Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV: The Trial of Le Stuart Français - David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution
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IV: The Trial of “Le Stuart Français” - Laurence L. Bongie, David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution 
David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution (2nd ed.), Foreword by Donald W. Livingston (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Trial of “Le Stuart Français”
Louis XVI and Charles I: A Condemned King’s Meditations
We remember that during Hume’s visit to Versailles in 1763 the historian of the Stuarts had been complimented on his great reputation in France by a nine-year-old boy, the future king, Louis XVI. As it turned out, the young prince was to remain an avid and faithful reader of history all his life. No study, everyone agreed, was more suited to form part of the education of a future ruler:
The second way to gain knowledge of men is to compare them to men of the past, and that comparison is made by reading history. Of all the sciences, history is the one that a prince must study most.
. . . He must read it as one who seriously wishes to discover the true principles of government and to learn how to know men. He will derive far more enlightenment from the history of monarchies than from the history of republics, which are driven by mechanisms that he will be unable to make use of in a monarchy. . . .1
The history of the Stuart monarchy, in particular, was of special significance:
If the prince wishes to become familiar with the spirit of an ill-governed people, and to know to what extremes it can go, he has only to read Lord Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. He will discover that all weak princes conduct themselves like the unfortunate Charles I, that every people in ferment and rebellion are like the people of England; that every factious and venturesome man possesses the inclinations of a Cromwell, and that, if he lacks Cromwell’s talents, he will at least have his hot-headedness and malice.2
It was not long before Louis XVI was to see his own kingdom in the grip of similar revolutionary upheaval. His former rather scholarly meditations on the lessons of Stuart history were suddenly transformed into something much more urgent. In fact, as the time of his trial approached, one can almost say that his preoccupation with the events of Charles I’s reign, Hume’s account of which he seems finally to have preferred above all others,3 had become a veritable obsession.
The obsessive nature of Louis’s interest in Stuart history is emphatically pointed out by various contemporary eye-witnesses. Madame Campan, for example, tells how the king consented to wearing a plastron as protection against assassination during his obligatory attendance at the July 14th ceremonies in 1792. He had agreed to wear the device only to comply with Marie-Antoinette’s wishes: “. . . they will not assassinate me,” Madame Campan quotes the king as saying, “their plan has changed; they will have me killed another way.” The queen’s reader then continues:
The queen saw that the king had lowered his voice to speak to me, and as soon as he left the room she asked me what he had said. I hesitated to reply but she insisted, adding that nothing must be kept hidden from her, that she was resigned to every eventuality. On learning what the king had said, she told me that she had guessed as much; that for a long time now, he had been saying to her that everything that was happening in France was an imitation of the revolution in England under Charles I, and that he had been constantly reading the history of that unfortunate monarch in order to avoid making the same mistakes in a similar crisis.4
Madame Campan refers also to the king’s prolonged state of mental depression at this time: “—a despondency that extended to physical prostration. For ten days he said not a word, not even in the privacy of his family. . . . The queen brought him out of this state, such a dangerous one during a time of crisis when every moment brought with it the need for action. . . . She even went so far as to tell him that if they had to perish, it should be with honour and without waiting for both of them to be smothered on the floor of their apartment.”5
It is nevertheless quite possible that the idea of being assassinated was in fact less forbidding to Louis XVI than the fear of being dishonoured by a criminal trial like that imposed on Charles I. Bertrand de Molleville, who as minister for the navy was in close touch with the king at this time, also suggests that Louis’s reading of Stuart history was closely related to his prolonged depression and his generally fatalistic inability to take decisive action:
He was not at all concerned about protecting his own life; ever since the Varennes misadventure, this unfortunate prince was firmly convinced that he would be assassinated, that all measures taken to guarantee his safety would be useless and might even place his family and the friends who had remained faithful to him in greater danger. Dominated by these gloomy forebodings, he awaited death with such heroic calmness that he seemed indifferent to life.
He often read the history of Charles I of England, and concentrated his attention mainly on avoiding any action that might serve as a pretext for putting him on trial as a criminal.
The sacrifice of his own life seemed of no importance to him. The nation’s honour occupied all of his thoughts. The idea of being publicly assassinated in the name of the people affected him violently. He would have preferred to die by the blade of an assassin whose murderous deed would be seen as the crime of a few individuals rather than an act of the nation.6
In a later work Bertrand de Molleville comes back to this point, commenting with surprise on the fact that Louis learned so little from his haunted study of Charles I’s career: “But what is most remarkable, is that the history of Charles I, which Louis XVI, from the beginning of the Revolution until the end of his life made part of his regular reading, instead of enlightening him on what measures he should adopt or avoid, became for him the most pernicious lesson of all.”7 It is Bertrand de Molleville’s opinion, for example, that Louis never sought out any opportunity to use the army against the Revolution because he had been so impressed by the fact that such action had served to justify one of the chief accusations against Charles I during the English trial. Remembering the Stuart king’s active resistance to Parliament, the former minister maintained, too, that if Charles I had been king of France in 1789 no revolution would have taken place. “On the other hand,” he continues, “if one considers how lacking in jealousy Louis XVI was of his prerogative, or how disinclined he was to augment it by usurping the privileges and freedoms of the people, or, again, if one considers the readiness with which he consented to the reform of any abuses complained about in this regard, one might conclude with equal justification that if Louis XVI had been king of England when the revolution broke out there, his gracious and entire willingness to accede to all of the demands that gave rise to that revolution would have left the malcontents without the slightest pretext to act.”8
Other contemporary accounts support Bertrand de Molleville’s belief that Louis XVI had been harmfully affected by a too vivid appreciation of English revolutionary history. The younger Lacretelle, writing in 1801, tells how the king experienced as a result “the deadly qualms of a man who sees his certain ruin advancing toward him and dares not make any attempt to prevent it. He read constantly the history of Charles I and studiously adopted measures that were totally opposite in order to avoid, if possible, the English king’s fatal destiny. He consistently showed an excess of weakness where Charles I displayed an excess of confidence and inflexibility.”9 Jacob-Nicolas Moreau, Historiographer of France and librarian to Marie-Antoinette, also maintained that these obsessive Stuart readings were the cause of Louis XVI’s being “the first to give up on the public enterprise.” He also quotes the French king as saying as early as 1789, just after the march on Versailles: “I am threatened by the same fate; . . . if there is a way to avoid it, it is by doing the exact opposite of what that unfortunate monarch did.”10
Personal sentiments expressed in various letters by Louis XVI also suggest that the example of Charles I was constantly before his eyes whenever he considered the possible courses of action available to him. “If I must step down from the throne,” we read in one of his letters of 1791 to the Prince de Condé, “and mount the scaffold where Charles I was sacrificed, abandoning everything that I hold most dear in the world, I am ready to do so; but no war! no war!”11 The words “I may suffer the fate of Charles I. . . .” occur also in another letter of 28 April 1792.12 Interesting to note too is the fact that Louis was, on occasion, given to repeating Charles I’s last words. When, for example, it was pointed out to him in 1791 that his use of the veto might have dangerous personal consequences, the king is said to have replied: “What will they do to me? They will kill me: well! I shall acquire an immortal crown in exchange for a corruptible one.”13 It is quite possible even that his close knowledge of Charles I’s statements to the English tribunal guided some of the feelings he himself expressed concerning the manner in which he wished to have his defence conducted. The following letter to Malesherbes, written while Louis was a prisoner of the Convention, lends support to this conjecture:
I have no illusions about my fate. The ingrates who have dethroned me will not stop in mid course; seeing their victims always before their eyes would shame them too much. I shall suffer the fate of Charles I and my blood will flow as punishment for my never having caused any to be shed. But would it not be possible to ennoble my last moments? The national assembly includes among its members the devastators of my monarchy, my accusers, my judges, and probably my executioners. Such men cannot be made to see the light, one cannot make them just, and even less can their hearts be softened. Weakness cannot save me; would it not be preferable then to put some spirit into my defence? I imagine that it should be addressed, not to the Convention, but to all of France, which would judge my judges and give me back a place in the hearts of my people that I never deserved to lose. Then my rôle would be limited to not recognizing the competency of the tribunal before which I am forced to appear. I shall maintain a dignified silence, and, by condemning me, these men who claim to be my judges would be no more than my assassins.14
There are distinct echoes of Charles I’s own formal defence in the preceding letter. Whether these are the result of more than the similarity of circumstances in which the two monarchs found themselves is difficult to say. Other questions of an equally idle nature arise: one is permitted to wonder, for example, if Louis was inspired by the English king’s actions when he showed an unaccustomed firmness in defending the established church, or, more trivially still, when he too, on hearing his sentence, asked for (but did not receive) three days’ grace, wore the same colours to the scaffold, and attempted (again unsuccessfully) to address the spectators in the last few minutes before his execution. Such questions cannot of course be answered; indeed, there is some doubt even whether they can be properly asked. Perhaps one can speculate legitimately, however, on how pleased that style-conscious Scot David Hume would have been had he lived long enough to read in Cléry’s journal a description of the following rather quiet scene:
The setting is the king’s prison in the Temple; Louis has just learned that the Convention has voted the death sentence:
He had been reading a logogriph in an old Mercure de France and asked me to guess the word; I was unable to find the answer.
