Louis XVI’s Early Years



Louis XVI

Louis XVI, although highly educated and intellectually gifted, was seen by his contemporaries and is largely remembered as an individual of unimaginative and indecisive personality.

Learning Objectives

Recall Louis XVI’s childhood and describe his character

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Louis XVI (1754 – 1793), born Louis-Auguste, was King of France from 1774 until his deposition in 1792, although his formal title after 1791 was King of the French. During his childhood, Louis-Auguste was neglected by his parents who favored his older brother, Louis, duc de Bourgogne. Considered brighter and more handsome than his little brother, Louis, duc de Bourgogne died at the age of nine in 1761.
  • A strong and healthy but very shy Louis-Auguste was an intellectually curious and gifted student. Upon the death of his father, he became the new Dauphin. The strict and conservative education he received from the Duc de La Vauguyon, however, did not prepare him for the throne that he was to inherit in 1774.
  • In 1770, at age 15, Louis-Auguste married 14-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia, the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife Empress Maria Theresa of the Habsburg dynasty. The French public was hostile towards the marriage that confirmed the Franco-Austrian alliance.
  • Over time the couple became closer, although their marriage was not consummated until 1777. The created a strain upon their marriage and the failure to produce children alerted the French public.
  • When Louis XVI succeeded to the throne in 1774, he had an enormous responsibility as the government was deeply in debt and resentment of “despotic” monarchy was on the rise. While none doubted Louis’s intellectual ability to rule France, it was quite clear that, although raised as the Dauphin since 1765, he lacked firmness and decisiveness.
  • Historians note the king had a rather dull personality. In addition to the extreme lack of decisiveness demonstrated by his decisions regarding both domestic and foreign policies, he has been described as quiet and shy but also conventional and unimaginative.

Key Terms

  • Dauphin: The title given to the heir apparent to the throne of France from 1350 to 1791 and 1824 to 1830.
  • Seven Years’ War: A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.
  • parlements: Provincial appellate courts in the France of the Ancien Régime, i.e. before the French Revolution. They were not legislative bodies but rather the court of final appeal of the judicial system. They typically wielded much power over a wide range of subject matter, particularly taxation. Laws and edicts issued by the Crown were not official in their respective jurisdictions until assent was given by publication. The members were aristocrats who had bought or inherited their offices and were independent of the King.

Louis XVI: Childhood

Louis XVI (1754 – 1793), born Louis-Auguste, was King of France from 1774 until his deposition in 1792, although his formal title after 1791 was King of the French. Out of seven children, he was the second son of Louis, the Dauphin of France, and thus the grandson of Louis XV and Maria Leszczyńska. His mother was Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, the daughter of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. During his childhood, Louis-Auguste was neglected by his parents who favored his older brother, Louis, duc de Bourgogne. Considered brighter and more handsome than his little brother, the eldest son died at the age of nine in 1761.

A strong and healthy but very shy Louis-Auguste excelled at Latin, history, geography, and astronomy, and became fluent in Italian and English. Upon the death of his father, who died of tuberculosis in 1765, the eleven-year-old Louis-Auguste became the new Dauphin. His mother never recovered from the loss of her husband and died in 1767, also from tuberculosis. The strict and conservative education he received from the Duc de La Vauguyon, “gouverneur des Enfants de France” (governor of the Children of France), from 1760 until his marriage in 1770, did not prepare him for the throne that he was to inherit in 1774 after the death of his grandfather, Louis XV.

Marriage

In 1770 at age 15, Louis-Auguste married 14-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia (better known by the French form of her name, Marie Antoinette), the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, Empress Maria Theresa of the Habsburg dynasty. The French public was hostile towards the marriage. France’s alliance with Austria pulled the country into the disastrous Seven Years’ War, in which it was defeated by the British both in Europe and in North America. By the time Louis-Auguste and Marie Antoinette were married, the French people were generally critical of the Franco-Austrian alliance and Marie-Antoinette was seen as an unwelcome foreigner.

