Robespierre, Maximilian Isidore

, the most ferocious of those tyrants which the French revolution produced, was born at Arras in 1759, where his father was a lawyer, a man of character and knowledge in his profession, but so improvident as to die insolvent, and leave his two sons, of whom Maximilian was the eldest, in poverty. They soon, however, found a generous patron in De | Conzie, bishop of Arras, who in a manner adopted them, but honoured Maximilian with his particular care, and after providing him with school education, sent him to Paris, and procured him an exhibition in the college of Louis Le Grand. The manner in which Robespierre conducted himself here, answered the expectation of his protector. He was assiduous and successful in his studies, and obtained many of the yearly prizes. There was nothing, however, about him, which indicated his future destiny. Being an apt scholar, it might be thought that he would make a figure in the world; but we are told that even this was not the case, and that his instructors discovered neither in his conversation nor his actions any trace of that propensity, which could lead them to conjecture that his glory would exceed the bounds of the college. When he had, however, attained the age of sixteen or seventeen, he was advised to study the law; and this he pursued, under the auspices of a Mons. Ferrieres, but displayed no extraordinary enthusiasm for the profession. He had neither perseverance, address, nor eloquence, and, according to one of his biographers, his consciousness of inferiority to those who were making a great figure at the bar, gave him an air of gloominess and dissatisfaction. It was at first determined, that he should practise before the parliament of Paris, but this scheme was never carried into execution, for he returned to his native province, and was admitted an advocate in the supreme council of Artois. About this time he is said to have published, in 1783, a treatise on electricity, in order to remove the vulgar prejudices against conductors. In this piece he introduced a laboured eloge on the character of Louis XVI.; but the subject of his next literary performance was yet more remarkable; it was against death as a punishment, and in this he reproaches all modern governments for permitting such a punishment to remain on their codes, and even doubts the right claimed by society to cut off the life of an individual!

Such were the sentiments and situation of this man, when the revolution took place, and raised him, and hundreds equally obscure, and perhaps more contemptible, into some degree of consequence. Robespierre, however inferior hitherto in fame, was conscious that he had many of the materials about him that were wanted at this time. Either he actually had good qualities, which is scarcely credible, or by the most consummate hypocrisy, he | persuaded the people that he was a steady and upright man. He was elected a representative to the states general, but although he attached himself by turns to the faction that seemed uppermost, he remained long in a state of obscurity. He was considered as a passionate hot-headed young man, whose chief merit consisted in his being warm in the cause of liberty. He had, we are told, another merit, that of bringing the term aristocrat into common use, which afterwards became the watchword of his proscriptions. He tried, too, a journal called “L'Union, ou Journal de la Liberté,” which was conducted with extreme violence. But it was suited to the people who read it, and Robespierre obtained the surname of the Incorruptible, from an affectation of independence, and continually declaiming against courtly corruption.

The Jacobin club, however, raised Robespierre to power and celebrity; they even proclaimed “that the national assembly had ruined France, and Robespierre alone could save it.” It was during the national convention that he attained the summit of his ambition, if indeed he knew what that was. In the first legislature, he joined the patriots, as they were called; in the second he declared for the republicans, and in both the party to which he attached himself proved victorious. In the third, the national convention, he carried all before him; the commune of Paris, the Jacobin club, and even the convention itself, were filled with his creatures, and became obedient to his commands. A scene of blood followed, which exceeded the proscriptions of Sylla and Marius. Men and women of all ranks perished indiscriminately. Suspected persons, that is, those either dreaded or hated by this monster and his accomplices, were arrested; domiciliary visits awakened the sleeping victims of persecution to misery and destruction while revolutionary tribunals, as they were called, condemned them by scores, unpitied and even unheard. The laws were no longer maintained; the idea of a constitution became intolerable; all power was concentrated in a junto, called the Committee of Public Safety, which regulated every thing, absolved or tried, spoiled or enriched, murdered or saved; and this committee was entirely reguJated by the will of Robespierre, who governed it by means of his creatures, St. Just and Couthon. In the short space of two years, nearly 3000 persons perished by the guillotine in Paris only. Even the revolutionary forms were thought | too dilatory; the execution of four or five in a day did not satiate Robespierre’s vengeance; the murder of thirty or forty was demanded, and obtained; the streets became deluged with blood; canals were necessary to convey it to the Seine; and experiments were actually made at one of the prisons with an instrument for cutting off half a score heads at a single motion. Among the victims of this tyrant, it ought not to be forgot, that the greater part of those men perished, who had been the means of revolutionizing the people, and so deluding them with the pretences of liberty, that they could calmly exchange the mild government of a Louis XVI. for that of a Robespierre. In this retributive justice was guided by a superior hand.

