Maximilien Robespierre: Louis Must Die, That the Republic Can Live


“On the Trial of the King” by Maximilien Robespierre
3 December 1792


The Assembly has been led, without realizing it, far from the real question. There is no trial to be held here. Louis is not a defendant. You are not judges. You are not, you cannot be anything but statesmen and representatives of the nation. You have no sentence to pronounce for or against a man, but a measure of public salvation to implement, an act of national providence to perform. A dethroned king, in the Republic, is good for only two uses: either to trouble the peace of the state and threaten liberty, or to affirm both of these at the same time. Now I maintain that the character of your deliberation so far runs directly counter to that goal. In fact, what is the decision that sound policy proscribes to consolidate the nascent Republic? It is to engrave contempt for royalty deeply on the people’s hearts and dumbfound all the king’s supporters. Thus, to present his crime to the universe as a problem, to treat his cause as an object of the most imposing, the most religious, the most difficult discussion that could occupy the representatives of the French people; to establish an immeasurable distance between the mere memory of what he was and the dignity of the citizen, amounts precisely to having found the secret of keeping him dangerous to liberty.

Louis was king, and the Republic was founded: the famous question you are considering is settled by these words alone. Louis was dethroned by  his crimes; Louis denounced the French people as rebellions; to chastise it, he called on the arms of his fellow tyrants; victory and the people decided that he was the rebellions one: therefore Louis cannot be judged; either he is already condemned or the Republic is not acquitted. Proposing to put Louis on trial, in whatever way that could be done, would be to regress towards royal and constitutional despotism; it is a counter-revolutionary idea, for it means putting the revolution itself in contention. In fact, if Louis can still be put on trial, then he can be acquitted; he may be innocent; what am I saying! He is presumed to to be so until he has been tried. But if Louis is acquitted, if Louis can be presumed innocent, what becomes of the revolution? If Louis is innocent, then all defenders of liberty become slanderers; the rebels were the friends of truth and defenders of oppressed innocence; all the manifestos from foreign courts are just legitimate complaints against a dominant faction. Even the detention of Louis has suffered so far is an unjust vexation; the fédérés, the people of Paris, all the patriots of the French empire are guilty; and, pending nature’s tribunal, this great trial between crime and virtue, between liberty and tyranny, is decided in favour of crime and tyranny.

Citizens, have a care; you are being misled here by false notions. You are confusing the rules of civil and statue law with the principles of the laws of nations; you are confusing relations between citizens with those between a nation and an enemy conspiring against it. You are also confusing the situation of a people in revolution with that of a people whose government is soundly established. You are confusing a nation that punishes a public official while conserving the form of government, with one that destroys the government itself. We refer to ideas familiar to us to understand an extraordinary case  that functions on principles we have never applied. Thus, because we are accustomed to seeing offenses we have witnessed judged according to uniform rules, we are naturally inclined to believe that under no circumstances can nations equitably punish a man who has violated their rights in any other way; and that where we do not see a jury, a bench, proceedings, we do not find justice. These very terms, when we apply them to ideas different from the ones they normally express, end by misleading us. Such is the natural dominion of habit that we regard the most arbitrary conventions, sometimes indeed the most defective institutions, as absolute measures of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice. It does not even occur to us t hat most are inevitably still connected with the prejudices on which despotism fed us. We have been so long stooped under its yoke that we have some difficulty in raising ourselves to the eternal principles of reason; anything that refers to all the sacred source of all law seems to us to take on an illegal character, and the very order of nature seems to us a disorder. The majestic movements of a great people, the sublime fervours of virtue often appear to our timid eyes as something like an erupting volcano or the overthrow of political society; and it is certainly not the least of the troubles bothering us, the contradiction between the weakness of our morals, the depravity of our minds, and the purity of principle and energy of character demanded by the free government to which we have dared aspire.

When a nation has been forced to resort to the right of insurrection, it returns to the state of nature in relation to the tyrant. How can the tyrant invoke the social pact? He has annihilated it. The nation can still keep it, if it thinks fit, for everything concerning relations between citizens; but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely where the tyrant is concerned; it places them reciprocally in a state of war. Courts and legal proceedings are only for members of the same side.

