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Maximilien Robespierre

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Portrait of Maximilien Robespierre
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Portrait of Maximilien Robespierre

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre, (May 6, 1758July 28, 1794), known also to his contemporaries as "the Incorruptible", is one of the best known of the leaders of the French Revolution. He was a French revolutionary and the leader of the Committee of Public Safety which oversaw the period of the French Revolution in which the revolutionaries consolidated their power, a period which is commonly known as the Reign of Terror. Robespierre himself became a virtual dictator in his final years until he was finally executed by his conspiring comrades.

Politically he was a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a capable articulator of the beliefs of the bourgeois left. He harnessed this talent as a means of rabble-rousing. He was a rather impractical man, and coupled mystical beliefs in The Supreme Being with marked fanaticism.

He was described as physically unimposing, although he dressed immaculately, so much so that some described him as a dandy.

Contents

Family and early life

He was born in Arras, France. His family was said to be of Irish descent, having emigrated from Ireland at the time of the protestant reformation for religious reasons, and his direct ancestors in the male line had been notaries in the little village of Carvin near Arras from the beginning of the 17th century.

His grandfather established himself in Arras as an advocate. His father, who followed the same profession, married Jacqueline Marguerite Carraut, daughter of a brewer, in 1757. Robespierre was the eldest of four children. In 1767, Madame Derobespierre, as the name was then spelt, died, and her husband left Arras and wandered about Europe until his death in Munich in 1769. The children were raised by their maternal grandfather and aunts.

Maximilien was sent to the college of Arras. In 1770, by recommendation of the bishop, he obtained a scholarship at the college of Louis-le-Grand at Paris. Here his fellow pupils included Camille Desmoulins and Stanislas Fréron.

Professional and political life

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Robespierre

He completed his law studies with distinction, and was admitted as an advocate in 1781. He returned to Arras to seek practice, and to struggle against poverty. His reputation had preceded him, and the Bishop of Arras, M. de Conzié, appointed him criminal judge in the diocese of Arras in March 1782. This appointment, which he soon resigned to avoid pronouncing a sentence of death, did not prevent his practising at the bar, and he quickly became a successful advocate. He then turned to literature and society, and came to be regarded as one of the best writers as well as one of the most popular dandies of Arras.

In December 1783 he was elected a member of the academy of Arras, the meetings of which he attended regularly. In 1784 he obtained a medal from the academy of Metz for his essay on the question whether the relatives of a condemned criminal should share his disgrace, the prize being divided between him and Pierre Louis de Lacretelle, an advocate and journalist in Paris. Many of his subsequent essays were less successful, but Robespierre was compensated for these failures by his popularity in the literary and musical society at Arras known as the "Rosati", of which Carnot was also a member.

In 1788 he took part in the discussion as to the way in which the States-General should be elected, showing clearly and forcibly in his Adresse à la nation artésienne that, if the former mode of election by the members of the provincial estates were again adopted, the new States-General would not represent the people of France.

Although the leading members of the corporation were elected, Robespierre, their chief opponent, succeeded in getting elected with them. In the assembly of the bailliage rivalry ran still higher, but Robespierre had begun to make his mark in politics with the Avis aux habitants de la campagne (Arras, 1789). With this he secured the support of the country electors, and, although only 30, comparatively poor and lacking patronage, he was elected fifth deputy of the tiers état of Artois to the States-General.

When the States-General met at Versailles on May 5, 1789, Robespierre's fanatical mindset was already apparent. As Honoré Mirabeau is reported to have said: "That young man believes what he says: he will go far". Robespierre, a fervent supporter of the doctrines of Rousseau, had begun already to shape them into a vision of his own.

While the Constituent Assembly occupied itself with drawing up a constitution, Robespierre turned from the assembly of provincial lawyers and wealthy bourgeois to the people of Paris. He was a frequent speaker in the Constituent Assembly, often with great success. He was eventually recognized as second only to Pétion de Villeneuve, if second he was, as a leader of the small body of the extreme left, "the thirty voices", as Mirabeau contemptuously called them.

