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  • Hardcover
  • 352
  • Robespierre A Revolutionary Life
  • Peter McPhee
  • English
  • 20 November 2019
  • 9780300118117

10 thoughts on “Robespierre A Revolutionary Life

  1. says:

    In Danton the 1983 biopic based on the life the French revolutionary the eponymous hero standing on the threshold of execution says that “Everything might go on fine if I could give my legs to that cripple Couthon and my balls to Robespierre” George Couthon a member of the Committee of Public Safety the dictatorial body that presided over the Reign of Terror was indeed a cripple Maximilian Robespierre likewise a member of the Committee of Public Safety and Danton’s nemesis was the Revolution’s virginal ascetic the virtuous ‘sea green incorruptible’ Put another way sans balls He was not as other men; he was not as the sybaritic Danton perfect in his imperfections I wish I could be sure that Danton actually said those words that they did not simply emerge as a piece of poetic licence; for they really do in all their crudity cut to the heart of the matter and the man; they cut to the heart of the high priest of the cult of virtue Personally I can think of no better epitaph These thoughts were brought on by my reading over the weekend of Robespierre A Revolutionary Life a new treatment by Peter McPhee professor of history at the University of Melbourne and a specialist on France I think I must be the last person to be reviewing a book on Robespierre for I have no sympathy whatsoever for the subject the first of history’s modern fanatics I’ll try my hardest to be fair but do treat my words with a modicum of caution I can certainly be fair to McPhee whose work is balanced lucid and scholarly Any biography of Robespierre presents difficulties because he left little in the way of personal introspection anything that would give a clue to his psychological makeup But the author builds up a careful portrait drawing on what contemporary evidence is available The chapters on his early life and schooling are good showing the boy as the father of the man Robespierre was one of the brightest pupils at Louis le Grand the leading school in France at the time where he immersed himself in the Roman classicists particularly Cicero He also read deeply into the work of Montesuieu and Rousseau Virtue and what it means to be virtuous was to emerge as the leading theme of Robespierre’s life In 1789 he wrote the duty of rulers was “to lead men to happiness through virtue and to virtue through legislation” There is an echo here of the American Declaration of Independence which among other things defines the pursuit of happiness to be an inherent right But America was fortunate enough to escape real definitions of happiness and how the elusive creature was to be caught; France did not The chimera was to be conjured up in the so called Republic of Virtue Robespierre’s legacy to history The paradox is that by any measure Robespierre began as a decent human being genuinely concerned with the various abuses suffered by ordinary people under the old political order Though of the left he began his career as a moderate He was opposed to the declaration of war against Austria in April 1792 a step urged on by the Girondins and he was initially opposed to the overthrow of the monarchy later that same year He also argued against the expulsion of the Girondins from the Convention after the political mood had turned against them But as the climate turned radical Robespierre turned radical A member of the Mountain in the Convention he was for a time their Mohammad Georg Büchner’s play Danton’s Death upon which the above named movie was based has some fascination exchanges between Danton and Robespierre Picture the scene it’s the spring of 1794 the height of the Reign of Terror Danton argues that enough is enough that the Revolution is drowning in blood In response Robespierre says that the social revolution isn’t over yet and he who makes half a revolution digs his own grave For him Terror had become the emanation of virtue the only certain way that France could attain revolutionary happiness McPhee does a superb job in sailing through these stormy waters He shows a man who came to believe that the destiny of the Revolution ran through his own person For him patriotism was a black and white issue with good revolutionaries on one side and evil counter revolutionaries on the other In other words by 1794 Robespierre was no longer capable of discriminating between dissent and treason Not even friendship got in the way This absence of subtlety was to consume Camille Desmoulins once his most intimate associate insofar as this priggish man could be close to any individual Blind fanaticism was the corruption at the heart of virtue The decisive moment here the moment that foretold Robespierre’s doom was the French victory over the Austrians at the battle of Fleurus in June 1794 All at once the military crisis had passed; France was no longer in danger; the justification for the Terror was over There are deeper issues here things the author does not touch largely I suspect because they are beyond the provenance of history a mater of philosophical and psychological speculation What in the end would a true Republic of Virtue look like? Could this political Garden of Eden exist beyond the pages of Rousseau and the mind of Robespierre? My own answer is simple enough; that the Terror was to disguise the impossibility of Virtue; it was compensation for frustrated dreams of purity As I once wrote in a review of Danton’s Death Robespierre was the monster of the idea a prototype for others to come He is the one historical figure for whom I have a particular loathing McPhee did well to steer me calmly through a rocky life


  2. says:

    45 stars


  3. says:

