The Last Days of Absolute Monarchy - The French Revolution

The trial of the king, 'Louis Capet,' was one of the first proceedings of the National Convention. An iron safe had been discovered in a wall of the Tuileries, containing secret letters and documents, from which it was apparent that the French court had not only been in alliance with Austria and the emigrants, and had projected plans for overthrowing the Constitution that had been sworn to by Louis, but that it had also attempted to win over single members of the National Assembly (for example, Mirabeau), by annuities, bribery, and other means. It was upon this that the republicans, who would willingly have been quit of the king, founded a charge of treason and conspiracy against the country and the people. Louis, with the assistance of two advocates, to whom the noble Malesherbes , of his own free impulse, associated himself, appeared twice before the Convention (11th and 26th December), but despite his own dignified bearing and defense, and despite the efforts of the Girondist party to have the sentence referred to a general assembly of the people, Louis was condemned to death in a stormy meeting, by a small majority of five voices, January 17th, 1793. The party of the Mountain, where the advocate, Maximilian Robespierre, the former marquis St. Just, the frightful Danton, the lame Couthon, and the duke of Orleans, who had assumed the name of Citizen Egalité, were the leaders and chiefs, had left no means unattempted to produce this result by terror; they would, nevertheless, have failed in their purpose, had they not carried a resolution beforehand in the Assembly, that a bare majority should be sufficient for a sentence of death, and not, as had heretofore been the custom, that two thirds of the votes should be necessary. The murder was thus veiled by a show of justice. On the 21st of January, the unfortunate king ascended the scaffold in the square of the Revolution. The drums of the National Guard drowned his last words, and 'Robespierre's women' greeted his bloody head with the shout of Vive la République.'

The Girondists enraged at the increasing power of the populace in Paris, and the unbridled acts of violence committed by the mob, entertained the project of converting France into a republican union like North America, and by this means, destroying the supremacy of the capital. The Mountain and the Jacobins, who saw that this scheme would weaken the revolutionary power of France, and endanger the future of the democratic republic, commenced a war of life and death with the Girondists (also called Brissotins) upon this point. They reproached them with weakening the power of the people, and destroying the republic at a moment when France was threatened with enemies both within and without; and when all these attacks were ignominiously repulsed by the victorious eloquence of the Girondists, the savage Marat, in his 'Friend of the People,' call ed upon the populace to rise against the moderate and lukewarm, and thus gave occasion to daily riots and tumults, which disturbed the capital and endangered life and property.

The National Convention acquired greater unanimity by the exclusion of the Girondists and the moderates; so that, from this time, it was enabled to develop a frightful power and activity. For the purpose of better superintending its multitudinous affairs, it resolved itself into committees, of which the committee of public safety and that of public security acquired a frightful celebrity by the persecution of every one opposed to the new order of things. A revolutionary tribunal, consisting of twelve jurymen and five judges, to which that man of blood, Fouquier Tinville, occupied the office of public accuser, seconded the activity of these committees by a cruel and summary administration of justice. At the head of the committee of public safety stood three men, whose names became the terror and horror of all just men; the envious and malignant Robespierre, the bloodthirsty Couthon, and the frantic for republican liberty and equality, St. Just. They pursued their bloody object without regard to human life; every thing that ventured to oppose their stormy course was unpityingly hurled down. Thus originated the terrible period of the years '93 and '94, which displayed itself in three different directions - within, by a cruel persecution of all citizens who were known as aristocrats or favorers of royality, and by a bloody suppression of insurrections in the south and west; without, by a vigorous defensive war against innumerable enemies.

The former minister, Malesherbes, the members of the Constituent Assembly, Bailli, etc. all who belonged to the old monarchy, and who had not saved themselves by flight, died by the guillotine. Among them was the severely-tried queen, Marie Antoinette, who displayed, during her trial and at her execution, a firmness and strength of soul that was worthy of her education and her birth. Her son died beneath the cruel treatment of a Jacobin; her daughter (the duchess of Angouleme) carried a gloomy spirit and an embittered heart with her to the grave. Louis XVI's pious sister, Elizabeth, also died on the scaffold; the head of the profligate duke of Orleans, whom even the favor of Danton could not preserve from the envy of Robespierre, had fallen before her own.