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”).

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.

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