Louis XVI (1754–93), king of France (1774–92), was the third son of the dauphin (Louis) and Marie Josèphe of Saxony, and thus grandson and successor of King Louis XV. Married to the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette in 1770, his early attempts at reforms and his sensible choice of ministers were generally popular but his weak character left him unqualified to provide strong leadership to a France in crisis. He was neither bright nor decisive, leaving him vulnerable to poor advice. 1
A series of reforms initiated by his ministers Turgot and Malesherbes met with opposition not only from the court faction, including Marie Antoinette but equally from the bourgeois parlements. Turgot was dismissed in May, 1776, and in October Louis appointed Necker director of the treasury. Despite implementing many of Necker’s reforms the King had to pay for the French intervention in the American War of Independence. Necker was forced to borrow great sums and the debt continued to grow. Necker tried to play on his public popularity to gain greater control over policy but was consistently held back by the court, finally resigning in protest in May, 1781.
In the face of mounting economic crisis and the court's refusal to accept reform from Necker's successors as Director of Finances, Calonne (1783–87) and Loménie de Brienne (1787–88), the king convoked the Assembly of Notables to give their consent to impose taxes on the privileged classes. The notables accepted some minor reforms but refused to consent to taxation, stating that this was a decision for the Estates-General.
Having recalled the popular Necker to power in 1788 Louis finally decided to call the Estates-General in 1789, a step that had not been taken by a French monarch since the early 17th Century. But the king’s refusal to allow the three Estates to debate and vote as a single body led the third estate to proclaim itself a National Assembly. This poor judgement can be seen as a key factor in launching the revolution that would result in the downfall of the French Monarchy and Louis's own death. On June 27, 1789 he had to accept the demands of the Third Estate and allow the estates to sit together and vote by head.
In this atmosphere of tension and uncertainty Louis ordered troops to Paris, fearful that the French Guards were sympathetic to the Assembly. There were widespread rumours that the king intended to suppress the assembly by force, and when the king dismissed Necker once more the result was storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789). Louis capitulated again, ordering the withdrawal of the royal troops, reinstating Necker, and publicly accepting the new national red, white, and blue insignia. He was unwilling, however, to give his approval to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and when the Assembly voted for the abolition of feudal rights on the night of August 4th 1789 he refused to ratify the decrees.
Concerned at this reduction of his powers by the Assembly, the king began to assemble troops around him in his palace at Versailles. On October 6th a mob of some 6,000 Parisian women, whipped up by the street orators warnings of impending famine, marched to Versailles accompanied by a number of armed parisian men. They first went to the Assebly and demanded bread, then went on to the palace, where they were met by a delegation from the court. After spending the night in front of the palace the next morning they forced the gates, killed some of the royal bodyguard and broke into the royal appartments. At this point La Fayette, who had arrived from Paris during the night, used his small detachment of troops to restore a semblance of order and then accompanied the royal family to back to Paris as the mob had demanded. When they returned to Paris they were taken to the Town Hall where Bailly made a solemn speech and then escorted to the empty Tuileries palace. The royal family were effectively prisoners of the people of Paris.
Louis’s position, however, was not yet catastrophic. Mirabeau now became the king's closest advisor and convinced him to accept a role as constitutional monarch, retaining power of veto and the decision to declare war or make peace and guaranteeing the unity of the nation. When the nation celebrated the Fete de la Confederation on July 14th 1790, the king was cheered by the people. This remaining prestige was utterly destroyed by an ill-planned attempt to flee Paris and join counter-revolutionary forces in the east.
On the night of June 20th, 1791) the royal family fled Paris in disuguise, hoping to rendezvous with royalist forces in the east. They made slower progress than expected and were apprehended by local revolutionary officials at Varennes. The attempted flight of the king was taken by some as proof of their treasonable dealings with foreign powers. The royal party were escorted back to Paris, but this time there was no public acclamation. Indeed, when the Assembly claimed that the king had been 'kidnapped' and acted against his will, there was a public outcry. A petition was signed and when a crowd of demonstrators attempted to present it at the Champs-de-Mars, La Fayette resorted to opening fire on the mob in order to restore order.
On his return to Paris Louis had to accept the Constitution of 1791, which limited his power but preserved the royal veto and his power to appoint ministers as well as the top military chiefs. It also stated that he was not king by divine right and must take an oath of allegiance to the nation and sweaer to uphold the constitution. Louis was no longer absolute ruler of France. The Legislative Assembly was now the main power in France.
When the newly elected Assembly convened on October 1st 1791 the tensions were already clear to see. The concentration of emigrés along the Rhine infuriated the revolutionaries and when the Assembly put forward legislation to force emigrés to return to France and refractory priestsLINK to sign the Civil Constitution of the ClergyLINK, Louis annoyed the left-wing deputies by invoking his royal veto. Then the Girondins began campaigning for a declaration of war against Austria, believing that the revolution must be taken to other countries and that the revolutionary war would galvanise the French people behind the revolution. Louis supported the idea of a war, calculating that if the French won, it would reflect well on him as victorious king, and that if the French lost, perhaps the foreign powers could be called upon to help re-establish the Ancien RegimeLINK. So the king dismissed his ministers and formed a pro-Girondin, pro-war government and on April 20th 1792 promptly declared war on Austria.
The early weeks of the war were marked by French losses and defeats and the Montagne were quick to cry treason, but it was the Girondins attempts to pass new anti-clerical laws and establish a 20,000 strong 'federal' army based near Paris which caused them to be dismissed from office by the king. Feelings were running high in the capital and on June 20th 1792 a major demonstration was organised. The working class people of Paris rioted and broke into the Tuileries Palace, running amuck in the royal appartments. The king stood firm though, and the chaotic scenes inspired a brief swing in favour of order and the king. As the war continued to go badly and the Duke of Brunswick threatened to destroy Paris if any indignity should be perpetrated on the royal family, the people burst forth once again and demanded the execution of the king. Whipped into a frenzy by the political radicals in the revolutionary clubs, the sections rose up and stormed the Tuileries Palace on August 10th 1792. This was the end of Louis's reign.
After the battle the king and his family were imprisoned in the Temple. Danton took the head of an emergency Executive Council and elections were called for a National Convention. In September the Prussians were decisively beaten at Valmy and the Convention declared a Republic. After a long and heated debate, between the moderate Girondin faction and the left-wing Montagnards, Louis was tried (Dec–Jan). Found guilty the Convention, he was sentenced to death by a vote of 361 to 288, with 72 calling for a delay. He was guillotined on Jan. 21, 1793.
This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.