King Louis XVI was born on August 23, 1754 in Versailles, France. With the death of his father in 1765, Louis became the new heir to the throne of France. He ascended to the throne five years later in 1770 at the age of 20. In an attempt to solidify the new treaty between their two countries, Louis married Marie Antoinette, the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, on May 16, 1770. Louis was the King in name and in power, but did not support this authority with his character, being more interested in hunting and his personal hobbies than his kingship. Louis did not have any interest in the idea of enlightened despotism, which caused his courtiers to view him as slow-witted and unintelligent. These, however, were false assumptions. Moreover, it was his inexperience at leadership which often allowed these courtier’s opinions to direct his ruling, his ignorance of public opinion and his denial at the spiralling events of the revolution which proved to be his downfall, poignantly seen from his diary entry on the day the Bastille was seized by revolutionaries, when he wrote: “Rien” – nothing happened. Despite this, he was honest and well-intentioned.
Louis’s wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, was extremely unpopular among the common folk of France as the representative of the hated Austrian alliance. Also, Marie Antoinette became, in the French commoners’ eyes, the primary symbol of the French monarchy’s extravagance and excess, carrying on an indulgent lifestyle as the country was declaring bankruptcy. However, Marie Antoinette, like Louis, was raised in an isolated environment and had no comprehension of a lifestyle outside the aristocracy. The image that was portrayed of the King and Queen to the public eye was not of positive attitude amongst the dissatisfied people of France.
Historians consider the start of the Revolution to be the day that Louis XVI gave in to the demands of the National Assembly and forced the Estates General to join with them. However there were many other landmarks on the timeline between the birth and death of Louis XVI that are as much at fault for the French Revolution as the merging of the two governments. The times prior were becoming extremely difficult, and France was becoming a worn-out, desperate country suffocating from finances and other communal issues. There were numerous causes for why the revolution took place, such as the great division in society and specific events, and Louis XVI plays a role as the authority figure failing to maintain the centralisation of power and not completely capable of leading a country through drastic change. Thus, Louis XVI becomes a vulnerable king who receives a substantial amount of blame for the revolution. The French revolution was an event which was ready for creation, and nothing was going to terminate its destiny.
The first signs which revealed a crisis to be uprising were the financial situations which France was confronted with during the 1780s. There were three main reasons for bankruptcy to take place in France, one which directly involved Louis XVI and caused repugnance to be felt by the public. The constant wars and ruinous loss of most of the French Empire made continuous borrowing a necessity, and along with it came an enormous debt problem, much of which was left by Louis’s grandfather, Louis XV, but was furthered by Louis XVI’s decision to support the American revolutionary war. The main situation which directs at Louis XVI’s flaws was that the French court alone was accounting for one twelfth of the whole revenue of the government, which allowed them to live in luxury, while the government and French citizens continued to slip into financial crises. Louis XVI is a major part to why the government was continuing to subside into bankruptcy, and he was seen as a poor role model of high status.
When Louis first ascended the throne, his chief financial officer was Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. He introduced a series of reforms to attempt to diminish the astounding debt that France had accumulated. At the time, more than half of the country’s budget was dedicated to paying off this debt. However, the reforms were rejected by the Parlements as they included a tax that the nobility would be forced to pay. They felt that by instating these taxes, some of their power would also be taken from them. When the reforms failed, Louis bent to the will of the Parlements and dismissed Turgot, which was his first big mistake. Turgot had many ideas for reforming the financial status of France, one of which was lessening the laws around guilds, thus enabling increased industrial production.
The financial problems were not caused by the wars alone – the taxing system in France was a debacle. Most of the taxing was done by private businessmen around the country. They would collect the taxes, and pay themselves from the principal and the interest on the money they collected. Whatever was left would be passed on to the government. As a result, the wealthy prospered and the poor suffered. The natural progression of industry continued, and prices began to inflate. By 1789, more than eighty percent of all household income went directly to buying bread alone while unemployment rate was over fifty percent.
On May 5, 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates General for the first time in over one hundred and fifty years. Almost immediately, it became apparent that the 1614 arrangement would not sit well with its present members. Although Louis XVI granted the Third Estate greater numerical representation, the Parlement of Paris stepped in and invoked an old rule mandating that each estate receive one vote, regardless of size. As a result, though the Third Estate was vastly larger than the First and Second estates of the clergy and nobility, each estate had the same representation: one vote. Louis XVI could be commentated on his good intentions in light of this event. However, the Third Estate felt that the king had taken too much time to come to a decision and that the nobility of France was attempting to control the Estates General. In a way if it weren’t for Louis making his decision to give more votes to
the 3rd estate, there would be no upheaval from the 1st and 2nd estates. On the other hand the revolt of the 3rd estate would affect him. He was stuck in the middle with no way of compromise. Things got worse when the third estate segregated. The Third Estate itself varied greatly in socio-economic status: some members were peasants and labourers, whereas others had the occupations, wealth, and lifestyles of nobility. These disparities between members of the Third Estate made it difficult for the wealthy members to relate to the peasants with whom they were grouped. Because of these rifts, the Estates General, though organized to reach a peaceful solution, remained in a long-lasting inside feud. It was only through the efforts of men such as Sieyès that the members of the Third Estate finally realized that fighting among them was fruitless and that if they took advantage of the estate’s massive size, they would be a force that could not be ignored. Had Louis not taken so much time to consider their request, the events that followed immediately after may not have occurred.
