Off with Their Heads

in The Terror of Natural Right

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print October 2009 | ISBN: 9780226184388
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226184401 | DOI:
Off with Their Heads

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In one of the more bitter ironies of history, Maximilien Robespierre, the politician most closely associated with the Terror during the French Revolution, began his career as an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. This chapter explores the differences between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. It discusses the particular roles played by the Parisian sections and the sans-culottes; by revolutionary bureaucratic practices; and by the counterrevolution in the genesis of the Terror. It argues that the sources for this drive lie instead in two principal differences between the American and French Revolutions: the contemporaneous emergence of the French Republic and the trial of King Louis XVI, the anti-republican figure par excellence; and the radical vein of natural republicanism particular to French natural right theories. This historical context and political discourse combined to produce a network of repressive legal concepts, first among which lay the “enemy of humanity,” or hostis humani generis—an enemy who could be met only with death.

Keywords: death penalty; Maximilien Robespierre; Terror; French Revolution; American Revolution; French Republic; Louis XVI; natural republicanism; natural right

Chapter.  21176 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Early Modern History (1500 to 1700)

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