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The death of Louis XVI of France

Today is the anniversary of the execution of French monarch Louis XVI. If my reading of history is correct, the matter did not end terribly well for France. Not that most Frenchmen would want the Bourbons back, however.

Of course there is a huge body of historical literature on the rights and wrongs of the French Revolution, which in many ways created the model for totalitarianism in Soviet Russia, China and elsewhere. That the Bourbon monarchy was a corrupt institution and that the ordinary folk of France suffered under an oppressive system is not in much doubt, mind. I cannot help but think, however, that the violent overthrow of the monarchy and what followed was, in net terms, a disaster for Europe and sowed the seeds of much eventual trouble.

I recommend this book by Simon Schama and this item, which pinpoints the violent events in France as an example of “totalitarian democracy” and the dangers of folk who claim to have an unique insight into some fictitious entity called the General Will.

19 comments to The death of Louis XVI of France

  • esbonio

    Yes, I agree that on balance the French revolution was a bad thing.

  • The interesting thing about the French Revolution is that the Bourbon monarchy at the time of the revolution really wasn’t all that oppressive compared to previous periods of French history. It was, however, corrupt, decadent and weak. You notice similar patterns with the Czars in Russia just before the Bolshevik revolution, and the Roman Catholic Church just prior to the Reformation. It’s not oppression per se that leads to rebellion — it’s inneffectualness of the current regime combined with an idealistic intellectual movement that stokes people’s discontents.

    (Yes, I’ve been reading my Burke and Hoffer…)

  • I’m glad you bring up Schama’s excellent book, which shows how much progress there was in France just prior to the Revolution, and how so much was thrown away immediately after. It seems to me that a similar situation obtained in Russia before WW1. However, as pleasent as it may be to totally blame the Jacobins or the Bolsheviks, we must also assign considerable blame to the block-headed old regimes who wasted whatever good will they might have had, and left a vacuum that was filled by the worst elements in society.

    I also believe that the key problem in so many “revolutionary” scenarios is the lack or collapse of institutions that hold the allegience of the public. If there never was an accountable government, or a law-abiding judiciary, or a free press, it is difficult to create them afresh and let them develop the trust of the people. We see the problem today in the Middle East, where the only models for governance are either the descendants of the Prophet or naked, unapologetic knives in the back by one tribe or another. With such examples, even the Tsar’s regime looks like modern Sweden.

    Of course, we shouldn’t be too complacent. The US tore itself to pieces over slavery and state’s rights, and Britain had that little interlude with General Cromwell.

  • esbonio

    I thought what did for the Bourbons was the American War of Independence which by busting the country’s finances lead to further iniquitous taxation. Couple that with the enlightenment, rise of the philosphes, divisions amongst the aristocracy and as noted above the weakness of the moinarchy itseklf, and Bob’s your uncle.

  • Hard not to think France couldn’t have reformed better if more gradually. I blame Rousseau and Voltaire for France’s (persisting) cult of ‘fresh-startism’.

    If you see any 1795 metric clocks and calendars, snap them up. They’re valuable antiques.


  • Robert Alderson

    Mao Tse Tung was asked what the effect of the French revolution had been and he replied that it was too early to tell.

  • Alan Peakall

    My recollection had that quote as Zhou En Lai’s. A quick google delivers the same attribution from Wikipedia.

  • veryretired

    I’ve always thought one of the major flaws of the French revolution was the inclusion of the principle of “egalite'”. As the animals in that nice little book quickly find out, some are more equal than others.

    It is also interesting to note that predecessor of “The Directorate”, as well as the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and the Maoists, was an ineffective democratic structure that could not govern the country or maintain the rule of law.

    In the case of the US, that was the Articles of Confederacy. Fortunately, we got the Constitutional Convention instead of the Terror.

    None of these situations had to play out the way they did. It is one of the great boons of history that the US had the likes of Washington, Jefferson, et al instead of the ruthless types who populated the leadership of the other groups.

    Russia and China are struggling with that issue right now, as well as the long suffering people in Iraq and Afghanistan. One can only hope there are a few Madisons and Franklins left for them instead of more Stalins.

    God knows the world has had more than enough of the latter.

  • RAB

    Well as far as Russia is concerned, didn’t the Bolsheviks sieze power after they had comprehensivly lost in a free election, after the storming of the Winter Palace etc.?
    And don’t my aunts and I have a wry smile on our faces every Bastille day, knowing as we do that here were just eight prisoners in the Bastille at the time of the storming (some political repression eh!) and three of those were found to be insane and promptly locked up again.

  • xj

    A Frenchman I used to do business with once called me up on July 14th to let me know he was in the office. “And I am working on Bastille Day,” he added, “because the Revolution was a stupid idea. You would not kill your queen, would you?”

    (Well, not since 1641, mon vieux).

