The Family and the King

The martyrdom of King Louis XVI was the most important political and social act of the French Revolution and the central drama in the revolutionary over throw of the family. It was the seed which fostered the destruction of the traditional family. Everyone recognized its symbolic significance, yet the revolutionaries had various and often contradictory views about the meaning of this act.

Though the deputies in the Convention frequently cited the historical precedent of the execution of England's Charles I, for example, they drew no single consistent meaning from it. In any case, everyone knew that kingship had been restored in England and the regicides punished(1); it was not a particularly encouraging precedent.

Revolutionaries and royalists alike considered the king the head of the entire social order, even though the political position of Louis XVI had been undermined in some respects before 1793, perhaps even before 1789. The status of "Louis Capet"(2) was very much in question at the time of his execution. Had the executioner killed a king or a man deprived of his Sacred status? Whatever the answer, his death in 1793 drew attention to a sacred void, marked by the empty pedestal facing Louis during his execution. The pedestal had supported a statue of his grandfather,(4) Louis XV. The government which ordered the execution of the former king was a republic whose legitimacy rested on popular sovereignty. Establishing a republic on paper took a stroke of the pen; winning the allegiance of the population and establishing an enduring sense of legitimacy required much more. What would make people obey the law in the new social order? The king had been the head of a social body held together by bonds of deference; peasants deferred to their landlords, journeymen to their masters, great magnates to their king, wives to their husbands, and children to their parents. Authority in the state was explicitly modeled on authority in the family. A royal declaration of 1639 had explained, "The natural reverence of children for their parents is linked to the legitimate obedience of subjects to their sovereign." Once the king had been eliminated, what was to be the model that ensured the citizens' obedience?

No one understood better than the English critic of the Revolution, Edmund Burke,(3) the connection between filial devotion and the willingness of a subject to obey. He feared that the whole community would be destroyed by the subversion of "those principles of domestic trust and fidelity which form the discipline of social life." In reviewing the early events of the French Revolution and in particular the demeaning of the royal family during the October Days of 1789, Burke bemoaned the passing of what he called the age of chivalry and its replacement by the age of "sophisters, economists, and calculators".

1) Many of the regicides could not themselves forstall the "National Haircut" during the terror, including Robespeirre, and one "Phillipe d'Egalite'"
2) The Conventions words not mine.
3) Good order is the foundation of all things. Edmund Burke, 'Reflections on the Revolution in France,' 1790
4)The portrait of Louis XV in his coronation robes, from the NC Museum of Art

Vive le Roi!
de Brantigny

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