A black cloud has always hovered over the name of the French Revolutionary politician Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794). The city of Paris has no grand memorial to him. The rues Saint-Just and Robert-Lindet and the boulevard Carnot commemorate other of his colleagues from the Committee of Public Safety, which ruled France during the Reign of Terror (1793– 1794)—but no Robespierre street-name exists in the capital. Since the time of the Popular Front in 1936 there has been a Métro stop—though Métro Robespierre is located beyond the boulevard périphérique in the workers’ suburb of Montreuil. It is as if Paris—a city replete with sites of memory—suffers from Robespierre amnesia. Even in his native Arras, moreover, as Ruth Scurr notes in her new account of Robespierre’s life, memorabilia are notable by their absence, there is little to be seen in the Maison Robespierre, and the visitor is given the sense that “Robespierre is someone to be ashamed of.”

Robespierre still has some fans. Many of the historians among them belong to the Société des Études Robespierristes (Society for Robespierrist Studies), a learned society in Paris founded in 1907, which meets sedately to listen to papers, run a journal, plan colloquia, and subsidize scholarly publications. At the society’s meeting in 1988, Michel Vovelle, then holder of the prestigious Chair in the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne, delivered a paper entitled “Pourquoi nous sommes encore robespierristes?” (“Why Are We Still Robespierrists?”). The title deliberately echoed a talk delivered in 1920 by a former holder of the same chair, Albert Mathiez. In it, Mathiez drew parallels between 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.1

Vovelle’s reasons for being “Robespierrist” were less Bolshevik. Robespierre’s life was worth celebrating because he had consistently befriended the poor, defended the oppressed, championed social democracy, and fought for a fairer society. He had done so with an unswerving integrity which, early in the Revolution, had won him the nickname “the Incorruptible.” Even if we resist the tendency to deck out Robespierre as a founding father of the French “social model,” much of the program that Vovelle represents him as espousing can be placed well within the horizon of contemporary political acceptability. In that sense, it might even be said that we are “all Robespierrists now” (or at least mostly).

Yet to speak of Robespierre is to speak of the Terror. As a prominent member of France’s Revolutionary Government in 1793–1794, Robespierre justified and in many cases instigated terroristic policies which aimed to scare the French nation into political conformity and to drive the armies of France’s European enemies beyond its frontiers. The infamous Revolutionary Tribunal was not his invention, but it was certainly his instrument. He witnessed attacks on Catholicism, and sought to institute a civic religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. He was overthrown in a coup d’état on July 27, 1794—9 Thermidor Year II in the newly created Revolutionary calendar—and guillotined the next day.

Robespierre still has supporters partly because the Reign of Terror still does. While some might be tempted to equate Robespierre’s Terror with what passes under the same name in the twenty-first century, his partisans see the excessive and even horrific policies of 1793–1794 as an understandable response to the pressing circumstances in which the Revolution found itself at the time. Newly republican France was undermined by counterrevolutionary forces—the west of the country was in the grip of peasant royalists, and many other regions were mutinously suspicious of Paris. On (and often inside) the frontiers, the Republic was confronting the armed forces of the crowned heads of Europe, breathing revenge for the execution of the hapless Louis XVI. Vovelle and his colleagues rest their admiration for Robespierre not only on his social conscience but on his patriotism and republican fidelity. In these extreme circumstances, paragon of humane virtue that he was, Robespierre could be forgiven for putting liberal freedoms temporarily on hold so as to protect the very existence of the Revolution.

Terror divides, now as then. Among historians, the “thesis of circumstance,” as it is called—that is, the tendency to view the Terror as springing from a nationalistic response to external aggression and internal sedition—has long had its critics. The most influential recent revisionist attack on it was led by the late François Furet. The Revolution, Furet argued, had an inbuilt tendency toward popular violence from its earliest days. This set up the preconditions for terror long before there were threats, external or internal. The Terror was thus not a temporary, chance aberration from the principles of 1789, it was their fulfillment. Terror was in the Revolution’s DNA from the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, onward. Indeed, as fellow revisionist historian Simon Schama memorably phrased it, 1794 “was merely 1789, with a higher body-count.”2 Furet’s analysis placed particular emphasis on the role of political discourses emergent in 1789 in determining later political choices. He also highlighted the role of Robespierre in generating and diffusing what became the dominant language of violence. For Furet, the Incorruptible was the purest and most distilled rhetorical form assumed by the radical, eventually terroristic discourse of Revolution.