“Can you not guess what it is? And yet, it is so applicable to me in my present circumstance; the word is sacrifice.”
The king then asked me to get from the library the volume of the History of England containing the death of Charles I: he read it in the following days. . . .15
David Hume and Stuart History for the Defence
Considerations drawn from Stuart history (and chiefly Hume’s version of it) form a major part of many unofficial defences of the French king composed during his trial in 1792.
Undoubtedly one of the most important of these was the apology for Louis XVI published by his former minister, Jacques Necker, on 30 October of that year. In an eloquent plea to the Convention, Necker begged its members not to proceed with the trial, promising that they would thus avoid committing a crime even greater than that of the Long Parliament:
An undertaking unique in the annals of the world, an atrocity that historians narrate with horror and that the English still atone for every year in solemn repentance, a public crime, the product of one man’s ambitions: it is to this that they wish to accustom the French nation. You who have so carefully, and perhaps even with a kind of affectation, avoided modelling yourselves on those Englishmen, will you now make an exception only in favour of a barbarous action! No, not even that! You would be thinking that you were following in the footsteps of Cromwell’s slaves, those judges pledged to his political passions . . . and you would be deceived still, for you would not even have their excuse. Would you indeed dare to compare the grievances only too legitimately cited against the hapless Stuart . . . with the accusations you are compelled to base on no more than conjecture, or that you strive to wring from a few papers found in the king’s private office. . . ? Here is what the English monarch did during his reign: a free constitution, defined in the most solemn enactments, prescribed his obligations and set out his prerogatives, and yet, scorning this constitution, he levied several taxes without the consent of the nation’s representatives, he exacted forced loans, . . . he exceeded his authority in the regulation of ecclesiastical matters. . . . Finally, urged on by events, he placed himself at the head of an army and initiated a civil war which ended in disaster for him. Where is the parallel? Where is the similarity between these various political offences and the conduct of a monarch who inherited powers with no known limits and who inaugurated liberty by voluntarily sacrificing a portion of his prerogatives that had belonged to the Crown for so many centuries?16
Necker’s concessions concerning Charles I’s real guilt are rarely expressed by members of the Right at this time but represent proof of the Swiss banker’s political astuteness. He reveals an awareness, moreover, that in the preceding century of Anglo-French rivalry, the French had often shown pride in the claim that their own annals, at least, had never been defiled by the crime of regicide committed with all the hypocritical trappings of a legal trial. Now, Necker continued, the French would not even have England’s excuse that the evil genius of Cromwell had urged on a small fanatic band of usurpers to this hideous crime. The French Convention, claiming as it did to represent openly the justice of the entire French nation, would, if it sentenced Louis XVI to death, make France the guiltiest nation of all.
Necker pursued his defence of Louis XVI by pointing out another consideration which Hume, Adam Smith, and, on different grounds, centuries of theocratic tradition had helped to establish in France as something of a dogma: the misfortunes of kings, he observed, have quite extraordinary and awesome effects on the feelings of the people. Kings are not ordinary creatures in this respect. Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work that was very well known on the continent at this time and which enjoyed three different French translations, had analysed in detail our feelings for the tragedies of the great. These feelings are often born of our admiration for the advantages of their high position. We like to serve the great in order to share in the completion of a system of happiness which seems so close to perfection. We ask for no other reward. Conversely, when the great suffer adverse fortune, we cannot help feeling that their situation merits more compassion on our part than what is normally provoked by similar mischance occurring in the lives of lesser men.17 A like belief underlies the true intent of Burke’s rather over-romanticized passage in the Reflections bewailing the disappearance of the age of chivalry. Strange things happen when kings and queens are unceremoniously hurled from their thrones; we are as awed by such disasters in the moral world as we would be by a miracle in the physical order of things.
Arguing along such lines and citing Hume’s Stuarts as proof, Necker addressed the Convention in the following terms:
O men of France! In the name of your past glory . . . , but especially in the name of Heaven, in the name of pity, be as one in rejecting the plans of those who seek to lead you to the ultimate act of ingratitude, who want you to share in their violent passions and deadly thoughts. A king, they say to you, is only a man, and his destiny is owed no special regard. That assertion is not true; it is not true in respect of our feelings. A king whose fortunes have collapsed, a king who has fallen to the depths of misfortune, reminds us of every interest that attaches us to him. By virtue of his power of guardianship over us, he has seemed to us for a long time morally part of ourselves, and his humiliation becomes our humiliation . . . . Moments of enthusiasm or passion may distract us from these thoughts and for a time even appear to disrupt the natural course of our sentiments; but after the utmost limits of revenge have been reached, we look back at what has been done, and it is then that remorse and repentance begin. I do not present here merely speculative notions. Read in the history of the House of Stuart a philosopher’s account of how every heart was thrown into convulsions by the ultimate catastrophe suffered by the unfortunate Charles I. Let your attention dwell on that, if you can, then ask yourselves whether, in respect of our feelings, a king is only a man; whether, especially, he is only a man after having been for so long the object of our love, after having been for so long the symbol of the bonds that unite us. Yes! read that most horrifying of narrations and then try to consider without emotion the deadly notions to which these men seek to inure the French nation. Yes, read that horrifying narration, and see afterwards if you dare to entrust to the inflamed passions of the present moment the judgement of a prince reduced by fortune to the most absolute abandonment. . . .18
If the amount of attention accorded later by the Convention to the task of refuting Necker’s points is any true indication, one must conclude that he had chosen arguments which were particularly effective. In another unofficial defence of Louis XVI, Lally-Tollendal also invited that body to meditate on Stuart history:
Frenchmen, reflect carefully on this; remember that it means endless remorse and an eternal stigma. The English have been mourning for a century—and future centuries will see them mourning still—a regicide committed by a much smaller number of their fathers, with much less solemnity, and, it must be said, in circumstances much less odious than those that would mark in France today a re-enactment of that same crime. Men of France, you have been strangely abused; they have counted heavily on prejudice, or flightiness, or ignorance when, in your presence, they have been shameless enough to describe Charles I as infamous, a king who is still honoured with the name of martyr by an entire nation that by all appearances needs no one to teach it either its rights or a sense of dignity.19
Lally-Tollendal continued his plea for the king by assailing what we might now call the Macaulay-Brissot version of the English revolution—a version, moreover, which formed an important part of Mailhe’s famous report. Lally preached, on the contrary, the familiar Hume account as he would again in 1797 in his Défense des émigrés français.20
Cazalès in his Défense de Louis XVI also defies the revolutionists to inquire of the English if they now approved of their ancestors’ execution of Charles I. Their answer would not, he maintains, be comforting to a nation that seemed perversely bent on taking the same course. Only ask the English, Cazalès warns the Convention, “and you would no longer evoke a period of their history that they wish to forget.”21 Cazalès in 1792 was not a novice at this sort of thing. Long before the King’s arrest he had warned France’s revolutionaries that the English still maintained an expiatory cult for the Earl of Strafford; now that even Louis XVI’s life was in danger, the “cult” of Strafford could become the “cult” of Charles I.
