Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The Trial of King Louis XVI

We now come to a very sad and painful event in the Revolution, the trial and subsequent execution of the king. Who does not feel sorry for him? Born the heir to so much human glory, yet brought step by step to so much shame and sorrow.

There was now no king nor kingdom of France. The king was now no longer King Louis XVI., but plain Louis, or Louis Capet. The National Convention of seven hundred and forty-nine men, who first met about the middle of September, were now the sovereigns of France by might if not by right; able to raise or lower whom they would, to kill or save alive as they pleased. One of the first labors of the new Convention was to have a guard; the next was to bring to judgment those guilty of the September massacres. The guard was ordered, and then it was repealed; for it was considered an insult to Paris that a republican convention should need any protection from the people whom it so truly represented. As to the massacres, nothing was done to bring the guilty ringleaders to the gallows, though much was said and attempted. Things of greater importance than that of avenging dead men pressed upon the Convention: there was the army to quarrel over; there was the question how to feed the people of Paris; and above all, there was the question, "What is to be done with Louis?"

Much anxiety was there about the army; for the European powers were highly indignant with France for putting her king in chains, and it was thought that England would join Prussia and Austria in his defense. The French army, or armies, were in a bad way, and one member complained that thirty thousand pairs of breeches were urgently needed by the army of the South.

As for food, it was scarcer than ever, and bread riots occurred almost everywhere. Marat tells us, in his "People's Friend," that a pound of bread cost six sous, and a laborer's daily wages were but fifteen. One member proposed that every man should live two days a week on potatoes, and also that every person should hang his dog. Two of the members went one day to Chartres to arrange matters about food, and the people threatened to hang them unless they would then and there fix the price of corn to suit the pockets of the Chartres mob. And all this hunger, and these long queues of men at baker's shops,—what did they end in? The murder of the king! The queue was, as we have already said, a long line of people who stood one behind another at the baker's door. At first there was a rope fastened to a ring in the shop wall which each person grasped with his hand; but the rope was often cut by mischief-makers, and the Convention ordered the ropes to be replaced by iron chains.

Hunger pressed on the French people still; and their overthrow of the old order of things had as yet done little or nothing to satisfy the poor with bread. People kept asking the question, "Why is food still so dear?" And the answer came, "Because Louis is still alive. We shall have no real freedom nor plenty until he is put out of the way." As long as he lived, he seemed to them a centre round which gathered plots and royalist hopes, and they thought that it should be but a short step from the Tuileries to the Place de la Revolution.

When a certain curate, Gregoire, who had become a bishop, declared from his pulpit that it was a capital crime to be a king at all, and his words were applauded as words of wisdom, we may understand what the thoughts of men were on that subject. Moreover, the eyes of Frenchmen were now suddenly turned to the pages of English history, and especially to that part of it which tells of the execution of Charles I. Printed copies of the trial of Charles were sold in vast numbers, and the French could but reason thus: "If the English put their king to death, and have become since the first of free nations, why may not we do the same?" And so, among the questions debated in the Convention, this question, "What is to be done with the king?" became the foremost, and was the one most frequently discussed by the members.

The 6th of November was an important day for France. Her general, Dumouriez, won the battle of Jemappes, his soldiers singing, as they conquered the foe, the "Marseillaise Hymn;" and her Parliament decreed that Louis, her late king, should be brought to trial.

There was a body of members in the Convention who looked on the king's trial and what it might lead to with keen dislike. These were the Girondins. They had done much to carry on the Revolution up to this point; but now they often differed from men like Danton, Marat, and Robespierre, and many and hot were their disputes about the further progress of state affairs.

The king's trial was much affected by a discovery in the Tuileries. A certain blacksmith of Versailles, named Gamin, came one day before the Convention, and said that he had helped Louis make an iron press, which was placed in a wall of the king's chamber. He was able to point out the iron press behind some wainscot or tapestry; and the press, having been wrenched open, disclosed a number of important state letters, which brought trouble to many a man. In consequence of this the bust of Mirabeau was shattered, and several men of importance became suspected and unpopular. The blacksmith, who said the king had nearly killed him with a drugged glass of wine after the safe was securely fixed, had a large reward for his services, and the letters and papers found in the iron chest were produced as so many witnesses of the king's guilt.

Louis XVI


On the 11th of December the king was brought in the mayor's carriage to the Convention hall to be tried. The streets were full of soldiers, and the people were silent, or now and then sang snatches of the popular Ca ira or the "Marseillaise Hymn," as he went by. When he was in the hall, he looked around at those who were to judge him; and the president, who had fifty-seven questions to ask him, said, "Louis, you may sit down."

After Barrere had asked his fifty-seven questions, and Louis had answered them all as well as he could, he was ordered to withdraw into a committee-room, where he partook of a crust of bread. A clerk who was in the room having thrown some bread into the street, Louis reproved him, saying, "It is a pity to waste bread in time of dearth."

"My grandmother," observed Chaumette (a man then high in the government), "used to say to me, 'Little boy, never waste a crumb of bread, for you cannot make one.'"

"Monsieur Chaumette," replied the king, "your grandmother seems to have been a sensible woman."

Louis's trial now coming on, he was allowed to choose an advocate; and three lawyers stepped forth to defend him; namely, Tronchet, an old man called Malesherbes, and the youthful Deseze.

It was arranged, after much debating, that Louis should again appear and plead on the day after Christmas Day. His advocates thought it too early, but they could not get the day postponed. So, at the cold dark hour of eight in the morning on St. Stephen's Day, the members of the Convention were at their post, and at nine o'clock Louis entered the hall to be tried, under an escort of National Guards.

The talented young Deseze did the best he could for his master. For three hours he pleaded; and when his great effort was over, Louis fell on his neck and kissed him. Before he left the place of trial the king also said a few words; and they were the last he ever spoke in public, except two or three on the scaffold. He assured his judges that he was guiltless of the blood shed on the l0th of August; and then he quitted the hall, leaving his fate in the hands of those who had made themselves his judges. After many further debates it was agreed that the Convention should decide, by a majority of votes, whether Louis was or was not guilty of conspiring against liberty, and, if so, what his punishment should be. When, at length, on the 15th of January, the question was put, "Guilty or not guilty?" all voted "Aye," except twenty-eight, who did not vote at all.

The next vote was taken on the question, "What shall the punishment be?" The voting lasted from Wednesday, January 16, until the following Sunday morning. Each member had to mount, when his name was called, into the tribune, and say his say. Some voted for "death;" others for "banishment." At length "death" was decided on by a majority of fifty-three. Then came a final question, "When is he to die?" Every member had to mount the tribune again and give his vote. It was this final voting which did not come to an end until three o'clock on the Sunday morning. By a majority of seventy the question was decided, "No delay; death within twenty-four hours!"

They say that these votings formed the strangest of all the strange scenes of the Revolution. One deputy who had voted for death without delay, ran out of the hall to get some dinner in the Palais Royal; and as he was paying for it, a man stepped up to him, and said, "You voted in the king's business, did you not?"

"Yes," replied the deputy; "I voted death."

"Wretch, take that!" said the man; and the voter received a stab which caused his death in a few hours.