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens famously declared of the French Revolutionary Terror at the outset of his stirring novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The Great Robespierre Conundrum is that in this one person we seem to have both the best and the worst of men. Just as the Terror is for some eminently justifiable and for others shockingly unjustifiable, so Robespierre may be, as Scurr puts it, on one hand “the cold-eyed, self-justifying apostle of terrorism and totalitarianism,” “the first of the modern dictators,” and “the inventor and perpetrator of the Terror who sent thousands to their deaths”—yet on the other a super-patriot and a paragon of social democratic virtue.

Historians who are brave enough to undertake a biographical study of Robespierre are thus entering a broken field, a site of major and unresolved historiographical dispute, and a political hornet’s nest. If all that was not daunting enough, they also have to negotiate some extremely knotty problems of evidence. Hardly was Robespierre’s blood dry than his infamy soared. The motley group of conspirators who had planned the Thermidor coup stressed the enormity of his villainy, thus both legitimating and glorifying their action in overthrowing him. Many of these competitors had been Robespierre’s associates during the Reign of Terror. Overplaying his tyranny was thus partially a way of self-exculpation—a familiar tactic, of course, in “post-ish” times. In order to understand the nature and full extent of the role of Robespierre and his associates in the Terror, historians have to accept that much evidence has been lost or destroyed and that much of what remains is irredeemably post-Thermidorian.

It is still nonetheless remarkable how many even very basic facts about both Robespierre and the Terror remain obscure and uncertain, especially considering how much Robespierrist and anti-Robespierrist ink has been spilled over the course of two centuries. The prior use and meanings of the very term “terror” itself, for example, are still clouded in mystery. Similarly, for estimates of the total number of Terror victims, we still rely on computations made by Donald Greer in 1935. Greer set the figure at 30,000 to 40,000 persons (2,600 of whom were sentenced by Paris’s Revolutionary Tribunal). In fact, this number should certainly be well over 100,000 once proper account is taken of deaths in civil war conditions in western France in 1793–1794.3

Similarly, Robespierre’s role within the organs of Revolutionary government is still anything but crystal-clear. As Robert R. Palmer noted as long ago as 1941, Robespierre signed very few of the Committee of Public Safety’s decrees—and indeed he was absent from its sessions for lengthy periods, probably for health reasons.4 For how much of the Terror was Robespierre personally responsible? Similarly, although we know who were accounted Robespierre’s allies in the National Convention, we have little insight into these relationships and we are even more ignorant about how Robespierre’s power worked within the city of Paris and the government bureaucracy. A few years ago, John Hardman’s biography of Robespierre sought to portray him as a kind of party boss and to sketch out a Robespierrist “party machine” within city and national governments.5 This promising idea has not been taken up.

Furthermore, Robespierre himself has also contributed to the Great Robespierre Conundrum. We have an excellent ten-volume set of his complete works, notably his writings, but most classically his speeches in the National Assembly and the Jacobin Club.6 It is extremely hard to say exactly what they mean. Robespierre spoke and wrote in a difficult, oracular manner which mingled the intensely personal with the highly abstract, the tactical-pragmatic with the mystico-ideological. Simon Schama has called this an “oratory of the ego,” whereby issues of world-historical significance were filtered characteristically and self-servingly through his own putatively virtuous life and experiences.7