When his instinct told him that his ideas would have no success in the Assembly, he turned to the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, known as the Jacobin Club. This had consisted originally of the Breton deputies only, however after the Assembly moved to Paris, it began to admit various leaders of the Parisian bourgeoisie to its membership. As time went on, many of the more intelligent artisans and small shopkeepers became members of the club, and among such men Robespierre found his audience. They did more than listen to him: they idolized him; the fanatical leader had found followers. As the wealthier bourgeois of Paris and deputies of a more moderate type seceded to the Club of '89, the influence of the old leaders of the Jacobins (Barnave, Duport, Alexandre de Lameth) diminished; and when they themselves, alarmed at the progress of the Revolution, founded the club of the Feuillants in 1791, the followers of Robespierre dominated the Jacobin Club.

The death of Mirabeau significantly strengthened Robespierre's hand in the Assembly. On May 15, 1791, (some accounts place this as occurring on May 16) he proposed (and carried) the motion that no deputies who sat in the Constituent could sit in the succeeding Assembly. This has been construed by some as indicative of Robespierre's lack of political insight, and his politically suspicious nature.

The flight of Louis XVI and his family on June 20 and his subsequent arrest at Varennes resulted in Robespierre declaring himself at the Jacobin Club to be ni monarchiste ni républicain ("neither monarchist nor republican").

After the massacre of the Champ de Mars (on July 17, 1791), in order to be nearer to the Assembly and the Jacobins, he moved to live in the house of Maurice Duplay, a cabinetmaker residing in the Rue Saint-Honoré, and an ardent admirer of Robespierre's. Robespierre lived there (with two short intervals excepted) until his death.

On September 30, on the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the people of Paris crowned Pétion and Robespierre as the two incorruptible patriots.

With the dissolution of the Assembly he returned for a short visit to Arras, where he met with a triumphant reception. In November he returned to Paris.

Robespierre's opposition to war with Austria

Robespierre

On December 18 1791, Robespierre made a speech that marked a new epoch in his life. Brissot de Warville, the dme politique of the Girondin party which had been formed in the Legislative Assembly, urged that war should be declared against Austria. Marie Antoinette, the queen, was equally urgent, in the hope that victorious foreign armies might restore the old absolutism of the Bourbons. In opposition stood Marat and Robespierre.

Robespierre feared a development of militarism, which might then be turned to the advantage of the forces of reaction. This opposition from those whom they had expected to aid them irritated the Girondins greatly, and from that moment began the struggle which ended in the coups d'état on May 31 and June 2 1793.

Robespierre persisted in his opposition to the war. The Girondins, especially Brissot, attacked him violently. In April 1792, Robespierre resigned the post of public prosecutor at the tribunal of Paris, which he had held since February, and started a journal, Le Defenseur de la Constitution, in his own defence. It is noteworthy that during the summer months of 1792 in which the fate of the Bourbon dynasty was being sealed, neither the Girondins in the Legislative Assembly nor Robespierre took any active part in overthrowing it.

Stronger men with practical instincts of statesmanship, like Danton and Billaud Varenne, were the men who made the insurrection of August 10 and took the Tuileries. The Girondins, however, were quite ready to take advantage of the fait accompli; and Robespierre, likewise, was willing to take his seat on the Commune of Paris, which had overthrown Louis XVI, as a means to check the political ambitions of the Girondins.

The strong men of the Commune were glad to have Robespierre's assistance, not because they cared for him or believed in him, but because of his popularity, his reputation for virtue (which had won for him the surname of "The Incorruptible"), and his influence over the Jacobin Club and its branches ubiquitous throughout France. It was he who presented the petition of the Commune of Paris on August 16 to the Legislative Assembly, demanding the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal and the summoning of a Convention.

The massacres of September in the prisons, which Robespierre unsuccessfully attempted to suppress, showed that the Commune had more confidence in Billaud than in him. Yet, as a proof of his personal popularity, he was a few days later elected first deputy for Paris to the National Convention.

