1793: Louis XVI

On this date in 1793, citizen Louis Capet — King Louis XVI, before the French Revolution — heard a morning mass, then took a closed carriage with his confessor two hours through the city to the Place de la Révolution, where the guillotine struck off his head.

Among the august company of executed monarchs, none command more historical portent in the West than Louis XVI. He overawes the confines of a blog post, less due to any merit of his own — for its conspicuous want during his kingship had seen him to this day’s straits — than for his baggage of symbolism.

Louis XVI’s head displayed to the crowd. In the right background stands a pedestal that, until the Revolution, upheld an equestrian statue of the beheaded man’s father grandfather, Louis XV.

The French Revolution rates, arguably, as little less than the forge of modernity: this day’s stroke, the Revolution’s signature event, could be said with melodrama but not injustice to have separated the era we still inhabit from that of the ancien regime as surely as it separated a head from its shoulders.

How did it come to happen? Let us turn our focus a few days back, when the question of the king’s fate was put to the newly formed National Convention.

Among the least of the Bourbon legacies is a legend holding it was by a single vote the king was condemned, an object lesson in the reputed power of the ballot.

It would be a great story … if it were true.

But it’s false on two different and equally important planes: first, the plain allegation that Louis really died by a one-vote difference; and second, the upshot that the individual votes were therefore historically decisive.

To begin with the mathematics: 721 delegates cast votes on the former king’s fate, making 361 the simple majority. It happened that exactly 361 voted for the death penalty without reservation, and this is the source of the claim that a one-vote margin decided the matter.

But there were other votes than aye or nay: every member voted one by one, many with short speeches into the bargain — a roll call lasting nearly a full 24 hours. Twenty-six more had voted for death but suggested a further appeal to the people. That curlicue, which had already been rejected, did not alter their ballot, so the vote is more properly reported 387-334, and often is. (Still others voted for death subject to various conditions; Adolphe Thiers gives a full ledger of the votes.)

More important than the tally was the overall context. There is something touching about the idea that a king was killed by some orderly parliamentary channel as readily as a school bond might be.

In fact, the freshly-constituted National Convention, spinning ad hoc rules for the treatment of its royal prisoner all along, was an arena for savage power struggles likewise contested at arms throughout the country. Louis’ death was the blow struck by the Convention’s radical Mountain — Robespierre* and Marat‘s base — against the divided opposition of the Gironde.

And the Mountain had the upper hand. It forced a public vote, and mobilized its mobs and militias in Paris. Just four months removed from an orgy of slaughter in the Paris prisons, these cutthroats prowled the byways outside and inside the Convention, noticeably armed, marking the delegates who resisted their will.

Louis Madelin:

One of the regicides, La Revelliere, says, “I must acknowledge that it involved more courage, at that particular moment, to absolve than to condemn.” The Clubs, the Sections, the Commune, were all in full cry. Barere had decided that the members’ names were to be called out as they voted at the rostrum, thus the spectators in the galleries would be able to mark the “pure and the impure.” Buzot, Gensonne, and Kersaint all made complaints to the Chamber of the manoeuvres practised by the Commune. The “assassins of September” were swarming in the Tuileries. A delegate from the department of the Loire-Inferieure, Sotin, writes on the 8th [of January] that the Assembly is “about to vote at the dagger’s point.”

As occurs in history more often than one might care to admit, the dagger’s point struck its target: the situation compelled a vote for death even from some delegates who had vowed they would stand with the king, and the taint of regicide irrevocably committed many to a path more radical than they might have chosen in the course of ordinary logrolling — or too defenselessness in the path of the Convention’s subsequent purges. As one wrote in a personal letter, “The roads are broken up behind us: we must go forward now whether we will or not, and at this moment we may truly choose to live in freedom or die!”

Regardless, it was not the balance of ballots but the balance of force in Paris as 1793 began that sealed the king’s demise: if not under the blade, it might have come about at pikestaffs. The votes cast by candlelight and the monumental blow of the guillotine this day merely ratified that underlying reality.

* Robespierre made a striking case for executing Louis rooted in his — Robespierre’s — opposition to the death penalty.

On this day..

30 thoughts on “1793: Louis XVI

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