The Revolution Is the Trial
On Maximilien Robespierres 1792 speech on King Louis XVI and the storming of the US Capitol.
You are reading this more than one month into Joe Biden’s presidency; I began writing it 11 days before his inauguration. What will happen between these two moments to aggravate America’s anxieties—and they are sure to be further aggravated, despite Biden’s vain promises to restore order and decency—is beyond my powers of foresight. What I know right now is that the public, the media, the political establishment, my neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family are all deeply concerned—frightened, agitated, depressed—by the storming of the US Capitol three days ago. Consider that the context in which I am writing.
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The mob attack on the palace at the Tuileries in Paris began early in the morning of August 10, 1792. The target was King Louis XVI, who for three years since the beginning of the French Revolution had frustrated attempts to reform the country’s political and economic system. A war rumbled in the background: Austria and Prussia had invaded France in the hopes of reinstalling Louis as absolute monarch and forestalling revolutionary sentiment from spilling into their territories.
From palace windows, Louis could see a gathering mass of insurgents, called to the Tuileries by tocsins rung throughout the city. After equivocating on whether to flee, he finally acceded to the pleas of his ministers, huddled his family, and retreated to the nearby Legislative Assembly. The crowd entered his palace soon thereafter and were shot upon by a contingent of around 1,000 Swiss Guards. But Louis’s outnumbered forces were quickly overwhelmed in what became the most brutal campaign of the revolution thus far. Estimates vary on the number of dead, but roughly 600 Swiss Guardsmen were killed, many of them literally butchered by onrushing insurrectionaries, around 400 of whom died.
The surviving radicals marched to the Legislative Assembly to confront Louis. The painter François Gérard’s unfinished drawing depicting their arrival shows a raging group of san-culottes (French commoners, and the revolution’s most militant wing) pointing and raving at the king and his family, who are sketched in faint outline on the far right of the scene, as if their influence has already faded. Louis, with an elaborate wig atop his head, peers indignantly through a set of bars behind which he’s hiding. Three days later, he was formally arrested.
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Now the revolutionaries had an unprecedented problem: what to do with a deposed king? Anxious moderates, worried about the increasing radicalization of the revolution, demanded a trial. The king should be held to account for his crimes against the people—impeached—in a French court of law, presented with the evidence against him, and provided the opportunity to defend himself.
Radical republicans were incredulous. “There is no trial to be had here,” Maximilien Robespierre lectured his colleagues in a speech (call it a manifesto) delivered in December 1792. “Louis is not a defendant. You are not judges.” The revolution was the trial; the verdict was the collapse of the king’s power. “You are confusing a nation that punishes a public official while conserving the form of government, with one that destroys the government itself.”
Robespierre’s appeals were rejected. The day of his sermon, the Legislative Assembly voted to proceed with the trial, opening up the possibilities that Louis was an innocent man, the revolution was illegitimate, and the proper path forward was political restoration. “Citizens, have a care,” Robespierre warned. “You are being misled by false notions.”
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The evening of the siege at the US Capitol, Congress reconvened to certify the results of the Electoral College and formally name Joe Biden the next president. “They tried to disrupt our democracy,” Mitch McConnell said of the rioters. “They failed.” Top officials in Trump’s administration loudly resigned, and several Republican Congressmen, as well as a handful of Senators, signaled their intention to impeach and convict Trump. Bill O’Reilly implored the incoming president: “Our divided nation turns to you, Joe Biden. Defuse it. As best you can.”
The ancien régime sees its opportunity. “The work of the moment,” Biden said following the Capitol siege, “and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy, of decency, honor, respect, the rule of law.” And according to the rule of law and established precedent, there is a distinct possibility that Trump is an innocent man. The same Democrats who want a return to order must now take seriously Republican arguments that the outgoing president cannot be impeached as a private citizen, that fiery political rhetoric alone is not seditious, and that demands for impeachment are moving far too fast and without any attempt at a full and actual investigation.
The latter point doesn’t even have to be argued: Democrats have wanted to impeach Trump since the day he took office. Any pretext will do. But the first two claims—even if they do not prevent an ultimate conviction—are procedurally intact and well within the bounds Democrats want so desperately to reinstall.
So here we are, misled by false notions: petty legal wrangling, diversionary demands, political posturing. And all within our usual terrain, set out by the returning old guard. “Such is the natural dominion of habit that we regard the most arbitrary conventions, sometimes indeed the most defective institutions, as absolute measures of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice,” Robespierre warned. Thus begins Biden’s hollow restoration.