Biography of King Louis XVI, Deposed in the French Revolution

Louis XVI

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Louis XVI (born Louis-Auguste; August 23, 1754–January 21, 1793) was the French king whose reign collapsed because of the French Revolution. His failure to grasp the situation and to compromise, coupled with his requests for foreign intervention, were factors that led to his execution by guillotine and the creation of the new republic.

Fast Facts: King Louis XVI of France

  • Known For: King of France at the time of the French Revolution, executed by guillotine
  • Also Known As: Louis-Auguste, Citizen Louis Capet
  • Born: August 23, 1754 in Versailles, France
  • Parents: Louis, Dauphin of France and Maria Josepha of Saxony
  • Died: January 21, 1793 in Paris, France
  • Spouse: Marie Antoinette
  • Children: Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, Louis Joseph Xavier François, Louis Charles, Sophie Hélène Béatrice de France
  • Notable Quote: "I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France."

Early Life

Louis-Auguste, the future Louis XVI, was born on August 23, 1754. His father, Louis, Dauphin of France, was the heir to the French throne. Louis-Auguste was the oldest son born to his father to survive childhood; when his father died in 1765, he became the new heir to the throne.

Louis-Auguste was a keen student of language and history. He excelled at technical subjects and was deeply interested in geography, but historians are unsure about his level of intelligence.

Marriage to Marie Antoinette

When his mother died in 1767, the now-orphaned Louis grew close to his grandfather, the reigning king. At age 15, in 1770, he married 14-year-old Marie Antoinette, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. For uncertain reasons (possibly related to Louis’ psychology and ignorance, rather than a physical ailment), the couple did not consummate the marriage for many years.

Marie Antoinette received much of the public's blame for the lack of children in the early years of their marriage. Historians postulate that Louis' initial coolness to Marie Antoinette was due to his fear that she might have too much influence over him—as her family actually desired.

Early Reign

When Louis XV died in 1774, Louis succeeded him as Louis XVI, aged 19. He was aloof and reserved, but possessed a genuine interest in the affairs of his kingdom, both internal and external. He was obsessed with lists and figures, comfortable when hunting, but timid and awkward everywhere else (he watched people coming and going from Versailles through a telescope). He was an expert on the French navy and a devotee of mechanics and engineering, although this may be overemphasized by historians.

Louis had studied English history and politics and was determined to learn from accounts of Charles I, the English king who was beheaded by his parliament. Louis restored the position of the French parlements (provincial courts) which Louis XV had tried to reduce.

Louis XVI did so because he believed it was what the people wanted, and partly because the pro-parlementary faction in his government worked hard to convince him it was his idea. This earned him public popularity but obstructed royal power. Some historians deem this restoration as one factor that helped lead to the French Revolution.

Weak Ruling From the Start

Louis was unable to unite his court. Indeed, Louis’ aversion to ceremony and to maintaining a dialogue with nobles he disliked meant that court took on a lesser role and many nobles ceased to attend. In this way, Louis undermined his own position among the aristocracy. He turned his natural reserve and tendency to be silent into an act of state, simply refusing to reply to people with whom he disagreed.

Louis saw himself as a reforming monarch but took little lead. He allowed the attempted reforms of Turgot at the start and promoted the outsider Jacques Necker to be finance minister, but he consistently failed to either take a strong role in government or to appoint someone like a prime minister to take one. The result was a regime riven by factions and lacking a clear direction.

War and Calonne

Louis approved support of the American revolutionaries against Britain in the American Revolutionary War. He was eager to weaken Britain, France's longtime enemy, and to restore French confidence in their military. Louis was determined not to use the war as a way of grabbing new territory for France. However, by refraining this way, France accrued ever greater debts, which dangerously destabilized the country.

Louis turned to Charles de Calonne to help reform France's fiscal system and save France from bankruptcy. The king had to call an Assembly of Notables in order to force through these fiscal measures and other major reforms, because the traditional cornerstone of Ancien Regime politics, the relation between the king and the parlement, had collapsed.

Open to Reform

Louis was prepared to turn France into a constitutional monarchy, and in order to do so, because the Assembly of Notables proved to be unwilling, Louis called an Estates-General. The historian John Hardman has argued that the rejection of Calonne’s reforms, which Louis had given personal backing, led to the king's nervous breakdown, from which he never had time to recover.

Hardman argues that the crisis changed the king’s personality, leaving him sentimental, weepy, distant, and depressed. Indeed, Louis had so closely supported Calonne that when the Notables, and seemingly France, rejected the reforms and forced him to dismiss his minister, Louis was damaged both politically and personally.

