Born in Arras, France, on May 6, 1758, Maximilien-François-Marie-Isidore de Robespierre came to study law. He soon developed a reputation as a representative of the poor and persecuted. he defended them in court and also published several essays that drew attention to the topic of royal justice. Still he remained a loyal subject of the king as shown by the praise of Louis XVI in one of his essays. Robespierre was regarded as some sort of hero. By the time he was 30, he had become a judge and was one of the most well-known figures in his area. His reputation for "simplicity, austerity, and integrity" later earned him the nickname "the incorruptible."
While Robespierre was on the rise, the French government was caught in an economic crisis. The toll of aiding the American Revolution was showing. The inefficient tax system also prevented the King from raising sufficient funds to pay its debts. When the situation became ugly in the late 1780s, crowds in Paris began protesting. Louis XVI recognized that the crisis could only be resolved by taxing the wealthiest members of society, the nobility, who refused to offer their wealth as long as the monarchy retained absolute power over the country's affairs. The dilemma forced Louis XVI to summon a meeting of the Estates-General. Though dominated by the aristocracy and the clergy, that body included representatives of all classes in French society.
The people of Arras chose Robespierre as one of their delegates. He went to Paris as a representative of the Third Estate; the common people. Though he was only 30 years old, he quickly distinguished himself as a supporter of the rights of his constituents. Shortly after an unhappy first meeting of the Estates-General, the delegates from the Third Estate declared themselves as the French National Assembly and claimed the right to speak on behalf of the nation. That direct challenge to the authority of the King was the beginning of the French Revolution. Robespierre supported the Assembly's declaration and soon became an important leader in the new body. He also became the leader of the Jacobin Club, a radical organization dedicated to the creation of a constitution that would embody the natural rights of the French people. Robespierre played an important role in the drafting of the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), which would become the preamble to the French constitution of 1791.
Robespierre was a disciple of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had stated that sovereign power in a community should follow the general will of the people rather than the order of a King. Like Rousseau, Robespierre was also a deist, one who believed in a Supreme Being rather than in the Christian God. He would later come to attack the privileges and practices of the Catholic Church.
Robespierre's attacks on the king and his government earned him many enemies in the Assembly, which started as a constitutional monarchy. In June 1791, the king and his family were caught while attempting to flee the country. Then in Juky, government troops fired on protestors in Paris who were demanding the removal of the king. This became known as the Champ de Mars massacre. Then, in April 1792, France went to war with Austria and Prussia. With the king gone, and a nation headed for war, Robespierre and his followers began demanding radical solutions to the nation's problems.
In the summer of 1792, Robespierre and his followers achieved their goal: the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of a republic. Robespierre then insisted on Louis XVI's execution. Robespierre's fiery speech at the king's trial convinced many of the delegates to send their former king to death. With the king out of the picture, Robespierre turned on his enemies in the Convention itself. His main concern were the Girondists, moderate revolutionaries who had opposed the radical Jacobins. In May of 1793, Robespierre began a purge of his enemies. Many of these victims lost their heads to the guillotine.
The end of the Girondists did not resolve the revolution. Foreign war had ignited a civil war on the French countryside. The Austrians the Prussians threatened to invade Paris. In this increasingly dangerous time, Robespierre called for the creation of a dictatorship. In July of 1793, he became the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, a group within the Convention created to deal with the terrible situation. Under Robespierre's rule, the Committee used mass conscription, fixed pricing, and the use of terror against its opponents. Soon the Committee was executing the Hébertists, who called for more radical measures, and followers of Georges Danton, who opposed the Reign of Terror and originally friend of Robespierre.
Robespierre had made many enemies in his absolute rule, and they began attacking him through press and in the Convention. Some blamed him for the excess use of terror, while others condemned him for being too moderate. The biggest problem was that he had failed to solve the economic and social problems that they started out with. When the Convention called for his arrest, the dictator attempted suicide but embarrassingly failed , which shocked many of his followers. Finally, on July 28, 1794, Robespierre would meet the same fate as thousands of his enemies had before him: death by the guillotine. Over 100 of his partisans were executed as well. After their deaths, the Terror at last at an end, and a more moderate government soon rose to power.