Maximilien de Robespierre was one of the best influential figures of the French Revolution and died at the young age of only 36. He started the Reign of Terror and the tool of his Terror was the guillotine. Ironically, he lost control in the ensuing chaos and ended up under the guillotine himself.

How did Maximilien de Robespierre lose control of something he himself started and died by the guillotine, a device employed by himself to terrorize others? What were the factors that contributed to his downfall?

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    Subjective, and hence not an answer: I think Robespierre was riding a rabid horse, it was only a matter of time before it threw him. Giving a bunch of French philosophers knives; dosing them with LSD; putting them in a dark techno-rave room; then yelling "Kill Kill!" would have had about the same result. Napoleon's first act which most endeared him with the populace was to crush the crazed zealots with the military. Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 7:35
  • @LateralFractal I think you've kinda skipped the five or so years of rule by the Director who were anything but zelaots - and it was them that Napoleon overthrew. Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 9:13
  • Hence the subjective part; but Napoleon sold himself as Stability(TM) even if the worse of the Terror was already over. The usual "revolution after the reform" I suppose. Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 9:15
  • @LateralFractal - I am with Felix. that's not what happened at all.
    – user2590
    Commented Oct 6, 2013 at 0:22
  • @Coelacanth Close enough for a comment though; as the coup of 18 Brumaire was sold as preventing a (fake) Jacobin rebellion and the return of the Terror. Or if by 'crush' I mean backslid from democracy to a empire in manner that locked out the Jacobins; something generally desired by the populace at that stage. Commented Oct 6, 2013 at 0:30

3 Answers 3


Robespierre was of the opinion that the best way to ensure the success of the revolution was to execute all the enemies of the revolution. A tyrannical position that he, as so many others, justified with nonsensical slogans.

The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny. -- Robespierre, 1794

Such policy will soon end up with the execution of anyone that opposes the leadership or threatens the positions of the leadership. Examples of this happening was the executions of Danton, for being too moderate, and Hébert, because he criticized Robespierre of being to moderate. This of course leads to a situation where almost everyone wants to get rid of you.

You can in that situation only remain in power if you have the full support of the military. After Robespierre was arrested, troops of the Paris commune did march up in order to liberate him, and he returned to Hotel de Ville with the troops. But during the night they all deserted as they knew troops under the command of co-conspirator Barras was coming.

What this shows is that is that Robespierre no longer commanded all of the army himself, at least one commander had turned on him. And even the troops Robespierre could order out didn't support him; they followed orders, but had no interest in defending Robespierre or his revolution.

With no military support he had no power, and was arrested and executed.

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    That second last paragraph could use a little work to clarify your argument. Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 18:18
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    Second to last paragraph, the two 'but's' are killing my comprehension.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 20:28
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    You are right, fixed. Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 12:13
  • and, just to add - this kind of fluid situation, where powerful people get freely executed by the leaders(s), is, by its very nature, quite dangerous to people in positions of leadership and has occurred many times in history. For example, Beria after Stalin died - it was basically a "kill him before he kills us". Or some of the Roman emperors. Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 18:30

Lennart Regebro's answer somewhat correct, but very generalized, and fails to address the core issues that were at play:

It must be emphasized that Robespierre's fall from power was not due to anti-revolutionary forces casting him down. On the contrary, Robespierre was deposed by his fellow revolutionaries, who believed that he was about to engage in a coup d'état that would have been decidedly anti-revolutionary. Robespierre was no leader of the revolution, and when most of the important action was going on, Robespierre was actually hiding out! His rise to great power came only after much of the dirty work had already been done - he was an opportunist who seized the moment only after others had done "the heavy lifting."

That being said, the real story of Robespierre's downfall and the true answer to this important question, one of the most perplexing in History to those not familiar with the details of that most terrible period, The Reign of Terror, requires a bit more discussion:

At the time when Robespierre fell from power, the situation in France was somewhat akin to what we find later on in the USSR and other communist states, which had an official state government that was controlled by a political party, and acted as a rubber stamp for that party. The Soviet government was not the Communist party - but the Communist Party's leader's were also the leaders of its government and the big decisions were made by the Party and then authorized by the government and promulgated as Law.

Similarly in France, the official state government consisted of the National Convention and the smaller, more powerful Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre was the leading member of both of these bodies.

