Wounded pride has often been the simple catalyst to make a mild man into a revengeful killer. At other times it could be just the act of forgetfulness or a misplaced word, a joke about trousers or a suggestion that you take a walk in the traffic. If it is true now, it certainly was around in 18th century France. Who were King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette to know that at their coronation in 1774 that the 17 year old, frog-faced youth staring at them in sodden knee britches and holding speech specially prepared for the occasion was to take his revenge nearly 20 years later? Maximilien Robespierre was that person. He never forgot the incident and made sure others around him remembered it too when France ejaculated into revolution in 1789.
In France today you will look in vain for a monument, street or even some dusty square named in Robespierre's honour. There is one Paris Metro station that bears his name but this just a gloried shed and perhaps is an elaborate French joke as it was only given Robespierre's name in 1937, at the height of the show trials in the Soviet Union when the Communists executed their former Bolshevik allies as traitors and fascists. Robespierre became the 'bad' revolutionary in comparison to his fellow Jacobin and supporter of Terrorism as a method of political control Georges Danton. So far have their reputations have gone in different directions that Danton the regicide was later honoured with class of French battleships named in his honour. For the 'prig-in-a-wig' as his enemies labelled him, Robespierre has got nothing. Perhaps only Stalin would have really warmed to the French regime changer but only long enough to shoot him when the time was right.
Ever So Humble
Maximilien de Robespierre - to give the villain his full name - was born in Arras in 1758. His parents had hoped 'Maxi' would make their lives easier by walking out of the door and forgetting to come home but the little devil preferred to stick around. So it was his parents who left instead - his father ended up in Munich, found dead and drunk at the annual October Fest whilst Robespierre's mother preferred to die in childbirth rather than looking after 'Brat Le Petit'. So abandoned by his immediate family, Robespierre found refuge reading books under his duvet with a lighted candle. Though this gained him a reputation as an arsonist at the orphanages he was sent to, at least Robespierre gained an education to boast about. At was around this time he would meet a couple of friends who were stick with him like shit to a stick until they fell out. They were 'pretty boy' Camille Desmoulins and his marbles cheating friend Stanislas Fréron. The three called themselves Les Trois Garcons and tried to gain a reputation as 'bedroom swordsmen', though many years later Robespierre's equipment was compared to that of a tiny hamster when he and his reputation could be safely damned from beyond the shadow of the guillotine.
When he and his friends were not poking it about, Robespierre managed to get acquainted with the writings of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Later biographers of Robespierre would say he had been exposed to the work of Rousseau. However, it was more than that - Robespierre got a full physical exposure from the philosopher himself when he was once invited to Rousseau's study and saw the great writer naked with one of his other pupils. The experience so scorched the young Robespierre that he forever forswore the pleasures of the flesh again and like a medieval saint, promised to himself that he would overcome physical weakness with strong self control. Rousseau had The plan but Robespierre was The Man.
Robespierre's educational focus saw him rise to the top of his class. Not for him a cigarette smoke behind the cowsheds or a quick fumble with a willing (paid) prostitute as enjoyed by his fellow pupils. No, instead Robespierre swotted hard and was given the honour to welcome the new King Louis XVI to his school with a speech. Robespierre prepared his notes but on the day as he and others stood in the rain as the royal carriage approached, they were dismayed when the king preferred to stay in his carriage to keep his wig and fine clothes dry. When Robespierre tried to get closer, he was pushed to the ground by one of the Swiss guards who acted as the royal bodyguard. King Louis had a thing about the Swiss. He liked their clocks,chocs and soldiers in that order. For Robespierre as he was to write many years later and after a long brooding silence, the only word that came to mind that day was LE ROI MERDE!.
