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The Conductor

FOR A MAN often vilified as one of the greatest monsters in European history, Maximilien Robespierre lived the first five-sixths of his life in remarkably conventional fashion. As an earnest, prizewinning scholarship boy, and then an ambitious young provincial lawyer in late eighteenth-century France, he gave few hints that he would soon become the major figure in a revolutionary Reign of Terror. His early life did have its share of destabilizing tragedies: the death of his mother when he was six, followed by his father’s effective abandonment of the family. But whatever demons these events engendered manifested themselves mostly in a ferocious work ethic, personal rigidity, and quite possibly a severe case of sexual repression. By the time he was thirty, in 1788, Robespierre was heading smoothly towards a future as a lonely, irritable pillar of his small town bar association.

A year later, his world changed. The Old Regime collapsed, creating a political vacuum filled in large part by the 1,200 members of a raucous, newly-elected National Assembly, many from backgrounds as obscure as Robespierre’s own. (Edmund Burke, not entirely inaccurately, ridiculed them as “fomenters and conductors of the petty war of village vexation.”) In this company, men who worked hard and spoke persuasively, along a consistent line of argument, quickly drew attention. Robespierre was one of them, all the more so because the line he advocated was daringly radical. Among other things, he argued that France should abolish the death penalty, renounce aggressive warfare, and move towards the elimination of slavery in its colonies. Although ridiculed as verbose, pedantic, and physically unprepossessing (he was short and had an embarrassing facial twitch), Robespierre slowly gained a reputation for rigid, unswerving dedication to the public good. He even acquired a flattering nickname: “the Incorruptible.” The British observer William Augustus Miles called him “a character to be contemplated,” and predicted he would be “a man of sway in a short time, and govern the million.”

He gained his opportunity in 1793-94, after successive efforts to end the Revolution and establish a stable new constitutional regime had failed. Instead, France’s new republican regime seemed to teeter on the edge of catastrophe, threatened by an armed coalition of European powers, and a series of dangerous domestic rebellions. Under these conditions, power passed increasingly into the hands of a dictatorial “Committee of Public Safety” that claimed sweeping emergency power. Tens of thousands of political opponents were executed, and many more perished in the repression of the provincial uprisings. Christian worship was suppressed, and utopian projects introduced for making the French, in Robespierre’s own words, into “a new people.” Robespierre himself virtually invented a new, deist religion for France: the Cult of the Supreme Being.

He never held the dictatorial power his enemies attributed to him, but he did the most of anyone to set the Terror in motion, and after the autumn of 1793 he fell into the grip of something approaching paranoia. As Peter McPhee puts it in this new biography: “Robespierre’s mental universe was crowded with unrelenting conspiracies.” By mid-summer 1794, enough members of the National Convention feared for their lives to stage a coup against him and his allies. From the crest of the revolutionary movement, he was swept under and crushed, dying on the guillotine to which he had sent so many of his enemies.

Robespierre makes an exceptionally difficult figure for biographers. Colorless, intensely private, and doctrinaire, a creature of cold, high abstraction, his political success is mysterious. Not only did little in his previous life foreshadow it, he seemed largely lacking in political ambition of the ordinary sort. He disliked the adulation that increasingly came his way, and lived ascetically, and was driven close to physical and mental collapse by the pressures of revolutionary politics. While many fine historians have tried their hands at his life, including Ruth Scurr in a lively volume in 2006, none have been truly successful. The best of them, like Scurr, have echoed his enemy, the philosopher and politician Condorcet, who in 1792 already grasped a key aspect of Robespierre’s mindset:

Robespierre preaches, Robespierre censures, he is furious, grave, melancholy, shamming exaltation, logical in his thoughts and conduct; he thunders against the rich and the great; he lives frugally and feels no physical needs; he has but a single mission, which is to speak and he speaks almost all the time … He has all the characteristics, not of a religious leader, but of the leader of a sect; he has built up for himself a reputation for austerity which borders on sainthood … Robespierre is a priest and will never be anything else.

But as the great historian François Furet perceptively observed, the best way of all to understand Robespierre may simply be as a pure, unalloyed conductor of revolutionary ideology. In that case, what matters is not so much to understand the man himself but the Revolution that spoke through him.

