Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 January 2010
Robespierre's politics have often been seen as synonymous with the Revolution itself. He encapsulated what was best – and worst – about the Revolution. He was a tireless advocate for liberty and equality, yet, to defend these principles, he was prepared to adopt the Terror. Nevertheless, he was only one man amongst many, and we may ask why it is that revolutionary ideology as a whole has so often been identified with this one individual. The reasons for this are complex and manifold. For one thing, Robespierre held a place at the centre of revolutionary events longer than any of his contemporaries, successfully negotiating the turbulent seas of rapidly changing politics. In the years from 1789 to 1794, he became adept as a political tactician, surviving many changes of fortune and seeing off a number of political opponents. Almost from the very outset, he was a focus for radical opposition. At times, he was a lone critic of government policy. When the political coup of June 1793 brought the Montagnards to government, Robespierre's moment came and he took his place at the heart of policy-making during the Revolution's most critical period. Although he never dominated executive power to the extent that has often been credited, as a member of the Committee of Public Safety he was the most articulate spokesman of the politics of the revolutionary government, both in the Convention and at the Jacobin club. He preferred, whenever possible, to speak about general political principles, leaving the details of organisation to others, and his speeches offer some of the most powerful expositions of Jacobin ideology.