Louis XVI (France) (1754–1793; Ruled 1774–1792)

views updated May 18 2018

LOUIS XVI (FRANCE) (17541793; ruled 17741792)

LOUIS XVI (FRANCE) (17541793; ruled 17741792), king of France. Louis-Auguste, duc de Berry was the second surviving son of the heir to the throne (dauphin) Louis-Ferdinand and his second wife, Marie-Thérèse-Antoinette-Raphaëlle, daughter of Augustus III, elector of Saxony and king of Poland. Louis's elder brother, the duc de Bourgogne, died in 1761, so when their father died in 1765, he became eldest male heir to his grandfather, Louis XV. Once thought a dull child, recent research has shown that he was a well-taught, reflective, and intelligent student, particularly interested in the sciences (mathematics, physics, geography) and history. He was raised and remained a convinced, but intellectually curious, Catholic; he had a taste for empirical facts, and brevity in expressing them, which, together with natural taciturnity and the secretiveness he inherited from his grandfather, often made him frustrating to work with. His political principles, which became settled in his adolescence, combined the moral politics of François de Salignac de La Mothe Fénelon with a firm belief in his traditional rights as an absolute king. In 1770, he married Marie-Antoinette, youngest daughter of Maria Theresa, the ruler of Austria, but it was not until 1776 that the marriage was consummated; Derek Beales has conclusively demonstrated that the delay was caused not by a physical impediment but rather by sexual ignorance, finally rectified by advice from the queen's brother, Emperor Joseph II, who subsequently received heartfelt written thanks from the royal pair.

Louis's marriage had been designed to cement the alliance with Austria that had been concluded in 1756 and was supported by the dominant party at Louis XV's court, led by the duke of Choiseul and Madame de Pompadour. The young dauphin approved Louis XV's decision to drop Choiseul, as well as his reassertion of royal authority against the parlements in 1771, so when the old king died in 1774, it was thought that the new ruler would continue on this course. But, worried by his own youth and inexperience, he chose as close advisor and informal prime minister Jean Frédéric Phélypeaux, count of Maurepas, a veteran minister who had been disgraced in 1749 but was close to the royal family. Maurepas wanted to rebuild confidence in the monarchy, whose image had suffered from the coup of 17701771. He persuaded Louis to recall the old parlements, impose restrictions on their rights of judicial review of legislation through remonstrance, and choose a ministry that included the fashionable liberals Chrétien de Malesherbes and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. The new ministry proved politically inept (for example, in their insistence on bringing back free trade in foodstuffs during the crisis year 17741775). Maurepas and Louis replaced them with a team that included, by late 1776, the Genevan banker and reputed financial wizard Jacques Necker as financial counsellor and the veteran diplomat Charles Gravier, the count of Vergennes, as foreign secretary.

Louis XVI, along with a large body of public opinion, enthusiastically supported France's alliance with the rebellious American colonists against Britain; he and Vergennes managed to keep the other European powers out of the conflict and avoid engagement on Austria's side in Joseph II's various adventures. The outcome in 1783 was diplomatic and military success: freedom of the seas and the restoration of France's position in Europe, although trade with the new republic did not develop as quickly as expected. Necker had hoped to finance the war on life-annuity loans serviced by economies and recovered revenue as earlier state loans were amortised, but the war went on too long, taxes had to be increased, and the usual flood of postwar claims on the government created a potential crisis. In the meantime, the political scene had changed. During the reign, two principal factions fought for control within the ministrythe remains of Choiseul's friends, grouped around Queen Marie-Antoinette and the Austrian alliance, and the socalled "king's party," which hankered after the methods of 17701774 and distrusted Austria. Maurepas successfully played them off against each other, but he died in 1781. Necker himself resigned that year.

Henceforward, Louis was more directly involved in politics, generally coming down on the side of the "king's party," represented in the ministry by Vergennes and Charles Alexandre de Calonne. Louis agreed with these two on the need for root-and-branch reform of the tax system to eliminate privilege and establish fiscal uniformity; with them he arranged to call an Assembly of Notables in 1787, to create a tide of public opinion to force these and other reforms through the Parlement of Paris. But Vergennes died just before the Notables met, leaving Louis and Calonne alone. They did not manage the assembly well, and Calonne, whose reforms threatened them and their like through the country, got caught in a stockmarket scandal, and had to be dismissed; he was replaced by Étienne Charles Loménie de Brienne, a partisan of Necker. John Hardman has argued that this constituted a turning point in Louis's life, leading to prolonged bouts of depression, cynicism, and dependency that dogged his behavior thereafter. Brienne attempted to ram reforms somewhat similar to Calonne's through the notables and, when that failed, through the Parlement of Paris; finally he tried to rule without them. But Louis was forced by a credit crisis to drop Brienne and bring back Necker in 1788, and, in 1789, to call the Estates-General.

