Trial of Louis XVI

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Louis being cross-examined by the Convention.

The trial of Louis XVI was a key event of the French Revolution. It involved the trial of the former French king Louis XVI before the National Convention and led to his execution.

10–11 December 1792[edit]

The trial began on 3 December. On 4 December the Convention's president Bertrand Barère presented it with the indictment (drafted by Jean-Baptiste Robert Lindet) and decreed the interrogation of Louis XVI. Louis made his entrance into the Convention chamber then: "Louis", said Barère de Vieuzac, "the nation accuses you, the National Assembly decreed on 3 December that you would be judged by it; on 6 December, it decided that you would be brought to the dock. We shall read you the act giving the offenses with which you are charged...".[citation needed]

The 33 charges[edit]

Louis was then read the charges by the Convention's secretary: Louis, the French people accuse you of having committed a multitude of crimes in order to establish your tyranny by destroying its liberty.

  1. On 20 June 1789, you attacked the sovereignty of the people by suspending the assemblies of its representatives and by driving them by violence from the place of their sessions.[1] Proof thereof exists in the procès-verbal drafted at the Tennis Court of Versailles by the members of the Constituent Assembly.
  2. On 23 June you wished to dictate the laws to the nation; you surrounded its representatives with troops; you presented them with two royal declarations, subversive of every liberty, and you ordered them to separate. Your declarations and the minutes of the Assembly established these outrages undeniably.[2]
  3. You caused an army to march against the citizens of Paris; your satellites caused their blood to flow, and you withdrew this army only when the capture of the Bastille and the general insurrection apprised you that the people were victorious. The speeches that you gave on 9, 12, and 14 July to various deputations from the Constituent Assembly indicated your intentions, and the massacres of the Tuileries stood as evidence against you.[3]
  4. After said events, and in spite of the promises you made on the 15th in the Constituent Assembly, and on the 17th at the Paris City Hall, you persisted in your designs against national liberty. For a long time you evaded executing the decrees of 11 August concerning the abolition of personal servitude, the feudal regime, and the tithe. For a long time you refused to acknowledge the Declaration of the Rights of Man. You doubled the number of your bodyguards and summoned the Flanders Regiment to Versailles. In orgies held before your very eyes your permitted the national cockade to be trampled under foot, the white cockade to be raised, and the nation blasphemed; finally, you occasioned a new insurrection, caused the death of several citizens, and only after the defeat of your guards did you change your language and renew your perfidious promises. The proofs of these facts are present in foot your observations of 18 September on the decrees of 11 August, in the minutes of the Constituent Assembly, in the events of 5 and 6 October at Versailles, and in the discourse that you gave on the same day to a deputation from the Constituent Assembly, when you told it that you wished to enlighten its counsels and never to separate yourself from it.
  5. At the federation of 14 July you took an oath which you have not kept. Soon you attempted to corrupt the public mind with the aid of Talon, who acted in Paris, and of Mirabeau, who was to impart a counter-revolutionary movement to the provinces. You disbursed millions to accomplish such corruption, and you even wished to make popularity a means of enslaving the people. These facts derive from a memoir of Talon, postscripted by your own hand, and from a letter written to you by Laporte on 19 April, and in which, reporting a conversation that he had had with Rivarol, he told you that the millions pledged to you for distribution had produced nothing.
