Robespierre’s Speech to the Convention, 18 Pluviose Year II / 5th February 1794

‘If the mainstream of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the mainspring of popular government in revolution is virtue and terror both: virtue, without which terror is disastrous: terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a specific principle as a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to the homeland’s most pressing needs…To punish the oppressors of humanity: that is clemency; to forgive them, that is barbarity. The rigour of tyrants has rigour as its sole principle: that of republican government is base of beneficence.’

From a speech to the Convention delivered by Maximilien Robespierre on 5th February 1794 / 18 Pluviose Year II

Robespierre is regarded as the main director of Terror, and so his role is significant, even if disputed. There is evidence, such as that put forward by Marisa Linton stating he opposed dechristianisation and that he refused to be present at any of the executions, to suggest that he was not driven by power but in fact sincere motives aimed at creating a Republic of Virtue. Yet, due to the huge proportion of people who had atrocities committed upon them, it is difficult to believe that Robespierre really wanted to create this virtuous society due to the carnage that occurred in his path. This source, an excerpt from one of Robespierre’s speeches, states Robespierre’s motives in his own words. The speech explains to his audience why Terror is necessary in achieving virtue and why not implementing a system of punishment for the ‘oppressors of humanity’ would be barbaric behaviour. It illustrates why historians, such as Slavoj Zizek, believe that for Robespierre the point of Terror was to bring about a Republic of Virtue and certainly that Robespierre intended to achieve that society by any means necessary.

In Source 1 Robespierre defends Terror saying that punishment is necessary in revolution. In his book ‘Virtue and Terror’, Slavoj Zizek explains Robespierre’s speech stating that Robespierre paradoxically identifies that revolutionary terror denies the opposition between punishment and clemency. In the source, it is argued that if virtue is the aspiration of government when the nation is at peace, then when the nation is not at peace the governing body must pursue a policy of virtue and terror because without terror ‘virtue is powerless’ and ineffective. If Robespierre’s true intentions were to achieve virtue then he obviously would have initiated a policy of Terror in order to empower this attempt at creating a virtuous society. Taking only what Robespierre articulated to the Convention as evidence, it would be safe to assume that he thoroughly believed that virtue was a solid justification for Terror and that Terror was an essential element in pursuing virtue. For Robespierre, the combination of virtue and Terror were natural and perhaps this in itself demonstrates that nothing else mattered to Robespierre – the point of Terror was to bring about a Republic of Virtue.

The reliability of this source is debatable. As a contemporary source, Robespierre’s speech should be taken as a relatively reliable source; it is from February 1794 which fits perfectly within the time constraints of the question and therefore should offer a true representation of Robespierre’s motives for the Terror at this point. Furthermore, it is a translation of Robespierre’s own words, ostensibly enhancing the reliability of the source. However, ostensibly is the key adjective to note since Robespierre having given this speech does by no means ensure its reliability. Robespierre may well have not portrayed his true opinions in his delivery in order to doctor the way that people saw him. If he wanted to gain support by making people believe that he was enforcing this policy of Terror in order to pursue a Republic of virtue, he would have obviously tried to justify the amalgamation of virtue and Terror in his speech regardless of whether he believed in it. From this perspective, for Robespierre the point of Terror was not virtue, but in fact just his personal attempt at gaining power within France. The fact that this speech was delivered to the Convention, a powerful governing body at the time, would support this argument. Finally, the content of the source such as the persuasive and poignant language used suggests he is trying to persuade people to his way of thinking – although, this could be seen as him simply speaking with passion about the issue. The source being a translated version of the original speech may have lost some of its meaning, however, being translated numerous times by various people coming to the same conclusion suggests differently. Overall, the source offers a valid description of what Robespierre claimed were his views and aims at the time despite the fundamental drawbacks to its reliability.


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