|The Trial and Execution of King Louis XVI
A Summary of what happened...
The problem of what to do with Louis XVI rested on the question of whether the King of France can be tried. There wasn't a right answer. 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 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, and there seemed to be no other viable course.
Louis' defense centered on his rights under the Constitution and on the illegality of the institution trying him. Constitutionally his case was unassailable - provided he could convince the deputies that he had honestly intended to become a constitutional monarch. The evasiveness of many of his replies under cross-examination did not inspire confidence that he had so intended. By ordinary standards his trial was illegal, as the defense ably argued; but the Convention had absolute powers, and this changed the terms of the discussion. It was inconceivable that the King could be allowed to commit treason without being punished. If deputies found him guilty, the legal penalty was death, and the only way of averting this was to place politics above justice. To allow Louis to live would undermine the principle of revolutionary justice, but relieve the consciences of those who doubted the Convention's right to act as a court.
Paris was hostile to the King and the issues of the trial were avidly discussed. From late December the Girodins urged a nationwide referendum, to shift responsibility and remove any suspicion of Parisian intimidation. Most deputies rejected this appel au peuple, since it seemed likely to promote civil war.
For the participants the trial was traumatic and dangerous. In the venomous debates in the Convention the right classed all Parisians as septembriseurs, radical supporters of street violence, and all those favoring regicide as tainted by bloodlust. Those in favor of executing the King accused their opponents of royalism, a deadly insult to men whose true concern was Parisian extremism or who were opposed in principle to capital punishment, as Robespierre had been in the past. All the deputies knew they were risking their lives; the anti-regicides remembered the September massacres, the regicides feared royalist vengeance. Yet few abstained from voting, and changes of direction continued until the end of the debate. At the first vote, the 693 deputies present unanimously voted Louis guilty and the call for a referendum was rejected by 424 to 283. The death penalty was carried 387 to 334. Seventy-two deputies asked for a reprieve, but an extra vote saw their demand rejected by 380 to 310. On each occasion deputies answered individually to their names. The process spread over five days. On January 21, 1793, Louis was driven through troop-lined streets to the guillotine and decapitated.