The People as a Natural Disaster: Redemptive Violence in Jacobin Political Thought
by Kevin Duong, Bard College
The trial and execution of Louis XVI served as a founding act of French republican democracy. It was also a scene of irregular justice: no legal warrants or procedural precedents existed for bringing a king to justice before the law. This essay describes how Jacobins crafted a new language of popular agency to overcome that obstacle—the language of redemptive violence. Although redemptive violence had roots in prerevolutionary notions of penal justice and social cohesion, its philosophical ambitions were revolutionary and modern. It assigned the task of transformative social regeneration, not to God or kings, but to the people and their catastrophic agency. Analyzing this language of redemptive popular violence illuminates how republican democracy weaponized a distinctive ideology of extralegal violence at its origins. It also helps explain redemptive violence’s enduring appeal during and after the French Revolution.