Regicide and Redemptive Violence in the French Revolution

On 30 May 1791, Maximilien Robespierre ascended the podium of the National Assembly to denounce the death penalty. Although capital punishment was defensible in a state of nature, he argued that it surrendered its rationale in society. “In society, when the force of all is armed against a single man, what principle of justice can authorize society to mete out death to him?” There could be none, Robespierre answered, for “A victor who kills his captive enemies is barbaric!” Indeed, “these scenes of death ordered with such aplomb are nothing but cowardly assassinations, solemn crimes, committed not by individuals but by whole nations with legal forms.” Given the chance of erring, societies ruled by justice could not commit an act as irrevocable as executing a “vanquished and powerless” prisoner, no matter how criminal. Robespierre’s conclusion was unequivocal: in societies where the death penalty was both acceptable and a national act, “the legislator is nothing but a master who commands slaves and, following his whim, punishes without pity.” Robespierre’s speech solicited a warm burst of applause.1

Thomas Paine later appealed to this speech “with infinite satisfaction” during the trial of Louis XVI to try to save the condemned king’s life.2 But he found himself brandishing it against Robespierre himself, whom Paine believed had reversed course in the intervening months. By the late summer of 1792, the French Revolution had radicalized into a democratic revolution. Louis had been arrested by the Assembly, imprisoned in an old stone tower called the Temple, and forced to eat without a knife to prevent him from taking his own life before the nation could. The former king now cut the figure of a vanquished prisoner facing capital punishment. And yet, ascending the podium once again on 3 December 1792, Robespierre not only demanded Louis’s execution, but also that the king die without a trial. He would not grant the king the protection of positive law: “Louis must die because the nation must live.”3

If Robespierre turned to extralegal capital punishment because of “the force of circumstance,” his arguments did not suggest it.4 Undoubtedly, the everyday demands of revolutionary politics often forced his idealism to cede to sober strategic maneuvering. Between abolishing the monarchy, founding the first French Republic amid continental war, drafting a constitution, and containing internecine social conflicts among revolutionaries, these months testified to the reality of historical constraint. However, in the face of the practical matter of Louis XVI’s fate, Robespierre did not appeal to tactical prerogatives to deny Louis a trial and endorse death. Instead, he reached for a special language of violence, one that identified the monarch’s swift, extralegal execution with popular redemption: “the salvation of the people, the right to punish the tyrant,” he argued, “are all the same thing.”5 In his view, “the salutary terror of the justice of the people” served higher moral purposes; as he remarked at the Jacobin Club in February 1793, “the people must rise up, not to collect sugar, but to bring down the tyrants.”6

Nor was Robespierre alone in reaching for this moralizing language of extralegal violence. Warning fellow deputies that “the spirit in which the king is judged is also the spirit in which the Republic will be established,” Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just followed his older colleague’s lead: “I can see no mean: this man must reign or die.”7 The young deputy from Aisne had also once advocated for the death penalty’s abolition. The language infused the Parisian popular sections, at times becoming synonymous with their civic agency. “The holiest duty, the most cherished law / Is to forget the law, to save the patrie,” the Mauconseil section announced to the Legislative Assembly on 4 August 1792.8 The Jacobins of Auxerre put it more starkly three months later: “Nations are awaiting the judgment you have rendered for Louis XVI’s crimes: that [this judgment] is terrible, that it is prompt, that it makes tyrants of the earth tremble, and that the blood of the most wicked conspirators expiate his crimes without delay.”9 Far from a capitulation to regicide’s necessity, revolutionaries everywhere were laying claim to its expiatory and redemptive power outside positive law.

Why would revolutionaries claim redemptive violence as a vocabulary for popular agency? What did this violence provide that competing languages of agency could not? Scholars have often observed that this language during the trial signaled a new, heightened importance for violence in the revolution. Arno Mayer, for example, has claimed that it is here in the trial that we see Robespierre “shift from a ‘negative’ to a ‘positive’ construction of revolutionary terror,” while Dan Edelstein has suggested that Robespierre’s gradual acceptance of capital punishment “may well be read as a synecdoche of the French Revolution.”10 At the same time, understanding why this language of violence was attractive remains difficult.11 Ronald Schechter has recently shown that thinkers across the political spectrum cited “salutary terror” in positive ways before 1789, but there remains during the revolution what Arno Mayer calls “the ethical and epistemic difficulty of conceptualizing and theorizing violence without justifying, absolving, or condemning it.”12 Faced with this dilemma, many scholars have simply pathologized the violence as senseless, as containing “an element of irrationality,” a lamentable “interruption” in the more fundamental intellectual trajectory of the revolution.13

It is telling, for instance, that the only study of the trial and execution of Louis XVI by a political theorist—Michael Walzer’s 1974 Regicide and Revolution—concludes that Jacobin violence was philosophically impotent. In that text, Walzer identified the weakness in their violence: “Jacobin theory may serve to justify revolutionary action against the king,” he argued, “But when a helpless man is dragged to the scaffold and placed into the hands of the executioner, more arguments are required than the Jacobins provide.” That is because “it is not enough to say . . . that the people and the king fought, the king lost, and therefore he is a traitor.” Denying him a trial and killing him outright “leaves open the question of right.”14 And without settling the question of right, the Jacobin language of violence could not destroy its real target. In the absence of a legal trial, revolutionary violence forfeited the only instrument capable of reaching the deeper “mysteries of kingship” that lay behind the person of Louis Capet.

Given the mysteries of kingship, the only way to bring Louis to justice was through adversary proceedings in which the whole court was in effect the adversary of the king or at least of kingship. For such a court, legality is no doubt only a form of self-restraint, but it is important nonetheless because that restraint suggests as nothing else can do that the principles being established are at least potentially principles of justice . . . revolutionary justice is defensible whenever it points the way to everyday justice. That is the maxim that marks off morally legitimate trials from proscription and terror.15

Walzer’s argument stands as the most devastating critique of the Jacobin language of violence. It acknowledges that unless regicide was grounded in right, unless it was an act of justice, kingship would outlive Louis XVI’s death. And justice, in the end, was precisely what Jacobin violence would not provide. At the same time, emphasizing Jacobin violence’s impotence on matters of right does not point the way toward understanding why their language was so compelling. Indeed, it only makes it more puzzling why political actors and thinkers believed the prospect of regicide demanded a moralizing conception of extralegal violence at all.

This chapter returns to the trial and execution of Louis XVI to reconsider the purpose and meaning of revolutionary redemptive violence. It argues that Robespierre and others reached for this violence to answer a different question from that of right, one they believed was arguably more fundamental to founding a republic: How could the social body be reconstituted after its revolutionary disintegration and the execution of its unifying principle, the person of the king? References to violence as expiation, salvation, and regeneration provided a means for asking after the quality of the social bond in democracy, its specific vision of cohesion. Indeed, if the legalistic arguments of the Gironde more satisfyingly settled questions of right, they almost completely ignored this latter problem. It was a problem that took on urgency as the radicalization of the revolution made regicide increasingly plausible. Regicide raises, in ways few other political acts can do, the need to discover a new principle of national belonging, a vision of cohesion that can provide an account of why democratic citizens, not royal subjects, form a society. More than any others during the trial, Robespierre and his allies understood this fact. It was why they joined their revolutionary realism to a democratic language of redemptive violence.