It is a gross contradiction to suppose that the constitution might preside over this new order of things; that would be to assume it had itself survived. What are the laws that replace it? Those of nature, the one which is the foundation of society itself: the salvation of the people. The right to punish the tyrant and the right to dethrone him are the same thing; both include the same forms. The tyrant’s trial is the insurrection; the verdict, the collapse of his power; the sentence, whatever the liberty of the people requires.

People do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts; they do not condemn kings, they drop them back into the void; and this justice is worth just as much as that of the courts. If it is for their salvation that they take arms against their oppressors, how can they be made to adopt a way of punishing them that would pose a new danger to themselves?

We have allowed ourselves to be led into error by foreign examples that have nothing in common with us. Cromwell had Charles I tried by a judicial commission he controlled; Elizabeth had Mary Queen of Scots condemned in the same way; it is natural that tyrants who sacrifice their fellows, not to the people, but to their own ambition, should seek to mislead vulgar opinion with illusory forms. There is no question there of principle or liberty, but of deceit and intrigue. But the people! What other law can it follow, than justice and reason supported by its own absolute power?

In what republic was the need to punish the tyrant a legal matter? Was Tarquin called to trial? What would have been said in Rome, if Romans had dared say they were his defenders? And what are we doing? We are summoning lawyers from every side to plead the cause of Louis XVI.

We are establishing as legitimate acts what any free people would have regarded as the greatest of crimes. We are ourselves inviting the citizens to baseness and corruption. We could well find ourselves one day awarding Louis’s defenders civil crowns; for if they defend his cause, they may hope to make it triumph; otherwise you would be showing the universe nothing but a ridiculous charade. And we dare to use the word Republic! We invoke forms, because we have no principle; we pride ourselves on our delicacy, because we lack energy; we flaunt a false humanity, because the feeling of true humanity is foreign to us; we revere the shadow of a king, because we do not know how to respect the people; we are tender towards oppressors, because we are heartless towards the oppressed.

The trial of Louis XVI! But what is that trial, if not a call for insurrection in some tribunal or assembly? When a king has been annihilated by the people, who has the right to resuscitate him and make him a new pretext for trouble and rebellion, and whatever other efforts this scheme might produce? By opening an arena for the champions of Louis XVI, you are renewing the quarrels of despotism against liberty, you are establishing the right to blaspheme against the Republic and against the people; for the right to defend the former despite carries with it the right to say anything appropriate to his cause. You awaken all the factions; you revive and encourage dormant royalism: people can take sides freely for or against. What could be more legitimate, what more natural than to repeat everywhere the maxims that his fenders will be able to profess openly at your bar and in your parliament itself! What sort of republic is it whose founders seek out adversaries for it on all sides to attack it in its cradle!

See what rapid progress this scheme has made already. Last August, all the partisans of royalty were hiding: anyone who had dared attempt an apologia for Louis XVI would have been punished as a traitor. Today they are again showing a bold front, with impunity; today the aristocracy’s most deplored scribblers are confidently taking up their poisonous pens once more.

