Robespierre’s Second Speech (28 December 1792)
As part of his defense, Louis’s lawyers had suggested the King should be judged not by the representatives of the people in the Convention but by the people themselves through a referendum. The Jacobins opposed this idea, fearing it would undermine the Convention’s position as embodying the will of the people. In his second speech of the trial, Robespierre attacks the idea of a referendum as a plot to save the King and thus undermine the Revolution.
Citizens, I remind you of the vital importance of the nation's salvation. On what grounds do you feel obligated to deal with Louis? Punishing a tyrant is not the nation's disgraceful thirst for vengeance, it is the need to consolidate the state's liberty and peace of mind. Any way of judging him, any system of delays that compromises the state's serenity, is in direct opposition to your aims. And it would be better if you had totally forgotten about punishing him, rather than allow his trial to feed the unrest and start a civil war. Each moment we delay allows a new threat to emerge. Every delay stirs guilty hopes and encourages the audacity of the enemies of Liberty. These delays nurture an absolute distrust and terrible suspicions at the heart of this assembly. Citizens, it is the voice of an alarmed nation that urges you to reassure it by hastening your decision. What scruples still shackle your zeal? . . .
To try to delay your judgment, you were told about the nation's honor and the dignity of the Assembly. The honor of nations consists of being free and virtuous, of striking down tyrants and avenging the people who have been debased. The glory of the National Convention consists of displaying strength of character and of sacrificing self-serving prejudices in the name of the sublime principles of reason and philosophy. It consists of saving the nation and ensuring liberty by setting an example for all the world. I can see its dignity slipping away as we forget the strength of republican maxims, instead becoming lost in a maze of useless and ridiculous bickering as our speakers in the galleries teach the nation another lesson in monarchy.
Posterity will either admire or scorn you by the degree of vigor you demonstrate on this occasion, and that vigor will also be the measure of the daring or the grace which foreign despots will show you. It will be the promise of our servitude or our liberty, our prosperity or our destitution. Citizens, victory will decide if you are rebels or humanity's benefactors, and your strength of character will decide that victory.
Citizens, to betray the cause of the people and our own conscience, to hand over the nation to the chaos that the slow pace of such a trial would cause, that is the only danger we have to fear. It is time to break through that deadly obstacle that for so long has stopped us at the very beginning of our path. Then we will march together toward our common goal of public bliss. Then the hateful passions that too often roar in this shrine of liberty will yield to the love of the public good and to the holy emulation of this nation's friends. Then all the plots of the enemies of public order will be confounded. But it is that strange conviction, which at first we could hardly have dared imagine, but which we then suspected, and which was finally openly suggested that shows how far we still are from this goal. For me, it was at that moment that I saw all my fears and suspicions confirmed.
At first we seemed troubled by the consequences that a series of delays in the progress of this case might bring. Now we risk rendering it interminable. We feared the unrest that each moment of delay might bring, and here we are, guaranteeing the upheaval of the Republic. What does it matter to us that a dastardly plot is being hidden under a veil of caution, or even under the pretext of respect for the People's sovereignty? Such was the art of all tyrants who disguised themselves under the mask of patriotism, and who have, until now, destroyed liberty and caused of all our problems. These are not artificial rantings, but rather the results that must be weighed.
Yes, I say openly that I no longer see the trial of the tyrant as anything other than a means for anarchy to bring us back to despotism. Citizens, I call on you to bear witness. Suppose that from the first moment when the question of judging the last Louis was raised, when the National Convention was convened expressly to judge him, when you left your departments enflamed with the love of liberty, filled with that noble enthusiasm which was inspired by the recent votes of confidence of a magnanimous people and which no foreign influence had changed . . . or even more, suppose that from the very first moment when the question of opening this case arose, someone had said to you: "Do you think that you will be finished with the trial of the tyrant in a week, in two weeks, in three months? You are mistaken. It will not even be you who will pronounce his sentence or who will finally judge him. I propose that you return this case to the twenty or thirty thousand sections that divide France so that they may each give their opinion on this matter. And suppose you adopted this proposal." You would have laughed at the self-confidence of the man who made such a motion. You would have rejected such a motion as incendiary, designed to kindle civil war. Dare I say it? We are assured that the mood has changed. For many among us, this has been due to the influence of a plague-ridden atmosphere, where the simplest and most natural of ideas are often stifled by the most dangerous of sophisms. . . .
I admit that today it is no longer a question of absolving Louis for 10 August; the day when monarchy was abolished is still too close. It is a question of adjourning the end of his trial at a time when foreign powers threaten to descend upon us, and to deal with him carefully about the possibility of civil war. Today, we do not want to declare him inviolable, but only make sure that he remains unpunished. It is not a question of returning him to the throne, but rather wait to see what happens. Today, Louis still has the advantage over the defenders of liberty in that they are pursued with more vigor than is he. No one can doubt that greater attention is being paid to slandering the defenders of liberty, and at a greater cost, than in July 1791. And to be sure, the Jacobins were not more disparaged in the Constituent Assembly then than they are now. Then, we were seditious. Today, we are the agitators and the anarchists. Then, Lafayette and his accomplices neglected to have us murdered. We have to hope for the same clemency from his successors. These great friends of peace, these illustrious defenders of the law, have since been declared traitors. But we have gained nothing from that because their old friends, even several members of the then majority, are here to avenge them by persecuting us. But there is something that no one has mentioned and that will nevertheless arouse your curiosity. After a preliminary lampoon which was distributed to all members as usual, the speaker who proposed and elaborated the scheme of taking Louis's case to the court of primary assemblies with such eloquence and feeling, sprinkling his speech with the usual rantings against patriotism, is precisely the same man who, in the Constituent Assembly, lent his voice to the ruling cabal to defend the doctrine of absolute inviolability. It was also he who banished us for having dared to defend the principles of Liberty. . . . In a word, and it must be said, it is the same man who, two days after the massacre on the Champ de Mars, dared to propose a decree which would have established a commission to judge, as quickly as possible and without appeal, the patriots who had escaped the assassins' swords. Since then, I do not know if the ardent friends of Liberty, who are still pressing today for the condemnation of Louis, have become monarchists. But I strongly doubt that the men of whom I speak have changed their principles. It has been well-demonstrated that with only slightly different circumstances, the same passions and vices are driving us, almost irresistibly, toward the same end. Then, plotting gave us an ephemeral and perverted constitution. Today, plotting prevents us from writing a new one, and leads us toward the dissolution of the State. . . .
