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.

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.

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).

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