My sister just said to me "why should I be sad about robespierre's death? wasn't he evil?" could you respond to this??
The answer to your sister’s question: because Robespierre has wrongfully become one of the most vilified people in all of human history. Because Robespierre was killed in a conspiracy that successfully stained his name for hundreds of years after, because he advocated and fought for equality, and because he’s a great example of what happens when good people and good intentions become overwhelmed by chaotic political circumstances.
Rather than debate violence’s necessity or lack thereof in revolution, rather than inspect the darker portions of power and struggle, it’s generally easier to make an exaggerated cartoon villain of Robespierre. This cartoonish vision is what’s fed to people to this day. We’re taught in school (at least in the U.S.) that Robespierre was a power-hungry maniac who singlehandedly sent hundreds off to the guillotine for the sake of some bizarro sense of purity. Basically we’re taught that Robespierre was evil, that he was Grand Dictator of France, and that we should hate him. Also we’re generally taught history in a way that lacks nuance and removes context. This isn’t to say that one can’t make moral judgements on history, but it is to say that it’s easier to make blanket condemnations than explore the nuances of history that are frequently more grey than black & white.
I would, if you care to discuss this with your sister, let her know that this impression of Robespierre as bloodthirsty dictator is false. Many historians (in fact I would say the majority of historians specializing in the French Revolution) agree this is not by any means an accurate depiction of Robespierre.
1) Robespierre wasn’t a bloodthirsty sadist.
Earlier on Robespierre argued against the death penalty (1791). He also argued against slavery. Robespierre argued that all men, including the poor and slaves, should all have the same rights. He was quite concerned with poverty and corruption in the Catholic Church. As a lawyer he consistently defended the poor, and would advise them on how to settle out of court (so basically he didn’t make much money from it). This was somebody who was committed to and advocated for equality. He was remarkably less sexist than many of his contemporaries. He fought for women to be accepted into the Academy of Arras in his hometown.
An example of Robespierre’s lack of sadism: he argued against war with foreign powers during the early 1790s. At the time the Girondin faction was calling for war out of hopes that the chaos would reveal the King as treasonous. Robespierre, rather reasonably, thought this was a terrible idea and that it would hurt France. He turned out to be right.
2) Robespierre wasn’t a dictator, and wasn’t even in charge. Also Robespierre did not as an individual send hundreds of people directly to the guillotine. Oh also, all this business about Robespierre wanting to kill all the impure (yes this was taught to me in high school) is patently false.
[above: the Committe of Public Safety, with Saint-Just first on the left, and Robespierre just after him]
Robespierre held some sway since many respected him as principled and consistent, but regarding governmental positions of actual legal power he was only in one for a single year. He served as one of twelve men on the Committee of Public Safety. The members were elected by the Convention (governing body of France at the time). The CoPS would put out arrest warrants, some of which Robespierre signed. Those who received arrest warrants were sent to the Revolutionary Tribunal for trial. Those found guilty were, yes, sent to the guillotine. In Paris nearly a quarter of people who faced trial ended up living. As somebody personally against the death penalty, this is not something I morally approve of, but one has to understand the chaotic, desperate, and fearful context France was living under during this precise time. Robespierre signed the least amount of warrants on the Committee. Later on during the single year he served on the Committee, Robespierre stopped attending meetings regularly. He would only rarely show up. Arguably, he was extremely disillusioned and depressed by the state of affairs during this time. Robespierre wasn’t a mastermind of the Terror (a violent effort to eliminate internal and external enemies of France, a policy voted for and supported by many deputies) but he did support a limited Terror that would be removed as soon as France was stable. France, at the time, was not stable. The political culture at the time was wrought, in my opinion, with fear and paranoia. Many of these fears were justified as there were some conspiracies, including the conspiracy to put Robespierre and his followers to death because 1) people feared he might put them to death, though he was hardly in the state to do so and 2) because they wanted to use Robespierre as a scapegoat for the worst of the Terror. Arguably the most dangerous position to be in during this time was that of revolutionary leader or deputy. Members of the Convention, and their associates, had the most to be worried about. The infamous adage ‘the Revolution devours its children’ comes to mind. Many deputies and their families/friends lost their life in factional disputes, including Robespierre.
3) Robespierre’s legacy was smeared after his death by surviving extremists in order to pin the worst of the Terror on him.
A scapegoat was needed. This isn’t a flimsy conspiracy theory, either. Participants in the plot confessed to it. There is historical evidence. People did so to save their own heads and remain in power as part of a new government.
4) And now for the fluffy reasons.
Robespierre’s intense connection with his younger colleague Saint-Just, one that I think was likely homosexual, would be one.
[above: Saint-Just and Robespierre]
There are also his amusing attempts at poetry, his love for birds, his anxiety speaking publicly, his dry sass, his sensitivity, his tendency to break down into tears, and the fact that he survived the death of his mother and his mostly-absent and fully-alcoholic father.
That’s all I’ve got for now!
Also, if you’d like to send her article links, here are two articles. The first is a scholar’s debunking of ten myths about the French Revolution, several regarding Robespierre. The second is a useful and straight-forward article about Robespierre specifically: