The Worlds Famous Orations. Continental Europe (3801906). 1906.
I. Against Granting the King a Trial
Maximilien Marie Isidore Robespierre (175894)
Born in 1758, died in 1794; elected a Deputy to the States-General in 1789; leader of the Extreme Left in the Assembly and one of the chief orators of the Jacobin Club; after the death of Mirabeau, his influence increasing, opposed the Girondists; became a member of the Committee of Public Safety and was closely identified with the horrors of The Reign of Terror; finally overthrown and put to death.
THE ASSEMBLY1 has unwittingly been drawn far from the actual question. There is no question of a trial. Louis is not an accused; you are not judges; you are only, you can be only, statesmen, and the representatives of the nation. You have no sentence to render for or against a man; but a measure of public safety to take, an act of national providence to perform. A dethroned king, in a Republic, is good only for two purposeseither to trouble the tranquillity of the State and to unsettle liberty, or to establish both. But I maintain that the character which your deliberation has hitherto taken on tends directly against the goal.
Louis was king and the Republic is founded; the great question which occupies you is decided by these words alone. Louis has been dethroned for his crimes; Louis denounced the French people as rebels; to chastise them he has invoked the arms of his brother tyrants. Victory and the people have decided that he was the rebel: hence Louis can not be judged; he is judged already. He is condemned, or the Republic is not absolved. To propose a trial for Louis XVI. in any way whatever is to retrograde toward royal and constitutional despotism; it is a counter-revolutionary idea, for it is putting the revolution itself on trial.
Indeed, if Louis can still be the object of a trial, Louis can be absolved; he can be innocent. What do I say? He is presumed to be so until he is judged. But if Louis is absolved, if Louis can be presumed to be innocent, what does the Revolution become? If Louis is innocent, all the defenders of liberty become calumniators. All the rebels were friends of truth and the defenders of oppressed innocence; all the manifestoes of foreign courts are but legitimate protestations against a ruling faction. Even the confinement which Louis has suffered until the present time is an unjust persecution; the confederates, the people of Paris, all the patriots of the French dominion are guilty; and this great trial pending in the court of nature, between crime and virtue, between liberty and tyranny, is finally decided in favor of crime and tyranny.
When a nation has been forced to resort to the right of insurrection it returns to a state of nature as regards its tyrant. How can the latter invoke the social compact? He has annihilated it. The nation can preserve it still, if it thinks fit, in whatever concerns the interrelations of its citizens: but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely as regards the tyrant; it is to throw them into mutual war; the tribunals, the judiciary procedures, are made for the members of the city. It is a gross contradiction to suppose that the Constitution can preside over this new state of things; that would be to suppose that it survived itself. What are the laws which replace it? Those of nature, which is the basis of society itself; the safety of the people. The right to punish the tyrant and that to dethrone him are the same thing. The one does not admit of different forms from the other. The tyrants trial is insurrection; his judgment is the fall of his power; his penalty, whatever the liberty of the people demands.
Peoples do not judge like judiciary courts. They pass no sentences; they hurl the thunderbolt. They do not condemn kings: they thrust them back into oblivion; and this justice is not inferior to that of courts. If they arm themselves against their oppressors for their own safety, why should they be bound to adopt a mode of punishing them which would be a new danger to themselves?
We have allowed ourselves to be misled by foreign examples which have nothing in common with us. Since Cromwell caused Charles I. to be judged by a tribunal which he controlled, and Elizabeth had Mary Queen of Scots condemned in the same way, it is natural that tyrants who sacrifice their kind, not to the people, but to their own ambition, should seek to deceive the crowd by illusive forms. It is a question neither of principles, nor of liberty, but of trickery and intrigue. But the people! What other law can they follow but justice and reason supported by their omnipotence?
A trial for Louis XVI.! But what is this trial, if it is not the call of insurrection to a tribunal or to some other assembly? When a king has been annihilated by the people, who has the right to resuscitate him in order to make of him a new pretext for trouble and rebellion? And what other effects can this system produce? In opening an arena to the champions of Louis XVI. you resuscitate all the strife of despotism against liberty; you consecrate the right to blaspheme against the Republic and against the people, because the right to defend the former despot involves the right to say everything that concerns his cause. You arouse all the factions; you revive, you encourage dying royalism. The people might freely take part for or against it. What more legitimate, what more natural than to repeat everywhere the maxims that his defenders would be free to profess at your bar and from your very tribune? What kind of a Republic is it whose founders raise up adversaries on every side to attack it in its cradle!
