Louis Capet (previously Louis XVI) chose Gui-Jean-Baptiste Target, former deputy of the National Constituent Assembly, to lead his defense. Target, however, refused because of his age, and, so, Raymond Desèze became Louis’s lead counsel. Target and Desèze were assisted by François Denis Tronchet (Target’s closest colleague, who came on board only because Louis insisted) and Louis’s former Secretary of State, Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes. Two weeks were allocated for Louis’s counsel to prepare for his defense. Desèze wrote a brilliant draft, but when it was read to Louis, he thought it too rhetorical and said, “I do not want to play on their (the Convention’s) feelings.” Ultimately, on 26 December 1792, when Desèze delivered his defense, “it appeared to make a strong impression on the convention.”
Louis Capet then stood up and spoke verbatim: “Citizens you have heard the pleas I had to urge; I shall not repeat them. While I speak to you, perhaps for the last time, I declare my conscience upbraids me not, and that my counsel has told you nothing but the truth. I never thought my proceedings would have been thus publicly investigated; but my heart is harrowed up, when I find myself accused of a desire to shed my people’s blood, and that the events of the 10th of August are imputed to me. I must confess that the multiplied proofs I had given at all times of my love for the people, and my general conduct, warranted me to think that I should never have been thus accused.”
A vote was taken as to Louis’s guilt or innocence. The President of the National Convention announced the results of the vote. Desèze’s presentation and Louis’s words caused many members to vote “contrary to their inclinations, from the apprehension of becoming victims to popular fury, since a formidable mob was collected, which threatened the lives of many deputies, if they did not vote for the death of the king.” Ultimately, 693 deputies voted for the death of Louis, and, not a single deputy voted “no.” However, 26 deputies attached some condition to their votes, 26 were absent, and 23 abstained.
Having received the verdict, the President declared, “the National Convention pronounces a sentence of death against LOUIS CAPET.” The next day, a motion to grant Louis a reprieve was placed before the Convention. It was quickly voted down: 310 of the deputies requested mercy, with 380 deputies voting for the immediate execution of Louis. Thus, on a cold Monday, 21 January 1793, Louis Capet was taken by cart to the Place de la Révolution to be guillotined. Louis was guillotined by Charles Henri Sanson, who testified that Louis met his fate with great courage. The last words, Louis heard came from his confessor: “Son of St. Louis, ascend to heaven!” After Louis’s head was severed, Sanson held it up by the hair, amid shouts of “Live the republic!” Some spectators then dipped their handkerchiefs in Louis’s blood, and others purchased his hair and sold it in tresses at the foot of the scaffolding. “Thus fell Louis XVI, the mildest and most amiable sovereign in Europe.”
If you are interested in learning more about the charges against Louis XVI, click on this link.
- Johnson, Mr. A Genuine Narrative of the Proceedings at Paris, 1793
- Johnson, Thomas Burgeland, An Impartial History of Europe, From the death of Louis XVI, 1811
- Jordan, David P., The King’s Trial, 1979