    Virtue without which terror is fatal Terror without which virtue is impotent Terror is nothing but prompt severe inflexible justiceRobespierre and I have a difficult relationship Although I think he was a tortured and brilliant man who has been maligned by history I can never forgive him for purging the Dantonists I once had a minor panic attack over the death of Desmoulins and accidentally uoted Prisoner of Azkaban 'He was your friend And you betrayed him He was your friend'Peter McPhee's biography of Robespierre is detailed and balanced almost to a fault The reader is expected to have a comfortable grasp of Revolutionary history To his credit McPhee avoids drama for academic precision the Girondist and Dantonist purges which even a talentless director could turn into compelling cinema are given as much space as Robespierre's prize winning essay on RousseauAlthough it makes for dry reading Robespierre A Revolutionary Life is the best biography I have read of The Incorruptible The only true misstep comes in the introduction when McPhee appears to claim that Robespierre is the most difficult biography subject of all time Aside from that bizarre note he avoids generalizations or assumptions These are the facts laid out accurately and precisely uncolored by emotion Though I would not call him a Robespierre apologist McPhee has divorced his subject from the slanders and outright liesIn fact I would call this the Robespierre myth buster book McPhee easily dismantles the pop culture portrayal of his subject Robespierre was not a blood thirsty monster he struggled to reconcile his opposition to the death penalty with the political necessity of Louis XVI's death Additionally McPhee shows that the worst escalations of the Terror happened when Robespierre was indisposed or ill He tepidly advances the thesis that Robespierre's enemies sent hundreds to the guillotine to turn public opinion against him but neither McPhee nor his readers are expected to believe that ideaI commend McPhee for debunking tenacious myths that appear in even modern scholarship For example I had always believed the old story about Robespierre decorating his room with busts and portraits of himself McPhee produces compelling evidence that this was a slander in retrospect it seems odd for a timid ascetic to glorify himself so openly Additionally Ms Mantel had convinced me that Robespierre had an affair with Eleonore Duplay the daughter of his landlord McPhee again cites convincing proof that this is a fabricated rumorSo yes I don't like Robespierre I still can't forgive him for killing his best friends However he was not a blood thirsty monster Maximilien Robespierre was a studious incorruptible ascetic He loved the heroes of the classics than his actual friends and he idolized the Revolution enough to ignore its flaws Personally I don't see him as a cunning manipulative Game of Thrones character He may have survived the Revolution if not for some cringe worthy political moves and inept speeches before the Jacobin club


  4. says:

    The worst elements of the French Revolution have long been attached to the actions of Maximilien Robespierre so I found this book interesting as a nuanced appraisal which peels away subseuent assessments that transformed him into a pantomime villain We get a good impression of his overlooked pre revolutionary life as an ambitious provincial gentry lawyer who through effort and circumstance became an elouent popular figure at the centre of a tumultuous time We also get a sense of his ambitious plans for a Deistic and patriotic society with a shared destiny against the reality of factionalism sectarianism and counter revolution The France that Robespierre inherits was a patchwork of upheaval and only naturally a revolution would not occur in unison as he had hopedIt is impossible to deny that Robespierre towards the end altered from someone once sueamish regarding the suffering of others to one who focused on consolidating command Beginning to withdraw from public life due to illness and having formed numerous enemies on both flanks ensured that his legacy would prove disreputable despite the fact the conduct of some of those doing the sullying were highly uestionable themselves during the terror I wouldn't say that Robespierre was a scapegoat for the Terror but alluding to his most famous case he did become a lightning conductor for his enemies In all the biography is a comprehensive and three dimensional work of an individual built from the surviving evidence we have


  5. says:

