On the Propriety of Bringing Louis XVI to Trial

Philip Foner’s introduction:

After France was proclaimed a Republic, the question what was to be done with the former king arose. Most Girondins opposed bringing the king to trial, fearing that during its course secrets revealing their own treacherous role would be made public. Although he was losing favor with the Jacobins at this time because of his association with the Girondins, Paine did not join with his associates in seeking to avoid the trial and opposed their maneuvers to adjourn it. He urged that “Louis Capet” be tried for his role in the conspiracy of the “crowned brigands” against liberty. It was finally decided to try the former monarch on a charge of treason.

Paine wrote this address in English on November 20, 1792 and, on the following day, had it translated and read to the French National Convention, to which he was a delegate.


AS I do not know precisely what day the Convention will resume the discussion on the trial of Louis XVI, and, on account of my inability to express myself in French, I cannot speak at the tribune, I request permission to deposit in your hands the enclosed paper, which contains mmy opinion on that subject. I make this demand with so much eagerness, because circumstances will prove how much it imports to France, that Louis XVI should continue to enjoy good health. I should be happy if the Convention would have the goodness to hear this paper read this morning, as I propose sending a copy of it to London, to be printed in the English journals.


A secretary read the opinion of Thomas Paine.

I think it necessary that Louis XVI should be tried; not that this advice is suggested by a spirit of vengeance, but because this measure appears to me just, lawful, and conformable to sound policy. If Louis is innocent, let us put him to prove his innocence; if he is guilty, let the national will determine whether he shall be pardoned or punished.

But besides the motives personal to Louis XVI, there are others which make his trial necessary. I am about to develop these motives, in the language which I think expresses them, and no other. I forbid myself the use of equivocal expression or of mere ceremony.

There was formed among the crowned brigands of Europe a conspiracy which threatened not only French liberty, but likewise that of all nations. Everything tends to the belief that Louis XVI was the partner of this horde of conspirators. You have this man in your power, and he is at present the only one of the band of whom you can make sure. I consider Louis XVI in the same point of view as the two first robbers taken up in the affair of the Store Room; their trial led to discovery of the gang to which they belonged.

We have seen the unhappy soldiers of Austria, of Prussia, and the other powers which declared themselves our enemies, torn from their fire-sides, and drawn to butchery like wretched animals, to sustain, at the cost of their blood, the common cause of these crowned brigands. They loaded the inhabitants of those regions with taxes to support the expenses of the war. All this was not done solely for Louis XVI. Some of the conspirators have acted openly: but there is reason to presume that this conspiracy is composed of two classes of brigands; those who have taken up arms, and those who have lent to their cause secret encouragement and clandestine assistance. Now it is indispensable to let France and the whole world know all these accomplices.

A little time after the National Convention was constituted, the Minister for Foreign Affairs presented the picture of all the governments of Europe-those whose hostilities were public, and those that acted with a mysterious circumspection. This picture supplied grounds for just suspicions of the part the latter were disposed to take, and since then various circumstances have occurred to confirm those suspicions.

We have already penetrated into some part of the conduct of Mr. Guelph, Elector of Hanover, and strong presumptions involve the same man, his Court and ministers, in quality of King of England. M. Calonne has constantly been favored with a friendly reception at that Court. The arrival of Mr. Smith, secretary to Mr. Pitt, at Coblentz, when the emigrants were assembling there; the recall of the English Ambassador; the extravagant joy manifested by the Court of St. James’s at the false report of the defeat of Dumouriez, when it was communicated by Lord Elgin, then Minister of Great Britain at Brussels-all these circumstances render him [George III] extremely suspicious; the trial of Louis XVI will probably furnish more decisive proofs.

The long subsisting fear of a revolution in England, would alone, I believe, prevent that court from manifesting as much publicity in its operations as Austria and Prussia. Another reason could be added to this: The inevitable decrease of credit, by means of which alone all the old governments could obtain fresh loans, in proportion as the probability of revolutions increased. Whoever invests in the new loans of such governments must expect to lose his stock.

Everybody knows that the Landgrave of Hesse fights only as far as he is paid. He has been for many years in the pay of the Court of London. If the trial of Louis XVI could bring it to light that this detestable dealer in human flesh has been paid with the produce of the taxes imposed on the English people, it would be justice to that nation to disclose that fact. It would at the same time give to France an exact knowledge of the character of that court, which has not ceased to be the most intriguing in Europe, ever since its connection with Germany.

Louis XVI considered as an individual, is an object beneath the notice of the Republic; but when he is looked upon as a part of that band of conspirators, as an accused man whose trial may lead all nations in the world to know and detest the disastrous system of monarchy, and the plots and intrigues of their own courts, he ought to be tried.

If the crimes for which Louis XVI is arraigned were absolutely personal to him, without reference to general conspiracies, and confined to the affairs of France, the plea of inviolability, that folly of the moment, might have been urged in his behalf with some appearance of reason; but he is arraigned not only for treasons against France, but for having conspired against all Europe, and if France is to be just to all Europe we ought to use every means in our power to discover the whole extent of that conspiracy.

France is now a Republic; she has completed her revolution; but she cannot earn all its advantages so long as she is surrounded with despotic governments. Their armies and their marine oblige her also to keep troops and ships in readiness. It is therefore her immediate interest that all nations shall be as free as herself; that revolutions shall be universal; and since the trial of Louis XVI can serve to prove to the world the flagitiousness of governments in general, and the necessity of revolutions, she ought not to let slip so precious an opportunity.

The despots of Europe have formed alliances to preserve their respective authority, and to perpetuate the oppression of peoples. This is the end they proposed to themselves in their invasion of French territory. They dread the effect of the French Revolution in the bosom of their own countries; and in hopes of preventing it, they are come to attempt the destruction of this revolution before it should attain its perfect maturity. Their attempt has not been attended with success. France has already vanquished their armies; but it remains for her to sound the particulars of the conspiracy, to discover, to expose to the eyes of the world, those despots who had the infamy to take part in it; and the world expects from her that act of justice.

These are my motives for demanding that Louis XVI be judged; and it is in this sole point of view that his trial appears to me of sufficient importance to receive the attention of the Republic.

As to “inviolability,” I would not have such a word mentioned. If, seeing in Louis XVI only a weak and narrow-minded man, badly reared, like all his kind, given, as it is said, to frequent excesses of drunkenness -a man whom the National Assembly imprudently raised again on a throne for which he was not made-he is shown hereafter some compassion, it shall be the result of the national magnanimity, and not the burlesque notion of a pretended “inviolability.”