For the young couple, the marriage was initially amiable but distant. Over time, the couple became closer, although their marriage was not consummated until 1777. The royal couple thus failed to produce children for several years after their wedding, which created a strain upon their marriage. The contemporary French public fervently debated why the royal couple failed to produce an heir for so long, and historians have tried to identify the cause of why they failed to consummate their marriage for years. Eventually, in spite of their earlier difficulties, the royal couple became the parents of four children.

image

Louis XVI at the age of 20, by Joseph Duplessis, ca. 1775.: Louis’s indecisiveness and conservatism led some to view him as a symbol of the perceived tyranny of the Ancien Régime and his popularity deteriorated progressively, despite the king’s many decisions triggered by his desire to be loved by the public.

Louis XVI’s Personality

When Louis XVI succeeded to the throne in 1774, he was 19 years old. He had an enormous responsibility as the government was deeply in debt and resentment of “despotic” monarchy was on the rise. He felt woefully unqualified to resolve the situation. As king, Louis focused primarily on religious freedom and foreign policy. While none doubted Louis’s intellectual ability to rule France, it was quite clear that although raised as the Dauphin since 1765, he lacked firmness and decisiveness. His desire to be loved by his people is evident in the prefaces of many of his edicts, which often explained that his actions were intended to benefit the population. He aimed to earn the love of his people by reinstating the parlements. When questioned about his decision, he said, “It may be considered politically unwise, but it seems to me to be the general wish and I want to be loved.” Louis XVI believed that to be a good king, he had to, in his own words, “always consult public opinion; it is never wrong.”

Historians note the king had a rather dull personality. In addition to the extreme lack of decisiveness demonstrated by king’s decisions regarding both domestic and foreign policies, he has been described as quiet and shy but also conventional and unimaginative. His interest in locksmithing and carpentry as well as commitment to deepening his education (he had an impressive library) were seen as hobbies that he was more passionate about than about ruling France. Even the long period when the royal couple did not produce children was interpreted in light of Louis’s unimpressive personality. Contemporary pamphlets mocked the king’s perceived infertility and inability to satisfy his wife, who in turn was accused of extramarital affairs.

Marriage to Marie-Antoinette

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s marriage confirmed and strengthened the Franco-Austrian alliance, which had many opponents among French elites and commoners.

Learning Objectives

Explain the political reasons for the marriage of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Maria Antonia (1755 – 1793), commonly known as Marie Antoinette, was born in Vienna as the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, ruler of the Habsburg Empire, and her husband Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. Her family connections made her the primary candidate for the wife of the Dauphin of France at the time of the Franco-Austrian alliance.
  • Following the Seven Years’ War and the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, Maria Theresa and Louis XV’s common desire to destroy the ambitions of Prussia and Great Britain and help secure a definitive peace between them led them to seal their alliance with a marriage: in 1770, Louis XV formally asked the hand of Maria Antonia for his eldest surviving grandson, future Louis XVI.
  • The French public was hostile towards the marriage. France’s alliance with Austria had pulled the country into the disastrous Seven Years’ War, in which it was defeated by the British, both in Europe and in North America. By the time that Louis and Marie Antoinette were married, the French were generally critical of the Austrian alliance, and many saw Marie Antoinette as an unwelcome foreigner.
  • At the outset of the reign of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette had limited political influence with her husband although she played an important role in introducing French meditation in the process of ending the War of Bavarian Succession.
  • Later, the queen’s political impact rose significantly. She played a key role in supporting the American Revolution and influenced nominations for critical state positions.
  • Maria Theresa died in 1780 and Marie Antoinette feared that the death of her mother would jeopardize the Franco-Austrian alliance (as well as, ultimately, herself), but her brother, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, assured her that he had no intention of breaking the alliance.

Key Terms

  • Dauphin: The title given to the heir apparent to the throne of France from 1350 to 1791 and 1824 to 1830.
  • War of the Bavarian Succession: A 1778 – 1779 conflict between a Saxon-Prussian alliance and Austria to prevent the Habsburgs from acquiring the Electorate of Bavaria. Although the war consisted of only a few minor skirmishes, thousands of soldiers died from disease and starvation, earning the conflict the name Kartoffelkrieg (Potato War) in Prussia and Saxony.
  • Diplomatic Revolution of 1756: The reversal of longstanding alliances in Europe between the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War. Austria went from an ally of Britain to an ally of France. Prussia became an ally of Britain. It was part of efforts to preserve or upset the European balance of power.
  • Seven Years’ War: A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.

