Camille Desmoulins 'It is a crime to be a king' (1793)

As a young man of twenty-nine, Camille Desmoulins (1760-1794) played a dramatic part in the destruction of the Bastille when on 12 July 1789 he jumped on to a table and addressed the crowd in the Palais-Royal, urging them to take arms: 'It is I who call my brothers to freedom. I would rather die than submit to servitude.' A stutter inhibited his oratory but as editor and founder of the weekly Revolutions de France he was the greatest journalist of the Revolution. Desmoulins was elected by Paris to the National Convention, where he delivered this speech calling for the execution of the King.

It is by the law of nations that this trial ought to be regulated. The slavery of nations during ten thousand years has not been able to rescind their indefensible rights. It was these rights that were a standing protest against the reigning of the Charleses, the Henrys, the Frederics, the Edwards, as they were against the despotism of Julius Caesar. It is a crime to be a king. It was even a crime to be a constitutional king, for the nation had never accepted the constitution. There is only one condition on which it could be legitimate to reign; it is when the whole people formally strips itself of its rights and cedes them to a single man, not only as Denmark did in 1660, but as happens when the entire people has passed or ratified this warrant of its sovereignty. And yet it could not bind the next generation, because death extinguishes all rights. It is the prerogative of those who exist, and who are in possession of this earth, to make the laws for it in their turn. Otherwise, let the dead leave their graves and come to uphold their laws against the living who have repealed them. All other kinds of royalty are imposed upon the people at the risk of their insurrection, just as robbers reign in the forests at the risk of the provost's punishment befalling them. And now after we have risen and recovered our rights, to plead these feudal laws, or even the Constitution, in opposition to republican Frenchmen, is to plead the black code to Negro conquerors of white men. Our constituents have not sent us here to follow those feudal laws and that pretended constitution, but to abolish it, or rather, to declare that it never existed, and to reinvest the nation with that sovereignty which another had usurped.

Either we are truly republicans, giants who rise to the heights of these republican ideas, or we are not giants, but mere pygmies. By the law of nations Louis XVI as king, even a constitutional king, was a tyrant in a state of revolt against the nation, and a criminal worthy of death. And Frenchmen have no more need to try him than had Hercules to try the boar of Erymanthus, or the Romans to try Tarquin, or Caesar, who also thought himself a constitutional dictator.

But it is not only a king, it is a criminal accused of crimes that in his person we have to punish.

You must not expect me to indulge in undue exaggeration, and to call him a Nero, as I heard those do who have spoken the most favourably for him. I know that Louis XVI had the inclinations of a tiger, and if we established courts such as Montesquieu calls the courts of manners and behaviour, like that of the Areopagus at Athens, which condemned a child to death for putting out his bird's eyes; if we had an Areopagus, it would have a hundred times condemned this man as dishonouring the human race by the caprices of his wanton cruelties. But as it is not the deeds of his private life, but the crimes of his reign that we are judging, it must be confessed that this long list of accusations against Louis which our committee and our orators have presented to us, while rendering him a thousand times worthy of death, will nevertheless not suggest to posterity the horrors of the reign of Nero, but the crimes of constituents, the crimes of Louis the King, rather than the crimes of Louis Capet.

That which makes the former king justly odious to the people is the four years of perjuries and oaths, incessantly repeated into the nation's ear before the face of heaven, while all the time he was conspiring against the nation. Treason was always with every nation the most abominable of crimes. It has always inspired that horror which is inspired by poison and vipers, because it is impossible to guard against it. So the laws of the Twelve Tables devoted to the Furies the mandatary who betrayed the trust of his constituent, and permitted the latter to kill the former wherever he should find him. So, too, fidelity in fulfilling one's engagements is the only virtue on which those pride themselves who have lost all others. It is the only virtue found among thieves. It is the last bond which holds society - even that of the robbers themselves - together. This comparison, it is, which best paints royalty, by showing how much less villainous is even a robbers' cave than the Louvre, since the maxim of all kings is that of Caesar: 'It is permissible to break one's faith in order to reign.' So in his religious idiom, spoke Antoine de Levre to Charles V: 'If you are not willing to be a rascal, if you have a soul to save, renounce the empire.' So said Machiavelli in terms very applicable to our situation. For this reason it was, that many years ago in a petition to the National Assembly I quoted this passage: 'If sovereignty must be renounced in order to make a people free, he who is clothed with this sovereignty has some excuse in betraying the nation, because it is difficult and against nature to be willing to fall from so high a position.' All this proves that the crimes of Louis XVI are the crimes of the constituents who supported him in his position of king rather than his crimes, that is to say, of those who gave him the right by letters patent to be the 'enemy of the nation' and a traitor. But all these considerations, calculated as they may be to soften the horror of his crimes in the eyes of posterity, are useless before the law, in mitigating their punishment. What! Shall the judges forbear to punish a brigand because in his cave he has been brought up to believe that all the possessions of those who pass his cave belong to him? Because his education has so depraved his natural disposition that he could not be anything but a robber? Shall it be alleged as a reason for letting the treason of a king go unpunished, that he could not be anything but a traitor, and as a reason for not giving the nations the example of cutting down this tree, that it can only bear poisons? ...

