Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution

By Sara E. Melzer; Leslie W. Rabine | Go to book overview

2

Representing the Body Politic: The Paradox of Gender in the Graphic Politics of the French Revolution

JOAN B. LANDES

Even under optimal circumstances, the trial and execution of a king as occurred in France in 1793 would not be a trivial matter. To the king's supporters, the revolutionaries were guilty of the most awful form of parricide and a capital crime against the whole community. The Convention's action was predicated upon a striking inversion: The king's once sacred body had to become first a criminal body; one condemned according to a new, higher morality of crimes against the public's liberty and the state's security. 1 Any judgment implies both a judge and the law. Indeed, in this unusual proceeding, a new (popular) sovereign, its representatives, and its legal code were in evidence. In this sovereign's name the regicides acted. Standing behind, empowering, authorizing, and legitimating the decisive vote of the Convention was a sovereign power whose claim to authority was no less absolute than that of either God or King, the twin pillars of Old Regime France: In the name of the people and its liberty, the nation and its security, justice was being done. In the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the most uncompromising eighteenth- century theorist of popular sovereignty: "sovereignty is inalienable, it is indivisible." Indeed, like its predecessor, this new sovereign power is "entirely absolute, entirely sacred, and entirely inviolable." 2

According to the doctrine of kingship by which Louis XVI and his ancestors ruled France, the king possessed two bodies: A material body subject to corruption and decay, and a spiritual body symbolic of the life of the community. 3 It was natural and expected that a king should die. But the trial and execution of this king exceeded nature and ancient law. It struck at the heart of the central metaphor of Old Regime France. By decapitating the sacred, corporate body of the ancien régime, necessarily its "head," the fraternal band of revolutionary brothers who wanted to start anew, to create a new community predicated on equality and virtue, risked the continued life of the body politic. 4 Yet, in the political imaginary of the new nation, in the language of the social contract from which the new republic derived its legitimacy, the central trope of the body politic lived on. Even earlier, Rousseau had refused to cede the old metaphor to his

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