Born in August 1754, the ill-fated Louis XVI became king of France in 1774, on the death of his father, Louis XV. In 1770 he had married Marie Antoinette of Austria, the daughter of Francis I and Maria Theresa.
It was a dynastic marriage, intended to cement the alliance of France and Austria-Hungary, the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. The alliance, known as the diplomatic revolution of 1756, had completely altered the balance of power in Europe, by allying Bourbon France with the Habsburgs of Austria-Hungary, who had been at odds for centuries.
The alliance had been one of the major causes of the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63. When Louis XVI ascended the throne, France was enjoying one of its rare periods of peace in the 18th century.
The time was ripe for a serious reconstruction of the economy. The extreme expenses incurred by the wars of Louis XIV and Louis XV weighed heavily on the depleted treasury, and there was the threat of bankruptcy.
However, events would prove that Louis XVI, unlike Louis XIV, lacked the determination or ruthlessness to carry out the reforms needed to rescue his kingdom. Although given a choice of some of the most astute ministers to ever serve the French monarchy, Louis XVI simply lacked the will to support them against the entrenched opposition that contested their attempts at renewal for France.
Louis’s first financial adviser, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, had already had substantial experience at the provincial level in France as an economist. Turgot’s attempts at reforms almost immediately made enemies among the entrenched interests of France, including the nobility and the bourgeoisie of the provinces.
In 1776 Turgot went ahead with six edicts to radically modernize both France’s economy and society. But he seemed unable to gauge the impact of what he did and brought about negative unintended results. Finally, he made the mistake of refusing favors for those in Queen Marie Antoinette’s immediate circle. Turgot was dismissed in 1776.
The next minister to attempt to salvage the monarchy was Jacques Necker, who had been born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1732, and had been a clerk in a Swiss bank by the age of 15. Necker, keen not to earn the unpopularity of Turgot, pursued a policy of raising money by borrowing instead of increasing taxes.
It was popular with the people, but only increased the indebtedness of the monarchy at a time when Louis XVI was spending large sums of money to support the infant United States in the American Revolution against France’s ancient enemy, England.
Necker’s downfall was his inability to implement effective reforms, after having taken the country further into debt and put almost no caps on spending. Necker was dismissed from duty, only to be brought back in 1788.
When Louis XVI summoned the Estates General to meet in Paris in May 1789, it was the first time this body had convened since 1614, following the assassination of King Henry IV in 1610.
In the years since the last convocation of the Estates General, the bourgeoisie had emerged, ironically in large part due to the need to finance and provide for the wars of the monarchy, as financially the most powerful of the three estates in France. The members of this Third Estate had come to Paris determined to gain the say in French government that they felt they had now earned.
Neither the king nor the two dominant estates, the clergy and the nobility, had any intention of listening to the demands of the bourgeoisie; theirs was a society where those who worked and made money were considered the social inferiors of those who wore the court sword of the nobility.
To the surprise of Louis XVI and the two elevated estates, the Third Estate proved obstinate in asserting its rights. On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly, asserting its belief that it alone spoke for the people of France, not the king or the entrenched members of the clergy or nobility.
Gradually, progressive members of the other two estates swelled the ranks of the National Assembly. It was here that Louis XVI displayed the characteristic indecision which would ultimately cost him his life. He had two clear choices.
The first option was that Jacques Necker had created a plan that would involve compromise with the National Assembly on some key issues, while retaining the king’s royal prerogative on others.
The second choice, more brutal, was simply marching with loyal troops to where the National Assembly met and dismissing it and arresting or shooting those who resisted the royal decree.
When faced with his two options, Louis XVI simply issued an order closing the hall where the Third Estate met. The Third Estate replied with the declaration that they would not depart until France had a constitution. (The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1787.)
Even when Louis XVI met with the National Assembly on June 23, with troops assembled outside, he did nothing to assert his royal will, where Louis XIV would have likely used a bayonet charge to clear out the intransigent assembly.
Louis XVI rapidly lost control of events. On July 9, the National Assembly reconvened as the National Constituent Assembly, with the clear intent of creating a constitution under which all Frenchmen, including the king, would be subject. On July 11 Louis XVI banished Necker, who still had the confidence of the National Constituent Assembly and the people.
Three days later, the Parisians, along with the king’s own French Guards regiment, stormed the symbol of royal power in Paris, the Bastille, and killed its constable, the marquis Bernard de Launay, and placed his head upon a pike.
Some order was maintained when the marquis de Lafayette was placed in command of the French National Guard, which had been created as a rival to the royal army. Yet Lafayette showed none of the decisiveness that had characterized his role in the American Revolution.
The royal family was forcibly removed from the Palace of Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris where the people and the National Guard could better control them. Louis XVI still commanded the allegiance of most of the people and could at this stage most likely have avoided the worst of what was to come by graciously becoming a constitutional monarch in France.
Instead, Louis began to play a dangerous game. While pretending to go along with the Assembly, he entered into correspondence with the kings of Europe and with émigrés, French nobles who had already fled France and were determined to bring down the revolution.
On June 21, 1791, Louis XVI abandoned all pretext of supporting the French Revolution with an attempt to escape to the Austrian Netherlands, today’s Belgium, which was ruled by Marie Antoinette’s brother, Emperor Joseph II. The disguised royal family got as far as Varennes, where they were discovered and returned under guard.
On July 25, 1792, the First Coalition of the European monarchs issued a manifesto warning the French assembly to avoid harming the French royal family. This had the effect of uniting the French people against the coalition forming against them—and against the king.
On August 10, while Louis XVI was sitting with the Legislative Assembly, the Paris mob stormed the Tuileries. After serious fighting, the National Guard and the Swiss Guard succeeded in repelling a heavy assault.
The commander of the Swiss Guard felt that a final charge by his professional soldiers would break up the mob completely—and perhaps cause the entire revolutionary movement to collapse like a house of cards.
Instead, Louis XVI hesitated and told the Swiss Guards to stand down. The Paris mob, encouraged by the Swiss failure to act, charged them and virtually massacred them in the cause of a king who did not deserve their loyalty.
The Final Act
Following the debacle of the Tuileries, the final act began for Louis XVI. Three days after the taking of the Tuileries, on August 13, 1792, Louis XVI was arrested for treason. His secret correspondence with the kings of Europe and the émigrés had been found.
On September 20, 1792, the defeat of the regular Prussian army by the French revolutionary forces at Valmy removed any hope of foreign help. The next day the National Convention met and formally abolished the monarchy. Louis XVI was put on trial on the charge of treason on December 11, 1792.
With the radicals in charge, the outcome of his trial was a foregone conclusion. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI went to the guillotine, meeting his death with rare dignity. Marie Antoinette would go to the guillotine on October 16, 1793. Their son, who might have reigned as Louis XVII, died in prison, most likely in 1795.