  6. For a long time you contemplated flight: on 23 February a memoir was sent to you indicating the means therefore, and you approved it. On the 28th a multitude of nobles and officers distributed themselves throughout your apartments at the Tuileries Palace to facilitate such flight. On 18 April you wished to leave Paris to go to St. Cloud, but the resistance of the citizens showed you that opposition was great; you sought to dissipate it by communicating to the Constituent Assembly a letter that you were sending to the agents of the nation in foreign countries, to announce to them that you had freely accepted the constitutional articles presented to you, but on 21 June you made your escape with a false passport; you left a declaration against those same constitutional articles; you ordered the ministers not to sign any documents emanating from National Assembly, and you forbade the Minister of Justice to deliver the Seals of State. The people’s money was wasted in achieving the success of this treason, and the public force was to protect it under the orders of Bouillé, who but lately had been charged with directing the massacre of Nancy, and to whom you had written concerning that event to attest to his popularity because he might be useful to you. These facts are proven by the memoir of 23 February, postscripted in your own hand; by your declaration of 20 June, entirely in your handwriting; by your letter of 24 September 1790, to Bouillé, and by a note from him in which he gave you an accounting of the use of 983,000 livres provided by you and employed in part in the corrupting of the troops which were to be your escort.[4]
  7. After your arrest at Varennes, the exercise of the executive power was for a time taken form your hands; and still you conspired. On 17 July the blood of citizens was shed at the Champ-de-Mars. A letter in your handwriting, written in 1790 to Lafayette, proves that a criminal coalition existed between you and him, and that Mirabeau had acceded thereto. Revision began under these cruel auspices; all kinds of corruption were employed you paid for libels, pamphlets, newspapers intended to pervert public opinion, to discredit the assignats, and to uphold the cause of the émigrés. The registers of Septeuil show that enormous sums were spent in these liberticide stratagems. On 14 September you apparently accepted the Constitution; your speeches announced a desire to maintain it, and you worked to overthrow it before it even was achieved.
  8. An agreement was made at Pillnitz, on 24 July, between Leopold of Austria and Frederick William of Brandenburg, who pledged themselves to restore to France the throne of the absolute monarchy; and you were silent on that agreement up to the time when it was known to all Europe.
  9. Arles raised the standard of revolt; you favored it by sending three civil commissioners, who concerned themselves, not with repressing the counter-revolutionaries, but with justifying their attacks.
  10. Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin were joined to France; and you did not have the decree executed until a month had elapsed; and during that time civil war desolated that territory. The commissioners you successively sent there completed the work of devastation.
  11. Nîmes, Montauban, and Jalès experienced great disturbances from the first days of counter-revolution, up to the time when the conspiracy of Dussailant manifested itself.
  12. You sent twenty-two battalions against the people of Marseilles who were marching to subdue the counter-revolutionaries of Arles.
  13. You gave the command of the South to Wittgenstein, who wrote to you on 21 April 1792, after he had been recalled; “A little throne thousands of Frenchmen who have again become worthy of the vows you are making for their welfare.”
  14. You paid your former bodyguards at Coblentz; the registers of Septeuil stand proof thereof, and several orders signed by you show that you had considerable sums passed on to Boullé, Rochefort, La Vauguyon, Choiseul-Beaupré, Hamilton, and Mme. Polignac.
  15. Your brothers, enemies of the state, have rallied the émigrés under their colors; they have raised regiments, borrowed money, and contracted alliances in your name; you disavowed them only when you were quite certain that you could not harm their plans.[5] Your understanding with them is proved by a letter written in the handwriting of Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, signed by your two brothers, and worded as follows: “I wrote to you, but it was by post and I could say nothing. We are here two persons acting as one, with the same sentiments, the same principles the same ardor to serve you. We are maintaining silence; but that is because, by breaking it too soon, we might compromise you; but we shall speak as soon as we are sure of general support, and that moment is near. If we are addressed on the part of those people, we shall listen to nothing; if it is on your behalf, we shall heed; but we shall go straight along our way; so, if they want you to make us say something, do not worry. Be at ease about your safety; we live only to serve you; we are working ardently for that purpose, and all is going well; even our enemies take too great an interest in your presentation to commit a useless crime which would complete their destruction. Farewell. L.-S. –Xavier and Charles-Philippe.”
