Robespierre was originally a lawyer and member of the petite bourgeoisie, who was known for his defence of those from the lowest social classes within a flawed and preferential judicial system under the ancien régime. He became politically active with his election as a deputy for the Third Estate for the Estates-General.
His capacity as a revolutionary leader started in him being a founding member of the Jacobin Club, of which he later became the leader. It was in this role that he became one of the most important leaders of the new society. His implication in the Champs de Mars massacre forced him to go into hiding in regional France, but he was later elected as a deputy for the National Convention in 1792. Here, he was the only member who opposed France entering into a war against Austria and Prussia, as he believed that the greater and more immediate threat were those who he termed the ‘enemies within’ – that is, counter-revolutionaries within France.
Following the Jacobins’ ascension to government, Robespierre was the key leader of the Committee of Public Safety and the principal strategist of the Terror, which was initially supported as a short-term measure by almost all Jacobins. As the Terror progressed, Robespierre became increasingly paranoid and non-consultative, and viewed any and all members of his party who did not agree with him exactly to be counter-revolutionary – either by being ultra-radical or conservatively royalist in his opinion.
Robespierre was also a proponent of France becoming a ‘Republic of Virtue’, where citizens would place the public interest above all private concerns. Relatedly, he also pushed for the adoption of what was effectively a state religion of the ‘Supreme Being’, but which ended up as the subject of mass public ridicule. His increasing paranoia as well as his unadulterated support of the Terror and his narrowing of the political spectrum were the key forces which led to his execution in July 1794, and end of the Terror itself.
Robespierre was blamed for all the excesses of the Terror. However, it is to be noted that many of the institutions of the Terror, such as the Executive Committees, the Watch Committees and the Revolutionary Tribunal were set up under the Girondin Government. Moreover, the other members of the CPS and the National Convention were largely passive in the face of his actions and behaviour. As such, it can be considered a political convenience for reactionary society of Thermidor to attribute all the failings of the Terror and the Revolution singularly upon Robespierre.
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