In yet another defence of the French king, the royalist de Montjoie addressed himself even more directly to the Convention, not more than forty members of which, he believed, sincerely wanted Louis’s death. The best advice he could give to the others, to the vast majority whose opinions would decide the final outcome, was that they should study once more the lessons of Stuart history:
Choose; there is still time: what image of yourselves would you have history hand down to posterity? Decide between crime and virtue, madness and wisdom. . . .
Do not be deceived by that fatal sense of security shared by Cromwell’s confederates. . . . Will you give in to intimidation? Will you allow the heinous crime to be consummated even though you loathe it in your hearts? What will you have gained by it? No sooner will the deed be done than a man of audacity will rise up, he will smash the instruments of the crime, after which he will proceed to enjoy its fruits. Open your history books: is that not the way of all usurpers? In order to attain supreme power they need accomplices; but once they have seized the sceptre, they wield it against the very ones who delivered it up to them. . . . Beware: the man of whom I speak is known to you. . . .22
The warning about the dangers of a French “Cromwell” formed, no doubt, the cleverest part of this particular attempt to save Louis XVI’s life. De Montjoie knew that the atmosphere in the Convention at this time was heavy with suspicion. Accusations and counter-accusations about hidden Cromwellian ambitions were being made with great frequency. Two dangers seemed especially imminent: that of a Cromwell or that of a Monk. As one reads the Convention speeches from September 1792 to January 1793 one even senses, I think, that the national representatives viewed a Cromwell as not only the more likely threat but as also the more horrifying of the two possibilities. De Montjoie hammered in this point: If the members of the Convention lacked the courage to be just with Louis XVI, their fate within six weeks would resemble that of the Cromwellian underlings who had sent Charles I to the scaffold.
A second major warning followed—this, too, taken from Hume’s History:
Independently of that consideration, the interests of each of you forbid an iniquitous judgement. . . . No sooner would this blood have been shed than France, joined for so long to her leader, would cry out in pain and terror. Injustice would be followed by repentance. Repressed for three years, love and gratitude would well up violently; the conscience of all would accuse you, every voice would call out your names: There they are! There they are! thousands of Frenchmen will cry out; behold the murderers of Louis! Everyone will recall his virtues, his kindnesses, his forbearance, his heroic patience, the unfailing gentleness with which he suffered the outrages you allowed to be heaped upon him, under the burden of chains with which you weighed him down. . . .
And your assembly once dissolved, what would become of its members? . . . Allow me to place before you once again the historical record, allow me to remind you of the pitiable end met with by all those who in times past contributed to the same judgement that Louis’s recklessly unthinking enemies seek from you. . . . In England, the members of the court of iniquity that condemned Charles I to the scaffold perished in infamy and destitution. . . .
Do not let yourselves stand deservedly accused of being unable to learn from the past even as you see recurring the same symptoms, the same crises, the same phenomena that preceded the deplorable era that England wishes it could erase from its annals.23
De Montjoie thus invoked the traditional lessons of history. He perhaps forgot them when he came to his last piece of advice for the members of the Convention: They were not to fear that they had gone too far to reverse their course; they were not to fear that kings are unforgiving: “Vengeance,” he insisted, “is a passion Louis knows only by name; . . . He can be blamed, as Bossuet said of Charles I, only for an excess of clemency. . . .”24
It would be possible to analyse other less important defences of Louis XVI published at this time but the basic pattern of these is not materially different from those of Necker, Lally-Tollendal, Cazalès, or de Montjoie. It is in such pleas for the French king that we find the use of historical parallels attaining a peak of intensity, a note of political urgency, unequalled by the many Stuart parallels drawn before or after Louis’s trial. The belief was expressed more and more by royalists in these last few months of 1792 that the two revolutions had run along on exactly parallel courses, that Louis XVI would never even have been brought to trial if one hundred and forty-three years earlier, the English “Jacobins” had not executed Charles I. One last eleventh-hour defence of Louis XVI which repeats this sentiment is worth quoting from: “The course followed by the English seditionaries and that followed by their counterparts who have been devastating for such a long time our unhappy country are absolutely the same; if there is any difference at all, it is that the present revolutionaries have surpassed in hypocrisy, in viciousness, and in tyranny those who murdered the unfortunate Stuart.”25
Cromwell in the Convention: The Judgement of Posterity
The scores of published opinions emanating from the Convention during Louis XVI’s trial and dealing with such questions as whether the King could be judged, how he should be judged, and what should be his punishment are all quite heterogeneous in their various tendencies and difficult to group in a significant manner. One common element becomes apparent, however, to anyone who has taken the trouble of going through these opinions: the parallel between the English trial of Charles and the Convention trial of Louis haunted the minds of all but a minority of those who were destined to judge the French king.
Significantly even Mailhe’s Rapport et Projet de Décret,26 the Convention’s official pre-trial report which formulated so many of the members’ reactions in subsequent debates, could not avoid going into the legality of Charles I’s parliamentary hearing. Mailhe’s report was to conclude that Louis XVI could be judged by the Convention. The troublesome question of what legal forms to follow nevertheless remained. The English condemnation of Charles I was an obvious precedent; obvious too seemed the fact that history reproached the English for having violated legal forms:
Charles Stuart was inviolable like Louis XVI; but like Louis XVI, he had betrayed the nation that had placed him on the throne. Being independent of all the bodies established by the English constitution, he could not be charged or judged by any of them; only the nation could do this. When he was arrested, the House of Lords was totally in his camp. It wished only to save the king and monarchical despotism. The House of Commons seized unto itself the exercise of all parliamentary authority; and no doubt it had the right to do so given its circumstances. But Parliament itself was no more than a constituted body. It did not represent the nation’s full and entire sovereignty; it represented the nation’s sovereignty only in respect of those functions that were determined by the constitution. It could thus neither judge the king nor delegate the right to judge him.27
Although this interpretation of Charles I’s trial is far from being Hume’s, it is no less certain that Mailhe’s inability to avoid dealing with the question altogether is something of a tribute to the widespread success of the History of the Stuarts in France before 1789 and especially to the use made of Hume’s work by the many defenders of the king and the ancien régime after that date.
Mailhe’s report goes on to show that if the English had taken the same precautions as the French, their republic would have survived. The English Commons should have invited the nation to form a convention parliament:
Unfortunately, the House of Commons was controlled by the genius of Cromwell, and Cromwell, who wished to become king under the title of protector, would have found in a National Convention only a tomb for his ambitions.
It was therefore not any violation of the prescribed formalities for criminal prosecutions in England, but rather the lack of a national mandate, it was the protectorate of Cromwell, in short, that attached to the trial of Charles Stuart the odium which is evoked in even the most philosophical accounts of it. Charles Stuart deserved to die; but his execution could be commanded only by the nation or by a tribunal chosen by the nation.28
Many problems remained even though the Convention was seen as representing, in the words of the report, “entirely and perfectly the French Republic.”29 Could the Convention, for example, judge alone or should its judgement be ratified by all citizens in an appel au peuple? This question and others concerning the form of the king’s punishment were to occupy the debates of that body and exasperate the impatient Robespierrists for many weeks to come.