  16. The army of the line, which should have been brought to a war footing, was only 100,000 strong at the end of December; you thus neglected to provide for the external security of the State. Narbonne, your agent, requested a levy of 50,000 men; but he stopped the recruiting at 26,000, giving assurance that everything was ready. Nothing, however, was ready. After him, Servan proposed the formation of a camp of 20,000 men in the vicinity of Paris; the Legislative Assembly so decreed; you refused your sanction. An outburst of enthusiasm caused citizens to set out from all sides for Paris; you issued a proclamation which tended to stop them. However, our armies were lacking in soldiers; Dumouriez, Servan’s successor, declared that the nation had neither arms, munitions, nor provisions, and that the positions were not defendable.
  17. You were issued an order to the commanders of the troops to disorganize the army, to drive entire regiments to desertion, and to have them cross the Rhine in order to place them at the disposal of your brothers and Leopold of Austria; this fact is proved by a letter from Toulongeon, commander of Franche-Comté.
  18. You charged your diplomatic agents with favoring the coalition of foreign powers and your brothers against France; and particularly to strengthen peace between Turkey and Austria, in order to excuse the latter from supplying its frontiers on the Turkish boundary and thereby to procure for it a greater number of troops against France. A letter from Choiseul-Gouffier, former ambassador to Constantinople, establishes this fact.
  19. You waited to be actuated by a requisition made to Minister Lajard, whom the Legislative Assembly was asking to indicate his means of providing for the external security of the State, before proposing by a message the levy of forty-two battalions.
  20. The Prussians were advancing on our frontiers. Your minister was called upon, on 8 July, to give an account of the state of our political relations with Prussia; on the 10th you replied that 50,000 Prussians were marching against us, and that you were advising the Legislative Body officially of these imminent hostilities, as required by the Constitution.
  21. You entrusted the Department of War to Dabancourt, nephew of Calonne; and such was the success of your conspiracy, that the positions of Longwy and Verdun were surrendered as soon as the enemy appeared.
  22. You destroyed our navy. Many officers of that body were émigrés; hardly any remained to perform the service of the ports: however, Bertrand always granted passports; when the Legislative Body exposed his guilt to you, on 8 March, you replied that you were satisfied with his services.
  23. You favored the maintenances of absolute government in the colonies; throughout them, your agents fomented disorder and counter-revolution, which took place at the same time that it occurred in France, a sufficient indications that your hand conducted this plot.
  24. The interior of the State was disturbed by fanatics, and you declared yourself their protector by manifesting the obvious intention of recovering your former power through them.
  25. On 29 September the Legislative Body issued a decree against rebellious priests; you suspended the execution thereof.
  26. Disturbances increased; the minister declared that, under existing laws, he knew of no means of prosecuting the guilty parties. The Legislative Body issued a new decree; you suspended its execution also.
  27. The lack of patriotism on the part of the guards whom the Constitution had given you necessitated their disbanding. The next day you wrote them a letter of satisfaction; you continued to pay them. This fact is proved by the accounts of the treasurer of the Civil List
  28. You kept the Swiss Guards with you; the Constitution forbade them, and the Legislative Assembly had expressly ordered their departure.
  29. In Paris you had special companies charged with carrying on activities useful to your counter-revolutionary plans. D’Angremont and Gilles were two of your agents; they were on the payroll of the Civil List. The receipts of Gilles, charged with the organization of a company of sixty men, will be presented to you.
  30. You tried to bribe, with considerable sums, several members of the Constituent and Legislative Assemblies;[6] letters form Dufresne Saint-Léon and several others, which will be presented to you, establish this fact.
  31. You allowed the French nation to be disgraced in Germany, in Italy, and in Spain, since you did nothing to exact reparation for the ill treatment which the French experienced in those countries.[7]
  32. On 10 August you reviewed the Swiss Guards at five o’clock in the morning; and the Swiss Guards fired first on the citizens.[8]
  33. You caused the blood of Frenchmen to flow.[9]