“I am the people myself,” Robespierre noted on one characteristic occasion, for example.8 The formulation of this grandiloquent claim offers both a democratic updating of Louis XIV’s apocryphal phrase “l’état, c’est moi” and a firm nod in the direction of the popular sovereignty that Robespierre championed. Robespierre’s followers lapped this kind of thing up, but most political contemporaries found it difficult fully to comprehend what he actually meant, so that his major speeches could provoke widespread bafflement and even exasperation. He never gave the Parisian street radicals marching orders nor did he select targets for popular violence. If people sometimes died because of his words (as they did), he could always take refuge in the studied ambivalence of his pronouncements. What he said and what people interpreted him as saying were two—and usually more than two—different things. Furet’s efforts to distill a terrorist ideology from Robespierre’s words miss the point in this respect: Robespierre could be a canny political operator and use the delphic ambivalence of his words as a tool of power.


Ruth Scurr’s interpretation of Robespierre differs from Furet’s in many respects. Though like Furet she draws essentially on Robespierre’s published works, her book is anything but an exercise in discourse analysis; it presents the most unideological study of Robespierre we have had for some time. But like Furet, she places Robespierre at the heart of her analysis of the Revolution’s pathway to Terror. He was, she avers, the “living embodiment of the Revolution at its most feral.” With the exception of the qualifying “feral,” this was very much Robespierre’s own view. Yet it was a view that he shared with very few indeed of his contemporaries.

Fatal Purity is an exercise in comprehending Robespierre, and seeks to seize the whole man, his defects included. Scurr is certainly well aware of the horrors with which her subject was associated. But she also recognizes the deformation of his character implicit in most anti-Robespierrist accounts. Her aim, she writes, is to provide “a portrait” of this single, extraordinary person rather than a biography in the conventional sense. Rather than condemning him out of hand, she seeks “to be [Robespierre]’s friend and to see things from his point of view.” She wants to peer into the character of the Incorruptible and make psychological sense of him.

This approach might raise eyebrows were it to be extended to, say, Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein. Beyond such ethical issues, moreover, lies the problem of the extent to which such a restricted focus can help us either to understand the context in which Robespierre lived and which gave his life meaning or to clarify wider circumstances that remain, as I have suggested, very hazy. Robespierre bulks large in Fatal Purity, but everything else bulks small. (The man himself, we can be pretty sure, would have approved.) Although the book’s subtitle, “Robespierre and the French Revolution,” suggests more, we get little sense of the times which Robespierre both reflected and inflected. Unexplored too are the broader ramifications of a life devoted to political terror. Oddly for the study of a self-proclaimed terrorist written and published post–September 11, this is not at all a book about the politics of terror. Disappointingly, we learn little about Robespierre’s political friendships, alliances, and influences or about the Paris within which most of the action took place. The city’s inhabitants are viewed as an undifferentiated Dickensian “mob” to whose “depravity” Scurr draws attention.

The overriding interest of Fatal Purity is the subtle, insightful, and often original way it presents Robespierre’s political career as a process of Revolutionary self-fashioning. Scurr is more interested in where Robespierre got to after 1789 than where he came from, and she provides a very incisive and well-researched account of his political career. When he arrived in Versailles in 1789 to take his place within the Estates-General, Robespierre was socially indistinguishable from other middling bourgeois who would populate the political stage over the next ten years. He was a modest, small-town lawyer, who did the kinds of things such people did: worked hard, built up his practice, liked country walks and picnics, dabbled in science, penned soppy verses (for example, an ode on the arts of spitting and nose-blowing), tried to win literary prizes, wrote love letters in the style of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who didn’t?), and looked for a wife. He made a point in his legal practice of defending the poor against the rich. Such an approach was a standard part of the rhetoric and sensibility of his generation—though one of which, as shall see, he was to make very good use.9

Robespierre had been born in 1758 in the town of Arras, in the province of Artois, near the Belgian frontier, the son of a ne’er-do-well father, who abandoned his family, and a mother who died when he was six years old. Brought up by his grandparents, he owed his career to support from the Church. He won a Church bursary to extend his education as a scholarship boy at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris’s Latin Quarter, where he met not only future fellow Revolutionaries such as the journalist Camille Desmoulins but also scions of the French aristocracy. It is easy to imagine that such a childhood might have equipped young Maximilien with a king-sized chip on the shoulder.

