The best books to understand Robespierre

Peter McPhee Author Of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life
By Peter McPhee

Who am I?

I have been intrigued by Maximilien Robespierre ever since, as a student, I pondered how it could be that someone who articulated the highest principles of 1789 could come to be seen as the personification of the “Reign of Terror” in 1793–94. This is the great conundrum of the French Revolution. Was this a tragic case of the dangers of ideological and personal rigidity, or rather an extreme example of how great leaders may be vilified by those they have served and saved? Or, as I found while researching and writing my biography, something quite different, the tragic, human story of a vulnerable but determined young man who put himself at the heart of one of the world’s greatest upheavals?


I wrote...

Book cover of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

What is my book about?

For some historians and biographers, Maximilien Robespierre (1758–94) was a great revolutionary martyr who succeeded in leading the French Republic to safety in the face of overwhelming military odds. For many others, he was the first modern dictator, a fanatic who instigated the murderous “Reign of Terror” in 1793–94. My biography seeks a fresh understanding of the man, his passions, and his tragic shortcomings.

I give special attention to Robespierre's formative years and the development of an iron will in a boy conceived outside wedlock and on the margins of polite provincial society. We discover not the cold, obsessive Robespierre of legend, but a man of passion with close but platonic friendships with women. Soon immersed in exhausting revolutionary politics, he suffered increasingly lengthy periods of nervous collapse correlating with moments of political crisis. As revolutionary armies triumphed in 1794, so he became more vulnerable to his detractors. His horrible death and posthumous vilification should not detract from his contribution to the Revolution’s successes.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution

Why did I love this book?

Palmer’s classic study was written during the darkest days of World War II; it has been in print ever since. The uncertainties of his own circumstances in 1941 gave him an insight into the military crisis and fears of the French revolutionaries who in mid-1793 created a twelve-man Committee of Public Safety to take the emergency measures to save the Revolution and the nation. What from other perspectives has seemed a spiral into “terror” and repression was also for Palmer a series of desperate steps necessary for survival. His mixture of narrative and collective biography remains an engrossing account of an extraordinary year.

By R.R. Palmer,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Twelve Who Ruled as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Reign of Terror continues to fascinate scholars as one of the bloodiest periods in French history, when the Committee of Public Safety strove to defend the first Republic from its many enemies, creating a climate of fear and suspicion in revolutionary France. R. R. Palmer's fascinating narrative follows the Committee's deputies individually and collectively, recounting and assessing their tumultuous struggles in Paris and their repressive missions in the provinces. A foreword by Isser Woloch explains why this book remains an enduring classic in French revolutionary studies.


Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

By Michel Biard, Marisa Linton,

Book cover of Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

Why did I love this book?

By late 1793, a revolution that had begun in 1789 with a humanitarian, reforming zeal seemed to have developed into a nightmare of outrageous affronts to individual liberties and the safety of the person. This has always been the most important puzzle of the French Revolution. Why was there a “terror” in 1793-94? Was it military invasion and counter-revolution that made the Revolution violent, or was the violence a disproportionate response to the threat?

Two of the leading historians of the Revolution dissect this most contentious, confronting period with lucidity, conceptual skill, and cutting-edge knowledge. The result is a wise and illuminating rethinking of a tumultuous period of emergency responses to military and political crisis to which the label of “terror” was applied post facto by its opponents and victims.

By Michel Biard, Marisa Linton,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Terror as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the heart of how history sees the French Revolution lies the enigma of the Terror. How did this archetypal revolution, founded on the principles of liberty and equality and the promotion of human rights, arrive at circumstances where it carried out the violent and terrible repression of its opponents? The guillotine, initially designed to be a 'humane' form of capital punishment, became a formidable instrument of political repression and left a deep imprint, not only on how we see the Revolution, but also on how France's image has been depicted in the world.

This book reconstructs the Terror in…


Book cover of The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre

Why did I love this book?

Long before post-modernism unsettled historians’ confidence in constructing biographies, Norman Hampson used a brilliant innovation to capture the controversy around Robespierre. His imaginary conversations between a historian, a civil servant, a Communist party member and a clergyman is a witty and expert reflection on the dialogue between biographer and subject and on the slippery nature of much historical evidence. Hampson’s own distaste for Robespierre’s alleged acceptance of political violence is evident, despite his awareness of the contingency of historical judgment, but this is a wonderfully wise and engrossing biography.

By Norman Hampson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This investigation into the mind of Robespierre is now available in paperback. The book is presented as a discussion between three figures - a civil servant, a member of the Communist Party and a clergyman - representing different viewpoints in their reactions to evidence presented by a fourth figure, the narrator. In this way, the author sets out to display the contradictions in the character of Robespierre that so puzzled his contemporaries and continue to perplex historians. The book should be of interest to students of the French Revolution and general readers.


Book cover of The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

Why did I love this book?

Ever since his overthrow in July 1794 Robespierre has personified what the Anglophone world has seen as the excesses of the French Revolution and the “terror” and the deadly combination of ideological fervour and suspicion of opponents. The great merit of David Jordan’s meticulous and lucid biography is that he strips away the layers of loathing and adulation that have accumulated since Robespierre’s death to examine his evolving ideas in close detail. He calls this an “intellectual biography”, and there is little about the young man’s making or personality.

By David P. Jordan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In changing forever the political landscape of the modern world, the French Revolution was driven by a new personality: the confirmed, self-aware revolutionary. Maximilien Robespierre originated the role, inspiring such devoted twentieth-century disciples as Lenin—who deemed Robespierre a Bolshevik avant la lettre.

Although he dominated the Committee for Public Safety only during the last year of his life, Robespierre was the Revolution in flesh and blood. He embodies its ideological essence, its unprecedented extremes, its absolutist virtues and vices; he incarnated a new, completely politicized self to lead a new, wholly regenerated society.

Yet as historian David P. Jordan observes,…


Book cover of Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland

Why did I love this book?

Jean-Marie Roland and Marie-Jeanne Phlipon (later Madame “Manon” Roland) were the Revolution’s power couple, their lives both entwined and contrasting with Robespierre’s. Their fascinating and tragic story, expertly researched and retold by Siân Reynolds, has much to tell us about the power and passions of the Revolution and the personal relationships at its heart. We also learn much about provincial life, parenthood, and a companionate marriage. The Rolands were initially political allies of Robespierre, and “Manon” sought to cultivate personal friendship with him, but their bitter falling-out would be fatal for them in November 1793 – and ultimately for Maximilien in July 1794.

By Siân Reynolds,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marriage and Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marriage and Revolution is a double biography of Jean-Marie Roland (1734-1793) and Marie-Jeanne Phlipon, later Madame Roland (1754-1793), leading figures in the French Revolution. J.-M. Roland was minister of the Interior for a total of eight months during 1792. The couple were close to Brissot and the Girondins, and both died during the Terror. Mme Roland became famous for her posthumous prison memoirs and is the subject of many biographies, but her
husband, despite being a key figure in administration of France, seldom out of the limelight during his time in office, is often marginalized in histories of the Revolution.…


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