To make this argument, the chapter begins by analyzing Girondin interpretations of the philosophical problems raised in judging an inviolable king. It shows how beneath their disagreements over the proper judicial procedures for the occasion lay a common interpretation of the problem at hand; namely, locating the source of right. Emphasizing how the Gironde remained enthralled with the quest for the origin of right brings into focus the contrasting Jacobin interpretation of the trial and the problems it posed. For Robespierre and St. Just, the trial and execution of Louis XVI raised the urgent need to supplant the ancient corporatist vision of society with a new, republican alternative. The chapter then describes one of the solutions the Jacobins developed to create that new republican social body: regicide as redemptive violence. By lifting regicide out of classical theories of tyrannicide and reinscribing it in Enlightenment conceptions of natural disaster, this language imbued “the people” with nature’s own catastrophic, regenerative agency. It cast regicide as a site for repairing society’s moral fabric. Regicide as redemptive violence, Jacobins believed, could become a means of realigning the orders of nature and society, morality and law.

Jacobin prescriptions would not carry the day. In the end, a trial was held, and the king was guillotined under the sign of positive law. Measured in terms of scale, his death was infinitesimal. Nearly a hundred Parisians died storming the Bastille, an “event” crowned with its own infamous executions of the Marquis de Launay and Jacques de Flesselles.16 Parisian crowds murdered more than a thousand people, from refractory priests to petty criminals, during the infamous September massacres of 1792.17 The Terror killed at least two thousand people in Paris, and up to fifty thousand died in prisons or were shot.18 Thousands were killed in unofficial executions like the drownings at Nantes, and hundreds of thousands more died in the civil war in the Vendée.19 Measured by sheer casualties, the single death of Louis XVI seems trivial.

Yet the regicide remains significant because of the extent to which it was theoretically self-aware. Other episodes of revolutionary violence erupted from tactical calculations, crucibles of cunning strategy, and personal ambition where the power of ideas receded.20 The regicide was driven by such calculations, too, but, more than any other act of violence, it was also a deliberate product of intense conceptualization and debate. It forced to self-consciousness the epochal transformations unfolding underneath everyone’s feet. In the overheated room of the Manège, history was not being made behind the backs of men, but right in front of them and by their words. The king’s death was not the most extreme act of violence in the revolution, but it may have been its greatest achievement of political theory.

Understanding it therefore helps us understand redemptive violence’s appeal for revolutionary democracy. Walzer may be right that “Proscription is final only with regard to its victim, but not with regard to the political community itself which still waits upon some determination of what is just and what is unjust.”21 But the killing of the king underscores for us that democratic revolutions do not only concern justice. To negate an existing form of society for an emancipated one, more than fidelity to right is needed. One must also remake the social bond. And, unlike constitutionalism or natural law theory, revolutionary, redemptive violence promised to do just that. That was the profound and difficult conclusion Jacobins reached on 21 January 1793.

The Debate over Royal Inviolability

As the National Convention debated whether to put Louis on trial in the autumn of 1792, revolution had already been reshaping France for three years. A slew of decrees had destroyed feudalism and its society of orders. In an emotional legislative session on the night of 4 August 1789, deputies redefined property in individualist terms, abolished tithes and venal offices, and suppressed seigniorial privileges. In November, they nationalized church property and auctioned it off to support France’s first fiat currency, the assignat. In the following summer, in 1790, the Assembly adopted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, a measure that subordinated the church to civil authority and compelled priests to swear an oath of loyalty to the state. The privileges of the nobility were abolished that same summer. Jews were emancipated in September 1791. Civil marriage and divorce were instituted in November. The corporate guild system, too, was broken with the adoption of the Loi Le Chapelier of 14 June 1791.

These reforms rendered much of the old regime obsolete within the span of months. In place was now the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and, thanks to Jacques-Pierre Brissot and the Gironde during the spring of 1792, continental war on its behalf.22 Among the features of the old regime under pressure, however, the figure of the king remained a confusing and stubborn problem. Many political leaders were reluctant to confront the question of the king directly, a fact notoriously dramatized in the wake of the king’s flight to Varennes on 20 June 1791. In one of the revolution’s first major crises, Louis fled Paris with his family toward the border with the hope of rallying the court and royalism from afar. Upon leaving Paris, he also left a written statement repudiating the revolution. The statement was discovered as he and the royal family were caught at Varennes the next day and escorted back to Paris. Radicals and republicans interpreted the flight as overt abdication by the monarchy. Larger segments of the population, too, increasingly questioned the viability of a constitutional monarchy.23 And yet political leaders chose to defer the problem: to explain the king’s treasonous flight, the legislature fabricated the fiction that Louis was kidnapped under an émigré’s plot. Louis, in return, accepted the new constitution and, with it, acquired inviolability and a suspensive veto.

Many radicals and republicans found this course of action bewildering. As one petition circulated afterward put it, “A great crime is committed. Louis XVI flees. He shamefully abandons his post; the empire is on the verge of anarchy.” And yet, the petitioners complained, “you have decided in advance that he is innocent and inviolable . . . Legislators! This was not the wish of the people.”24 Why, critics wondered, should Louis be rewarded for betraying the revolution with the new office of constitutional monarch and royal inviolability? By the summer of 1792, the Parisian popular sections were prepared to take action into their own hands. “Representatives of the people, listen again to their cries of sorrow,” a deputation of fédérés pleaded to the legislative assembly in July.


Figure 1.1 Jacques Bertaux, Prise du palais des Tuileries, 10 août 1792 (1793).

Reproduction from Wikimedia Commons.

Weeks have passed since you declared the patrie in danger, and you indicate to us no means of saving it. Can it be that you still do not know the cause of our ills, or the remedies? Well then, legislators, we citizens of the 83 departments . . . we shall show you the remedy. We say to you that the source of our ills is in the abuse that the head of the executive power makes of his authority. . . . Spare your country a universal upheaval, use all the power confided to you, and save the patrie yourselves.25

The deputation warned that if legislators did not depose Louis, “There would only remain one recourse for the nation, that of deploying all of its force to crush all its tyrants.”26 Paris’s sections made good on their promise the next month. Cumulative frustrations over food, the perilous war situation, and the now widespread belief that Louis was conspiring against the revolution reached a climax on the morning of 10 August 1792 (Figure 1.1). In what observers called the “second” revolution, the armed sections of Paris attacked the Tuileries as the royal family fled to the nearby Legislative Assembly. Sheltered in the logographie room reserved for journalists, Louis was arrested by the Assembly and the municipal government, the Commune. The first French Republic was declared the next month. The question of what to do with the king could no longer be deferred. Three years after the revolution began, leaders would finally have to put the king on trial and judge him.

* * *

Convention members immediately confronted two obstacles in judging the king. First, no preexisting adversarial procedures existed for such a trial and, except for the English case of Charles I in 1649, few available scripts existed for regicide.27 As Jean-Paul Marat had to remind his legalistic colleagues, “It is not at all here a question of an ordinary trial.”28 Second, Louis was legally inviolable, and not by dint of divine right but positive law. He received his schedule of legal immunities and privileges by virtue of the 1791 Constitution, and no trial would be possible until a way around that fact could be found.

