11.12.09

Louis XVI, is put on Trial for Treason


"...On the 11th of December, the sound of a drum, and the noise of the arrival of troops at the Temple, gave us a great deal of uneasiness. My father came down with my brother after breakfast. At eleven o'clock, Chambon and Chaumette, the mayor and attorney-general of the Commune, and Colombeau, the secretary, arrived. They announced to him a decree of the Convention, that he should be brought to its bar to be examined. They obliged him to send my brother to his mother's apartment; but, not having the decree of the Convention, they kept my father waiting two hours. He did not go till about one o'clock, when he went in the mayor's carriage with Chaumette and Colombeau. The carriage was escorted by municipal officers on foot. My father observing, as they went along, that Colombeau saluted a great number of persons, asked him if they were all friends of his; Colombeau answered, "They are brave citizens of the 10th of August, whom I never see but with the greatest pleasure..." Madame Royale, Duchess of Angoulême, Memoires

It was on this day in 1792 that his Majesty King Louis XVI was placed on trial for treason.

Since 13 August the King and his family, his wife Queen Marie-Antoinette, their oldest daughter Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, known as Madame Royale, and her brother Louis-Charles, the future King Louis XVII, Madame Elizabeth the King's sister had been kept in the Temple prison under guard by the orders of the National Assembly.

The National Assembly (Assemblée nationale.) was a transitional body between the Estates-General and the National Constituent Assembly, consisted by 1792 of mainly two groups, Girondins and Jacobins, but may also be broken down further into mini-factions with a more or less radical agenda.

The Girondins who were less radical than their compains the Jacobins believed in maintaining King Louis under arrest, as a hostage and a bargaining piece. Their background in the law made it difficult for a great number of them to accept an execution without due process of some sort no matter how contrived it may be, and it was voted that their king should be tried before the National Convention, the representatives of the so called "sovereign people". The Paris Commune and Parisian deputies who would soon be known as the Mountain(1) argued for Louis's immediate execution.

"...Louis cannot be judged, he has already been judged. He has been condemned, or else the republic is not blameless. To suggest putting Louis XVI on trial, in whatever way, is a step back towards royal and constitutional despotism; it is a counter-revolutionary idea; because it puts the Revolution itself in the dock. After all, if Louis can still be put on trial, Louis can be acquitted; he might be innocent. Or rather, he is presumed to be until found guilty. But if Louis is acquitted, if Louis can be presumed innocent, what becomes of the Revolution?..." Robespierre

On 11 December, among crowded and silent streets, the King was brought from the Temple to stand before the Convention and hear the indictment, an accusation of high treason and crimes(2) against the state. His trial, such as it was, continued from 11 to the 26 of December 1792. It was cold that winter and the only heat was provided by a small charcoal stove.

The problem of what to do with Louis XVI rested on the question of whether the King of France could be tried. The Constitution of 1791 protected the monarch from any penalty worse than dethronement, and no court in the land had legitimate jurisdiction over him. Yet Robespierre's argument (above) that a trial was unnecessary was generally rejected: Louis couldn't be condemned without a trial. So, with no other alternative before them, the Convention took on the role of a court. In most respects this was contrary to accepted judicial principles; but it was expedient, there seemed to be no other alternative.

Louis' defense was founded on his rights under the Constitution and on the illegality of the institution trying him. Constitutionally his case was well founded provided he could convince the deputies that he had honestly intended to become a constitutional monarch. The perception that he was evasive in many of his replies under cross examination did not inspire the confidence that he had so intended. By ordinary standards his trial was illegal, as the defense ably argued; but the Convention had usurped absolute power, and this therefore changed the terms of the trial. It was inconceivable to the Assembly that the King could be allowed to commit treason without being punished. If deputies found him guilty, the penalty was death. To allow Louis to live would undermine the principles of the revolution, but relieve the consciences of those who doubted the Convention's right to act as a court. In the end he would be found guilty.

On 26 December, his counsel, Raymond Desèze, delivered Louis's response to the charges, with the assistance of François Tronchet and Malesherbes. Jean-Paul Marat, (the epitome of démagogues of the sans-culottes), was favourably impressed, and declared: "Desèze read a long speech made with a great deal of art", small praise from a man who on his wall had written La Mort! (Death!).

"...I shall not say any thing of the conduct of my father at the bar of the Convention. All the world knows it: his firmness, his mildness, his goodness, his courage, in the midst of an assembly of murderers thirsting for his blood, can never be forgotten, and must be admired by the latest posterity..."
Madame Royale, Duchess of Angoulême (3) , Memoires

Dieu Sauve le Roy!
Dieu le Roy!
Brantigny

Further reading please see Ruin of a Princess...

(1) Their name derived from the seat location in the assembly; they sat above the Marais or Plein (Marsh or Plain) the majority of the members of the Assembly. The members of the Mountain, or the Montagnards, voted for the execution of Louis XVI. Later the positions would be shifted, so one party sat on the left and the other on the right. Today our notions of the left leaning party,(liberal) and the right leaning party (conservatives) is derived.
(2) "High" in the legal parlance of the 18th century means "against the State". A high crime is one which seeks the overthrow of a country, which gives aid or comfort to its enemies, or which injures the country to the profit of an individual or group. The punishments for nobility were stricter than that for a peasant. Hence cruel and unusual punishment would be one that gave the peasant the same punishment as a nobleman.
(3) Madame Royale became the Duchesse d'Angoulême upon her marriage to Louis-Antoine, Duc d'Angoulême, her cousin. The Kings sister, Princess Elizabeth, called Madame Elizabeth, had been the Duchesse d'Angoulême until her death by the mob.

1 comment:

Matterhorn said...

Malesherbes, especially, is a person I would like to learn more about. He must have been a very good man to volunteer (particularly in his old age) for such a difficult and dangerous task.