Maria Antonia: Childhood

Maria Antonia (1755 – 1793), commonly known as Marie Antoinette, was born in Vienna as the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, ruler of the Habsburg Empire, and her husband Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. Shortly after her birth, she was placed under the care of the Governess of the Imperial children, Countess von Brandeis. Despite the private tutoring she received, results of her schooling were less than satisfactory. At the age of ten, she could not write correctly in German or in any language commonly used at court, such as French and Italian. Conversations with her were stilted although she became a good musician. She played the harp, the harpsichord, and the flute, had a beautiful singing voice, and excelled at dancing.

Political Marriage

Following the Seven Years’ War and the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, Empress Maria Theresa decided to end hostilities with her longtime enemy, King Louis XV of France. Their common desire to destroy the ambitions of Prussia and Great Britain and help secure a definitive peace between them led them to seal their alliance with a marriage: in 1770, Louis XV formally asked the hand of Maria Antonia for his eldest surviving grandson, future Louis XVI. Maria Antonia formally renounced all her rights to the Habsburg domains and was married to the Dauphin of France the same year. Upon her arrival in France, she adopted the French version of her name: Marie Antoinette.

The couple’s failure to produce children for several years placed a strain upon their marriage, exacerbated by the publication of obscene pamphlets mocking their infertility. The reasons behind the couple’s initial failure to have children were debated at that time and have been since. The marriage was reportedly consummated in 1773 but historians have concluded it did not take place until 1777. Eventually, in spite of their early difficulties, the royal couple became the parents of four children.

The French public was hostile towards the marriage. France’s alliance with Austria pulled the country into the disastrous Seven Years’ War, in which it was defeated by the British both in Europe and in North America. By the time that Louis and Marie Antoinette were married, the French were generally critical of the Austrian alliance and many saw Marie Antoinette as an unwelcome foreigner. Simultaneously, the Dauphine was beautiful, personable, and well-liked by the common people. Her first official appearance in Paris in 1773 was a resounding success.

In 1770, Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress with considerable political influence, was instrumental in ousting Étienne François, duc de Choiseul, who had helped orchestrate the Franco-Austrian alliance and Marie Antoinette’s marriage, and exiling his sister the duchesse de Gramont, one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting. Marie Antoinette was persuaded by her husband’s aunts to refuse to even acknowledge du Barry, but some saw this as a political blunder that jeopardized Austria’s interests at the French court. However, Marie Antoinette’s mother and the Austrian ambassador to France who was sending the Empress secret reports on Marie-Antoinette’s behavior, put Marie Antoinette under pressure and she grudgingly agreed to speak to Madame du Barry. Two days after the death of Louis XV in 1774, Louis XVI exiled Madame du Barry, pleasing his wife and aunts.

image

Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778).

The queen spent heavily on fashion, luxuries, and gambling, although the country was facing a grave financial crisis. For her, Rose Bertin created dresses, hair styles such as poufs up to three feet high and the panache (bundle of feathers). She and her court also adopted the English fashion of dresses made of indienne (a material banned in France from 1686 until 1759), percale, and muslin. By the time of the Flour War of 1775, a series of riots against the high price of flour and bread, her reputation among the general public was damaged.

Political Influence

Upon the death of Louis XV in 1774, the Dauphin ascended the throne as King Louis XVI of France and Navarre, and Marie Antoinette became Queen of France and Navarre. At the outset, the new queen had limited political influence with her husband. Marie Antoinette’s first child, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, was born in 1778, but in the middle of the queen’s pregnancy her brother made claims on the throne of Bavaria (the War of the Bavarian Succession). Marie Antoinette pleaded with her husband for the French to intercede on behalf of Austria. The Peace of Teschen (1779) ended the brief conflict, with the queen imposing French mediation on the demand of her mother and Austria’s gaining a territory of at least 100,000 inhabitants, a strong retreat from the early French position of hostility toward Austria with the impression, partially justified, that the queen sided with Austria against France.

