French lawyer Maximilien Robespierre became involved in politics when he was elected to the Estates-General in 1789. In 1790 he became a leader of the Jacobins, a radical group that played a dominant role in the French Revolution (1789-1799). When King Louis XVI was overthrown in August 1792, Robespierre called for a republic to replace the monarchy. Robespierre spoke before the National Convention on December 3, declaring the king a traitor to his people and demanding his death.
“Louis Must Perish Because Our Country Must Live!”
What is the conduct prescribed by sound policy to cement the republic? It is to engrave deeply into all hearts a contempt for royalty, and to strike terror into the partisans of the King. To place his crime before the world as a problem, his cause as the object of the most imposing discussion that ever existed, to place an immeasurable space between the memory of what he was and the title of a citizen, is the very way to make him most dangerous to liberty. Louis XVI was king, and the republic is established. The question is solved by this single fact. Louis is dethroned by his crimes, he conspired against the republic; either he is condemned or the republic is not acquitted. To propose the trial of Louis XVI is to question the Revolution. If he may be tried, he may be acquitted; if he may be acquitted, he may be innocent. But, if he be innocent, what becomes of the Revolution? If he be innocent, what are we but his calumniators? The coalition is just; his imprisonment is a crime; all the patriots are guilty; and the great cause which for so many centuries has been debated between crime and virtue, between liberty and tyranny, is finally decided in favour of crime and despotism!
Citizens, beware! you are misled by false notions. The majestic movements of a great people, the sublime impulses of virtue present themselves as the eruption of a volcano, and as the overthrow of political society. When a nation is forced to recur to the right of insurrection, it returns to its original state. How can the tyrant appeal to the social compact? He has destroyed it! What laws replace it? Those of nature: the people's safety. The right to punish the tyrant or to dethrone him is the same thing. Insurrection is the trial of the tyrant—his sentence is his fall from power; his punishment is exacted by the liberty of the people. The people dart their thunderbolts, that is, their sentence; they do not condemn kings, they suppress them—thrust them back again into nothingness. In what republic was the right of punishing a tyrant ever deemed a question? Was [6th-century-bc Roman king] Tarquin tried? What would have been said in Rome if any one had undertaken his defence? Yet we demand advocates for Louis! They hope to gain the cause; otherwise we are only acting an absurd farce in the face of Europe. And we dare to talk of a republic! Ah! we are so pitiful for oppressors because we are pitiless towards the oppressed!
Two months since, and who would have imagined there could be a question here of the inviolability of kings? Yet today a member of the National Convention, Citizen [Jérỗme] Pétion, brings the question before you as though it were one for serious deliberation! O crime! O shame! The tribune of the French people has echoed the panegyric of Louis XVI. Louis combats us from the depths of his prison, and you ask if he be guilty, and if he may be treated as an enemy. Will you allow the Constitution to be invoked in his favour? If so, the Constitution condemns you; it forbids you to overturn it. Go, then, to the feet of the tyrant and implore his pardon and clemency.
But there is another difficulty—to what punishment shall we condemn him? The punishment of death is too cruel, says one. No, says another, life is more cruel still, and we must condemn him to live. Advocates, is it from pity or from cruelty you wish to annul the punishment of crimes? For myself I abhor the penalty of death; I neither love nor hate Louis; I hate nothing but his crimes. I demanded the abolition of capital punishment in the Constituent Assembly, and it is not my fault if the first principles of reason have appeared moral and judicial heresies. But you who never thought this mercy should be exercised in favour of those whose offences are pardonable, by what fatality are you reminded of your humanity to plead the cause of the greatest of criminals? You ask an exception from the punishment of death for him who alone could render it legitimate! A dethroned king in the very heart of a republic not yet cemented! A king whose very name draws foreign wars on the nation! Neither prison nor exile can make his an innocent existence. It is with regret I pronounce the fatal truth! Louis must perish rather than a hundred thousand virtuous citizens! Louis must perish because our country must live!
Source: The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches. MacArthur, Brian, ed. Penguin Books, 1996.