Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XII: Trial of Louis XVI. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XII: Trial of Louis XVI. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Trial of Louis XVI.
What a subject! But it has been so often treated on that I shall here allow myself to make only a few particular observations.1
In the month of October, 1792, before the horrible trial of the King had begun, before Louis XVI had named his defenders, M. Necker stood forward to receive that noble and perilous charge. He published a memoir2 which posterity will accept as one of the truest and most disinterested testimonies that could be given in favor of the virtuous monarch thrown into captivity.* M. de Malesherbes3 was chosen by the King to be his advocate in the National Convention. The dreadful death of this admirable man and of his family demands the first place in our memory; but the sound reasoning and sincere eloquence of M. Necker’s publication in defense of the King must render it a document for history.
It cannot be denied that Louis XVI was considered as a prisoner from the time of his departure for Varennes, and consequently he did nothing to forward the establishment of a Constitution, which the most sincere efforts would not, perhaps, have been able to maintain. But with what delicacy does not M. Necker, who always believed in the force of truth, place it before us upon this point.
Men of attentive minds—just men, will admire the patience and moderation which the King displayed when everything changed around him, and when he was continually exposed to every kind of insult; but if he had committed faults, if he had misunderstood on some points the new obligations imposed upon him, should it not be attributed to the new form of government? to that constitution in which a monarch was nothing but in appearance, in which royalty itself was out of its place; in which the head of the executive power could discern neither what he was nor what he ought to be; in which he was deceived even by words, and by the equivocal sense which might be given to them; in which he was king without any ascendency; in which he occupied the throne without enjoying any respect, in which he appeared to possess the right to command without having the means of making himself obeyed; in which he was alternately, and according to the unrestrained will of a single deliberative assembly, at one time a simple public functionary, and at another the hereditary representative of the nation? How could a monarch, suddenly placed in the trammels of a political system equally obscure and absurd, and ultimately proscribed by the deputies of the nation themselves; how could he alone be required to be consistent in the midst of the continual fluctuation of ideas? And would it not be the height of injustice to judge a monarch by all his projects, all his thoughts, in the course of a revolution so extraordinary, that it would have been necessary for him to be in perfect harmony, not only with the things which were known, but even with all those of which it would have been in vain to preconceive any just idea? [Réflexions présentées à la nation française, 19–20]
M. Necker goes on to retrace in his Memoir the acts of beneficence which marked the reign of Louis XVI before the Revolution; the extinction of the remains of servitude, the interdiction4 of the torture, the suppression of the corvée, the establishment of the provincial administrations, the convocation of the Estates General. “Is it not Louis XVI,” says he, “who, in occupying him unceasingly with the improvements of the prisons and hospitals, has given the attention of a tender father and of a compassionate friend to the asylums of misery and the retreats of misfortune or of error? Is it not he, perhaps the only one, besides St. Louis, of all the heads of the French Empire who has given the rare example of purity of manners? Must he not besides be allowed the peculiar merit of having been religious without superstition, and scrupulous without intolerance? And is it not from him that a part of the inhabitants of France (the Protestants), persecuted during so many reigns, have received not only a legal security but a civil station which admits them to a participation in all the advantages of social order? These benefits belong to the past; but is the virtue of gratitude applicable only to other periods and other portions of life?”
The want of respect shown to Louis XVI during his trial is more striking than even his condemnation. When the President of the Convention said to him who was his King: “Louis, you may sit down!” we feel more indignation even than when he is accused of crimes which he had never committed. One must have sprung from the very dust not to respect past obligations, particularly when misfortune has rendered them sacred; and vulgarity joined to crime inspires us with as much contempt as horror. No man of real superiority has been remarked amongst those who incited the convention to condemn the King; the popular tide rose and fell at certain words and certain phrases, while the talent of so eloquent an orator as Vergniaud5 could not influence the public mind. It is true that the greater part of the deputies who defended the King took a detestable ground. They began by declaring that he was guilty; and one among them said at the tribune that Louis XVI was a traitor, but that the nation ought to pardon him; and this they called the tactics of the Assembly! They pretended that it was necessary to humor the reigning opinion, that they might moderate it at a proper time. With such cautious prudence as this, how could they resist their enemies, who sprang with all their force upon the victim? In France, they always capitulate with the majority, even when they wish to oppose it; and this miserable finesse assuredly diminishes the means instead of increasing them. The power of the minority can consist only in the energy of conviction. What are the weak in numbers if they are also weak in sentiment?
Saint-Just,6 after having searched in vain for authentic facts against the King, finished by declaring that “no one could reign innocently”; and nothing could better prove the necessity of the inviolability of kings than this maxim; for, there is no king who might not be accused in some way or another if there were no constitutional barrier placed around him. That which surrounded the throne of Louis XVI ought to be held sacred more than any other, since it was not tacitly understood as elsewhere, but solemnly guaranteed.
The deputies from the Gironde wished to save the King; and to that end they demanded an appeal to the people. But in demanding this appeal, they continued to concur in sentiment with the Jacobins, incessantly repeating that the King deserved death. This was deserting the cause entirely. Louis XVI, says Biroteau,7 is already condemned within my heart; but I demand an appeal to the people that he may be condemned by them. The deputies from the Gironde were right in requiring a competent tribunal, if there could exist one for such a cause: but how much more effect might they not have produced if they had required it in favor of an innocent person, instead of for one whom they pretended to be guilty. The French, it can never be too often repeated, have not yet learned in civil affairs to be moderate when they are strong, and bold when they are weak; they should transplant into politics all their military virtues, and their affairs would be improved by it.