The queen played a very important role in supporting the American Revolution by securing Austrian and Russian support for France, which resulted in the establishment of a neutral league that stopped Great Britain’s attack and by weighing in decisively for the nomination of Philippe Henri, marquis de Ségur, as Minister of War and Charles Eugène Gabriel de La Croix, marquis de Castries, Secretary of the Navy in 1780. The two helped George Washington in defeating the British in the American Revolutionary War, which ended in 1783.

In 1783, the queen also played a decisive role in the nomination of Charles Alexandre de Calonne as Controller-General of Finances, and of the baron de Breteuil as the Minister for the Maison du Roi (Minister of the Royal Household), making him perhaps the strongest and most conservative minister of the reign. As a result of these nominations, Marie Antoinette’s influence became paramount in government, and the new ministers rejected any major change to the structure of the old regime. More than that, the decree by de Ségur requiring four quarterings of nobility as a condition for the appointment of officers blocked the access of commoners to important positions in the armed forces.

Empress Maria Theresa died in 1780 and Marie Antoinette feared the death of her mother would jeopardize the Franco-Austrian alliance, but her brother, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, assured her that he had no intention of breaking the alliance. Joseph II visited his sister in 1781 to reaffirm the Franco-Austrian alliance, but his visit was tainted with rumors that Marie Antoinette was sending money from the French treasury to Austria.
In the same year, Marie Antoinette gave birth to her second child, Louis Joseph Xavier François, Dauphin of France. Despite the general celebration over the birth of the Dauphin, Marie Antoinette’s political influence, such as it was, did greatly benefit Austria. This together with the queen’s extravagant and expensive lifestyle contributed to her growing unpopularity.

The New Royals and Their People

Despite the initial sympathy of the commoners, Marie Antoinette quickly lost the approval of the French as her lavish lifestyle and pro-Austrian stance combined with Louis XVI’s failed reforms turned both the elites and the masses hostile towards the royals.

Learning Objectives

Characterize the relationship between the royals and the French people at the beginning of Louis XVI’s reign

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Although nearly all royal marriages in Europe were traditionally arranged around the political interests of involved families, the marriage of Louis-Auguste and Maria Antonia provoked very strong and ambiguous reactions in France. It aimed to strengthen the union between France and Austria, but the French public was highly critical of the political alliance.
  • Despite the common skepticism towards the Franco-Austrian alliance, Marie Antoinette’s arrival in Paris provoked excitement. She was beautiful, personable, and well-liked by the common people. Her first official appearance in Paris in 1773 was a resounding success. However, the popularity of the queen did not last long.
  • The queen’s extravagant lifestyle soon discouraged many, particularly in light of the country’s financial crisis and mass poverty. She spent heavily on fashion, luxuries, and gambling. By the time of the Flour War of 1775, a series of riots against the high price of flour and bread, her reputation among the general public was damaged. Similarly, the queen’s role in French politics contributed to the loss of initial popularity as Marie Antoinette was consistently accused of influencing her husband’s decisions to disproportionately benefit Austria.
  • The wealth and lavish lifestyle that the royal couple provided for their favorites outraged most aristocratic families, who resented the influence of the selected few, and also fueled the increasing popular disapprobation toward Marie Antoinette, mostly in Paris.
  • The queen’s lifestyle continued to fuel her increasingly negative public image. Her husband’s seeming approval of Marie Antoinette’s choices, combined with his failed reforms and declining mental health, only worsened the already hostile attitude of both the elites and masses.

Key Terms

  • Dauphin: The title given to the heir apparent to the throne of France from 1350 to 1791 and 1824 to 1830.
  • Kettle War: A military confrontation between the troops of the Holy Roman Empire and the Republic of the Seven Netherlands on October 8, 1784. Its name relates to the fact that the only shot fired hit a soup kettle.
  • War of the Bavarian Succession: A 1778 – 1779 conflict between a Saxon-Prussian alliance and Austria to prevent the Habsburgs from acquiring the Electorate of Bavaria. Although the war consisted of only a few minor skirmishes, thousands of soldiers died from disease and starvation, earning the conflict the name Kartoffelkrieg (Potato War) in Prussia and Saxony.
  • Seven Years’ War: A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.
  • the Flour War: A wave of riots arising from April to May 1775 in France that followed an increase in grain prices and subsequently bread prices. The riots started after the police withheld grain from the royal stores but were also triggered by poor harvests in the summers of 1773 and 1774.