On the meeting of the Convention the Girondins immediately attacked Robespierre; they were jealous of his influence in Paris, and knew that his single-hearted fanaticism would never forgive their intrigues with the king at the end of July. As early as September 26 the Girondin Marc-David Lasource accused him of aiming at the dictatorship; afterwards he was informed that Marat, Danton and himself were plotting to become triumvirs; and eventually on October 29 Louvet de Couvrai attacked him in a studied and declamatory harangue, abounding in ridiculous falsehoods and obviously concocted in Madame Roland's boudoir. Robespierre had no difficulty in rebutting this attack (November 5), while he denounced the federalist plans of the Girondins.

The great question regarding the execution of Louis XVI

All personal disputes, however, gave way by the month of December 1792 before the great question of the king's trial, and here Robespierre took up a position which is easily understood. These are his words spoken on December 3:

This is no trial; Louis is not a prisoner at the bar; you are not judges; you are - you cannot but be - statesmen, and the representatives of the nation. You have not to pass sentence for or against a single man, but you have to take a resolution on a question of the public safety, and to decide a question of national foresight. It is with regret that I pronounce, the fatal truth: Louis ought to perish rather than a hundred thousand virtuous citizens; Louis must die, that the country may live.

Citizen Louis Capet (Louis XVI of France) was guillotined on January 21 1793.

Destruction of the Girondins

With the great question settled by the king's execution, the struggle between Robespierre and the Girondins entered upon a more acute stage, and the want of statesmanship among the latter threw upon the side of the fanatical Robespierre, Danton, and the pragmatic politicians who sought success for France in her struggle with Europe.

The Girondins had little influence in many areas; there was open royalist revolt in the Vendée, and federalist insurrection was rife in the South of France. Spurred on by Madame Roland, the Girondins refused to have anything to do with Danton. Government became increasingly difficult, tending towards the impossible and the schismatic federalist idea, which would have broken France to pieces in the face of a largely hostile Europe, grew and flourished. The men of action were constrained to act.

In the month of May 1793 Camille Desmoulins, at the behest of Robespierre and Danton, published his Histoire des Brissotins and Brissol demasqué. Maximin Isnard declared that Paris must be destroyed if it pronounced itself against the provincial deputies. Robespierre preached insurrection at the Jacobin Club. On May 31 and June 2 the Commune of Paris destroyed the Girondin party.

Foundation of the Committee of Public Safety

The royalist insurrection in Lyon exasperated the men who were working for France, and the armies who were fighting for her. On July 27, 1793, when the struggle was practically decided, the Convention elected Robespierre to the new Committee of Public Safety. He had not sought this position.

Danton and other practical politicians saw that France needed the existence of a strong executive government to forestall the intervention of foreign armies. The means for establishing this were found in the Committee of Public Safety.

The Convention, pleased with its efficiency in suppressing the Norman insurrection, was swift in strengthening its powers. The Committee of General Security which sat beside it was strengthened and given the management of the internal police of the country.

The Committee was not finally constituted until the September 13, when the last two of the twelve who held office until July 1794 were elected. Of these twelve at least seven -- Lazare Carnot, Billaud-Varenne, Collot d'Herbois, Prieur Duvernois (of the Marne), Prieur (of the Côte d'Or), Jean Bon Saint-André and Robert Lindet -- were essentially men of action. Of the other four, Hérault de Séchelles was a Dantonist, Barère de Vieuzac was an eloquent Provençal, who was ready to be the spokesman to the Convention of any view which the majority of the Committee might adopt. Only Georges Couthon and Saint-Just, devoted to Robespierre, sustained his policy. As time progressed, Robespierre was to systematically weaken and remove his opponents within the Committee, thus enhancing both his position and his powers.

The Reign of Terror

Terror is only justice that is prompt, severe and inflexible. (Maximilien Robespierre)

Some have argued that Robespierre's role in the Reign of Terror was but minor, and that he was a subordinate player within the Committee of Public Safety, whose contribution was ideological rather than practical. Other apologists such as Babeuf and Buonarroti have sought more reasonably to exculpate him on the grounds of practical expediency. However, although Robespierre may not have raised the levers on the guillotine himself, as the leader, mouthpiece and articulator of the Terror, his responsibility cannot be denied.

The Terror was initially the embodiment of the idea of Danton, that it was necessary to resort to extreme measures to keep France united and strong at home in order to successfully meet her enemies upon the frontier. This idea was systematized by the Committee of Public Safety.

