History : Jul-Aug 2016
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 67 TRIAL OFA MONARCH Dec. 3, 1792 The Convention brings charges of treason against the former king, deposed in August. Dec. 26, 1792 The king’s defense opens. It is argued that the Convention lacks the authority to try Louis. Jan. 14-15, 1793 The Convention determines the verdict. Louis is found guilty of treason. Jan. 16-17, 1793 Louis’s punishment is debated. A majority votes to put him to death without delay. Jan. 21, 1793 At 10:22 a.m. Louis XVI is executed by guillotine in what is today the Place de la Concorde, Paris. Three weeks later, one of the most dramatic and remarkable trials in history opened in Paris, a spectacle that would end with France’s former, all-powerful sovereign mounting the steps of the guillotine. Three years before, political repression and an economic crisis had culminated in the momen- tous events of July 1789. Summoned to a meeting of France’s Estates-General to attempt to resolve the nation’s grave situation, representatives of the commons—known as the Third Estate, and representing the majority of the population— were angered when the nobility blocked their calls for reform. On July 14, 1789, revolutionaries stormed Paris’s Bastille prison. July 14 has long since been celebrated as a French national holi- day, commemorating the toppling of this hated symbol of royal authority. The fall of the Bastille was the spark for the French Revolution, an event that triggered some of the most dramatic and enduring political changes in European history. Following the July 14 uprising, the Third Estate renamed itself as the National Assembly. It saw its purpose as converting France into nothing less than a sec- ular democracy. Within a few months, the Assembly abol- ished feudalism and reduced the economic and political power of the nobility and the Catholic Church. In August 1789 the Assembly passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a document heavily influenced by Thomas Jefferson, and the moral basis of much civil rights legislation today. What, meanwhile, had happened to King Lou- is XVI? The most visible representative of the ancien régime, Louis had come to the throne in 1774 convinced of the need for limited social reform. Although stubborn and at times po- litically inept, Louis was by no means the most reactionary figure at court. France, even in the revolutionary days of 1789, was not yet a repub- lic. Men like Morisson still respected Louis’s authority, and throughout 1790 the Assembly’s aim was to establish a constitutional monarchy. Louis fought for his political survival by paying lip service to the Assembly’s demands while at the same time undermining attempts to reach a constitutional settlement. Escape Attempt Relations between the monarch and the revo- lutionary parties were increasingly poisoned by I t is evident that Louis XVI has betrayed his country. He is guilty of the most horrid perfidy. He has perjured himself over and over. His aim was to enslave all Frenchmen with the yoke of despotism.” It was November 1792 when a deputy of the revolutionary Con- vention, Charles-François Morisson, spoke these words. The very fact that Morisson was one of the more sympathetic of the deputies toward the former king, shows how far Louis’s fortunes had fallen.