The French Public and the Political Marriage

Although nearly all royal marriages in Europe were traditionally arranged around the political interests of involved families, the marriage of fifteen-year-old Louis-Auguste and fourteen-year-old Maria Antonia (better known by the French form of her name Marie Antoinette) provoked very strong and ambiguous reactions in France. As a daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa, the head of the Habsburg Empire, Maria Antonia belonged to one of the most powerful royal families in Europe. Her marriage to the heir to the French throne aimed to strengthen the ongoing if still rather recent union between two empires that were at the time seen as the weaker players in the European balance of power. Louis XV and Maria Theresa’s common desire to destroy the ambitions of Prussia and Great Britain and help secure a definitive peace between the two old enemies were at the foundation of the marriage, but many among the French public were skeptical about the union. The alliance with Austria pulled France into the disastrous Seven Years’ War, in which it was defeated by the British both in Europe and in North America. By the time Louis-Auguste and Maria Antonia were married, the French people were generally critical of the Franco-Austrian alliance.

The Loss of Popularity

Despite the common skepticism towards the Franco-Austrian alliance, Marie Antoinette’s arrival in Paris provoked excitement. She was beautiful, personable, and well-liked by the common people. Her first official appearance in Paris in 1773 was a resounding success. However, the popularity of the queen did not last long. Her extravagant lifestyle soon discouraged many, particularly in light of the country’s financial crisis and poverty of the masses. She spent heavily on fashion, luxuries, and gambling, including custom dresses, hair styles such as poufs up to three feet high, and the panache (bundle of feathers), all made by Rose Bertin. She and her court also adopted the English fashion of dresses made of indienne (a material banned in France from 1686 until 1759), percale, and muslin. By the time of the Flour War of 1775, a series of riots against the high price of flour and bread, her reputation among the general public was damaged.

Similarly, the queen’s role in French politics contributed to the loss of initial popularity as Marie Antoinette was consistently accused of influencing her husband’s decisions to disproportionately benefit Austria. In 1778, her brother and the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II made claims on the throne of Bavaria (the War of the Bavarian Succession). Marie Antoinette pleaded with her husband for the French to intercede on behalf of Austria. The Peace of Teschen (1779) ended the brief conflict, with the queen imposing French mediation on the demand of her mother, and Austria gaining a territory of at least 100,000 inhabitants — a strong retreat from the early French position of hostility toward Austria with the impression, partially justified, that the queen sided
with Austria against France.

Empress Maria Theresa died in 1780 and Marie Antoinette feared that the death of her mother would jeopardize the Franco-Austrian alliance, but her brother assured her that he had no intention of breaking the alliance. Joseph II visited his sister in 1781 to reaffirm the Franco-Austrian alliance, but his visit was tainted with rumors that Marie Antoinette was sending money from the French treasury to Austria. In the same year, Marie Antoinette gave birth to her second child, Louis Joseph Xavier François, Dauphin of France. Despite the general celebration over the birth of the Dauphin, Marie Antoinette’s political influence continued to benefit Austria, which contributed to her growing unpopularity. During the Kettle War, in which her brother Joseph attempted to open the Scheldt River for naval passage, Marie Antoinette succeeded in obtaining a huge financial compensation to Austria. The queen was also able to get her brother’s support against Great Britain in the American Revolution and neutralized French hostility to his alliance with Russia.

image

Marie Antoinette dans son salon, Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty, 1774.

France’s financial problems were the result of a combination of factors: expensive wars; a large royal family whose expenditures were paid for by the state; and the unwillingness of the privileged classes to help defray the costs of the government out of their own pockets by relinquishing some of their financial privileges. Yet the public perception was that Marie Antoinette had ruined the national finances. She was even given the nickname of “Madame Déficit.” While sole fault for the financial crisis did not lie with her, Marie Antoinette played a decisive role in the failure of radical reforms.

