One is tempted, almost, to pity poor Robespierre. In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk squarely identifies Robespierre as the political fruit of the sanguinary philosophy of Rousseau, which separated intellectual virtue from moral virtue, a “loathsome thing.” This “defecated rationality” lead directly to, first, the overthrow of the ancien régime, and second, to the Terror, and from then to a greater or lesser degree to every lesser revolution in the subsequent bloody century.

Robespierre’s France is, for some, the model for murderous dystopia, Orwell’s Oceania avant la lettre. Robespierre himself has been a metonym for faceless tyranny, his life a metaphor for how revolutions eat their own; he was executed in 1794 by orders of the very National Convention he had ruled. But perhaps it is time for a reassessment. The Terror, the show trials, the...