Execution of Louis XVI Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The trial and execution of Louis XVI placed the Jacobin faction in ascendancy in the French revolutionary government. It helped discredit the revolution among both moderates and conservatives in France and stiffened resistance to the revolution abroad.

Summary of Event

The execution of Louis XVI was a personal as well as national tragedy. A decent, well-meaning monarch, he was unable to reconcile the revolutionary changes introduced into the fabric of French government by the National Assembly (France) National Assembly. Despite concessions that he made during the summer of 1789, despite his acceptance of the constitutional reforms instituted between 1789 and 1791, and despite his consent to the reform of the Catholic Church in France, the king never ceased to look for means of annulling the French Revolution. Throughout the summer and early fall of 1789, he gave serious thought to, and some outward manifestation of, the use of force against the National Assembly. This possibility was eliminated when both the king and the National Assembly moved from Versailles to Paris in October, 1789, but Louis continued to resist. [kw]Execution of Louis XVI (Jan. 21, 1793) [kw]Louis XVI, Execution of (Jan. 21, 1793) Louis XVI Louis XVI;execution of [p]French Revolution (1789-1796);Louis XVI’s execution[Louis 16s execution] [g]France;Jan. 21, 1793: Execution of Louis XVI[3080] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 21, 1793: Execution of Louis XVI[3080] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 21, 1793: Execution of Louis XVI[3080] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 21, 1793: Execution of Louis XVI[3080] Louis XVI Robespierre Malesherbes, Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Sèze, Romain de Tronchet, François Denis Brunswick, duke of Pius VI

The constitution of 1791 Constitution, French created a constitutional monarchy in which the king played a major role. The strongest weapon that Louis could use against the Legislative Assembly was the king’s veto power. The army was still theoretically under his control, but it was unreliable because the soldiers were becoming sympathetic to the revolution. Moreover, the assembly held the purse strings and with the support of most of the nation, prevented the king from dominating the new government. Louis might have made gradual adjustments to become a constitutional monarch, but he was unable to convince his conscience that reform of the Church was not evil.

Louis XVI and his family, including Marie-Antoinette, are caught at Varennes attempting to flee the country.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

When in March and April, 1791, Pope Pius VI solemnly denounced the religious enactments of the revolutionary government (which the king had reluctantly accepted), Louis decided to act. On June 20-21, the French royal family attempted to escape from Paris and flee to the eastern border, where, with loyal French supporters and with the aid of Austria and Prussia, they hoped to move against the government in Paris. The king was recognized and stopped at Varennes. Forced to return to the capital, he became a virtual prisoner in his own palace.

France drifted toward war during the second half of 1791. Neither the king nor the principal political faction in the Legislative Assembly, the Girondins Girondins, made any attempt to avert the calamity. Both believed that a foreign war would consolidate the nation in their respective camps. Louis allowed his wife to persuade him that war between France and the allied powers would result in a French defeat. He would then intercede with the victors, save France from the consequences of its revolutionary folly, and recover the traditional powers of the French monarchy. The Girondins believed France would win an easy and glorious victory that would redound to their credit. The war had an effect, however, which neither the monarchists nor the Girondins Girondins desired. It led to the rise of the Jacobins and their own destruction. The king fell first, but the Girondin leaders soon followed.

War was declared on April 20, 1792, but neither France nor its enemies, Austria and Prussia, were prepared for the conflict. Through the summer of 1792, a Prussian army under the command of the duke of Brunswick marched slowly but steadily toward Paris. By the end of July the capital was on the verge of panic. On July 25, the duke of Brunswick issued a manifesto which in substance stated that it was his aim to put an end to anarchy in France and to stop the attacks directed against throne and altar. Furthermore, he stated that if any harm came to the king or members of the French royal family, he would deliver up the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction. Louis realized the consequences of this manifesto and tried in vain to disassociate himself from it. To the people of Paris and the supporters of the revolution throughout France, the Brunswick Manifesto was the proof needed to convince them that the king was allied with the enemies of the nation.

The execution of Louis XVI, with the remains of Louis XV’s statue in the background.

