Maximilien Robespierre has always provoked strong feelings. For the English he is the ‘sea-green incorruptible' portrayed by Carlyle, the repellent figure at the head of the Revolution, who sent thousands of people to their death under the guillotine. The French, for the most part, dislike his memory still more. There is no national monument to him, though many of the revolutionaries have had statues raised to them. Robespierre is still considered beyond the pale; only one rather shabby metro station in a poorer suburb of Paris bears his name.
Although Robespierre, like most of the revolutionaries, was a bourgeois, he identified with the cause of the urban workers, the sans-culottes as they came to be known, and became a spokesman for them. It is for this reason that he came to dominate the Revolution in its most radical phase. This was the period of the Jacobin government, which lasted from June 1793 to Robespierre's overthrow in July 1794; the months when the common people became briefly the masters of the first French republic, which had been proclaimed inâ??September 1792. It is also known, more ominously, as the Terror.
The enigmatic figure of Robespierre takes us to the heart of the Revolution, and throws light both on its ideals, and on the violence that indelibly scarred it.