Peter McPhee, a distinguished Australian social historian, has chosen very much the opposite path in this new biography, and dwells heavily on the pre-Revolutionary life and career. Robespierre’s upbringing in a broken family led directly, McPhee argues, to a later devotion to the rights of children and education reform, and from there to a broader concern with social improvement. His experience as a scholarship boy in a northern province known for sharp social divisions instilled a radical sense of social justice. McPhee highlights Robespierre’s close ties to his sisters, and to a select number of friends, and so he rejects the stereotype of “the emotionally stunted, rigidly puritanical and icily cruel monster of history and literature.” As for the delirium of Robespierre’s final months, McPhee puts more stress than previous biographers on the man’s sharply deteriorating physical health. Robespierre routinely worked from dawn to past midnight, complained incessantly of exhaustion and fevers, and spent several crucial weeks in the spring of 1794 confined to his bed. As Colin Jones nicely puts it in the book’s cover blurb, “Robespierre emerges less as the man who ruined the Revolution than as a man the Revolution ruined.” In short, McPhee tries to sketch a much more human and sympathetic Robespierre than the one who appears in most history books.

It makes for an interesting exercise, and the book has much to be said for it. It is a fine piece of work. McPhee has a sure command of the period, has mastered the voluminous sources on Robespierre, and writes a robust, clean prose. And he practices a virtue that has become all too rare among present-day biographers: concision. (Among current studies of the American Founders, a book this length would most likely be “Part One of Six.”) McPhee is also quite right to point out that Robespierre was in no sense a pathological freak. He was perfectly capable of ordinary human emotions, relationships, even passions.

And yet, paradoxically, by making Robespierre more human and more frail, McPhee actually makes his revolutionary career even more mysterious. How could a figure so ordinary in some respects, and so weak in others, rise into the leadership of one of the most radically transformative political movements in history? How could he have persuaded so many people to follow him? What made him different from the many others who shared his background? For historical figures of this magnitude, we expect a person with the inhuman stamina of a Churchill or the sinister charisma of a Hitler—not a man who whined, as Robespierre did in June 1793, “Exhausted by four years of difficult and fruitless work, I sense that my physical and moral resources are no longer at the level required by a great revolution…”

A part of the problem is that McPhee underplays the real hardness and determination of Robespierre’s mind, if not his body, throughout most of the Revolution. And perhaps because McPhee sympathizes with Robespierre’s ideals, and admires Robespierre’s self-denial, he largely misses the colossal sense of self-righteousness that came along with these qualities, and were fed by them. Among other things, Robespierre’s revolutionary speeches and writings were infused with a ferocious and brutally effective sarcasm deployed against anyone who disagreed with him or fell short of his impossibly high standards. Robespierre also had the true preacher’s gift of shifting effortlessly from a savage excoriation of human flaws to a brilliant, hopeful invocation of human spiritual potential:

In our country we wish to substitute morality for egoism, honesty for love of honor, principles for conventions, duties for decorum, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, the fear of vice for the dread of unimportance. We want to substitute pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, the love of glory for the love of gold.

The passage directly echoes one of the most famous pages in Rousseau’s Social Contract, and here we come to another remarkable quality: Robespierre’s ability to cast his every opinion as faithful to the spirit of the thinker so many of the revolutionary generation worshipped as a virtual deity. Robespierre in fact felt a particularly intense bond of identification with Rousseau, and McPhee might have done more to explore this crucial aspect of his personality: the kinship felt by one awkward, intense man, son of a mother who died in his early childhood, and a of distant father, for another.

But above all, McPhee does not do enough with Furet’s crucial insight into Robespierre as a conductor of revolutionary ideology—and therefore, with the French Revolution itself. It is worth stressing here just how different the French Revolutionary leadership was from the leadership of most revolutions. Figures such as Robespierre, Danton, Sieyès, or Saint-Just did not occupy positions of political prominence before the Revolution, as many of the American revolutionaries had done. They had not fought elections or led political parties. They did not spend years in struggle or exile, like Lenin or Mao, dreaming of what they would do once they came to power. In a mere blink of time, they hurtled from banal obscurity to world-historical importance, and so it is perhaps fair to say that the Revolution made them more than they made the Revolution.

In one sense, the Robespierre of 1793-94—a man who helped destroy an ancient monarchy and kill its king, who tried to create a new religion, who helped send France’s armies into a war of annihilation against the continent’s major powers—really did have very little in common with the Robespierre of 1788, a fussy provincial lawyer. He himself famously remarked on the Revolution’s transformative power when he said, in 1794, that it had thrust the French 2,000 years ahead of other peoples, “so that one is tempted to see them as a different species.”

Of course Robespierre was a not a mere empty vessel for Revolutionary ideas. And of course the values, the instincts, and the personal qualities instilled into him during his early years mattered. But what mattered above all were the ways these things were transmuted when placed into the hottest, most dynamic political crucible the world had yet seen. What Yeats wrote of John MacBride in 1916 might be said as well of Robespierre in the French Revolution:

He, too, has resigned his part

In the casual comedy;

He, too, has been changed in his turn,

Transformed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

David A. Bell is a contributing editor for The New Republic and also teaches French history at Princeton.