In 1782, after the governess of the royal children, the princesse de Guéméné, went bankrupt and resigned, Marie Antoinette appointed her favorite, the duchesse de Polignac, to the position. The decision met with disapproval from the court as the duchess was considered to be of too modest birth to occupy such an exalted position. On the other hand, both the king and the queen trusted de Polignac completely and gave her a thirteen-room apartment in Versailles and a generous salary. The entire Polignac family benefited greatly from the royal favor in titles and positions, but its sudden wealth and lavish lifestyle outraged most aristocratic families (who resented the Polignacs’ dominance at court) and fueled the increasing popular disapprobation toward Marie Antoinette, mostly in Paris.

The queen’s lifestyle continued to fuel her increasingly negative public image. Her husband’s seeming approval of Marie Antoinette’s choices, combined with his failed reforms and declining mental health, only worsened the already hostile attitude of both the elites and the masses. The aristocracy was angered by the king’s failed attempts to impose taxes on them while the masses, already in poverty, continued to carry the unjust burden of taxation. In 1783, the queen began to create her “hamlet,” a rustic retreat built by her favored architect Richard Mique. Its creation caused another uproar when the cost became widely known. A year later, Louis XVI bought the Château de Saint-Cloud from the duc d’Orléans in the name of his wife. The decision was unpopular, particularly with some factions of the nobility who disliked the queen but also with a growing percentage of the population who disapproved the idea of the queen owning a private residence independent of the king. The purchase of Saint-Cloud damaged the queen’s image even further. In the eyes of public opinion, the lavish spending of the royal family could not be disconnected from France’s disastrous financial condition.

image

The portrait of Marie Antoinette and her three surviving children: Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph holding up the drape of an empty bassinet signifying the recent death of Marie’s fourth child, Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1787).

The queen attempted to fight back her critics with propaganda portraying her as a caring mother, most notably in the painting by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun exhibited at the Royal Académie Salon de Paris in August 1787.

Efforts at Financial Reform

Facing severe financial crisis, Louis XVI appointed three ministers who tried progressive reforms but failed under the pressure of opposition from the privileged classes of the society.

Learning Objectives

Compare the efforts made by French finance ministers under Louis XVI to revitalize the French treasury

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While the later years of Louis XV’s reign saw serious economic setbacks, it was not until 1775 that the French economy began to enter a true crisis. With the government deeply in debt, Louis XVI was forced to permit radical reforms. He felt unqualified to resolve the situation and surrounded himself with experienced finance ministers.
  • Anne Robert Jacques Turgot was appointed Controller-General of Finances in 1774. His radical reforms met with fierce opposition although they were praised by intellectuals. His attacks on privilege won him the hatred of the nobles and the parlements; his attempted reforms in the royal household, that of the court; his free trade legislation, that of the financiers; and his views on religious tolerance that of the clergy.
  • Marie Antoinette disliked Turgot for opposing the granting of favors to her proteges, which played a key role in the end of his career.
  • In 1777, Jacques Necker was made director-general of the finances. His greatest financial measures were the use of loans to help fund the French debt and increasing interest rather than taxes. In 1781, he gave the first-ever public record of royal finances, but the statistics were completely false. In light of the opposition to reforms, Louis forced Necker to resign. Although he was recalled twice, he failed to introduce effective reforms.
  • In 1783, Louis replaced Necker with Charles Alexandre de Calonne, who increased public spending to buy the country way out of debt. Knowing the Parlement of Paris would veto a single land tax payable by all landowners, Calonne persuaded Louis XVI to call the Assembly of Notables to vote on his referendum.
  • Calonne’s eventual reform package consisted of five major points: cut government spending; create a revival of free trade methods; authorize the sale of Church property; equalize salt and tobacco taxes; and establish a universal land value tax. All the proposed measures failed because of the powerlessness of the crown to impose them. Under the pressure of the opposition, Louis XVI dismissed Calonne in 1787.

