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Louis XVI,1754–93, king of France (1774–92), third son of the dauphin (Louis) and Marie Josèphe of Saxony, grandson and successor of King Louis XV. In 1770 he married the Austrian archduchess Marie AntoinetteMarie Antoinette
, 1755–93, queen of France, wife of King Louis XVI and daughter of Austrian Archduchess Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. She was married in 1770 to the dauphin, who became king in 1774.
..... Click the link for more information. . His early attempts to enact reforms and to appoint competent and upright ministers met with general approval, but his character was unsuited to provide the leadership needed to control the complex social and political conflict smoldering in France. Shy, dull, and corpulent, he preferred the hunting field and his locksmith's workshop to the council chamber; indecisiveness made him subject to the poor advice of his intimates.
The reforms begun by his able ministers A. R. J. TurgotTurgot, Anne Robert Jacques
, 1727–81, French economist, comptroller general of finances (1774–76). The son of a rich merchant, he showed precocious ability at school and at the Sorbonne.
..... Click the link for more information. and Chrétien de MalesherbesMalesherbes, Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de
, 1721–94, French minister of state. After serving as counselor to the Parlement of Paris, he succeeded (1750) his father as president of the Court of Aids at Paris.
..... Click the link for more information. were opposed by the court faction, including Marie Antoinette. A more important obstacle to Turgot's plans was the opposition of the parlements, which were revived after the dismissal of René de MaupeouMaupeou, René Nicolas de
, 1714–92, chancellor of France (1768–74). He was president of the parlement of Paris before he succeeded his father as chancellor.
..... Click the link for more information. . Turgot was dismissed in May, 1776, and Louis appointed (Oct., 1776) Jacques NeckerNecker, Jacques
, 1732–1804, French financier and statesman, b. Geneva, Switzerland. In 1750 he went to Paris and entered banking. He rose rapidly to importance, established a bank of his own, and became a director of the French East India Company.
..... Click the link for more information. director of the treasury. The king supported most of Necker's reforms and economies, but the costly French intervention in the American Revolution more than canceled the savings, and Necker's borrowing greatly swelled the debt. Necker's attempt to gain greater control over policy by courting public opinion was rebuffed at court, and he resigned in protest in May, 1781.
Necker's successors, Charles Alexandre de CalonneCalonne, Charles Alexandre de
, 1734–1802, French statesman, controller general of finances (1783–87). Faced with a huge public debt and a steadily deteriorating financial situation, Calonne adopted a spending policy to inspire confidence in the nation's financial
..... Click the link for more information. (1783–87) and Étienne Charles Loménie de BrienneLoménie de Brienne, Étienne Charles
, 1727–94, French statesman, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He was archbishop of Toulouse (1763–88) and of Sens (1788) and a member of the French Academy.
..... Click the link for more information. (1787–88), were unable to ward off bankruptcy. When the interest-bearing debt had risen to a huge figure, the king convoked (1787) the Assembly of Notables and asked their consent to tax the privileged classes. The notables made a few minor reforms but refused to consent to taxation, referring this to the States-GeneralStates-General
diet or national assembly in which the chief estates (see estate) of a nation—usually clergy, nobles, and towns (or commons)—were represented as separate bodies.
..... Click the link for more information. .
Louis finally convoked the States-General in 1789. Necker, restored in 1788, prevailed upon Louis to double the number of deputies from the third, or popular estate. This increase, however, would be meaningless if the estates met separately and voted as units rather than as individuals; the nobles (first estate) and the clergy (second estate), could still outvote the third estate. The king's opposition to the combined meeting of the estates and his procrastination on this issue led the third estate to proclaim itself a National Assembly, thus signaling the end of absolutism in France. Louis ordered the estates to meet and vote separately, but he was forced (June 27, 1789) to yield and allow the estates to sit together and vote by head.
Shortly afterward Louis sent troops to Paris, where he suspected the French Guards of being too sympathetic to the assembly. Rumors circulated that the king intended to suppress the assembly, and the dismissal of the popular Necker provoked the storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789). Louis again had to capitulate; he ordered the withdrawal of the royal troops, reinstated Necker, and accepted the new national red, white, and blue cockade. Despite his outward acceptance of the revolution, Louis allowed reactionary plotting of the queen and court, and in August refused to approve the abolition of feudal rights.
In Oct., 1789, a crowd marched on Versailles and forced the royal family to return to Paris, where they were confined in the Tuileries palace. Louis's position, further compromised by the plots of émigréémigré
, in French history, a refugee, usually royalist, who fled the French Revolution and took up residence in a foreign land. The émigrés comprised all classes, but were disproportionately drawn from the privileged.
..... Click the link for more information. circles, was definitively ruined when the royal family attempted (June, 1791) to flee France in disguise. They were apprehended at Varennes, and their attempted flight was considered proof of their treasonable dealings with foreign powers. Louis was forced to accept the constitution of 1791, which limited his power, but preserved the royal veto and his power to appoint ministers.
After his return he was in communication with Austria and Prussia, urging them to rescue him. In 1792 the early reverses of the French army in the war with Austria and Prussia and the duke of Brunswick's threat to destroy Paris if the royal family were harmed infuriated the Paris sans-culottessans-culottes
[French,=without knee breeches], a term loosely applied to the lower classes in France during the French Revolution. The name was derived from the fact that these people wore long trousers instead of the knee breeches worn by the upper classes.
..... Click the link for more information. . The king and his family were imprisoned in the Temple (Aug 10, 1792). In September, simultaneously with the defeat of the Prussians at Valmy, the Convention declared a Republic. Incriminating evidence against Louis was later found, and he was tried (Dec.–Jan.) by the Convention. Found guilty by a unanimous vote, he was sentenced to death by a vote of 361 to 288, with 72 calling for a delay. He was guillotined on Jan. 21, 1793, facing death with courage.
See biographies by S. K. Padover (new ed. 1963) and B. Fay (tr. 1968); M. Walzer, Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI (1974); D. Jordan, The Trial of Louis XVI (1980).