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Definition: Louis XVI from The Macquarie Dictionary

1754—93, king of France from 1774; grandson of Louis XV; deposed in 1792, guillotined, with his wife Marie Antoinette, in 1793.


Summary Article: Louis XVI from Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Early American Republic, 1783-1812, The: A Political, Social, and Military History

Birth Date: August 23, 1754

Death Date: January 21, 1793

King of France (r. 1774–1792). King Louis XVI (Louis Auguste de France) was born on August 23, 1754, at Versailles, the son of the dauphin (heir apparent) Louis of France and Marie-Josephe of Saxony and the grandson of King Louis XV of France. The younger Louis received the title Duc de Berry at birth. At the insistence of his father, Louis's education was supervised by the Comte de La Vauguyon and the bishop of Limoges, who were conservative, religious, and, most important, antiphilosophe, firmly opposing an intellectual trend that the royal family despised. Louis excelled in mechanical skills and had an acceptable background in history, physics, and mathematics as well as fluency in German, Italian, English, and Latin. During this period he developed the habit of reading widely in current events and foreign newspapers. Most crucially, his tutors stressed strict moral teachings, piety, and the absolutist nature of kingship in France.

In the 1760s Louis lost both his parents and his elder brother, thereby advancing him to the role of dauphin to the throne of France before his 11th birthday. Although he held his grandfather, King Louis XV, in awe, young Louis was appalled by the court's moral excesses and the political power of the royal mistresses, with their vast ability to dispense patronage. On May 16, 1770, Louis married the young Austrian archduchess Marie-Antoinette, the daughter of Empress Maria-Theresa, as part of a diplomatic pact between the two countries. The early years of their marriage were marred by the couple's immaturity and the meddling of the pro-Austrian court faction.

When Louis XV died of smallpox in May 1774, Louis became king, inheriting a country with enormous resources and population, but suffering low morale following its defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763) and facing financial crisis because of nearly a century of complex and inefficient fiscal practices. The two men most able to aid the king, Baron Anne Robert Turgot and Jacques Necker, were hamstrung by the uncooperative Parisian parliament, intransigent nobles and clergy, and sabotage from within the royal family. After the start of the American Revolution in 1775, Necker and Turgot both urged the king to ignore pleas for aid and support from the American “insurgents” in order to avoid a costly war with Great Britain.

For Louis, however, the chance to exact revenge on Britain for the Seven Years’ War trumped economic concerns, and, listening to the advice of his new foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, Louis allowed the American agents Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin to operate quite openly in France; to buy military supplies from the government's agent, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais; and even to receive loans from the government. Yet the king, although charmed by Franklin, had little sympathy for the goals of the rebels and ironically believed that by supporting them he would force Anglophile advocates of a British-style constitution into treasonous action.

After the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777, however, Louis authorized direct support for America, signing the Franco-American Alliance (February 1778). His government expended massive amounts of cash for the Americans in the form of loans; honored those popular French officers, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, who volunteered to serve in the American army; and finally went directly to war with Great Britain in June 1778. French aid, both before and after the country went to war with Britain, was particularly effective because of Louis's appointment of the competent Comte de Saint-Germain to head the French military bureaucracy and the energetic Gabriel de Sartine as head of the marine, which sharpened French naval effectiveness. The king was also cool to the attempt by Austria and Russia to mediate peace between Britain and America in the summer of 1781, before Britain's decisive defeat at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

Louis's popularity grew following the Franco-American victory at Yorktown, but he was deeply offended by America's independent peace negotiations with the British during 1782–1783, especially because the French received little benefit for their massive wartime expenses when they negotiated their own peace with Britain. France's finances hardly needed more strain in the 1780s, as years of poor harvests and the high interest that the government paid its creditors pushed the nation toward bankruptcy. During the 1780s Louis attempted the reforms that he could make personally, including a commercial treaty with Britain and the founding of the School of Mines.

Louis XVI was king of France during the last years of the Old Regime and the early stages of the French Revolution. He was subsequently tried, found guilty, and executed by the guillotine in January 1793. (Library of Congress)

Deeper reforms, however, required the cooperation of France's clergy and aristocracy, whom Louis summoned to an Assembly of Notables in 1787, hoping to convince them to pay a land tax and accept provincial assemblies. The notables refused, demanding instead that the king call the nearly forgotten quasi-parliamentary States General, which prompted a nationwide election of delegates. This novel opportunity for real political campaigns unleashed a storm of criticism on the king as well as impassioned outbursts of frustration by threatened nobles, thwarted reformers, and his longtime enemies, the philosophes. The States General itself, opening in 1789, began well, but the king became depressed at the death of his eldest son and failed to guide its actions. In the end he sided with the nobles and the clergy against the Third Estate.

From here, Louis's relationship with the States General and its legislative successor spiraled downward. He grudgingly accepted a constitution from the new National Assembly and became “King of the French” but hated the new Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Under virtual house arrest in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, the king became dependent on the Marquis de Lafayette's National Guard for protection. The massing of foreign troops, the plotting by conservatives for a counterrevolution, and a disastrous escape attempt from Paris hardened radicals against the king and brought about his dethronement in September 1792. At the prompting of Maximilien Robespierre, Louis was tried for treason, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Louis was executed in Paris as an enemy of France on January 21, 1793.

See also

France; Franklin, Benjamin; French Revolutionary Wars; Great Britain

Further Reading
  • Price, Munro. The Road from Versailles: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the Fall of the French Monarchy. St. Martin's New York, 2004.
  • Ross, Maurice. Louis XVI: America's Forgotten Founding Father. Vantage New York, 1976.
  • Margaret Sankey
    Copyright 2014 by Spencer C. Tucker

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