Death of King Louis XVI

IN this month of September 1792 whatsoever is cruel in the panic frenzy of twenty-five million men, whatsoever is great in the simultaneous death-defiance of twenty-five million men, stand here in abrupt contrast; all of black on one side, all of bright on the other. France crowding to the frontiers to defend itself from foreign despots, to town halls to defend itself from aristocrats, an insurrectionary Commune of Paris actual sovereign of France.

There is a new Tribunal of Justice dealing with aristocrats; but the Prussians have taken Longwy, and La Vendee is in revolt against the Revolution. Danton gets a decree to search for arms and to imprison suspects, some four hundred being seized. Prussians have Verdun also, but Dumouriez, the many-counselled, has found a possible Thermopylae-if we can secure Argonne. But Paris knows not Argonne, and terror is in her streets, with defiance and frenzy. From a Sunday night to Thursday are a hundred hours, to be reckoned with the Bartholomew butchery; prisoners dragged out by sudden courts of wild justice to be massacred. These are the September massacres, the victims one thousand and eighty-nine. Horrible ! But Brunswick is within a day's journey of us. 'We must put our enemies in fear.' Which has plainly been brought about.

Our new National Convention is getting chosen; already we date First Year of the Republic. And Dumouriez has snatched the Argonne passes; Brunswick must laboriously skirt round. On September 20, Brunswick attacks Valmy, all day cannonading Alsatian Kellerman with French sansculottes, who do not fly like poultry; finally retires; a day precious to France !

On the morrow our new National convention first sits; old legislative ending. Dumouriez, after brief appearance in Paris, returns to attack Netherlands, winter though it be.

France, then, has hurled back the invaders, and shattered her own constitution; a tremendous change. The nation has stripped itself of the old vestures; patriots of the type soon to be called Girondins have the problem of governing this naked nation. Constitution-making sets to work again; more practical matters offer many difficulties; for one thing, lack of grain; for another, what to do with a discrowned Louis Capet--all things, but most of all fear, pointing one way. Is there not on record a trial of Charles I ?

Twice our Girondin friends have attacked September massacres, Robespierre dictatorship; not with success. On December 11, the king's trial has emerged, before the Convention; fifty-seven questions are put to him. Thereafter he withdraws, having answered--for the most part on the simple basis of No. On December 26, his advocate, Deseze, speaks for him. But there is to be debate. The outcome, on January 15--Guilty. The sentence, by majority of fifty-three, among them Egalite, once Orleans--Death. Lastly, no delay.

On the morrow, in the Place de la Revolution, he is brought to the guillotine; beside him, brave Abbe Edgeworth says, "Son of St. Louis, ascend to Heaven"; the axe clanks down; a king's life is shorn away. At home, this killing of a king has divided all friends; abroad it has united all enemies. England declares war; Spain declares war; all declare war. "The coalised kings threaten us; we hurl at their feet, as gage of battle, the head of a king."

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I