Scurr refrains from imagining any such thing—and is probably wise to do so. Any examination of pre-Revolutionary influences on Robespierre’s post-1789 attitudes runs straight into the acute evidential problems I have already mentioned. Most of what we can know about Robespierre’s early life derives from highly prejudiced parties writing when battle lines between Robespierrists and anti-Robespierrists had already been drawn. Thus the memoirs of one of his college masters, for example, portray him as a little terror, wracked with social envy and driven by cruelty. The (possibly apocryphal) memoirs of Robespierre’s sister Charlotte, in contrast, present a saintly vision of the youthful Maximilien, defending smaller children in the playground, loving sparrows and pigeons, and crying at the death of a particularly cherished specimen. (Another account has him constructing a mini-guillotine to lop his caged birds’ heads off.) Scurr’s cautious way with such contradictory evidence is to give measured credence to both the black and the white. The approach has drawbacks. For example, Georges Danton claimed that Robespierre never had sex in his life, but one account of his early days in Paris has Maximilen cruelly mistreating a mistress. Scurr accords partial credit to both sides of the story—as though there might be half measures with virginity.

The events of 1789 offered Robespierre a new beginning, the chance for a new identity. His earliest writings in the Revolutionary crisis, while on the trail to become elected by the Artois province to the Estates-General (soon to become the National Assembly), show him developing his erstwhile altruism into a view of politics as the self-abnegating pursuit of philanthropic commitment. Yet, rather unself-abnegatingly, he engaged in much more overt electioneering than his peers. His campaign literature made much of his championing of the rights of the poor and the oppressed. Yet, Scurr tells us, it also crudely rammed home the message “Vote for Robespierre.”

This identification between the cause of the people and his own self-promotion is symptomatic of the kind of rhetoric that Robespierre developed as a fine art after 1789. This approach—rather than anything distinctive about his social background—turned him into what Scurr calls a “quirkily brilliant politician” in the new post-1789 atmosphere. A weak and unconvincing speaker at first, he gradually improved his rhetorical techniques, supplementing early oral hesitation by providing political journalists with written copies of his speeches. He honed his skills in the Jacobin Club, a voting caucus in the Assembly and a propaganda machine for the “left”—the word was new. He built up a personal following within Paris too, and was popular among the sans-culottes—the city’s street radicals. He joined with them in calling for the overthrow of the monarchy in June 1791 when the King sought to flee Paris, only to be captured at Varennes and returned to the capital.

By the time of Varennes, Robespierre’s pre-Revolutionary reputation for altruism had flowered into a seamless commitment to radical causes. The Incorruptible selflessly fought oppression and corruption in all its forms, supported the abolition of the death penalty (about which he was spectacularly to change his mind when what he saw as pragmatic defense of the Republic in 1793 trumped his commitment to radical principle), defended the interests of the poorer classes, blew the whistle on the rich and famously corrupt, denounced counterrevolutionary plots, and called for manhood suffrage (and not simply a property franchise). He was also, in the spring of 1792, to gain grudging respect for his opposition to the drift to war on the (very sound) grounds that “no one loves an armed missionary.” As Scurr brilliantly shows, he seemed to have found the knack of converting a maverick reputation as a bleeding heart into the foundation of a shrewdly managed if still marginal political career.

Robespierre’s defense of the poor (whom he both mythologized and sanitized as “the sovereign people”) and his championing of radical principles won him a measure of fame beyond the walls of the National Assembly. It also gained him the detestation of the rich, the propertied, and the counte-revolutionary. He felt threatened—and threatened he was. Contemporaries and biographers alike, Scurr included, in the end became impatient with Robespierre’s droning on in his uniquely holier-than-thou style about his alleged personal perils. But he was not wrong to worry about his safety. By calling for the deposition of Louis XVI in the summer of 1791, he risked assassination by the “right.” “The King must die,” he famously proclaimed during Louis’s trial, “so that the nation can live”—and indeed so that he himself (he chose not to add) would not die either.

