Chapter 38: The Trial of the King

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Fate of King undecided — Reason of delay — Trial determined on — Gamain betrays the King — Obstacles in way of trial — Justification of trial — Marie-Antoinette and Fersen — Girondins try to prevent trial by attacking “Mountain” — King appears before Convention — Death sentence pronounced — Execution of King

The two months which elapsed between the opening of the Convention and the trial of the King remain up till now an enigma for history.

The first question which confronted the Convention after it had met was naturally that of deciding what was to be done with the King and his family, imprisoned in the Temple. To keep them there for an indefinite time, until the invasion should be repelled and a republican constitution voted and accepted by the people, was impossible. How could the Republic be established, so long as it held the King and his legitimate heir in person, without daring to do anything with them?

Besides, having become simple individuals, who, taken from the palace, were dwelling en famille in prison, Louis XVI., Marie-Antoinette and their children became interesting martyrs, to whom the royalists were devoted, and whom the middle classes and even the sans-culottes pitied as they mounted guard over them at the Temple.

Such a situation could not continue. And yet, nearly two month passed, during which the Convention was very much interested in all manner of things without ever broaching the first consequence of August 10 — the fate of the King. This delay, in our opinion, must have been intentional, and we can only explain it by supposing that during this time they were carrying on secret conferences with the European Courts — conferences which have not yet been divulged, and which were certainly connected with the invasion and the issue of which depended on the turn that would be taken by the war.

We know already that Danton and Dumouriez had had parleyings with the chief commander of the Prussian army, which in the end decided him to separate from the Austrian and effect his retreat. And we know, too, that one of the conditions imposed by the Duke of Brunswick — although very probably it was not accepted — was that Louis XVI. should not be harmed. But there must have been more than that. Similar negotiations were very likely being carried on with England. And how can the silence of the Convention and the patience of the sections be explained, without supposing that there was an understanding between the “Mountain” and the Gironde?

To-day, however, it is clear to us that parleyings of this kind could come to nothing, and for two reasons. The fate of Louis XVI. and his family was not of sufficient interest to the King of Prussia, nor to the King of England, nor to the brother of Marie-Antoinette, the Emperor of Austria, for them to sacrifice national political interests to the personal interests of the prisoners in the Temple. That was plainly seen through the negotiations, which took place later, concerning the setting at liberty of Marie-Antoinette and Madame Elisabeth. And on the other hand, the allied Kings did not find in France among the educated class, the unity of republican sentiment which should have made their hope of re-establishing royalty vanish. On the contrary, they found the “intellectuals” of the middle classes very much inclined to accept either the Duke of Orléans (Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Freemasons, to which all the revolutionaries of renown belonged) or his son, the Duke de Chartres — the future Louis-Philippe — or even the Dauphin.

But the people became impatient. The popular societies throughout France demanded that the trial of the King should be deferred no longer, and on October 19, the Commune attended at the bar of the Convention to signify that this was the wish of Paris also. At last, on November 3, the first step was taken. A communication was read demanding that Louis XVI. should be put upon his trial, and the principal heads of accusation were formulated the next day. The discussion on this subject was opened on the 13th. The affair, however, would have still dragged out to a great length if on November 20, the locksmith Gamain, who had formerly taught Louis lock-making, had not revealed to Roland the existence in the Tuileries of a secret cupboard, which Gamain had helped the King to put in one of the walls, for keeping his papers.

This bit of history is well known. One day, in August 1792, Louis XVI. sent for Gamain from Versailles in order that he might help him to fix in a wall, under a panel, an iron door which he had constructed himself, to serve to shut in a kind of secret cupboard. When the work was finished, Gamain set out again in the night for Versailles, after drinking a glass of wine and eating a biscuit given to him by the Queen. He fell on the road, seized with violent colic, and had been ill ever since. Believing himself to have been poisoned, or worked upon, may be, by the fear of being prosecuted some day by the republicans, he gave information concerning the cupboard to Roland, who, without letting any one know, immediately took possession of the papers in it, carried them off to his house and examined them together with his wife, and having affixed his seal to each of them he brought them to the Convention.

The profound sensation produced by this discovery can be understood, especially when it became known through these papers that the King had bought the services of Mirabeau, that his agents had proposed to him to buy eleven influential members of the Legislative Assembly (it was already known that Barnave and Lameth had been won over to his cause), and that Louis XVI. still had in his pay those disbanded members of his guards who had placed themselves at the service of his brothers at Coblentz, and who were then marching with the Austrians upon France.

It is only now, when we have in our hands so many documents that confirm the treacheries of Louis XVI., and can see the forces which were, nevertheless, opposed to his condemnation, that we comprehend how very difficult it was for the Revolution to bring a King to judgment and to execute him.

All the prejudice, the open and latent servility in society, the fear for the property of the rich, and the distrust of the people, were joined together to hinder the trial. The Gironde, faithfully reflecting all these fears, did all that was possible to prevent the trial from taking place, and afterwards to prevent its ending in a condemnation, or, failing this, to see that the condemnation should not be a death, and finally, that the sentence should not be carried out.[189] Paris had to threaten the Convention with an insurrection to force it to pronounce its judgment when the trial opened, and not to defer the execution. And yet up to the present day what maudlin speeches are uttered, what tears are shed by the historians when they mention this trial!

