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  • The Law of the Terror
  • Carla Hesse (bio)

Qu’enfin le règne des lois puisse s’établir sur un sol purgé de toutes les émanations cadavéreuses de la tyrannie.

[May the reign of law establish itself at last in a land purged of all the cadaverous emanations of tyranny.]

Deputy Phillipeaux (1793) 1

I. Introduction


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Figure 1.

Code Pénal (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1791). Archives Nationales, Paris, France.

No document more vividly testifies to the political crisis that French revolutionaries faced following the death of the King than the copy of the Penal Code of 1791 that was officially registered by the clerk of the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal in March of 1793 (figure 1). Printed after its promulgation on October 6, 1791, the Code bore a title vignette comprised of a series of five royal cameos depicting the fleur de lys and the profile of Louis XVI. Beneath, the opening invocation read:

Law. Penal Code. Given in Paris, 6 October 1791. [Louis, by the grace of God, and by the constitutional laws of the State, King of the French says. To all present and to come, let it be known:] The National Assembly has decreed, and We wish and order that which follows . . . [End Page 702]

In the act of registration the anonymous law clerk of 1793 took his pen and with a series of axial strokes carefully crossed out the royal images in the cameos. He then struck out the lines that read: “Louis by the grace of God, and by the constitutional laws of the state, King of France says. To all present and to come, let it be known.” The use of axial strokes in this act of iconoclasm was perhaps not indifferent: if the King was no longer to be the center of sovereignty, the notion of a centered sovereign could be symbolically depicted as the point of intersection established by his radial lines. Indeed, this was the very image of democratic sovereignty that the abbé Sieyès had proposed in his pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état in 1789: a sphere with an infinite number of radial lines emanating from the center, each end point representing a citizen, equidistant from the sovereign center of the law. 2


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Figure 2.

Frontispiece to the Compte rendu aux sans-culottes de la république française, par la très-haute, très-puissante et très expéditive dame Guillotine, dame du Carrousel, de la place de le Révolution, de la Grève, et autres lieux . . . par le citoyen Tisset, coopérateur du succès de la république française (Paris: Denné, Petit et Tourbon, an II [1793/94]). Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France.

This law clerk’s re-centering of sovereignty under the sign of negation nonetheless left the question of the identity of the sovereign hanging. Indeed, his corrected text left the locution “We wish and order . . .” without grammatical referent. Between the fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792 and the promulgation of the Constitution of the Year III (1795), revolutionary penal law functioned without a fixed referent of the sovereign, under the sign of negation inscribed by the humble pen of a clerk. And even more interesting, no new Penal Code was promulgated until after the declaration of the Napoleonic empire in 1804. This “headless” corpus of criminal law was allegorized (unconsciously, I think) in the peculiar frontispiece to a pro-revolutionary book detailing the good work of the guillotine in the Year II (figure 2). 3 Under the symbol of justice, it depicts a strange scene of execution in which there are seven decapitated bodies, but only six heads lying beside them. The engraving puts a central ambiguity of the law of the Terror into play: Are we confronted with a missing head, or rather, an extra body? Is this engraving the depiction of a lack of the sovereign head or of an excess of bodily fragments? [End Page 704]

How did revolutionary law redefine treason and conspiracy after the fall of the monarchy? In what terms could harm to the polity...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6598
Print ISSN
0026-7910
Pages
pp. 702-718
Launched on MUSE
1999-09-01
Open Access
No
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