This example highlights the rhetorical style he had by now perfected, which linked the perils of the fatherland to the dangers that he himself was courting by boldly speaking out. It was shading into an almost paranoid style of politics which was calculatedly, insidiously inclusive. “Share my fear,” he invited the Jacobins following the flight to Varennes. At that moment, most fellow politicians rebuffed the invitation. By the time of the Terror, few would feel safe to resist.

The overthrow of Louis XVI in August 1792 opened a new phase in Robespierre’s career. His national profile was heightened, even though he was still viewed by most as a maverick. The King’s deposition caused disgrace, exile, or imprisonment for many of Robespierre’s old political enemies, but it also won him a new set of adversaries. In the interregnum preceding the opening of the new National Assembly, or Convention, this bleeding heart began to be viewed as a man of blood as much as a man of principle. He was widely thought to bear some responsibility for the September Massacres, in which over a thousand largely blameless prison inmates were butchered by Parisians savagely overreacting to the possibility of invasion by foreign troops. Even some of his former allies believed that he had secretly worked to subject them to the fury of the vengeful crowd.

In fact, Robespierre does not appear to have borne any direct responsibility for the massacres. Yet unlike his political enemies he consorted freely with the type of Parisian street radical who did. And throughout this troubled interregnum, he ceaselessly led delegations of such individuals into the National Assembly. Armed with nothing more frightening than a handkerchief, he laid down the law to cowering deputies while at the head of pike-bearing sans-culottes, as eager to crush perceived counterrevolution within Paris as to fight foreign enemies.

Robespierre’s erstwhile pacifism had now turned into a fierce, root-and-branch determination to prosecute the war effort by any means, including alliance with street radicals and—especially—terror. He evidently believed that he was still acting out of principles and he retained his perennial penchant for self-righteousness. “That man will go far,” Mirabeau was alleged to have said of him at the outset of the Revolution, for “he believes everything he says.” Before 1792, rigid and self-regarding attachment to principles had made him seem somewhat peculiar. Now he seemed peculiarly scary.

When Robespierre was elected by his fellow deputies to sit on the Committee of Public Safety in July 1793, the country was almost literally, as I have suggested, falling apart. Indeed it was a sign of how desperate the times had become that such a maverick could be chosen. Robespierre went on to play a key part in the government team that recovered the situation, albeit by a terrifying and often cruel imposition of state violence. He attracted public attention by assuming responsibility for explaining and justifying government policy to the Convention and the country alike.

He explained and justified, it should be said, some very bad actions: liquidatory policies against insurrectionary peasants in the west of France, draconian punishment of rebellious southern cities such as Lyon and Marseille, repression of anti-Revolutionary priests, intensification of the activities of the Revolutionary tribunal (including packing the tribunal’s juries), dismantling the most radical fringe of the Parisian popular movement, and bloody purges of political factions to the left and right (leading to the guillotining of his former allies Danton, Desmoulins, and Jacques Pierre Brissot).

As Scurr points out, Robespierre balanced this root-and-branch ferocity over what he saw as defense of the fatherland with a streak of relative moderation, especially when behind closed doors. He worked behind the scenes to curb the repressive excesses of the rival government committee, the Committee of General Security, a kind of terroristic ministry of homeland security. He sought to neutralize ultra-Revolutionary deputies from alienating the provinces by excessively radical policies. He endeavored to compensate for terror with enlightened welfare and educational programs. And while others pushed for the outlawing of Catholicism he advocated religious toleration: his establishment of a Cult of the Supreme Being was less anti-Catholic than anti-atheist.

