Robespierre and the French Revolution
Examine the role played by Robespierre in the French Revolution.
Using various social media platform like WhatsApp, Facebook, the above question appeared in over ten groups for History Advanced level candidates and l found it prudent to take time sharing with candidates the possible approach, explanation to the demands of the question as well as further reading material.
Demands: The key issue is an examination of the positive as well as the negative role of Robespierre in the French Revolution.
The key word examine simply implies to observe, inspect carefully or critically and or to interrogate.
Robespierre, who led the Jacobins and the National Convention from 1793-1794, looms high in the history of the French Revolution. He left a lasting impression on the history Europe in general and France in particular. Robespierre has been interpreted, re-interpreted as a hero of the French revolution whilst others labelled him a villain. His radicalism [Robespierre] to admirers inspired and gave birth to patriotism, nationalism, a fierce champion who fought against the cancerous corruption which had bedeviled France for a long time among other factors. To critics, Robespierre remains a deviant, fanatic who took his radicalism beyond limits thereby infringing the same rights he claimed to be propagating, led the French society into a loss of humor and dignity towards human life. The foregoing paper seeks to briefly examine the positive and negative role played by Robespierre in the French revolution.
a) He used the ‘reign of terror’/ repression in trying to save the revolution i.e. he executed the enemies of the revolution. When people were killed those remaining decided either to support the revolution or to remain quiet.
b) He reorganized the army under the leadership of General Carnot. This meant that mob violence was quelled.
c) He also used different forms of propaganda. This was done by misinforming the people. For instance, their motto was “If one is an enemy of the revolution, one is an enemy of the state.” Because of this, people did not want to be seen as enemies of their own state and therefore they were forced to support the revolution.
d) He introduced moderate reforms eg regulation of bread prices and introduction of technical education.
e) Robespierre took advantage of rivalries between the allied powers i.e. Austria and Russia, Austria and Prussia vs Britain.
f) Robespierre also harnessed the resources of the revolution for war time use e.g. the levee en masse.
g) Robespierre also introduced specialization of labour. Specialized protected the revolution because some were specialized in industries while others were in war and this made the people not to be tired.
h) He aroused the spirit of nationalism among the soldiers. As a result of being nationalistic, the French soldiers fought with great zeal as opposed to the grand soldiers of the monarchy who were forced to fight.
I) With the help of the National Convention, Robespierre completed the destruction of feudal regime by establishing a uniform system of weights and measurements.
j) He also began some educational reforms. He promoted technical instruction by founding the technical colleges. Laws providing for the opening of one or more schools in each canton were passed thereby laying the foundation of the public school system. It was left to the Directory however to carry out these laws.
k) He was able to make France the dominant power in Europe.
l) Together with the National Convention, they rendered notable services to the future of France by completing the destruction of the feudal regime, by establishing a uniform system of weights and measures (metric system) which was later adopted by other countries.
m) As leader of the National Convention, he started the work of preparing a uniform code of law for France (a task which Napoleon Bonaparte was to finish and which he was to gunner the credit)
n) He created the National Archives, the museum of the Louvre and the National Library
-regulation of prices destroyed industries
-Traces of mass bloodshed and terror-“the revolution was now devouring its own children through mass executions” (D. Thomson)
-freedom of expression marginalized through law of suspects
-compulsory conscription into the French army during the revolutionary war era was evil to those who had no desire to join the war
NB: It should however be noted that this is not exhaustive, but more information can be added as this works as a template from which arguments can be developed.
It can be observed from the above that Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins and National Convention, indeed played a pivotal role in the history of the French Revolution. Although reminiscences of bloodshed and terror can be identified, it is also justifiable to note that he service to France appealed in the long run to the greater good of France with revolution defended at all cost, managed to win against counter-revolutionary elements.
K.M. Baker (ed.), The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture, vol. 4, The Terror (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1994).
M. Bouloiseau, The Jacobin Republic, 1792–94 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
F. Furet, ‘The Terror’, in Peter Jones (ed.), The French Revolution in Social and Political Perspective (London: Arnold, 1996).
H. Gough, The Terror (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997).
C. Haydon and W. Doyle (eds), Robespierre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).
C. Petitfrère, ‘The origins of the civil war in the Vendée’, in Peter Jones (ed.), The French Revolution in Social and Political Perspective (London: Arnold, 1996).
J.M. Thompson, Robespierre (Oxford: Blackwell, 1935), 2 vols.
Brian Maregedze an author, historian and blogger writing in his personal capacity.
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