In examining the Convention speeches during Louis XVI’s trial I shall try to classify my sampling of opinions according to three admittedly rather personal headings which relate to the speaker’s apparent attitude toward history generally and, more particularly, toward Stuart history. My first grouping will include those whose attitudes imply a fundamental belief in the traditional cyclical view of revolution. It will include those who, speaking often of the lessons of history, closely identified the French and English revolutions. This same group emphasized the conservative implications of the parallel and as a polemical tactic often called attention to the possibility that Louis XVI’s execution would automatically leave the way open for an ambitious French Cromwell. Those whom I speak of next comprise members of the Convention who, although they seem to believe to some extent in the ideological identity of the two revolutions as well as in the general value of history’s lessons, rejected the validity of any parallels drawn between the two trials because the English court had been influenced by Cromwell whereas revolutionary France did not have and could not possibly have any such monster in its midst. Lastly, I have found it useful to classify in a third group those who made it quite clear that not only Stuart history but all of history was totally irrelevant to the deliberations, that no historical precedents were necessary, indeed that no trial was necessary, and that the sooner justice (i.e. decapitation) was carried out, the better.30
Fear of a “circular” revolution ending inevitably with the usurpation of a Cromwell heads the list of reasons cited by the moderates of the first group and underlies their use of the Stuart parallel. The following opinions represent typical examples: “It is perhaps not difficult to prove, as the experience of every century shows, that the violent or judicial death of a tyrant has never truly served the cause of liberty and has resulted only in the transfer of tyrannical power to other hands.”—P. Marec. “I am unable to vote sovereignly and without appeal for the death of Louis XVI, because I cannot compromise either with my principles or my conscience . . . ; because I abhor royalty even more than dethroned kings, because I see waiting in the wings a Cromwell who is plotting for my country the fate suffered by England after the death of Charles Stuart.”—F.-C.-P. Garilhe. “And who will provide us with a guarantee, citizens, that some ambitious person, taking advantage of the trust he has acquired through his popularity, will not seize on the occasion of Louis XVI’s trial to attempt an assault on liberty? Will anyone dare to swear that there are no Cromwells in the Republic; and if there is only one, you have traced out the path for his ambitions by following that of the parliament of England.”—J. Guiter. “I see no Cromwell behind the curtain; but there are still men with the soul of Cromwell; and who can assure me that critical circumstances are not favourable for conceiving and hatching plots to murder liberty?”—J.-B.-D. Mazade. “Citizens, listen to history. . . . Consider the fate of the parliament that put Charles on trial; it gave in to the passion of revenge, and overlooked the general good; it did not establish a constitution, and it allowed the republic to perish. . . . Charles I had to die on the scaffold, not because he was very guilty, like Louis, but because he lived in a superstitious century and he was judged by the faction supporting the usurper Cromwell who wished to reign in his place.”—H. Bancal. “Cromwell managed to build up his power on the blood-soaked wreckage of Charles I’s throne; and those same persons who had urged the king’s death were afterwards moved to tears by his fate. Representatives of the people, do not lose sight of this example.”—F. Buzot. “Republicans beware! you are too trusting; Cromwell was a fatal exception to English liberty! And I see all too clearly that one does not need his genius to have his audacity.”—J.-B. Louvet. “Yes, we could have drawn some very useful political lessons from history: . . . A nation is never closer to despotism than when it surrenders to anarchy; the people grow tired of having a thousand masters, tired of being both tyrant and tyrannized, and in the end it seeks the protection of one man. When Cromwell, hiding behind the agitators, . . .” et cetera.—J.-P. Rabaut.
There are many other opinions in the same vein. Let us look at one last example, that of Vergniaud:
When Cromwell, whose name has already been mentioned here, set out to dissolve the parliament he had used to overthrow the monarchy and place Charles I on the scaffold, he made several insidious proposals to it. . . . Parliament gave way to him. General unrest soon followed; and Cromwell easily smashed the instrument he had employed to gain supreme power.
Have you not heard within these precincts and elsewhere, men angrily shouting: “if the price of bread is high, the fault lies with the Temple; if money is scarce, if your armies are lacking in supplies, the fault lies with the Temple; if each day we must suffer the sight of indigence, the fault lies with the Temple”?
Those who say these things know full well that the high cost of bread, the shortages in the supply of provisions, the unsatisfactory administration in the armies, and the indigence we are all grieved to see around us, have causes that have nothing to do with the Temple. . . . Who can assure me . . . that, once Louis is dead, these same men will not begin shouting with the greatest of violence: “if the price of bread is high, the fault lies with the Convention. . . .”31
Inspired by the Stuart parallel, other moderates added the fear of history’s condemnation to their fear of a Cromwell. Mennesson warns of “the opprobrium that still haunts the English parliament of 1648” and adds: “The judgement of posterity! . . . Legislators, reflect on that word: one day, you too will be summoned to appear before that court. . .: remember, O my colleagues! Remember all those voices conspiring to hasten your ruin and their triumph by demanding that the execution of the tyrant be decided by acclamation and without his being heard. . . . They know that if the model republican Brutus freed his country simply by driving out the Tarquins, the model usurper Cromwell succeeded in erecting his throne over the tomb of the Stuarts.”
Pierre-Florent Louvet also refers to the “reputation that, even a century and a half later, still hangs over the English parliament of 1648.” It was not, as Mailhe had attempted to prove, because the English parliament had lacked the powers of the Convention that posterity judged it guilty but rather because Charles I’s trial had, in every respect, been conducted illegally: “Imagine then,” Louvet continued, “since you have been asked to go even farther than the parliament of England by judging directly yourselves, and without allowing witnesses—something that was not done in the trial of Charles Stuart—imagine then, I say, how much more blame you should expect to incur if you accede to the proposal of the committee.”
Also objecting that the members of the Convention should not be Louis’s accusers, judges, and executioners all rolled into one, Antoine Girard expressed the concerned belief that a loss of international esteem was as much to be feared as the judgement of posterity: “The English were no doubt right with respect to the substantive issues of the hearing but the procedural illegalities and the monstrous tribunal that served as a framework for the guilty monarch’s trial impaired commercial and political relations with other nations. . . .” Even Brissot, who had evolved somewhat since his debate with Clermont-Tonnerre (“the Brissot of 1791 is not the Brissot of 1793,” as the elder Pinet scornfully informed the Convention), now warned that the European powers would ask for nothing better than Louis’s execution, “because for them it represents a guarantee that the monarchy will be resurrected; because the death of Charles I won for his son the throne and the hearts of his subjects. . . . Yes, Citizens, the same farce that was played out in England when Charles I died has been repeated in our time. The French cabinet of the day seemed to be interceding on the king’s behalf, and at the same time it was subsidizing the Cromwellians who put him to death.” Perhaps even, Brissot concluded, the sinister politics of the English cabinet was behind the bloodthirsty cries of the Paris cannibales.
Not infrequently mentioned also by those who during the trial debate cited the lessons of Stuart history was the question of a dangerous popular reaction to the King’s execution. The Convention was not, of course, excessively concerned with the number of simple women who might, as Hume suggests, cast forth the untimely fruit of their womb or, more simply still, fall down dead on hearing the fatal news. It was, on the other hand, very much concerned with the possible effects of pity which might prepare the way in France for a restoration of the monarchy. To the hearty guffaws of the assembled members, one earnest conventionnel even suggested the possible danger that Rome might canonize Louis. The following opinion by Armand-Guy Kersaint clearly shows that Necker’s quotation of Hume on the subject had not been lost on all of Louis’s judges:
. . . true republicans rightly fear the reaction to vengeful attacks on persons who have long been respected; they fear the pity that the human heart naturally feels for the unfortunate and especially for those who seemed destined to attain the pinnacles of happiness and who are instead brought down by great misfortunes. The profound and judicious observation that Charles I had successors while the Tarquins had none, has prompted them to adopt a moderate course. . . .
The same danger seemed equally evident to Jean-Jacques Thomas:
Monk would never have found so many hands to help him place Charles II on the throne of England, if he had not been assisted by the memory of the father’s execution. The effects of pity and commiseration, both within France and abroad, must be feared. . . . Have you ever seen people on their way back from an execution not feeling sorry for the culprit, even though they still have in their minds a fresh impression of his crimes? . . . Scorn, nothingness, and oblivion for the individual, that is what can save the nation. . . .