What is sure is that whatever the result of this fatal measure, it has to be to the advantage of their own particular views. To result in civil war, the resolution need not even be totally completed. They are counting on the unrest that this stormy and endless deliberation will stir in us. Those who do not wish to see Louis fall beneath the sword of justice would perhaps not be upset to see him sacrificed to a popular uprising, and will do everything they can to bring it about. . . .
Yes, there is no doubt a scheme to bring down the Convention and perhaps to use this interminable affair as an excuse to dissolve it. This scheme is not found among the people who energetically call for the principles of Liberty, nor among those who have sacrificed everything for it. It is not found among the majority of the National Convention who seek goodness and truth. It is not even found among those who are nothing more than the plotters' dupes, and the blind instruments of foreign passions. This scheme exists among twenty or so rascals who hold the reins, who remain silent about this nation's greatest concerns and who, above all, abstain from pronouncing on the question of the last king. It is their silent and pernicious activities which are the cause of all the ills that trouble us, and are readying all the evils that await us.
How can we escape this abyss if not by returning to our principles and to the source of our problems? What kind of peace can exist between the oppressor and his oppressed? What kind of harmony can reign where not even the right to vote is respected? Any such violation of freedom is an attack on the nation. A representative of the people does not allow himself to be stripped of the right to defend the interests of the people, and only by taking his life can some force take this right from him.
Already, to drag out the dissension and control the deliberations, some conceived the idea of dividing the assembly into majority and minority, a new way to insult and silence those who were designated as the latter. I recognize neither majority nor minority here. The majority is composed of good citizens, and is not permanent since it belongs to no party. It is renewed during every open deliberation since it belongs to the common cause and to eternal reason. And when the Assembly recognizes an error, the fruit of surprise, haste, and intrigue (which occasionally happens), then the minority becomes the majority. The general will is not formed in secret meetings or around ministerial tables. Everywhere and always, the minority has the right to make the voice of truth heard, or what it perceives as such. On this earth, virtue is always in the minority.
Without virtue, would the earth not be peopled by tyrants and slaves? Hampden and Sidney were of the minority, for they died on the scaffold. Critiases, Anituses, Caesars, Claudiuses, were all of the majority, but Socrates belonged to the minority, for he swallowed the hemlock. Cato was of the minority, for he ripped out his bowels. I know many men here who, if need be, will serve liberty as Sidney did. . . . This thought alone must send shivers up the spine of the cowardly plotters who wish to mislead or corrupt the majority. Until then, I ask that at least the tyrant take priority. Let us unite to save the nation, and let our deliberations at last assume a character more worthy of us and of the cause which we defend. Let us at least banish the deplorable incidents which do us dishonor. Let us not spend more time in self-persecution than would be needed to judge Louis, and let us learn the source of our problems. Everything seems to conspire against public happiness. The nature of our debates stirs up and embitters public opinion, and that opinion has a terrible effect on us. The mistrust of the representatives seems to grow with the alarm of the citizens. A proposal which we ought to hear with more composure, irritates us. Daily malice exaggerates, imagines, or creates stories designed to strengthen prejudice, and the smallest of causes can lead us to the most terrible of results. The mere expression of the publics' feeling, although sometimes too animated and which should be easy to control, becomes the pretext for the most dangerous measures and for propositions which are the most prejudicial to our principles.
People, spare us at least this kind of disgrace. Save your applause for the day when we have passed one law that is of use to humanity. Do you not see that you give them pretexts to slander the sacred cause which we defend? Rather than violate these strict rules, avoid the spectacle of our debates. Remember the ribbon which your hand recently held as an insurmountable barrier around the fatal dwelling of our tyrant, then still on the throne. Remember that order has been maintained thus far without bayonets, by the virtue of the people alone. Far from your view, we will not struggle any less for it. It is now up to us alone to defend your cause. When the last of your defenders has perished, avenge them if you wish, and see to liberty's victory.
Citizens, whoever you are, watch over the Temple [where the King is being held]. If necessary; arrest treacherous malice, even patriotism that has been mislead, and confound the plots of our enemies. Fateful place! Was it not enough that the tyrant's despotism weighed so long on this immortal city? Must his very safekeeping be a new calamity for it? Is this trial to be eternal only to perpetuate the means of slandering those people who removed him from the throne?
I have proven that the proposal to submit Louis's case to the primary assemblies aimed at civil war. If I am not allowed to help save my country, I would like at least to be acknowledged, at this moment, for the attempts I have made to warn of the calamities that threaten it. I ask that the National Convention declare Louis guilty and deserving of death.
M. J. Mavidal and M. E. Laurent, eds., Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860, première série (1787 à 1799), 1st ed., 82 vols. (Paris: 1862–96), 56:17–23.