Thoroughly Modern Maxie: Robespierre and His Legacy for Democracy TodayRoundup
tags: French Revolution, democracy, radicalism, Robespierre
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is Professor of History and Graduate Studies Coordinator at California State University San Marcos. Her research specialties include the French and Haitian Revolutions, modern Haitian history, Slavery and Film, French colonialism, French-Jewish history, history and video games, and the history of gender.
Maximilien Robespierre has gotten a bad rap in the last 228 years. In popular culture, he has become synonymous with the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror,” a bloodthirsty man fond of violence. However, this image was created by former allies who had shared his policies, until increasing fratricidal conflict convinced them that their days were numbered. In executing Robespierre in July 1794, these former comrades (who became known as the Thermidorians) scapegoated him and sought to pin revolutionary excesses on him alone. Fearing the chaotic power of popular activism, the Thermidorians also scaled back the Revolution’s social egalitarianism and gave greater power to the wealthy.
If Robespierre was not by nature a murderous despot, who was he and what does he have to teach us – especially at a time, like that of the French Revolution, when progressives and liberals are divided about how to prioritize the rights of minoritized groups? As a lawyer in Arras, young Maximilien (born in 1758) sought to combat prejudices and improve society. As a director of Arras’s scientific academy in 1787, he praised the society’s pioneering decision to admit women members. Against men who argued that women were not intellectually capable or did not belong in such spaces, Robespierre declared that “prejudices are the scourge of the world” and that bias against women was the “scandal of an enlightened century.”
As the Revolution began in 1789, Robespierre became a powerful voice for other marginalized groups. Though the Declaration of the Rights of Man had declared “All men are born and remain free and equal,” many revolutionaries were reluctant to extend their stated values of equality to groups like Jews and people of color. During December 1789 debates about whether to grant Jews equal citizenship, Robespierre challenged antisemites who insisted that Jews could never be loyal French citizens. He denounced the persecution that they had faced for centuries, adding: “These were national crimes that we must atone for, in giving Jews the unalienable rights of man of which no human power can strip them.” In October 1789, in an Assembly dominated by prosperous merchants and lawyers, Robespierre was one of the few deputies to oppose creating a distinction between wealthy “active citizens” with full rights and poor “passive citizens” with limited rights. And in May 1791, against hatred from slaveowners and their allies, Robespierre proved a powerful advocate for free people of color, who faced Jim Crow-style legislation in the French Caribbean. When colonists asserted that abolishing racial hierarchies would ruin France’s colonial system and destroy its economy, Robespierre retorted, “Let the colonies perish” if keeping these restrictions would deprive people of “happiness, glory and freedom.” He added, colonists “tell you that you will lose your colonies unless you strip free citizens of color of their political rights…. What I ask is that we should not compromise the… sacred rights of a significant number of our fellow citizens….”
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