Agreeing with Kersaint and Thomas, Jean-Baptiste Girot added his own corresponding sentiments on the matter: “The death of Charles inflicted a deep wound on liberty; it put an end to the hatred his crimes had inspired. It left regrets; it revived fanatical royalist sentiments that survive still and continue to corrupt the nation’s sense of liberty.” Thomas Paine’s opinion, the reading of which was objected to by Marat on the grounds that a “Quaker” should not be allowed to vote in a case involving the death penalty, pointed out essentially the same warning: the Stuarts returned to the throne of England after Charles I’s execution but fell into obscurity after the banishment of James II. Pierre-Joseph Faure concurred with the American Quaker: “The death of Charles I was the chief cause of the restoration of royalty among a people too enlightened to love kings. The execution of the father pleaded the cause of the son. The people are sometimes moved by compassionate impulses—the frenzy and violence of which cannot be calculated—that work against their own interests. The revolution that deposed James II, who also had a son, adopted other measures; he was allowed to escape, and his son’s later efforts to regain the throne were entirely unsuccessful. That is precisely your situation. . . .”
Many other conventionnels appealed in their opinions to the lessons of the Stuart parallel.32 Not all drew from it the same conclusions but they nearly all agreed on the similar goals of the two revolutions. Charles-Antoine Chasset, for example, insisted particularly on this last point: “And let it not be said that the English at that time were insufficiently enlightened; let us not deceive ourselves, they were well versed in the principles of government. Their history shows that they overturned the throne and founded a republic—short-lived, it is true—in accordance with the same maxims as ours.” Like Chasset most of the speakers we have been referring to were, of course, sincere republicans. It is nevertheless important to note that they held at the same time a view of history not too inconsistent with that which had prevailed among traditionalists during the ancien régime and which had allowed Hume’s account of the reign of Charles I to become an almost integral part of French historical culture. A Hume, republican in practice as well as in principle and viewing the French revolution at this stage of its development, would probably have found little to object to in the following passage drawn from the opinion of Jean-François Barailon:
It seems to me, all things considered, that prudence, forethought, and sound policy command us to defer, to distance ourselves from this judgement, to amend our current political system, to rectify, to suspend, to abandon even our would-be revolutionary power. . . .
It is not our wish to found a republic only for a few minutes, as the English did; it is not our wish to have a Cromwell succeed a Charles; to substitute a tyrant for a despot; to unleash countless proscriptions, to shed even more blood and encourage new massacres. . . .
The discord that prevails and grows among us as the hour of judgement approaches, invites our immediate attention and also counsels the greatest caution. The violent haste of the English, their heedlessness in the matter of Charles Stuart, had the most terrible consequences: the destruction of their republic, the loss of their liberty, and the execution of the judges who had been cowardly enough to lend themselves to perfidious insinuations and stupid enough to abet the ambitions of a scoundrel.
The Parallel Rejected: Brutus to the Rescue
Let us turn now to what we have arbitrarily set aside as a second group and consider those members of the Convention who, although they seem to hold a view of history not altogether incompatible with that of the group whose opinions we have just examined, maintained nevertheless that the much-quoted parallel with the seventeenth-century revolution in England was entirely invalid.
We find a good example of this attitude in the opinion of Sergent, one of the députés for Paris. He expresses utter amazement and disbelief at the hesitations of his colleagues who adduced parallels and who warned the Convention of great lessons to be drawn from the English experiment:
What are you afraid of? The example of England sacrificing Charles Stuart! But, as you have already been told, Charles was sacrificed to the ambition of Cromwell; and Louis will be brought to his death by his treacherous actions; Charles was judged by a commission chosen by the usurper himself, but you are chosen by the People who are Louis’s accusers. Charles had no defenders attached to his tribunal, whereas Louis has found advocates even in our midst. . . . So much the better, our judgement will be all the less suspect, all the more irreproachable. We are told, finally, that the death of Charles was the shame of the English people. And what is the source of that claim? It is History! But is History written by a divinity immune to fear? No, the history of Charles’s last days was written by men; these men wrote under the shadow of bastilles. They had to choose between deceiving future generations or expiring in some dark dungeon. Kings persecuted thought even under the humble roof of the philosopher who thought himself sheltered there with what is most sublime, Nature and his own soul. Times have changed; the men who today record in stone the events that will amaze posterity are free, no longer oppressed by the burden of kings.
Philippeaux similarly questioned the veracity of certain histories of the English revolution which seemed to have impressed too vividly the imagination of “a few quaking spirits” in the Convention:
. . . the historical tradition regarding this great period has been given an odious colouring as a result of the constant efforts of kings and their lackeys, who have sought to protect themselves from the same fate by representing it as a time of criminal culpability. In a monarchy, all affections are turned in the direction of idolatry; the throne’s structure becomes a composite of illusion and wonder. All those whose interests lie in maintaining the throne and who have it in their power to mould public sentiment could not but succeed finally in their self-serving efforts to misrepresent as horrifying the act of justice that displeased them most. But we republicans, we who condemned tyranny before condemning the tyrant, we are in an entirely different situation: ghosts and disguises can no longer terrify our imagination; it is only the hideousness of the crime and the fact that it has gone unpunished that can sadden our hearts.
Several conventionnels, moreover, were not long in pointing out that not all historians of the Stuart reign preached the usual servile principles. The myth of a guilty English nation was nothing more than a revisionist fabrication of fawning historians since the time of the Restoration, affirmed Michel Azéma:
. . . England’s so-called dishonour was nothing more than the effect of popular prejudice, error, and blindness, especially on the part of the trusting, generous, frank, and loyal people of France who idolize their kings however little they may deserve it. Most of the historians, authors, and learned contemporaries of this event, far from seeing it as England’s shame, praise, on the contrary, the nation’s energy, courage, and justice, especially Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, and several others.
Ever since the revolution in thinking that has now taken place nearly everywhere among men enlightened by reason and philosophy, the old prejudices that had been formed with regard to Charles Stuart’s tragic death, prejudices that were carefully and shrewdly nourished and fostered by every despot, have totally changed.33
The view that no Cromwell existed or could exist in France formed the basis of most rejections of the Stuart parallel. We find this judgement summed up briefly in the opinion of Nicolas Hentz:
They have tried to frighten you with the spectre of remorse; the example of Charles Stuart’s trial has been cited.
Listen carefully while I explain to you that our situation is entirely different. Who was it that sought the death of Charles Stuart? It was a man who himself aspired to the throne and who possessed the means to achieve his goal; . . . He succeeded in usurping royalty in England. In other words, royalty never ceased to exist in England; it no longer exists in France.
Dubois-Crancé felt provoked to indignation on the same subject:
What a comparison! Are we usurpers, then? Were the people ignorant of the mission they entrusted to us? Have we not sworn to avenge and to obey the people? Have we chosen among us a special commission corruptly dedicated to the purpose of beheading the enemy of a conspirator? Is it, finally, the will of one man that commands us, or is it a sense of the legitimate vengeance and compelling need of 25 million oppressed individuals? You have decreed that if a Cromwell exists in France, his head belongs to the lowest of citizens; and to lop it off, one need not be a Brutus. Let us therefore not dishonour our august functions with a comparison fit only for the Brunswicks and the Condés.
Directly refuting Vergniaud, Claude-Nicolas Guillermin also could see no rhyme or reason to the parallel:
I confess that I am highly perplexed with respect to applying the example. I look in vain for a Cromwell in our Revolution, I see none; that is to say, I can see no Frenchman with Cromwell’s great popularity in the armies and among the people generally (for it cannot be just the people of Paris who constitute only a Section). I can see no Frenchman who commands the universal trust enjoyed by Cromwell, who possesses his powerful means, his beguiling virtues, his military talents, his political adeptness, his courage, his shrewdness, his vices even, all of which were so many rungs in the ladder that allowed him to mount the throne from which he had deposed Charles.
