Robespierre: Selected Speeches
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Everyone knows the monster named Maximilien Robespierre. He was the leader of the French Revolution’s infamous Committee of Public Safety, the one who wielded the guillotine as others might wield a flyswatter. At the height of the Terror initiated by Robespierre, 1,285 men and women were executed in less than two months. And then the monster who lived by the guillotine, died by the guillotine.
But Robespierre was not a werewolf or a vampire, nor was he insane. He was a mere man, and in the years leading up to the Terror he gave few indications of what he would become. In fact, in the first speech students will read, Robespierre is arguing against capital punishment! Incredibly, Robespierre delivered this speech less than three years before he acquired the power that led to the Terror.
Nor was Robespierre a rabid atheist, intent on destroying every vestige of religiosity (a charge that could be placed at the feet of another tyrant, V.I. Lenin). In a speech delivered less than two months before his death, Robespierre celebrates the “Supreme Being” and says “it is he who has spread upon Nature her wealth and her majesty.” Though other leaders in the French Revolution were staunchly atheistic, Robespierre often chastised them for allowing their extreme views to drive Catholics to extremes.
It is wrong to view Robespierre as a monster. He is not an aberration; rather, he proves that Lord Acton’s old maxim that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” holds true for all of us. He did not believe himself capable of administering the death penalty; he spoke as though he believed in an authority higher than himself; but his sin nature ensnared him just as it ensnares every man.
Robespierre used the guillotine so recklessly because he was a child of Adam, as we all are. To dismiss the Terror as an aberration in history initiated by a monster, or to dismiss Robespierre as merely a product of the social forces at work in that era, is to misunderstand the nature of man. Robespierre was capable of the Terror for the same reason any unredeemed man is capable of the Terror: the stain of sin.
by Jeff Baldwin