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Louis XVI
King of France

r. 1774 - 1793


Louis XVI followed his grandfather Louis XV to the French throne in 1774. France had been defeated in war by Britain [Treaty of Paris, 1763] and faced mounting financial woes. Instead of addressing France's problems, Louis proved to be a weak man who succumbed to the schemes of advisors and his wife, Marie Antoinette, a daughter of Maria Theresia of Austria, who possessed her mother's will, but not her skills. He compounded his problems by entering the War of the American Revolution in 1778 on the side of the American colonies. He was motivated by a desire for revenge against the British, although there was some public support in France for the American cause.

The American Revolution ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris and the United States and Britian began a period of rapid financial recovery. France, however, emerged with few concrete gains, and a near catastrophic debt situation. In 1785 Louis was humiliated when French bankers force his agreement to place Jacques Neckar in charge of finances. Neckar was both a commoner and a Protestant.

In 1788 the King realized the need for fundamental change, especially to force the nobility and clergy to pay taxes. He ended Absolutism by ordering the election of an Estates-General, the first since 1614. An Estates-General was elected in 1789 and it soon became clear that the nobility and clergy -- the First and Second Estates -- would dominate the council and resist any change. The Third Estate -- the middle class -- became increasingly angry. The King, nervous at the growing radicalism, attempted to lock them out of a meeting hall in Versailles, but they met outside and declared themselves the National Assembly.

While the King vacillated, rioting erupted throughout Paris. To maintain order the middle class organized a National Guard under Lafayette but the King reacted by firing Neckar, which in turn led to the storming of the Bastile on July 14th. Unwilling to use force, the King recognized the National Assembly and on August 5th signed a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. A limited monarchy was instituted. Panic spread across France as peasants seized land and thousands of nobles fled into exile. In October, the people of Paris forced the King and his family to take up residence in Paris and abandon Versailles.

The newly elected government acted in 1790 to resolve the financial situation by seizing Church property and selling it. This raised much needed money but pitted the middle class against the peasants who had traditionaly farmed the Church lands. By late 1790 French exiles in Austria were trying to convince Marie Antoinette's brother, Leopold II, to invade France and reverse the Revolution. With Imperial troops massing in Germany, Louis XVI was persuaded by his wife to flee France and lead the invasion. However, the King and his family were recognized and arrested at Varennes. Under pressure from the Assembly, Louis signed a declaration of war against Leopold. The war began with French defeats and an Imperial invasion.

New constitutional elections in August 1792 produced a radical Assembly dominated by the Jacobins who on September 21 declared a Republic and had Louis XVI arrested.

Louis was prosecuted by a distant cousin, Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who had joined the revolution and renamed himself Louis-Philippe Egalité. The trial was a foregone conclusion, with Louis condemned to death. The British government had warned that if Louis were executed, it would mean war. King George III offered sanctuary to Louis, but the National Convention refused. In January, 1793 Louis XVI was executed and Great Britain declared war.


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