[The following passage comes from the author's Life of Maximilien Robespierre (1849) in the Hathi Digital Library Trust web edition. — George P. Landow]

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he reader will by this time have been assured enough of my impartiality with respect to Robespierre, not to suppose that my desire to extricate him from any complicity in the September affair arises from the ordinary biographical tendency to white-wash a hero. I have looked into the matter with great care, and with a mind perfectly unbiased by any predilection for Robespierre, and my conviction is that he was innocent. The utmost that can be charged against him is, that he used none of his enormous influence with the people to arrest that horrible riot of blood and vengeance. But he was a timid man, and never ventured to oppose a riot, however he might venture to oppose an idea. [257]

If there were no other doubts of Robespierre's incorruptibility,—I mean moral incorruptibility,—it would suffice to convict him in the eyes of any impartial judge, that he uniformly, vehemently, incessantly, and ferociously wrote and declaimed against kings, princes, nobles, and royalists, as if they were abstract ideas, not men—incarnate vices, not human beings; and he did this at a time when he was the associate and leader of such ruffians as Collot d'Herbois, Billaud Varennes, Barrere, Marat, Hebert, Momoro, et id omne genus. The man who, with his experience of patriots, could talk in his dithyrambic style of the virtue of patriots, and the calculated villany of the aristocracy, or indeed of every one opposed to Jacobins, must, to use a favorite phrase of his, for ever remain suspect. We may allow some license to the language of opposition, we may allow some exaggeration in the heat of political discussion; but, as it is impossible that any man, not a madman, could ever have entertained the opinions of Robespierre, at least in that uncompromising form, we can only regard his fulminations as the unscrupulous language of polemical virulence, and the speaker as a contemptible demagogue. There can be no question that his envious soul detested superiority of all kinds; superiority of genius, of character, of virtue, no less than of rank and station. [283-84]

Even his inviolability as a deputy could not make him feel himself secure. Robespierre at no time exhibited courage: if he occasionally exhibited audacity, it was always the temerity of excitement, when conscious that he was backed by the people. Like most timid men he had occasional spasms of temerity, which have been sometimes mistaken for courage.

In this journal we also find a very remarkable reply of Robespierre to Maury, relative to the dispensation of ecclesiastics from serving on juries. Maury demanded that they should be dispensed from it, because their office of charity makes blood so horrible to them. Robespierre replied, that to judge culprits was charity towards society at large.

Here we see Robespierre's famous distinction between pity for an individual and pity for the masses; between individual sympathy and social devotion; a distinction which, later on, guided him in the Convention, and which not inaptly characterises the whole man. Pity, indeed, was a thing he knew not: for all pity must spring from individual sympathy. He had faith in abstract ideas, and he had that sort of feeling for the masses which has moved certain philanthropists, who have combined perfect heartlessness towards every individual with a sentimental sensibility towards the mass ; men who could weep over the miseries of distant negroes, but could find no tear for the misery at their door; whose charity was a phrase, and not a real feeling; whose benevolence was not an extension of kindness towards individuals, but rather the sophistical refuge of their consciences against the inculpation of their hearts. It is not that I deny philanthropy,—that I disbelieve the sincerity of those who talk about the masses, who devote their lives to them and their cause,—but I have so often found it accompanied with such utter absence of sympathy and kindness towards the individual, that, unless accompanied by very undeniable evidences of kindness and sympathy, I always look upon it as a sort of excuse with which a man's conscience absolves itself. In the discussion on the question of the colonies, and whether the black men were to participate in political rights, Robespierre not only took the side of the blacks, but almost rose to eloquence when he exclaimed, "Let the colonies perish rather than a principle!" [200-01]


Lewes, George Henry. The Life of Maximilien Robespierre; with extracts from his unpublished correspondence. London, Chapman and Hall, 1849. Hathi Digital Library Trust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 25 April 2017.

Last modified 28 April 2017