A Revolutionary Life
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A meticulous but limited treatise on the life of one of France's most notorious revolutionaries.

Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) was a young provincial lawyer who came to Paris as a representative of the Third Estate, and he remained to become a leader of the leftist Jacobins in the revolutionary National Convention. A spellbinding orator, he was immensely controversial, revered by many as "the Incorruptible" genius of the revolution, reviled by others as a would-be tyrant, and his popularity underwent wild swings. Robespierre began his career as an opponent of capital punishment but ended it obsessed with omnipresent treasonous conspiracies and meting out death without trial to perceived enemies of the state, declaring that "the mainspring of popular government…is at once virtue and terror." He has thus long been popularly execrated as the bloodthirsty architect of the "reign of terror" of 1793–94. McPhee (Living the French Revolution 1789–1799, 2006, etc.) strives to rehabilitate Robespierre somewhat, arguing that the sanguinary excesses of the period were necessary to sustain the revolution against attacks from without and within, and that Robespierre's role in them was later exaggerated by other deputies seeking to minimize their own culpability. Given Robespierre's savage rhetoric and his influence at the time, McPhee's attempts at exoneration are less than thoroughly persuasive. The author also gives more attention to Robespierre's formative years and pre-revolutionary activities than has been customary in previous biographies. This is a thorough and well-written account of Robespierre's life, but nothing more. It is not a history of the French Revolution, and readers without a general familiarity with the events of that upheaval will have difficulty placing Robespierre's activities in a larger context. Similarly, while Robespierre's every political shift and maneuver is set forth in careful detail, no other leaders or personalities stand out in this narrative; even giants like Georges Jacques Danton and Jean-Paul Marat have only walk-on roles.

A solid contribution to the scholarship of this key figure of the French Revolution.

Pub Date: March 13th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-300-11811-7
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2012


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