France had meantime overspent all its credit cards by getting one over the 'Perfide Albion' by backing the American colonists against the Redcoats and their Hessian-bagged associates. It said an expensive way to prove that France was still the best and when a succession of bad harvests filled the towns and cities with hungry and angry people, even an Absolute Vodka chaos of a monarchy had to do something. So King Louis decided that though he was 'Absolutely in charge' he would rather spread the blame and bring in some others to share it. In June 1789 the Estates General met in Versailles to discuss it. The aristocrats, the Catholic Church and the others (clerks, lawyers, patent lawyers, bureaucrats) met with the King who decided that no number should exceed that of trinity. So only voting 'by order' was allowed. As the aristocrats were also the church ( for centuries a depository for the younger sons of nobles who always had a chance to become aristocrats if their elder siblings died in war, duels, from disease and other common hazards) this meant there was a permanent 2-1 score line at the end of all debates. Fed up with this game scoring, the 'others' left and moved to a tennis court to make an oath and play mixed doubles with willing members of the opposite sex or none.
The one man who kept his breeches clean was Robespierre. He had been 'elected' by his old school friends to appear at the Estates General. Together with his friend Desmoulins and a large, ugly man called Georges Danton they sent a message to Paris suggesting that all hope of reform was being blocked by the French Fogies. This spurned on the local mob there who had removed their stockings and trousers and were parading around Paris in their boxers. They are known as the Sans-culottes and had recently found a stash of fireworks. When the local authorities refused permission for them to use the Bastille as a platform to set them off, the Sans-culottes burnt the place down and chopped off of the head of the garrison commander to make their point more emphatic and booted it into the Seine. So kicked off the French Revolution.
Faced by a rebellion in Paris, King Louis agreed to replace the old system of Absolutism and asked for new elections to a new National Assembly which would include all classes. Amongst those winning a seat were Robespierre, Desmoulins and Danton. They sat at the back, on the highest seats which gave them an opportunity to spit at their opponents from a great height. Their opponents called them the 'Mounties', a term then not considered so abusive to non-Canadians. All of them noticed the extremely well dressed Robespierre, appearing to be elsewhere as he listed and removing misdirected vomit off his jacket.
Once everyone had spent the day arguing, banning and kicking each other out of the assembly chamber in the name of Troilism, the Mounties would retire to the church of St.Jacobus where they turned the crypt into one of the first political nightclubs. In between stuffing sticky sous down the g-strings of various courtesans and entertainers, the 'Jacobins' would discuss the Rights of Man, the Demands of Women and the fate of the Little People. Robespierre would sit there too, wearing spikes on his knees to stop anyone sitting on his lap and tapping into a any of his latent urges.
Whilst the Jacobins enjoyed their pleasures, the other members of the Convention wrestled with ways off paying of France's huge debts. An attempt to shake down the American ambassador Thomas Jefferson or remove Benjamin Franklin's pocket watch to persuade the USA 'pay some of its independence bills' but these were over ruled by King Louis. The rival factions in the assembly (a converted Circus ring) now began to sit apart. Those on the right of the main podium tried out a few different names like God's Chosen, The Sanity Crowd before setting on calling themselves Always in the Right. Their opponents did the same except We Are What's Left. Neither could come up with a plan they could both agree on without resorting to violence.
King Louis was now reconsidering whether France was the place for him. His brothers had already got their servants to pack their luggage and left the country. Now Louis decided to join them, hoping to stay with his brother-in-law Emperor Leopold in Vienna. However, Louis's attempt at disguise was let down by him wishing to retain a regal bearing and was discovered by the brightness of his gold buckled shoes. The royal family were promptly returned to Paris and Robespierre now saw the moment had come to get his own back for the way he had been treated beforebefore. He made this speech:-
...in 1774 the humiliation was mine when the King and his Austrian Habsburg hag refused to hear me speak. Now seventeen years later they will hear me now. Their flight from France shows off their true colours. This man is not our King and his wife is a tickling tart for foreign powers. I say lets rid ourselves of Louis and Marie Antoinette Capet...let us like the ancients before us become citizens of a republic as in America. They didn't make George Washington King George of America, nor do we need one ourselves.
A torrent of spit and faecal matter erupted from the Jacobin benches as they cheered Robespierre. Some of the representatives took the opportunity to exit via the windows and others made for the door. Those few foolish enough to defend King Louis's actions as the result of 'faulty navigation maps' or 'blind horses' where shouted down and kicked up the backside. Robespierre had become a hero though his refusal to be French kissed by anyone in the circus ring was remarked upon at the time. Was he an English spy?