(Library of Congress)

On August 10, the Tuileries, where the king resided, was attacked by the people, and the king, who took refuge with the Legislative Assembly, was deposed. A temporary government was set up and elections were held for a new constituent assembly. On September 21, 1792, the National Convention met and the following day proclaimed France to be a republic. The representatives were now faced with the problem of what to do with the king. Robespierre preferred simply executing him. A trial might occasion public unrest. Louis also wished to avoid a trial, for that would make the entire nation culpable of regicide, rendering a restoration of the monarchy more difficult. After much debate the Assembly decided that the king should be tried for treason.

The trial dragged on for more than a month. The king was ably defended by three distinguished barristers, Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, François Denis Tronchet, and Romain de Sèze. It was a political trial, marked by trivial or vague accusations not susceptible to legal proof. Nevertheless, a large majority of the Convention convicted Louis of conspiring against liberty and the safety of the state. Fearing an adverse reaction to regicide, Girondins attempted to spare Louis. Jacobins, who had led the attack against him, demanded the death penalty.

Robespierre was one of the most outspoken opponents of the king. He summed up the position of those advocating the death penalty by declaring that if Louis were not guilty of treason, then each member of the Assembly, which had unanimously proclaimed France to be a republic, was guilty of a crime against the king and so deserved to be executed. Finally, in January, 1793, the crucial vote was taken, and the king was condemned to death by 387 votes to 334, although 26 of those voting for the death penalty did so with reservations. On January 21, 1793, “Citizen Louis Capet” was executed in the place de la Révolution. There was now no turning back, for the 361 regicides leading the revolution would certainly be executed if it failed.

Significance

The political significance of Louis’s execution was bound to the political struggle for power between the Girondins Girondins and the Jacobins Jacobins . The Girondins, supported by the bourgeoisie and the provinces, had emerged as the dominant faction in the National Convention in October and November, 1792. The Jacobins, supported by the “sansculottes” of Paris, were fighting for their political lives if not for their very existence. Both factions wanted the king out of the way, and each knew that the outcome of the trial meant political victory or defeat. The fight was not waged over the guilt or innocence of Louis XVI, nor over whether he should be executed, but over which political faction would be discredited once the king’s fate had been decided.

During this struggle, the power bases of the Girondins and the Jacobins were polarized, and the groundwork was laid for the struggle of both factions to the death. The two years following the king’s death were the bloodiest period of the revolution.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allison, John M. S. Lamoignon de Malesherbes: Defender and Reformer of the French Monarchy, 1721-1794. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1938. A perceptive study of Louis XVI’s principal defender at his trial.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989. Impartial and thorough, one of the best single-volume works on the French Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunn, Susan. The Deaths of Louis XVI: Regicide and the French Political Imagination. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Explores the transformation of Louis XVI’s death into a powerful modern myth of a martyred king.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardman, John. Louis XVI. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. A thoughtful, well-balanced biography of the king.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordan, David P. The King’s Trial: The French Revolution vs. Louis XVI. 25th anniversary ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Chronicles the period from August 10, 1792, when Louis was deposed, until his execution, including his trial and sentencing. In a preface to this new edition, Jordan considers the previous twenty-five years of scholarship and places his book in an updated context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution: From Its Origins to 1793. Translated by Elizabeth Moss Evanson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. The author, an eminent Marxist historian of the revolution, argues the king was the victim of a power struggle between Girondins and Jacobins.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Padover, Saul K. The Life and Death of Louis XVI. 1939. Reprint. New York: Taplinger, 1963. This biography of Louis XVI is sympathetic to the king and also to the aims of the revolutionaries, both headed for inevitable conflict from the beginning.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Price, Munro. The Fall of the French Monarchy: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Baron de Breteuil. London: Pan, 2002. Recounts the baron’s diplomatic efforts to gain European support for the French royal family. Discusses the trial and assassination of Louis and the execution of Marie-Antoinette. Published in the United States under the title The Road from Versailles: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Fall of the French Monarchy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walzer, Michael, ed. Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI. Translated by Marian Rothstein. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974. Includes the editor’s lengthy introduction, together with eleven speeches by Jacobin opponents of monarchy attempting to justify the king’s execution.

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