'But who shall judge this conspirator?' It is astonishing and inconceivable what trouble this question has given to the best heads of the Convention. Removed as we are from Nature and the primitive laws of all society, most of us have not thought that we could judge a conspirator without a jury of accusation, a jury of judgement, and judges who would apply the law, and all have imagined necessary a court more or less extraordinary. So we leave the ancient ruts only to fall into new ones, instead of following the plain road of common sense. Who shall judge Louis XVI? The whole people, if it can, as the people of Rome judged Manlius and Horatius, nor dreamt of the need of a jury of accusation, to be followed by a jury of judgement, and that in turn by a court which would apply the law to judge a culprit taken in the act. But as we cannot hear the pleas of twenty-five millions of men we must recur to the maxim of Montesquieu: 'Let a free people do all that it can by itself and the rest by representatives and commissioners!' And what is the National Convention but the commission selected by the French people to try the last king and to form the Constitution of the new republic?

Some claim that such a course would be to unite all the powers -legislative functions and judicial functions. Those who have most wearied our ears by reciting the dangers of this cumulation of powers must either deride our simplicity in believing that they respect those limits, or else they do not well understand themselves. For have not constitutional and legislative assemblies assumed a hundred times the functions of judges, whether in annulling the procedure of the Chatelet, and many other tribunals, or in issuing decrees against so many prisoners on suspicion whether there was an accusation or not? To acquit Mirabeau and 'P. Equality', or to send Lessart to Orleans, was not that to assume the functions of judges? I conclude from this that those 'Balancers', as Mirabeau called them, who continually talk of 'equilibrium', and the balance of power, do not themselves believe in what they say. Can it be contested, for example, that the nation which exercises the power of sovereignty does not 'cumulate' all the powers? Can it be claimed that the nation cannot delegate, at its will, this or that portion of its powers to whom it pleases? Can any one deny that the nation has cumulatively clothed us here with its powers, both to try Louis XVI and to construct the Constitution? One may well speak of the balance of power and the necessity of maintaining it when the people, as in England, exercises its sovereignty only at the time of elections. But when the nation, the sovereign, is in permanent activity, as formerly at Athens and Rome, and as now in France, when the right of sanctioning the laws is recognized as belonging to it, and when it can assemble every day in its municipalities and sections, and expel the faithless mandataries, the great necessity cannot be seen of maintaining the equilibrium of powers, since it is the people who, with its arm of iron, itself holds the scales ready to drive out the ambitious and the traitorous who wish to make it incline to the side opposite the general interest.

It is evident that the people sent us here to judge the King and to give them a constitution. Is the first of these two functions so difficult to fulfil? And have we anything else to do than what Brutus did when the people caused him to judge his two sons himself, and tested him by this, just as the Convention is tested now? He made them come to his tribunal, as you must bring Louis XVI before you. It produced for him the proofs of their conspiracy as you must present to Louis XVI that multitude of overwhelming proofs of his plots. They could make no answer to the testimony of a slave, as Louis XVI will not be able to answer anything to the correspondence of Laporte, and to that mass of written proofs that he paid his bodyguard at Coblentz and betrayed the nation. And it only remains for you to prove, as Brutus proved to the Roman people, that you are worthy to begin the Republic and its Constitution, and to appease the shades of a hundred thousand citizens whom he caused to perish in pronouncing the same sentence: 'Go, lictor, bind him to the stake.'

Desmoulins was arrested with Danton in March 1794 and died on the guillotine.