Though willing to admit constitutional reform, Louis and Necker proved indecisive over the method of representation in the Estates, thus setting the stage for the successful refusal by the deputies of the Third Estate, when they met in Versailles in May 1789, to meet except as a National Assembly with one vote for each deputy. Louis's instincts told him to go along with the Third Estate in the ensuing crisis, but, pressured by his advisors, he tried to slow or reverse the process of change. He put his wide-ranging reform plans, too late, to the Séance Royale (Royal Session) on 23 June as if nothing had happened. He consented to bring up troops to maintain order in Paris, but dismissed Necker, thus provoking the Parisian revolt in which the Bastille was stormed on 14 July; and he refused to withdraw from Versailles before the Parisian women and the national guard captured the royal family and forced them to return to Paris. Confined to the Tuileries, the king became in effect a prisoner and politically little more than a figurehead; he now secretly sent a message to his cousin Charles IV of Spain, disavowing any future actions he might take as being under duress. When matters settled down, however, he appears to have been willing to make an accommodation with the Revolution as long as the monarchy could play an active role in initiating legislation; Louis rightly refused to be a martyr to the diehard policies of the reactionary nobility, Marie-Antoinette, and his émigré brothers, the counts of Provençe and Artois. That was the nub of his program in the Royal Session, and also of the manifesto he left behind when he fled eastward and was captured at Varennes with his family on 2025 June 1791. The king seems to have viewed his flight not as a plan to invade France with the help of foreign troops, but as a demonstration of force to make the Constituent Assembly renegotiate his place in the monarchy. Forced to return, Louis made a deal with the assembly, who were frightened to dismiss him, fearing to open the way to a democratic republic. Basically, Louis intended to bide his time until the contradictions inherent in the new regime brought about its downfall, a policy of passive resistance well-suited to his character. He sanctioned the declaration of war against Austria and Prussia in April 1792, the better to demonstrate these contradictions. This strategy was cleverthere was much royalist support in the country and even in Parisbut he never thought through how to translate it into constitutional change. In the meantime, popular militants in Paris and radical volunteers from the provincial National Guards stormed the Tuileries palace in a coup d'état on 10 August 1792, driving the royal family to take refuge in the Legislative Assembly. As in the crises of 1789, Louis once again drew back from using his troops in a way that would cause major bloodshed. The rump of the assembly, from which the moderate deputies had fled, convoked a new Constitutional Convention; the Convention proclaimed a democratic Republic on 22 September, put the king on trial, and found him guilty of "conspiracy against public freedom and attacks on general state security." Louis died bravely on 21 January 1793.

See also American Independence, War of (17751783) ; BourbonDynasty(France);Estates-General, French ; France ; Louis XV (France) ; Marie-Antoinette ; Revolutions, Age of .


Primary Sources

Bombelles, Marc, marquis de. Journal. Geneva, 1977.

Louis XVI. Louis XVI and the comte de Vergennes: Correspondence, 17741787. Edited and with an introduction by John Hardman and Munro Price. Oxford, 1998.

Maria Theresa. Marie-Antoinette: Correspondance secrète entre Marie-Thérèse et le comte de Mercy-Argenteau. Edited by Alfred d'Arneth. Paris, 18741875.

Mercy-Argenteau, Florimond de. Correspondance secrète du comte de Mercy-Argenteau avec l'empereur Joseph II et le prince de Kaunitz. Edited by Alfred d'Arneth and Jules Flammermont. Paris, 18891891.

Véri, Joseph Alphonse de. Journal de l'abbédeVéri. Paris, 1933.

Secondary Sources

Beales, Derek. Joseph II. Vol. 1, In the Shadow of Maria Theresa. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Girault de Coursac, Pierette. L'éducation d'un roi: Louis XVI. Paris, 1972.

Hardman, John. French Politics from the Accession of Louis XVI to the Bastille. London, 1995.

. Louis XVI. New Haven, 1993.

Jordan, David P. The King's Trial: The French Revolution vs. Louis XVI. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979.

Lever, Evelyne. Louis XVI. Paris, 1985.

Lewis-Beck, M. S., A. Hildreth, and A. Spitzer. "Was There a Girondist Faction in the National Convention, 17921793?" French Historical Studies 15, no. 3 (1988): 519536. Analyzes voting in Louis XVI's trial.

Murphy, Orville T. Charles Gravier Comte de Vergennes, French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution, 17191787. Albany, N.Y., 1982.

Price, Munro. Preserving the Monarchy: The Comte de Vergennes, 17741787. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

. The Road from Versailles: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the Fall of the French Monarchy. New York, 2002.

T. J. A. Le Goff

Louis XVI

views updated May 23 2018

Louis XVI

Born August 23, 1754
Versailles Palace, France
Died January 21, 1792
Paris, France

King of France during the American and French revolutions

France's King Louis XVI started life in the majesty of the French royal court and ended it with a horrible death among the jeering crowds of Paris. History has often portrayed Louis XVI as simple-minded and cowardly. But some historians con tend that Louis XVI was a dynamic, dedicated leader who tried to act in the interests of the French people during very turbu lent times, and was an unfortunate victim of circumstances.

