ROBESPIERRE: The Tyranny of the Majority by Jean Matrat

ROBESPIERRE: The Tyranny of the Majority

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For some years now historians under the impact of Rude and Soboul have shifted their vantage point on the French Revolution from the National Assembly to the sans-culottes in the streets. In this context, Matrat's biography of Robespierre seems very traditional, even old-fashioned. Matrat essentially tells the story of shifting alliances, rivalries and power-plays among the chief architects of the republic--Mirabeau, Brissot, Danton, St. Juste, Barere, Fouche, Robespierre and the rest. Matrat shows that, contrary to his popular image, Robespierre even at the height of his power recoiled from indiscriminate slaughter. He stood opposed both to the leniency of Danton and the ultra-terrorism of Hebert whose excesses he condemned, exclaiming ""Blood, endless blood. The wretches. They will end up by drowning the Revolution."" All the same the subsequent executions of Danton and Camille Desmoulins made Robespierre seem impervious to friendship and sympathy. Matrat's main theme--Robespierre's overriding concern with the welfare of the Revolution--is hardly new, but he does show how time and again Robespierre discounted his personal feelings, sacrificing the individual to what he believed was The General Will of France. It should be recalled, to right the distorted picture, that Robespierre in the Assembly argued eloquently against the death penalty; that unlike Brissot he tried to steer the Jacobins away from war-mongering; that in the household of Duplay, the joiner, where he had a modest room, he was the one who always said grace at the dinner table. Matrat has constructed a very balanced portrait of the man from his many speeches, his letters, and the archives of the Jacobin club. And yet a Final judgment is lacking: was The Incorruptible the savior of the Revolution or its nemesis? Did Robespierre's politics succumb to paranoia at the end? And was he finally a martyr, a monster, or a man trapped by political circumstance?

Pub Date: June 1st, 1975
Publisher: Scribners