Saint-Just Calls for the King's Death
Posted on 22nd October 2021
In December 1792, the French National Convention charged King Louis XVI with crimes ranging from murder and corruption to colluding with a foreign enemy. On 17 January 1794, after a trial during which the King gave testimony on his own behalf the verdict was announced – guilty without exception.
Although the Convention had been unanimous regarding the King’s guilt what to do with him exactly was another matter. His fate lay in the balance. Some wanted him confined others sent into exile. But there was a vociferous lobby determined upon his execution.
Antoine St Just the 25 year old Deputy for the Aisne, soon to be member of the Committee of Public Safety, and close confidante of Maximilien Robespierre was in no doubt – the King must die! And he told the Convention so in no uncertain terms:
Any sensitive man on earth would respect our courage; what people ever made greater sacrifices for liberty! What people were more betrayed! What people less avenged! Let the King himself look into his heart and ask how he has treated this People who today are no more than just no less than great?
Citizens, when first you deliberated the question of this trial, I told you that a king was outside the state, and by nature above the law. This is why whatever covenant may have been agreed upon between the People and the King (in this case an illegitimate covenant), it did not bind him.
Nonetheless, you formed a tribunal and the sovereign stands at the bar with the King who is before you pleading his case and defending, himself.
You permitted that insult to the dignity of the people. Louis has cast the blame for his crimes on the ministers whom he oppressed and deceived. "Sire," wrote de Morgue to the King on 16 June 1792, "I hereby resign. The particular orders Your Majesty has given me prevent me from executing the laws." On another occasion, de Morgue tries to clear himself from having advised the King to approve the writ against fanatical priests. What sort of prince is it, before whom a minister needs to defend his integrity? And that man is supposed to be inviolable! Such is the circle in which you are placed: you are the judges, Louis the prosecutor, and the People the accused.
I do not know where this travesty of the most basic principles of justice will lead you. Had Louis refused your jurisdiction, the trap might not have been sprung. The denial of the sovereignty of the People would have been the final proof of his tyranny. But since the Revolution Louis has tended noticeably less towards open resistance. Subtly, seemingly unrefined and simplistic, he has shown his skill in dividing men. His unflagging policy was to remain motionless or to move in step with all patriots, just as today he seems even to work with his judges in order to make the insurrection appear to be but the rising of a lawless mob.
Defenders of the King, what would you require of us? If he is innocent, the nation is guilty. We must finish answering, for the very act of deliberating accuses the People.
I have heard talk of an appeal to the People of the verdict which the People itself will pronounce through us.
Citizens, if you permit an appeal to the People, you will be saying to them, "the guilt of your murderer is in doubt." Do you not see that such an appeal would tend to divide the People and the legislature, would tend to weaken representation, to restore monarchy, to destroy liberty? And if plotting succeeds in altering your verdict, I ask you gentlemen if you would be left with any option besides renouncing the Republic and returning the tyrant to his throne. There is but a small step from the King's exoneration to his triumph, and from there to the triumph of monarchy. Yet should the accusing people, the ravaged people, the oppressed people, be the judge? Did they not decline that responsibility after the tenth of August? Nobler, more scrupulous, less cruel than those who would send the accused before them, the People wanted a council to decide his fate. That tribunal has already shown too much weakness, and that weakness has already softened public opinion. If the tyrant appeals to his accusers, he does what Charles I never dared. In a functioning monarchy, it is not you who judge the King, for you are nothing by yourselves, but the People judge and speak through you.
Today will decide the fate of the Republic. It is doomed if the tyrant goes unpunished. The enemies of the common good will reappear, meet, and hope. The forces of tyranny will pick up their pieces like a reptile renewing its lost tail. All evil men are for the King. Who here then can join him? False pity is on the lips of some, anger on the lips of others. Everything serves to either corrupt us or frighten us down to our souls. Be steadfast in your severity and rest assured of the People's gratitude in time to come. Be more attuned to the true interests of the People than to the empty concerns and empty clamor by which the schemers seek to play upon the respect you have for the rights of the People, the better to destroy those rights and deceive the People. You called for war on all the tyrants of the world, and you would respect your own! Are bloody laws enforced only against the oppressed, and is the oppressor to be spared? . . .
We have shown an odd scorn towards the principles and character of this situation. Louis wishes to be King, to speak as King even while denying it. But a man unjustly placed above the law can present the judge only with his innocence or his guilt. Louis can only challenge us by proving his innocence and innocence has no need to challenge its judges for it has nothing to fear. Let Louis explain how the papers you have seen may favour liberty, let him show his wounds, and let us judge the People.
Some will say that the Revolution is over that we have nothing more to fear from the tyrant, and that the law now calls for the death of a usurper. But, citizens, tyranny is like a reed which bends with the wind and which rises again. What do you call a Revolution? The fall of a throne, a few blows levied at a few abuses? Moral order is like physical order: abuses disappear for an instant, just as the morning dew dries, and then just as it falls again with the night, so the abuses reappear. The Revolution begins when the tyrant ends.
I have attempted to show the conduct of the King. It is now for you to be just. You must put aside all considerations but those of justice and the common good. Above all, you must not compromise your liberty which was acquired at so high a price. You must pronounce a verdict which allows for no appeal. If you do not, the greatest of criminals, and a King, will have been the first to enjoy a right refused to citizens, and the tyrant will once again be above the law, even after his trial. Nor should you permit the verdict to be challenged, for it reflects the wishes and opinions of all. If those who spoke of the King are challenged, we will challenge, in the name of France, those who said nothing for our country or those who deceived it.
France is amongst us; let each man choose between her and the King, between the exercise of justice by the People and the exercise of your own weaknesses.
Weigh, if you will, the example which you owe the world, the impetus you owe liberty and the unflagging justice you owe the People, against criminal pity for one who never felt such a sentiment. Say to Europe as it bears witness: Unite your kings against us for we have rebelled against kings. Have the courage to speak the truth, for it seems to me that there are those here who fear sincerity. Truth burns silently in all hearts, like a lamp burning over a tomb. Yet if there be someone among you unconcerned by the fate of the Republic, let him fall at the feet of the tyrant, let him return the knife with which he slaughtered your fellow citizens, let him forget all crimes of the King and tell the people that we have been corrupted, and that we have been less interested in their well-being than in the fate of an assassin.
On 17 January the 721 members of the Convention passed sentence voting 361 to 360 for immediate execution. Louis XVI the last Bourbon King of France was decapitated beneath the National Razor four days later.
Tagged as: Fact File
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