The Death of Louis XVI

By Blake Smith 

Some historical events are so fraught with significance and symbolism that we can hardly see them for what they were (and what events always are): contingent outcomes brought about by unstable balances of forces, interpreted in various ways at the moment of their occurrence, and only taking on the appearance of inevitability and coherence as the competing agents who, knowingly and unknowingly, made them recede from view.’ In his new book L’exécution du roi. 21 janvier 1793 (Perrin 2021). Jean-Clément Martin argues that the death of Louis XVI is one such misunderstood event.[1] Martin painstakingly reconstructs the fraught, unpredictable process by which the members of the National Convention (which, after dethroning Louis XVI on September 21, 1792, ruled France, or at least those parts that it controlled), pressured by outside forces from the Parisian crowds to the courts of Europe, gradually came to decide the fate of their former king. 

The chief target of Martin’s historiographical intervention is a tradition in French thought, dating from the aftermath of the execution itself and continuing into the present, that has understood the trial and execution as a sort of “sacrificial ceremony” by which a political culture based on the sovereign body of the king was destroyed and replaced by a new founding myth of the republic. Martin notes how philosophers and political theorists from Albert Camus to Michel Foucault have interpreted Louis XVI’s as a radical, irreversible shift in French history and the history of modern Europe more generally. This interpretation, he argues, with its “ready-made formulas” about the passage of one era into another, represented by a singular spectacular event, has occluded the “negotiations and conflicts, calculations and compromises” among various factions of the Assembly that finally led to the execution of the former king on January 21, 1793.[2] This facile story not only conceals the messiness of history, but, more importantly, disguises the real meaning of revolutionary politicians’ debates about what should be done with their dethroned ruler. Although they appealed to, and were to some extent motivated by various philosophical, moral, and political principles, they were above all concerned with maintaining the security and stability of the state at a time of crisis, when the unstable French government faced foreign and domestic foes. 

Far from being an inevitable stage in some inherent tendency of the Revolution towards radicalism and republican government, Martin posits, the trial and execution of Louis XVI posed “an extremely difficult choice” about how to preserve the French state amid the growing violence of civil and foreign war. Among members of the Assembly and the public, the event generated a wide-ranging debate opening critical questions about the death penalty (which the most vocal regicides, such as Maximilien Robespierre, had condemned in the early years of the Revolution), the rights of the accused, and the nature of sovereignty. The participants in this affair transformed it into a topic of impromptu political theorization, or rather theorized as part of their political maneuvering around the still-undetermined fate of Louis XVI. At the same time, Martin shows they were attentive to the “symbolism of the event” and aware that France’s and Europe’s eyes were turned toward the trial of the former king. Over the course of the trial, the victory of the Jacobins over both their moderate rivals and their foes on the more radical left remained (or was) uncertain, as “various currents of the revolution confronted each other, trying to conserve their hegemony.” Each of these sides, as well as the monarchists excluded from power (but no one could be sure for how long), stage-managed its role in the trial as part of a larger propaganda campaign, in a kind of improvised dramaturgy with multiple directors competing for control of the production. Martin provides, for example, a fascinating analysis of the execution’s symbolism, and how it was interpreted and responded to by a variety of audiences, from the crowd gathered before the guillotine to the press.[3]

Neither historical actors’ appeals to philosophical justifications, however, nor their use of political symbolism, should disguise the pressing problem that drove them to their final decision. In reality, Martin argues, while figures like Robespierre and Saint Just appealed to republican virtue in their calls to execute the former king, Louis XVI was killed less to give a new foundation to the republic than to reinforce the vulnerable state. As the French government faced such threats as civil war, the Parisian crowd, anti-revolutionary conspiracies and foreign invasion, a range of actors from across the ideological spectrum could agree that what was most immediately needed was to put the state on a stable basis and show supporters and enemies at home and abroad that the government was capable of decisive action. In this sense, regicide could appear less as a sign of ideological commitment to republicanism than as a means of eliminating a question that seemed bound to keep generating conflict, as revolutionary crowds pressured the government to kill the royal family and pro-monarchy forces continued to agitate for the crown’s return to power.

