash of executions that became known as the Reign of Terror (la terreur) which lasted from October 1793 to Robespierre's death in July 1794.

One of the first victims was the former Queen Marie Antoinette. Her hearing before the Revolutionary Tribunal was quick and ruthless: she was beheaded on October 16th.

Meanwhile, Robespierre continued to sing the song of the democrat: In February 1794, he said:

"We wish in our country that morality may be substituted for egotism, probity for false honour, principles for usages, duties for good manners, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, a contempt of vice for a contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good people for good company, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for tinsel show, the attractions of happiness for the ennui of sensuality, the grandeur of man for the littleness of the great, a people magnanimous, powerful, happy, for a people amiable, frivolous and miserable; in a word, all the virtues and miracles of a Republic instead of all the vices and absurdities of a Monarchy.

"We wish, in a word, to fulfill the intentions of nature and the destiny of man, realise the promises of philosophy, and acquit providence of a long reign of crime and tyranny. That France, once illustrious among enslaved nations, may, by eclipsing the glory of all free countries that ever existed, become a model to nations, a terror to oppressors, a consolation to the oppressed, an ornament of the universe and that, by sealing the work with our blood, we may at least witness the dawn of the bright day of universal happiness. This is our ambition. This is the end of our efforts."

But all around France, his beast had been unleashed. La Terreur ran rampant.

The rich were beheaded simply for being rich; one woman in Bordeaux, beheaded for the crime of having wept at her husband's execution. Nuns, women and children; 20,000 were guillotined in the name of the Revolution and all under the approving eye of Robespierre, by now the most powerful politician in France.

Death of RobespierreNo one was safe from summary conviction and there was only one sentence: la guillotine. Robespierre's henchmen rounded up his political enemies such as Jacques-Rene Hebert, and fellow lawyers Camille Desmoulins and Georges Jacques Danton. They, too, were executed after summary trials in the Spring of 1794.

Robespierre's government by guillotine was not done.

By law, he then changed the Gregorian calendar and canceled the Roman Catholic Church and God, replacing both with a generic religion which recognized a Supreme Being.

None of these foolish experiments lasted. In the result, they merely convinced his fellow politicians - at least those that had survived his purges - that he was too powerful.

On July 27, 1794, and right in the parliamentary assembly he had brought about, he was accused of crimes against the state. He was shouted down, a sure sign of imminent accusation of being a counter-revolutionary.

He was right to be fearful: a motion to brandish him an outlaw was carried on the spot - outlaws could be killed within 24 hours of their arrest without trial.

When cornered by soldiers, according to some reports, Robespierre pulled out a gun and tried to commit suicide but only managed to inflict a non-fatal injury to his face. In the result, whether he was shot by a soldier or the wound was self-inflicted, he was seriously injured.

Still he was thrown into the small jail cell used by Marie Antoinette and the next day, on July 28, he faced the same fate to which he had sent so many of his countrymen: the guillotine (his death is pictured above).

Robespierre remains a controversial figure, revered by some as a father of modern government and democracy.

Others maintain that he was a vicious sadistic fanatic. Notably, there are no public statutes of Robespierre in Paris.

His contemporary Jean-Baptiste Clauzel (1746-1803) asked: "Was Robespierre a monster or a virtuous martyr?"

Another, Betrand Barère (1755-1841), and a fellow jurist, wrote:

"Ce Robespierre avait des vertus et des vices en même proportions - Robespierre had virtues and vices in equal proportions."

Whatever his legacy, it was quite likely the most fantastic ride for a lawyer in the history of the world; one which, though drenched in blood, showed that a monarchy could be brought down and law-making powers given to the common people's elected body, a concept since much improved-upon but still forming the basis of government in modern democracies.


  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Camille Desmoulins and Family, 1792
  • Carr, J. L., Robespierre: The Force of Circumstance (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1972).
  • Furet, F., La Révolution Française (Paris: Hachette Littératures, 1988)
  • Hibbert, C., The French Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1980).
  • McGowen, T., Robespierre and the French Revolution (Aldershot: Enslow Publishers, 2000).
  • Original of painting of Robespierre's death held at the Musée de l'histoire vivant, Montreuil, France.

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