    Historian Peter McPhee here offers a persuasive and unusually sympathetic portrait of the often vilified leader of the French Revolution Robespierre was not as often portrayed at the most extreme left wing of the Republican revolutionaries Indeed many of his most infamous deeds such as the Festival of the Supreme Being were McPhee argues attempts to satisfy the far left without giving in to its most extreme demands This book also does a good job of showing how so many historical figures and periods become characterized by future histories by one brief period in their existence The image of the blood thirsty Robespierre that so many of us are familiar with was the result of only the last couple of months of his life during which he was often bed ridden from extreme exhaustion and confiding to those closest to him that he was concerned for his own mental health and wished to step down from power Contemporary historians particularly those of the political right love to characterize the Jacobins as the harbingers of the so called “totalitarian” movements of the twentieth century The terror was they tell us organized violence perpetrated by the government against the people a top down barbarity These historians will thus compare the Jacobins to the fascist and communist regimes that arose a century and a half after the Jacobins But the Terror as McPhee describes it was in fact an acknowledgment by the revolutionary government of the violent impulses of the masses they were governing When the people demanded violence and committed it without the blessing of the state the revolutionary state acuiesced and gave its approval to the people’s actions The Jacobin Terror had less in common with the abuses of Hitler or Stalin than it did with the eually misunderstood Chinese Cultural Revolution Especially from our perspective of two hundred plus years of hindsight Robespierre’s story seems largely like the story of his whole generation of upwardly mobile French bourgeois Indeed the society that reared them put into the minds of a generation the values that would inspire them to usurp that social order The “great literature” of the day was that of the Roman Empire from roughly 80 BC to 120 AD This was a time when the leading intellectuals of the Classical world were convinced that Rome’s best days were behind it One can hear in Cicero’s famous uote “Domestic war alone remains the enemy is within” the seeds of the Jacobin terror For the Roman thinkers that Robespierre and his ilk were reared on all societies just as all individuals were divided by high and base instincts When decline befalls a person or a society it is because the baser instincts were winning out Corruption of mind body and soul had to be held in check if humanity was to realize its full potential As a young student in Paris Robespierre read a combination of the above mentioned canonical works and the still new n scandalous writings of Rousseau as well as uasi surreptitious satirical magazines attacking the corruption and hypocrisy of the clergy The young Robespierre would write a poem praising Rousseau His first semi political writings were dedicated to hoping that the Church would find a way back to its pure state of innocence something from which its leaders had clearly strayed Upon earning his law degree Robespierre returned to his home town of Arras to practice He uickly made a name for himself as a progressive lawyer winning high profile cases This saw him admitted to salons where he gave what was considered at the time a rather scandalous lecture arguing that children born out of wedlock should not face any legal or social discrimination This was a cause near to Robespierre’s heart as his parents had divorced a rarity in that era and a cloud of scandal had hovered over his family in Arras as he was growing up But this argument had alarming political implications If a person’s rights should not be determined by their birth lineage then why should anyone become King or ueen because of the family from which they were born? Other “outrageous” arguments from young Robespierre included that women had eual capacities to men and should be admitted to the same academies and societies and that corruption existed in the Church The latter was not a new notion As mentioned above clerical corruption was the subject of much subterranean satire But Robespierre took things one further He actually dared to challenge the Church in a court of law defending citizens against legal actions taken by the clergy Again taking inspiration from Rousseau Robespierre began writing and about “virtue” or the love of good men for law and country Never any kind of anarchist Robespierre was adamant throughout his life that order must be maintained but he became and forceful in preaching it must apply to all of the nation’s citizens eually While many were made uncomfortable by Robespierre’s politics he did even as a young man find a sympathetic audience Among the ever numerous and influential bourgeoisie there was a germinating discourse against not only the crown but the nobility as well There was a rising sense that the common person was as capable as any of adhering to reason The average citizen was not simply a subject of the Crown but was rather a participant in as Rousseau called it a “social contract” This was in part a reaction to a sense by many layers of the French population that their country was in the process of losing it’s “national greatness” Many of its colonies such as those in Canada had recently been lost The revolution would be from its inception torn between a progressive impulse for greater individual freedom and euality between French citizens and a nationalist perhaps even reactionary tendency towards reestablishing France’s power in the world In 1788 France found itself in severe debt due to the expenses devoted to the country’s intervention in the American war for independence The Crown wished to lift immunity from taxation from the nobility to pay off the country’s debts In May the King reorganized the judicial system taking away the courts’ ability to restrict taxation Predicting the furor this would cause particularly amongst the nobility the Crown announced on August 8 that the 3 Estates would meet in May of 1789 for the first time since 1614 in an effort to lessen tensions between the classes However in a disastrous turn the King also declared that the representation of the Royal estate was to be doubled making it twice that of the nobility than twice that of the Clergy and than three times that of the bourgeoisie Robespierre who had continued writing provocative essays and taking on political cases such as representing trade guilds was predictably outraged He successfully campaigned first for direct election of representatives to the estate and then for his own election as representative relying on votes by the poor Conservatives of all classes and indeed some moderates were horrified by his political ascent Ritual had allowed the King to meet with each estate separately but the third estate refused this reuest and started deliberations independently and informed the nobility and the clergy that if they did not join them in doing so that the Third Estate would declare itself the National Assembly and work alone After the cowing of the nobles and the clergy the Third Estate followed through on this threat on June 17 1789 In response the King brought 20 thousand soldiers and mercenaries to the capital Angered over a dramatic rise in the price of bread the poor rose up to defend the National Assembly on July 14 This led of course to the storming and capture of the Bastille and the killing of over 100 insurgents by the King’s soldiers Incensed the masses killed several city officials in retaliation Robespierre was one of the first representatives of the Third Estate to declare the actions of the masses as legitimate Indeed he threw his support behind a call to form people’s militias and for the enfranchisement of those too poor to afford their own arms He is uoted as declaring in translation of course “Let the people know that law will hold to justice the ‘enemies of the people’ and that those who hold them to justice will not be treated as vigilantes” It was perhaps the initial coining of the phrase “enemies of the people” That saying seems to have struck an immediate cord as the mayor of Paris was killed by a make shift militia as he tried to flee the city Subseuently revolts uickly spread to the countryside On August 27 1789 the National Assembly produced the “Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen” In this document it was declared that “liberty consists of the power to do whatever is not injurious to others” It was and is generally interpreted that this meant a right to free speech association and religion With the Declaration the National Assembly declared itself an official body as much a part of France’s government as the Crown A revolution it could be said had already taken place The Declaration did not however define what constitutes “injurious” activity leaving that open to interpretation Robespierre was decidedly to the left of the majority of his colleagues in the National Assembly and many of his proposals were deemed too radical by the majority For instance the Assembly voted to