Great topic and one that fascinates me a great deal. You have to keep in mind that the French Revolution was really not a single event, but a series of events. In the summer months of July 1789 we saw the beginning stages of the first "part" of the revolution- the "respectable" one, based on enlightenment principles but controlled primarily by the Bourgeoisie. Then, in the weeks and years to follow (would take too long to list all of the particulars), we see a second revolution spring up- one led by "the populace", "the rabble", etc. So, in a sense the revolution was revolutionized. Combined with this was the twisting of the Rousseauist concept of "The General Will" as laid he lays it out in his Social Contract. Essentially, the general will is infallible and the individual must submit himself to it. This idea was taken up by Robespierre and directed his actions as head of the committee for public safety- essentially a committee that was to execute the orders of "the people" as interpreted by the committee itself.
A short response paper I wrote several years ago sums up that "second revolution" within the French Revolution"
Prior to the popular insurrections which would soon shake Paris as well as much of France, the Assembly seemed confident that the revolution had come to an end. One hundred years of European enlightenment, some believed, would allow for the quick drafting of a constitution and the establishment of new era of popular sovereignty, with the King's position, though altered, still in tact. However, the populace, existing in a sphere far removed from that of the public, had another agenda which did not match that of the class of revolutionaries sitting in the Assembly. In the coming weeks, months and years, discord and uncertainty would sweep across France as revolutionaries struggled to remake France and establish a new order.
Robespierre, having rejected the call for order while pushing for a larger role of the populace in the revolutionary process, comes down on the side of the “people”, echoing while at the same time twisting the Rousseauist concept of the “collective will” as is exemplified in David's rendering of the Tennis Court Oath. However, like David's fictitious placement of characters in his work, Robespierre's understanding of the populace is not grounded in reality, but his own construct based largely on his own fantasies. Freeing himself of fear of the populace, a fear prevalent among his peers who have in mind a new rule by intellectual elites, Robespierre sets out to act as representative of, and co-revolutionary with, a people and culture which is undoubtedly totally foreign to him. In Robespierre's myopic assessment, France's problems do not lie in deep rooted economic problems, but in the schemes of the rich who brutalize France's working class for their own benefit. Though something of an outsider to the Assembly, Robespierre gains support after the failure of a war with Austria (which he had criticized) and skyrocketing prices. The ground is fertile for the ideologue Robespierre to obtain more power.
During the time Robespierre was able to exert his greatest influence over France, he sought to stabilize and at the same time work for the creation of a new order and a new man. In order to breathe life back into a France that was being de-Christianized and torn apart, Robespierre as well as David organized festivals and helped to create new religious forms. However, this religion would be earth based, and have the goal of creating “heaven” on earth. In essence, the were driven by utopian notions. This way of thinking would not find its death in the French Revolution, but would be more or less duplicated more than a century later in the Soviet Union with its goal of creating the “New Soviet Man” through transcending what was previously understood to be “human nature”. A task which was to be accomplished not through spiritual, but through earthly means. This can also be seen to a lesser extent in the German concept of the Übermensch.
No matter how much anti-clerical or anti-Christian sentiment had taken hold of France, it seems the people would still crave an outlet for expressing spirituality of some kind. Also, it seems a new national consciousness and identity had to be established in order for lasting peace to be a possibility. The revolution had shaken France deeply and, I believe, must have led to feelings of instability and uneasiness which could only be satisfied by ritual and “religion”. The religion of the revolution, of course, was secular. The “Feast of Voltaire” was celebrated, presumably, in the place of another saint's feast day. New national heroes were created and the religious lexicon found its way into the speech of the revolution. In many respects the forms remained similar and most importantly familiar, but the goal changed. Despite these attempts at creating a stable new order, changes came.
Revolutionary fervor would not allow Robespierre and the Jacobins to sit comfortably in the Assembly. The September Massacre and Robespierre's “popular justice” drew criticism from the Girondins creating further divisions among revolutionaries. Riots in the coming months and a brutal insurrection by the sans-culottes, those separated by deputies but whose coming role is alluded to in the Tennis Court Oath, resulted in a purging of the Convention itself. Robespierre found himself against hardliners on the left, now labeling them enemies of the people and establishing a revolutionary army to root out opponents to his changing notion of “the people”. After the terror had subsided and the government had stamped out the popular movement and seized power, it was only a matter of time before a thinning of the ranks occurred. Robespierre was next, as his beaten body was carried through the streets of Paris by the populace he thought he knew so well. Perhaps the occasion of his death afforded him his first opportunity to get a true glimpse into the mind of the populace