The reason why Robespierre is almost universally regarded as its creator and the dominant spirit in the Committee is not however hard to discern. Robespierre had a fanatical following among the Jacobins. He was one of the most popular orators in the Convention, on which his carefully prepared addresses often made a deep impression. His panegyrics on the system of revolutionary government and his praise of virtue led his hearers to believe that the system of the Terror, instead of being monstrous, was entirely necessary, laudable and inevitable. His moral standing and self-proclaimed incorruptibility threw a lustre on the Committee of which he was a member. His colleagues offered no opposition to his acting as their representative and reflecting some of his personal popularity upon them so long as he did not interfere with their work.

Although Robespierre was not the sole author of the subsequent overthrow of the Dantonists and the Hébertists, he thoroughly agreed with the majority and had no desire to save them, the principles of both parties being obnoxious to him. In the winter of 1793-1794 it became obvious that the Hébertist party must perish, or its opposition within the Committee would become overwhelming due to its significant influence in the Commune of Paris. Robespierre shared his colleagues' fear of the Hébertist opinions, and he had a personal reason for intensely disliking that party of atheists and sans-culottes, since he believed in the necessity of religious faith.

His position towards the Dantonist party was of a different character. After having seen established the strong executive he had laboured for, and having moved the resolutions which finally consolidated the power of the Committee of Public Safety in September 1793, Danton retired to his country house. But to his retreat came the news of the means the Committee used to maintain their supremacy. Danton did not believe that this continuous series of sacrifices under the guillotine was necessary, especially since the danger to the country had passed away with the victories of the revolutionary army; hence he inspired Camille Desmoulins to protest against the Terror in Le Vieux Cordelier:

Where is this system of terror to end? What is the good of a tyranny comparable only to that of the Roman emperors as described by Tacitus?

Such were the questions which Camille Desmoulins asked under Danton's inspiration. This moderantism, as it was called, was as objectionable to the members of the Committee under Robespierre's influence as the doctrines of the Hébertists. Both parties must be crushed. Before the blows at the leaders of those two parties were struck, Robespierre retired for a month (from February 13 to March 13 1794) from active business in the Convention and the Committee, apparently to consider his position; but he came to the conclusion that the cessation of the Reign of Terror would mean the loss of that supremacy by which he hoped to establish the ideal of Rousseau. Danton, he knew, was essentially a practical statesman and laughed at his ideas and especially his politico-religious projects. He must have considered too that the result of his siding with Danton would probably have been fatal to himself.

The result of his deliberations was that he abandoned Danton and co-operated in the attacks of the Committee on the two parties. On the March 15 he reappeared in the Convention; on March 19 Hébert and his friends were arrested; and on March 24 they were guillotined. On the March 30 Danton, Camille Desmoulins and their friends were arrested, and on the 5th of April they too were guillotined. In formulating charges against both parties, Robespierre alleged complicity with foreign powers to overthrow France.

It was not until after the execution of Danton that Robespierre began to develop a policy distinct from that of his colleagues in the Committee, an opposition which ended in his downfall. He began by using his influence over the Jacobin Club to dominate the Commune of Paris through his devoted adherents, two of whom, Fleuriot-Lescot and CF de Payan, were elected respectively mayor and procureur of the Commune. He also attempted to usurp the influence of the other members of the Committee over the armies by getting his young adherent, Saint-Just, sent on a mission to the frontier.

In Paris Robespierre determined to increase the pressure of the Terror: no one should accuse him of moderantism. Through the increased efficiency of the revolutionary tribunal Paris should tremble before him as the chief member of the Committee. The Convention should pass whatever measures he might dictate.