Louis-Auguste (pronounced lew-EE oh-GOOST), who later became King Louis XVI, was born in 1754 to the French royal family known as Bourbon. Their ancestors had ruled France since 897. Louis-Auguste's father was the son of King

Louis XV. His mother, Marie-Joseph, was the second wife of Louis XV and a daughter of the King of Poland. Louis-Auguste had three brothers and two sisters who lived beyond infancy. Louis-Auguste's older brother, the self-confident young Duc de Bourgogne (pronounced DOOK duh-ber-GOYNE), was his parents' favorite. When the ten-year-old heir to the throne got ill and died of a respiratory disease in the spring of 1761, the family was devastated.

Louis-Auguste, next in line to become king, was a fair-skinned, rather awkward boy with blue eyes and heavy eyebrows. He was encouraged by his tutors to be reserved and restrained, because those were considered good traits for a future king. All his life, Louis-Auguste enjoyed riding and hunting, and worked for hours making keys and locks and drawing maps. He does not seem to have been overly proud, despite his royal upbringing. In his biography, Louis and Antoinette, Vincent Cronin called Louis-Auguste "that rare creature, a prince with a poor opinion of himself."

Louis-Auguste's parents died of respiratory disease in the mid-1760s. On April 27, 1774, after his grandfather's death from smallpox, nineteen-year-old Louis-Auguste became the King of France. He was henceforth known as Louis XVI.

Marriage and children

In 1770, then sixteen-year-old Louis Auguste married the Archduchess Marie-Antoinette (pronounced an-twah-NET), youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa of Bohemia and Hungary. (The Holy Roman Empire dissolved in 1806.) The slim, blue-eyed, blonde Marie-Antoinette, a bride at sixteen, was mostly interested in fashion, the theater, and court gossip. The French people distrusted her devotion to her native land, Austria, and blamed France's financial problems on her free-spending ways.

The couple had three children. They were Marie-Therese, born in 1778; Louis-Joseph, a much-loved oldest son who was born in 1781 and died in 1789; and Louis-Charles, who was born in 1785.

Common people get angry over finances

A French king was called an absolute monarch, but his powers were really rather limited. He directed and paid for adventures in foreign lands and declared war if necessary to preserve the country. He made decisions together with a State Council. His ability to impose taxes was limited by the group of thirteen courts known as the parlements (pronounced PARL-mahns). The parlements were made up of nobles, who opposed any of Louis's efforts to take away their tax-free status. As a result, the tax burden fell on the people who were least able to pay.

When Louis XVI became king, France's treasury was empty and the country was hugely in debt. Heavy taxes on the common people had caused widespread misery. Gradually the peasants (the common people) became angry with the ruling class, the cause of their unhappiness.

Taxation problems, reforms

Between 1774 and 1789, Louis XVI had several finance directors who tried to manage the treasury of France. Each in his turn proposed various financial reforms, but finally concluded that France's privileged classes must be taxed in order to prevent the country from going bankrupt. The privileged classes included members of the royal court, the nobles, members of parlements, and Roman Catholic clergymen. Louis XVI repeatedly bowed to pressure from those people and rejected any talk of taxing them. After the king rejected his proposals, each finance minister was forced to resign.

During this period of revolving finance directors, Louis XVI approved limited reform measures. For example, he approved the taxing of rich people for road repairs, rather than forcing the common people to repair them for free in their spare time. The reforms led to a brief period of popularity for Louis. But the common people continued to simmer with resentment. They lived lives of grinding poverty, and they resented being forced to send their sons to serve in the military.

Meeting of the Estates General proposed

Chaos erupted in France in 1788. Bad weather had ruined the harvest and people were starving. The peasants were forced to pay higher and higher taxes and make large payments to the Roman Catholic Church. Punishment for crimes was very harsh. For example, if a man were caught killing a gamebird to feed his starving family, he was executed.

In 1788 some people who were interested in solving France's financial crisis pressured Louis XVI to call a meeting of the Estates General to discuss the country's problems. France had three social classes, known as estates. The First Estate was the clergyman of the Roman Catholic Church, the Second Estate consisted of noblemen, and the Third Estate was made up of the common people. A meeting of all three classes had not taken place for 175 years.

The king at first refused to call such a meeting, but public pressure forced him to do so. He ordered the meeting for May 1789. The man who was then finance director, Brienne (pronounced bree-EN), publicly asked all Frenchmen to send him suggestions on how best to conduct the Estates General meeting. This kind of free speech had never been allowed in France before. Instead of offering useful suggestions, though, people took the opportunity to insult Brienne and the royal family. The king was angry about this and dismissed Brienne in August 1788. But it was too late to stop France's peasants from expressing their displeasure with their lives.

National Assembly formed

In May 1789 the Estates General met at the Palace of Versailles (pronounced ver-SIGH), which was located in the town of Versailles, twelve miles west of Paris. It was a huge, magnificent structure where the French royal family lived in great luxury, surrounded by ten thousand relatives, nobleman, and an enormous staff of servants. There the Third Estate (commoners) formed itself into a National Assembly.

In June 1789 the National Assembly vowed to stay together until it produced a new constitution and saw it firmly established in France. But Louis XVI resisted the assembly's demands for political independence, equal rights, and freedom for all French citizens. On June 23 he threatened to dismiss the Assembly at once if it did not take back its claims to national power.

