Maximilien Robespierre: The Reign of Terror


Maximilien Robespierre promised to usher a fairer, more representative form of government to the French people. What they got was a reign of terror that saw thousands facing the horror of the guillotine.

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Maximilien Robespierre
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Maximilien Robespierre promised to usher a fairer, more representative form of government
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to the French people.
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What they got was a reign of terror that saw thousands facing the horror of the guillotine.
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Among Robespierre’s victims were the king and queen of France.
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When justice finally came it was a swift as the slice of a blade.
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In this week’s Biographics, we wade into the terror with Maximilien Robespierre.
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The Early Robespierre
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Maximilien Robespierre entered the world on May 6th, 1758.
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He was born in Arras, France though historians have suspected for centuries that his family
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originated from Ireland.
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By the time that Max was born, however, they had been French citizens for many generations.
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The child was conceived out of wedlock but by the time he was born his parents had married.
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Like his own father before him, Max’s father was a lawyer, but not a very successful one.
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This left the family with a constant debt hanging over its head.
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Things didn’t get any easier for the Robespierre’s when Max’s mother died giving birth to a
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sibling when he was six years old.
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Looking after four children was too much for Robespierre senior, so his offspring were
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divided among his relatives.
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His mother’s death had a profound effect upon young Max.
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No longer was he the carefree child of old.
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Now he was sullen and serious.
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He also applied himself diligently to his schooling as if drowning his grief in his
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studies.
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When he was eleven years of age, young Robespierre was awarded a scholarship to the Lycee-Louis-le-Grand
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in Paris.
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He would continue studying there for the next twelve years, emerging at age twenty-three
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with a law degree.
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As well as law, he also studied literature, rhetoric and the classics.
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Life at the prestigious school was very structured.
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Formerly a Jesuit institution, it was now under the control of the University of Paris.
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The day began and ended with formal prayers and bible study.
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The school also had an excellent library, which Robespierre made liberal use of.
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The most well-known incident arising from Robespierre’s time at the school occurred
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when he was seventeen.
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His excellent oratory skills led to him being selected to give a speech before King Louis
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XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.
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He perfected his wording and practised his delivery only to be snubbed by the royal couple
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who never even bothered to get out of their carriage.
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It was a personal violation that he would never forget.
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During his time at the Lycee, Robespierre was also exposed to enlightenment philosophy,
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especially the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
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Rousseau was a powerful advocate for a more democratic form of government coupled with
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social empowerment.
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However, Robespierre was not able to read Rousseau in the Lycee’s library.
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His works were considered to be dangerous and so copies of his famous discourse, published
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twenty years earlier, had to be smuggled in.
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In his later life, Robespierre would label his later years at the Lycee as a nursery
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for republicanism.
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By the time he had reached his early twenties, Robespierre was a vocal advocate for natural
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rights.
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He championed the rights of the underprivileged, speaking at every public opportunity.
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In fact, he was such an enthusiastic champion of basic human rights that he became physically
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exhausted to the point of collapse.
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Robespierre proved to be an unstoppable force of nature.
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This led to him becoming a familiar and well-known figure in and around his home-town of Arras.
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In the mid-1780’s he joined the Academy of Arras.
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His first speech before the Academy was part of a competition and shone a spotlight upon
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the lack of morality in politics.
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It didn’t win first prize, but he was rewarded with a large cash prize.
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This whet his appetite and over the next few years he entered a number of essay and poetry
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competitions.
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He also joined an elite literary society known as the Rosatia Club.
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Since graduating from the Lycee, Robespierre had established a modest law practice.
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From the start he began taking on cases that were controversial.
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In 1789, he took on the state in a case that directly challenged the notion of lettres-des-cachet,
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or imprisonment without trial.
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During the course of the trial he actually wrote to the king and personally requested
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his assistance in getting rid of this abuse.
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On the Brink
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By the 1780’s France was desperately running out of money.
