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XVIIIth and XIXth centuries in France part II

LOUIS XVI AND THE BEGINNING OF THE REVOLUTION

The next monarch of France was the grandson of Louis XV, Louis XVI. He had two older brothers who died young and before their grandfather. Louis XVI was not born to rule but had to accept his fate.

The next monarch of France was the grandson of Louis XV, Louis XVI. He had two older brothers who died young and before their grandfather. Louis XVI was not born to rule but had to accept his fate.

Louis the Just had many of the qualities required for a monarch and his reign could have been a great turning point for the monarchy which could have evolved into a more modern government alongside the new ideas and ideals of the time. Despite not being hungry of power or even completely delighted by his role of king, Louis XVI tried to use his absolute power to improve the life of his people, reform the monarchy, the government and the society. But during the reign of Louis XVI ( and even his predecessor ), the French monarchy was absolute only in name. He managed to abolish torture, enacted an edict of tolerance towards the Protestants ( Huguenots ) and the Jews.

Like his grandfather, Louis XVI has very pacifist ideas and is not fond of wars but he also places a great importance in the prestige that France once had and should have. The Seven Years War was a stain in the glory of the kingdom and military reforms were also needed. His passion for geography, exploration, the sea and the navy lead to a reform of the navy which proved successful. During the war of the American Independence, the French Royal Navy won several victories over the British one, like a couple of centuries before. The victories won during the Independence of the Thirteen Colonies, though important for prestige reasons, also had a cost and huge one. And the financial crisis and matters were, like his predecessor, where Louis XVI was almost powerless. The king and some of his ministers ( mostly the famous Turgot and Necker ) came with brilliant ideas in order to reduce the government’s expanses and ease the people. The free choice of trade, an egalitarian taxation for everyone (suppression of the tax privileges for the nobility and clergy ), complete reform of the kingdom’s fiscality, reduction of the pensions given to idle aristocrats were some of the ideas that Louis and his ministers came up with. However, the privileged classes immediately opposed these reforms followed by the parliaments that Louis XVI had previously rehabilated. As soon as the monarch’s reforms were to tackle or simply be a nuisance to the nobility and clergy, he had to stop. Louis was still popular but his inactions to support the well-being of his people angered them. The finances did not improve much.

In the 1780s, the King was in an open conflict with the parliament of Paris that opposed many of his projects. One of the king’s advisor, Brienne, suggested that the government had to resort to a loan. Several hundreds of millions were to be borrowed which angered many of the parliamentarians ( though none suggested a better idea ) and they asked the king to summon the general estates in two years, for 1789. Louis XVI did not objected this proposal . In this arm wrestling, Louis ( who still today has the reputation of being weak ) used all his authority to make the parliament comply. He accepted to summon the general estates as long as his edict of borrowing money was passed immediately. A parliamentary duke yelled at the monarch that “ this is illegal “ which earned him the answer “ yes it is legal! It is legal because I want it to be legal “.

Louis XVI was running short of ideas to improve and fix the kingdom he inherited in a terrible state. In 1788, the king proposed a reform to limit the parliaments’ power to justice matters only and no longer executive questions. This of course was not to please them and in several cities and towns uprisings occurred, many of them lead by the local parliaments themselves. In summer 1788, the government ordered the gathering of the general estates and declared bankruptcy. While the government already had most of the parliamentarians, the nobility and the clergy against him, the summer of 1788 lead to catastrophic harvests and the following winter was terribly and unusually harsh. There was not enough wheat and the bakers took profit of the situation to rise the price of bread. Early 1789 saw several revolts occur in various places of the kingdom, many of them violently repressed. In April, uprisings took place in Paris and the king, after a long hesitation gave the order to suppress the demonstrators, an order the commander of the Swiss regiment took very seriously and his soldiers killed between 200 and 300 people.

The 5th of Ma y 1789, the General Estates composed of the three orders ( third estate, clergy and nobility ) gathered with the presence of the king. His opening speech his applauded by the third estate but soon, it appeared that Louis was avoiding some of the most crucial questions. Though some members tried to make it happen, the three orders could generally not work hand in hand despite Louis’ asking. The General Estates went on for more a month. The 4th, Louis and his wife lost their eldest son ( his heir ) aged 7 which affected the royal couple immensely. The 17th of June, the third estate and parts of the clergy united against the nobility and proclaimed themselves the “ national assembly “ making illegal any financial reforms without their approval. Two days later, two close ministers of the king exposed him their views. Necker proposed a set of new reforms close to the third estate’s claims ( egalitarian taxes,…Etc ) while the other minister Barentin pressed the king to oppose all of this and suppress these “ uprisers “. Louis remained undecided and ordered a new meeting for the 23rd of June.

Meanwhile the 20th of the same month, the new national assembly gathered in the Room of the Jeu de Paume making the oath to stay united and to create a new constitution for the kingdom. The 23rd at the requested meeting, Louis XVI announced that he was in favour of a complete freedom of the press ( freedom he already authorized years before at some extents ), an egalitarian tax and many other freedoms however he asked the dissolution of the national assembly. At the end of the gathering, the nobility and the clergy left the room but many of the third estate refused and a deputy ( Mirabeau ) yelled that they were going to remain in this room and will not leave it unless if forced by the guards. For Louis XVI, who had already left a single but difficult choice was laid to him, accept a constitutional monarchy which was a request by the national assembly based on the British one or to suppress them and start a full civil war.

Though he did not liked the idea, Louis XVI had already made known that he was not completely against the idea of a contitutional monarchy in some points and that he would not shed the blood of his people. But many close councillors, including the king’s own brother the future Louis XVIII ( at the time Count of Artois ). Two days later, the 25th, Louis XVI begged the clergy and nobility to join and unite with the third estates. At the same time troops are deployed near some key positions in Paris and Versailles. Troops that can be both used to protect the deputies but to dispose of them as well. However some of the soldiers refused to obey and laid down their weapons.

The 9th of July, the national assembly changed its name to National Constituent Assembly and at the same time Louis XVI fired Necker whose absence when needed ( the 23rd ) upset the monarch. The discharged of Necker infuriated the National Constituent assembly and some Parisian mobs, one demonstration is suppressed by the army and one death was reported. The 13th of July, a 40,000 men strong militia is created by the deputies of Paris with one goal, to find weapons.

By Alister

Studying at the University of Besaçon, Burgundy Franche-Comté, France