To secure his aims, Couthon, his other ally in the Committee, proposed and carried on 10 June the drastic Law of 22 Prairial, by which even the appearance of justice was taken from the tribunal, which, as no witnesses were allowed, became a simple court of condemnation. The result of this law was that between 12 June and the 28 July, the day of Robespierre's death, no fewer than 1285 victims perished by the guillotine in Paris. It was the bloodiest and the least justifiable period of the Terror. But before this there had taken place in Robespierre's life an episode of supreme importance, as illustrating his character and his political aims:

On May 7 he secured a decree from the Convention recognizing the existence of the Supreme Being. This worship of the Supreme Being was based upon the ideas of Rousseau in The Social Contract, and was opposed by Robespierre to Catholicism on the one hand and the Hébertist atheism on the other. In honour of the Supreme Being a great fête was held on 8 June; Robespierre, as president of the Convention, walked first and delivered his harangue, and as he looked around him he may well have believed that his position was secured and that he was at last within reach of a supreme power which should enable him to impose his belief on all France, and so ensure its happiness. The majority of the Committee found his popularity -- or rather his ascendancy, for as that increased his personal popularity diminished -- useful to them, since by increasing the stringency of the Terror he strengthened the position of the Committee, whilst attracting to himself, as occupying the most prominent position in it, any latent feeling of dissatisfaction at such stringency. Of the issue of a struggle between themselves and Robespierre they had little fear: they controlled the Committee of General Security through their alliance with its leaders, André Amar and Marc Guillaume Alexis Vadier; they were hopeful of obtaining a majority in the Convention; for they knew that the chief deputies on the left, or the Mountain, were Dantonists, who burned to avenge Danton's death; while they felt sure also that the mass of the deputies of the centre, or the Marsh, could be hounded on against Robespierre if they were to accuse him of aiming at the dictatorship and pour on him the obloquy of having increased the Terror when victory on the frontier rendered it less necessary; and they knew finally that his actual adherents, though devoted to him, were few in number.

The devotion of these admirers had been further excited by the news that a half-witted girl, named Cécile Renault, had been found wandering near his house, with a knife in her possession, intending to play the part of Charlotte Corday. She was executed on June 17, on the very day that Vadier raised a laugh at Robespierre's expense in the Convention by his report on the conspiracy of Catherine Théot, a mad woman, who had asserted that Robespierre was a divinity.

Robespierre felt that he must strike his blow now or never. Yet he was not sufficiently audacious to strike at once, as Payan and Jean Baptiste Coffinhal, the ablest of his adherents, would have had him do. He retired from the Convention for some weeks, as he had done before the overthrow of the Hébertists and the Dantonists, to prepare his plan of action. This retirement seemed ominous to the majority of the Committee, and they too prepared for the struggle by communicating with the deputies of the Mountain, who were either friends of Danton or men of proved energy like Barras, Fréron and Tallien.

Robespierre's downfall

At last, on the July 26, Robespierre appeared, for the first time for more than four weeks, in the Convention and delivered a harangue, lasting more than four hours, declaring that the Terror ought to be ended, that certain deputies who had acted unjustly and exceeded their powers ought to be punished, and that the Committees of Public Safety and General Security should be renewed.

This raised great excitement in the Convention. All wondered who were the deputies destined to be punished. All were surprised that the Terror should be imputed as a fault to the very Committee of which Robespierre had been a member.

The majority of the Committee of Public Safety determined to act promptly. The Convention, moved by Robespierre's eloquence, at first passed his motions; but he was replied to by Joseph Cambon the financier, Billaud-Varenne, Amar and Vadier, and the Convention rescinded their decrees and referred Robespierre's question to their committees. On the following day, July 27, or in the revolutionary calendar the 9 Thermidor, Saint-Just began to speak on behalf of the motions of Robespierre, when violent interruptions showed the temper of the Convention.

Jean Lambert, Tallien, Billaud-Varenne and Vadier again attacked Robespierre; cries of "Down with the tyrant!" were raised; and, when Robespierre hesitated in his speech in answer to these attacks, the words "C'est le sang de Danton qui t'étouffe" showed what was uppermost in the minds of the Montagnards. Robespierre tried in vain to get a hearing, the excitement increased and at five in the afternoon Robespierre, Couthon and Saint-Just, with two young deputies, Augustin Robespierre (younger brother of Maximilien) and Philippe François Joseph Lebas, the only men in all the Convention who supported them, were ordered to be arrested. He was rescued from his prison, with the other deputies, by the troops of the Commune and brought to the Hôtel de Ville. There he was surrounded by his faithful adherents, led by Payan and Coflinhal.

