How Robespierre Changed the Direction of the French Revolution


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

The question of what to do with Louis XVI became one of the most divisive issues that the newly established national convention faced. One faction, the Girondists, wanted to put the issue to a people’s referendum. But the Jacobins insisted on the king’s execution. The most public proponent of the king’s execution was Maximilien Robespierre. His fiery, passionate rhetoric convinced a slight majority of the national convention.

Illustration of the Jacobin club
The Jacobins insisted that the king should be executed and they eventually got their wish. (Image: Henri Nicolas Vangorp/Public domain)

Threats from Abroad

Momentum turned in the Jacobins’ favor after a box of treacherous correspondence between the king and foreign courts was discovered in November 1792. The revolution now took a turn from which there was no return. And so, Citizen Capet, formerly Louis XVI, was guillotined in January 1793.

This brought several other European states, including Britain, Spain, and Holland, into a state of war against France to stem the revolutionary tide. The National Convention formed a Committee of Public Safety to deal with the existential threat from abroad and at home. 

It would function as a “special tribunal” to punish “traitors, conspirators, and agitators”. Riots rocked Paris in the spring and summer of 1793. As many as 80,000 people stormed the new national legislative body in June.

Democracy Ruling with an Iron Fist

In the summer of 1793, the Committee of Public Safety curbed expressions of democracy that didn’t align with the committee’s own priorities. It closed rival political clubs and guillotined the most virulent protestors. 

To be fair, there were actual threats to the nation and its leaders. In July, journalist Jean-Paul Marat—who had done so much to initiate the violence the previous year—was stabbed to death by the Girondist sympathizer Charlotte Corday. Four days later, Corday herself was guillotined. Many others followed. 

Among the more notable victims were the former queen Marie Antoinette, the salon hostess Madame Roland, and various Girondists who had been members of the national convention, as well as thousands of lesser-known victims of the revolution.

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Virtue and Terror

But Robespierre remained unapologetic. Representing the Committee of Public Safety, he justified the terror by arguing that it was a necessary component of revolutionary virtue. He said, “The springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is murderous; terror, without which virtue is powerless.”

In the most radical phase of the Revolution, from about 1792 to 1794, with the old foundations of monarchy, aristocracy, and Catholicism cleared away, Jacobin leaders sought to build a more virtuous modern republic. Doing so required cultural transformation that would build social unity.

Meanwhile, to deal with their foreign enemies, the convention instituted a general draft of unmarried, childless men between the ages of 18 and 25, bringing more than 700,000 men into the French military. They marched into battle with the defiant hymn of the newly composed “La Marseillaise”—the French national anthem—running through their heads. 

Statue of George Danton
George Danton disagreed with Robespierre and how he handled the terror in France and was executed because of it. (Image: Jean-no/Public domain)

The anthem vowed to defend the fatherland in the name of liberty. In the winter of 1793 and 1794, the French did suppress significant domestic rebellions, while pushing back the Austrians, and containing the British.

Execution without Trial

Some of Robespierre’s colleagues argued that with the military situation improving, the terror should abate. Foremost among them was Georges Danton, perhaps the only other member of the Committee of Public Safety with as much political clout as Robespierre. But Robespierre refused to tolerate any hint of dissent. In early April 1794, the Dantonists—including Georges Danton—went to the guillotine.

And in June 1794, the Law of 22 Prairial was passed, denying accused persons of access to a legal defense. In addition, the law stipulated that there could be only two legitimate sentences for the accused: acquittal or death. As a result, the number of those guillotined soared, encompassing some 1,285 individuals in Paris over the next seven weeks alone.

After the French achieved a decisive victory against the Austrians that same month, ending a threat of invasion, many people expected an end to terror justified by the emergency of war. But that was not to be. Instead, weeks later, Robespierre denounced an unnamed group of traitors whom he accused of plotting a conspiracy. This was too much for members of the convention.

Robespierre’s End Turned the Direction of the Revolution

Illustration of Robespierre’s execution
The execution of Robespierre changed the course of the French Revolution. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Many of Robespierre’s former colleagues and followers, having seen so many Frenchmen lose their heads to the guillotine, now turned against him before he could turn on them. On July 27, 1794, a battle broke out between Robespierre’s supporters and national guard troops, leaving Robespierre with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But the anti-Robespierre forces prevailed. 

Robespierre was arrested and executed. And that proved to be a turning point in the revolution. It empowered a movement known as the Thermidorian Reaction which divested the Committee of Public Safety of power and reauthorized the National Convention.

Over the next few years, radicalism was expunged, and violence was brought under control.

Common Questions about How Robespierre Changed the Direction of the French Revolution

Q: Why was Louis XVI guillotined in the end?

Though the members of the National Convention didn’t agree on the fate of Louis XVI, things turned out in Robespierre and other Jacobins’ favor after a box of treacherous correspondences between Louis XVI and foreign courts was found.

Q: What were the direct consequences of the execution of Louis XVI?

After Robespierre and other Jacobins got their wish and Louis XVI was executed, to stem the revolutionary tide, European states such as Britain, Spain, and Holland went into a state of war against France. Also, the National Assembly formed the Committee of Public Safety in the name of keeping the country safe from threats both abroad and at home.

Q: What action of Robespierre led other members of the National Convention to decide to execute him?

After the French achieved a decisive victory against Austria and the existential threat of invasion was dealt with, many expected an end to terror. But such an end didn’t come after Robespierre denounced a group of traitors who he accused of plotting a conspiracy. Members of the convention decided to turn against Robespierre before he turned on them.

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