Tag Archives: Convention nationale

Thomas Paine and the trial of Louis XVI

While many Americans are familiar with Thomas Paine as the author of the 1776 political pamphlet Common Sense and as a Founding Father of the United States of America, fewer are familiar with Paine’s French political career.  In gratitude of his ardent support of the French Revolution, the revolutionary government of France granted him honorary French citizenship.  Despite the fact that he could not speak French, Paine was elected as a deputy to the Convention nationale in 1792.

Case Wing DC137.08 .F73 v. 14 no. 3

During the Convention sessions before, during, and, immediately after the trial of Louis XVI, Thomas Paine, like his fellow deputies, published his opinions on whether and how the king should be tried and what punishment the king should receive.  In Opinion de Thomas Payne, député du département de la Somme, concernant le jugement de Louis XVI (Case Wing DC137.08 .F73 v. 14 no. 3), a French translation of his On the propriety of bringing Louis XVI to trial, Paine makes clear his pro-democracy stance.  Louis XVI should receive a fair and unbiased trial, and if he is found guilty, the citizens of France should decide whether or not he should be punished: Je pense qu’il faut faire le procès à Louis XVI, non que cet avis me soit suggéré par un esprit de vengeance … mais parce que cette mesure me semble juste, légitime & conforme à la saine politique.  Si Louis est innocent, mettons-le à portée de prouver son innocence; s’il est coupable, que la volonté nationale determine si l’on doit lui faire grace, ou le punir (p. [5]).  A staunch antimonarchist, Paine disregarded the notion that Louis XVI’s status as a sovereign monarch granted him inviolability and argued that Louis should be subject to the same laws to which all French citizens were subject.

After the Convention nationale found Louis XVI guilty of high treason in December 1792, its deputies next deliberated over how to punish the king and whether the citizens of France should vote directly on this issue.  Two possible forms of punishment emerged from the deliberations: execution or exile.

Case Wing DC137.08 .F73 v. 14 no. 4

Thomas Paine’s Opinion de Thomas Payne, sur l’affaire de Louis Capet (Case Wing DC137.08 .F73 v. 14 no. 4), a French translation of his Reasons for wishing to preserve the life of Louis Capet, argues against the king’s execution for many reasons.  If Louis were executed, Paine argues, there would be nothing to prevent the king’s brothers, Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, comte de Provence (later King Louis XVIII), and Charles, comte d’Artois (later King Charles X), from ascending the throne, thus perpetuating the system of monarchy in France.  He also opposed capital punishment as a vestige of the corruption of monarchy and preferred exile as a way for France to “purger son territoire de rois, sans le souiller de leur sang impur” (p. 6.).  According to Paine, the United States would be an ideal location for Louis XVI’s exile, during which Louis would learn that democracy is the true system of government: Là, désormais, à l’abri des misères & des crimes de la vie royale, il apprendra, par l’aspect continuel de la prospérité publique, que le véritable systême de gouvernement, ce n’est pas les rois, mais la representation (p. 6).

Revolutionary Expense Reports

On 21 nivose an III (10 January 1795), not long after the end of the Reign of Terror, the Convention nationale passed a law dictating that all the représentants en mission furnish a report of their activities, appropriations and expenditures while on mission to the Convention, and to have that report published.

There are around 150 of these expense reports in the collection (so far), and they range from the extensive (30 pages or more, with elaborate tables) to the relatively minimal.

The sheer number of these pamphlets, which were nearly all cataloged fairly early on in the project, made them fairly easy to catalog. Because the décret was passed with a time limit, virtually all of the reports were published in 1795. As they are all on the same topic, published by the same entity, and involved the same government bodies, assigning subject headings and other cataloging paraphernalia was exceedingly simple. The great number of fields that stayed the same between pamphlets enabled us to automate the vast majority of the cataloging process – all that remains to be done is giving the author, the title (nearly every expense report starts with the phrase Compte rendu, but the remaining portion of the title varies considerably between pamphlets), entering the page count and any other physical details, and recording the call number.

Case FRC 11727

As simple as most of the expense reports are, from time to time there comes an oddity – a report filed in the early months of 1796, a pamphlet that includes a narrative of the time spent, or a catalog of “patriotic gifts” received by the representative… or, as in the case of Case FRC 11727, something altogether unexpected, an ephemeral quirk of mandatory publishing.