When the Estates General met again in May of 1789, the entire Third Estate walked out. A few members of the First Estate joined them and they declared themselves to be the National Assembly and the only legitimate government of France on June 17, 1789.
“They were fired by ideas ultimately derived from Rousseau, ideas about social contract and rights, and no person more eloquently defined the spirit of the National Assembly than the clergyman Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès, who declared that the Third Estate was everything, had been treated as nothing, and wanted only to be something. The rallying point was Rousseau’s(7) idea that the members of a nation are the nation itself; this is what legitimated the claims of the new National Assembly.”(8)
The newly formed National Assembly began meeting in a local tennis court where, on June 20, they made a alliance not to disband until they had created a new French Constitution. This is known as the appropriately named “Tennis Court Oath.” They saw government as “a creation of the people; when the social contract had been broken, then the people had a right to revoke that contract and set up a new government.”(9) On June 27, Louis gave into the National Assembly and commanded the Estates General to join with them. Again, Louis showed that he had no fortitude when it came to politics. Instead of telling them that they had to disband and obey him or be punished, as was his right as an absolute monarch, he allowed them to rebel.
At this time, The electors of Paris, who were afraid of both the king and the peasants and were beginning to become violent out of desperation, decided to take matters into their own hands. They , who refused. When the crowd grew larger, he ordered his guards to open fire on the citizens. Ninety-eight people were killed, and out of revenge, the crowd swarmed the Bastille, releasing all seven prisoners, and decapitated the Governor.
After the fall of the Bastille, the people of France began to fear a counter-revolution by the monarch or the aristocracy. By the end of June, the peasants had begun to panic and set fire to aristocratic houses, monasteries, and public record houses. This time period became known as ‘The Great Fear’. This inspired the National Assembly to abolish serfdom, aristocratic exemption from taxing and eliminate all class distinction in France in a period known as ‘August Days’. On August 26, the National Assembly created the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
“The Declaration began by stating, ‘Nature has made all men free and equal,’ that ‘the government exists for the benefit of those who are governed, not those who govern.’ … that government must ‘guarantee… rights such as personal liberty, property, security, the protection of honour and life, free expression of thought and resistance to oppression.’”(12)
Five weeks later in June 1789, the National Assembly began to draw up another document that declared France to be a constitutional monarchy. The country would be run by the Legislative Assembly, which would be made up of representatives elected by Electors, who in turn were elected by ‘active’ citizens(13). King Louis XVI himself would have no real power in legislation. He would be what is known as a “figurehead monarch.” Louis, however, couldn’t grasp the concept of a society where a king’s power is not absolute. Had he been able to accept his new position, he may have been able to stop the events of the next few years.
News of the French Revolution had spread all across Europe and it was getting quite a reaction. Most Europeans were repulsed by the revolution and sympathised with the monarch and his family. It was soon clear that the French Revolution posed a threat to the surrounding countries, and the French revolutionaries were encouraging it. Many other monarchs across Europe were ready to come to the aid of Louis and Marie, including Marie’s own brother, Leopold II of Austria. In June, Marie Antoinette convinced her husband to attempt an escape to Austria where they could get help and protection from her brother. The citizens and revolutionaries took this as a very bad sign. They began to believe even more strongly that the King was against everything they stood for. They believed that he was trying to abandon the country and that it was his fault that other countries were against the revolution, so they gave chase. The couple was caught at the border near Varennes and forced to return to the Paris where they became prisoners of their own country. But on August 27, 1791 Austria and Prussia declared war on the country and vowed to restore the monarchy and in 1792, Britain joined the war.
At this time, the Assembly was controlled by a group called the Girondists who claimed that the war was a direct threat to national security. They declared war on April 20, 1792. By August, the Austria-Prussian forces had crossed the French border and were on a direct course to Paris. The population was convinced that the king was behind the invasion so they attacked the royal palace. Louis and his family fled to the Legislative Assembly for asylum, but only hours later, radicals seized the government of Paris and declared it to be a Commune. They then persuaded the Assembly to turn the king and his family over to them for punishment.
From 1971 to 1973, two more groups had the opportunity to rule France. They were the Jacobins and the Sans-Culottes(15). The Jacobins were slightly more radical than the Girondists and they created the Convention – a new form of government where the members were elected and there was absolutely no monarchy. They began to fight back against the Austria-Prussian troops and successfully forced them back. As time went on the Sans-Culottes began to gain more power. They decided that to do away with a monarchical society you needed to start at the root of the problem – and kill the monarch. In December 1792 the Convention put Louis XVI on trial. The Girondists and Jacobins struggled to save his life but the Convention voted to execute him. So, on January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded using the guillotine – the very same machine that he helped to perfect.
The French Revolution was an event that threatened the stability of European society. The ideals and beliefs of the revolutionaries began to spread throughout the rest of Europe giving other peasants ideas of change. When Louis XVI didn’t respond to the demands of change in a timely and appropriate manner, the people began to take it into their own hands. Had Louis worked with the people instead of fighting against them, the revolution may never have happened in such a violent way and he may have even survived the revolution. However, no matter how Louis may have reacted, the people were getting restless and change was imminent.
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