Though Robespierre and the other Mounties were happy to see the French royalists ridiculed for supporting the runaway King (they would sing Louie, Louie..oh baby you gotta go everytime he was mentioned in debates), political power was now exercised by the 'Gitanes'. This was a name given to them by the political enemies for their endless chain smoking habits, the stale-socks aroma given off by their favourite cigarettes would regularly stink out the chamber and curtail the debate. The Gitanists preferred to be called 'Brillantines' as they had now decided to ditch wearing wigs and tights and preferred to keep their hair well oiled. They had previously been quite friendly with the Mounties, belonging also to the Jacobin club. Sitting with the Gitanes , perhaps drugged by the smell, was Thomas Paine, the English reformer and sometime American revolution supporting quill scribbler. He wanted the French to follow the American way to a new constitution but was kept being asked questions about where George Washington's kept his mistresses hidden.
The Gitanists proposed that the best way for France to clear her balance of payments problem was to break into her neighbours and raid their piggy banks. Robespierre opposed this as a government sponsored attempt to deflect blame but many of the other Mounties in their bright 'revolutionary-red' jackets were more enthusiastic and supported a war.
However, in what could be seen as a 'minor' oversight, no one had checked it the French army wanted to fight anyone. Their aristocratic officers were keener to shoot their own people before risking their necks against other armies. The soldiers confused and unpaid for months didn't bother to show up to any battlefields. So the armies of Prussia and Austria marched ever closer to Paris. They had been alarmed at what they saw as 'French mucking about' and wanted it stopped with a few tasty massacres of the malcontents. Otherwise this 'fever' would spread faster across Europe than an e.coli encumbered Spanish cucumber.
The Jacobins had meanwhile come up with their own theory for French military failures:Women..or more particulary, an Austrian woman Queen Marie-Antoinette. In a flurry of lurid stories by libelous newspapers like 'Le Enquirer Nationale', 'La Seins Soliel', and 'Le Saucisson Petit', the Jacobins said the Queen had sent details all of France's military positions to her German friends using coded messages written in lipstick on her underwear.' The story appealed to the Parisians and demands for the King's removal and trial grew louder.
Committee of Health and Public Safety
With King Louis and his family under arrest, the French assembly was dissolved a new one brought in. It called itself the 'National Convection' as the impassioned debates of the members were considered useful to recyle as heating. Besides the foreign armies already on their land, now the monarchists and others formed their own armies to 'free the King'.
For Robespierre the days of idle chatter were over. Seeing that sitting in a chamber making windy. oratical speeches were over, Robespierre suggested to the other Jacobins that they join the various committees that had been established to reorganise France. After passing on the Committee for Extended Holidays and the Special Committee for Improved French Performance in the Bedroom, Robespierre was elected on to the more obscure Committee of Public Health and Safety. Originally set up to check on dirty kitchens and dangerous oil lamps, Robespierre decided to extend the committee's remit to mandate the number of chaise longues in an office, the length of petticoats and..the appointment of generals to take over the French army. Robespierre also came up with the idea of creating giant mouse traps to kill 'dangerous vermin' and gave that job to his good friends Doctor Guillotine and his wife Madame.
The Gitanists were now having extended coughing fits trying to appease the sans-culottes. They abolished the monarchy, declared France a republic and agreed the King Louis was now 'superfluous to the new constitutional arrangement' and be delivered over to Doctor Guillotine for a final medical check. The former French King was declared fit to die and did. Louis XVI had lost his head but Robespierre had gained his.
Power To Robespierre
Robespierre now ordered an army of fanatical Health and Safety Inspectors to criss-cross France checking for all sorts of non-compliance. On the look out for any examples of slip-shod work practices, the musket bearing clip boarders were soon shooting or guillotining anyone guilty of 'counter revolutionary casualness.' The 'terror' had an effect, French soldiers started to fight again but this wasn't enough. They were also spurned on by the Jacobin writer Jean-Paul Marat, a friend of Robespierre who had a phobia about dirt and would spend most of his time in a hot bath. His bitter invective against those who refused to accept the new rules ended when Charlotte Corday, enraged at getting a succession of parking tickets for her horse, gained entry to Marat's house and slashed him to death in his tub.