Key Terms

  • Flour War: A wave of riots arising from April to May 1775 in France that followed an increase in grain prices and subsequently bread prices. The riots started after the police withheld grain from the royal stores but were also triggered by poor harvests in the summers of 1773 and 1774.
  • Estates-General: A general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).
  • parlements: Provincial appellate courts in the France of the Ancien Régime, i.e. before the French Revolution. They were not legislative bodies but rather the court of final appeal of the judicial system. They typically wielded much power over a wide range of subject matter, particularly taxation. Laws and edicts issued by the Crown were not official in their respective jurisdictions until they gave assent by publication. The members were aristocrats who had bought or inherited their offices and were independent of the King.
  • Seven Years’ War: A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.
  • estates of the realm: The broad orders of social hierarchy used in Christendom (Christian Europe) from the medieval period to early modern Europe. Different systems for dividing society members into estates evolved over time. The best-known system is the French Ancien Régime (Old Regime), a three-estate system used until the French Revolution (1789–1799). It was made up of clergy (the First Estate), nobility (the Second Estate), and commoners (the Third Estate).
  • Assembly of Notables: A group of high-ranking nobles, ecclesiastics, and state functionaries convened by the King of France on extraordinary occasions to consult on matters of state.

Financial Crisis under Louis XVI

When Louis XVI succeeded to the throne in 1774, he was 19 years old. At the time, the government was deeply in debt and resentment of monarchy was on the rise. While the later years of Louis XV’s reign saw serious economic setbacks and the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) led to an increase in the royal debt and the loss of nearly all of France’s North American possessions, it was not until 1775 that the French economy began enter a true state of crisis. An extended reduction in agricultural prices over the previous twelve years, with dramatic crashes in 1777 and 1786, and climatic events such as the disastrous winters of 1785-1789, contributed to the problem. With the government deeply in debt, Louis XVI was forced to permit radical reforms. He felt unqualified to resolve the situation and surrounded himself with experienced finance ministers.

Turgot: Radical Reform Approach

Anne Robert Jacques Turgot was appointed Controller-General of Finances in 1774. His first act was to submit to the king a statement of his guiding principles: “No bankruptcy, no increase of taxation, no borrowing.” Turgot’s policy, in face of the desperate financial position, was to enforce the most rigid economy in all departments. All departmental expenses were to be submitted for the approval of the controller-general, while Turgot appealed personally to the king against the lavish giving of places and pensions. He also imposed certain conditions on leases as they were renewed or annulled, including those for the manufacture of gunpowder and the administration of the royal mails.

Turgot’s measures succeeded in considerably reducing the deficit and raised the national credit to such an extent that in 1776, just before his fall, he was able to negotiate a loan with Dutch bankers at 4% interest. Nonetheless, the deficit was still so large that it prevented him from substituting for indirect taxation a single tax on land. He suppressed, however, a number of octrois (a local tax collected on various articles brought into a district for consumption) and minor duties, and opposed on grounds of economy, the participation of France in the American Revolutionary War, although without success. Turgot also set to work to establish free trade in grain, but his edict (1774) met with strong opposition although it won the praise of intellectuals. Turgot was hated by those who were interested in speculations in grain, but his worst enemy was the poor harvest of 1774, which led to a rise in the price of bread in the winter and early spring of 1774–1775. The so-called Flour War of 1775, a series of riots against the high price of flour and bread, followed. Turgot showed great firmness in repressing the riots and the king loyally supported his decisions.

image

Portrait of Turgot by Antoine Graincourt, now in Versailles.

Turgot, originally considered a physiocrat, is today best remembered as an early advocate for economic liberalism.

All this time Turgot had been preparing his famous Six Edicts, which were finally presented in 1776. Two of them met with violent opposition: the edict suppressing forced unpaid labor and the edict suppressing certain rules by which the craft guilds maintained their privileges. In the preamble to the former, Turgot boldly announced the abolition of privilege and the subjection of all three estates to taxation (although the clergy were afterwards excepted). Soon nearly everybody was against Turgot. His attacks on privilege won him the hatred of the nobles and the parlements; his attempted reforms in the royal household, that of the court; his free trade legislation, that of the financiers; and his views on tolerance and his agitation for the suppression of the phrase that was offensive to Protestants in the king’s coronation oath, that of the clergy. The queen disliked him for opposing the grant of favors to her proteges, which played a key role in the end of his career. With all his enemies, Turgot’s fall was certain. In 1776, he was ordered to resign.