As the convention members searched for ways to circumvent royal inviolability from roughly 1 October to 6 December, Paris’s popular sections continued to experiment with new idioms of collective agency. And, to the displeasure of moderates, they leaned toward violence as their preferred vocabulary of popular agency. As Jean-Marie Roland, Minister of the Interior, explained to Louis before the 10 August insurrection, “The revolution is achieved in their minds; it will be completed at the cost of blood, and will be cemented by it, if wisdom does not prevent misfortunes that can still be avoided.” If Louis continued blocking legislation with his suspensive veto, Roland warned, “the departments will be forced to substitute for it, as they do everywhere, with violent measures,” while “the angered people will supplement [the law’s] absence with excesses.”29 The people’s “violent measures” would be extralegal in the sense that they were not condoned by positive law; they were, however, concordant with the perceived lawfulness of nature. Although the sans-culottes “never saw in their right to insurrection a theoretical or formal affirmation of their sovereignty,” Albert Soboul concedes, “they were naturally receptive to its exercise” as a kind of instinct after the August insurrection.30 The storming of the Bastille and the women’s march on Versailles further cemented the link between popular agency and violence. But it was the “September Massacres” that drove home the centrality of violence. These septembriseurs placed the trial against the backdrop of bloody extralegal popular violence.

It was in these months that Jacobins discovered redemptive violence as a language of democratic agency. But before turning to the commitments which comprised that language, it is important to understand that it was neither the only one to be invoked during the trial nor the most persuasive. Some royal sympathizers, for example, took inviolability at face value and reasoned accordingly. After all, the law was not completely silent on Louis’s guilt. Inviolability was not invincibility. Because the king’s legal immunities were a provision of constitutional law, even if Louis exercised discretion in his executive power, it was still the case that, as the 1791 Constitution put it, “only in the name of the law may he exact obedience.”31 To be beyond the law was not to be a law unto oneself, and Louis was acutely aware of this fact. In response to Bertrand Barère’s opening prosecutorial statement on 11 December that “Louis, the French people accuse you of having committed a multitude of crimes, of establishing your tyranny by destroying their liberty,” Louis gave the careful reply: “There were no laws which stopped me.”32 His was a condition of legal inviolability along with clear conditions under which the throne could be abdicated: if Louis refused to take the oath to the constitution, if he led an army against the nation, or if refused to disavow foreign armies fighting against the nation in his name, then, as the Constitution specified, he would be stripped of inviolability, reduced to a citizen, and made culpable for any future treasonous actions.

This legal context guided Charles-François-Gabriel Morrison when he asked in a 13 November speech, “Can Louis XVI be judged?” A royalist deputy from the Vendée, he drew the most straightforward conclusion: under a strict interpretation of the constitution, a trial was impossible and unnecessary. Although “a sovereign people have no other rule than its supreme will,” there are intrinsic limitations to that will such as ex post facto justice. “When a nation has promulgated a law,” Morrison explained, “although that nation have the right to change the law at will, nevertheless, that changed law cannot have a retroactive effect.” To insist otherwise was to commit “injury to the most basic principles of justice,” to forfeit principles “unknown only to tyrants.”33 Morrison concluded that the people could choose to abolish the monarchy, but they could not try Louis for crimes that were committed while inviolable. The revolution needed to “avoid a monstrous and interminable trial, perhaps with untoward results.”34

For his part, the Marquis de Condorcet, a philosophe and leader of the Gironde, tried to split the difference. Like Morrison, he accepted that Louis was inviolable. But unlike Morrison, Condorcet believed that inviolability did not prevent the king from being tried. “Even if one gives constitutional inviolability a force most contrary to reason and to justice,” Condorcet believed, “it remains true that the nation has the right to judge him.”35 But to reach this conclusion, Condorcet had to design a series of baroque legal distinctions. Among them, he decoupled the question of guilt from punishment. Inviolability, he wanted to say, protected Louis from punishment but not from guilt. The king could be legally condemned for his actions, but he could not be punished without committing ex post facto justice.

Both Morrison’s and Condorcet’s arguments were powerful examples of constitutional reasoning. Neither bothered denying the king’s guilt, for the latter’s behavior already made that impossible. The discovery of incriminating documents in an iron safe in the Tuileries revealed that Louis was collaborating with foreign powers to subvert the revolution. The documents, signed by Louis and compiled into a dossier for the Convention by Dufriche-Valazé, made his guilt undeniable.36

And yet Morrison and Condorcet’s arguments persuaded few deputies. The victorious position was closer to that of Jean-Baptiste Mailhe, a lawyer from Toulouse and one whose report to the Convention on royal inviolability opened up the trial in earnest. For Mailhe, a faithful application of the law led to counterintuitive conclusions about royal guilt and popular sovereignty. He admitted that “in no case could the king be judged by the other constituted authorities, since he was their superior.” “It did not follow,” however, that the king “could not be judged by the nation, since to come to such a conclusion would be to claim that by virtue of the Constitution, the king was superior to the nation or independent of the nation.”37 Such an inviolability, Mailhe claimed, would have entailed the nation alienating its sovereignty. As everyone who read Rousseau knew, that was impossible.

Mailhe’s appeal to “the nation” drew on prerevolutionary precedents. By the late eighteenth century, the various parlements were already presenting themselves as the nation’s body. And, in the lead-up to the Estates-General in 1789, French leaders described the event as a meeting between the nation and its executive authority. In other words, the nation had already been invoked as a site of sovereignty distinguished from the executive branch of government. However, references to the nation prior to the revolution referred above all to a judicial entity. The parlements, after all, were courts, staffed by judges and comprised of judicial instruments meant to represent the nation to the king on behalf of the people. They represented the nation qua legal subject. It was not this juridical subject that Mailhe had in mind when he claimed that, “No, the nation was not bound by royal inviolability, nor could it be.” Whereas Louis received his inviolability from the constitution, “the nation was sovereign regardless of constitution or king. Its inalienable sovereignty proceeds from nature alone.”38

Mailhe’s appeal to nature is remarkable given that he was neither a radical nor a Jacobin. Although a revolutionary, he was associated in the Convention with the moderate majority. Nevertheless, he invoked the revolution’s most radical claim: the nation named a sovereignty that preceded all positive legal forms. It resembled Sieyès’s famous doctrine of constituent power. Just as Sieyès’s constituent power was the source of legality itself, Mailhe spoke of the nation as a primordial sleeping sovereign. In his report, as the nation “awoke” to its sovereignty, it recovered its “instincts,” especially that of revenge and self-defense. As a natural existence, it was governed by laws which preceded positive law and were “as old as society itself.” Indeed, “did not the nation itself have an undying right, rooted in nature, to call [tyrants] before its tribunals and to cause them to suffer the punishments due to oppressors or brigands?” The nation did not depend on positive laws because it was not a positive existence. Before its agency, “all the difficulties disappear: royal inviolability might never have been.”39 Since the nation bestowed on Louis his inviolability, it was within its powers to discard it and to judge Louis as a citizen before the law. Thus, because the Convention was a “perfect” representation of the nation, Mailhe believed it could judge the king. To say otherwise would be “to reject the nation.”40

