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Clear & Obvious: On the fall of the Ancien Regime and its King

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Gradually, then suddenly.

Ludwig Xvi Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images

In 1774, Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin of France acceded to the throne to become King of France and Navarre (Louis XVI or “Louis”), and he was not ready to rule a nation. In his youth he had received a strict and conservative education and had become fluent in Italian and English. One of his mentors had tried to prepare Louis for life as a monarch instructing him never to let anyone read his mind. This was interesting advice that likely had an impact on how things went down as he often said things in public that made no sense.

Basically on his first day on the job, he was faced with a problem. He needed some money to fund the monarch’s operations the way he saw fit and the only way to do that was to raise taxes, but the lower classes were already tapped out, themselves already carrying the heaviest burdens of the nation’s already very regressive tax system. He needed to raise taxes on the nobles since they were the ones with money, and it was in this very balance where the tension surrounding the sovereignty of the monarch rested, but the nobles could sense his weakness and refused. He called the first meeting in 160 years of the Estates General, which included the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Commoners, and because censorship of the press had recently been relaxed and the airing of grievances actively solicited, many of the nobles with fanciful liberal ideas began to push their ideas in the press, ideas of the less absolute monarchish type. Quickly, the Estates General was transformed into the National Assembly which unilaterally declared they were the ones who were really in charge, not the King. For the most part, woke nobles were playing with some Enlightenment ideas and trying to think through new ways this whole government and national economy thing was going to work but as is always the case, and as you can imagine, they were mostly interested in themselves. Louis remained king though — like, you weren’t just going to get rid of the king, that would be crazy. But they definitely demanded some very public concessions from him and while he played ball for the most part, he definitely made some missteps in the Public Relations department, which led to some Public Relations problems, and then Louis started pulling troops into Paris and Versailles, just to be safe. This led to some mass riots in Paris including the storming of the Bastille, some interesting political tensions in Paris and a summer of lawlessness in parts of the French countryside that did subside after a bit. All was not lost.

A great many politics then occurred in Paris as different warring political factions of either nobles or pretty well-off professionals debated, and pork barreled, and pontificated, and rhetoric’d there way into turning France into a constitutional monarchy (and ultimately a republic ((and then some other stuff)) ). But all the while, the economic conditions were pretty bad for normal people and especially poor people, brought on by a bad harvest and while this anger could easily and justifiably have been directed at the nobles, Louis ultimately took most of the heat. After a particularly poor PR gaffe by the King (he tried to flee the country and was caught), his power was for all intents and purposes 100% depleted, himself nothing more than a figurehead of the state. This was, in a not insignificant way, a successful revolution I suppose.

But the problems, Louis inherited, namely desperately poor economic conditions, combined with a crippling national debt, class resentment, and a relatively open and free press where ideas about these problems were exchanged and published en mass, did not go away upon the creation of a new constitution. Without Louis calling the shots, the enlightened ideas of the nobles were unable to fully sate the masses amidst the structural issues and economic woes of the times. The price of bread remained high, and when foreign powers further threatened the nation’s borders, things just kinda went into chaos. Commoners stormed the palace where the King resided and he and his family fled to the Legislative Assembly where they were taken prisoner by the ruling government (of again, mostly nobles and wealthy folks), and where they were safe from the very angry normal people of France themselves, if only for a short time.

There was some unrest. France officially became a Republic at this point under the National Convention with male universal suffrage and other potentially fine if not incomplete ideas baked in, but then amidst continuing economic woes, and government more directly represented, they found themselves at war with nearly all other countries in Europe. And at some point, the people started to suspect that their prisoner, the guy that used to be the king was conspiring with their enemies to get them to invade and free him and return him to power. So the people who were nominally in charge of things debated it for a minute, and then executed Louis XVI at the guillotine.

As is often the case when monarchs are overthrown, the people of France felt Louis to be a tyrant and a traitor to the nation. Ironically, in hindsight many historians believe it was his willingness throughout the stages of the revolution to go along with the whims of whoever was advising him, or even whoever was in direct conflict with him at the time, countlessly ceding powers to the people at every step of the way, while enraging those same people with his tyrannical and nonsensical talking points, and further his inability to deliver a consistent, firm message that was his ultimate downfall. He was pushed around a lot. And, he always seemed to shoot himself in the foot even when things were going OK, or the winds of change were blowing mercifully in his direction. He would celebrate minor victories or rather nonviolent developments in his nation’s revolution by saying something outrageous to get everyone mad at him, without actually taking real authoritarian actions that would warrant anger. As king, had he put a more authoritarian stamp on his attempts to repair the nation’s operations and restructure the social and economic hierarchy in the nation, perhaps had he actually used military force rather than feigned it, he may have retained power for longer. It is hard to say how long, given the difficult economic times and a French society on perilously shaky ground given the way the political and philosophical wind was blowing at the time. But, constantly ceding power to various legislative bodies of nobles and other well off professionals, all the while not addressing the problems that persisted for normal people throughout France did him no favors and having both ultimately empowered the people and angered them resulted in them executing him.

Ultimately, the bourgeois that wrestled power away from the king would find it equally as perilous and fatal to attempt to govern in such an untenable situation.