Today, the insolent writings that are precursors to all attacks are flooding the city where you reside, all the eighty-four departments and up to the very portals of this sanctuary of liberty. Today armed men, conscripts, kept inside these walls without your knowledge and against the law, made the street of this city resound with seditious cries demanding impunity for Louix XVI. Today Paris contains within it men brought together, you have been told, to snatch him from the nation’s justice. All that remains for us to do is to throw open these premises to the athletes already flocking to solicit the honour of taking up cudgels on behalf of royalty. What am I saying! Today Louis divides the people’s representatives; some speak for him, some speak against him. Two months ago, who would have suspected that there could be any question over whether he was inviolable or not? But since a member of the National Convention presented the question whether the king could be tried as an object of a serious deliberation preliminary to every other question, inviolability, with which the conspirators in the Constituent Assembly covered his first perjuries, has been invoked to protect his latest attacks. O crime! O shame! The parliament of the French people resounded to the panegyric of Louis XVI. We have heard the virtues and good deeds of the tyrant being praised! We barely managed to rescue the honour or the liberty of the best citizens from the injustice of a precipitate decision. What am I saying? We have seen the most atrocious calumnies against the people’s representatives known for their zeal for liberty greeted with scandalous joy. We have seen one part of this Assembly proscribed by the other almost immediately after being denounced by stupidity and depravity combined. The tyrant’s cause alone is so sacred that it cannot be discussed too freely or for too long: and why should that astonish us? The double phenomenon has a single cause. Those who take an interest in Louis or this like must thirst for the blood of those people’s deputies who are demanding, for the second time, that he be punished; they can pardon only those who have softened in his favour. The plan to shackle the people by killing its defenders, has it ever been abandoned for a single moment? And all the scoundrels who are proscribing them today, calling them anarchists and agitators, will they not themselves whip up the troubles their perfidious system presages for us? If we are to believe them, the trial will last several months at least; it will last until next springtime, when the despots should be making a general attack on us. And what a career to the conspirators! What a feast for intrigue and aristocracy! Thus, all the partisans of tyranny can still hope that help form their allies and foreign armies will encourage the boldness of the court meant to pronounce on Louis’s fate, while their gold is tempting its loyalty.

God in heaven! All the ferocious hordes of despotism are preparing to tear at the breast of our homeland once again, in the name of Louis XVI! Louis is still fighting us from the depths of his dungeon; and people doubt whether he is guilty, whether it is permitted to treat him as an enemy! They want to know what the laws are that condemn him!

The constitution is invoked in his favour. I do not intend to repeat here all the unanswerable arguments developed by those who deign to answer objections of that sort. On this matter I will say a word for the benefit of those whom they have not convinced. The constitution forbade everything you have done. Even if he could only be punished by forced abdication, you could not pronounce sentence without having brought him to trial. You have no right at all to hold him in prison. He has the right to ask you for his release and for damages and interest. The constitution condemns you: fall at  Louis XVI’s feet and ask for his clemency.

Personally, I should blush to discuss these constitutional quibbles any more seriously than that; they should belong on school or palace benches, or rather in the cabinets of London, Vienna, and Berlin. I cannot argue at length when I am convinced that deliberation is a scandal.

This is a great cause, we have been told, and one should be judged with wise and slow circumspection. Is it you who are making it a great cause! What am I saying? It is you who are making it a cause. What do you find in it that can be called great? Is it the difficulty? No. Is it the person? From the viewpoint of liberty, there is none more vile; from that of humanity, none more guilty. Now he can only impress those more cowardly than he is himself. Is it usefulness of the outcome? That is one more reason to hasten it. A great cause would be a popular draft law; a great cause would be that of a poor man oppressed by despotism. What is the motive for these endless delays you are urging on us? Are you afraid of hurting the people’s opinion? As if the people itself feared anything other than the weakness or ambition of its representatives; as if the people were a foul herd of slaves stupidly attached to the tyrant it has proscribed, and wishing at all costs to wallow in baseness and servitude. You talk about opinion; is it not for you to direct it, to fortify it? If it wanders, if it becomes depraved, who should get the blame, if not yourselves? Are you afraid of annoying the foreign kings in league against you? Oh yes, there is no doubt at all that the way to defeat them is to fear them! That the way to confound the criminal conspiracy of European despots is to bow to their accomplice! Do you fear foreign people? Then you still believe in the innate love of tyranny. So why do you aspire to the glory of freeing the human race? Through what contradiction do you suppose that nations which were not astonished by the proclamation of the rights of humanity will be terrified by the chastisement of one of its most cruel oppressors? Finally, we are told, you fear the gaze of posterity. Yes; posterity will be astonished, in fact, by your irresponsibility and your weakness, and our descendants will laugh at the presumption of their fathers, and at their prejudices.

We have been told that genius would be needed to go deeply into this question; I maintain that only good faith is required. It is less a question of enlightenment than of avoiding voluntary blindness. Why is it that what seems clear to us at one time seems obscure at another? Why is it that something decided easily by the good sense of the people changes into an almost insoluble problem for its delegates? Have we the right to have a will contrary to the general will and a wisdom that differs from universal reason?