These arguments of Morrison, Condorcet, and Mailhe were grounded in different threads of revolutionary political culture. Although they arrived at different conclusions about how best to engage royal inviolability, they each accepted the principle of popular sovereignty. The point is important because it suggests that regicide was not an intrinsic feature of revolutionary ideology nor entailed by the principle of popular sovereignty.41 Even as late as April 1792, Robespierre agreed. Writing in the opening editorial of his Le Défenseur de la Constitution, he skeptically asked, “It is in the words republic or monarchy that an answer resides to the great social problem?”42 If Robespierre and his Jacobin allies subsequently charted a different path by advocating for extralegal regicide, it was, I want to argue now, because the prospect of regicide led them to adopt a different perspective on what was fundamentally at stake in founding a republic. For, despite all that divided Morrison, Mailhe, and Condorcet, these leaders actually shared a common interpretation of the problem inviolability posed: the ultimate source of right. If Morrison denied there was a source of right higher than the constitution, Mailhe claimed to have found exactly that: “there is no Constitution which could prevent you from calling down upon [an enemy’s] head the censure of divine and human laws: rights and duties of nature are of an order higher than human institutions.”43 They both approached the question in terms of the final grounds of right and disagreed where that ground was located. It was also why Condorcet’s argument became so convoluted. He wanted a trial, but he refused to accept any higher extralegal authority with which to sanction it. He was thus compelled to decouple guilt from punishment to remain philosophically consistent. Despite his revolutionary ambitions, Condorcet always believed that “you [France] owe to yourselves, you owe to mankind, the first example of the impartial trial of a king” where the legal proceedings approximated as closely as possible ordinary justice.44

Jacobins found this struggle over the proper ground of right tedious. “Those who attach any importance to the just punishment of a king will never found a Republic,” St. Just argued in his first speech to the Convention.45 It all amounted to exasperating “constitutional logic-chopping” as far as Robespierre was concerned.46 What frustrated these Jacobin leaders were not the details of their opponents’ legal reasoning. After all, like Mailhe, they, too, would appeal to the law of nations to circumvent inviolability.47 They did not object to lawfulness as such, whether that of positive or natural law. Instead, they were frustrated with the overriding presumption that, at bottom, the trial was about the final ground of legal right. It was as if monarchy was illegitimate merely because it placed those grounds in the wrong body. Indeed, if all it takes to found a republic is shifting the grounds of right from the court to the people, and if regicide is essentially supplanting a treasonous king with the rule of law, then we would have to concede to the Gironde leader Pierre-Victurnien Vergniaud’s subsequent assertion that “the Constitution” could be the “basis of civil society,” or Condorcet’s belief that, suitably adjusted, positive law might be enough to bridge the revolutionary gap.48 That was a point even Marat conceded, and unlike the Jacobins, he defended a trial (although he was confident the outcome needed to be swift death).

But Robespierre and his allies gradually discovered that affixing the source of legal right to “the people” was inadequate for founding a republic. Redefining the basis of right might curtail the arbitrary personal authority of the king. It might place ordinary justice within the reach of the people. But royalism in France was never primarily a doctrine about the nature of justice or the source of right. It was an entire account of “the social,” and to found a republic, a specifically republican vision of society had to take the place of the old regime. Without a persuasive democratic vision of society, France could achieve a republican regime in law, but not a republican people. And so when the Jacobins turned to the laws of nature to overcome inviolability, they did so for different reasons than their Girondin counterparts. Their appeal to the “terror of the justice of the people” sought to reframe regicide as an act of terror against an external enemy rather than the fulfillment of justice. If regicide could be construed as an act of redemptive violence, it could reassert the moral bases for social cohesion, enact “the people” as an agent capable of extralegal action, and pave the way for defining a new republican social body.

* * *

We can observe the Jacobin critique of the legalistic interpretation of regicide in at least two places. The first is in their insistence that the trial did not present a judicial proceeding but a scene of war. In his 13 November 1792 speech, St. Just attacked Morrison’s and Mailhe’s opinions as “equally false.” Rather than respecting inviolability (Morrison) or judging Louis as a regular citizen (Mailhe), “the king ought to be judged according to principles foreign to both.” Applying old ideas to a new situation, the two misconstrued the task at hand. “The single aim of [Mailhe’s] committee was to persuade you that the king should be judged as an ordinary citizen,” St. Just claimed. “And I say that the king should be judged as an enemy; that we must not so much judge him as combat him; that as he had no part in the contract which united the French people, the forms of judicial procedure here are not to be sought in positive law, but in the law of nations.”49 For St. Just, appealing to the law of nations did not mean appealing to a higher law to judge an inviolable king. This was not a recapitulation of the Girondin search for a higher source of right. Instead, St. Just appealed to the law of nations for the rules of combat. The king was an enemy in an international arena, a “brigand,” “the lowest class of humanity,” “outlaw,” and a “rebel.”

Some men search for a law which would allow the punishment of the king. But in the form of government from which we come, he was indeed inviolable with respect to each citizen. Between the people as a whole and the king, I do not however recognize any natural bond. . . . The social contract is between citizen and citizen, not between citizen and government. A contract affects only those whom it binds. As a consequence, Louis, who was not bound, cannot be judged in civil law. . . . All these reasons should lead you to judge Louis, not as a citizen, but as a rebel.50

Condorcet, Mailhe, and others had mistakenly applied domestic principles of law into a lawless relationship between a nation and its enemy. They sought to apply principles of justice to an enemy outside of the polity that sought to destroy that very justice. “To judge is to apply the law; law supposes a common share in justice; and what justice can be common to humanity and kings? What has Louis in common with the French people that they should treat him well after he betrayed them?” It was evidence of how poorly revolutionaries understood the nature of the revolutionary break, St. Just suggested, that French leaders believed legal justice was at stake.

Robespierre agreed. He noted in early December, “Citizens, the Assembly has unwittingly been brought far from the true question. There is no trial to be conducted here.” That was because “Louis is not an accused man. You are not judges. You are, and you can only be, statesmen and representatives of the nation.” As representatives of the general will, “You do not have a verdict to give for or against a man, but a measure to take for the public safety.” And unfortunately, “the character of the deliberations hitherto goes directly against this latter aim.”51 As the king was an enemy of the people, not a fellow citizen, it would have been a sort of legal promotion to grant him a trial before his execution because it would have readmitted him into the political community in the form of citizenship. Such wayward logic, Robespierre insisted, underwrote the Gironde’s mistaken interpretation of the trial as a judicial proceeding rather than an act of war.