But I see, on the other hand, many who would play the rôle of Brutus should even one Cromwell be found lurking in the shadows.
Brutus of course! Here was the answer to all rascally Cromwells! Also claimed, but feebly, by the Right as the patron of all those who defended the ancient constitution against revolutionary usurpers,34 Brutus was a hero the details of whose career35 were sufficiently obscured by antiquity to permit his serving as an unassailable example to true republicans when even Sidney, the martyr to Liberty, had to be cast off because he was English.36 Only the bust of Brutus and that of Rousseau managed to survive the years of progressive iconoclasm at the Jacobins, and it was his again that dominated the chair of the president of the Convention. No revolutionary hair style, not even that of the Round Heads, ever equalled in fashion the coiffure à la Brutus.
Brutus is also Louchet’s answer to the threat of a Cromwell: “I ask you! What man would be sufficiently insane to attempt to seize royal authority in France once the sword of justice severs the tyrant’s head. Oh! if such a man could exist, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine is there; it is everywhere in the Republic; would not the land of liberty and equality . . . bring forth a thousand Brutuses who would vie for the honour of striking the first blow against this new Cromwell?” Moïse Bayle was of the same confident opinion: “Have you not decreed that any man who speaks of a king37 will be punished with death? Are you afraid that this decree might not be carried out and that in the whole of France not a single Brutus would be found?”
It is in the opinion of Claude-Charles Prost that we find this position most clearly summarized:
Let us reject any comparison of Charles Stuart’s trial and that of Louis; the fundamental data and the results are not necessarily the same; Charles was a tyrant, but he was condemned by judges who assumed an authority not conferred on them by the nation; in contrast, your mandate is explicit: Charles was the victim of an ambitious hypocrite; we have no Cromwell in this republican parliament and I can see more than one Brutus. The death of Charles did not advance the cause of liberty for the people; the nobility survived the monarch, and everywhere that parasitical plant is to be found, one can expect the poisonous regrowth of a king or an oppressor by another name.38
The political image of Cromwell in France during the last three centuries would provide the basis of a long and interesting study. One fact would emerge certainly from such an investigation with respect to the Convention period, namely, that few revolutionaries39 found it either in their conscience or in their political interests to express anything but the greatest horror for the leader of the English revolution. The subtitle of M.-L. Tardy’s tragedy of 1793, Cromwel ou le général liberticide, typically sums up the current attitude although, as we have already noted, the Puritan general had been occasionally viewed as a hero by a few avant-garde thinkers before the Revolution. Robespierre frequently defended himself against the accusations of Jean-Baptiste Louvet and others who charged him with harbouring the malign ambitions of a Cromwell. Danton, interrupted in a speech of 1 April 1793 by the cry “And Cromwell? . . . ,” furiously demanded, to the wild applause of his supporters, that the “scoundrel who has had the effrontery to say that I am a Cromwell be punished: have him locked up in the Abbaye!”40 After the Terror, the Convention found it wise to decree a mention honorable for Dugour’s Histoire de Cromwel of 1795 and added the recommendation that the work be referred to the Comité d’Instruction Publique.41 The Moniteur commented with a sigh of relief on 1 May 1795 that Dugour’s book could not have been published at a more opportune time: “It is in the conduct of this tyrant that our recent oppressors found the means to enslave us anew. Read his biography and you will discover the same system of oppression, devised in almost the same manner; it is as if one were reading the history of our present times; the resemblances are so striking that one would be tempted to question the historian’s veracity were it not for the fact that everything he narrates is recorded in the accounts and memoirs of contemporary authors.”42 Later still the parallel was frequently applied—perhaps with greater accuracy—to Bonaparte. But no matter what circumstance or which party is involved, the image of the Protector remains constant: Cromwell was as ostensibly odious in 1793 in the Convention as he was in Louis XVI’s marginal notes of 1779.43 A hero of any kind was feared and a Cromwell was feared perhaps most of all; for, to transpose a sentiment already expressed by a zealous English republican in 1649, if a king was desired, the last was perhaps as proper as any gentleman in France.
Principles Versus Precedents
Finally, let us consider those conventionnels whose opinions concerning the relevance of history, expressed during the trial of Louis XVI, allow us to classify them as a third group. These last were, of course, no less politically earnest than the others but they showed a greater amount of impatience to get on with a revolution that had, in their view, vertically outgrown history and was destined to lead the French nation to unprecedented heights of virtue and justice. For these true radicals, the Revolution had rendered the old interpretation of history and all of the cyclical parallels meaningless.
Admittedly, some of the Convention parallel-makers had been infuriatingly didactic; Birotteau’s triple comparison provides us with a good example: “Stuart died on the scaffold, and England continued to have kings. Rome, on the other hand, drove out the Tarquins, and Rome became the most stable and prosperous of republics; and, finally, the tyrant Dionysius, sent into exile at Corinth where he became a schoolmaster, saw no new tyrants succeed him in Syracuse.”
For our third group this was too much! We are told that as the sober Birotteau prepared to leave the tribune the mocking voice of Jullien was heard to shout: “Honourable mention!”44
To many, such parallels seemed indeed a practice more suited to the pretensions of over-eager schoolboys than to the leaders of the world’s greatest revolution. Mont-Gilbert boasts that his opinion will be unusual, that he will quote no obsolete authorities from history:
What do free Frenchmen have in common with Cromwell’s henchmen? . . . This obsession with finding grandiloquent comparisons is unworthy of us.
I shall come right out and say it (and may I be forgiven for doing so), this assembly, in my view, will never achieve its full majesty until, along with other reforms, we get rid of a certain importunate erudition which, to invest us with greatness and virtue, goes digging through the ruins of Athens and Sparta to find models. Woe betide us if to achieve great things we need to be encouraged by great examples! How feeble these virtues of imitation are when they do not derive their strength from the moral character of those who profess them!
If at all costs Louis’s judges wanted to imitate a virtue of the past, let it be, added Mont-Gilbert, the laconism of the Spartans.
The familiar idealist’s cry of principles not precedents was heard also from several other members: “What does it matter,” asked Ichon, “that England put Stuart on trial! . . . Basing on such comparisons the right of the people to overthrow kings is an outrage committed against the nation’s majesty. It is from the very nature of social organization, it is from the principles of immutable justice, it is from the nation’s code of sacred rights, that must be derived . . . the power to judge a king. . . .”
Bernard Descamps, attacking Rabaut’s Stuart-parallel, made a similar objection: “I will simply point out that it is very easy to draw parallels, and that these are certain to lead you into error. It is not a question here of what has been done, but rather of what must be.” What must be, he continued, does not depend on the bugbears of history: “We have been shown here the bloody head of Charles I, and the Convention Nationale of France has been compared more or less to the executioners who did Cromwell’s bidding; we have been harangued here, not about justice, but about politics; not about duty, but about accountability.”
Moderate appeals to the allegedly prudent lessons of history were nothing more than ill-disguised counter-revolutionary delaying tactics in the opinion of Marc-Antoine Jullien:
The trial of Charles Stuart has been cited in order to justify the slow and complicated procedures that have been recommended to you, and you have been told that it was because such measures were not taken that the English nation incurred the censure of the most philosophical writers. Be undeceived, Citizens; do not mistake that excuse for a reason. If the English, instead of merely truncating and abridging the sceptre of kings, had, like you, broken it up and melted it down; if the government that they adopted had been purely republican, and if the history of their revolution had been written only by republicans, you may be certain that it would never have occurred to anyone to find fault with how they judged their tyrant. In the eyes of true republicans, there are no inappropriate ways to destroy the usurpers of the people’s sovereignty; but the best, in their opinion, is the shortest, it is the way of men like Scaevola and Brutus. Either your republic will survive, in which case the horror that the memory of your last king must inspire in you will be recorded in all historical writings, or else the monarchy will resuscitate, and then, no matter what formalities you employ to dress up the trial of Louis XVI, there will be vile courtier slaves who, in order to flatter new tyrants, will find ways to stigmatize your glory, to dishonour your virtues, and to depict you in odious colours to posterity as the most sacrilegious of regicides. Make haste then to settle with the executioner’s blade a question that has already for too long taken up our time; make haste to found an eternal republic, do not hesitate to cement it with the blood of a perjuring king, and be not afraid that his execution will ever be imputed to you as a crime.
