Monday, 29 February 2016

The Convention and the execution of the king

'The execution of Louis XVI' by Georg Heinrich Sieveking .
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

The Convention

Though the Convention had been elected on manhood suffrage, barely one sixth of the electorate had taken part for the initial voting at town and village level. It had been elected when France was still officially a monarchy and it still met in the Manège, where the Legislative Assembly had sat. Of its 749 members almost half were lawyers. 200 had sat in the Legislative Assembly and eighty-three in the former Constituent Assembly, including Robespierre and the duc d’Orléans, now known as Philippe Egalité, both of whom sat for Paris.  Many members therefore had wide political experience. There were also a couple of foreigners, to demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of the Revolution, one of them the Englishman, Thomas Paine, elected for Pas de Calais. 

Because there was no king and initially no constitution, the Convention gathered to itself all the powers of the state. There were no restraining bodies and the motions of the Convention automatically became law. It would even assume judicial power.

Almost immediately divisions showed up in the Convention. Since the September massacres, the Girondins – the group around Brissot, Vergniaud and Roland – had become fiercely antagonistic towards the Parisian activists. In his newspaper, Le Patriot Français, Brissot denounced ‘anarchic, demagogic deputies’.  He was referring to the small group of committed radicals centred on the Paris delegation. Ten of the twenty-four representatives were Danton’s associates from the Cordeliers. As well as Danton himself they included Robespierre, Marat, and Camille Desmoulins.  Danton, who was widely suspected of corruption during his tenure as Minister of Justice, was singled out for attack by the Rolands. Accusations and counter-accusations proliferated, both sides totally convinced of their own virtue.

These tensions were aired not only in the Convention but also in the press, especially in the inflammatory journalism of Marat’s L’Ami du Peuple and René Hébert’s Père DuchesneThe other forums were the forty-eight sections, now comprising passive as well as active citizens, the Commune, the Cordeliers Club, and the Jacobin Club, where Danton was now the president, and which had close links with the Commune.  

The Jacobin Club presented itself as the home of true patriots, equal in legitimacy to the Convention. To the Jacobins, their opponents were not simply mistaken but ‘men of faction’, ‘aristocrats’, consciously seeking to do evil.  On 18 October the Club voted almost unanimously to expel Brissot.  (As he left, Marat became a member.) 

The divisions were reflected in the seating arrangements. Robespierre, Marat, Desmoulins, and Danton’s Cordeliers associates sat on the highest tiered benches, from where they could look down on those associated with the Gironde. They soon began to be called the Montagnards (the Mountain). The unaligned deputies sat on the lowest seats and were referred to as the Plain.

The Convention operated against a background of increasing divisions within France. Law and order had broken down in Lyons, France’s second city, where politics divided between club activists and propertied elites. By November the grain-growing regions around Paris were protesting about high prices while radicals were demanding the egalitarian distribution of land.

The progress of the war

Following Valmy, the war was going well for France. On 27 October General Dumouriez entered the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and defeated the Austrians at Jemappes on 6 November. On 16 November the French opened the river Scheldt, which had been closed by treaty since 1648. On 27 November Savoy was occupied and annexed to France.

After Jemappes the war became ideological as well as a war of annexation. On 19 November the Convention issued the 'Decree of Fraternity', offering aid to oppressed peoples wishing to recover their liberty.  On 15 December it passed the 'Second Propaganda Decree', requiring the French military authorities to execute the principal legislation of the Revolution in the occupied territories. 

For the British the main issue was the opening of the Scheldt. On 1 December they mobilised the militia. On 31 December Pitt the Younger said: 
‘England will never consent that France should arrogate the power of annulling at her pleasure – and under the pretence of a natural right of which she makes herself the only judge – the political system of Europe established by solemn treaties and ratified by all the Powers.’ 
The British were now mobilizing their fleet and by the end of 1792 they were putting together a grand European coalition against France. The stage was set for war.