The second place we see Jacobins object to the Girondin framing of the trial lay in their focus on repairing social cohesion. Rather than cite the law of nations, this argument reached into an alternative tradition of French thought that was concerned with questions of “the social.” Unlike political unity, the cohesion of “the social” referred to customary relations of interdependence. As Daniel Gordon has argued, eighteenth-century French thinkers theorized “the social” in response to absolutism. Where court life in Versailles monopolized the sphere of politics, ordinary people were compelled to search for alternative, nonpolitical modes of association. “The invention of the social as a distinctive field of human experience,” however, “required a demonstration that some meaningful activities are self-instituting; that in some situations human beings can hang together of their own accord; that humans, in short, are sociable creatures.”52 That demonstration could come from sources ranging from anthropological histories of non-Western cultures to new archaeological studies on “the golden age,” the theme of natural sociabilité in Baron d’Holbach and Rousseau, or Condorcet’s new “social science” which promised to render “the social” in the new authoritative language of scientific appraisal.53

For ordinary people, however, the most immediate source for understanding the social was prerevolutionary France’s corporatist society, which consisted in overlapping bodies such as the family, the city, and the guild. Far from arrangements of convenience, each corps was understood to be an autonomous moral entity. Trade guilds, for example, had their own patron saints, holidays, mutual aid institutions, and rituals of moral improvement and economic cooperation.54 And just as every corps was adhered by its esprit de corps, société at large was bound together by la morale. As the Montesquieu enthusiast Louis de Jaucourt put it, morality did not involve “knowing the essence of real substances.” Instead, it concerned the relations between men and their conduct with one another. To see morality, Jaucourt explained, “it is only necessary to compare with care certain relations among human actions and a certain rule.” On this account, morality is about the collective activity of moral regulation as much as it is about maxims of conduct. La morale is what makes society more than a collection of individuals—a corps—and it is why “la Morale is the proper science of man; because it is a general knowledge proportioned to their natural capacity, and from which depends their greatest interest.”55 Although moral relations between men are fixed and unchanging, they are nevertheless relational rather than essential. They describe not natural, but social laws governing men of reason.

And yet, part of the reason eighteenth-century French thinkers theorized the social at all was because its cohesion was entering into crisis. Corporatism in particular came under attack from reform movements in the years leading up to the revolution. Led by ministers allied with the philosophes and the physiocrats, these reformers sought to resolve the monarchy’s looming debt crisis by dismantling the corporate privileges which interfered with increasing taxation. Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot led the attack on the corporatist conception of the social, explaining, “Public utility is the supreme law,” and before that law, “particular corporate bodies do not exist of themselves, or for themselves; they have been formed for society, and they must cease to exist immediately after they cease to be useful.” Reduced to a utilitarian arrangement, Turgot, a champion of the scientific reform of government and Condorcet’s idol, denied corporate bodies their moral standing in order to exalt the abstract individual and aggregate social utility: “Citizens have rights” which, he insisted, “exist independently of society.”56 It was a revolutionary stance that provoked outrage from the parlements, the nobility, and trade associations. After issuing a series of laissez-faire reforms in 1776, his program finally lost the support of fellow ministers, and Louis dismissed him as Controller-General of Finances.

Turgot’s edicts were only a prelude to successive attempts at atomizing the French social body. Revolutionary leaders instituted civil marriage and divorce, thereby redefining kinship and the broader purpose of “association.”57 They denied political voice to any intermediary bodies between the nation and the king, giving the Third Estate exclusive power to “interpret and present the general will of the nation; there cannot exist between the throne and this assembly any veto, any negative power.”58 They repudiated the schedule of privileges allotted by corps in favor of abstract individual rights because those intermediary corps foreclosed the formation of a united body politic. After all, Sieyès wrote, if social ascriptions were not suppressed, forming a national representation would be futile: “They would still remain three types of heterogeneous matter [the three Estates] that it would be impossible to amalgamate.”59 Social atomization came to a point with the Loi Le Chapelier of 1791, which decreed “association” between workers to be “unconstitutional” and “in contempt of liberty and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” Indeed, any associations that obstructed “the free exercise of industry and labor” were to be criminalized as “seditious assemblies.”60 Underwriting this law, which remained in effect until its repeal during the Third Republic, was the revolutionary ideology that dissolving “the social” of the old regime was a prerequisite to founding a polity of independent free and equal citizens.

As French thinkers across the spectrum constructed “the social” as a sphere of concern, it came to define a preexisting space where sociable humans (rather than abstract citizens) could be articulated into a nonpolitical order. The concept implied that although free and equal citizens might constitute a polity, as citizens they do not automatically constitute a society. As Montesquieu had taught, the latter requires concrete men and women, replete with their own customary means of affiliation and kinship, their own moral character shaped by the vicissitudes of geography, climate, and history. Society was irreducible to the individuals who made it up because it pointed to this underlying layer of association, one which bound people together in common life not by prudential considerations or historical contingency but by the moral thickness of their social bond.61

If social cohesion was emerging as a pressing problem in France, so, too, had the king presented a special type of solution to it, and for two reasons. Unlike the family or guild which presented an autonomous moral corps consisting in several persons, the king was a corps unto himself. And whereas the former mediated relations between the individual and the state, the corps of the latter was the state. (“L’état, c’est moi,” Louis XIV is to have famously proposed.) These attributes of royal embodiment partake in aspects of the well-known doctrine of “the king’s two bodies,” a feature of royalism with origins in medieval jurisprudence and Christian thought (but with “a post-Christian appeal,” Walzer adds).62 Better known in the context of English political thought, the doctrine portrays the king as possessing a temporal and an eternal body. When this ideology held sway in France under absolutism, the king was thought to incarnate in his person the eternal corpus mysticum, the essence of the real nation and from which the dispersed temporal instances of the body politic acquired a higher moral unity. Thanks to it, the king held in his person a transcendental guarantee of national unity, and the mere fact of his embodiment answered the problem of social cohesion.

However, like corporatism generally, developments in French intellectual and political culture corroded this political theology by the time of the revolution. During Louis XVI’s reign, new theories of representation and decades of Enlightenment criticism had hollowed out the ideology of the king’s two bodies. The former was evident in what Paul Friedland has described as the shift from thinking about representation as making-present to representation as approximation or delegation in mid–eighteenth-century France,63 and it was exemplified in the displacement of the royal corpus mysticum by the parlements of France, then the Estates-General, and, finally, the National Assembly as the incarnation of the nation. Sieyès gave this transformation its canonical formulation in his pamphlet “What Is the Third Estate?”: “a nation is made one by virtue of a common system of law and a common representation.”64

Yet, despite royalism’s weakened grip, most French subjects still described the king as the lynchpin of the body politic. When the cahiers de doléances addressed Louis as the father of the French, it was a pious reaffirmation of the father-king who clasped together the “real” national body with its myriad temporal instances. Even after the revolution began, most subjects still believed that what formed a nation was the unity of its will, and as a consequence, only the king could give to individuals the form of “the nation” by identifying the national will with his own. The king provided the transcendental organizing principle of society, a guarantee that society was more real and durable than the mortal individuals who made it up.65 So long as his royal body remained intact, France possessed moral unity even as its population and institutions changed.

For that same reason, calling into question the royal body described an unprecedented act of violence, for it was a direct attack on the social body itself. This explains why St. Just and Robespierre returned, time and again, to the question of the moral foundation of the social body during and after the trial. In his 2 December 1792 speech on subsistence crisis in the Eure-et-Loir, Robespierre argued that commodifying and hoarding bread violated “the first social law,” the moral right to life, because “subsistence is the blood of the people, and its free circulation is no less necessary to the social body than that of the blood to the life of the human body.”66 In his 13 November 1792 speech, St. Just attacked Mailhe’s report for succumbing to an amoral legalism: “The committee fell into forms without principles.”67 Robespierre echoed this exact point the next month: “We invoke forms because we lack principles.”68 By prioritizing procedures over morality, St. Just believed political leaders had forgotten that founding a republic entailed more than setting new legal standards of right. It also demanded “an example of virtue which would be a bond of public spirit and unity in the republic.”69 That “bond of public spirit” was morality itself. As St. Just put it later in December, “What do you call a Revolution? The fall of a throne, a few blows levied at a few abuses?” Although Girondin deputies carried on as if the answer was yes, for St. Just, the revolution posed the more demanding task of reconstructing the moral foundations of the social. “The moral order is like the physical,” he insisted, and so, even if “abuses disappear for an instant, as the dew dries in the morning, and as it falls again with the night, so the abuses will reappear.”70 Moral order is something that must be reconstituted for society’s rebirth. That is why “it is not sufficient to say that in order of eternal justice, sovereignty is independent of the existing form of government and thence to infer that the king should be tried”—that is, Mailhe’s argument. “We will have no Republic,” St. Just explained, “without these distinctions which permit all the parts of the social order their natural movement, just as nature creates life from a union of elements.”71