And what about? If any general, no matter which, had been convicted of having done what Louis XVI. had done — that is, of calling in the foreign invaders and of supporting them — who, among the modern historians, all of them defenders of “State reasons,” would have hesitated a single moment to demand the death of that general? Why then so much lamentation when high treason was committed by the commander of all the armies of France?

According to all traditions and all fictions to which our historians and jurists resort for establishing the rights of the “head of the State,” the Convention was the sovereign at that moment. To it, and to it alone belonged the right of judging the sovereign whom the people had dethroned, as to it alone belonged the right of legislation which had fallen from his hands. Tried by the members of the Convention, Louis XVI. was — to use their own language — tried by his peers. And they, having ascertained the moral certitude of his treason, had no choice. They had to pronounce the sentence of death. Clemency even was outside the question at a time when blood was flowing on the frontiers. The allied Kings knew this themselves; they comprehended it perfectly.

As to the theory developed by Robespierre and Saint-Just, according to which the Republic had the right to kill Louis XVI. as its enemy, Marat was quite right to protest against it. That might have been done during or immediately after the conflict of August 10, but not three months after the fight. Now, there was nothing left to do but to try Louis with all the publicity possible, so that the peoples and posterity might themselves judge as to his knavery and his deceit.

In the matter of the act of high treason on the part of Louis XVI. and his wife, we, who have in our hands the correspondence of Marie-Antoinette with Fersen and the letters of Fersen to various personages, must admit that the Convention judged rightly, even though it had not the overwhelming proofs that we possess to-day. But so many facts had accumulated in the course of the last three years, so many avowals had been let drop by royalists and by the Queen, so many acts of the King since his flight to Varennes, which, although amnestied by the Constitution of 1791, served none the less to explain his ulterior acts — that every one was morally certain of his treason. Neither had the people of Paris any doubts on the subject.

In fact, treason began by the letter which Louis XVI. wrote to the Emperor of Austria the very day on which he took the oath to the Constitution in September 1791, amid the enthusiastic acclamations of the Parisian middle classes. Then came the correspondence of Marie-Antoinette with Fersen, written with the King's knowledge. Nothing is more odious than this correspondence. Ensconced in the Tuileries, the two traitors, the Queen and the King, asked for the invasion, planned it, pointed out the road for it, sent information concerning the forces and the military plans. The triumphal entry of the German allies into Paris and the wholesale massacre of all the revolutionists were planned out by the fair and skilful hand of Marie-Antoinette. The people had estimated truly the woman they called the “Médicis,” she whom the historians wish to represent to us now as a poor madcap.[190]

From the legal point of view, there is consequently nothing wherewith to reproach the Convention. As to the often-debated question whether the execution of the King did not do more harm than would have been caused by his presence in the midst of the German or English armies, there is only one remark to make. So long as the royal power was considered the propertied class as the best means of holding in check those who wish to dispossess the rich and diminish the power of the priests — so long the King, dead or alive, in prison or free, beheaded and canonised, going about as a knight-errant among his fellow Kings, would have always been the hero of a pathetic legend invented by the clergy and all interested persons.

On the contrary, by sending Louis to the scaffold, the Revolution succeeded in killing a principle, which the peasants had begun to kill at Varennes. On January 21, 1793, the revolutionary portion of the French people knew well that the pivot of all the power, which for centuries had oppressed and exploited the masses, was broken at last. The demolition of that powerful organisation which was crushing the people was begun; its centre was broken, and the popular revolution took a fresh start.

Since then the right divine of the Kings has never been able to re-establish itself in France, even with the support of Europe in coalition, even with the aid of the frightful “White Terror” of the Restoration. And royalties issuing from the barricades or from a coup d'état, like Napolean III., have not succeeded either, as we have seen in 1848 and 1870. The very principle of royalty was slain in France.

Everything was done, however, by the Girondins to prevent the condemnation of Louis XVI. They invoked every judicial argument, they had recourse to every parliamentary wile. There were even moments when the King's trial was nearly changed into a trial of the “Mountain.” But nothing availed. The logic of the situation carried the day over the quibbles of parliamentary tactics.

At first, the Girondins put forward the pretext of the King's inviolability, established by the Constitution, to which it was triumphantly replied that this inviolability no longer existed — since the King had betrayed the Constitution and his country.

A special tribunal, formed of representatives of the eighty-three departments, was next demanded; and when it became evident that this proposal would be set aside, the Girondins wanted to have the sentence submitted to the ratification of the thirty-six thousand communes and all the primary assemblies by a roll-call of each citizen. This was to call in question again the results of August 10 and the Republic.

