Louis XVI (1754–1793), king of France. The last Bourbon king to govern France as an absolute ruler, he died on the scaffold, convicted of treason against the constitutional monarchy he had been forced to accept during the French Revolution.
Louis As Dauphin
Louis was born at Versailles on Aug. 23, 1754, the third son of the Dauphin Louis and the grandson of Louis XV. By 1765 he was the sole surviving son of his father, whose death that year made Louis heir to the throne.
Unlike his grandfather, the young Dauphin was neither intelligent nor handsome. He was a devout and chaste young man who disapproved of Louis XV's brilliant court, which, for its part, found him dull, inelegant, and gross. His marriage in 1770 to Marie Antoinette, the vivacious and frivolous daughter of Maria Theresa and Francis I of the Holy Roman Empire, did nothing to alter the Dauphin's phlegmatic character. He had inherited a propensity for overeating and corpulence and strove to maintain his health by arduous hunting, the only pastime, aside from his hobbies of blacksmithing and masonry, that he seemed really to enjoy.
Badly educated, Louis was nevertheless conscientious and well-intentioned. He was eager to be a good king and to earn the love of his subjects. Unfortunately for himself and his kingdom he proved unequal to the task of reforming the government and totally incapable of meeting the challenge of the revolution that destroyed the monarchy. For, despite good intentions, Louis was weak, easily influenced, and unable to take decisive action.
Reign Before the Revolution
Louis became king on May 10, 1774. Determined to break with the ways of Louis XV's discredited court, the young King initiated reforms that made him popular and seemed to presage a happy reign. His appointment of Baron Turgot as controller general of finance especially elated those who hoped for enlightened social and political change. Such hopes, however, were short-lived. Turgot soon fell from office because the King lacked the will to support his controller against the intriguers his reforms had antagonized. Louis, moreover, had unwittingly resurrected the crown's most powerful adversaries when he reinstated the old parlements, abolished in 1771.
Fiscal reform was the most urgent problem facing Louis XVI, but every attempt by Turgot's successors, Jacques Necker and Charles de Calonne, to impose an equitable tax on the privileged orders during the 1780s met with failure. The government's finances finally became critical when France incurred large military expenses by participating in the American Revolution. The struggle between the crown and the parlements culminated in 1788 when Louis, facing bankruptcy, was forced to summon the Estates General, thereby conceding that the aristocracy would share his power.
Louis and the Revolution of 1789
The revolutionary upheaval that followed the convocation of the Estates General in May 1789 produced a situation that only a powerful and perspicacious ruler could have mastered. Louis, however, failed to act decisively. Instead of boldly assuming leadership of the reform movement and the national aspirations that it embodied, he vacillated between policies of grudging concession and armed repression. Reactionaries at court finally convinced Louis to use force against the National Assembly, but the uprising against the Bastille on July 14 deprived the King of his last opportunity to crush the revolutionary movement.
After the fall of the Bastille, Louis followed an essentially duplicitous course of action. Since he refused to lead the revolution but was forced to bow to its superior power, he did not consider himself bound by his public acceptance of revolutionary changes. Rather, he decided to work secretly for the forcible overthrow of the new regime.
In the fall of 1789, Louis' obvious reluctance to approve of the abolition of feudal privileges aroused the suspicions of the revolutionaries. On October 6 a mob of Parisians, hungry and afraid that the King was planning a coup against the revolution, marched to Versailles, invaded the palace, and removed the royal family to the Tuileries Palace in Paris.
Failure of the Constitutional Monarchy
Louis was kept under watch at the Tuileries, but he did not immediately lose the confidence of the populace or of the moderates, who wished to establish a constitutional monarchy. The King, despite his virtual captivity, was still unwilling to accept curtailment of his power. Therefore, while he continued to profess allegiance to the revolution, he actually hoped that the armed forces being gathered by émigré aristocrats would invade France and restore the old monarchy.
On June 20, 1791, Louis betrayed his real intentions by attempting to flee France and join a royalist force gathered on the eastern border. The royal family was intercepted at Varennes, however, and returned to Paris. After the flight to Varennes, Louis' loyalty to the revolution became increasingly suspect. In September 1791 he did promise to uphold the Constitution of 1791, which severely limited his powers, but he continued to work against the revolution, corresponding secretly with counterrevolutionary aristocrats outside France. Because he believed that the revolutionary regime would collapse if attacked from without, he helped to bring about a declaration of war against Austria. When the war broke out early in 1792, Louis, then largely under the influence of the Queen, actively intrigued with his country's enemies. On June 20 the royal family was humiliated by a Parisian mob that invaded the Tuileries.
The growing suspicion that the King was betraying the country and the alarming Austrian successes helped to bring about the uprising of Aug. 10, 1792, against the monarchy. Louis and the Queen managed to escape immediate harm, but the monarchy was abolished and the republic proclaimed on September 21.
The royal family was imprisoned, and, after incriminating evidence of the King's intrigues was discovered, Louis was tried for treason in December. Found guilty, he was condemned to die on the guillotine in Paris' Place de la Révolution. There, Louis met his death bravely and with poise on Jan. 21, 1793 (Bienvenu, Richard T. "Louis XVI (France) (1754–1793)." Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Online, 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2012)