The assembly then rose up and declared that the king no longer could dismiss them, because they now held the power in France. They vowed to leave "only at the point of a bayonet." The king responded by ordering troops to force the assembly to disband. But Louis's troops refused to attack their countrymen. A few days later the king, fearing bloodshed, backed down and ordered all three estates to work together to draw up a new constitution.

Storming of the Bastille

On July 11, 1789, Louis XVI dismissed finance minister Jacques Neckar, who had urged him to make many reforms that would help the peasants. By that time, the king had surrounded Paris and the Palace of Versailles with 25,000 Swiss and German mercenaries (pronounced MER-sa-naireez; soldiers for hire) to protect him in case of an uprising.

The uprising began early on July 14, 1789, when Parisian peasants armed themselves with pitchforks and shovels to defend against a rumored assault on them by French and foreign soldiers. Soon realizing that these weapons were inadequate, the revolutionaries set out to find guns of their own. They seized 30,000 muskets from an old military hospital, but they still needed gunpowder. Word got out that a large quantity of gunpowder was being stored at the Bastille (pronounced bah-STEEL) in Paris.

The Bastille was Paris's ancient prison, a gray stone structure with nine-foot-thick walls and high gun towers that stood as a symbol of France's oppressive government. For centuries, people had been sent to serve time in the prison, whether or not they were convicted of any crimes. On July 14, an angry crowd forced its way into the Bastille, demanding gunpowder. Arguments between the people and Bastille officials continued throughout the day, and tensions mounted.

Finally, in the afternoon, soldiers inside the Bastille fired their cannons and hundreds of peasants were killed or wounded. The crowd went wild. Hungry for revenge, they rampaged through the Bastille, destroying whatever they could find and killing some of the soldiers. The building was torn apart, stone by stone. Today, French people throughout the world commemorate the July 14 anniversary of the storming of the Bastille as Bastille Day, a celebration of French independence.

Changes in the government

After this explosion of violence, many nobles and members of the royal family escaped from France. But the king was trapped at the Palace of Versailles and could not escape. On August 27, the National Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The document declared that "men are born and remain free and equal in rights." It announced the aims of the French Revolution and called on other countries to throw off their chains and demand liberty for themselves.

The assembly declared that King Louis must share his power with them and with the Parlements. No longer could he dictate laws and have them put in place unchallenged. Now laws could be made only through agreement with the other branches of government. Likewise, laws could not be enacted by the assembly without the king's approval.

Louis XVI claimed that he shared the assembly's belief in a republican form of government, but few people were convinced of his sincerity. (A republic is a government with a chief of state who is not a monarch. Supreme power rests in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote.)

King forced back to Paris

On October 15, 1789, a group of rowdy citizens from Paris broke into the Palace of Versailles to bring their complaints directly to the king. They were particularly angry about the widespread lack of food. They demanded that Louis XVI return to Paris, where he could keep himself informed about their plight and show his dedication to changing the situation. Louis XVI and his family made the journey to the dark old palace of the Tuileries (pronounced TWEE-ler-eez) in Paris. The Assembly moved there with him.

A period of peace

After the king's move to Paris, his subjects' hostility abated. The fall harvest turned out to be better than expected, and people felt empowered by what they had accomplished in demolishing the Bastille and bringing their king back to Paris. For a while they calmed down and peace descended on France.

The National Assembly prepared a constitution that called for power to be divided between the king and the Assembly. It contained a system of checks and balances, like that of the U.S. Constitution, to make sure one department of government did not exercise too much power over the others. The assembly introduced other measures such as freedom of speech and open trade. It also demanded that members of the clergy take oaths of loyalty to the Revolution.

During the years 1789 to 1791, the Assembly made adjustments to the new constitution. As for Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, they were humiliated at their forced move to Paris. They felt like prisoners. They hated the gloomy Tuileries Palace, where commoners often pressed up against the windows to observe the royal family's activities. Marie-Antoinette urged Louis to go to her native Austria and bring back an army to destroy the revolutionaries and take back his monarchy.

King fails to escape France, signs constitution

In 1791, the king and queen tried to flee the country but were caught and forced to return to Paris. With his capture, the king's hopes of reestablishing his authority were dashed.

The members of the National Assembly publicly forgave the king for his attempt at escape. They had worked hard at coming up with a constitution, and that document said that they had to share power with the king. Some assembly members feared that without a king at their head, commoners might get out of hand and destroy the entire social system of France.

On September 14, 1791, the king signed the new constitution, and swore his allegiance to it. It appeared that the revolution was over and France could look forward to a bright future. But worse times were in store.

Legislative Assembly forms, war is declared

On October 1, 1791, the National Assembly was replaced by the Legislative Assembly, made up mostly of people hostile to the king. The Legislative Assembly faced many problems, including food shortages. When faced with problems at home, governments throughout history have often gone to war to divert the attention of their people from the problems. Members of the Legislative Assembly turned to this tactic. They warned French citizens of the very real possibility of France being invaded by Austria and Prussia.

King Louis favored a war too. He hoped it would result in his being restored to his throne. In April 1792, Louis XVI exercised one of his few remaining powers and declared war against Austria and Prussia.