Cross-examination[edit]

Louis XVI heard the 33 charges sitting in the armchair in which he had accepted the Constitution. After the secretary had read him the accusation act, Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac repeated each charge and questioned Louis XVI.

The defense, 26 December 1792[edit]

The Defense Team[edit]

Louis XVI sought the most illustrious legal minds in France as his defense team. He first asked Gui-Jean-Baptiste Target, former deputy of the National Constituent Assembly and hero of the Parlements of the ancien régime, to lead his defense, but the elderly lawyer refused on account of his age (and obesity). The task of lead counsel fell to Raymond Desèze, who was assisted by François Denis Tronchet (Target's closest colleague, who came on board reluctantly, only at the King's insistence) and Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes (Louis XVI's former Secretary of State).

Though he had only two weeks to prepare his defence arguments. Desèze's brilliance so shone through in a first draft that, although moving, Louis rejected as too rhetorical, saying, "I do not want to play on their (the Convention's) feelings".

When the time to deliver the defence (26 December 1792), despite having had no sleep for over four days, he pled the king's case for three hours, arguing eloquently yet discreetly that the revolution spare his life. Beginning with a description of why the charges were invalid (under the terms of the Constitution of 1791 Louis, as king, was immune from prosecution), he attacked the right of National Convention to stand as judge and jury. Finally, he moved to a rejection of the charges in the acte enonciatif drawn up by the constitution charge by charge, with a royalist history of the revolution, portraying Louis as 'the restorer of French Liberty". He finished, like many of the set-piece speeches of the revolution, with an appeal to history:

Louis ascended the throne at the age of twenty, and at the age of twenty he gave to the throne the example of character. He brought to the throne no wicked weaknesses, no corrupting passions. He was economical, just, severe. He showed himself always the constant friend of the people. The people wanted the abolition of servitude. He began by abolishing it on his own lands. The people asked for reforms in the criminal law... he carried out these reforms. The people wanted liberty: he gave it to them. The people themselves came before him in his sacrifices. Nevertheless, it is in the name of these very people that one today demands... Citizens, I cannot finish... I stop myself before History. Think how it will judge your judgement, and that the judgement of him will be judged by the centuries.

Declaration of Louis XVI in his defense.[edit]

"You have heard my defense, I would not repeat the details. In talking to you perhaps for the last time, I declare that my conscience reproaches me with nothing, and my defenders have told you the truth. I never feared the public examination of my conduct, but my heart is torn by the imputation that I would want to shed the blood of the people and especially that the misfortunes of August 10th be attributed to me. I avow that the many proofs that I have always acted from my love of the people, and the manner in which I have always conducted myself, seemed to prove that I did not fear to put myself forward in order to spare their blood, and forever prevent such an imputation."

The verdict, 14–15 January[edit]

Given overwhelming evidence of Louis' collusion with the invaders, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Ultimately, 693 deputies voted "yes" in favor of a verdict of guilty. Not a single deputy voted "no," though 26 attached some condition to their votes. Twenty-six deputies were absent from the vote, most on official business. Twenty-three deputies abstained, for various reasons. Several abstained because they felt they had been elected to make laws rather than to judge.

The punishment, 16–17 January[edit]

The Mailhe amendment[edit]

For the king's sentence, deputy Jean-Baptiste Mailhe proposed "Death, but [...] I think it would be worthy of the Convention to consider whether it would be useful to policy to delay the execution" which was supported by twenty-six deputies. This "Mailhe amendment" was regarded by some of Mailhe's contemporaries as a conspiracy to save the king's life. It was even suggested that Mailhe had been paid, perhaps by Spanish gold.

The vote[edit]

Paris voted overwhelmingly for death, 21 to 3. Robespierre voted first, and said "The sentiment that led me to call for the abolition of the death penalty is the same that today forces me to demand that it be applied to the tyrant of my country." Philippe Égalité, formerly the Duke of Orléans and Louis' own cousin, voted for his execution, a cause of much future bitterness among French monarchists.

There were 721 voters in total. 34 voted for death with attached conditions (23 of whom invoked the Mailhe amendment), 2 voted for life imprisonment in irons, 319 voted for imprisonment until the end of the war (to be followed by banishment). 361 voted for death without conditions, just carrying the vote by a marginal majority. Louis was to be put to death.

Sources[edit]

  • David P. Jordan, The King's Trial - Louis XVI vs. the French Revolution, University of California Press, 1979. ISBN 0-520-04399-5.
  • Michael Walzer, Regicide and Revolution - Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI, Columbia University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-231-08259-4.

External links[edit]