recompensate the Nobility for their losses since the start of the revolutionary process over Robespierre’s fierce objections To practice arguing his case before a sympathetic audience Robespierre joined the Paris branch of the radical Jacobin Club in November 1789 while his brother Augustine joined the Arras branch Robespierre uickly asserted himself on the national body of the Club and was elected its president only four months after joining In 1790 the poor in the countryside had begun forcefully making use of “public land” that had previously been made available in reality only to the nobility Robespierre proposed putting the land to use by the common people into law The Assembly responded by doing so for only a small portion of such lands Robespierre became the champion of the “revolting briggands” In May of the same year there arose a debate within the National Assembly as to whether it was bound to act on the King’s proposals regarding foreign policy Robespierre argued that revolutionary France should never invade another country unless that country’s people rose up in the name of self determination to seize their rights as citizens and join France on its revolutionary path The conservative wing of the Assembly voted to follow the King in calling for imperialist adventures into neighboring countries There were also debates within the National Assembly concerning the institution of slavery in revolutionary France’s colonies Robespierre issued the radical mantra “Death to colonialism and slavery” that would serve as an inspiration to those in southeast Asia fighting French colonialism in the twentieth century Again he had to settle for a compromise with the conservative factions of the Assembly who granted citizenship to free Blacks in the colonies but refused to free the slaves Robespierre objected vociferously isolating him from even his comrades in the Jacobin Club In the opening months of 1791 Robespierre began communicating with his brother and closest friends that he felt profoundly over worked and worried about his physical and even mental health He would reiterate these concerns until the end of his days However on June 11 of that year he learned to his astonishment that he had been elected to be the public prosecutor for Paris He had not even known that his name was on the ballot and never learned how it had become so Yet against his own concerns about himself he accepted the post Perhaps out of fear that such a fiery radical as Robespierre had attained such a post the King attempted to flee the country on June 20 1791 but was uickly captured To the most radical revolutionaries in the country the King’s attempt to escape to another absolute monarchy confirmed in their minds that there was an international conspiracy on the part of European Royalty to uash the French Revolution The moderately radical Cordeliers Club which counted amongst its most prominent members Danton Marat and Desmoulins organized a protest demanding that the King abdicate Robespierre and the Jacobins called for a yet radical action Robespierre argued that “royal inviolability is an invention” and that Louis should be deposed The majority of the National Assembly however voted to allow Louis to remain KIng Robespierre called for the right to vote for representation of all adult men and women regardless of income nationality religion and occupation Initially however the Assembly granted this right only to males of a certain income excluding Jews and actors Robespierre fought tirelessly against such exclusion and by September of 1791 he had successfully won voting rights for all groups except women The monarchies of Prussia and Austria warned France that Louis must not only remain safe but in power Louis however had few allies left in his own nation and approved a constitution officially making France a constitutional monarchy in September of 1791 Robespierre resigned his position as prosecutor and seemed ready to live a private existence while still using the Jacobin Club as an outlet for his ideas On certain topics he was surprisingly moderate For instance he was never as vociferously anti religion as some of his fellow revolutionaries Perhaps he would have gone on to live a relatively less dramatic and political life had war not erupted between France and Austria on April 20 1792 Robespierre had long been known for his anti war stance and in the suddenly martial environment of the nation he found himself politically marginalized but this did not stop him from loudly decrying the turn towards war Indeed it reinvigorated him politically Prussia sided with Austria against revolutionary France and the French army suffered defeat after defeat France was facing invasion Rumors swirled through the middle and lower classes that Louis was in cahoots with his fellow royals and that the war had been a ruse to defeat the revolution not restore France’s place on the global stage This suspicion extended to the nobility and the clergy Revolutionary gangs killed many suspected enemies of the people and there were huge anti monarchy demonstrations The people had made clear that they were no longer willing to live fight and die under the monarchy Robespierre considered it the clear expression of the popular will that the monarchy be dissolved and this was done on August 10 1792 With the war taking a disastrous turn for France Robespierre’s anti war stance now seemed appealing He was again politically popular and was elected to the National Convention along with his brother In his writings of the period Robespierre expounded on his concept of “virtue” a patriotism that inspired a nation’s citizens to subordinate their self interest for the national good Such virtue was to be inculcated in citizens by the state through public festivals as had been done in classical Greece and Rome It was also in late 1792 that Robespierre began for the first time to publicly call for the execution of the King To not execute Louis for his crimes when “common” people faced execution Robespierre argued would be to acknowledge the elitist notion that the King was inherently “above the people” The National Convention seemed convinced by these arguments as Louis was put to death on January 21 1793 upon which the monarchies of England and Spain declared war on France The Convention at Robespierre’s behest put price controls on food so that the urban poor could afford necessities This alienated many once revolutionary farmers and some of their representatives in the Convention especially those from the comparatively conservative Girondon Club were similarly incensed There were even counter revolutionary uprisings in some rural regions Robespierre again during a time when he was expressing concerns about his physical and mental health to those closest to him called for the first time for the execution of all “enemies of the revolution” The revolting farmers were crushed and killed upon the Convention’s orders and “revolutionary censorship” was imposed It was in this context that the notorious Committee for Public Safety was formed with Robespierre at its head The membership was elected on a month to month basis with Robespierre winning reelection seemingly fairly time after time In April of 1793 the National Convention released a revised version of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen The new document was decidedly radical than the original Where as the American revolution influenced 1789 version had focused on the rights and freedoms of the individual the new document focused on the “general well being” of society It acknowledged the right of private property but also asserted an obligation on the part of all citizens to see to the necessities of all citizens including those incapable of work It also asserted the necessity of universal education These were to be paid for by progressive taxation that would not allow the disparity in social wealth to become too great The character of the revolution was changing rapidly The Cordellier Club an association even radical than the Jacobins began calling for the redistribution of private property Robespierre thought this was a step too far and rejected the notion as did the vast majority of the revolutionary state The left most Jacobins and Cordellier deputies began calling for the expulsion of the Girondon deputies Robespierre was initially defensive of the conservative deputies arguing that a deputy should only be recalled by popular election As the Girondons began talking about open counter revolution however Robespierre changed his mind The Girondon deputies were expelled arrested and executed in July of 1793 Feeding the army that was trying to turn back the counter revolutionary invaders was the government’s first priority This led however to severe food shortages in the cities Workers formed mobs to seize food There was bloodletting every day The revolutionary government felt the need to harness this violent energy on the part of the masses for its own ends People’s armies were made official arms of the revolution and were charged by the state with seuestering food ensuring the payment of taxes by the rich hunting down and killing deserters and those engaged in “unpatriotic rhetoric” and the seizure of church treasures What came to be known as “the Terror” had begun


