Doubtless, the elimination of the King proved one of the most decisive single moments of the French Revolution. For its supporters it represented liberation; to its detractors, the cruelty and stupidity of the Revolution. The events of the execution intensified the situation. The condemned man took a painful leave from his family. At the Plaza of the Revolution, tens of thousands had gathered to watch the guillotine spill royal blood. According to most observers, Louis appeared calm and met his fate courageously. Although the guillotine had been invented as a means of execution that would cause less suffering, it appeared to many as excessively bloody and inhumane, especially for a man until recently taken to be God's representative in France. The mixed emotions generated by the execution are evident in the many contemporary engravings and prints depicting the event.

Ten months later, Marie Antoinette followed a longer route to the same fate. Under the old regime, while Louis had maintained his popularity, Marie Antoinette had been the subject of many scurrilous attacks. Long before the King lost his allure for the revolutionaries, much criticism had focused on the Queen, a trend that continued during the Revolution. Moreover, the revolutionaries' hostility toward her was not completely unwarranted. First of all, as mother of the heir to the throne, she became by tradition the most obvious choice for regent, to rule until the King reached the age of majority. Moreover, she had demonstrated herself to be allied with the émigré forces by soliciting support from her brother Leopold and from royalists in France and by strongly encouraging the flight to Varennes.

Of course, as the King's reputation and standing sank decisively in 1791–92, so did the Queen's. After his execution in January 1793, she was abandoned and virtually without defenders on either the right, which considered her an insufficiently active defender of the monarchy's interests, or the left, which disliked her involvement in public affairs and her ties to Austria. Cutting attacks in the press focused on her gender, arguing that by exercising unwarranted power she not only threatened the new constitutional order but also seemed to violate what they believed to be the natural differences between men and women on which they thought the new society ought to be based. As an example of her "unnaturalness," the first press accounts and later the public prosecutor accused her of debauching her son, the crown prince. Her critics claimed that such incest was representative of her degenerate influence on the French nation, at just the moment it was awakening from submission to kings and becoming a virile, self-governing republic. Such claims provided strong fodder for the prosecution during her trial in the fall. Without allies in Paris and with the émigrés abroad unwilling to intervene on her behalf, her situation proved hopeless. On 16 October 1793, she was sentenced to death. Like her husband, Marie Antoinette became a martyr for critics of the Revolution, who saw in her trial further proof of the inherent injustice and blood lust that motivated the leaders of the new regime. Her son's death in captivity in 1795 eliminated the most direct heir to the throne.

Yet within a decade, Napoleon would proclaim himself Emperor. Indubitably, his legitimacy rested on a revolutionary foundation, and his power and authority appeared quite different from that of the ancient royal houses such as the Bourbons, the Habsburgs, or the Romanovs. Bonaparte busily made his family monarchical by placing relatives on thrones throughout French-dominated Europe. Clearly, Napoleon thought the idea of a hereditary monarchy was alive, and the French seemed to concur by supporting, or at least acceding to, a succession of kings after Napoleon's ouster. A republican government finally arrived in the 1870s, not so much because a majority of the French had been persuaded that republicanism was preferable, but because no suitable candidate for the monarchy could be agreed upon. The issue of suitability shows that the French had distinct and important ideas about what a king should and should not be, not that they did not want one. This subsequent history and continued appreciation of the monarchy suggests that the downward spiral of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had more to do with the crisis surrounding them and with them as individuals, rather than with the monarchy as an institution within French political culture. Or, perhaps, their deaths were required to reveal to the French how much they wished to center their political system on the existence of a hereditary monarch. Indeed, even now, after more than a century of republican rule, the idea of monarchy, or at least strong individual leadership, holds great appeal within the French political system.

LEAVE TAKING

EXECUTION OF THE KING

SYMBOLIC DECLINE

THE QUEEN UNDER SIEGE

   
 
   

MARIE ANTOINETTE ON TRIAL

EXECUTION OF THE QUEEN

SUPPORTERS OF MARIE ANTOINETTE

 

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