The Capetian dynasty, which had ruled France since 987, was overthrown on the night of 9-10 August, 1792. The deposed king, Louis XVI, had escaped with his family to safety; with the monarchy gone, the French still had a monarch on their hands. There was little question that he should be tried for treason. The question was how. Under the 1791 Constitution, the king had been granted inviolability. How do you try a chief executive when that executive, by definition, cannot be tried?
The answer, it turned out, was straightforward. There was a higher law, respected by all peoples at all times, that allowed the Convention to prosecute the king: this was the law of nature. The “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” had served earlier revolutionaries well. But there was more to natural right (as this body of law was known) than political freedom. Indeed, it also provided the definition of an exceptional criminal—the enemy of the human race, or hostis humani generis—who, having violated the laws of nature, must be destroyed. The French deputies jumped through this loophole to try, and ultimately convict, the king.
At the time, the most radical deputies in the Convention (the “Montagnards”) were in favor of abolishing the death penalty. The execution of the king was a “cruel exception” to this rule, Robespierre opined. In a matter of months, however, these same deputies extended this exception to any counter-revolutionary, invoking the same arguments as they had against the king. This book shows how natural right provided the legal and moral authorization for the Terror, but also points to the strange republican ideal cherished by the Montagnard leaders: the dream of founding a state based entirely on nature.
Dan Edelstein, author of The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution, is an assistant professor of French at Stanford University. He was raised in Geneva, Switzerland, where he attended university before returning to the United States for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He works primarily on eighteenth-century French literature, politics, and philosophy, and more generally on questions of political mythology. His book on the genealogy of the Enlightenment will be published by the University of Chicago Press in fall 2010.
IMAGE: Depiction of the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August, 10, 1792, Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, c 1793