  6. says:

    Robespierre remains the face of revolutionary terror and is considered a practical forefather of Stalin Mao Enver Hoxsha and the league The book through contemporary notes and eyewitness accounts tries to reconstruct the journey that a passionate and romantic youth from Arras in Western France took to become a tyrant The author is brilliantly skillful in making one feel for the idealist in Robespierre A Robespierre who had utmost faith in law A Robespierre who read Classical history and Plutarch with conviction that the present had much to learn from it A Robespierre to whom Rousseau was nothing short of God The book expects one to have studied French Revolutionary history since it is racy in its narration It does not even stop to let one chew the meaty bits the execution of Danton for instance The French Revolution as always becomes an inspirational moment in human history but one that one had much to mourn in A great early morning read for me


  7. says:

    Excellent The most complete revision of the literature sorrounding the figure of Robespierre and a new analysis of Robespierre life as a young man and his passionate life for revolutionary change encompassing the struggle for liberty euality and fraternal values and his comitment for a free people of Europe from the chains of monarchical life and the privileged seigneurial landowners nobles clergy and aristocracy Mcphee does justice to Robespierre and his aim for a French People's Republic with the intention to foment civic virtues and a democratic culture that would prevent the rise of fascism uncritical assumption of any kind of unreasonable authority as well as social injustice In particular he shows us an uncompromising fidelity of the militant and her will and a turbulent event gathered together at this time entailing notions of great courage in order to balance the civic duties of the French Revolution of 1789the rights of man of 1792 and the war effort against national counter revolution and the constant attacks received by repressive monarchical regimes of Europe As the author states in innumerous reports and speeches given by the 'incorruptible' first from the Assembly National Convention and then the Commitee of Public Safety Robespierre warned and was against the start of the war violence and condemned the excesses of the military ministers and delegates in the provinces which is far from the largely pervasive literature that pinpoints the leader as a tyrant dictator or a man drawn to the spilling of blood or even for those who exploit the figure of Robespierre for those in the far right who see him as the embodiment of the start of modern totalitarianism that is basically those who condemn any social change and anyone who is committed enough to change this crucial system which they justify and give legitimation that is protecting certain elite interestsAn authoritative and academic historian's stab to the fraudulent pseudo psychological interested accounts that encompass so many biographies on Robespierre


  8. says:

    An excellent biography of a much maligned and fascinating subject The author sets himself the task in the introduction of answering the uestion How it could be that someone who articulated the highest principles of 1789 could come to be seen as the personification of the 'Reign of Terror' in 1793–94? I think he does an admirable job at doing so while placing Robespierre in his context While certainly coming across as sympathetic to Robespierre McPhee strikes a nice balance in presenting the various conflicting opinions about Robespierre by his contemporaries and historians and showing these opinions in their context He also does a great job of staying on his subject and not getting distracted too much by many of the other magnetic personalities that played pivotal roles in the events of the Revolution My only criticisms are that McPhee tends to leap about chronologically a bit much when trying to connect details which sometimes causes the reader to lose a proper sense of narrative; and that his great job of staying focused on Robespierre sometimes errs in narrowness and leaves out context that would be helpful in understanding the subject For example the relationship between Robespierre and Danton is hardly covered and when Danton is introduced in many ways he is just a name While it is one thing to go off giving a micro biography of secondary subjects it is another to not uite give them enough flesh to demonstrate their significance in the life of the primary subjectI happily recommend this biography to those interested in Robespierre The French Revolution and the continuing struggle for some of the Revolution's highest ideals


  9. says:

    McPhee does a largely admirable job of documenting Robespierre's life but the book is often lacking in context leading any reader not thoroughly acuainted with the history of the French Revolution confused at times


  10. says:

    Peter McPhee set out to write a biography that would serve as a disinfectant for myths that have built up around Robespierre and his exact role in the Revolution The result is a thorough and dispassionate accumulation of evidence where the historic record is thin McPhee gives us a wider view of Robespierre's environment to help understand the nature of the issues on his mind This is most evident in the period of time when Robespierre had finished school and set up a law practice in Arras It's the part of his life that most historians and biographers skip over as fast as possible but McPhee does a deep dive on the sociopolitical climate of Arras right down to which streets were under construction at the time McPhee's book is an excellent resource on northern France pre Revolution The endnotes are also a fantastic resource with McPhee carefully indicating the arguments each secondary source makes about Robespierre and the context in which they wrote That alone would be worth the price for anyone interested in the period because texts about Robespierre are notoriously hard to sift through I have a few new titles I'd like to pick up just from reading the endnotes McPhee also isn't afraid to take other biographers to task His jabs at Ruth Scurr were fun That dispassionate presentation makes it kind of a dry book and I'm basically knocking it down a star because I prefer books that lean into capturing a little of the emotion at the heart of it BUT That's not what this book wanted to do and I'm extremely grateful for it There are plenty of other books to read to get an OPINION on Robespierre but nowhere are you going to see everything laid out in a way that gives readers the right tools to sort out the hysteria from the history


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Robespierre A Revolutionary Life

Peter McPhee × 5 Download

For some historians and biographers Maximilien Robespierre 1758–94 was a great revolutionary martyr who succeeded in leading the French Republic to safety in the face of overwhelming military odds For many others he was the first modern dictator a fanatic who instigated the murderous Reign of Terror in 1793–94 This masterful biography combines new research into Robespierre's dramatic life with a deep understanding of society and the politics of the French Revolution to arrive at a fresh unders. Virtue without which terror is fatal Terror without which virtue is impotent Terror is nothing but prompt severe inflexible justiceRobespierre and I have a difficult relationship Although I think he was a tortured and brilliant man who has been maligned by history I can never forgive him for purging the Dantonists I once had a minor panic attack over the death of Desmoulins and accidentally uoted Prisoner of Azkaban 'He was your friend And you betrayed him He was your friend'Peter McPhee's biography of Robespierre is detailed and balanced almost to a fault The reader is expected to have a comfortable grasp of Revolutionary history To his credit McPhee avoids drama for academic precision the Girondist and Dantonist purges which even a talentless director could turn into compelling cinema are given as much space as Robespierre's prize winning essay on RousseauAlthough it makes for dry reading Robespierre A Revolutionary Life is the best biography I have read of The Incorruptible The only true misstep comes in the introduction when McPhee appears to claim that Robespierre is the most difficult biography subject of all time Aside from that bizarre note he avoids generalizations or assumptions These are the facts laid out accurately and precisely uncolored by emotion Though I would not call him a Robespierre apologist McPhee has divorced his subject from the slanders and outright liesIn fact I would call this the Robespierre myth buster book McPhee easily dismantles the pop culture portrayal of his subject Robespierre was not a blood thirsty monster he struggled to reconcile his opposition to the death penalty with the political necessity of Louis XVI's death Additionally McPhee shows that the worst escalations of the Terror happened when Robespierre was indisposed or ill He tepidly advances the thesis that Robespierre's enemies sent hundreds to the guillotine to turn public opinion against him but neither McPhee nor his readers are expected to believe that ideaI commend McPhee for debunking tenacious myths that appear in even modern scholarship For example I had always believed the old story about Robespierre decorating his room with busts and portraits of himself McPhee produces compelling evidence that this was a slander in retrospect it seems odd for a timid ascetic to glorify himself so openly Additionally Ms Mantel had convinced me that Robespierre had an affair with Eleonore Duplay the daughter of his landlord McPhee again cites convincing proof that this is a fabricated rumorSo yes I don't like Robespierre I still can't forgive him for killing his best friends However he was not a blood thirsty monster Maximilien Robespierre was a studious incorruptible ascetic He loved the heroes of the classics than his actual friends and he idolized the Revolution enough to ignore its flaws Personally I don't see him as a cunning manipulative Game of Thrones character He may have survived the Revolution if not for some cringe worthy political moves and inept speeches before the Jacobin club

