Heroes and Villains

Maximilien Robespierre and Political Intolerance

Students will explore the vice of political intolerance in this lesson on civic virtue. Students will examine the role that Robespierre played in the mass murder of the Terror during the French Revolution and how his political intolerance led to a search for “enemies of the state.”  Students will analyze a historical narrative, a discussion guide, primary sources, and other activities to understand the destructive influence of political intolerance in the French Republic and in civil society.

Founding Principles

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Majority Rule / Minority Rights image

Majority Rule / Minority Rights

Laws may be made with the consent of the majority but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.

Suggested Launch Activity

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.

About Launch Activities

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.

Lesson Background

In 1792, France was in turmoil. It was the third year of revolution, and instability reigned….

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

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.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), directed by J.J. Abrams
The First Order is a military dictatorship in the fictional Star Wars universe. In the film, The Force Awakens, it is seeking to obtain absolute control over the galaxy. Their path to dominance is blocked by the resistance and the galactic senate. General Hux, a leader of the First Order, gave the speech below while preparing to annihilate the galactic senate and obtain control of the galaxy.

“General Hux: Today is the end of the Republic. The end of a regime that acquiesces to disorder. At this very moment in a system far from here, the New Republic lies to the galaxy while secretly supporting the treachery of the rogues of the Resistance. This fierce machine which you have built, upon which we stand will bring an end to the Senate, to their cherished fleet. All remaining systems will bow to the First Order and will remember this as the last day of the Republic!”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), directed by Frank Capra
Senator Jefferson Smith, played by James Stewarts, takes the Senate floor to protest a bill to build a dam in his home state. The dam is being put forward at the behest of the political machine in his state. The Senators who favor the bill look to receive major political and financial kickbacks for their support. Dismayed by this corruption of democratic, Senator Smith arises to filibuster the bill. His statement illustrates the necessity of political diversity and in many voices being represented in for a democratic society to remain healthy.

[After reading the Declaration of Independence] “Now, you’re not gonna have a country that can make these kind of rules work, if you haven’t got men that have learned to tell human rights from a punch in the nose. [The Senate applauds] It’s a funny thing about men, you know. They all start life being boys. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some of these Senators were boys once. And that’s why it seemed like a pretty good idea for me to get boys out of crowded cities and stuffy basements for a couple of months out of the year. And build their bodies and minds for a man-sized job, because those boys are gonna be behind these desks some of these days. And it seemed like a pretty good idea, getting boys from all over the country, boys of all nationalities and ways of living. Getting them together. Let them find out what makes different people tick the way they do. Because I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a – a little lookin’ out for the other fella, too…That’s pretty important, all that. It’s just the blood and bone and sinew of this democracy that some great men handed down to the human race, that’s all. But of course, if you’ve got to build a dam where that boys camp ought to be, to get some graft to pay off some political army or something, well that’s a different thing. Oh no! If you think I’m going back there and tell those boys in my state and say: ‘Look. Now fellas. Forget about it. Forget all this stuff I’ve been tellin’ you about this land you live in is a lot of hooey. This isn’t your country. It belongs to a lot of James Taylors.’ Oh no! Not me! And anybody here that thinks I’m gonna do that, they’ve got another thing comin’. [He whistles loudly with his fingers in his mouth, startling Senators who are dozing or reading other materials] That’s all right. I just wanted to find out if you still had faces. I’m sorry gentlemen. I-I know I’m being disrespectful to this honorable body, I know that. I- A guy like me should never be allowed to get in here in the first place. I know that! And I hate to stand here and try your patience like this, but EITHER I’M DEAD RIGHT OR I’M CRAZY.”

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