To ratchet up the Fear Factor, the Jacobins secretly left booby-trapped sedan chairs were left in Paris to explode. Blaming monarchists and reactionaries, Robespierre accused his former Jacobin friends the Gitanists of 'having a coughing fit in the defence of France', the sans-culottes rallied behind the Mounties (or now the New Jacobins) and ejected the Gitanists from office. The other members of the Convection who were allied to neither group accepted Robespierre's diagnosis and placed him, Danton and the other leading New Jacobins into the top jobs. Anyone who was an enemy of 'Health and Safety' was an enemy of France.
So the arrests started. The Gitanists were now traitors. Those who refused nicotine patches to stop them smoking were tried and sent to the guillotine. Thomas Paine got to eat prison food too but because of his American connections and Robespierre's wish to keep the USA on side, he was allowed to survive. Another foreigner wasn't so lucky. Marie Antoinette had been left chained up in a mock kitchen since the death of her husband. She was reduced to eating the cake mix by the time Robespierre added her name to a death list. The former queen's last request for a Viennese Schnitzel sandwich before her death were cruelly dismissed.
So with both Louis and his wife dead, Robespierre could erase that memory of standing around in wet tights all those years ago. If only Rousseau had lived long enough to witness this triumph by one of his most dedicated followers. Now as a member of France's most powerful committee, he could turn France into the country Rousseau had said was possible. It just needed a few good, honest and virtuous men to do it. Robespierre took on that responsibility.
Jumping Jack Jacobins!
The Jacobins (or at least the ex-Mountie wing of their group) were now in complete control of Paris...the rest of France was a different matter. And the coalition of France's enemies had been joined by the British, Spanish, Russians..in fact in a show of aristocratic solidarity, all the monarchies of Europe were against the French 'disease' as they called the Republic.
Robespierre was used to standing alone and so this situation didn't bother him. He guessed (correctly) that France's external enemies were too busy hacking off those parts of the country closer to them to indulge in another march on Paris. Nor were the internal enemies united either, the peasants wanted no part of a restoration of French monarchy that saw the nobles or the church regain their old rights. It should have been easy for Robespierre to have survived and become a great French leader like Napoleon but Jacobin maestro wanted to remake the people first. And that involved the number 10.
To be fair, this wasn't entirely Robespierre's idea but the Jacobins implemented the 'new Republican calendar' in full by September 1793. Counting back to the creation of the Republic in 1792, it was now Year 2 in the new Gallic calendar. September became the new December/January as the end and start of a new year and nor was it 'September' either. It was 'Vendémiaire' . or 'Get Pissed Month', the grape harvest time and so on. Also it was now a 10 day working week and each day had a different name. It was good news for the calendar salesmen and meant people would write down...see you 15th Donkey, Vintage Month Year 2. Also good news for clock sellers too as time was now divided into decimals. 100 minutes to the hour, 10 hours a day. There were still twelve months in a year as even the Jacobins couldn't work out how to speed up the Earth's orbit. No one complained openly and even when the Jacobins had gone, the French kept up their crazy time keeping for another 13 years.
More of a problem for Robesepierre were his colleagues on the Health and Public Safety Committee. Danton's habit of picking his feet and clipping his toenails at meetings got on the nerves of Robespierre but he as wary of showing off his disdain too much as he knew how popular his rival was. So he persuaded Danton to move to a different committee, the one in charge of France's cheese and wine shortage. The charismatic but chronically lazy Danton agreed and his place was taken by Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, a swivel eyed fanatic who made Robespierre look like a comparative moderate. Saint-Just took on the task of rooting out everyone who wasn't 110% behind the revolution and enjoyed his job so much that often continued his taunting of victims as they lay strapped down ready for the blade. He would say ..but Monsieur/Madame this is a revolution is it not? We want omlettes and I have a head quota to fill..begone..
There Was Blood in Buckets
The Jacobin success in forcing everyone to sign up to defend the revolution began to see the French armies gain victories against their enemies. One particular gunnery officer from Corsica with the Italian sounding name got noticed by Robespierre's brother Augustin. Bonaparte volunteered to 'sort out the cannons' in Toulon where the British were trying to steal the French navy. The elder brother approved of the decision and promised Bonaparte a position on the committee if he beat the English.
