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Why did Carlyle refer to Robespierre as the sea-green incorruptible

01:00 Wed 11th Apr 2001 |

A. Good question from Potent. Thomas Carlyle, the essayist said in his 1837 book on the French Revolution: 'The song is a short one, and may perhaps serve to qualify our judgment of the sea-green incorruptible.'< xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Q. So what was that meant to mean

A. That Robespierre was as incorruptible as the sea was green.

Q. I thought the sea was blue.

A. Hmmm. You may have a point there. Anyway, I expect you want to know all about him

Q. Mais oui.

A. OK. Maximilien Franois Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758-1794) was a lawyer who became a revolutionary French leader. As leader of the Jacobins in the National Convention (1792), he supported the execution of Louis XVI and in July 1793 was elected to the Committee of Public Safety in the so-called Reign of Terror. Within a year, he too, had been guillotined.

Q. Why

A. Probably as a scapegoat. Robespierre, a fanatic left-winger and great orator had been elected to the National Assembly of 1789 and his defence of democratic principles made him popular in Paris, where his principled stands led to Carlyle's later description. However, he had many enemies - that tends to happen when you're condemning people to death - and conspirators overthrew him in July, 1794.

Q. So, what was the Reign of Terror

A. The period from October, 1793, to July, 1794, when under Robespierre's party, the Jacobins, thousands were executed for treason. Robespierre was elected deputy for Paris in September 1792, in alliance with the extreme left-wing Montagnards and the sans-culottes (the working-class faction who did not wear the knee-breeches of the higher classes).

After the First French Republic was proclaimed on 21 September, 1792, Robespierre urged the execution of King Louis XVI. He was beheaded in January 1793. With Georges Jacques Danton, he helped to create the Committee of Public Safety - to supervise the actions of the ruling National Convention - in April, 1793. He became a committee member in the July.

Q. Public safety Sounds odd.

A. There was much civil unrest and the committee was meant to restore order by removing the Revolution's opponents, but it soon took over from the National Convention as ruler of France. Although led by Danton, Robespierre was responsible for the Reign of Terror - a mass persecution of the Jacobins' enemies. Instead of removing the country's enemies, it got personal - and many personal rivals went to the guillotine, even Danton.

Q. So it was a takeover bid

A. Yes. Soon Robespierre reigned supreme. He put his supporters in positions of influence on government committees and took control of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

Q. Doesn't seem sea-green incorruptible to me. Sounds like jobs for the boys.

A. Right. In June 1794 he was elected president of the National Convention but his megalomania was already worrying leading members of the National Convention and Jacobin party.

Q. So he had to go

A. A plot was made to oust him. On 27 July, 1794, when absent from a National Convention meeting, Robespierre was accused of being a despot. An arrest decree was passed, Robespierre fled and was declared an outlaw. He was wounded, captured and guillotined the next day with 21 of his followers. A further 80 supporters were beheaded soon after.

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By Steve Cunningham

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