To reforge the republican social body, there would need to be active coordination between morality, nature, and society. And for that, existing constitutional law was inadequate. After all, Robespierre explained, having entered into war with the king, “It is too great a contradiction to suppose that the Constitution might preside over this new order of things. That would be to suppose that it could outlive itself. What laws replace it? those of nature, which is the basis of society.”72 In short, unlike Turgot and Condorcet, Robespierre and St. Just’s vision of the republican social body was not reducible to individual consent and aggregate utility. Rather, it called for the corporatism of the old regime to be replaced by a society modeled on the normative patterns of nature.

These two objections to the Girondin interpretation of the trial—that it was an act of war, not a judicial proceeding, and that it needed to produce not “a few blows levied at a few abuses” but “moral order”—amounted to a claim that if the revolution engaged Louis as a citizen rather than an enemy of mankind, there would only be a regime change rather than a revolution. “Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution?” Robespierre asked.73 “If you declare the king a citizen,” as Mailhe and Condorcet advocated, “he will slip from your grasp,” St. Just warned.74 The “he” in question did not refer only to the king’s person, but also to his mystical body and the corporatist vision of society which that body cohered. It was why Robespierre and St. Just demanded Convention leaders to go beyond redefining the ground of right. Jacobins hoped to strike Louis in both his person and as a representation. And executing that representative body required the revolution to posit an alternative account of social cohesion in place of the old corporatism. Leaving the moral bases for social cohesion unspecified was simply not an option. Citizens born into an established liberal political culture today might endorse legalistic or prudential considerations as the basis for the polity’s unity. They might even accept a type of “constitutional patriotism.”75 But such an orientation was simply unrealistic in 1792. Republican democracy was taking root among a people whose sense of collective belonging had never been construed as essentially political, and it would have been—and was—utopian to insist that it suddenly be otherwise.

The Jacobins, long vilified as blinded by “abstract” reasoning, were the ones most attentive to this concrete fact. Condorcet and Sieyès, on the other hand, vastly underestimated the importance of “the social” for republican democracy. (When Turgot was dismissed for attacking the corporate structure of the social in his edicts, Condorcet was shocked, evidently not understanding why Turgot’s edicts might have been so unpopular.) If the revolution was to yield a republican people, it would also need to produce a new type of social bond with which to supplant the royal corpus mysticum. That was why regicide had to do more than cancel the past. It was incumbent on it to produce a new social body cohered by moral principles which were not yet widely accepted. Therein lay the central challenge posed by the trial for revolutionary democracy.

From Tyrannicide to Redemptive Violence

This interpretation of the trial’s challenge was itself revolutionary. It was therefore unclear how regicide was supposed to answer it. After all, earlier regicides did not believe they were forming new societies with their violence. As Albert Camus observed, “Kings were put to death long before January 21, 1793, and before the regicides of the nineteenth century.” But those earlier regicides “were interested in attacking the person, not the principle, of the king. They wanted another king and that was all. It never occurred to them that the throne could remain empty forever.”76 As Robespierre himself reflected, “If we had not had a greater task to fulfill, if all that was at issue here were the interests of a faction or a new aristocracy, we might have been able to believe . . . that the plan for the French Revolution was clearly written in the works of Tacitus and Machiavelli.” 77 There was, however, a “greater task” at hand about which the classical texts of political theory remained silent: democratic revolution. And Louis was not just a tyrant. Thanks to royalist ideology, he was also the transcendental guarantee of social cohesion. If the Jacobins believed that at stake was nothing less than killing kingship itself and founding a new society, then how was regicide supposed to fulfill this unprecedented historical task?

As the trial proceeded in spite of Jacobin protests, Robespierre and his allies adapted regicide to this task by reinscribing classical republican theories of tyrannicide into newer Enlightenment discourses of nature. Specifically, they employed two concurrent rhetorical strategies: they sacralized regicidal violence, and they naturalized democratic agency.

Jacobins repeatedly described regicide in sacralized, expiatory, and redemptive terms. Regicide was not simply the removal of a king, but a “sacred cause” with a “sublime outcome.”78 It was analogized to biblical moments of absolution like the Great Flood.79 The blood shed by the revolution “is the expiation we offer the world,” the revolutionary “cause is holy,” and, indeed, in the case of regicide, “Honouring the Divinity and punishing kings are the same thing.”80 Spurning atheism as antirepublican, this language of redemptive violence affirmed the salvation of “the people” as “the holiest of all laws.”81 Indeed, it is worth recalling that the Jacobins were among the most consistent enemies to the revolution’s de-Christianization efforts. Atheism was just as immoral as royalism. As Robespierre quipped, “The scapular-wearing fanatic and the fanatic preaching atheism have many similarities . . . sometimes red bonnets are closer to red high heels than one might think.”82 Societies, even secular ones, needed their own sources of the sacred.

It would be misleading to interpret this redemptive rhetoric as a desire to return to the past. Undoubtedly, its Edenic sentimentality and allusions to the “golden age” resembled prerevolutionary conceptions of moral order, even a reactionary “deification of violence.”83 But in 1792–1793, invocations of redemption functioned as claims to rupture. Calls to redeem mankind encouraged revolutionaries to leap as much into the future as to return to the past.84

Nor was violence’s sacralization a return to preceding cognates in prerevolutionary penal ideology. Since at least Michel Foucault, scholars have been familiar with the idea that capital punishment provides a restorative ritual of wounded sovereignty. “The public execution,” Foucault argued, was “a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is reconstituted. It restores that sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular.”85 But it is unlikely that revolutionaries had this image of violence in mind because, decades before 1789, nearly all proponents of enlightened, reformed government—including the future leaders of the revolution—repudiated spectacular capital punishment as barbaric. Especially after Cesare Beccaria published his 1764 On Crimes and Punishment and the Abbé Morellet translated it into French, reforming or abolishing capital punishment became a widely agreed upon tenet of pre-revolutionary political thought. Leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Catherine the Great, Marat, Brissot, Mably, and Robespierre each turned the abolition of spectacular capital punishment into a cause célèbre. That was why Robespierre entered the revolution as a proud advocate of its abolition. It seems unlikely that the king’s execution was conceived in terms of an ideology of violence that virtually all significant political thinkers had repudiated for a generation.86 Robespierre for his part never recanted his arguments for the abolition of capital punishment. He insisted that its abolition was compatible with endorsing regicide, implying that the latter entailed an altogether new type of sacralized violence from the old regime’s ceremonial, spectacular killings.

