Thoroughly Modern Maxie: Robespierre’s Relevance for Democracy Today

By Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Maximilien Robespierre has gotten a bad rap in the last 228 years. In popular culture, he has become synonymous with the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror,” a bloodthirsty man fond of violence. However, this image was created by former allies who had shared his policies, until increasing fratricidal conflict convinced them that their days were numbered. In executing Robespierre in July 1794, these former comrades (who became known as the Thermidorians) scapegoated him and sought to pin revolutionary excesses on him alone. Fearing the chaotic power of popular activism, the Thermidorians also scaled back the Revolution’s social egalitarianism and gave greater power to the wealthy.

If Robespierre was not by nature a murderous despot, who was he and what does he have to teach us – especially at a time, like that of the French Revolution, when progressives and liberals are divided about how to prioritize the rights of minoritized groups? As a lawyer in Arras, young Maximilien (born in 1758) sought to combat prejudices and improve society. As a director of Arras’s scientific academy in 1787, he praised the society’s pioneering decision to admit women members. Against men who argued that women were not intellectually capable or did not belong in such spaces, Robespierre declared that “prejudices are the scourge of the world” and that bias against women was the “scandal of an enlightened century.”

As the Revolution began in 1789, Robespierre became a powerful voice for other marginalized groups. Though the Declaration of the Rights of Man had declared “All men are born and remain free and equal,” many revolutionaries were reluctant to extend their stated values of equality to groups like Jews and people of color. During December 1789 debates about whether to grant Jews equal citizenship, Robespierre challenged antisemites who insisted that Jews could never be loyal French citizens. He denounced the persecution that they had faced for centuries, adding: “These were national crimes that we must atone for, in giving Jews the unalienable rights of man of which no human power can strip them.”  In October 1789, in an Assembly dominated by prosperous merchants and lawyers, Robespierre was one of the few deputies to oppose creating a distinction between wealthy “active citizens” with full rights and poor “passive citizens” with limited rights. And in May 1791, against hatred from slaveowners and their allies, Robespierre proved a powerful advocate for free people of color, who faced Jim Crow-style legislation in the French Caribbean. When colonists asserted that abolishing racial hierarchies would ruin France’s colonial system and destroy its economy, Robespierre retorted, “Let the colonies perish” if keeping these restrictions would deprive people of “happiness, glory and freedom.” He added, colonists “tell you that you will lose your colonies unless you strip free citizens of color of their political rights…. What I ask is that we should not compromise the… sacred rights of a significant number of our fellow citizens….” 

How did this Robespierre, a fighter for equality and justice, come to preside over the “Terror”? It is important to realize that, in 1793-94, revolutionary France was at war with its monarchical neighbors, while also facing an internal insurrection by royalists and conservative Catholics. Proponents of the status quo were increasingly determined to stamp out this exercise in democracy before it spread. As Peter McPhee has noted, Robespierre himself had a “personal horror” of violence, and had sought to preempt popular violence by enacting reforms. In addition, Robespierre had held a fervent antiwar stance in 1792, against revolutionaries eager to wage war against neighboring monarchies to spread revolutionary values, something that made him unpopular. Only once war was declared did Robespierre seek to make it a people’s war, fought for egalitarian values.  

Certainly, as Robespierre and other Jacobins sought to imprison or execute enemies before they could destroy democracy, they went too far in imagining counterrevolution everywhere – even among sincere revolutionaries who simply had different ideas about how to treat the Catholic Church or how to battle counterrevolutionaries. As he tried to avoid a return to royalism, Robespierre ultimately became “unable to distinguish between dissent and treason,” in McPhee’s words. But it is also true that Robespierre’s vision for the Revolution differed from that of more moderate revolutionaries, which triggered opposition.

The radicalism of Robespierre’s political program – in seeking to eradicate racial prejudice and give the poor as much political power as the wealthy – had stirred up forces determined to quash these gains. Robespierre was ultimately not able to figure out how to advance social progress in the face of a blistering civil war led by those invested in the status quo, especially while his fellow revolutionaries disagreed about how to handle it. But Robespierre’s challenge remains relevant today: what can we do now, in the face of furious backlash from those who oppose #BlackLivesMatter, feminism, and other social movements, to confront those who would rather deform democracy than see society become more just and egalitarian? How should those committed to equality respond to political allies who see fights against racial injustice or the persecution of trans individuals as less urgent than other issues? And how we can defend democracy peaceably, against those ready to use violence to circumvent democratic institutions? These questions are urgent today, even if we opt for far different solutions than Robespierre.

Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is Professor of History and Graduate Studies Coordinator at California State University San Marcos. Her research specialties include the French and Haitian Revolutions, modern Haitian history, Slavery and Film, French colonialism, French-Jewish history, history and video games, and the history of gender.

Title Image: Max Adamo Sturtz, The Fall of Robespierre in the Convention on 27 July 1794, 1870. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Further Reading:

Andress, David. The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005.

Benot, Yves. La Révolution française et la fin des colonies. La Découverte, 1987; new edition 2004.

Gauthier, Florence, ed. Périssent les colonies plutôt qu’un principe! Contributions à l’histoire de l’abolition de l’esclavage, 1789-1804. Société des études robespierristes, 2002.

McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life. Yale UP, 2012.

Sepinwall, Alyssa Goldstein. The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism. UC Press, 2005; 2021 paperback.

Sepinwall, Alyssa Goldstein. “Robespierre, Old Regime Feminist? Gender, the Late Eighteenth Century and the French Revolution Revisited.” Journal of Modern History 82, no. 1 (2010): 1-29.

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