The execution of Louis XVI

In the Convention on 7 November the Toulouse lawyer Jean-Baptiste Mailhe argued that it was a mere technicality to say that Louis was constitutionally inviolable. He should be tried for his crimes and the Convention was the appropriate forum for his trial. 

‘The tottering of thrones that once seemed most secure, the active and happy prosperity of the armies of the French Republic, the political current which is electrifying all humanity, everything announces the imminent fall of kings and the establishment of all societies on their original foundations.’

On 13 November the debate began. The most powerful maiden
 by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon -
speech of the French Revolution came from the twenty-five-year-old Antoine Saint-Just: 

‘No man can reign innocently. The folly is all too evident. Every king is a rebel and a usurper.’  
However only a minority advocated a policy of summary execution. 

On 20 November a damning piece of evidence against Louis emerged, when Roland, the Minister of the Interior, appeared before the Convention to tell them that a secret iron cupboard (armoire de ferhad been discovered behind a panelling in the Tuileries. Under his supervision, a locksmith forced open the cupboard and found hundreds of incriminating documents that showed how consistently the king had sought to undermine the Revolution. But Roland handled the matter ineptly, and he was never able to escape the charge that because he had looked at the papers on his own, he was concealing information.  The episode therefore had two consequences: it exposed the king’s duplicity and it intensified the hostilities between the Girondins and the Montagnards. 
' Examination of Louis the Last' ,
Histoire-musée de la république Française,
Licensed under Public domain
 via Wikimedia Commons  

On 10 December the trial of ‘Citizen Capet’ before the Convention began. There were thirty-five heads of indictment against him. From 11 December, Louis was separated from his family, though he was permitted occasional access.  On 26 December his highly talented defence team, presented its case. On 27 December the Convention began to debate the king’s fate. What was at issue was not his guilt or innocence but whether he should be executed or imprisoned; and should any sentence be referred to the ‘people’ for approval? Given the conditions in France this was wildly impractical, but it was seized on by the Girondins in an attempt to break the grip of the Montagnards and the Parisian radicals. However on 14 January the Convention held two significant votes: the king was guilty (693/0) and the appel au peuple was rejected (424/283). 

At eight in the evening of 16 January the deputies began the thirteen-hour process of voting on Louis’ sentence, amid lurid rumours that any verdict other than death would bring the sans-culottes onto the streets. Robespierre said: 
‘I do not recognize a humanity that massacres people and pardons despots.’  
The king's cousin, the former Duke of Orleans, now calling himself Philippe Egalité  said that those who attacked the sovereignty of the people deserved death. The unconditional vote for death was 361/360. 321 voted for imprisonment and a small group for death but with various suggestions as to a reprieve.  When the English deputy, Thomas Paine, argued against execution, proposing instead that the royal family be exiled to the United States, he was loudly heckled by Marat. 

'Louis XVI' by Charles Benazech -
Web screenshot. Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons 

On the evening of Sunday 20 January Louis saw his family for the last time. He was executed on 21 January. 

The death of Lepeletier

The royalists now had a martyr, but the republicans had one as well. On 20 January the Montagnard deputy Louis-Michel Lepeletier was stabbed to death by a former royal bodyguard. The Jacobins rewrote his dying words: 
‘I am content to spill my blood for my country; I hope it will serve to consolidate liberty and equality and to reveal their enemies.’ 
His funeral was orchestrated by the painter Jacques-Louis David, and Danton used the occasion to deliver an oration calling for Roland’s dismissal. (On 22 January Roland quit the Interior Ministry.) David’s painting of Lepeletier’s corpse, modelled on a pieta, was hung in the Convention.
engraved by Pierre Alexander Tardieu 

Licensed under public domain by
Wikimedia Commons

The war widens

On 1 February France declared war on Britain and Holland, pre-empting a British declaration. With France at war with two major colonial powers, the war became a world war. On 7 March the Convention declared war on Spain. 

The war provided the background to the Terror.

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