The best books on Robespierre

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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By R. R. Palmer

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

Why 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.


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Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

By Michel Biard, Marisa Linton

Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

Why 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.


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The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre

By Norman Hampson

The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre

Why 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.


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The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

By David P. Jordan

The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

Why 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.


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Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland

By Siân Reynolds

Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland

Why 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.


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