It is a great cause, it is said, which must be judged with wise and slow circumspection. It is you who make a great cause of it. What do I say? I say that it is you who make a cause of it. What do you find great in it? Is it its difficulty? No. Is it the person? In the eyes of liberty there is none more vile; in the eyes of humanity there is none more guilty. He can impose again only on those who are more cowardly than himself. Is it the utility of the result? That is one more reason for hastening it. A great cause is a project of popular law; a great cause is that of an unfortunate oppressed by despotism. What is the motive of these everlasting delays which you recommend to us? Are you afraid of wounding popular opinion? As if the people themselves feared anything but the weakness or ambition of their mandatories! As if the people were a vile troop of slaves, stupidly attached to the stupid tyrant whom they have proscribed, desiring at whatever price to wallow in baseness and servitude! You speak of opinion; is it not for you to direct it, to fortify it? If it goes astray, if it becomes depraved, who must it blame for it if not you yourselves? Are you afraid of displeasing the foreign kings leagued against us? Oh! without doubt, the way to conquer them is to appear to fear them: the way to confound the criminal conspiracy of the despots of Europe is to respect their accomplice. Are you afraid of foreign peoples? Then you still believe in the inborn love of tyranny.
Why then do you aspire to the glory of emancipating the human race? By what contradiction do you suppose that the nations which have not been astonished by the proclamation of the rights of humanity will be terrified by the chastisement of one of its most cruel oppressors? Finally, you fear, it is said, the verdict of posterity. Yes, posterity will be astonished indeed at your inconsistency and your weakness; and our descendants will laugh both at the presumption and the prejudices of their ancestors. It has been said that genius is necessary to penetrate this question. I maintain that it requires only good faith: it is much less a matter of self-enlightenment than of not wilfully blinding ones self. Why does a thing which seems clear to us at one time seem obscure at another?
I have heard the defenders of inviolability advance a bold principle which I should have almost hesitated to express myself. They said that those who would have slain Louis XVI. on the tenth of August would have performed a virtuous action. But the sole basis of this opinion can be the crimes of Louis XVI. and the rights of the people. Has an interval of three months changed his crimes or the rights of the people? If then he was snatched away from public indignation it was without doubt solely that his punishment, solemnly ordered by the National Convention in the name of the nation, should be more imposing to the enemies of humanity; but to bring up the question whether he is guilty or whether he can be punished is to betray the trust of the French people.
Of what importance to the people is the contemptible person of the last of the kings? Representatives, what is important to them, what is important to yourselves, is that you fulfil the duties which their confidence has imposed upon you. You have proclaimed the Republic, but have you given it to us? We have not yet made a single law which justifies that name; we have not yet reformed a single abuse of despotism. Away with names; we have still tyranny complete, and in addition, factions more vile and charlatans more immoral, with new ferments of troubles, and of civil war. The Republic! and Louis still lives! and you still place the person of the king between us and liberty! Let us fear to make criminals of ourselves on account of our scruples; let us fear that by showing too much indulgence for the guilty we may place ourselves in his place.
A new difficulty! To what punishment shall we condemn Louis? The punishment of death is too cruel. No, says another, life is more cruel still. I ask that he may live. Advocates of the king, is it through pity or cruelty that you wish to save him from the penalty of his crimes? As for me, I abhor the penalty of death so lavish in your laws, and I have neither love nor hatred for Louis. Crimes only I hate. I have asked the Assembly, which you still call Constituent, for the abolition of the death penalty, and it is not my fault if the first principles of reason seem to it moral and political heresies. But if you never bethought yourselves to invoke them in favor of so many unfortunates whose offenses are less their own than those of the government, by what fatality do you remember them only to plead the cause of the greatest of all criminals? You ask an exception to the death penalty for him alone against whom it can be legitimate! Yes, the penalty of death generally is a crime, and for that reason alone, according to the indestructible principles of nature, it can be justified only in cases when it is necessary for the safety of individuals or the social body. Public safety never demands it against ordinary offenses, because society can always guard against them by other means and make the offender powerless to harm it. But a dethroned king in the bosom of a revolution which is anything but cemented by laws, a king whose name suffices to draw the scourge of war on the agitated nation, neither prison nor exile can render his existence immaterial to the public welfare: and this cruel exception to ordinary laws which justice approves can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes.
It is with regret that I utter this fatal truth. But Louis must die, because the country must live. Among a people at peace, free and respected at home and abroad, the counsels to generosity given you might be entertained. But a people whose liberty is still contested after so many sacrifices and combats; a people among whom the laws are still inexorable only toward the unfortunate; a people among whom the crimes of tyranny are still the subjects of debate, must long for vengeance; and the generosity with which we are flattered would seem too much like that of a band of brigands dividing the spoils.
I move to resolve forthwith upon the fate of Louis XVI. As for his wife, you will send her back to the courts, as well as all other persons accused of the same criminal attempts. His son shall be guarded at the Temple, until such time as peace and public liberty shall have been established. As for him, I ask that the Convention declare him, from this moment, a traitor to the French nation, a criminal toward humanity. I ask that it make a great example before the world on the very spot where died, the tenth of August, the noble martyrs of liberty. I ask that this memorable event be commemorated by a monument designed to nourish in the hearts of the people the consciousness of their rights and the horror of tyrants; and in the souls of tyrants a salutary terror of the peoples justice.
Note 1. Delivered in the Convention on December 3, 1792. Translated for this edition by Scott Robinson from the original text as given in Stephenss Orators of the French Revolution. Robespierre spoke in opposition to the Girondists, who desired to have the king tried in a ceremonious and impressive manner. [back]