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Tanding of the man his passions and his tragic shortcomingsPeter McPhee gives special attention to Robespierre's formative years and the development of an iron will in a frail boy conceived outside wedlock and on the margins of polite provincial society Exploring how these experiences formed the young lawyer who arrived in Versailles in 1789 the author discovers not the cold obsessive Robespierre of legend but a man of passion with close but platonic friendships with women Soon immersed in revolut. Historian Peter McPhee here offers a persuasive and unusually sympathetic portrait of the often vilified leader of the French Revolution Robespierre was not as often portrayed at the most extreme left wing of the Republican revolutionaries Indeed many of his most infamous deeds such as the Festival of the Supreme Being were McPhee argues attempts to satisfy the far left without giving in to its most extreme demands This book also does a good job of showing how so many historical figures and periods become characterized by future histories by one brief period in their existence The image of the blood thirsty Robespierre that so many of us are familiar with was the result of only the last couple of months of his life during which he was often bed ridden from extreme exhaustion and confiding to those closest to him that he was concerned for his own mental health and wished to step down from power Contemporary historians particularly those of the political right love to characterize the Jacobins as the harbingers of the so called “totalitarian” movements of the twentieth century The terror was they tell us organized violence perpetrated by the government against the people a top down barbarity These historians will thus compare the Jacobins to the fascist and communist regimes that arose a century and a half after the Jacobins But the Terror as McPhee describes it was in fact an acknowledgment by the revolutionary government of the violent impulses of the masses they were governing When the people demanded violence and committed it without the blessing of the state the revolutionary state acuiesced and gave its approval to the people’s actions The Jacobin Terror had less in common with the abuses of Hitler or Stalin than it did with the eually misunderstood Chinese Cultural Revolution Especially from our perspective of two hundred plus years of hindsight Robespierre’s story seems largely like the story of his whole generation of upwardly mobile French bourgeois Indeed the society that reared them put into the minds of a generation the values that would inspire them to usurp that social order The “great literature” of the day was that of the Roman Empire from roughly 80 BC to 120 AD This was a time when the leading intellectuals of the Classical world were convinced that Rome’s best days were behind it One can hear in Cicero’s famous uote “Domestic war alone remains the enemy is within” the seeds of the Jacobin terror For the Roman thinkers that Robespierre and his ilk were reared on all societies just as all individuals were divided by high and base instincts When decline befalls a person or a society it is because the baser instincts were winning out Corruption of mind body and soul had to be held in check if humanity was to realize its full potential As a young student in Paris Robespierre read a combination of the above mentioned canonical works and the still new n scandalous writings of Rousseau as well as uasi surreptitious satirical magazines attacking the corruption and hypocrisy of the clergy The young Robespierre would write a poem praising Rousseau His first semi political writings were dedicated to hoping that the Church would find a way back to its pure state of innocence something from which its leaders had clearly strayed Upon earning his law degree Robespierre returned to his home town of Arras to practice He uickly made a name for himself as a progressive lawyer winning high profile cases This saw him admitted to salons where he gave what was considered at the time a rather scandalous lecture arguing that children born out of wedlock should not face any legal or social discrimination This was a cause near to Robespierre’s heart as his parents had divorced a rarity in that era and a cloud of scandal had hovered over his family in Arras as he was growing up But this argument had alarming political implications If a person’s rights should not be determined by their birth lineage then why should anyone become King or ueen because of the family from which they were born Other “outrageous” arguments from young Robespierre included that women had eual capacities to men and should be admitted to the same academies and societies and that corruption existed in the Church The latter was not a new notion As mentioned above clerical corruption was the subject of much subterranean satire But Robespierre took things one further He actually dared to challenge the Church in a court of law defending citizens against legal actions taken by the clergy Again taking inspiration from Rousseau Robespierre began writing and about “virtue” or the love of good men for law and country Never any kind of anarchist Robespierre was adamant throughout his life that order must be maintained but he became and forceful in preaching it must apply to all of the nation’s citizens eually While many were made uncomfortable by Robespierre’s politics he did even as a young man find a sympathetic audience Among the ever numerous and influential bourgeoisie there was a germinating discourse against not only the crown but the nobility as well There was a rising sense that the common person was as capable as any of adhering to reason The average citizen was not simply a subject of the Crown but was rather a participant in as Rousseau called it a “social contract” This was in part a reaction to a sense by many layers of the French population that their country was in the process of losing it’s “national greatness” Many of its colonies such as those in Canada had recently been lost The revolution would be from its inception torn between a progressive impulse for greater individual freedom and euality between French citizens and a nationalist perhaps even reactionary tendency towards reestablishing France’s power in the world In 1788 France found itself in severe debt due to the expenses devoted to the country’s intervention in the American war for independence The Crown wished to lift immunity from taxation from the nobility to pay off the country’s debts In May the King reorganized the judicial system taking away the courts’ ability to restrict taxation Predicting the furor this would cause particularly amongst the nobility the Crown announced on August 8 that the 3 Estates would meet in May of 1789 for the first time since 1614 in an effort to lessen tensions between the classes However in a disastrous turn the King also declared that the representation of the Royal estate was to be doubled making it twice that of the nobility than twice that of the Clergy and than three times that of the bourgeoisie Robespierre who had continued writing provocative essays and taking on political cases such as representing trade guilds was predictably outraged He successfully campaigned first for direct election of representatives to the estate and then for his own election as representative relying on votes by the poor Conservatives of all classes and indeed some moderates were horrified by his political ascent Ritual had allowed the King to meet with each estate separately but the third estate refused this reuest and started deliberations independently and informed the nobility and the clergy that if they did not join them in doing so that the Third Estate would declare itself the National Assembly and work alone After the cowing of the nobles and the clergy the Third Estate followed through on this threat on June 17 1789 In response the King brought 20 thousand soldiers and mercenaries to the capital Angered over a dramatic rise in the price of bread the poor rose up to defend the National Assembly on July 14 This led of course to the storming and capture of the Bastille and the killing of over 100 insurgents by the King’s soldiers Incensed the masses killed several city officials in retaliation Robespierre was one of the first representatives of the Third Estate to declare the actions of the masses as legitimate Indeed he threw his support behind a call to form people’s militias and for the enfranchisement of those too poor to afford their own arms He is uoted as declaring in translation of course “Let the people know that law will hold to justice the ‘enemies of the people’ and that those who hold them to justice will not be treated as vigilantes” It was perhaps the initial coining of the phrase “enemies of the people” That saying seems to have struck an immediate cord as the mayor of Paris was killed by a make shift militia as he tried to flee the city Subseuently revolts uickly spread to the countryside On August 27 1789 the National Assembly produced the “Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen” In this document it was declared that “liberty consists of the power to do whatever is not injurious to others” It was and is generally interpreted that this meant a right to free speech association and religion With the Declaration the National Assembly declared itself an official body as much a part of France’s government as the Crown A revolution it could be said had already taken place The Declaration did not however define