King found guilty and executed

The war went badly for France, and the king was blamed. In August 1792, Louis XVI and his family were permanently confined in the Temple, a dark, damp, twelfth-century fortress that had long served as a prison.

In September 1792, the French government declared France a republic and abolished the monarchy. King Louis XVI and his wife were now considered commoners and were charged with various crimes. Imprisonment was hard on Louis, who became depressed, stopped exercising, and grew quite fat.

In December 1792, Louis XVI was placed on trial by the government. He was ordered to defend himself on charges of repeated acts of treason against the Republic of France. On January 20, 1793, the king was found guilty and was sentenced to death.

On the following day, to the jeers of noisy crowds, King Louis XVI was guillotined (pronounced GILL-uh-teened; put to death by having his head cut off) in a public square in Paris. His head was displayed in a basket and his remains were carted off, thrown into a pit, and dissolved with a powerful chemical called quicklime. Years later a chapel was erected in the king's memory at the site of his final resting-place.

Fate of the king's family

Marie-Antoinette met her death on the guillotine on October 16, 1793. The couple's eight-year-old son, Louis-Charles, was kept in solitary confinement in a dark cell, where he developed a disease and died in June 1795. His sister, Marie-Therese, spent two years in prison but was then released in December 1795, in exchange for an Austrian prisoner. She later married a royal cousin.

Biographer Vincent Cronin recognized the noble aspects of the doomed king's character. Cronin wrote, Louis XVI "brought to [his reign as king] the principle of justice that had characterized the French monarchy at its best, and also something of his own: a respect for other people's opinions, symbolized in [a journey he once took through the French countryside] when the crowds shouted, 'Long live the King!' and Louis called back 'Long live my people!'"

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M. "Louis XVI." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, p. 660.

Bourgoin, Suzanne M. and Paula K. Byers, eds. "Louis XVI." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 1998, vol. 9, pp. 534-35.

Cronin, Vincent. Louis and Antoinette. New York: William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1975.

Fay, Bernard. Louis XVI. Translated by Patrick O'Brien. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1966.

Hardman, John. Louis XVI. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Purcell, L. Edward. Who Was Who in the American Revolution. New York: Facts on File, 1993, pp. 300-01.

Louis XVI and the American Revolution

When Louis XVI became King of France in 1774, the American Revolution (1775–83) was in its very early stages. As a king himself, Louis did not feel sympathetic toward the American rebels, who were rising up against their lawful king. So why did he agree to help the Americans? As long as the American cause seemed doomed to failure, he did not want to. For a time he refused to see Benjamin Franklin see entry, who had been sent to France to request its help. But in late 1777, Louis changed his mind.

Louis had a number of reasons for agreeing to help the Americans in their conflict with France's longtime enemy. One reason was economic. He knew that England wanted France's most valuable overseas possessions, some islands in the West Indies (an area in the Caribbean Sea between the United States and South America). A war with England over these possessions might be avoided if France helped American revolutionaries to achieve a quick victory. Another reason Louis agreed to help was pressure from French soldiers, who were eager to go to war against Great Britain to avenge earlier war losses and to gain glory for themselves.

For the first three years of the war, King Louis pretended to be neutral (noninvolved) while secretly helping the Americans. He okayed a large loan from his government and persuaded Spain to advance money as well. The money was used to supply the Americans with 200 cannon, 25,000 muskets, 200,000 pounds of gunpowder, 20 brass mortars (a type of cannon), and clothing and tents for 25,000 men.

When the Americans scored a stunning victory over the British at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777, Louis was finally moved to act openly. He now feared that if England lost to the Americans, the two countries might band together and attack France. In February 1778, France signed the French Alliance with Benjamin Franklin. Without this alliance, it is doubtful that America could have won the Revolutionary War.

France became engaged in a costly worldwide naval war with England, capturing from her islands in the West Indies and Africa. In April 1779, the king sent 5,500 French troops to help the American rebels. In October 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis, head of British troops in America, surrendered his 7,000 officers and men to the Americans, bringing an end to the fighting.

Louis XVI had gone to war mainly for the benefit of France, but many Americans hailed him as a selfless champion of freedom. Benjamin Franklin himself praised the king. In a letter to French Foreign Minister Vergennes in 1783, the American patriot wrote, "May I beg the favour of you, sir, to express respectfully for me to his Majesty, the deep sense I have of all the inestimable benefits his goodness has conferr'd on my country." It is ironic that the ideas of liberty championed by the American revolutionaries were taken up by French revolutionaries, which led to the loss of King Louis's head.

Louis XVI

views updated May 14 2018


LOUIS XVI (1754–1793), ruled as king of France, 1774–1792.

Louis-Auguste, duc de Berry, the third son of the dauphin, Louis (1729–1765), and Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, was born at Versailles on 23 August 1754. He never expected to be king, but the high childhood mortality of the age that had bedeviled the Bourbon successions since the reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) intervened. His two older brothers died before him, and his father died young in 1765. The following year the unexpected heir apparent, at the age of twelve, began his diary. It reveals a limited intelligence, a mind little exercised, and a young man ill at ease with the demands of a public, ceremonial life.

