This Week in History

Louis XVI Guillotined: January 21, 1793

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See sample chapters, here. For ordering information on Light to the Nations II and our other texts, please click here.

Louis XVI in the Tower of the Temple

It was Malesherbes who first reported the Convention’s decision to the king. Louis received the news with great calm. Only Malesherbes’ distress seemed to affect him. He sought to comfort the old man, who had once served him as a minister of state; but, said the king, “For myself, death does not frighten me; I have the greatest confidence in the mercy of God.”

Later that Sunday, January 20, an official delegation of the Convention—led by the minister of justice, Dominique Joseph Garat—formally informed the king that he was to die. They, too, were impressed by the king’s demeanor as he received the news; he seemed calm and at peace with his fate. Quel homme! Quelle résignation! Quel courage! (“What a man! What resignation! What courage!”) said Minister Garat of the king.

Imprisonment and suffering had seemed to transform Louis XVI. The dull, weakwilled, and imprudent man had now truly become a king. He commanded himself. Moreover, he gave no thought to himself but to the comfort of his loved ones who shared his durance. Over the weeks and months of their imprisonment, the royal family had suffered insult and many small cruelties from their guards. The king was never allowed to speak to anyone, not even to his wife, without the presence of a guard. When the royal family walked in the gardens of the Temple fortress, they endured the mockery of their captors. Yet Louis’s response was to forgive. “I pardon very willingly those who have been my guards for the ill treatment and cruelty which they have thought fit to use towards me,” he wrote in his will on Christmas Day. Continue reading

This Week in History

Louis XVI Condemned: January 17, 1793

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See sample chapters, here. For ordering information on Light to the Nations II and our other texts, please click here.

A French revolutionary infantry flag. The words on the flag read (from upper left corner, clockwise): King, Nation, Law, Liberty

The Jacobins in the Convention feared Louis XVI. As long as the king was alive, he could be the focal point around which a counterrevolution could form. This threat had to be gotten rid of, and the revolutionaries of the Mountain were determined to get rid of it.

Accusations against the king were easy to find. Chiefly, he was charged with conspiring with foreign enemies against the republic. Agents of the Convention examined the king’s papers in the palace of the Tuileries and discovered evidence that he had been corresponding with the Prussians and the Austrians. On November 3, 1792, the Jacobins presented their allegations of the king’s “treason” to the Convention deputies. The Mountain pushed for a trial, but the Girondins resisted them. Did the Convention have the legal authority to try a man who had formerly been head of state, asked the Girondin deputies? But such bland, legal arguments could not triumph over the desire for revenge. Popular anger, stirred up by the Jacobins, won the day. The trial of Louis XVI was set for early December 1792.

On December 10, a committee presented its indictment of the king before the Convention. The next day, Louis himself and his three lawyers appeared before the Convention. For the next two weeks, the deputies debated; Girondin members sought to save the king, and the Jacobins pushed for his condemnation. Continue reading

This Week in History

Wilson Issues “Fourteen Points” for Peace: January 8, 1918

This week we remember on its centenary an important American intervention in World War I. The following text comes from our high school book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America. To see sample chapters of this book, go here. For ordering information on Lands of Hope and Promise and our other texts, please click here. 

Woodrow Wilson

A little over four months after he rejected Pope Benedict’s peace proposal, Woodrow Wilson offered one of his own. In a speech he delivered to Congress, January 8, 1918, on war aims and peace terms, Wilson reminded Congress that what “we demand in this war . . . is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safer to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression.”

The “Fourteen Points” for peace Wilson delivered to Congress were very similar to Pope Benedict’s seven points, which the president had dismissed as unrealistic. Benedict’s second point, calling for reciprocal decrease of armaments, was essentially Wilson’s fourth point. The pope’s third point was Wilson’s 14th point, where the president called for “a general association of nations . . . formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike” — a “league of nations,” in other words. Wilson’s second point was Benedict’s fourth, calling for freedom and community of the seas. Wilson’s points five, eight and, in part, 11, were more detailed versions of Benedict’s point six, while Benedict’s seventh point (in which the pope proposed an examination of territorial claims), was, in substance, found in Wilson’s points nine, ten, part of 11, and in points 12 and 13. Continue reading

This Week in History

Rasputin Found Dead: January 1, 1918

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See sample chapters, here. For ordering information on Light to the Nations II and our other texts, please click here.

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin in 1915

On January 1, 1917, the mangled corpse of the peasant, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, was found in the frozen waters of the Neva River, in Petrograd— the Russian city that until September 1914 had been called St. Petersburg. News of the finding spread quickly through the capital and cheered the hearts of all who heard it. Many Russians believed Rasputin had been the cause of the empire’s sufferings and defeats during the war.

Rasputin already had the reputation of a holy man when he first came to St. Petersburg in 1903. Clad in monk’s robes and with a Russian monk’s long hair and beard, Rasputin was dirty, unkempt, and he stank. He was said, however, to be a healer. His dark, intense eyes seemed to hypnotize many on whom they fixed their gaze. He was first introduced to the family of Tsar Nikolai II and Tsarina Aleksandra in 1905. In 1908, Aleksandra summoned him to the royal palace when the Tsarevich Alexei had become desperately sick. The child suffered from hemophilia and was bleeding internally. With his seemingly mysterious powers, Rasputin calmed the boy. The bleeding stopped. As Rasputin left the palace, he warned the royal couple that in his hands lay their son’s life and the very future of the Romanov dynasty. Continue reading

This Week in History

Uprising in Russia: December 26, 1825

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See sample chapters, here. For ordering information on Light to the Nations II and our other texts, please click here.

Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich Romanov, about 1821

Since Aleksandr I had no legitimate children, his throne would normally have passed to his next eldest brother. This brother was the Grand Duke Konstantin (Constantine) Pavlovich Romanov. Konstantin, however, did not want the throne. He would have to divorce his Polish wife to be tsar, because she was Catholic; and he was unwilling to do this. In 1822, Konstantin had signed a document in which he renounced his right to the throne. The heir to the throne was thus the next oldest brother, the 29-year old Grand Duke Nikolai.

Like the tsars before him, Nikolai was formally to take power by issuing a proclamation and receiving the oath of allegiance from his troops. He set December 26, 1825, as the date for this event. Yet, unknown to him, prominent men and secret Liberal societies throughout Russia had also been making preparations—not to welcome the new tsar, but to overthrow the existing Russian government and replace it with a constitutional monarchy.

The conspirators had spread a rumor among the troops in St. Petersburg and in other Russian cities that Konstantin had not really resigned and that Nikolai was thus nothing but a usurper. The troops were told that when Nikolai asked for their allegiance, they were to refuse it and instead cry out, “Long live Konstantin and the Constitution!” Many of the soldiers, it is said, were a little confused by the command. They did not know what a constitution was, and they assumed it was the name of the grand duke’s wife. Continue reading