what constitutes “injurious” activity leaving that open to interpretation Robespierre was decidedly to the left of the majority of his colleagues in the National Assembly and many of his proposals were deemed too radical by the majority For instance the Assembly voted to recompensate the Nobility for their losses since the start of the revolutionary process over Robespierre’s fierce objections To practice arguing his case before a sympathetic audience Robespierre joined the Paris branch of the radical Jacobin Club in November 1789 while his brother Augustine joined the Arras branch Robespierre uickly asserted himself on the national body of the Club and was elected its president only four months after joining In 1790 the poor in the countryside had begun forcefully making use of “public land” that had previously been made available in reality only to the nobility Robespierre proposed putting the land to use by the common people into law The Assembly responded by doing so for only a small portion of such lands Robespierre became the champion of the “revolting briggands” In May of the same year there arose a debate within the National Assembly as to whether it was bound to act on the King’s proposals regarding foreign policy Robespierre argued that revolutionary France should never invade another country unless that country’s people rose up in the name of self determination to seize their rights as citizens and join France on its revolutionary path The conservative wing of the Assembly voted to follow the King in calling for imperialist adventures into neighboring countries There were also debates within the National Assembly concerning the institution of slavery in revolutionary France’s colonies Robespierre issued the radical mantra “Death to colonialism and slavery” that would serve as an inspiration to those in southeast Asia fighting French colonialism in the twentieth century Again he had to settle for a compromise with the conservative factions of the Assembly who granted citizenship to free Blacks in the colonies but refused to free the slaves Robespierre objected vociferously isolating him from even his comrades in the Jacobin Club In the opening months of 1791 Robespierre began communicating with his brother and closest friends that he felt profoundly over worked and worried about his physical and even mental health He would reiterate these concerns until the end of his days However on June 11 of that year he learned to his astonishment that he had been elected to be the public prosecutor for Paris He had not even known that his name was on the ballot and never learned how it had become so Yet against his own concerns about himself he accepted the post Perhaps out of fear that such a fiery radical as Robespierre had attained such a post the King attempted to flee the country on June 20 1791 but was uickly captured To the most radical revolutionaries in the country the King’s attempt to escape to another absolute monarchy confirmed in their minds that there was an international conspiracy on the part of European Royalty to uash the French Revolution The moderately radical Cordeliers Club which counted amongst its most prominent members Danton Marat and Desmoulins organized a protest demanding that the King abdicate Robespierre and the Jacobins called for a yet radical action Robespierre argued that “royal inviolability is an invention” and that Louis should be deposed The majority of the National Assembly however voted to allow Louis to remain KIng Robespierre called for the right to vote for representation of all adult men and women regardless of income nationality religion and occupation Initially however the Assembly granted this right only to males of a certain income excluding Jews and actors Robespierre fought tirelessly against such exclusion and by September of 1791 he had successfully won voting rights for all groups except women The monarchies of Prussia and Austria warned France that Louis must not only remain safe but in power Louis however had few allies left in his own nation and approved a constitution officially making France a constitutional monarchy in September of 1791 Robespierre resigned his position as prosecutor and seemed ready to live a private existence while still using the Jacobin Club as an outlet for his ideas On certain topics he was surprisingly moderate For instance he was never as vociferously anti religion as some of his fellow revolutionaries Perhaps he would have gone on to live a relatively less dramatic and political life had war not erupted between France and Austria on April 20 1792 Robespierre had long been known for his anti war stance and in the suddenly martial environment of the nation he found himself politically marginalized but this did not stop him from loudly decrying the turn towards war Indeed it reinvigorated him politically Prussia sided with Austria against revolutionary France and the French army suffered defeat after defeat France was facing invasion Rumors swirled through the middle and lower classes that Louis was in cahoots with his fellow royals and that the war had been a ruse to defeat the revolution not restore France’s place on the global stage This suspicion extended to the nobility and the clergy Revolutionary gangs killed many suspected enemies of the people and there were huge anti monarchy demonstrations The people had made clear that they were no longer willing to live fight and die under the monarchy Robespierre considered it the clear expression of the popular will that the monarchy be dissolved and this was done on August 10 1792 With the war taking a disastrous turn for France Robespierre’s anti war stance now seemed appealing He was again politically popular and was elected to the National Convention along with his brother In his writings of the period Robespierre expounded on his concept of “virtue” a patriotism that inspired a nation’s citizens to subordinate their self interest for the national good Such virtue was to be inculcated in citizens by the state through public festivals as had been done in classical Greece and Rome It was also in late 1792 that Robespierre began for the first time to publicly call for the execution of the King To not execute Louis for his crimes when “common” people faced execution Robespierre argued would be to acknowledge the elitist notion that the King was inherently “above the people” The National Convention seemed convinced by these arguments as Louis was put to death on January 21 1793 upon which the monarchies of England and Spain declared war on France The Convention at Robespierre’s behest put price controls on food so that the urban poor could afford necessities This alienated many once revolutionary farmers and some of their representatives in the Convention especially those from the comparatively conservative Girondon Club were similarly incensed There were even counter revolutionary uprisings in some rural regions Robespierre again during a time when he was expressing concerns about his physical and mental health to those closest to him called for the first time for the execution of all “enemies of the revolution” The revolting farmers were crushed and killed upon the Convention’s orders and “revolutionary censorship” was imposed It was in this context that the notorious Committee for Public Safety was formed with Robespierre at its head The membership was elected on a month to month basis with Robespierre winning reelection seemingly fairly time after time In April of 1793 the National Convention released a revised version of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen The new document was decidedly radical than the original Where as the American revolution influenced 1789 version had focused on the rights and freedoms of the individual the new document focused on the “general well being” of society It acknowledged the right of private property but also asserted an obligation on the part of all citizens to see to the necessities of all citizens including those incapable of work It also asserted the necessity of universal education These were to be paid for by progressive taxation that would not allow the disparity in social wealth to become too great The character of the revolution was changing rapidly The Cordellier Club an association even radical than the Jacobins began calling for the redistribution of private property Robespierre thought this was a step too far and rejected the notion as did the vast majority of the revolutionary state The left most Jacobins and Cordellier deputies began calling for the expulsion of the Girondon deputies Robespierre was initially defensive of the conservative deputies arguing that a deputy should only be recalled by popular election As the Girondons began talking about open counter revolution however Robespierre changed his mind The Girondon deputies were expelled arrested and executed in July of 1793 Feeding the army that was trying to turn back the counter revolutionary invaders was the government’s first priority This led however to severe food shortages in the cities Workers formed mobs to seize food There was bloodletting every day The revolutionary government felt the need to harness this violent energy on the part of the masses for its own ends People’s armies were made official arms of the revolution and were charged by the state with seuestering food ensuring the payment of taxes by the rich hunting down and killing deserters and those engaged in “unpatriotic rhetoric” and the seizure of church treasures What came to be known as “the Terror” had begun

