Maximilien Marie Isidore De Robespierre, a French revolutionist, born in Arras, May 6, 1758, executed in Paris, July 28, 1794. He was supposed to be of remote Irish origin, and his ancestors had acquired patents of nobility in France. His mother died young, and his father deserted his family and ended his life in Germany. His grandfather placed him at the college of Arras, and M. de Conzié, the bishop, sent him in 1770 to the college of Louis le Grand in Paris. Danton, Desmoulins, and Fréron the younger were among his fellow pupils. He repeatedly gained honorable distinction in his studies, and remained at this institution eight years. After completing his law studies he returned to Arras, where his first important cause was a defence of the introduction of Franklin's lightning rods against the charge of impiety (1783). He became a member of the criminal court of Arras, and in the discharge of his duties was called to condemn a prisoner to death. This so affected him that he resigned his office and advocated the abolition of capital punishment. He was thoroughly imbued with the theories of Rousseau, and gradually espoused the cause of the people in opposition to the clergy and nobility. On the convocation of the states general in 1789, he was elected deputy of the third estate.

Lamartine describes his figure as slight; limbs feeble and angular; voice shrill and monotonous; forehead small and projecting over the temples; eyes blue and deeply set; nose straight and small, and very wide at the nostrils; mouth large and lips thin; chin small and pointed; complexion yellow and livid. There was a prodigious and continual tension of all the muscles of his face. In the constituent assembly he strenuously opposed giving the king a suspensive veto power, resisted the decree of martial law, pleaded for the remission of sundry disabilities against the Jews and comedians, and advocated abolition of the compulsory celibacy of priests. After the adoption of the declaration of the rights of man he was continually recalling the assembly to the principles of that formula. On June 19, 1790, he was elected one of its secretaries. He had no means beyond his pay as deputy, 18 francs a day, of which he sent one fourth to his sister. He occupied a retired and ill furnished lodging, and Michelet describes him as entering the tribune dressed in a threadbare olive-green coat, his only one. After Mirabeau's death (April 2, 1791), Robespierre rose to a more commanding position. He was studious and abstemious, and constant in attendance at the Jacobin club and the assembly.

He at length began to be feared. Duport and Bigot, who had been named president and vice president of the criminal tribunal, with Robespierre for public accuser, refused to serve on account of his extreme views. This office he held from June, 1791, till April, 1792. He thought that "in general there is nothing so just nor so good as the people, when not irritated by the excesses of despotism." He still advocated the abolition of capital punishment, and the admission of all citizens into the national guards and upon juries. He claimed for the blacks in the colonies a participation in political rights, and exclaimed: "Let the colonies perish rather than a principle." He was one of the leaders of the mob in the riot of July 14 and 17, 1791, intended to overawe the assembly and drive it into accepting the abdication of the king, and showed himself a coward on this occasion. At the close of the constituent assembly, Sept. 30, 1791, the people of Paris received him with rapture. By a decree of the assembly, proposed by Robespierre, no member was eligible to the next legislature which convened on the dissolution of its predecessor. He took advantage of the occasion to revisit his native town, where he was welcomed with an ovation.

After seven weeks' rest he returned to Paris, and during the sitting of the legislative assembly was in constant attendance upon the meetings of the Jacobin club. When the assembly voted a sum for martial preparations, he alone opposed the measure. He began in the spring of 1792 a journal entitled Le défenseur de la constitution, which closed with the 12th number. In the conspiracy which culminated in the bloody events of Aug. 10 he does not appear to have participated, though he afterward spoke of that day as one of the most glorious in the annals of the world. He was made one of the new municipality following this insurrection, and a day or two afterward appeared before the assembly as the spokesman of a deputation from the commune to demand the establishment of a new criminal court for the summary trial of the enemies of liberty. This court, afterward remodelled as the revolutionary tribunal, was promptly organized, and Robespierre was named for presiding judge; but he declined, on the ground that it was not just for him to be judge of those whom he had already denounced as enemies of the country. He remonstrated with Danton against the frightful massacres in the prisons on Sept. 2-5; and after that he ceased to appear at the commune.

He became a member of the national convention, being elected to represent Paris. On Oct. 29 Louvet denounced him before the convention as aspiring to the dictatorship; but he defended himself triumphantly. He published every Friday a newspaper, entitled Lettres de Maximilien Robespierre à ses commettants. He led the Jacobins in the condemnation of the king and in demanding his death. After this event (Jan. 21, 1793) he proposed the decree establishing the committee of public safety, clothed with executive powers above the convention. He was not made a member of it until July 27 following, though on March 26 he was elected a member of what was called the committee of general security, which was only an auxiliary of the committee of public safety. His first great act as a member of this committee was the institution of the reign of terror. The condemnation of the Girondists he defended by saying that "there are periods in revolutions when to live is a crime." The feast of reason, decreed by the convention, disgusted him as the degradation of the revolution.

In opposition to Hébert and his adherents, he seems to have sincerely wished the reign of peace and justice, and thereby incurred from them the accusation of moderatism, while he was at the same time preaching terror as the necessary instrument of the revolution. Fanatically bent on ridding the republic of its enemies and wavering friends, and naturally suspicious and envious, he readily caused or allowed the slaughter of innocent victims. He sacrificed Hébert and others of "the impure" to make himself master of the commune, and Danton to make himself master of the convention; while at the Jacobin club his supremacy had long been undisputed. The knife of Charlotte Corday had delivered him of an unworthy rival, Marat. Though he formed a kind of triumvirate with Saint-Just and Couthon, all eyes were now riveted upon him. His commanding influence was signalized by the extraordinary spectacle of June 8, 1794, the festival of the Supreme Being, which he had caused to be decreed, and in which he was the principal actor. But he lacked the courage as well as the genius to organize a dictatorship. On June 10 he proposed through Couthon the law for the reorganization of the revolutionary tribunal, his object being to rid the nation of "the great culprits" in the convention.

That body now became alarmed for its own safety. Being unable to control the committees, he withdrew from them and sought to overthrow them. For the last six weeks of his life he had little voice in the government. In his speech in the convention on July 26 he asked if in that interval "faction had been less audacious, or the country been happier." A tumult followed the speech, and the convention, now led by Tallien and his friends, refused to publish it. This was equivalent to his overthrow. He returned to the Jacobins, and announced himself doomed. They rallied round him, and besought him to head an insurrection against the convention. This he refused to do, and on the following day (the 9th Thermidor) he reappeared in the convention, where his arrest, and that of his brother Augustin, Couthon, Lebas, and Saint-Just, was decreed. The commune instantly organized an insurrection, and rescued him; but the insurrectionists were soon overpowered, and at the hôtel de ville Robespierre was seized. At this time he was wounded in the face by a shot from his own pistol, or, as some assert, from one of the soldiers.

The form of trial was quickly enacted, and early in the "evening of July 28 the guillotine terminated his existence and that of his most devoted supporters. - See Histoire de Robespierre, by Tissot (2 vols., Paris, 1844); "Life of Robespierre," by Lewes (London, 1850); Histoire de Robespierre, by Hamel (3 vols., Paris, 1865-7); and Leben Robespierre's, by J. Herzmann (Berlin, 1871 et seq.).