Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Paine Opposes the Execution of Louis XVI.

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Paine Opposes the Execution of Louis XVI.

By Thomas Paine (1737–1809)

[Speech in the French National Convention. 1792.]

CITIZEN PRESIDENT: My hatred and abhorrence of absolute monarchy are sufficiently known; they originated in principles of reason and conviction, nor, except with life, can they ever be extirpated; but my compassion for the unfortunate, whether friend or enemy, is equally lively and sincere.

I voted that Louis should be tried, because it was necessary to afford proofs to the world of the perfidy, corruption and abomination of the French government.

The infinity of evidence that has been produced exposes them in the most glaring and hideous colors.

Nevertheless I am inclined to believe that if Louis Capet had been born in an obscure condition, had he lived within the circle of an amiable and respectable neighborhood, at liberty to practise the duties of domestic life, had he been thus situated I cannot believe that he would have shown himself destitute of social virtues; we are, in a moment of fermentation like this, naturally little indulgent to his vices, or rather to those of his government; we regard them with additional horror and indignation; not that they are more heinous than those of his predecessors, but because our eyes are now open, and the veil of delusion at length withdrawn; yet the lamentably degraded state to which he is actually reduced is surely far less imputable to him than to the constituent assembly which, of its own authority, without consent or advice of the people, restored him to the throne.

I was present at the time of the flight or abdication of Louis XVI., and when he was taken and brought back. The proposal of restoring to him the supreme power struck me with amazement; and although at that time I was not a citizen, yet as a citizen of the world, I employed all the efforts that depended on me to prevent it….

The people have beat down royalty, never, never to rise again; they have brought Louis Capet to the bar, and demonstrated in the face of the whole world, the intrigues, the falsehood, corruption, and rooted depravity of his government: there remains then only one question to be considered, what is to be done with this man?

For myself, I freely confess that when I reflect on the unaccountable folly that restored the executive power to his hands, all covered as he was with perjuries and treason, I am far more ready to condemn the constituent assembly than the unfortunate prisoner, Louis Capet.

But, abstracted from every other consideration, there is one circumstance in his life which ought to cover or at least to palliate a great number of his transgressions, and this very circumstance affords the French nation a blessed occasion of extricating itself from the yoke of its kings without defiling itself in the impurities of their blood.

It is to France alone, I know, that the United States of America owe that support which enabled them to shake off an unjust and tyrannical yoke. The ardor and zeal which she displayed to provide both men and money were the natural consequences of a thirst for liberty. But as the nation at that time, restrained by the shackles of her own Government, could only act by means of a monarchical organ, this organ, whatever in other respects the object might be, certainly performed a good, a great action.

Let then these United States be the safeguard and asylum of Louis Capet. There, hereafter, far removed from the miseries and crimes of royalty, he may learn from the constant aspect of public prosperity, that the true system of government consists in fair, equal and honorable representation. In relating this circumstance, and in submitting this proposition, I consider myself as a citizen of both countries.

I submit it as a citizen of America who feels the debt of gratitude which he owes to every Frenchman. I submit it also as a man who cannot forget that kings are subject to human frailties. I support my proposition as a citizen of the French republic, because it appears to me the best, the most politic measure that can be adopted.

As far as my experience in public life extends, I have ever observed that the great mass of the people are invariably just, both in their intentions and in their objects; but the true method of accomplishing that effect, does not always show itself in the first instance. For example, the English nation has groaned under the despotism of the Stuarts. Hence Charles the Ist lost his life; yet Charles the IId was restored to all the full plenitude of power which his father had lost. Forty years had not expired when the same family strove to re-establish their ancient oppression; so the nation then banished from its territories the whole race. The remedy was effectual: the Stuart family sunk into obscurity, confounded itself with the multitude, and is at length extinct.

The French nation has carried her measures of government to a greater length. France is not satisfied with exposing the guilt of the monarch, she has penetrated into the vices and horrors of the monarchy. She has shown them clear as daylight, and forever crushed that system; and he whoever he may be, that should ever dare to reclaim those rights, would be regarded not as a pretender, but punished as a traitor.

Two brothers of Louis Capet have banished themselves from the country, but they are obliged to comply with the spirit and etiquette of the courts where they reside.

They can advance no pretensions on their own account, so long as Louis shall live.

The history of monarchy in France was a system pregnant with crimes and murders, cancelling all natural ties, even those by which brothers are united. We know how often they have assassinated each other to pave a way to power. As those hopes which the emigrants had reposed in Louis XVI. are fled, the last that remains rests upon his death, and their situation inclines them to desire this catastrophe, that they may once again rally round a more active chief, and try one further effort under the fortune of the ci-devant Monsieur and d’Artois. That such an enterprise would precipitate them into a new abyss of calamity and disgrace, it is not difficult to foresee; yet it might be attended with mutual loss, and it is our duty, as legislators, not to spill a drop of blood when our purpose may be effectually accomplished without it. It has been already proposed to abolish the punishment of death, and it is with infinite satisfaction that I recollect the humane and excellent oration pronounced by Robespierre on that subject in the constituent assembly. This cause must find its advocates in every corner where enlightened politicians and lovers of humanity exist, and it ought above all to find them in this assembly.

Bad governments have trained the human race, and inured it to the sanguinary arts and refinements of punishment; and it is exactly the same punishment that has so long shocked the sight and tormented the patience of the people which now in their turn they practise in revenge on their oppressors.

But it becomes us to be strictly on our guard against the abomination and perversity of such examples. As France has been the first of European nations to amend her government, let her also be the first to abolish the punishment of death, and to find out a milder and more effectual substitute.

In the particular case now under consideration, I submit the following propositions,—1st. That the national convention shall pronounce the sentence of banishment on Louis and his family: 2d. That Louis Capet shall be detained in prison till the end of the war, and then the sentence of banishment to be executed.