By sticking close to Robespierre in the guise of critical friend, Scurr gives a strong sense of the agonizing ways in which Robespierre sought to square the terrorist circle, preserving the Republic yet somehow maintaining values that made the Republic worth preserving. But she gives little sense that Robespierre might share some of the responsibility for getting France into this situation in the first place. In the past, his fellow deputies had regarded Robespierre as heedlessly sowing discord, speaking the language of terror, whipping up discontent, and forming dangerous political alliances with the most violent sans-culotte factions. Now—for the first time in his entire political career—the views of this “living embodiment” of Revolution overlapped with those of his political colleagues. Yet even if many of the latter felt that they were now reaping Robespierre’s whirlwind, they grudgingly accepted his leadership in view of what they saw as the threat to the existence of the Republic. Some had come to admire his never-say-die political energy. Others were cowed by fear into acquiescence.

This unusual moment of alignment between the views of Robespierre and his fellow deputies soon passed. By spring 1794, Scurr’s “quirkily brilliant politician” was becoming a quirkily suicidal one. Robespierre was suffering badly from his nerves. His behavior started estranging even his friends. He became unreliable as a colleague—he was more often than not absent from both the Committee of Public Safety and the Convention. He lingered in the protective care of the Duplay family, with whom he lodged in Paris, nursing slights and honing his virtuous self-righteousness. News of the outside world came increasingly from a small and somewhat sinister clique of hangers-on. He saw himself as the scourge of factionalism yet seems not to have realized that to others these followers resembled one of the factions he ceaselessly attacked. He had lost track of events. French military victories, which in the eyes of many of his fellow deputies reduced the need for policies of terror, had no impact on his thinking. And while he nursed his own resentments, the rest of the world got on with organizing his downfall.

That Robespierre had completely and terminally lost his grasp on the realities of the situation was evident by his activities on 8 Thermidor Year II (July 26, 1794), the day before his overthrow. He appeared in the Convention to announce the need for the assembly to purge itself of counterrevolutionaries. Yet he failed to say just who he imagined these counterrevolutionaries to be. His rambling, tediously self-indulgent speech—one of the longest suicide notes in history—gave the large number of enemies motivated to get rid of him every incentive to do so at once. On 9 Thermidor, no one supported him. Even his former sans-culotte allies were conspicuous by their absence.

From the spring of 1794, Robespierre had become utterly impossible. If it was difficult for contemporaries to comprehend what he was doing, then it must be even more so for his biographer and critical friend. It is the danger hanging over every biographer that at some point they start believing their subject’s propaganda. As Robespierre became ever more introverted and more marginal to the process of the Revolution, and his ideas more solipsistic, one wonders whether Scurr is not succumbing to that danger. She seeks to dig further and deeper into the mind of her “friend,” continuing the inward journey as a means of gaining a final take on character. But one is tempted to conclude that what was by now going on in Robespierre’s head was largely irrelevant in view of the overdetermined processes of his fall and its wider significance within Revolutionary France and indeed within Europe. The trouble with viewing Robespierre as “the living embodiment of the Revolution” is understanding those numerous circumstances when he manifestly wasn’t.

No one, even friends then and now, can be certain what Robespierre was up to in the Thermidor crisis. The Great Robespierre Conundrum is with us still. As a consequence we find it difficult to break out of the Robespierrist/anti-Robespierrist explanatory schema. A biographical approach to his life and death can give us—as Scurr does—a heightened and nuanced sense of Robespierre’s personality and complexities. But it also leaves little room for us to comprehend what his rise and fall might have meant to anyone else, and how we might take a step toward understanding the wider significance of the Terror, and Robespierre’s part within it.

By staying true to her close reading of character in these crazy last months of his life, Scurr risks losing the wider plot quite as comprehensively as Robespierre did. She suggests that others were by now sharing his view of himself as the embodiment of the Revolution. All the evidence appears to the contrary. Thermidor was the work of revolutionaries, not counterrevolutionaries. Robespierre was dead, it could be declared on 10 Thermidor: so Vive la Révolution. Scurr brings us closer to Robespierre’s character and his obsessions, but in doing so she loses sight of the Revolution itself.

This Issue

December 20, 2007