To satisfy their vanity, certain philosophers hoping to establish erudite theories, certain orators seeking to compose sublime speeches, have attempted to persuade you that this cause is difficult and of the greatest importance. Pay no heed to these sinister enlighteners and follow as I do the pure guiding light of reason; it will show you that there has never been an easier question to decide.
There are obviously no tiresome schoolboy pretensions in Jullien’s opinion any more than in the following one by Robespierre, which probably served as Jullien’s model:
Without realizing it, the Assembly has allowed itself to be led astray, far from the real question. There is no trial to proceed with here. . . . To suggest that Louis XVI should be tried, in whatever manner, is to retrogress to royal and constitutional despotism; it is a counter-revolutionary notion, for it is putting the revolution itself on trial. . . .
The people do not judge in the manner of judicial courts; they do not pass sentence, they hurl thunderbolts; they do not pass judgement on kings, they annihilate them, and that form of justice is as good as what the courts offer. . . .
We have allowed ourselves to be misled by foreign examples that have nothing in common with us. Cromwell had Charles I tried by a commission that was at his disposal . . . it is natural that tyrants immolate their own kind, not for the benefit of the people, but for their own ambitions, seeking all the while to deceive the common people with illusory formalities: it is not a question in such cases of either principles or liberty, but rather of scheming and imposture. But what laws can the people follow other than reason and justice, backed by their own omnipotence? . . .
I for one would be ashamed to devote any more serious discussion to these constitutional quibbles. I consign them to the classroom or the law-courts, or better still, to the cabinets of London, Vienna, and Berlin. I cannot find it in me to stretch out discussions when I am convinced that it is scandalous to debate at all.
We have been told that the case is very important and that it must be judged with wisdom and circumspection. It is you who are making it an important case: What am I saying! It is you who are making it into a case of any kind. . . .
Louis had to die so that the nation might live—such was Robespierre’s conclusion. Saint-Just was equally frank: “One day, people will be amazed to learn that the eighteenth century was less advanced than Caesar’s day: then, the tyrant was immolated right in the Senate with no other formality than thirty blows of the dagger. . . .” One is not obliged to cite legal or historical precedent to prove that kings are guilty. Kings are guilty by definition. All formalities to prove this guilt are vain. Every king is a rebel and a usurper. In Saint-Just’s celebrated words: “It is impossible to reign innocently. . . .”
Quite obviously it would be a fruitless task to search for the influence of Stuart history in these last opinions. One is almost tempted to say that the influence of historical precedent is completely absent for, with these men, the Revolution seemed at last to have outgrown all history.
If, however, one detects no influence, one at least senses in the words of Robespierre and his supporters a quite intense and highly revealing mood of exasperation. The debate over the wisdom of the Long Parliament in judging Charles I had gone on a very long time, far too long in the opinion of these men who wished to make haste. If at worst the question of the Stuart parallel and the closely related issue concerning the appel au peuple represented nothing more than a clever device invented by those moderates who wished to save the king’s life (and I believe it was much more than that), it clearly was a question on which a high proportion of members felt urged to speak or publish45 their sentiments.
The seventeenth-century revolution in England had provided the only really significant modern European precedent to the French revolution. How, so many conventionnels felt obliged to ask, did this precedent affect the new French Republic? What lessons could be learned from it? Hume, through his long established positive influence on conservative thinking up until the time of the trial and through his specific impact on the writings of the king’s chief apologists, had generated an important and not always totally negative reaction among Louis’s judges. The Mailhe report and the many “Stuart” opinions delivered during the trial can be interpreted to a substantial extent as bearing witness to the intensity of this reaction. Many in the Convention were apparently willing to admit that there existed an ideological relationship between the events in England and those in France. But they were obliged to admit also that the English revolution had ended in counter-revolution and, finally, in the restoration of the monarchy. What course of action would best prevent the occurrence of a similar failure a century and a half later?
As it turned out, of course, the bloody spectre of Charles I was not enough to save Louis XVI from the guillotine. It is true, nevertheless, that this spectre remained to haunt even those who pretended to feel only contempt for it. The symbols of Stuart history continued to present a threat of potential counter-revolution to France’s revolutionary leaders. The following incident, recorded during the Reign of Terror, though trivial in itself, is sufficient, I think, to illustrate this point. Late in December 1793, a certain Amable-Augustin Clément, clock-maker by profession and living in the rue Montmartre, was condemned to death by the revolutionary tribunal. He had been denounced as an aristocrat and partisan of Lafayette, charged with having wickedly and intentionally fired on the patriots during the day of 17 July 1791, and also with having voiced counter-revolutionary sentiments tending to restore the monarchy. Part of the damning evidence heard by the examining judge Etienne Foucault was an admission by the accused that he had in his possession several prints: notably a picture of Charlotte Corday and another of the execution of Charles I of England.46
[1. ]Réflexions sur mes entretiens avec M. le Duc de La Vauguyon, par Louis-Auguste, Dauphin, in Oeuvres de Louis XVI, Paris, 1864, I. 310.
[2. ]Ibid., I. 314. Louis XVI was not limited to reading English history in translation. His own knowledge of English was apparently excellent and he had even translated Walpole’s work on Richard III (published later as Règne de Richard III, ou Doutes historiques sur les crimes qui lui sont imputés, Paris, 1800), as well as fragments of Gibbon and other English historians. With regard to Louis XVI’s reading habits, Necker notes the following in 1792: “I have always seen the King reading, diligently and by preference, the great works of history, politics, and morals, written in French or in English.” (Réflexions présentées à la nation française sur le procès de Louis XVI, in Oeuvres complètes de M. Necker, publiées par M. le baron de Staël, Paris, 1820-21, XI. 363.)
[3. ]The official inventory of Louis XVI’s books, made at the Temple after his execution, shows that Hume’s was the only work of English history in the imprisoned king’s possession. (Archives Nationales, F. 17, 1200, No. 70: see Bapst, op. cit., La Révolution Française, XXI. 533.) Delisle de Sales, who had his information from Malesherbes’s son-in-law, the président Rosanbo, stated in 1803 that Louis XVI “had his former minister (i.e. Malesherbes) obtain from Nyon the bookseller David Hume’s History of the Stuarts, in order to look at the trial and execution of Charles I.” He goes on to add, however, that Louis returned the work to Malesherbes after reading it and that “this copy, made precious by such use, was in the library at the château of Malesherbes when the revolutionary vandals invaded.” (See Delisle de Sales, Malesherbes, Paris, 1803, p. 268.) It thus seems probable that Louis actually had two copies of the Stuarts. Cléry, the king’s valet during his captivity, explicitly states that Louis read Hume in English during that time. (Journal de ce qui s’est passé à la tour du Temple pendant la captivité de Louis XVI, Roi de France, Londres, 1798, p. 96.)
[4. ]Mme Campan, Mémoires sur la vie privée de Marie-Antoinette, Paris, 1822, II. 214-15.
[5. ]Ibid., II. 205. This would be around June 1792.
[6. ]Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la dernière année du règne de Louis XVI, Roi de France. Par Ant.-Fr. Bertrand-de-Molleville, Ministre d’Etat à cette époque, Londres, 1797, II. 259-61.
[7. ]Histoire d’Angleterre, Paris, 1815, III. 564.