Martin’s sense of the primacy of the non-ideological problem of political stability puts the conflict between Jacobins (generally in favor of executing Louis XVI, although not necessarily after a formal trial) and the Girondins and other moderates (who mostly supported keeping him alive, although divided on whether a king could even be tried) in a new light. Usually seen as a conflict between the left and moderates motivated by rival visions of the revolution, it appears here above all as a conflict about the best means to restore the state’s control over the fissiparous forces of popular violence (from the Parisian crowd) and civil war and counter-revolutionary conspiracy. 

For Martin, Louis XVI’s death functions as a kind of metonym for the Terror, or the Revolution itself—but precisely not in the sense meant by those who have interpreted these events as a meaningful whole that can be judged positively or negatively, or even, suspending ethical interpretations, as an epochal break in modern history. Rather, “it is not possible to imagine that these acts explain the deep meaning of the Revolution, or the innermost essence of the Republic.” We should rather see them as the actions of political figures who were perhaps “naïve or manipulative” about the violence they unleashed, who were caught up in “an undeniable regression” towards a bloody, chaotic situation created by the “absence of power that political instability had carved out.” Their decisions during the period of the trial and throughout the Revolution must be understood as motivated in large part by a search for stability, and, for the most ideologically oriented among them, for a stability that could be reconciled with their principles.

In addition to its careful reconstruction of the events of the trial and execution, and its important intervention against “ready-made formulas” that interpret them in overly ideological and simplified terms, Martin’s account has many fascinating side-lights. For example, he notes in the conclusion that in the immediate aftermath of Louis XVI’s arrest, Parisian crowds tore statues of other French kings from their pedestals. The Assembly then gave retrospective justification to these spontaneous acts of iconoclasm in a decree of August 14, 1792. Yet, even as they gave it their sanction, legislators also sought to control and constrain popular violence, restoring their own authority as the center of political life. They called for the creation of institutions to preserve whatever symbols of the monarchy might “be of interest for the arts” and preserve them from “vandalism” (a neologism that connected the violence of the revolutionary crowds to the ‘barbarians’ who had sacked ancient Rome). The modern notion of a museum of art and history and “the vocation of Louvre” as we know it today emerged from the French government’s having to “to reconcile two needs,” shoring up its support among the revolutionary urban crowd while also moderating the latter’s demands by channeling them through state institutions.[4]

Here, Martin finds something of a miniaturized version of his larger argument concerning the execution of the king. The creation of the modern Louvre—and behind it, the development of a supposedly neutral and a-political category of ‘aesthetic value’ or ‘historical interest’—like the death of Louis XVI, was the contingent outcome of a political negotiation among competing members of the French Assembly who saw the revolution and the popular violence that fueled it as both the source of their authority and a potentially dangerous challenge to it. Both the museum and the execution thus appear as tactics, chosen among a variety of other possible options, with which politicians tried to hold the revolutionary state together. What seem in hindsight to have been decisive shifts in the meaning of categories like ‘art,’ through which the political culture of France and of the modern era generally were transformed, appear, in Martin’s meticulous analysis, as tenuous compromises by which the rulers of a fragile government tried to hold on to power. L’exécution du roi is full of such moments of careful scholarly interpretation that open up the political contingencies behind apparently fateful events.


Blake Smith is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago. He works on the history of French exchange with South Asia and has translated the work of the francophone South Asian authors Ari Gautier and K Madavane.

Title Image:  Georg Heinrich Sieveking, “Execution of Louis XVI,” German copperplate engraving, 1793.

Further Reading:

Antoine de Baecque. Glory and Terror: Seven Deaths under the French Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2002 [1997])

Susan Dunn, The Deaths of Louis XVI: Regicide and the French Political Imagination (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008)

Regicide and revolution. Speeches at the trial of Louis XVI, ed. Michael Walzer and trans. Marian Rothstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974)

Endnotes:

[1] Jean-Clément Martin, L’exécution du roi. 21 janvier 1793. Paris : Perrin, 2021.

[2] Martin, 12.

[3] Martin, 8, 11.

[4] Martin, 324.

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