However, Robespierre's true seat of Power was in the Jacobin House of Lords: The Party of Robespierre - the bastion of Sansculottism: Les Misérables, the foot soldiers of the Revolution from whence Robespierre's enormous political power ultimately derived. The Jacobin House of Lords represented the most extreme faction of the Revolutionaries and was Robespierre's private echo chamber - somewhat analogous perhaps to the Communist Party organs that allowed the rise of men such as Stalin and Brezhnev. The government as a rule was submissive to Robespierre and his party. But not always....

The government embodied in the the National Convention, although overwhelmingly Jacobin and revolutionary, was comprised of many more moderate factions, in particular the Dantonists, led by Georges Jacques Danton. After the execution of Louis XVI by the Revolutionaries, and the elimination of the Girondists, who advocated a moderate Constitutional Monarchy along the lines of Great Britain, a schism developed between the most extreme Jacobins led by Robespierre, and the Dantonists, who were also Jacobins, but had grown weary of the Reign of Terror and advocated leniency for some of the aristocrats and a return to some sort of normalized society.

Robespierre's first great mistake was allowing Danton to be Guillotined by a "Kangaroo Court". Before meeting his fate, he addressed the crowd "My only regret is that I am going before that rat Robespierre." Danton's demise sent shock waves through the Convention, as Danton was a hero and a leader, and others who were not part of Robespierre's cabal began to fear for their own lives. The idea began to circulate that Robespierre wanted to establish a dictatorship with the support of the Jacobin House of Lords, and eliminate entirely the Convention as the working body of the French Revolutionary government.

For his part, Robespierre had become increasingly isolated from the workings of government, devoted his attention mostly to the Jacobin House of Lords, and was developing a private personality cult bordering on a quasi religion, contributing further to the reservations and suspicions about him.

Eventually a rumor surfaced that had some reasonable credibility: Robespierre was planning to storm the Convention Hall with troops and send them all to the guillotine - in a word, a coup d'état, that would make Robespierre a dictator and his cadre of supporters in The Jacobin House of Lords the facilitators of his rule: This coup d'état, had it succeeded, would have represented a great loss to the Revolutionary cause, setting the stage for further abuse and tyranny (albeit not by the Ancien Régime ) which it was goal of the Revolution to prevent forevermore. Robespierre's endless ambition showed him to be an enemy of the Republic. In a preemptive move, the Dantonists and others in the Convention had Robespierre arrested, and in spite of some machinations on Robespierre's part to escape, the tide had turned against him in the National Convention - thus he was subdued.

It is also important to note that although Robespierre is generally identified with the guillotine, its use was not Robespierre's innovation. It was the tool of the Revolutionary Government at large - the most expedient way of disposing of its enemies. Subsequent to Robespierre's demise, the use of guillotine continued, particularly to rid the Revolutionary Government of those extremists who had supported Robespierre.

Source: The French Revolution, a History by Thomas Carlyle; Particularly Chapters 3.6.VI, VII.

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    You are framing this as somehow opposed to my answer, even though you are actually not contradicting it in any way, or adding anything relevant. I do not claim that the people who deposed him was "anti-revolutionaries", I've never heard anyone claim that Robespierre invented the guillotine, etc. You also put a lot of emphasis on the rumors that Robespierre was planning to execute the whole of the National Convention, while there is in fact no indication that he planned this. The rumor was "credible", ie believable, because he clearly would have any opposition executed, which I noted. Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 10:54
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    It's not a bad answer but your framing it against my answer as a part of your vendetta against me, and your "it is important to note", and "it must be emphasized" things that are clearly not important at all are distracting from the answer. You also in fact miss out on the whole core issue at play, quite the opposite of what you are saying: Robespierre did not have full control over the military power, something you have to have if you are a murderous totalitarian dictator. Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 10:55
  • dialectical wall of text Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 18:08

Obviously you could theorize about such things all day long. Thankfully, user2590 above stopped after one page.

To answer this question in one paragraph, let me paraphrase what a wise old man once told me: "At the end of the day, people only care about one thing: results." When Robespierre took control, he promised what everybody wanted, which was to solve the food problem. He attempted to do this by creating price controls, then, when that did not work, by sending soldiers out into the provinces to try to seize grain by force from farmers. When these methods failed to improve the food problem, his time was up. If Robespierre had succeeded in delivering copious quantities of cheap food to the masses of Paris, he might have had a long career ahead of him. That did not happen.

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