Necker: Loans and Debt

In 1777, Jacques Necker was made director-general of the finances since he could not be controller because of his Protestant faith. He gained popularity by regulating the finances through modest tax and loan reforms. His greatest financial measures were his use of loans to help fund the French debt and raisin  interest rates rather than taxes. He also advocated loans to finance French involvement in the American Revolution. From 1777 to 1781, Necker was essentially in control of all of France’s wealth. In 1781, he published a work (Compte rendu), in which he summarized governmental income and expenditures, giving the first-ever public record of royal finances. It was meant to create a well-informed, interested populace. However, the statistics presented by Necker were completely false and misleading. He wanted to show France in a strong financial position when the reality was actually bleak. France was suffering financially and Necker was blamed for the high debt accrued from the American Revolution. While at court, Necker made many enemies because of his reforming policies. Marie Antoinette was his most formidable enemy and following his wife’s pressure, Louis would become a factor in Necker’s resignation. The king would not reform taxation to bring in more money to cover debts, nor would he allow Necker to be a special adviser because this was strongly opposed by the ministers.

Yet in 1788, the country had been struck by both economic and financial crises, and Necker was called back to the office to stop the deficit and save France from financial ruin. He was seen as the savior of France while the country stood on the brink of ruin, but his actions could not stop the French Revolution. He put a stop to the rebellion in the Dauphiné by legalizing its assembly and then set to work to arrange for the summons of the Estates-General of 1789. He advocated doubling the representation of the Third Estate to satisfy the people. But he failed to address the matter of voting – rather than voting by head count, which is what the people wanted, voting remained as one vote for each estate. Necker was dismissed on July 11, 1789, three days before the storming of the Bastille. The king recalled him on July 19 and Necker stayed in office until 1790, but his efforts to keep the financial situation afloat were ineffective. His popularity vanished and he resigned with a broken reputation.

image

Jacques Necker by Joseph Duplessi. Original was exhibited at the Salon of 1783, now in the Château de Coppet.

When Necker was criticized by his enemies for the Compte rendu, he made public his “Financial Summary for the King,” which appeared to show that France had fought the war in America, paid no new taxes, and still had a massive credit of 10 million livres of revenue.

Callone: Reform Package

In 1783, Louis replaced Necker with Charles Alexandre de Calonne, who increased public spending to buy the country’s way out of debt. He took office when France was 110 million livres in debt, partly because of its involvement in the American Revolution, and had no means of paying it. At first he attempted to obtain credit and support the government through loans to maintain public confidence in its solvency. In 1785, he reissued the gold coinage and developed reductions to a basic price of goods or services. Knowing the Parlement of Paris would veto a single land tax payable by all landowners, Calonne persuaded Louis XVI to call the Assembly of Notables to vote on his referendum. Calonne’s eventual reform package consisted of five major points: cut government spending; create a revival of free trade methods; authorize the sale of Church property; equalize salt and tobacco taxes; and establish a universal land value tax. While Turgot and Necker had attempted similar reforms, Calonne attributed their failure to the opposition of the parlements. Therefore, he called the Assembly of Notables in 1787, to which he presented his plan and the deficit in the treasury. Composed of the old regime’s social and political elite, the Assembly balked at the deficit presented to them and despite Calonne’s plan for reform and his backing from the king, they accused the controller-general of being responsible for the enormous financial strains. All the proposed measures failed because of the powerlessness of the crown to impose them. As a last resort, Calonne proposed to the king the suppression of internal customs duties and argued in favor of the taxation of the property of nobles and clergy. Under the pressure of the opposition, Louis XVI dismissed Calonne in 1787 and exiled him to Lorraine.

image

Portrait of de Calonne by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (1784; London, Royal Collection).: Louis XVI dismissed Calonne in 1787 and exiled him to Lorraine. The joy was general in Paris where Calonne, accused of wishing to raise taxes, was known as Monsieur Déficit. Calonne soon afterwards left for Great Britain, and during his residence there kept up a polemical correspondence with Necker. After his dismissal, Calonne stated, “The King, who assured me a hundred times that he would support me with unshakable firmness, abandoned me, and I succumbed.”