The education of the new dauphin was given over to the duc de La Vauguyon, who surrounded his pupil with priests noted for their learning (the Jesuit abbé Soldini and the abbé Nollet). The boy proved a diligent but unimaginative pupil. In 1770, Louis was married by arrangement of Étienne François, duc de Choiseul (1719–1785), who headed the Austrian party at court, to Marie-Antoinette (1755–1793), the daughter of the Austrian Emperor Francis I (r. 1745–1765) and Marie-Thérèse (1717–1780).

The young couple were ill-matched. The Austrian princess had been wretchedly educated, wrote French slowly and with difficulty, and shared none of her husband's interests. Louis-Auguste was pedantic but well-read—his favorite Latin author was Tacitus, obviously not principally appreciated for his anti-imperial ideas—and even taught himself English. His taste ran to practical rather than imaginative or philosophical works. There were only two novels in his library, of which Robinson Crusoe was one. He was passionately interested in locksmithing, and had also had a telescope installed above his workroom at Versailles, where he enjoyed watching the comings and goings in the gardens of the great palace.

His marriage was celebrated in 1770 when Louis was sixteen and his bride fifteen. It was not consummated for seven years. Louis was not impotent, as was his brother the comte de Provence (the future Louis XVIII, r. 1814–1824), but he was unable to ejaculate until—and here there is some murkiness—an operation was performed at the urging of Marie-Antoinette's brother, Joseph. His affliction, in contrast to the libidinous excesses of his grandfather, Louis XV (r. 1715–1774), made the young heir a subject of private ridicule. The couple would eventually have four children. Only Marie-Thérèse Charlotte (called Madame Royale, who became the duchess d'Angoulême) survived the French Revolution.

In 1774, Louis XV died suddenly of smallpox and Louis-Auguste succeeded to the throne, a place where he was never comfortable. The young king made the seventy-four-year-old Count Jean-Frédéric Phelypeaux de Maurepas (1701–1781) his principal advisor. The count, earlier disgraced by Louis XV, now surrounded himself with capable men, most notably the philosophe Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781) and Count Charles Gravier de Vergennes (1719–1797), and tried to shield his master from the poisonous court intrigue. But the reforming promise of the new monarchy soon evaporated and the king was overwhelmed by the accumulated structural ills of the kingdom, the ferocious and destructive factional fighting at court, the cynical legacy of his grandfather, all intensified by bankruptcy caused by the French backing the American rebels in their war for independence.

Despite his intellectual limitations, his indecisiveness, and his timidity that often took refuge in stubbornness, Louis had the good fortune to be served by ministers of talent; but he was incapable of pursuing a consistent policy of needed reform, and perhaps it was too late. The historian Jules Michelet (1798–1874) asserts the monarchy was dead by the final years of Louis XV's reign; certainly Louis XVI was unable to revive it.

The first so-called budget of the kingdom, the Compte rendu prepared by the new finance minister Jacques Necker (1732–1804) in 1781, falsely suggested there was a surplus. But the nation continued to borrow until servicing the growing debt soon surpassed the original sums borrowed. Later that year, Maurepas died and Louis began his personal rule and spent extravagantly on Marie Antoinette—he purchased the château of Saint-Cloud for her in 1784, without consulting his ministers—and drew ever closer to the queen whose mostly harmful influence increased.

By late 1786, it was clear that without some fundamental reform in the tax system the kingdom could not pay its bills. Charles-Alexandre de Calonne (1734–1802), the comptroller general (1783–87), drew up an elaborate and radical proposal that Louis embraced. The king and his comptroller called to Versailles an Assembly of Notables (1787), drawn from the most distinguished nobility and church officials in the land. They were offered concessions in exchange for abandoning their privilege of exemption from the taille, the chief direct tax of the kingdom. The negotiations failed, Louis was depressed, took to more and more hunting and overeating, and increasingly relied on his politically inept wife. He was forced to dismiss Calonne and replace him with his rival, Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne (1727–1794), who called a second Assembly of Notables (1788). This group also rejected the king's proposed reforms and insisted the Estates-General be called. Louis governed briefly by decree and extracted forced loans, but he had no choice but to call the Estates-General, which had not met since 1614.

As the election writs went out, censorship was lifted. France found a direct outlet for its political voice, long stifled. Thousands of pamphlets accompanied the electioneering, and cahiers de doléances, the grievances solicited by the king, were drawn up and submitted to Versailles. When the representatives of the three estates (clergy, nobility, and everyone else) met at Versailles on 5 May 1789, it turned out to be the official beginning of the French Revolution.

On 3 June 1789, Louis's oldest son, the dauphin, died. The king was inconsolable as the first dramatic events of the Revolution unfolded. In his grief and disappointments, he became increasingly dependent upon his wife. He addressed the Estates on 23 June in a séance royale, but seemed distracted as his dry, authoritarian speech was read out. Whatever energy he had, as he assembled troops at Versailles to disperse the National Assembly and perhaps attack Paris—at least this was widely believed in the capital—was quickly exhausted with news of the fall of the Bastille, whose significance he never grasped. The entry in his diary for 14 July was "Rien"—"nothing."

