Study Guide

King Louis XVI in Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

By The Marquis de Lafayette

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King Louis XVI

(Un)Lucky Louie

Louis XVI really didn't want to be king. We're guessing (from watching Sofia Coppola's brilliant Marie Antoinette) that all he wanted to do was make keys. But that was not to be his fate.

As the second born son no one thought he'd ascend the throne, but, when his older brother died, Louis wound up getting crowned at the babyish age of nineteen. Even if things had been going well this would be a difficult job—and things were most certainly not going well. France was deeply in debt and the monarchy was increasingly unpopular.

And Louis, of course, made things worse.

He managed to anger and alienate himself from nearly all the social classes in France. When he first became king he made attempts at reforms based on Enlightenment ideals, but was met with a harsh backlash from the nobility. So he reversed course and became deeply conservative, a move that made him look weak. He also deregulated the grain market, which increased the price of bread and made lower classes angry. This combined with a series of bad harvest led to a shortage of food and bolstered the revolts in the summer of 1789.

He also encouraged revolutionaries in France by supporting those in the United States. By financing the American rebels he did nothing to help his own reputation at home. He actually made it worse by spending yet more money. All he really accomplished was to help spread the ideals of liberty that would eventually depose him.

As Spineless As A Sea Cucumber

Throughout France's debt crisis Louis was at best seen as hesitant and reluctant to take firm action, and at worst seen as part of the problem. His wife, Queen Marie Antoinette was famous for being a frivolous shopaholic with a general disregard for the common people. Not a good reputation to have ever, but when the nation's broke and the people hungry you really don't want to be best known for buying diamond necklaces.

By the time he called for the meeting of the Estates General it was too little too late. Louis was unwilling to change his behavior or demand a change in the privileges of the nobility and without either of these things there would be no real change in France's financial situation.

After the creation of the National Assembly Louis' life became a series of saying no to things before being forced to say yes. He opposed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen until he was forced to accept it. He opposed moving out of Versailles until he was forced to go to Paris. He opposed the French Republic until he was forced to take part in it. He opposed his own trial until he was forced into prison and then to the guillotine.

All that for a dude who really never wanted to be king in the first place.

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