A Clear and Present Danger: Robespierre’s “On the Trial of the King”

By: Vrixton Phillips

“A Clear and Present Danger: Robespierre’s “On the Trial of the King”

After the attack on August 10th on the Palais des Tuileries (the building which closed off the open courtyard of the Palais du Louvre until it was burned down during the Paris Commune) the Royal Family of France was imprisoned, and the National Convention established, officially making France a republic. With foreign nations and monarchists aiming to rescue Louis XVI and his family from prison, the Assembly began to debate what to do with him. Do they try him? What punishment befits a monarch? Death? Exile? Rehabilitation? It was amidst this kind of inquiry that Maximilien Robespierre delivered “On the Trial of the King,” a deliberative speech that posited that not only was a trial unnecessary, but that having a trial was dangerous and tantamount to treason. To begin, Robespierre reframes the argument before him as follows:

The Assembly has been led, without realizing it, far from the real question. There is no trial to be held here. Louis is not a defendant. You are not judges. You are not, you cannot be anything but statesmen and representatives of the nation. (57)

From the outset, his words sound like hammers–simple statements to be taken as axiomatic with the repetition of the triple negation: no trial, no defendant, no judges. In fact, he makes an appeal to logos by syllogistically arguing, in an appeal to the Assembly’s shared opinion of the Republic’s foundation, that if “sound policy prescribes to the nascent republic” to sow hatred of monarchs and “dumbfound the king’s supporters,” then “to treat his cause as … the most difficult discussion that could occupy the representatives of the French people … amounts precisely to having found the secret of keeping him dangerous to liberty” (57). This is the first point of his three-point argument: that as long as Louis lives, the Republic is in peril from without and within.

Having said this, Robespierre turns his firepower towards the prisoner himself, the deposed king. Repeatedly, Robespierre refuses to do as one must suppose his opponents have done: called him by his title. He is not even given the benefit of the surname “Capet” as was popular among the sans-culottes; to Robespierre he is plain “Louis,” and in the least endearing of ways. It is during this barrage of “Louis’” that Robespierre gets to the second part of his three-point argument (that Louis is not a defendant) while also bolstering the first part with additional support.

Essentially, Robespierre argues that Louis has been tried already by his deposition. That he still lives is a fault of the Republic’s representatives, who are not doing the work their constituents have already declared is necessary. He fills this paragraph with several conditional if-then statements and exasperatedly exclaims, “What am I saying!” for the first of several times throughout the speech.

With the final point, that the Assembly is full of statesmen, not judges, Robespierre begins to show his philosophical and rhetorical side; he returns to the idea of the Assemblymen being misled, but cleverly uses anaphora to redirect towards the last point, connecting it to his first:

Citizens, have a care, you are being misled here by false notions. You are confusing the rules of civil and statue law with the principles of the law of nations; you are confusing relations between citizens with those between a nation and an enemy conspiring against it. You are also confusing the situation of a people in revolution with that of a people whose government is soundly established. You are confusing a nation that punishes a public official while conserving the form of the government, with one that destroys the government itself. (58)

He concludes his introductory argument by saying that the judicial trials to which they are accustomed have become mistakenly tied to their conception of justice (58).

Robespierre continues to develop his three-point argument throughout the speech, but he is particularly taken with the nature of justice itself, as most philosophers are. As such, he asks many rhetorical questions (some of which he answers himself) and at one point even alludes to the famous exclamation “O tempora! O mores!” (O times! O morals!) from Cicero’s First Catilinarian speech when his invective against his opponents reaches a fever pitch by crying out “O crime! O shame!” in response to having “heard the virtues and good deeds of the tyrant being praised” in the assembly (61).

So far we have focused on his use of “artistic” or artificial proofs (commonly referred to by name as ethos, pathos, and logos), but he also uses “inartistic” proofs such as his claim that the Constitution (which had been referenced by his opponents), condemns members of the National Assembly utterly as it is a document constructed by and supportive of the monarchy and would thus find them all guilty of treason. He also cites historical precedent, particularly the trials of Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I of England, both of which he dismisses as cases of tyrants “[sacrificing] their fellows, not to the people, but to their own ambition” and using “illusory forms” such as mock trials to hide their “deceit and intrigue” (59).

Robespierre closes his speech with an ironic denunciation of the death penalty, except in special cases such as Louis’:

You are demanding an exception to the death penalty for the one individual who can justify it. Yes, the death penalty, in general, is a crime, and for the sole reason that, in keeping with the indestructible principles of nature, it can only be justified where it is necessary for the security of individuals or the social body. Now public security never requires it for ordinary offences, because society can always stop them by other means and make the culprit powerless to damage it. But a dethroned king in the middle of a revolution which is nothing unless consolidated by the laws, a king whose name alone calls down the scourge of war on the disturbed nation: neither prison nor exile can render his existence harmless to the public good; and this cruel exception that justice allows to ordinary laws can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes. (64)

This is a fascinating statement for multiple reasons. Firstly, Robespierre is best known as the architect of the Reign of Terror. What changed in him to make prison or exile unacceptable alternatives for some of his political enemies living in France? Secondly, though it is a statement nearly 250 years old, many in our own country still find it too idealistic, despite death penalty bans around the world. Unfortunately for Robespierre, his speech fell on deaf ears and the trial commenced that month. His speech was unsuccessful in persuading his audience. Louis was, however, executed, followed by his family on January 21st the next year, after a two-month trial.

Robespierre’s powerful oratorical skill is lined with anaphora (such as in the paragraph in which he explains how Louis’ imprisonment poses a threat to the republic, with the word “today” heading a total of six phrases and sentences in close succession to one another) and quotable sound bites (such as “[the people] do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts; they do not condemn kings, they drop them back into the void,” and “the tyrant’s trial is the insurrection; the verdict, the collapse of his power; the sentence, whatever the liberty of the people request”), the enumeration of which would require the speech to be reprinted in its entirety. Not only was Robespierre a brilliantly gifted orator in the sense that his speech is full of style and flourish (and one must assume it just as powerfully delivered), but his speech also reveals that he was trained in formal rhetoric, as seen in its internal organization. His argument is simple to understand and forcefully driven forward. Robespierre builds, develops, and fleshes out his three-point argument as he speculates what the future will bring if his colleagues undermine or destroy what the People have created.

Works Cited

Robespierre, Maximilien, and Slavoj Žižek. “On the Trial of the King.” Virtue and Terror: Robespierre. London: Verso, 2007. 57-65. Print. Slavoj Žižek Presents.


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