Of more immediate problem for Robespierre was that now that the war was going well, people he thought of as 'backsliders' were asking they could get their molars embedded into the fruits of victory, especially Danton. Other Jacobins like Jacques Herbert, a leader of the Sans-Culottes (also called 'Le Bouquet de Herbertistes') wanted to use the guillotine for all offences including speaking in a superior way and leaving a 'bourgeois tip' at cafes. Herbert also wanted to introduce a 'Guillotine Lottery', though no one was sure what that was. Seeming himself as 'the sane centre', Robespierre decided to dispense with both Herbert and Danton and their friends. So he had them dispatched there under the Health & Safety Committee Directive (known as the Bloody Nonsense Decrees). Amongst those going for the chop was Robespierre's old school chum Desmoulins, years of friendship and then acting as a witness to the wedding of Desmoulins to his wife Lucile counted for nothing. Well, more than nothing as he had Lucile sent to the chopper too so she could be reunited with her husband.
If Robespierre had reflected, in the space of 16 months he had seen the execution of a king and queen, the guillotining of nearly all his old allies and the removal of the more 'extreme' Jacobins who had taken the revolution too far. In each case Robespierre could see that what had been done was reasonable and had kept the revolution free from dirt and disgrace of day-to-day politics. So now it was time to invent a new religion - one which he would guide and advise:The Cult of the Supreme Being.
Classical symbolism was used for a huge ceremony held outside the doors of Notre Dame. It involved a lot of fire crackers, people dressed up as ancient Greeks and Romans in tunics dancing about and a woman representing Liberty standing on a stool and waving a huge burning torch about. The finale saw Robespierre appear, in his freshly ironed wig and pristine white stockings. The crowd perhaps were hoping for a blood thirsty song or perhaps some more baser entertainment after all the classical posing but Robespierre was given a scroll with a red ribbon and made a short speech.
..I would like to remind everyone here that the Committee of Public Health and Safety has advised that anyone who discards their rubbish here will be booked immediately on the next tumbril excursion planned tomorrow. So I accept this honour on behalf of Rousseau who though his physical form once offended once, I can forgive him for his understanding of what makes the Virtuous Man.
To be a tyrant you should always leave some enemy or enemies alive to whip up hatred. The French armies were still winning victories and now happily crossing borders again and land grab in Belgium and along the frontier with the German Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon in Toulon had blown the British and their fleet out of the harbour and the rebellions in other parts of France had dropped off as everyone shrugged their shoulders and went for a long lunch. But the guillotine still required victims, the associated society of executioners and knitters would be out of a job otherwise. Robespierre and Saint-Just now rechecked their Health and Safety rule book...there must be something else that could carry the death penalty..
But Robespierre was too slow this time. Now the National Convection (or now, the National Convention, no more hot air) decided to act. Everyone who wasn't a friend of Robespierre feared for his neck. A conference call amongst those who had survived the guillotine by going ex-Directory saw them shout and heckle Robespierre when he tried to make a speech. Citizen Robespierre was eventually arrested and executed the next day. With him sharing the last journey on the cart was Saint-Just, his brother Augustin and every other idiot jacobin who had stuck too long with the Monsieur Virtue.
Robespierre's last words are disputed..perhaps because the night before his jaw had been shot off by one of those who had seized them. Even those who executioners who been given plenty of work of late were just as happy to kill the leader they had once followed. Saint-Just is reported to have said that the guillotine was a shining example to the work of the Committee and France...the most efficient execution technology invented by rational and humane men... and asked too that his clip board share the same fate.
The business was soon finished, it was last look at Robespierre's severed head then it, and the rest of his body, were taken off for a cheap burial in a refuse cart. No trinkets were allowed either and so nothing today survives that can be associated with Mr Virtue except his published words and his appearance in paintings or etchings of others who recorded this era. None of them ever can be said to be flattering, Robespierre really does look like a heartless busy-body inspector of this or that, the person who would fine you for spitting out of a train window or dumping used condoms in a nunnery. So perhaps that remains the true legacy of all future Robespierres. Come the revolution, it will be those ones who will make your life a misery..and probably a lot more.