What is most difficult to be conceived, in this terrible discussion of the national convention, is the abundance of words that everyone had ready upon such an occasion. It was natural to expect to find a concentrated fury in those who desired the death of the King; but to make it a subject for the display of wit, for the turning of phrases, what obstinacy of vanity in such a scene.
Thomas Paine8 was the most violent of the American democrats: and yet, as there was neither calculation nor hypocrisy in his political exaggerations, when the sentence of Louis XVI came under discussion, he alone advised what would have done honor to France if it had been adopted, the offer to the King of an asylum in America. The Americans are grateful to him, said Paine, for having promoted their independence. Considering this resolution only in a republican point of view, it was the only one which could at that time have weakened the interest for royalty in France. Louis XVI had not those talents which are necessary to regain a crown by force; for a situation which did not excite pity would never have produced devotion. Death inflicted on the most upright man in France, but, at the same time, the least to be feared—on him who, if I may use the expression, had taken no part in his own fate, could only be a dreadful homage paid to his former greatness. There would have been more of republicanism in a revolution which had evinced less fear and more justice.
Louis XVI did not refuse, like Charles I, to acknowledge the tribunal before which he was tried; but answered to all the questions which were put to him, with unaltered gentleness. The President asked him why he had assembled the troops at the palace on the tenth of August, and he replied: “The palace was threatened, all the Constituted Authorities saw it, and, as I myself was one of the Constituted Authorities, it was my duty to defend myself.” How modest and unassuming was this manner of speaking of himself, and by what burst of eloquence could we be more deeply moved!
M. de Malesherbes, formerly the King’s minister, stood forward to defend him. He was one of the three ministers, himself, M. Turgot, and M. Necker, who had advised the voluntary adoption of the principles of liberty to Louis XVI. He was obliged, together with the other two, to resign his place in consequence of some opinions which the parlements opposed; and now, notwithstanding his advanced age, he reappeared to plead the cause of the King in the presence of the people, as he had formerly pleaded the cause of the people before the King; but the new master was implacable.
Garat,9 then Minister of Justice, and, in times better suited to him one of the best writers of France, has told us, in his private memoirs, that when the duties of his dreadful situation compelled him to communicate to the King the sentence which condemned him to death, the King displayed, whilst listening to it, the most astonishing coolness; once only, he expressed by a gesture his contempt and his indignation; it was at the article which accused him of having wished to spill the blood of the French people. His conscience revolted at that, although he had restrained every other feeling. On the very morning of his execution, he said to one of his servants, Go to the Queen; but, stopping himself, he repeated, Go to my wife. He submitted, even at that moment, to the deprivation of his rank which had been imposed upon him by his murderers. Without doubt he believed that in everything fate executes the designs of God upon his creatures.
The King’s will10 exhibits the whole of his character. The most affecting simplicity reigns throughout: every word is a virtue, and we find in it all the intelligence which a mind just, temperate, and of infinite goodness could inspire. The condemnation of Louis XVI so affected every heart that, on account of it, the Revolution was for several years considered as accursed.
[1. ] On this issue, see Walzer, Regicide and Revolution; Jordan, The King’s Trial: Louis XVI vs. the French Revolution; and Ozouf’s entry on the trial of Louis XVI in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 95–106.
[2. ]Réflexions présentées à la nation française sur le procès de Louis XVI (Berne and Paris, 1792).
[* ] The property which M. Necker possessed in France was sequestered from the very day on which his Memoire justicatif de Louis XVI appeared.
[3. ] Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes (1721–94) was a former president of the Cour des aides in the Parlement of Paris and a minister of Louis XVI’s (1775–76, 1788). He served as Louis XVI’s counsel for the defense and was subsequently arrested and executed in 1794. He was a relative of Tocqueville. For more information, see Wyrwa, ed., Malesherbes, le pouvoir et les lumières.
[4. ] Interdiction of torture to obtain confessions from those who were arrested.
[5. ] Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud (1753–93) was a prominent lawyer and a deputy to the Legislative Assembly from the Gironde. As a leader of the Girondins, he distinguished himself as one of the greatest orators of the French Revolution. During the trial of the King, he recommended a referendum on the King’s punishment and actively opposed the Montagnards and Robespierre. He fell with the other Girondins in June 1793 and was guillotined four months later.
[6. ] Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just (1767–94) was a prominent Jacobin leader and a close associate of Robespierre, with whom he served on the Committee of Public Safety. For more information, see Gross, Saint-Just: sa politique et ses missions.
[7. ] Biroteau (1753–93), a lawyer from Perpignan, sided with the Girondins and voted for the death of Louis XVI. He was executed in October 1793.
[8. ] Thomas Paine (1737–1809) came to France in 1791 and received French citizenship in August 1792 before being elected a deputy to the Convention. He was excluded from the Convention in January 1793 and returned to the United States in 1802.
[9. ] Dominique Garat (1749–1833) followed Danton as minister of justice in October 1792. In March 1793, he became minister of the interior before being imprisoned during the Terror. His Mémoirs historiques sur le XVIIIe siècle, sur les principaux personnages de la Révolution française were published in two volumes in 1829.
[10. ] The King’s testament was published in Soboul, Le procès de Louis XVI, 236–40.