Case FRC 11727 is only one page long. It has a 37 word title, which takes up most of that page.  The text is only one sentence long: it states that Pierre-Anselme Garrau neither received nor spent any government funds.

Case FRC 11727 detail

In a way, this seemingly superfluous document represents one of the greatest triumphs of the French Revolution – a strong federal government where laws were applied equally to all. Other common themes of the collection reflect the conscious efforts to this end – standardizing the gabelle salt tax, abolishing the lettres de cachet, inherited privileges, and implementing allodial land tenure. Case FRC 11727 shows that these reforms proceeded throughout all levels of government, and resulted in the extra government spending frequently associated with increased bureaucracy.

Heads will roll: the trial and execution of Louis XVI

For the past few months, I have shifted gears to work exclusively on cataloging the Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection. The Louis collection overlaps with the French Revolutionary Collection (FRC) in that it contains pamphlets from the same time and place, but its scope is much more specific: it is composed solely of items related to King Louis XVI’s fall from political grace, from  his 1791 escape attempt and the 1792 seige of the Tuileries to his trial and final moments at the guillotine. The vast majority of the pamphlets are from 1792 and 1793, although a few earlier pieces from 1789 onward report the earliest revolutionary grumblings against the king (referred to increasingly by his many detractors as the “tyrant” or “despot”).

Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection

The Louis XVI collection came to us already compiled in its present form, consisting of 15 volumes of pink cartonnage bindings filled with loose pamphlets. It has been suggested that the unknown 19th-century compiler may have been a royalist sympathizer due to the high number of pro-monarchy pieces, but the collection includes many vehemently anti-monarchy pamphlets as well. Royalist or not, the mystery compiler was helpful enough to organize the volumes by subject. Earlier volumes revolve around topics such as evidence against the king, dramatic or satirical pieces about his reign and trial, and reflections on his execution. The final seven volumes contain the published opinions of each member of the Convention nationale, who took responsibility for accusing, judging, and sentencing Louis.

The earliest debates about what to do with the deposed king revolved around whether Louis could legally be judged at all, when the Constitution of 1791—held sacrosanct in loyalty oaths taken by all legislators—had declared him inviolable. Yet many legislators dismissed this claim, arguing that prior to being formally deposed in 1792, the king had effectively abdicated the throne when he began engaging in “treasonous activities,” a nebulous collection of unsubstantiated charges ranging from conspiracy with foreign rulers to deliberately causing a widespread famine in France. The abdicated king could therefore be judged like any other citizen: égalité!

Next came the debate over whether the Convention nationale, as a legislative body, was fit to try the king. Many questioned whether legislators serving as judges might violate the separation of powers and blur the line between accuser and judge, given that several Convention members had already made public their opinions on the king’s guilt. If Louis was to be judged like any other citizen, some pointed out, he should be given a fair trial. In pamphlets issued during the trial, several members carefully specified that they were giving their opinions as legislators and not as judges, a role in which they felt unqualified to serve. Others, however, countered that since Louis must be judged for the sake of national security, and since the Constitution had not set forth the proper procedure for trying a monarch, Louis must be tried by the people. And in a representative government, who better to stand in for the voice of the people than its elected Convention?  This appel au peuple, however, was ultimately rejected.

Once Louis was found guilty, the final question was that of punishment. Prompt execution was not a given, but rather the most extreme of several options, among them banishment, extended imprisonment, or a suspended death sentence. In their published pamphlets, the lawmaker-judges argued at length about which punishment was in the best interests of national security, in light of France’s increasingly tenuous relationship with the monarchs of Europe. Capital punishment won out, and Louis was guillotined on January 21, 1793.

Although the Reign of Terror did not begin until the summer of 1793, the Convention’s arguments over Louis’s fate presage some of the justifications later made for the arbitrary political violence of that period. Politicians spoke of national security, democratic principles, terrorists, and the necessity of emergency measures. Impassioned speeches and hyperbolic descriptions of a vulnerable nation beset by traitors and conspiracies resulted in a conviction and execution that were legally questionable at best. While Louis XVI may well have been guilty of many of the charges leveled against him, and not the deceived, unfortunate, or ignorant monarch his defenders claimed him to be, the pamphlets of the Louis XVI collection suggest to me that, even before the Terror, cooler heads did not prevail.