Through the summer the court intrigued until, on 5–6 October 1789, the king was forcibly taken to Paris by women of the city who had trudged through the rain to confront him about soaring bread prices. The Tuileries Palace, unoccupied by a French king since 1680 when Louis XIV moved to Versailles, was hastily cleaned to receive Louis XVI. After much dilatoriness and indecision, he took the advice of his wife that the royal family should flee Paris. (Apparently the epistolary advice of comte de Mirabeau [1749–1791] urging such action was never read by Louis.) Sometime after midnight on 21 June 1791, the king and queen, their two children, and the Marquise de Tourzel (the royal governess) and her daughter left the palace in disguise, carrying false passports, and set out for the eastern frontier. At the town of Varennes, long after their incognito had been exposed, their coach was stopped. The mournful procession back to Paris, which the royal family reentered on 25 June, has been called a coronation in reverse. The king's flight was his betrayal of the Revolution.

Under the new constitution Louis had spurned by fleeing, the king had a suspensive rather than an absolute veto. This he exercised on laws against those who had emigrated and priests who refused to swear an oath to the constitution. On 20 June 1792, a mob penetrated the Tuileries and tried to get him to rescind his vetoes. This proved the dress rehearsal for overthrowing the monarchy on 10 August 1792. Before the attack on the Tuileries began, Louis and his family walked across the gardens to take refuge in the riding academy (the Manège), where the rump of the National Assembly was meeting. On 13 August, the victorious Paris Commune claimed Louis as their prisoner and locked the royal family up in the tower of the Temple. He would leave only to appear at his trial and to go to the guillotine.

The king's trial, to be conducted by the 745 elected members of the new National Assembly (the Constituent Assembly) who had arrived in Paris, began on 13 November 1792. The trial was unprecedented. Louis was the first French king to be held accountable by the nation. More than 400 speeches were delivered and/or published before the voting began on 16 January 1793. There were four separate votes, all taken by roll call. Louis was found unanimously guilty; the Assembly voted not to send the decision to the primary assemblies of the country for ratification; 387 deputies voted for death (the absolute majority was 361); and on 20 January they voted overwhelmingly not to delay execution.

The following day, 21 January, at 10:20 a.m., the king was beheaded in the former Place Louis XV (renamed the Place de la Révolution, now the Place de la Concorde). He was quickly buried in a common grave with other victims of the guillotine.

The supposed royal remains were exhumed by the restored Bourbon monarchy in 1816 and buried in the traditional crypt of French kings, in the Cathedral of St. Denis. The restored monarchy exiled all those they considered regicides and built an Expiatory Chapel in Paris to honor the martyred king. So long as the Bourbons sat on the throne, royalists marked 21 January as a solemn national day of mourning.

See alsoFrench Revolution; Marie-Antoinette.


Furet, François. "Louis XVI." In Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, edited by François Furet and Mona Ozouf, 234–243. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Hardman, John. Louis XVI. New Haven, Conn., 1993.

Jordan, David P. The King's Trial: The French Revolution vs. Louis XVI. Berkeley, Calif., 1979.

Vovelle, Michel. The Fall of the French Monarchy, 1787–1792. Translated by Susan Burke. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.

David P. Jordan

Louis XVI

views updated May 18 2018

Louis XVI

Louis XVI (1754-1793) was king of France from 1774 to 1792. He failed to understand the revolutionary forces at work in France and thus contributed to the fall of the monarchy.

Louis XVI had the virtues of an admirable private individual but few of those required for a successful ruler, particularly during a turbulent period. He was a devoted father and husband, uncommon virtues for royalty in his day (in 1770 he married Marie Antoinette, daughter of Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa). His chief vices were a tendency to overeat and a love of hunting. Although historians often cite with some condescension his skill as a locksmith, Louis was not entirely devoid of intellectual interests, particularly in the area of the sciences and geography. However, although sincerely interested in the well-being of his people, he was indecisive, was easily influenced, and lacked the strength to support reforming ministers against the hostility of the Queen, his family, the court, and the privileged classes whose position was threatened by change.

At the beginning of his reign Louis XVI restored the powers of the Parlement, for long the main obstacle to reform, thus reversing the actions of Louis XV, who had drastically curtailed its authority. However, at the same time he appointed as controller general (actually first minister) A. R. J. Turgot, a friend of the philosophes and advocate of reform. At first Louis supported the attempts of his minister to accomplish such reforms as abolition of the monopoly of the guilds, the royal corvée (required labor on roads and bridges), and the elimination of internal barriers to the circulation of grain. However, he was unable to resist the pressure of those opposed to reform and in 1776 reluctantly dismissed the minister, saying, "You and I, M. Turgot, are the only ones who really love the people."

Turgot was succeeded by the Genevan banker Jacques Necker, who acquired a reputation as a financial genius for his skill in negotiating loans; he financed French aid to the American colonies in their struggle against England without raising taxes. Necker's popularity became even greater when the King yielded to pressure from the court and privileged groups and also dismissed Necker.