But the days were long gone when the Commune could overawe the Convention. There was marked hostility on the part of the prime movers to the Commune. On the news of the release of Robespierre, the Convention again met, and declared the members of the Commune and the released deputies outlaw. The national guards under the command of Barras had little difficulty in making their way to the Hôtel de Ville; Robespierre was shot in the lower jaw — a young gendarme named Meda claimed to have shot him while Robespierre was signing an appeal to one of the sections of Paris to take up arms for him, though Thomas Carlyle discredits the story, believing the wound to have been self-inflicted [Carlyle, The French Revolution, Book 3, Chapter 6 (http://www.underthesun.cc/Carlyle/FrenchRevolution/FrenchRevolution151.html)] — and all the released deputies were once again arrested.

Robespierre was the next day taken before the tribunal, and without further trial he was guillotined, face up according to legend, with Couthon and Saint-Just and nineteen others of his adherents on the Place de la Révolution on the 10th Thermidor An II (July 28 1794).

Historians' views of Robespierre

Robespierre is a very controversial figure. He has his staunch defenders, such as Albert Soboul, who viewed most of the measures of the Committee for Public Safety necessary for the defense of the Revolution and regretted chiefly the destruction of the Hébertists and other enragés. Simon Schama practically ignores Robespierre, but condemns far more moderate men as radical: it is as if Robespierre is so extreme as to be beyond discussion.

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica sums up Robespierre as a bright young theorist out of his depth of experience: "A well-educated and accomplished young lawyer, he might have acquired a good provincial practice and lived a happy provincial life had it not been for the Revolution. Like thousands of other young Frenchmen, he had read the works of Rousseau and taken them as gospel. Just at the very time in life when this illusion had not been destroyed by the realities of life, and without the experience which might have taught the futility of idle dreams and theories, he was elected to the states-general."

The Britannica then goes on to write, "At Paris he was not understood till he met with his audience of fellow disciples of Rousseau at the Jacobin Club. His fanaticism won him supporters; his singularly sweet and sympathetic voice gained him hearers; and his upright life attracted the admiration of all. As matters approached nearer and nearer to the terrible crisis, he failed, except in the two instances of the question of war and of the kings trial, to show himself a statesman, for he had not the liberal views and practical instincts which made Mirabeau and Danton great men. His admission to the Committee of Public Safety gave him power, which he hoped to use for the establishment of his favorite theories, and for the same purpose he acquiesced in and even heightened the horrors of the Reign of Terror. It is here that the fatal mistake of allowing a theorist to have power appeared:

"Billaud-Varenne systematized the Terror because he believed it necessary for the safety of the country; Robespierre intensified it in order to carry out his own ideas and theories. Robespierre's private life was always respectable: he was always emphatically a gentleman and man of culture, and even a little bit of a dandy, scrupulously honest, truthful and charitable. In his habits and manner of life he was simple and laborious; he was not a man gifted with flashes of genius, but one who had to think much before he could come to a decision, and he worked hard all his life."

References

  • The French Revolution: A History - Vol.4 - Thomas Carlyle - A Romantic account more useful for historiographical studies than as accurate history.
  • Robespierre - J. M. Thompson (Oxford, 1935) - Traditional biography with extensive and reliable research.
  • Maximilien Robespierre: Nationalist Dictator James Michael Eagan (New York, 1938) - Presents Robespierre as the origin of Fascist dictators.
  • Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution R. R. Palmer (Princeton 1941) - Sympathetic study of the Committee of Public Safety.
  • The Life and Opinions of of Maximilien Robespierre - Norman Hampson (London, 1974) - Presents three contrasting views on him.
  • Robespierre, Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat - George Rudé (New York, 1976) - Very sympathetic Marxist analysis that compares him with Lenin and Mao.
  • The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre - David P. Jordan (New York, 1985) - Sympathetic but not un-critical left-wing study.
  • Citizens - A Chronicle of the French Revolution - Simon Schama (New York, 1989) - A revisionist account.
  • Robespierre - Colin Haydon (Editor), William Doyle (Editor) (Cambridge, 1999) - A collection of essays covering not only Robespierre's thoughts and deeds but also the way he has been portrayed by historians and fictional writers alike.

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