Tag Archives: Louis XVI

Louis XVI on the cross

Here is one of the more arresting images I’ve come across in the French Revolution Collection (FRC): an engraving of Louis XVI being crucified between the clergy and the nobility.

Case FRC 27792

This messianic image accompanies the pamphlet La passion et la mort de Louis XVI, roi des juifs et des chretiens (Case FRC 27792 and Case FRC 22313).  The attribution to Jacques baron de Menou (1750-1810) on page 6 is fictitious, as is the place of publication: certainly not Jerusalem; most likely Paris.

Guy Thuillier recently published a brief discussion and a modern edition of the pamphlet, which is available through JSTOR (Guy Thuillier, “Un pamphlet de 1790 : La passion et la mort de Louis XVI, Roi des Juifs et des Chrétiens de Jean-François de Bourgoing,” La Revue administrative, 58e Année, No. 343 [January 2005], p. 18-24).  As Thuillier notes, the pamphlet is attributed to Bourgoing in Notice historique et généalogique sur la famille de Bourgoing by Georges de Soultrait (Lyon: Imprimerie de Louis Perrin, 1855) p. 34 [available via Gallica online].  Soultrait lays three other widely published writings  at the feet of Bourgoing: Domine salvum fac regem (1789), Pange lingua (1789), and Le cri de douleur, ou, la journee du 20 juin 1792.  All three of these — all of which are in FRC — are attributed by Martin & Walter to Jean-Gabriel Peltier.

Returning to the image, a very similar engraving — but colored and (assuming no inadvertent digital error) reversed — is held by the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, and available online via Bridgeman Art Library.

Louis XVI (1754-93) at his trial, crucified between the nobility and the clergy, c.1792 (coloured engraving), French School, (18th century) / Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France / Archives Charmet / The Bridgeman Art Library

The trial and execution of Louis XVI dramatized

Frontispiece of Case Wing DC137.08 .F73 v. 8 no. 27

While the Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection does contain many factual source documents, such as the opinions of the deputies of the Convention nationale on whether the king could be tried for treason and what punishment he should receive, the collection also contains a number of satires and works of drama and poetry on Louis XVI, his family, and the politics of Revolutionary-era France.  Noteworthy in the collection are several editions of the drama La Mort de Louis XVI: tragédie, written anonymously by Étienne Aignan and Jules-Julien-Gabriel Berthevin.  This tragedy dramatizes the trial and execution of Louis XVI and includes such characters as the king, Marie Antoinette, their defense lawyers, and various deputies of the Convention nationale like Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat.  Many editions also contain the text of Louis XVI’s will.

The 1797 Paris edition published by Élion (Case Wing DC137.08 .F73 v. 8 no. 27) also ends with two pages describing the 1795 acquittal of bookseller Antoinette-Emilie Durand and 16-year-old colporteur Jacques Igonnette of the charges that they sold anonymously authored and published works, including La mort de Louis XVI, that provoke the “dissolution de la réprésentation nationale” and the “meurtre de tous les membres qui la composent.”

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).

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.

Scholars’ visit

Since we spend so much of our time working behind the scenes on projects benefiting researchers and academics whom we rarely get to meet, it is always a pleasure to discuss the collections and our cataloging work at the Newberry Library with the people who are going to use them. For one thing, it’s helpful to hear from researchers about what they are interested in finding within our collections and how they intend to find it—keeping their perspective in mind makes it easier for us to provide user-friendly records with logical access points. For another, although we have all learned a lot about the French Revolution through the sheer number of pamphlets we have read and background research we have done, most of us didn’t come to this project with advanced degrees in French History.  Because of this, we I frequently wish we had unlimited access to experts in the field who could take one look at a pamphlet and tell us exactly what it’s about and in what context it was written.

One recent visit provided us with just such an opportunity. Last month, part of our team was fortunate enough to meet two visiting scholars of the French Revolution who came to take a look at our collection. Although most of the visitors to whom we show our French Revolutionary pamphlets are genuinely interested in them, it was especially rewarding to witness the enthusiastic reactions of researchers who were excited about being able to use our newly cataloged collection.

One of the scholars in particular was able to provide an astonishing amount of information about the pamphlets we showed him from just a cursory look. In fact, after I showed him a recently cataloged satirical dialogue between Louis XVI and the ghostly spirit of Louis XIV, he skimmed a few lines from the beginning, flipped to the final page, and promptly listed several ways he could tell that the pamphlet was an anti-monarchist piece. The intricacies of revolutionary politics and satire, were instantly recognizable to him because of his experience and expertise.

Opportunities to discuss our collection with experts are valuable because they show us that, although it is obvious even to the layperson that this collection is a treasure trove of information about the French Revolution, to the trained eye it contains even more depth and nuance than we could imagine.