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Ionary conflict he suffered increasingly lengthy periods of nervous collapse correlating with moments of political crisis yet Robespierre was tragically unable to step away from the crushing burdens of leadership Did his ruthless uncompromising exercise of power reflect a descent into madness in his final year of life McPhee reevaluates the ideology and reality of the Terror what Robespierre intended and whether it represented an abandonment or a reversal of his early liberalism and sense of justi. Excellent The most complete revision of the literature sorrounding the figure of Robespierre and a new analysis of Robespierre life as a young man and his passionate life for revolutionary change encompassing the struggle for liberty euality and fraternal values and his comitment for a free people of Europe from the chains of monarchical life and the privileged seigneurial landowners nobles clergy and aristocracy Mcphee does justice to Robespierre and his aim for a French People's Republic with the intention to foment civic virtues and a democratic culture that would prevent the rise of fascism uncritical assumption of any kind of unreasonable authority as well as social injustice In particular he shows us an uncompromising fidelity of the militant and her will and a turbulent event gathered together at this time entailing notions of great courage in order to balance the civic duties of the French Revolution of 1789the rights of man of 1792 and the war effort against national counter revolution and the constant attacks received by repressive monarchical regimes of Europe As the author states in innumerous reports and speeches given by the 'incorruptible' first from the Assembly National Convention and then the Commitee of Public Safety Robespierre warned and was against the start of the war violence and condemned the excesses of the military ministers and delegates in the provinces which is far from the largely pervasive literature that pinpoints the leader as a tyrant dictator or a man drawn to the spilling of blood or even for those who exploit the figure of Robespierre for those in the far right who see him as the embodiment of the start of modern totalitarianism that is basically those who condemn any social change and anyone who is committed enough to change this crucial system which they justify and give legitimation that is protecting certain elite interestsAn authoritative and academic historian's stab to the fraudulent pseudo psychological interested accounts that encompass so many biographies on Robespierre


About the Author: Peter McPhee

McPhee was educated at Caulfield Grammar School and Trinity College while studying at the University of Melbourne where he earned his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees a Diploma in Education and a Doctor of Philosophy degreeHe later taught at LaTrobe University 1975–79 and the Victoria University of Wellington 1980–86 before teaching history at Melbourne He specialises in researc