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They had spent a lot of money in assisting the Americans in the previous decade.
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This was compounded by a lavish amount of spending on the part of the monarchy.
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The appointment of a succession of finance ministers to try to turn around the country’s
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flagging economy had little effect.
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By the end of the decade there was a growing call for a meeting of the Estates General,
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representing the clergy, the nobility and the people.
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Meanwhile, the King unilaterally enacted a series of laws to fill the royal coffers.
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This included the raising of taxes and the cutting of spending on essential services.
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The following day the French parliament condemned the king’s actions, labelling the raising
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of taxes as illegal.
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The king’s response was to exile the parliament.
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This led to growing public protests in Paris.
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In response to this desperate situation, a new finance minister was put in place.
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This was Etienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne.
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He proposed a new five-year plan which was designed to restore French credit as well
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as presenting a full accounting of the French government’s finances to whoever wanted
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to see it.
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He called for the return of the Parisian parliament after their normal autumn break.
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The parliament reconvened on November 17, 1787 in the rare presence of the king.
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After an 8-hour debate the parliament failed to authorise Brienne’s five-year plan.
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However, King Louis XVI went ahead and authorised the loans needed to restore credit anyway.
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The king left the chamber but the debate continued.
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It was resolved that the parliament would officially condemn the king’s action.
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The following day the leading members of the parliament were exiled by the king.
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In response to this, provincial parliaments across the country began to refuse to register
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laws as a protest to the apparently despotic actions of the king.
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On May 3, 1788 the Parliament of Paris issued a declaration on the fundamental laws of the
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realm.
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It included the right of parliament to register new laws, the role of the Estates General
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and the freedom of all subjects from arbitrary arrest.
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Despite this, the leaders of the parliament were taken into custody the following day.
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A few days later the king issued a series of judicial reforms which were designed to
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cement his absolute power.
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The reforms effectively neutralized the Parliament of Paris.
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In response to this outrage, provincial parliaments around the country refused to uphold any of
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the government’s laws.
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France was now operating without any formal justice system.
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France in Revolt
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The country was approaching widespread public revolt.
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In an attempt to control the damage, Finance minister Brienne, called for a sitting of
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the Estates General on May 1, 1789.
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Meanwhile the French government was completely bankrupt.
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With no ideas to get the country out of the red, Brienne was forced to resign and former
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Finance Minister Jacques Necker was put back in office.
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Necker had the general confidence of the people and managed to recall the parliaments around
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the country.
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The Paris parliament announced that the Estates General would meet according to the historic
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precedent where the representation of the people – the Third Estate – would be numerically
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less than that of the clergy and the nobility.
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This was met with widespread public disapproval.
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Through long negotiations with the king, Necker was able to announce in December, 1788 that
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the representation of the third estate would be doubled in the Estates General.
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Meanwhile hundreds of pamphlets had been appearing around Paris with titles such as ‘What is
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the 3rd Estate?’
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Rather than being comprised of peasants, workers or artisans, the Third Estate was made up
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of lawyers and office holders, the well to do who had enough time to engage in the slow
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processes involved.
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The pamphleteers strongly criticized the power of the clergy and the nobility and the lack
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of representation of the masses.
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Several leaders arose among the Third Estate, including Maximilien Robespierre.
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By 1788, Robespierre was positioning himself to play a key role in the coming revolution.
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He participated in a series of debates regarding the make-up of the Third Estate and the ratio
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of the three components of the Estates General.
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He published a pamphlet which addressed local issues in Arras with the view of getting himself
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elected onto the Third Estate.
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In the pamphlet he strongly stressed two key ideas; the importance of elected representation
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and concern for the poor.
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By now, Robespierre had a clearly defined notion of who the enemy was – the clergy
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and the nobility.
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In March, 1789 he was elected as a representative from Arras to the Third Estate.
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He was chosen to participate in the drafting of a list of grievances.
