Famous Men of Modern Times - John Haaren



A few years after the American Revolution had freed the thirteen colonies from the tyranny of George III, the great French Revolution began.

This was also a struggle against tyranny, and Americans can scarcely help sympathizing with the French who, for many generations, had been deprived of their just rights.

One of the great leaders of the French Revolution was Robespierre (robs pyar'). He was born at Arras, in France, on May 6, 1758. He was left an orphan at the age of nine, and obtained his early education in the schools of his native town through the kindness of a warm-hearted bishop who had known his father.



He afterwards entered the college of Louis le Grand in Paris. He was a clever student, and when Louis XVI entered Paris, at the beginning of his reign, Robespierre was chosen by vote of his fellow students to present him with an address of welcome.

After his graduation, in 1781, he was called to the bar; but resigned on account of his reluctance to pronounce sentence of death. Nevertheless, it is said that he was cruel even as a child, and that he took great pleasure in mean little acts that would give pain to others.

He appears to have felt, very early in life, a great hatred for people who were wealthy and of high rank. As a youth, he talked a great deal about the rights of the lower classes, and the wrong doings of the upper classes; and he declared that the power of doing so much wrong should be taken away from the king and his nobles.

The poor people of France liked to hear such talk, for they had just reason to complain. Many of them came to look upon Robespierre as the champion of their rights, and to place much confidence in his ability to help them.

The revolutionists had come to think that the only remedy for their wrongs was the death of King Louis XVI; just as in England Cromwell and his friends, a hundred and fifty years earlier, had believed that the English people could gain their rights only by the death of Charles I.

Robespierre was determined that the king should be executed. He made a speech in which he said that France would be far better off without any king. He then went on to say that happiness and prosperity would return to the country if only Louis could be removed; and that the only way to remove him was to put him to death.

Most of the Assembly thought that the person of a king was sacred; and that if his life was taken, the curse of God would rest upon those who took it. Robespierre boldly denied this; and the people were delighted with his words. They named him "The Incorruptible;" and they almost worshiped him.

One day, when he was leaving the hall where the meetings of the Assembly were held, they placed a crown of oak leaves upon his head, unharnessed the horses from his carriage, and drew him to his home themselves. As they passed along the streets, they cried: "Behold the friend of the people! Behold the defender of liberty!"

The revolutionists raised an army of their own, placed a guard around the palace, and made the king a prisoner. Then they brought him to trial and charged him with being the cause of all the troubles that the people of France had suffered during his reign.

Three excellent lawyers were employed to defend him; and they spoke very strongly in his behalf. But on January 16, 1793, this mock court sentenced him to death.

After the death of Louis XVI, Robespierre became the absolute master of France; and he was so cruel that the period of his rule has been called "The Reign of Terror." People were afraid, when they rose in the morning, that they might be beheaded during the day; and when they went to bed they feared lest assassins might enter their rooms and kill them while they slept.



It is stated, on good authority, that the executions during Robespierre's rule averaged about thirty a day.

After a while people began to see that their condition had not improved. Everybody in Paris was extremely unhappy; and some did not hesitate to say that they were worse off under Robespierre than they had been under Louis XVI.

As Robespierre himself had taught the people that the death of the ruler was the great remedy for their troubles, many persons began to think that it would be the best thing for France if Robespierre himself should be put to death.

A conspiracy was formed to bring Robespierre to trial; and one day a bold speaker arose in the Convention and openly blamed him for his cruelty.

Robespierre rose from his seat and was about to make a speech in his own defense; but the hall was filled with cries of "Down with the tyrant! Down with the tyrant!" and he fled from the building in great alarm.

In a few moments he was surrounded by the officers of the Convention. As they were about to seize him he tried to kill himself by firing a pistol at his head; but the ball only fractured his lower jaw.

Together with twenty of his friends he was executed on the same day on which he was arrested.