When the impossibility of thus laying the trial upon the shoulders of the primary Assemblies was demonstrated, the Girondins, who had themselves most eagerly clamoured for the war and advocated war to the bitter end and against all Europe, began now to plead the effect which would be produced on Europe by the King's execution. As if England, Prussia, Austria and Sardinia had waited for the death of Louis XVI. to make their coalition. As if the democratic Republic was not sufficiently odious to them, as if the allurement of the great commercial ports of France, and her colonies and provinces in the East, were not enough to bring the Kings in coalition against France, so that they might profit by the moment when the birth of a new society had weakened his powers of military resistance outside his own territory.

Repulsed again on this point by the “Mountain,” the Girondins then made a diversion by attacking the “Mountain” itself, demanding that several members of this party should be brought to trial as “the aiders and abettors of the September massacres,” by whom were meant Danton, Marat and Robespierre, the “dictators,” the “triumvirate.”

In the midst of all these discussions the Convention decided on December 3 that it would itself try Louis XVI.; but scarcely was this declared than everything was again called in question by one of the Girondins, Ducos, and the attention of the Convention was turned in another direction. By demanding the penalty of death for “any person who shall propose to restore Kings or royalty in France, no matter under what denomination,” the Girondins flung at the “Mountain” an insinuation that the “Mountain” was trying to bring the Duke of Orléans to the throne. They sought to substitute a trial of the “Mountain” for the trial of the King.

At last, on December 11, Louis XVI. appeared before the Convention. He was subjected to an interrogation, and his replies must have killed any lingering sympathy which may have existed in his favour. Michelet asks how was it possible for a man to lie as Louie lied? And he can only explain his deceit by the fact that every kingly tradition and all the influence of the Jesuits to which Louis XVI. had been subjected, had inspired him with the idea that State reasons permitted a King to do anything.

The impression produced by this interrogation was so disadvantageous to Louis that the Girondins, comprehending that it would be impossible to save the King, made a fresh diversion demanding the expulsion of the Duke of Orléans. The convention allowed a vote to be taken on it, and decreed the expulsion, but the next day the decision was revoked after it had been disapproved by the Jacobin Club.

The trial, however, followed its due course, Louis XVI. appeared a second time before the Convention on December 26, with his advocates and his counsellors, Malesherbes, Tronchet and Desèze; his defence was heard, and it was evident that he would be condemned. There was no longer any possibility of interpreting his acts as an error of judgment, or as an act of foolishness. It was treason, deliberate and crafty, as Saint-Just the next day showed it to be.

If, however, the Convention and the people of Paris could thus form a clear opinion concerning Louis XVI. — both a man and king — it is to be understood that such was not the case with the provincial towns and villages. And we can imagine the unloosing of passions which would have resulted had the pronouncing of the penalty been referred to the Primary Assemblies. The majority of the revolutionist having gone to the frontiers, it would, as Robespierre said, have left the decision “to the rich, the natural friend of monarchy, to the selfish, to the feeble and the cowardly, to all the haughty and aristocratic upper middle class, all of them men born to thrive and to oppress under a King.”

We shall never disentangle all the intrigues which were set on foot at that time in Paris between the “statesmen.” It is enough to say that on January 1, 1793, Dumouriez hastened to Paris and stayed there until the 20th, occupied in clandestine conference with the various parties, while Danton remained until January 14 with the army of Dumouriez.[191]

At last, on the 14th, after an extremely stormy discussion, the Convention decided to vote, by name, upon three questions, namely, to know whether Louis XVI. was guilty of “conspiring against the liberty of the nation, and of criminal attempts against the general safety of the State”; whether the sentence should be submitted to the sanction of the people; and what should be the penalty.

The roll-call began the next day, the 15th. Out of 749 members of the Convention, 716 declared Louis XVI. guilty. Twelve members were absent through illness or official business, and five abstained from voting. No one said “not guilty.” The appeal to the people was rejected by 423 votes out of the 709 who voted. Paris, during all this time, was in a state of profound agitation, especially in the fauborgs.

The voting by name on the third question — the penalty — lasted twenty-five consecutive hours. Here again, apparently through the influence of the Spanish ambassador, and perhaps with the help of his piastres, one deputy, Mailhe, tried to stir up confusion by voting for a reprieve, and his example was followed by twenty-six members. Sentence of death, without any proviso, was pronounced by 387 out of 721 voters, there being five who abstained from voting and twelve absent. The sentence was therefore pronounced only by a majority of fifty-three voices — by twenty-six only, if we exclude the votes containing conditions of reprieve. And this was at a moment when all the evidence went to prove that the King had plotted treason; and that to let him live was to arm one-half of France against the other, to deliver up a large part of France to the foreigners, and, finally, to stop the Revolution at the time when, after three years of hesitation, during which nothing durable had been effected, an opportunity at last presented itself of broaching the great questions which were of such intense interest to the country.

But the fears of the middle classes went so far that on the day of the King's execution they expected a general massacre.

On January 21, Louis XVI. died upon the scaffold. One of the chief obstacles to all social regeneration within the Republic existed no longer. There is evidence that up to the last moment Louis hoped to be liberated by a rising, and an attempt to carry him off, when on the way to execution, had in fact been arranged. The vigilance of the Commune caused this to fail.