Shall Louis XVI be Respited?

Philip Foner’s introduction:

Paine refused to support the Girondin proposal calling for a popular referendum to decide the king’s fate. At the same time, however, while voting the king guilty of treason, he refused to vote for the death penalty. He had this address translated and read to the French National Convention on January 19, 1793 by Bancal, a Girondist delegate. Marat, the great Jacobin leader, interrupted the speaker to charge that the translation was incorrect and that the sentiments could not be those of Paine. The incident revealed that troubled times were in store for Paine.


THE decision come to in the Convention yesterday in favor of death has filled me with genuine sorrow-

Marat {interrupting)-I deny the right of Thomas Paine to vote on such a subject; as he is a Quaker, of course his religious views run counter to the infliction of capital punishment. (There is considerable disorder, which, however, is allayed by shouts for “free speech.” Then Bancal continues the reading of the translation.)

I may lay claim to the possession of a certain amount of experience; I have taken no inconsiderable part in the struggle for freedom during the Revolution of the United States of America: it is a cause to which I have devoted almost twenty years of my existence. Liberty and humanity have ever been the words that best expressed my thoughts, and it is my conviction that the union of these two principles, in all cases, tends more than anything also to insure the grandeur of a nation. I am aware of the excitement and anger aroused by the perils to which France, and especially Paris, have been subjected; and yet, if we could only catch a glimpse of the future, long after all this excitement and anger have passed away, it is not unlikely that the action which you have sanctioned today will assume the aspect of having been performed from a spirit of revenge rather than from a spirit of justice. (Murmurs.) My solicitude for the welfare of France has now been transformed into concern for her honor.

Should I, after returning to America, spend my leisure in writing a history of the French Revolution, it would give me greater satisfaction to be able to set down a multitude of mistakes prompted by a feeling of compassion rather than to record a single deed prompted by even a just severity. I voted against the resolution that the Convention should submit its judgment to the decision of the people; I did so, however, in the expectation that it would not decide in favor of death, but rather in favor of a penalty for which I believe the nation would have voted; namely, imprisonment during the war and exile afterward. Such a punishment, embracing as it would the whole family, would be more effective than any other that can be imagined.

I have not altered my views as to the undesirability of leaving the punishment to the decision of the primary assemblies, for I consider that there is a better method of dealing with the matter. The Convention has been chosen in order that it may establish a constitution, which constitution must be subsequently ratified by the primary assemblies. As a necessary consequence, another assembly must then be elected. Now, it is not probable that the Convention now sitting can continue for more than five or six months.

The selection that shall be made of the new deputies will voice the opinion of the people as strongly on the justice of your sentence as would the result of an appeal to the primary assemblies. As then, our functions must soon terminate, we should be careful to pay due regard to the welfare of those who shall succeed us. We should not, by adopting measures calculated to enlarge the number of our enemies or to reduce that of our friends-especially when our financial position may be worse than it is to-day-place difficulties in the path of the latter. Let us not, therefore, decide any question hastily or rashly.

France’s sole ally is the United States of America. It is the only nation upon which France can depend for a supply of naval stores, because all the kingdoms of northern Europe are either now waging war against her, or shortly will be. Now, it is an unfortunate circumstance that the individual whose fate we are at present determining has always been regarded by the people of the United States as a friend to their own revolution. Should you come, then, to the resolution of putting Louis to death, you will excite the heartfelt sorrow of your ally. If I were able to speak the French language, I would appear in person at your bar, and, in the name of the American people, ask that Louis be respited-

Thuriot-The words you are reading are not those of Thomas Paine.

Marat-I denounce the translator. Such opinions are not Thomas Paine’s. The translation is incorrect.

Garran-It is a correct translation of the original, which I have read.(Great confusion, Paine ascends the tribune and, standing beside Bancal, declares that the opinions just delivered are his own.)

Bancal continues to read the translation:

It is my fondest desire that when an ambassador has been sent by your executive committee to Philadelphia, he may carry with him the tidings from France of the respite granted by the National Convention to Louis, solely because of its friendship for America. In the name of the citizens of that Republic, I beg that you delay the execution. Do not, I beseech you, bestow upon the English tyrant the satisfaction of learning that the man who helped America, the land of my love, to burst her fetters, has died on the scaffold.

Marat (rushing into the middle of the chamber)-Paine’s reason for voting against the death penalty is that he is a Quaker.

Paine-I have been influenced in my vote by public policy as well as by moral reasons.