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At the same time, he pushed for new initiatives that would give the lower classes access to
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the political system.
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Robespierre’s second pamphlet was a foretaste of things to come.
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It was called ‘the Enemies of the Country Unmasked.’
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The Estates General
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The Estates General met on May 5, 1789 at Versailles.
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Thirty-year-old Robespierre was one of eight representatives from Arras.
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In the formal opening of proceedings, he and his fellow Third Estate members refused to
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bow before the king.
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That first day, Robespierre began to stand out.
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He was not an imposing physical figure and his voice was less than inspiring.
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But he dressed impeccably and had an amazing ability to recall details.
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He customarily wore a powdered wig and a formal waistcoat.
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In the first week of the assembly, he formed a breakaway group, known as the Breton Club,
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which held their own meetings to discuss the abolition of the privileges of the clergy
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and nobility.
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On June 7th, Robespierre gave a passionate speech criticizing the excesses of the clergy.
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It was one of the major motivators for the establishment of the National Assembly three
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days later.
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On that date the Third Estate sent messages to the Clergy and Nobility requesting that
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they agree to common verification by a head count.
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Receiving no response, they declared themselves the only legitimate representative body renaming
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themselves the ‘Commons’.
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The public received this news with great enthusiasm.
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Eventually the clergy, under much public pressure, joined the National Assembly.
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On the morning of June 20th, the National Assembly turned up to their meeting place
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at Versailles to find the gates locked and the entrance manned by guards.
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They quickly retreated to a nearby tennis court on the grounds of Versailles.
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The members were enraged at the despotism of the king in shutting out the National Assembly.
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They unanimously asserted what has become known as the ‘Tennis Court Oath’ – they
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vowed to remain in session until ‘the constitution of the Realm and public regeneration are established
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and assured.’
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On June 17th, the King opened the Royal Session.
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His first move was to declare the National Assembly invalid.
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He then put forward a 35-point plan for reform.
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His final move was to announce that nothing that the Estates general did was valid without
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his personal consent.
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A New National Assembly
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Once the king had dismissed the assembly, the nobility and clerics filed out.
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But the members of the National Assembly, comprising the Third Estate and the Clergy,
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remained where they were.
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It was declared that they would only leave at the end of bayonets.
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With the entire country in support of the National Assembly, the king backed down.
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He ordered the First and Second Estates to join the National Assembly.
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Still the riots did not end.
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Louis sent troops to surround the city of Paris.
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The national assembly now got to work and hammered out a list of demands to put to the
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king.
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Robespierre was one of those who presented them, with the first one being that he remove
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the troops.
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The king ignored the demand.
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By the beginning of July, there were 20,000 soldiers around the city.
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Robespierre responded by making the following public statement . . .
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No one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse
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them as necessary.
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And so it proved to be.
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On July 11th, the king dismissed finance minister Necker, who was still publicly popular.
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This led to rage among the people.
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Two days later rumors spread like wildfire that the French army was about to launch an
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attack on the people.
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A mob of citizens reacted to the impending threat by seizing 28,000 rifles from a veteran’s
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hospital.
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They now needed gunpowder to use them.
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They found it at an unused prison in the city called the Bastille.
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The guards tried to hold of the crowds but then fired into them.
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Hundreds of people fell down dead.
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The now out of control mob overpowered and killed the guards and then gained access to
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the gunpowder.
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When the King sent soldiers to bring order, they switched loyalties and joined the people.
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Louis now knew that he could trust no one, not even his protective army.
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Meanwhile, the National Assembly remained in session.
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In a desperate attempt to restore order, the king re-appointed Necker.
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But the finance minister refused to work with the National Assembly and was unable to stem
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the flow of rebellion.
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On July 19th the king rode through Paris in a carriage along with key members of the National
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Assembly, including Robespierre.
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Rather than crying out ‘Long live the king!’, the people called out ‘Long live liberty!
