Tag Archives: Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection

Spotlight Exhibit on French pamphlets opens!

We are pleased to announce the opening of a new exhibition highlighting the French pamphlet collections cataloged as part of our project: the French Revolution Collection (FRC), Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection, Saint-Sulpice Collection, and Collection of publishers’ prospectuses, catalogs, and other materials.  Politics, Piety, and Poison: French Pamphlets, 1600-1800 is one in a series of Spotlight Exhibits curated by Newberry Library staff that highlight a diverse range of items in the Library’s collection.  The exhibition closes April 13, 2013.  For those who are unable to visit, an online version of the exhibition is in the works.

Politics, Piety, and Poison: French Pamphlets, 1600–1800

Case FRC 16228, La guillotinne
Case FRC 16228, La guillotinne
Monday, January 28, 2013 to Saturday, April 13, 2013

Hermon Dunlap Smith Gallery

This exhibition displays French pamphlets published during the transitional period from the Ancien Régime to the French Revolution. They served as modes of dissemination and diversion, teaching tools and educational models, and the foundation for current and future scholarly projects. The exhibition focuses on the ways in which these pamphlets complement and enhance the Newberry’s other vast collections of primary sources documenting early modern European culture and the history of printing. The Newberry’s outstanding collection of French pamphlets was recently cataloged through a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

Spreading the word: connecting scholars with primary sources

On Saturday I had the great privilege of speaking about our French pamphlet cataloging project at the annual Center for Renaissance Studies Consortium representative meeting at the Newberry Library.  The Center for Renaissance Studies develops and facilitates programming that connects scholars with the Newberry’s vast collections of late medieval, Renaissance, and early modern materials.

I briefly described the four core collections of French pamphlets that are part of our cataloging project and showed images of many representative examples.  I heard an audible gasp when I mentioned how many items we have cataloged in fewer than three years: 22,300 (and still counting!).  The collections in aggregate span the 16th to the early 19th centuries and cross many different genres including funeral orations, political discourses, broadsides, plays, songs, and satires.  Because of the breadth and volume of these pamphlet collections, scholars have a deep and rich treasure trove of primary source documents with which they can approach research from a variety of perspectives, including social and political history, biography, and  literary criticism.

Several representatives approached me or contacted me after the meeting to share their enthusiasm for the research potential of our pamphlet collections, whether for their own research or for that of their colleagues.  To view records for all of the cataloged items within a particular collection, click the links below.  Bonnes recherches!

French Revolution Collection (FRC)

Louis XVI Trials and Execution Collection

Saint-Sulpice Collection

Collection of publishers’ prospectuses, catalogs, and other materials

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.

IRLA show and tell

The Independent Research Libraries Association (IRLA) held a meeting for representatives from their member institutions at the Newberry today.  The final portion of their visit included a sort of show and tell with examples of recent acquisitions and projects from of our various collections, including the French pamphlet collections.  The setup was fun in that each Newberry staff member representing a particular collection or area was stationed at a table in one of the reading rooms, with each table containing some items for display and discussion.  Much like one would do at a poster session, the guests were able to simply walk from table to table in any order to see the examples from our collections and ask questions.  We had items representing the several pamphlet collections that officially comprise the work of the CLIR grant: the French Revolution Collection (FRC); Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection; Saint-Sulpice Collection; and Collection of publishers’ prospectuses, catalogs, and other materials.  The visit provided a great opportunity to talk about the collections and the work we’ve done so far.