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Maximilien Robespierre and Political Intolerance

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Christopher Hibbert, The Days of the French Revolution. New York: William Morrow, 1999.

Peter McPhee, Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. RR

Palmer, Twelve who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941.

Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. New York: Holt, 2007.

What dangers does intolerance and the pursuit of ideological purity at the expense of diversity pose to the stability of a civil society?


  • Ask students, what is a primary source? Can you give an example?
  • Explain that primary sources include diaries, letters, government documents, speeches, and newspapers that allow us to study the people of the past and their actions. Primary sources help to give us insights into why a person might have acted in a certain manner. Those insights can help us make some reasonable judgments about whether a person’s actions were virtuous and for the good of society.
  • Ask students, can the content of a primary source be affected by whether it is intended for a private or public audience?
  • Explain that what one writes for private use only, such as a diary, might be more honest and open. How one acts or what one writes in private might reveal a great deal about character. On the other hand, one might still advance an agenda if the person thinks that those actions or words will be seen by the larger public.
  • Also, explain how the content of a public document in a republican self-governing society might be influenced by the character of the speaker or writer. A leader in a republican society might try to persuade whereas in a dictatorship the leader might simply try to command. Moreover, a virtuous leader in a republic may have a grand moral vision that will help to shape public opinion for the good of society. Finally, the content of a public document may be devoted to promoting some idea or agenda more than what is written in a diary. Citizens in a self-governing society must be vigilant and critical of their leaders to ensure that the character of their leadership is virtuous, promotes the public good, and supports a healthy civil society.

This optional introductory activity is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.