After several brief ministries C. A. de Calonne was named controller general in 1783. In 1787, after attempting various expedients, Calonne, like several of his predecessors, concluded that the only solution for the growing deficit was to tax the privileged groups. Once more Louis XVI failed to support his minister, who had to resign. By 1788, however, as it became clear that France was on the verge of bankruptcy, pressure mounted on Louis XVI to convoke the Estates General, which had not met for 175 years, to deal with the fiscal crisis. In the summer of 1788 the King yielded to the popular outcry, and the following year (May 1789) the Estates General met at Versailles, opening the era of the French Revolution.

French Revolution

From the outset Louis XVI's actions and failure to act pushed the French people (as of May 1789 almost all accepted the institution of monarchy) along the path to revolution. Before the meeting of the Estates General he had agreed at the urging of Necker, who had been recalled to office, to allow the Third Estate representation equal to that of the other two Estates combined. The King was vague, however, on whether each Estate would meet and vote separately, in which case the privileged Estates could outvote the Third, or whether the vote would be by "head." On June 23 the King finally ordered the three Estates to meet separately, but when the Third Estate refused to obey, Louis XVI, characteristically, yielded. Before this the Estates General had adopted the title National Constituent Assembly, sign of its determination to give France a written constitution.

The response of the King, under the influence of reactionary court circles, was to summon troops to Versailles and to dismiss Necker, who had urged cooperation with the Third Estate. This was the immediate cause for the taking of the royal fortress, the Bastille, by the Parisian crowd (July 14).

Such acts as the refusal of the King to approve the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the decrees of Aug. 4-5, 1789, abolishing the remnants of the seigneurial regime, as well as a severe inflation, led to the Revolutionary days of Oct. 5-6, 1789, when a Parisian crowd forced the court to move from Versailles to Paris, where it could be controlled more easily. On June 20-21, 1791, Louis XVI sought to escape from Paris to eastern France, in the hope that with the aid of loyal troops he could return to Paris and reestablish his authority. However, at Varennes the royal party was recognized and forced to return to Paris, where the Revolutionaries had lost all confidence in the monarchy.

In September 1791 the National Assembly adjourned and was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly. By now Louis believed that the only hope for the monarchy was foreign intervention. He anticipated that the French armies, severely weakened by the desertion of royalist officers, would be quickly defeated and that the country would then turn to him to obtain more favorable terms. For reasons of their own some of the Revolutionaries, the Girondists, also wanted war. On April 20, 1792, France declared war on Austria, which was soon joined by Prussia.

From the outbreak of the war, events moved rapidly. Revolutionary France was incensed by the manifesto of the Prussian commander, the Duke of Brunswick, threatening dire punishment on Paris if the royal family were harmed. On Aug. 10, 1792, the crowd forced the Legislative Assembly to suspend the King, who, with the royal family, became prisoner of the Commune of Paris. The National Convention, which succeeded the Legislative Assembly, abolished the monarchy and decided to try "Citizen Capet, " as Louis XVI was now called, for treason. He was found guilty, sentenced to death, and on Jan. 21, 1793, guillotined.

Further Reading

Most biographies of Louis are either partisan or the work of popularizers. Recommended in English is Saul K. Padover, The Life and Death of Louis XVI (1939; new ed. 1963). Bernard Fay, Louis XVI; or The End of a World (1961; trans. 1968), is a royalist account. An old but still useful source is Sophia H. MacLehose, The Last Days of the French Monarchy (1901). For background see G. Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution (1939; trans. 1947), a minor classic by the greatest historian of the Revolution in the 20th century.

Additional Sources

Cronin, Vincent, Louis and Antoinette, New York: Morrow, 1975, 1974.

Hardman, John, Louis XVI, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Jordan, David P., The king's trial: the French Revolution vs. Louis XVI, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Ross, Maurice, Louis XVI, America's forgotten founding father, with a survey of the Franco-American alliance of the Revolutionary period, New York: Vantage Press, 1976.

Webster, Nesta Helen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the Revolution, New York: Gordon Press, 1976, 1938. □

Louis XVI

views updated May 18 2018

Louis XVI (1754–93) King of France (1774–92). Grandson and successor of Louis XVI, he married the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette in 1770. Louis' lack of leadership qualities allowed the parlements (supreme courts) and aristocracy to defeat the efforts of government ministers, such as Jacques Necker, to carry out vital economic reforms. The massive public debt forced Louis to convoke the States-General in order to raise taxation. His indecisiveness on the composition of the States-General led the third (popular) estate to proclaim itself a National Assembly, signalling the start of the French Revolution. The dismissal of Necker and rumours that Louis intended to forcibly suppress the Assembly led to the storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789). Louis was forced to reinstate Necker, but continued to allow the Queen and court to conspire against the revolution. In October 1789, the royal family were confined to the Tuileries Palace. In June 1791, their attempt to flee France failed and Louis was forced to recognize the new constitution. Louis sought support from foreign powers. Early French defeats in the war against Austria and Prussia led to the declaration of a republic. Louis was tried for treason by the Convention and found guilty. He was guillotined on January 21, 1793.

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