Maximilien Robespierre is best known as the leader of the bloody Reign of Terror during French Revolution. While his name might be synonymous with power-hungriness, blood-thirstiness, and possibly madness, he was actually quite accomplished as a radical thinker and revolutionary, as he was hell-bent on societal change. Robespierre supported virtue and law over monarchy, famously called for liberty and fraternity, successfully toppled the aristocracy, and created a more democratic system in France. He also helped bring about a more equitable system for imprisonment (enforced after the revolution). Robespierre also ushered in a refocus on Greco-Roman learning in the fields of science, government and education, calling them the “cornerstones of society”.
Robespierre was well-educated from a young age and grew up to value academic learning and knowledge. He earned a law degree and soon became a notable voice in France calling for political change and equity across social classes. Early in the revolution, Robespierre became famous his long, and impassioned speeches on enlightenment philosophy. Even though his ideas were seen as extreme, his focus on liberty and fraternity earned him many radical followers. He called for “law over monarchy” and “democracy over tyranny.” In France, the Bourbon monarchy had reigned for so long that many were unsure that radicals could change the current system. Robespierre’s call for all men to vote, not just the rich who owned property, inspired many within the third estate. The Jacobins referred to him as “the incorruptible” because they saw him as honest and true to his cause of toppling the French monarchy—he was incapable of being swayed by anyone or anything.
In July of 1793, Robespierre became the head of the Committee of Public Safety. This committee was dedicated to killing anyone who seemed to be against the revolution or supportive of the monarchy. It was said that someone could be accused of being an anti-revolutionary in the morning and find themselves in the guillotine by evening. Even though Robespierre was seen as a maniac by some, he worked hard to create a more equitable system of imprisonment in France, which was enacted after the revolution.
The Bourbon monarchy had imprisoned those who were against the king and held them without a trial, executing many. Robespierre argued that this was inhumane and undemocratic, even as he chopped off heads at the guillotine. While King Louis XVI’s head lay lifeless, Robespierre still thought execution to be an unjustifiable crime. However, he believed the goals of the revolution were more important than these enlightenment principles. After the revolution, his rhetoric helped to end public hangings for good, creating a system where people would be tried instead of just executed or sent to prison by a lettre de cachet (an order of arbitrary imprisonment that anyone could send in, out of spite, or without good reason).
Robespierre also helped France to refocus on Greco-Roman values, bringing back a focus on literature, government, ideology, and fashion. Many historians who defend his character, view him as having been a young demagogue with impassioned theories, a love of learning, and a hatred of royal power, who was merely out of his depth when it came to experience. He chose systemized terror to achieve his revolutionary goals because he saw those aims as bigger and more important than maintaining and achieving all of his ideals in the moment, such as a hatred of the oppressive French prison system and death penalty. These historians say he inspired many with his philosophical musings, fanaticism, and fervor, and ended up having many long-lasting accomplishments despite the fact that his legacy is mostly blood-soaked.