Charlotte Robespierre Fought the Forces of Reaction

Leader of the French Revolution Maximilien Robespierre is often portrayed as a crazed fanatic. It’s thanks to the work of his equally revolutionary sister Charlotte Robespierre that the egalitarian basis of his legacy survived.

To Versailles, an Incident in the French Revolution, (circa 1894), (circa 1902). After a painting in the Museums Sheffield collection. French women wielding scythes and banging drums march on the palace of Versailles. Thousands of women took part in the march on October 5, 1789. [Cassell and Company Ltd, London, circa 1902.] Artist Unknown. (The Print Collector / Getty Images)

In 1789, French society rose up against a corrupt feudal order. Republican fervor on the streets and in the assemblies abolished the monarchy, confiscated the church’s property, and kick-started an ambitious restructuring of constitutional and daily life.

By 1793, the Reign of Terror — the mass arrest and execution of real and imagined counterrevolutionaries — was in full swing. With Jacobin Club leader Maximilien Robespierre at the helm, the Terror ostensibly aimed to shift revolutionary zeal from the unruly streets to the orderly guillotine. Fearful for their heads, a temporary alliance of nervous elites seized an opportunity to overthrow and kill Robespierre and his allies. The so-called Thermidorian Reaction had begun.

From the moment of his execution in 1794, commentators have been relentlessly reshaping Robespierre’s legacy to fit their political purposes, and he remains an ambiguous figure today. He is by turns cast as an anti-totalitarian bogeyman, a totem against aristocratic privilege, a case study in why not to pursue elite corruption too vigorously, or an egalitarian leveler.

Robespierre’s sister Charlotte — who worked at various points as his secretary, a Jacobin emissary to the regions, and a kind of revolutionary wartime agent — took it upon herself to ensure that the egalitarian vision of Robespierre survives to this day. She survived the decades after Thermidor, joined forces with the first communists, and went on to shape future revolutions in Europe.


The Robespierre children — Maximilien, Charlotte, and Augustin — were close in age. As young adults from regional Arras, they lacked the money and social networks that guaranteed success and lived fairly modestly. Maximilien achieved success as a lawyer thanks to his talents and some generous benefactors, though his reputation as a somewhat annoying bleeding heart marked him as an outsider in the elite circles of Arras. Elected to the Estates General in 1789, Robespierre set off for Paris and plunged himself into revolutionary debate, politics, intrigue, and the Jacobin Club.

As the revolution widened its ambitions to destroy the aristocracy, Charlotte became a sort of unofficial Jacobin delegate in Arras. She organized a campaign against Barbe-Thérèse Marchand, a bourgeois newspaper owner in the city. Marchand’s Affiches d’Artois supported exiled aristocrats and clergy; she had also successfully bankrolled the election of a conservative Girondin candidate from Arras serving in the newly formed Legislative Assembly. Charlotte’s campaign culminated in a large rally in 1791 outside Marchand’s home in defense of the revolution. Affiches d’Artois ridiculed the demonstration for including theater ushers and laundrywomen. Less than a year later, Marchand’s delegate in Paris was attacked as a closet royalist by a sansculotte crowd, and Marchand herself fled France.

Buoyed by the success of the revolutionary project, Charlotte moved to Paris. She lived on and off with her brothers, both now elected to the National Convention. She participated in meetings and discussions with some of the most prominent figures of the revolution. These included Joseph Fouché, whose courtship of Charlotte ended when the Robespierres lambasted him for committing bloody and indiscriminate massacres in Lyon. In 1793 she was sent on a mission with her brother Augustin to help suppress a Federalist revolt in Nice. Physically attacked by Girondins and under extreme pressure, Charlotte had a ferocious falling out with Augustin. She ultimately returned to Paris on her own.

In 1794 Robespierre’s enemies orchestrated their coup against him. After fierce fighting, Maximilien and Augustin were executed. Charlotte was beaten by soldiers and arrested. Her female cellmate, who Charlotte later realized was probably a Thermidorian agent, convinced her to sign a document she never read — presumably a denunciation of her brothers. Charlotte was released from prison and sought refuge with her few remaining supporters.

The Black Legend

The next forty years would see a range of regimes in power. But whether France was under the leadership of the Directory, Napoleon Bonaparte, or the Bourbon Restoration, one theme remained constant: Robespierre was a dirty word.

Maximilien was denounced by all and sundry. He became a symbol for all the excesses of the revolution, regardless of his involvement with them. Some of the accusations were true enough — it is undeniable he advocated for the Terror — but others were pure imagination.

More sophisticated character assassinations, such as those by Madame de Staël, accused Robespierre of demagogically rendering himself a conduit for the crazed passions of the mob. But it was far more normal for Robespierre to simply be depicted as an intrinsically cruel, bloodthirsty, and ambitious monster.

There were also allegations of decadence, immorality, and corruption. The Girondin Comtesse de Genlis, whose brother had been executed during the Terror, accused Robespierre of impropriety when interrogating women. Rumors circulated that he had kept King Louis XVI’s daughter imprisoned in Temple Tower with the intention of marrying her. Robespierre’s supposed “royal ambition” was not an entirely new theme. When Charlotte had gone on her mission to Nice, she had been accused by Federalists of riding her horse around the city like a princess.

