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.
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.
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.
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.