At length Robespierre began to be dreaded even by his own accomplices, while the nation at large, roused from its infatuation, looked eagerly forward to the destruction of this monster. In this, however, the nation at large had no share. It was the work of his accomplices; it was still one faction destroying another, and although a second Robespierre did not immediately rise, the way remained open to one whose tyrannical ambition was not satisfied with France as his victim. The first storm against Robespierre burst in the convention; and after exercising its violence as all preceding storms of that kind had, Robespierre was arrested on July 9, 1794, and next day was led to execution, amidst the execrations of the people. His fall, it has been well observed, was the triumph of fear rather than of justice; and the satisfaction with which it must be contemplated, was incomplete, because a few monsters even worse than himself were among the foremost in sending him to the scaffold. His punishment, however, was as signal as his crimes. His under jaw was shattered with a pistol shot, either by himself in an ineffectual attempt at suicide, or by a gendarme in the struggle; it was bound up with a slight dressing as he lay in the lobby of the convention, he wished to wipe away the blood which filled his mouth, they gave him a bloody cloth, and as he pushed it from him, they paid to him “It is blood it is what thou likest!” There he lay on one of the benches, and, in his agony of mind and body, clenched one of his thighs through his torn clothes with such force that his nails entered his own flesh, and were rimmed round with blood. He was carried to the same dungeon which Hebert, and Chaumette, and Danton, had successively occupied the gaoler knocked | him about without ceremony, and when he made signs to one of them (for he could not speak) to bring him pen and ink, the man made answer—“What dost thou want with it? is it to write to thy Maker? thou wilt see him presently!” He was placed in a cart between Henriot and Couthon; the shops, and the windows, and the house-tops were crowded with rejoicing spectators to see him pass, and as the cart proceeded, shouts of exultation went before it, and surrounded it, and followed its way. His head was wrapt in a bloody cloth which bound up his shattered jaw, so that his pale and livid countenance was but half seen. The horsemen who escorted him shewed him to the spectators with the point of their sabres. The mob stopt him before the house in which he lived; some women danced before the cart, and one of them cried out to him, “Descend to hell with the curses of all wives and of all mothers” The executioner, when preparing for the performance of his office, roughly tore off the bandage from his wound; Robespierre then uttered a dreadful cry, his under jaw fell from the upper, and the head while he was yet living exhibited as ghastly a spectacle as when a few minutes afterwards Sampson, the executioner, holding it by the hair, exhibited it to the multitude.

In this wretched man’s person, there was little to recommend him. His figure, ill-delineated, without regularity, without proportion, without grace in the outline, was something above the middle size. He had in his hands, shoulders, neck, and eyes, a convulsive motion. His physiognomy, his look was without expression. He carried on his livid countenance, and on his brow, which he often wrinkled, the traces of a choleric disposition. His manners were brutal, his gait was at once abrupt and heavy. The harsh inflections of his voice struck the ear disagreeably; he screeched rather than spoke: a residence in the capital had not been able to overcome entirely the harshness of his articulation. In the pronunciation of many words his provincial accent was discoverable; and this deprived his speech of all melody.

Some have expressed their surprize that a man to whom nature hud thus been so niggardly, and whose mind owed so little to cultivation, should have acquired such an ascendancy; but a more minute acquaintance with the leading men in France during his time will remove much of this surprize. It has been said that Nero was not the | worst man of his court; and it is certain that Robespierre was preceded, accompanied, and followed, by men who could have acted his part with equal inclination and facility, had they been placed in his circumstances. 1


History of the conspiracy of Robespierre, by Montjoye.—Biographical Anecdotes of the Founders of the French Republic.—Biographie Moderne.— Quarterly Review, No. XIV.