The French Revolution and Louis XVI

King Louis XVI was crowned king at Reims on the 20th of June 1775. Gazette de France stated, “the King entered Reims escorted by the troops of the royal household and made his way through a People intoxicated with joy—which did not decrease but rather intensified as the procession moved along.”[1] At his coronation, King Louis was loved and admired by the populace of France. Over the next fourteen years, France would change dramatically and for several years following the leadership of the country would change several times and a great number of the former leaders would be dead.

Louis XVI (Chateau de Versailles)

Dissent among the People

When Louis XVI was made king, France was having significant financial and trade issues. Decades of seemingly endless war with Great Britain had overstretched their finances. France had lost their colony in Canada and the valuable fur trade. British colonization and naval power had effectively locked the French out of India, China, and strangled the French colonies from transporting items back to France and elsewhere. [2] With the outbreak of the American Revolution, Louis XVI saw an opportunity to reduce the British stronghold in the Caribbean and produce a new trade partner in the former British colonies. Supporting a war across the ocean may cost men and ships, and it would cost more money. When the American Revolution ended in 1783, the fledgling United States showed no intent to start a trade relationship with France. The only thing that France had truly gained from the American Revolution was more debt and a new friendly nation who would be paying back some of that debt to France slowly.

The French Royalty had isolated themselves from the people, very rarely visiting Paris. The isolation policy began under Louis XIV after an uprising of the Fronde which occurred 1648-53, this caused the royals to avoid the capital and stay at their estates in Versailles, Fontainebleau, or Compiègne.[3] The king tended to trust only the nobility and his executive agents who worked as a cabinet and governors for the king himself, these intendents were divided amongst thirty-six generalities that the King had divided France into.[4]  Many of these appointees were authoritarians who instead of getting approval from the Estates- General would borrow money in the name of the king, bypassing the taxation rules. These appointees had the confidence of the King and were using that power to bypass legal means [5][6] “Since the sixteenth century kings had systematically sold public offices, along with hereditary tenure or free disposal, as a way of borrowing for little outlay.”[7] Government offices were for sale to those who had the money, the nobility protected each other in these offices, and the Catholic Church and its clergy were often related to these families and tended to side with the nobility in matters.

The Estates General

The social inequality of French society began to be viewed more publicly. French law benefited the Clergy and Nobility, most of the French people could not hold positions of power. Under the Estates General, the populace of France was divided into three Estates. The First Estate, the Catholic Church, paid no taxes owned land and were well respected by the Crown. The Second Estate, the nobility, held the offices in the French government, paid no tax, owned larger amounts of land, and collected feudal fees from common landowners. The Third Estate, owned much of the land in France, paid all the taxes plus feudal fees, tithes to the church, and held no power within the government. Within the Estates-General, The First Estate which was 0.5% of the population of France had one vote, The Second Estate, 1.5% of the population had one vote, and the Third Estate which had 98% of the population had one vote.[8]

The Estates General (Chateau de Versailles)

At the beginning of 1789, Louis XVI summoned the Estates General for a meeting, this is the first time the Estates General had been called forth since 1614. On May 5th of 1789, the meeting began. “from the start the third-estate deputies made clear that they would transact no business as a separate order. Their calls to the nobility and clergy to unite with them, however, fell on deaf ears. Even the small number of noble deputies who favoured deliberation and voting in common refused to break ranks. The stalemate continued for six weeks, during which bread prices continued to rise, public order began to break down in many districts, and the widespread hopes of the spring began to turn sour.[9]

The National Assembly

On June 10th, 1789, the Third Estate decided that they would negotiate separately from the others, their break away was followed by several members of the clergy mainly local parish priests began to join the Third Estate. On June 17th the group declared themselves the National assembly. Immediately afterwards it decreed the cancellation and then re-authorization of all taxes. The implication was clear. This assembly had seized sovereign power in the name of the French Nation.[10] On June 20th, The National Assembly met in the tennis courts at the Palace of Versailles after being locked out of other assembly areas, the assembly took an oath to separate until the assembly had established a constitution. The National Assembly had declared themselves a sovereign power and no longer recognized the power of Louis XVI.