Naturalizing the agency behind regicide proved more challenging. It involved portraying the agent of regicide, “the people,” as an extension of nature’s agency rather than a lone assassin or a coup by a vanguard. Without doubt, Jacobins are notorious among students of revolutionary culture for naturalizing the revolution. After 1792, they would restructure the calendar around seasons and natural objects, plant liberty trees, organize festivals personifying Mother Nature, and forge a solar cult to connect the Republic to nature’s immanent moral authority.87 During the king’s trial, however, Jacobins specifically invoked images of nature to connect the will of the people to nature’s catastrophic agency and ecological self-regulation. These naturalizing metaphors helped coordinate “the people” with the newly discovered immanent moral authority of nature, thereby naturalizing their agency and granting them nature’s unity and agency beyond positive law.88 The result was that the people’s violence pointed to something more than a negative veto on the past. It was also an active agent of moral reconstitution consistent with new scientific theories of nature as generative and regenerative.

Jacobins were particularly keen to model democratic agency after natural disasters.89 “The majestic movements of a great people, the sublime force of virtue” was, according to Robespierre, “like the eruptions of a volcano.”90 Images of floods, earthquakes, and storms pervaded Jacobin depictions of popular assembly and insurrection. Particularly compelling was the image of the people’s agency as lightning, as in the medallion pressed to commemorate the August insurrection at the Tuileries (Figure 1.2). The medallion bears an image of Liberty crushing royalist symbols under her foot. In her raised hand is a dagger discharging lightning bolts.


Figure 1.2 Benjamin Duvivier. A medallion in memory of 10 August 1792 assault on the Tuileries and the fall of the monarchy.

Wikimedia Commons.

The illustration neatly visualizes Robespierre’s most important speech during the king’s trial: on 3 December 1792, Robespierre described the people’s redemptive violence as an alternative to positive law: “A people does not judge as does a court of law. It does not hand down sentences, it hurls down thunderbolts; it does not condemn kings, it plunges them into the abyss.”91 The people are not in the business of fussing about the origin of right but of incinerating enemies with lightning. It was a point Robespierre reiterated in his famous speech on political morality on 5 February 1794: “The revolution’s government is the despotism of liberty over tyranny. . . . And are not thunderbolts meant to strike vainglorious heads?”92 And again, he invoked lightning in his speech on the pedagogical purpose of republican festivals.

The world has changed, it should change again. . . . Man has conquered lightning and diverted lightning from heaven. . . . Everything has changed in the physical order; everything should change in the moral and political order. Half the world’s revolution is already complete; the other half should be accomplished.93

Appreciating Robespierre’s claim requires connecting it to the special significance lightning acquired in late eighteenth-century French scientific culture: lightning manifested nature’s simultaneous capacity for destruction and regeneration, not as metaphor but as natural fact. This was the position that emerged, for example, among revolutionary scientists like Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was a journalist and one of the legendary leaders of the revolution. Although he is primarily known for his bloodthirsty endorsement of discretionary popular violence, before the revolution, he researched lightning in a 1782 study entitled Recherches physiques sur l’électricité.94 In that text, Marat outlined the regenerative, purifying effects of lightning for the atmosphere. He built his analysis on the insights of popular naturalists like the Comte de Buffon, who had discussed lightning as a spontaneous manifestation of the earth’s universal heat and energy in his widely read Histoire naturelle.95

Marat was intervening in a fad sweeping Paris in the 1780s, what Robert Darnton has called the late eighteenth century’s “most serious explanation of Nature, of her wonderful, invisible forces, and even, in some cases, of the forces governing society and politics,” indeed a “camouflaged political theory”: mesmerism.96 Franz Mesmer, a popular pseudo-scientist and spiritualist, had opened up clinics which were controversial for their healing practices. In addition to hypnotism, he was known for his claims about the “refreshing” power of electricity. According to Mesmer, lightning struck whenever the composition of the atmosphere was imbalanced. Its heat functioned to spontaneously restore atmospheric equilibrium. Lightning was part of nature’s self-regulation, its destructive capacity for self-correction. Mesmer tried to draw from his studies on lightning an account of social harmony and regeneration.97 Just as lightning manifested a spontaneous chemical reaction to restore atmospheric equilibrium, social upheavals occurred spontaneously to restore social harmony.


Figure 1.3 Allegory of the journée of 10 August 1792, unknown provenance.

Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

The connection between lightning and social regeneration was a widespread motif of revolutionary political culture. For example, the infamous Jacobin deputy, the Marquis de Sade, featured it in his 1791 libertine novel Justine as an agent of moral providence.98 The mayor of Paris, Jérôme Pétion, also appealed to it in March 1792, a few months before the king’s trial.

There exists in the social order, as in the political order, laws whose imposing effect is felt only in memorable times. When the atmosphere that surrounds us is charged with wicked vapors, nature can only break free with a lightning bolt; in the same way, society can only purge itself from the excesses that trouble it with an impressive explosion; and after these great blows are struck, everything is reborn in hope and happiness.99

We can see these two rhetorical strategies—violence’s sacralization and democratic agency’s naturalization—intersect in an allegorical painting from 1792 (Figure 1.3). In this tableau, a thunderbolt dissipates the obfuscating clouds from the interior of “the Mountain,” a metaphor for the Jacobins dissipating superstition and ushering in enlightenment. But the lightning is also a weapon: a mechanical structure conducts the electricity toward fleeing frogs and snakes, who represent “the Swamp”—that is, Girondin moderates. Atop the mountain stands Zeus, who it turns out is a republican. His hand clutches a pike adorned with a Phrygian cap.


Figure 1.4 “Sans Union Point de Force, Sans Force Point de Liberté” (1793).

Provided by the Stanford University Libraries.


Figure 1.5 Benjamin West, Benjamin Franklin Drawing Lightning from the Sky (c. 1816).

Philadelphia Museum of Art. Reproduction from Wikimedia Commons.

It is telling that Jacobins not only naturalized democratic agency as lightning, but as lightning conducted. Consider an illustration from 1793, depicting a Jacobin conducting lightning from the sky to strike frogs and snakes (Figure 1.4). Consider, too, Benjamin Franklin (Figure 1.5). Every revolutionary knew Franklin had taught men how to conduct lightning. That included Robespierre: before the revolution, Robespierre made his name as a lawyer in a case involving a lightning conductor.100 A young lawyer based in Arras, Robespierre took on a widely watched case in nearby Saint-Omer defending Charles Dominique de Vissery de Bois-Valé. De Vissery had affixed a lightning rod to his home. Fellow townsmen asked it to be removed because they believed the rod summoned lightning into the village rather than directing it safely to the ground. Robespierre defended De Vissery with arguments for the progress of enlightenment, the eradication of superstition, and the cause of science. Importantly, he proclaimed the lightning rod a triumph for mankind because, with the conductor, man had learned to channel nature’s agency. Upon winning De Vissery’s case, Robespierre wrote to Franklin describing how the case “presented to me the occasion to plead . . . the cause of a sublime discovery, to which mankind is beholden to you.”101


Figure 1.6 P. Prieur, “Carte du château & jardin de Versailles, Plan géométral et descriptif” (1750).

Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Jacobin fascination with lightning conduction, both visual and biographical, provides a clue about their conception of revolutionary leadership. If Jacobins saw themselves as the voice of the people’s rage, they would do so, these images suggest, as a conducting instrument rather than as a vanguard. Similarly, these visual tropes measure the distance between Jacobin and absolutist approaches to nature. The latter is famously visualized at the outdoor gardens of Versailles (Figure 1.6). Its horticultural style beautifully illustrates eighteenth-century absolutism’s vision of nature as raw material to be molded in conformity with rational, geometric patterns. In contrast to the domination of nature through geometric abstractions, the revolution would be more scientific. Instead of waging war on nature, it would wage war with nature’s agency. It would found a society that drew on nature’s moral unity and redemptive agency beyond positive law.

This sustained involvement with eighteenth-century scientific culture helps explain why Jacobins—many of whom were “natural philosophers” themselves—refused to accept regicide as the outcome of a legal trial. Revolutionary leaders were searching for a new vocabulary of collective, democratic agency, and they found one in the esteemed discourses of nature which saturated French scientific culture. These depictions of natural disasters captured the felt experience of popular sovereignty. From the storming of the Bastille, to the women’s March on Versailles, to the attack on the Tuileries, popular agency truly did appear like lightning: a flash of popular power that reasserted natural morality against social disequilibrium. Because the people’s agency extended that of nature’s, their agency naturally took the form of extrajudicial, spontaneous violence. Their will manifested, not through positive law, but as a regenerative natural disaster—a flood, volcanic eruption, or thunderbolt. Those disasters possessed a temporality opposite to that of the law: immediate rather than prolonged, spontaneous rather than mediated. Hence, if the king were to die under the sign of the law, after the tarrying of a trial and an appeal to primary assemblies, it would be evidence that he was killed by something other than the people.

The king’s trial was therefore also a drama about the nature of democratic agency. What does action by “the people” actually look like? What is its proper form of expression? Jacobins answered that the people’s redemptive agency manifested as a natural disaster. That belief shaped their approach to the king’s trial. Regicide as redemptive violence could satisfy the need for a new social body upon the death of the royal corpus mysticum. It would become the premier weapon of revolutionary democracy, the unique type of violence possessed by the people.


On 11 December, Louis finally appeared before his prosecutors at the bar of the Convention. In preparation, the Commune was declared in permanent session. All of the popular sections took up arms. To communicate the world-historical significance of the day’s proceedings, Barère addressed the audience as session president: “Representatives, you are going to exercise the right of national justice. . . . Europe observes you. History records your thoughts, your actions. Incorruptible posterity judges you with an inflexible severity. . . . The dignity of your session must answer to the majesty of the French people. Through your body, it will give a great lesson to kings and a useful example for the liberation of nations.”102 Upon Louis’s seating, Jean-Baptiste Robert Lindet read to him the acte énonciatif, or prosecutorial statement. Lindet’s statement, compiled with a committee of twenty-one, described the king’s crimes committed at each of the revolution’s stages. It was a damning accusation. Rhetorically, it took the form of a history of the revolution with “the people,” and not the Assembly or the Convention, as its protagonist. Louis was asked to comment on each charge. He denied them all. After the frustrating appearance, the Convention gave Louis and his lawyers—two esteemed senior lawyers, Lamoignon de Malesherbes (great-grandfather to Alexis de Tocqueville) and François Denis Tronchet, as well as the young Raymond de Sèze—two weeks to prepare his legal defense.

When the vote was called on 15 January 1793, convention members were presented with three questions. The first concerned Louis’s culpability. It asked, “Louis Capet, former king of the French, is he guilty of conspiring against liberty and attacking the safety of the state? Yes or No.” Of 749 conventionnels present, 691 voted yes. Another 27 made various speeches which were tallied as abstentions. In the end, there was never any question as to Louis’s guilt and the sovereignty of “the nation.” The second question was more contentious, for it concerned the appeal to the people. It asked the following: “The judgment which will be rendered to Louis, will it undergo a ratification by the people united in their primary assemblies? Yes or No.” Whereas many convention members offered long qualifications or accounts of why they voted one way or another, St. Just said simply, “If I did not retain from the people the right to judge the tyrant, I would hold it from nature. No.”103 Of the conventionnels present, 287 voted in favor of the appeal to the people, 424 against, with 12 abstentions. In the end, the Convention chose to have the king punished immediately rather than have its judgment relitigated by primary assemblies around France. It was a major victory for the Jacobins and marked their triumphant ascendance in the Convention.104

The final question was tabled for the next day, and its resolution took so long that roll call voting lasted until the next morning of 17 January. The question asked, “What punishment will Louis, the former king of the French, receive?” Here, answers did not always observe party lines or ideological expectations. Marat answered “Death in 24 hours.” Robespierre and Danton simply said “Death,” but so did Girondins like Vergniaud. On the other hand, radicals like Paine voted against death, proposing instead that the former king be sent to America as punishment. The exact vote tally here has been a matter of dispute among historians because of the challenges with interpreting certain votes. However, there was a straightforward majority plus one who voted death with no qualifications or amendments. Vergniaud announced the results: “I declare, in the name of the national Convention . . . that the punishment that is pronounced against Louis Capet is that of death.”105

Except for his two appearances before the Convention’s bar—to hear the acte énonciatif and to observe De Sèze read his legal defense—Louis had spent the entirety of the trial’s duration imprisoned in the Temple with his family. There, he gave his son daily geography lessons while keeping a copy of The Imitation of Christ at his bedside. But on 21 January 1793, he was marched to the scaffold where Sanson, the executioner of Paris, guillotined him. At the decapitation, the crowd shouted vive la nation and vive la république while a few cut their own throats. Depending on the account, the crowd either cheered or groaned as Louis the Last’s head plopped into the basket. Onlookers snatched up scraps of the king’s bloodied shroud, souvenirs of monarchy’s end (Figures 1.7 and 1.8).


Figure 1.7 Sarcifu, “Fin tragique de Louis XVI” (1793).

Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

In the end, the Jacobin arguments failed. A trial was held, and Louis died under the sign of the law. But though they lost the battle, they would continue pursuing the regeneration of society through civic festivals, public education, the militarism of the wars of liberty, and the Terror. Moreover, their representation of revolutionary violence as redemptive would persist beyond the Revolution. As the remainder of this book shows, redemptive violence as a language of popular agency passes into the hands of engaged intellectuals across the spectrum throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. Liberals, socialists, Catholic intellectuals, and anarchists will draw a causal connection between popular violence and social regeneration as they search for their own paths to modern republican democracy.

This longer view of redemptive violence underscores how the king’s trial was much more than a historical event. It raised a question that would become fundamental to modern democratic politics: How should we conceive the social bond in an age of democracy? Looking back on the long nineteenth century, Jean Jaurès put it this way: “The blow that was delivered by the Revolution against monarchy, a profound and decisive blow, and the feelings of pity, the fleeting reappearances of counter-revolution, would not prevail against the force of that sovereign act. Kings might briefly return, but they would henceforth be nothing but ghosts. France, their France, is eternally regicide.”106 We do not have to endorse Jacobin arguments to appreciate how they were among the first to understand this fact: democracy is as much a claim about sociality as it is a set of political institutions. It names not only a political regime, but a form of society. That is why democratic revolution cannot avoid regenerating the social bond.


Figure 1.8 Villeneuve, “Matiere à reflection pour les jongleurs couronnées” (1793). The image of regeneration is clear in the caption, taken from the Marseillaise: “Let impure blood water our furrows.”

Trustees of the British Museum.

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