Charlotte had been there when her brother castigated people like Joseph Fouché and Jean-Paul Marat for their counterproductive, pointless violence. And she had lived with him when a stream of smiling, gift-bearing Girondin assassins — including the teenage Cécile Renault — knocked at their door over a period of months trying to murder him. These same people and factions now sat in power. They performatively wrung their hands at the very thought of violence and blamed Robespierre for many of their own crimes.

Charlotte was in no position to protest this emerging “black legend.” Despite accusations that the Robespierres had royal designs, revolutionary activity hurt the family finances badly. Charlotte, the only survivor, remained destitute and more or less in hiding. Napoleon Bonaparte’s Consulate, and later the Bourbon Restoration, effectively bought her silence by offering her a modest (and gradually diminishing) pension.

In 1830, a widely circulating fake memoir supposedly written by Maximilien Robespierre alleged that her brother had been planning to have Charlotte guillotined. This final humiliation, from a regime headed by the brother of the king she had helped depose, forced her hand.

“They Were Thought to Owe Their Virtue More to Education Than to Nature”

Following the initial Thermidorian Reaction in 1794, the journalist François-Noël Babeuf emerged as leader of the far left of the revolutionary movement. In the context of the Directory’s clumsy attempt to remove price controls on food, Babeuf’s espousal of economic egalitarianism and the abolition of private property grew in popularity. The Directory moved against Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals when regiments of police and soldiers began to join, and executed him in 1797. But Babeuf’s followers, including coconspirator Philippe Buonarroti, continued to develop and propagate his ideas.

By the late Bourbon Restoration, these ideas had well and truly morphed into a proto-communist tendency. In 1828 Buonarroti published History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality. That same year, a young schoolteacher named Albert Laponneraye moved to Paris and was swept up in this school of thought. He was a critical admirer of Robespierre and wrote an article in 1830 condemning the Robespierre memoir forgery.

Charlotte had also written publicly in protest against the forgery and spied her chance. The two connected and engaged in a yearslong fruitful and comradely dialogue on Robespierre and contemporary politics. Charlotte provided Laponneraye with many letters and documents she had hidden from the authorities. In between his own writing and stints in prison for revolutionary activity, Laponneraye published Maximilien’s Oeuvres Choisies as well as Charlotte’s own Memoires de Charlotte Robespierre sur ses deux frères.

Laponneraye clearly respected the intellect and skills of the women around him. His sister, Zoé, was also a writer who later worked with him as a publisher at La Voix du Peuple. It is clear from moments in Zoé’s novella Samarite — a quasi-gothic bildungsroman about a suicidal youth who morphs into a satanic bourgeois — that questioning women’s oppression was a standard feature in the social circles of their readership. Nevertheless, this openness to women’s political participation didn’t totally eradicate backwards ideas about “natural roles.” Laponneraye compared Charlotte favorably to the Girondin Madame Roland, for example, on the basis that la soeur Robespierre did not fancy herself a stateswoman.

Such humility is not overly evident in Charlotte’s own writing however. In her public letter condemning the fake memoir, she analogizes her situation to that of Cornelia, mother of the Ancient Roman Gracchi brothers. In Plutarch’s telling, Cornelia is a cunning participant in the brothers’ rise to power and a behind-the-scenes legislator. French revolutionaries in the 1790s had nicknamed Babeuf “Gracchus” after the brothers; the neo-Babouvists saw the Gracchi brothers as early socialists. Charlotte’s allusion suggests she both saw herself as a kind of stateswoman and was happy to openly associate her name with the emergent communist wing of the revolutionary spirit.

When Charlotte died in 1834, Laponneraye was in prison for writing his seditious Lettres aux Prolétaires. A friend attended and read the eulogy he had written for her.

A Specter in a Shadow

While Charlotte vociferously defended her brother’s personal integrity in her memoir, she is not particularly hagiographic about his political legacy, and asks readers to use their own judgement on the question. Laponneraye’s admiration for Robespierre was similarly circumspect. In his History of the French Revolution (1838), he declares that “those who make half-revolutions dig themselves a grave”:

The Montagnards dug theirs by not breaking the industrial helotism of the worker. . . . How did these prodigious men, who fought with such indomitable energy and audacity against a united Europe, and against the relentless plots of the aristocracy, recoil in horror before a reorganization of work and a reshuffle of property? This was their greatest fault. . . . It is from this serious fault that all the misfortunes that have weighed down on France for half a century have flowed. Perhaps we have the right to show ourselves severe before the Montagnards, for in politics faults are crimes.

The crises that would beset France over the next ten years would culminate in the Europe-wide Revolutions of 1848. A young Karl Marx was in Paris at the time. There was a gulf between his conception of social revolution and the Babouvists’. Yet on the eve of revolution, Marx addressed the Society of the Rights of Man — of which Laponneraye was an affiliate — and skillfully declared, “I want to march in the shadow of the Great Robespierre.”

In her final years Charlotte made a conscious choice to attach her brother’s legacy to the growing specter haunting Europe. Her former suitor-turned-enemy Joseph Fouché veered increasingly right over the period in an effort to save his own skin; he spent his twilight years prosecuting the White Terror as the king’s police minister. By contrast, Charlotte’s is a fine example that, even amid the rising tides of reaction, one can still choose to side with the people.