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...

Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

By Peter McPhee,

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.

The books I picked & why

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Twelve Who Ruled

By R.R. Palmer,

Book cover of 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.


By Michel Biard, Marisa Linton,

Book cover of 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.

The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre

By Norman Hampson,

Book cover of 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.

The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

By David P. Jordan,

Book cover of 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.

Marriage and Revolution

By Siân Reynolds,

Book cover of 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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