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Long live the nation!’ Louis tried to placate the crowds telling them that he had ordered
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the troops to withdraw.
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The 150,000-armed citizens who flooded the streets took it as too little too late.
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Across the country armed mobs were taking to the streets, with many of them seizing
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control of their city governments.
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Starving people broke into granaries and the estates of their landlords, helping themselves
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to food and provisions.
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While other members of the National Assembly expressed concern at the growing chaos, Robespierre
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saw insurrection as the natural expression of the people’s will.
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It was those who opposed revolution who were the real threat.
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He became fanatical in his resolve to weed out any and all who showed dissent to the
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apparent will of the people.
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The People Speak
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Meanwhile the National Assembly began working on a new constitution.
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The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the citizen was voted on August 26th.
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The king didn’t respond to the declaration until October, by which time the riot in the
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streets were ongoing.
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He expressed concerns at a number of the articles in the declaration.
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At the same time, he called the elite Flanders Regiment to Versailles to provide extra protection.
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On the morning of October 5th, a large group of market women marched on Versailles to demand
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flour and grain.
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They were met at the gates by Robespierre, who while showing empathy for their situation,
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advised caution.
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He managed to negotiate for a single woman to meet the king.
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Louis agreed to allow the release of two stores of grains.
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But, again, it was too little too late.
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By evening a massive crowd had gathered at Versailles, many of them armed.
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They lingered through the night.
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Then, early on the morning of October 6th, a group of them managed to break into the
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Queen’s bedroom.
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Marie managed to escape but two of her guards were killed.
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The royal couple were forced to leave the palace and seek refuge in an unused palace
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in Paris, the Tuileries.
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They were followed by a crowd of 60,000.
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The king and queen spent the next few months as virtual prisoners in the palace at Tuileries.
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Power rested with the National Assembly, among which Robespierre’s influence was ever more
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prominent.
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Over the next year, the Assembly worked towards a constitutional monarchy.
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In June 1791, the king had had enough.
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Along with his wife, he disguised himself as a servant and fled in a carriage.
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He left behind a document which clearly denounced the National Assembly.
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The carriage only got 160 miles out of Paris when it was stopped and the king and queen
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taken under guard back to Tuileries.
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Causing Division
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The night after the king’s attempt to flee the country, Robespierre gave an impassioned
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speech in which he stated that the deadliest enemies of the French were not the Austrians,
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who threatened war, but counter revolutionary forces within France itself.
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The king should also be counted among those enemies of the nation.
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His speech broke the assembly in two.
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On the one side were those who clung to the idea of a constitutional monarchy while those
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who sided with Robespierre were in favor of republicanism.
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Robespierre began to call for the public trial of the king.
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On July 17th, a group of petitioners who supported the call were confronted by National Guardsmen.
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In the melee that followed fifty of them were killed.
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The French constitution was completed in September, 1791, effectively putting and end to the work
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of the assembly.
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Robespierre returned to Arras, where he was welcomed as a hero of the people.
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Meanwhile the king had declared war on Austria.
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Robespierre spoke out against the war, stating that it was not in the interests of the people
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and he feared that it would galvanize them around the king and thus destroy the revolution.
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During the spring of 1792, there were vocal calls for the creation of a French Republic.
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Robespierre, however, had changed his tune and was now in favour of a constitutional
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monarchy.
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However, when a large protest outside the Tuileries on the third anniversary of the
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tennis court oath turned nasty, he found himself in a stand-off with the king’s key enforcer,
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General Lafayette, who stood ready to put down the marchers forcibly.
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Protests at the Tuileries continued, culminating in the king and queen being forced to flee
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and seek protection from the National Assembly.
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More than a thousand people were killed that night.
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In its wake, the monarchy was officially dissolved and the royal family were taken into custody
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as prisoners of the state.
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Ominous Power
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Following these events Robespierre was elected to the Insurrection Commune, which was the
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governing body which now kept order in Paris.
