[The following passage comes from the conclusion of the author's Life of Maximilien Robespierre (1849), which I have used in the Hathi Digital Library Trust web edition. Emphasis has been added in the passage below. — George P. Landow]

Decorative Initial I have now called up for the reader's judgment, the sad, strange, and somewhat fantastic career of a political Fanatic. All his acts, all his opinions, his feelings and his motives, such at least as researches have enabled me to discover, have been set down in the foregoing pages, with as much impartiality as it is given to erring man to employ in such a cause. Truly can I say, that I have "nothing extenuated "— nought have I "set down in malice." With the evidence before us, what is the judgment to be passed upon this man? . . . there have not been wanting men to plead Robespierre's cause, with the passion of advocates and partizans. But that Robespierre was a great or good man, seems to me a conclusion little less preposterous, than that he was a blood-thirsty monster, altogether infamous. It is not difficult, however, to see the grounds for such diversity of judgment. All that is great and estimable in fanaticism— its sincerity, its singleness of purpose, its exalted aims, its vigorous consistency, its disdain of worldly temptations— all may be found in Robespierre; and those who only contemplate that aspect of the man, will venerate him. But there is another aspect of fanaticism—presenting narrowmindedness, want of feeling, of consideration and of sympathy; unscrupulousness of means, pedantic wilfulness, and relentless ferocity; and whoso contemplates this aspect also, will look on Robespierre with strangely mingled feelings of admiration and abhorrence; and the abiding impression will be that of such disgust, that he will need perpetually to remind himself of the qualities which ought to mitigate his loathing. . . . [388-89]

To go to the block for an opinion, is heroism; to send others to the block because they differ from you, is fanaticism. Robespierre in his speeches, and in his conduct, showed that he cared for the triumph of his opinions, but cared nothing for the welfare of individuals. Others may, if they please, credit his benevolence and philanthropy; I can believe in nothing but his intense vanity and dogmatism. They may avert their eyes from his conduct and only repeat his grand phrases; it is impossible for me to do so. I have studied his character with care, and have found nothing generous, nothing exalted in it. On the whole I greatly prefer Saint Just. He was perhaps more relentless, more systematic in his contempt for bloodshed, but his soul was not darkened, as Robespierre's was, by envy and malignity. Robespierre had the greater intellect, but he was the weaker man.

Even Lamartine, who is so favourable to him, says, "He flattered the ignoble tendencies of the people. He exaggerated suspicion. He awoke envy. He sharpened anger. He envenomed vengeance. He opened the veins of the social body to cure its disease; but he allowed life to flow out, pure or impure, with perfect indifference, never once interfering between the axe and its victims. He did not desire evil, yet he accepted it." He had qualities, it is true, which we must respect; he was honest, sincere, self-denying, and consistent. But he was cowardly, relentless, pedantic, unloving, intensely vain and morbidly envious. Throughout his career I have met with no single generous action, with no example of warm feeling, with no expression which seemed to come from a high and noble heart. It is idle to set against this his honourable poverty, his political consistency, his sagacity, and his eloquence. History will record of him that living in an epoch abounding in examples of heroism and greatness of all kinds, and wielding a power such as few have ever wielded, backed by an influence such as few have had to support them, he performed many acts, and delivered numberless orations, but he has not left the legacy to mankind of one grand thought, nor the example of one generous and exalted action. [390-91]

Whatever discrepancy may be observed in his views is owing, I think, to the vacillation of his mind as he stood face to face with the awful mob, which he had so powerfully aided in evoking, and which now, as a minister, he had the awful problem of ruling. Remember that his was no longer the office of instigating and exciting the masses to rebellion. He was no longer in opposition. The Republic, if ever, was now to be formed, and he had the terrible task of forming it. But republics and other forms of government which act so smoothly upon paper, become very different things when we attempt to realise them, having as our instruments ferocious and ignorant masses of hungry men! Certain it is, that he essayed many times to restrain these petitioners; essayed in vain. His popularity, great as it was, scarcely survived this resistance to the popular will; and he often entered his dwelling alone, forsaken, and despondent. [305]


Lewes, George Henry. The Life of Maximilien Robespierre; with extracts from his unpublished correspondence. London, Chapman and Hall, 1849. Hathi Digital Library Trust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 25 April 2017.

Last modified 28 April 2017