[8. ]Ibid., III. 565. In 1816 Mme de Staël expressed certain wise reservations concerning such a view in her Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution Française: “It seems to me interesting,” she writes, “to show those who are convinced that this or that man in France at the time could have prevented everything, that this or that firm decision would have sufficed to bring everything to a halt, it seems to me interesting, I say, to show them how the conduct of Charles I was, in every respect, the opposite of that adopted by Louis XVI and how despite this the two contrary systems led to the same catastrophe: such is the invincible force of revolutions whose cause resides in the opinion of the multitude!” (Oeuvres complètes, Paris, 1820-21, XIII. 89.)
[9. ]Charles-Jean-Dominique de Lacretelle, Précis historique de la Révolution Française, Paris, 1801, p. 242.
[10. ]Jacob-Nicolas Moreau, Mes Souvenirs, publiés par Camille Hermelin, Paris, 1898-1901, II. 467-68.
[11. ]Letter 49, 15 August 1791, in Oeuvres de Louis XVI, II. 157.
[12. ]Ibid., II. 182.
[13. ]See Le Marquis de Beaucourt, Captivité et derniers moments de Louis XVI; récits originaux et documents officiels. Paris, 1892, I. 385.
[14. ]Oeuvres de Louis XVI, II. 207-8.
[15. ]Cléry, op. cit., p. 203. In a somewhat cruel forgery of Cléry’s journal, published in 1800, an editor’s note insists that this part of Louis’s final meditations was a salutary pensum imposed on the king by members of the Commune: “This historical work was not part of the small library at the Temple when Louis XVI arrived but it was sent there by the general council of the Commune, persuaded by Chaumette, Hébert, and others that it was improper for Louis XVI to be reading Latin poets which the council could not understand and to be asking that even more such works be purchased for him, instead of reading the trial of Charles I, which was more suited to his situation.” (Mémoires de M. Cléry ou Journal de ce qui s’est passé dans la tour du Temple, pendant la détention de Louis XVI; avec des détails sur sa mort, qui ont été ignorés jusqu’à ce jour. Edition originale seule avouée par l’auteur. Londres, 1800, pp. 127-28.) The same work tells how on the eve of Louis’s solemn appearance at the bar of the Convention, Marie-Antoinette spent many hours seated before her harpsichord merrily singing a collection of very naughty songs.
[16. ]Réflexions présentées à la Nation française sur le procès de Louis XVI, in Oeuvres complètes de M. Necker, Paris, 1820-21, XI. 376-78.
[17. ]Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the second edition, London, 1761; see Part I, Section III, Chapter II: “Of the Origin of Ambition, and of the Distinction of Ranks,” pp. 87-90.
[18. ]Necker, op. cit., pp. 400-403. Necker then cites in full Prévost’s translation of the following passage from Hume: It is impossible to describe the grief, indignation, and astonishment which took place, not only among the spectators, who were overwhelmed with a flood of sorrow, but throughout the whole nation, as soon as the report of this fatal execution was conveyed to them. Never monarch, in the full triumph of success and victory, was more dear to his people, than his misfortunes and magnanimity, his patience and piety, had rendered this unhappy prince. In proportion to their former delusions, which had animated them against him, was the violence of their return to duty and affection; while each reproached himself, either with active disloyalty toward him or with too indolent defence of his oppressed cause. On weaker minds, the effect of these complicated passions was prodigious. Women are said to have cast forth the untimely fruit of their womb: others fell into convulsions, or sunk into such a melancholy as attended them to their grave: nay, some, unmindful of themselves, as though they could not, or would not, survive their beloved prince, it is reported, suddenly fell down dead. The very pulpits were bedewed with unsuborned tears: those pulpits, which had formerly thundered out the most violent imprecations and anathemas against him. And all men united in their detestation of those hypocritical parricides, who, by sanctified pretences, had so long disguised their treasons and, in this last act of iniquity, had thrown an indelible stain upon the nation. (VIII, 137-38; —It should be noted that in his translation of this famous passage, the author of Manon Lescaut did full justice—and no more —to Hume’s original.)
[19. ]Plaidoyer pour Louis XVI, Londres, 1793, pp. 11-12.
[20. ]A work about which the republican Jean-Jacques Leuliette contemptuously but significantly notes: “You seem to have borrowed Hume’s brush in portraying the bloody denouement of January 21st. I admit that it was a sad day; but I cannot agree that it was the most horrifying day of the Revolution; the most horrifying day of the Revolution was the day the greatest number of heads fell; only one head was cut off on January 21st.” (Des Emigrés Français ou Réponse à M. de Lally-Tollendal, Paris, 1797, pp. 91-92.)
[21. ]Discours et opinions de Cazalès, Paris, 1821, p. 267.
[22. ]Avis à la Convention Nationale sur le jugement de Louis XVI, Genève, 1793, pp. 6-7.
[23. ]Ibid., pp. 9-12.
[24. ]Ibid., pp. 17-18. See also the Oraison funèbre de Henriette-Marie de France, Reine de la Grande-Bretagne (16 November 1669), in Oeuvres complètes de Bossuet, Tours, 1862, I. 425.
[25. ]A.-J. Dugour, Mémoire justificatif pour Louis XVI, ci-devant Roi des Français, Paris, 1793, p. 123. (First published in parts, December 1792-January 1793.)
[26. ]. . . présentés à la Convention Nationale, au nom du Comité de Législation, 7 November 1792.
[27. ]Jean Mailhe, op. cit., p. 20.
[28. ]Ibid., p. 21.
[29. ]Ibid., p. 22.
[30. ]I must point out that I make no claim here to a systematic analysis of the divisions along traditional party lines of opinions expressed in the Convention during the trial. I am concerned only with a sampling of opinions in which the Stuart parallel was actually made whether in a positive or negative sense. I shall also make no distinctions between successive opinions delivered on different but related issues, for example, on the advisability of judging Louis XVI, on the appel au peuple, on the king’s guilt, or on the form his punishment should take. With a few unavoidable exceptions, the quotations are taken from the original versions printed at the time of the trial by official order of the Convention. (B.N.Le37.2.G.)
[31. ]Vergniaud’s final vote despite these high-minded sentiments seemed, in the end, contradictory and disappointing to moderates: although in favour of the appel au peuple he later voted for the death-sentence and against the sursis, or reprieve.
[32. ]See also, for example, the opinions of Bailly, Baudin, Birotteau, Bodin, Bordas, Chasset, Guyomar, Lambert, Marey, Meynard, Morisson, Prunelle, and Riffard St. Martin.
[33. ]Rühl makes the same point and adds that in Milton’s work the Convention would find “strong arguments for condemning Louis XVI”; see also the opinion of François-Siméon Bezard.
[34. ]See the Comte d’Antraigue’s Adresse à l’ordre de la noblesse de France, Paris, 1792, pp. 124-35.
[35. ]Revolutionary orators did not always distinguish between the earlier and the later Brutus.
[36. ]See La Décade, 20 December 1794, III. 543.
[37. ]It must be conceded that the modest Bonaparte used only the word empereur.
[38. ]See also the opinions of Baudot, Cledel, Deleyre, Guyton, and Gertoux: the last refers to Louis XVI as “le Stuart français.”
[39. ]One might possibly except such men as Deleyre and Jean-Bon Saint-André, perhaps even Saint-Just who, it is worth noting, possessed in his small collection of books a biography of the Protector. (See Bapst, op. cit., La Révolution Française, XXI. 535.)
[40. ]Oeuvres de Danton, ed. Vermorel, Paris, 1866, p. 188.
[41. ]See La Décade, An III, V. 174.
[42. ]Gazette Nationale, ou le Moniteur universel, No. 222, p. 902. See also Journal de Paris, No. 202, 11 April 1797.
[43. ]See also Alexandre Tuetey, Répertoire général des sources manuscrites de l’histoire de Paris pendant la Révolution française, IV, Nos. 1125, 3342, 3458, 3643; VIII, No. 1403; X, No. 2102; XI, No. 28.
[44. ]See Journal des débats et des décrets, No. 102, 29 December 1792.
[45. ]After a time there were so many opinions that they could not all be delivered orally.
[46. ]See Alexandre Tuetey, op. cit., IX. 293-94.