I have heard defenders of the king’s inviolability advancing a bold principle that I should almost have hesitated to state myself. They said that anyone who, on 10 August, had sacrificed Louis XVI would have been performing a virtuous act; but the sole basis for that opinion can only have been Louis XVI’s crimes and the people’s rights. Well, has a three-month interval changed his crimes or the people’s rights? The reason why he was rescued at that time from public indignation was undoubtedly so that his punishment, formally ordered by the National Convention in the nation’s name, would become all the more imposing to enemies of humanity: but casting new doubt on the fact of his guilt or whether he can be punished amounts to betraying a promise given to the French people. There are perhaps some people who, either to prevent the Assembly from assuming a character worthy of it, or to deprive the nations of an example that would raise minds to the level of republican principles, or for even more shameful motives, would not be sorry if a private hand were to carry out the functions of national justice. Citizens, be wary of this trap: anyone daring to give that advice would only be serving the people’s enemies. Whatever happens, the punishment of Louis will now only be good if it bears the formal character of a public vengeance.

What does the contemptible figure of the last of the kings matter to the people? Representatives, what matters to it, what matters to you yourselves, is that you fulfil the duties that its confidence has imposed on you. The Republic is proclaimed; but have you given it to us? We have not yet made a single law that justifies the name; we have not yet reformed a single abuse of despotism: alter the names, and we still have the tyranny in its entirety, and on top of that factions that are viler, charlatans still more immortal, along with new ferments of troubles and civil war. The Republic! And Louis still lives! And you still place the king’s person between us and liberty! By way of scruples, let us fear making ourselves criminal; let us fear that by showing too much indulgence for the culprit we may be putting ourselves in his place.

Another difficulty. To what sentence shall we condemn Louis? The death penalty is too cruel. No, says another, life is crueller still: I demand that he live. Advocates for the king, is it from pity or cruelty that you want to shield him from the penalty for his crimes?

I myself abhor the death penalty generously prescribed by your laws; and for Louis I feel neither love nor hate; I just hate his crimes. I asked for the death penalty to be abolished in the Assembly you still name Constituent; and it is no fault of mine that the highest principles of reason seamed to it to be moral and political heresies. But you, who never think of citing them in favour of all the unfortunates whose offenses are less theirs than the government’s, by what fluke do you now recall them to plead the cause of the greatest criminal of all? You are demanding an exception to the death penalty for the one individual who can justify it. Yes, the death penalty, in general, is a crime, and for the sole reason that, in keeping with the indestructible principles of nature, it can only be justified where it is necessary for the security of individuals or the social body. Now public security never requires it for ordinary offences, because society can always stop them by other means and make the culprit powerless to damage it. But a dethroned king in the middle of a revolution, which is nothing unless consolidated by the laws, a king whose name along calls down the scourge of war on the disturbed nation: neither prison nor exile can render his existence harmless to the public good; and this cruel exception that justice allows to ordinary laws can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes.

I utter this deadly truth with regret, but Louis must die, because the homeland has to live. Among a peaceable, free people, respected at home and abroad, you might listen to the advice being given to you to be generous; but a people whose liberty is still being disputed after so many sacrifices and battles, a people in whose country the laws are still only inexorable towards the unfortunate, a people in whose country the crimes of tyranny are still subjects of dispute, such a people must want to be avenged; and the generosity for which you are being praised would resemble too much that of a society of bandits sharing our spoils.

I propose that you give an immediate ruling on Louis’s fate. As for his wife, you will send her back to the courts, along with all the individuals aware of the same attacks. His son will be kept in the Temple, until such time as peace and public liberty should be established. As for Louis, I ask that the National Convention declare him from this moment a traitor to the French nation, a criminal towards humanity; I ask that a great example be given to the world, at the same place where, on 10 August, the generous martyrs to liberty lost their lives. I ask that this memorable event be commemorated with a monument to nourish in the hearts of peoples the sense of their rights and horror of tyrants; and in the minds of tyrants, salutatory terror of the people’s justice.

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