Louis XVI and the Early Revolution

The gathering of the Estates General soon turned revolutionary. At first, there was little desire to abolish the monarchy. Louis might have remained in charge of a newly created constitutional monarchy if he had been able to chart a clear path through the momentous events. But he was not a king with clear, decisive vision. Instead, he was muddled, distant, uncompromising, and his habitual silence left his character and actions open to all interpretations.

When his eldest son fell ill and died, Louis divorced himself from what was happening at key moments. Louis was torn this way and that by court factions. He tended to think long about issues. When proposals were finally put forward to the Estates, it had already formed into a National Assembly. Louis initially called the Assembly “a phase.” Louis then misjudged and disappointed the radicalized Estates, proving inconsistent in his vision, and arguably too late with any response.

Attempts at Reform

Despite this, Louis was able to publicly accept developments like the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" and his public support increased when it appeared he would allow himself to be recast in a new role. There is no proof Louis ever intended to overthrow the National Assembly by force of arms—because he was afraid of civil war. He initially refused to flee and gather forces.

Louis believed France needed a constitutional monarchy in which he had an equal say in government. He disliked having no say in the creation of legislation and he was only given a suppressive veto that would undermine him every time he used it.

Forced Back to Paris

As the revolution progressed, Louis remained opposed to many of the changes desired by the deputies, privately believing that the revolution would run its course and the status quo would return. As general frustration with Louis grew, he was forced to move to Paris, where he was effectively imprisoned.

The position of the monarchy was further eroded and Louis began to hope for a settlement that would mimic the English system. But he was horrified by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which offended his religious beliefs.

Flight to Vergennes and Collapse of the Monarchy

Louis then made what would prove to be a major mistake: He attempted to flee to safety and gather forces to protect his family. He had no intention, at this moment or ever, of starting a civil war, nor of bringing back the Ancien Regime. He wanted a constitutional monarchy. Leaving in disguise on June 21, 1791, he was caught at Varennes and brought back to Paris.

His reputation was damaged. The flight itself did not destroy the monarchy: Sections of the government tried to portray Louis as the victim of kidnapping to protect the future settlement. His flight did, however, polarize people’s views. When fleeing, Louis left behind a declaration. This declaration is often understood as damaging him, but it, in fact, gave constructive criticism on aspects of the revolutionary government that deputies tried to work into the new constitution before being blocked.

Recreating France

Louis was now forced to accept a constitution neither he, nor few other people, really believed in. Louis resolved to execute the constitution literally, in order to make other people aware of its need for reform. But others simply saw the need for a republic and the deputies who supported a constitutional monarchy suffered.

Louis also used his veto—and in doing so walked into a trap set by deputies who wished to damage the king by making him veto. There were more escape plans, but Louis feared being usurped, either by his brother or a general and refused to take part.

In April 1792, the French newly elected Legislative Assembly declared a pre-emptive war against Austria (which was suspected of forming anti-revolutionary alliances with French expatriates). Louis was now seen increasingly by his own public as an enemy. The king grew even more silent and depressed, being forced into more vetoes before the Paris crowd were pushed into triggering the declaration of a French Republic. Louis and his family were arrested and imprisoned.

Execution

Louis’ safety came further under threat when secret papers were discovered hidden in the Tuileries palace where Louis had been staying. The papers were used by enemies to claim the former king had engaged in counter-revolutionary activity. Louis was put on trial. He had hoped to avoid one, fearing that it would prevent the return of a French monarchy for a long time.

He was found guilty—the only, inevitable result—and narrowly condemned to death. He was executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793, but not before ordering his son to pardon those responsible if he had the chance.

Legacy

Louis XVI is generally portrayed as the fat, slow, silent monarch who oversaw the collapse of absolute monarchy. The reality of his reign is generally lost to public memory, including the fact that he tried to reform France to a degree few would ever have imagined before the Estates General was called.

An argument among historians persists as to what responsibility Louis holds for the events of the revolution, or whether he happened to preside over France at a moment when much greater forces conspired to provoke massive change. Most agree that both were factors: The time was ripe and Louis' faults certainly hastened the revolution.

The ideology of absolute rule was collapsing in France, but at the same time it was Louis who consciously entered into the American Revolutionary War, incurring debt, and it was Louis whose indecision and mangled attempts at governing alienated the Third Estate deputies and provoked the first creation of the National Assembly.

Sources

  • EyeWitness to History. "The Execution of Louis XVI, 1793." www.eyewitnesstohistory.com. 1999.
  • Hardman, John. Louis XVI: The Silent King. Bloomsbury Academic, 2000. 
  • Hardman, John. The Life of Louis XVI. Yale University Press, 2016