Unrest began to grow in Paris, after some attempts to control the crowd by German Mercenaries in Paris failed, Paris based French Army soldiers began to desert. Parisians began searching the city for weapons, powder and flour. With the help of some of the army deserters, the people stormed the Bastille, the state prison in Paris, taking control of the city. The Rebel Parisians were now in control of Paris.[11] French Commanders could not guarantee that soldiers would fire upon the French people, the army withdrew. The National Assembly began to work on the Constitution for the People of France. In August, the clergy and nobles were stripped of their feudal powers, they could no longer collect tithes of feudal land fees. On August 26th the Declaration of the Rights of Man were published by the National Assembly.  In October, many of the people in Paris were still unable to get the bread and other food that was needed for meals, the women of Paris marched on Versailles where the King and Queen were in residence, after some of the crowd had invaded the Queen’s residence, Louis XVI spoke to them from the balcony, agreed to distribute all the bread that was at Versailles and stated that the king and his family would return to Paris with them.

Storming of the Bastille

The revolution progressed slowly over the next two years. The National Assembly abolished the nobility in 1790. The clergy developed a Civil Constitution and were directed to swear allegiance to France, a position that was denounced by Pope Pius VI in 1791.  In June 1791, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette attempt to escape France but are captured at Varennes. In September, the National Assembly ratify the constitution with the support of King Louis XVI. In 1792, dramatic changes begin to happen. After Austria and Prussia extend support for King Louis in late 1791, France declares war against Austria in April of 1792, later that year Prussia would declare war on France.  During 1792, it is found that many of the people of France felt that their grievances with the royal family were not addressed and they were unhappy with the Constitutional Monarchy that had been established. In August of 1792, a group of Jacobins, called Sans-Culottes arrested Louis XVI for treason. [12]

The French Republic

In September of 1792, France declares themselves a Republic now free of the King. In January 1793 Louis Capet (Louis XVI) is executed. In April of 1793, the Committee of Public Safety is founded with Robespierre being the leader. Robespierre quickly used his power against political enemies’, the Committee of Public Safety began executing political rivals. Members of the committee then saw Robespierre as an enemy, he was removed and put to death. It the Thermodian Period, the republic worked to reorganize into a group called the Directory, establishing a collective executive power. The Directory would push the governing to return to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. [13]

The Rise of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte graduated from the French Military Academy in 1785. He was a skilled leader and developed a keen sense for the use of artillery in warfare. He rose quickly through the ranks of the French Army during the conflicts with Austria and Prussia during the French Revolution. Napoleon eventually gained the rank of Brigadier General. Napoleon gained confidence from the Directory who had asked him to invade Great Britain, Napoleon advised against this invasion due to the naval power of Great Britain. In 1799, Napoleon saw the weakness an instability in the French Government, he planned and executed a military coup, overthrowing the Directory. Napoleon then established a three-person Consulate to manage France. In 1802. Napoleon was named Consul for Life, and in 1804, Napoleon named himself Emperor of France.

The French Revolution went through a great many changes, from the elimination of a king and royal family, to a constitutional monarchy, to a republic and eventually back to what was essentially a dictatorship. The writings of the Age of Enlightenment and the American Revolution had a great deal to do with the initial changes that happened in France. The thoughts of Enlightenment philosophies helped the people gain insight into ideals beyond royalty and feudal life, however without the organization that existed in the United States, the revolution broke into separate groups that detracted from the goals of the many.

Bibliography:

“The Coronation of Louis XVI from the Gazette of France (1775),” in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/coronation-louis-xvi-gazette-france-1775

Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Spievogel, Jackson J. World History. Glencoe/McGraw Hill 2003.


[1] “The Coronation of Louis XVI from the Gazette of France (1775),” in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/coronation-louis-xvi-gazette-france-1775

[2] Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford. Page 19

[3] Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford. Page 21

[4] Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford. Page 22

[5] Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford. Page 22

[6] Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford. Page 22-23

[7] Doyle, William. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2001. Page 23

[8] Spievogel, Jackson J. World History. Glencoe/McGraw Hill 2003.

[9] Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford. Page 40

[10] Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

[11] Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford. Page 42

[12] Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

[13] Doyle, William. 2001. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Author:

Greetings! I am Shawn MacIntyre, and I grew up with a love of history. When most kids were watching cartoons I was watching documentaries. After a long career in public safety, I chose to return to college to seek a new career path bringing history to the public. In April 2019. I graduated from Point Park University with a Bachelor's Degree in History, Magna Cum Laude. My new path is to make learning history fun, exciting and accessible to everyone. I invite you to join me on my journeys to historic destinations, learn interesting facts about the past, and spark a love for history!

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