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He oversaw a period of interrogation of royalists for a raft of suspected crimes against the
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state.
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Many of these royalist prisoners were pulled from their prison cells by mobs and massacred.
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Others were simply handed to vengeful mobs after mock trials.
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In the first week of September, 1792 around 1,400 people were killed by such mobs.
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Robespierre insisted that the Commune also investigate counter-revolutionary activities.
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Soon it had condemned 28 people to death by beheading.
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In the midst of this carnage, elections were held for a new constitutional assembly.
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Robespierre was elected as a first deputy.
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Still, there were those within the Assembly who objected to his violent methods of enforcement.
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Through force of argument he had them side-lined, winning the day with his conviction that the
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end justified the means, no matter how violent that means became.
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The trial of the king began on December 26, 1792.
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Three weeks later he was found unanimously guilty.
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Robespierre himself summed up the will of the times . . . “It is with regret that
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I must pronounce the fatal truth; the king must die so that the country may live!”
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France executed its king of January 21st, 1793.
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Robespierre did not attend the occasion.
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The Reign of Terror
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On July 20th, 1793, Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, which had
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been established a few months earlier.
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The Committee began to take action against federalist revolutionists.
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Mass executions were ordered in Lyons, which was a hotbed of royalist sympathy.
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Revolts were breaking out all over, leading the Convention to declare terror ‘the order
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of the day’.
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On September 17th, they passed laws allowing them to put to death anyone who was implicated
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as a supporter of tyranny.
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Caught up in the net of the reign of terror was Marie Antoinette.
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After a sham trial, she was sent to the guillotine on October 16, 1793.
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Robespierre now set his sights on his former National Assembly opposers, the Girondists.
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They were duly tried and found guilty and sent to the guillotine.
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Controlling the executions was Robespierre who famously declared . . .
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To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is barbarity.
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Those within the assembly who opposed Robespierre found themselves facing the guillotine themselves.
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Before long he had absolute power within the Committee.
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He had become a virtual dictator, literally with the power of life or death within his
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hands.
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Along with his immense power, Robespierre grew increasingly paranoid.
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There was an attempt on his life in May, 1793.
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The following month he was elected President of the Convention.
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He immediately enacted changes to allow him to condemn even more people to death.
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Trials were reduced to mere condemnations and all accused were denied legal representation.
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He even created a new category of criminal called ‘enemy of the people’.
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This blanket term could cover anything from serving sour wine to sending a letter to England,
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yet the punishment was always the same – death by guillotine.
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Justice of the Blade
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By this time Robespierre had gone too far.
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The people were beginning to reject his despotic rule of terror.
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His political enemies orchestrated a falsified letter which appeared to implicate Robespierre
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in an attempted coup d’etat.
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He defended himself against charges of dictatorship in a two-hour speech, in the process warning
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against a conspiracy that was being hatched against the Republic.
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But it was to no avail.
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The next day he was arrested only to be freed shortly thereafter by troops from the Paris
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Commune.
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Robespierre and his defenders found themselves holed up at the Hotel de Ville.
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They were declared outlaws by the Convention, which meant that when caught they could be
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put to death immediately.
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When the Convention forces closed in on the hotel, Robespierre and those who were with
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him all tried to commit suicide.
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Some of them succeeded but Robespierre’s attempt to blow his brains out only managed
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to shatter his lower jaw.
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With blood pouring from his face, Robespierre was laid on a table in the room of the Committee
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for Public Safety before being transferred to the cell that had housed Marie Antoinette
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prior to her date with the guillotine.
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The end came for Robespierre on July 28th, 1794 when he became the final victim of his
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reign of terror.
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Seconds before the blade fell, the executioner ripped off the bandage that was keeping his
23:45
jaw together, causing him to let out an almighty scream.
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It was soon silenced by the deadly blade, finally ending the carnage that Robespierre’s
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warped view of justice had wrought.


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Photo credit: Screenshot from video.