Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The King's Trial

It did not seem enough, however, to dethrone poor King Louis XVI., for he was now to be called to account for the sins of his fathers. His ordeal began by his being separated from his family, with whom he had been living within the Temple walls during the past five months. Next, he was summoned before the Convention to be tried, where all former respectful modes of address were discarded, and he was bluntly addressed as "Louis," or "Louis Capet." While he was allowed a lawyer,—who pleaded eloquently in his behalf and did his utmost to save him,—the Convention had so thoroughly made up its mind in advance to condemn him, that even slow-witted Louis perceived it, for he said, "They will bring me to the scaffold, but no matter, I shall gain my cause if I leave an unspotted memory behind me!" And his lawyer once despairingly exclaimed, "I seek judges in you, and find nothing but accusers!"

Everything that could be trumped up against his poor Majesty was now brought to light, and his weakness in often changing his mind was made a capital crime. Papers were produced which were said to have been found in an iron box hidden in his palace wall, and which proved that the king had been corresponding with his brothers and other émigrés, as well as with Austria, begging them to lend him their assistance in his sore straits.

While it was a foregone conclusion that he would be found guilty, it may be that Louis's life might yet have been spared, had not Danton suggested, referring to the foes of France, "Let us throw them the head of a king as gage of battle!" As soon as the trial was over, votes were taken on several questions, each member stepping forward to proclaim aloud his opinion. First, the king was found guilty by an almost unanimous vote; but then, on the question of his punishment, there was only a small majority in favor of death. The voting and speech making lasted several days; for many members insisted on giving their reasons for their votes. Every one present shuddered when the king's cousin—the former Duke of Orleans, who now prided himself upon bearing the name of Philip Equality (Philippe Egalite)—stepped boldly forward and said, "With a single regard to my duty, I vote for death." Another member, Sieyes, who harshly voted, "Death, without explanations!" had an unpleasant reminder of this brutal remark when, later on, as ambassador at Berlin, he invited a member of the royal family to dinner, only to receive the curt reply, "No, without explanations!"

The last question to be voted on was whether the execution should be delayed. It was then that Thomas Paine, an American residing in Paris, who was a member of the Convention, made a formal protest in the name of his country, saying, "The man whom you condemn to death is regarded by the people of the United States as their best friend, as the founder of liberty!" But a majority of seventy decided against delay, and the Convention ordered that Louis be guillotined within twenty-four hours. (The guillotine was a machine recently invented by a Frenchman for the work of beheading.)

While the voting was going on, Louis was in another room, calmly meditating. When the news was brought to him, he gravely said, "For two hours past I have been considering whether, during my whole reign, I have voluntarily given any cause of complaint to my subjects, and with perfect sincerity I now declare that I deserve no reproach at their hands, and that I have never formed a wish but for their happiness."

This statement made no difference; the cruel sentence was read, to which Louis offered no protest. He made no moan, but asked permission to take leave of his family, and to have the aid of a priest of his own choice to prepare for death. Both these favors were granted; but as Louis would not have a French priest who had renounced allegiance to the Pope, and could not have any other French clergyman, he had to accept the aid of Abbe Edgeworth, an English priest then residing in France.