    The main point of storming the Bastille BTW was that it was an arsenal as well as a prison, and the Parisian mob wanted to seize the guns and ammo. It might be argued therefore that both the French and American Revolutions were triggered by governments opposing the right to keep and bear arms. Certain modern governments may profit from the example.

  • Alan Peakall –

    Who cares? Neither man’s worth quoting insofar as historical perspective is concerned.

  • Kerensky, anyone? Weimar? Hoover? Gorbachev? And how did that Ataturk fellow survive? One would have thought a fundy Islamic regime or a communistic one would have overthrown him. Couldn’t have anything to do with the ruthless and therefore effective elimination of Greeks and Armenians, could it? And who was that Iranian fellow just after the Shah and before Khomeini? I always thought he looked like Peter Sellers, which was darned suspicious. The totalitarian predators lick their chops when a “tolerant” democratic leader shows up. And, yes, I’m including FDR among the predators.

  • dearieme

    One of the nice things in Schama’s book is that it disabused me of the common notion that the Revolutionary government went to war because other countries attacked France. It was vice versa. I also liked his point that of the handful of sane prisoners in That Gaol, some had been locked up for all of… a few days.

  • PJ

    As ever Margaret Thatcher got it right. I remember on the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille other coutnries sent in their usual platitudes and congratulations. Margaret, however, said, “It took us 200 years to get rid of the effects of the French Revolution. We don’t want another one”. God I miss her …

  • Paul Marks

    William Doyle’s works are the standard on the French Revolution (he is the best historian on the period).

    However, “Citizens” by Simon S. is useful as a socialist historian stating that the crimes of the Revolution were not a “response” to counter revolution or threats from abroad – the muders and other crimes started from day one.

    As for the economic side of the Revolution – the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” was not just the takeover of the church by the state (and there is a big difference between an established church, like the Church of England, and a state church), but the issuing of fiat money supposedly backed by stolen chuch lands (in fact backed by nothing).

    The Marxists like to say that the Revolution was a “bourgeois” one and it was, but in the French meaning of that word.

    Not factory owners (such factories as there were in France were soon taken over by the Revolutionary government anyway) – but by people who indeed were (mostly) neither men who worked with hands or were nobility or clergy

    The administrator class.

    No suprise that the number of administrators went up and up.

    It was not a plot to just have a bigger admin class for the state (and the cost of hundreds of thousands of deaths over France – the number killed by formal head chopping is a tiny minority of the total killings), but as the Revolution was undertaken by (mostly) this sort of person it was only that they believed more administrators were needed.

    As for Louis XVI:

    He was not corrupt and neither was the Queen (she did not say anything about “let them eat cake”), but he was weak and prone to depression.

    Louis XVI also had a dislike of shedding blood (he would not kill enemies when he had the chance) – a fatal flaw in politics.

  • Paul Marks

    One thing that amused me was that it seems to have two hundred years for anyone to actually read the documents that were waved round at the “trial” of Louis XVI.

    The documents came from the famous secret compartment. Trouble was that (when read) they did not contain anything important.

    Actually to me this is rather bad – Louis SHOULD have been plotting to kill the Revolutionaries (who had already killed many people and whose devotion to J.J. R. meant that any deal with with them would not be honoured) the fact that he was not seriously doing anything means that he was unfit to be King.

  • I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are now going to shed may never be visited on France; and you, unfortunate people…. – Louis XVI Last Words 21 January 1793

    I was then told to get ready to go with the King, so as to undress him on the scaffold. At this I was terrified but, collecting myself, I was braced to do this last service to my Master, who felt disgusted at being served thus by the executioner, when another
    Commune official entered and told me that I was to remain behind, adding, ‘The common executioner is quite good enough for him.’
    Since five, all the troops in the capital had been standing to arms. Now the beat of drums, clash of arms, thud of horse, noise of cannon, sounding throughout Paris, echoed through the Tower.
    At eight-thirty the clamour redoubled, the doors clattered open and Santerre, with seven or eight Commune officials, entered, leading ten soldiers, who at once formed a double line. At this, the King emerged from his closet. ‘You are come for me?’ he addressed
    ‘One moment.’ The King went back, but at once returned with his Confessor. His Majesty was clutching his Will and said to Jacques Roux, from the Commune, a renegade priest, ‘I beg you to give this to
    the Queen, to my wife.’
    Roux thrust it aside. ‘That’s no business of mine. I’m only here to take you to the knife.’
    At the head of the stairs, the King encountered Mathey, Warden of the Tower.
    ‘M. Mathey, the day before yesterday I spoke to you somewhat hastily. I pray you, do not bear me a grudge.’ Mathey said nothing, and even affected to turn away before the King had finished.
    –Jean-Baptiste Cant Hanent Clery, valet de chambre to Louis
    XVI, _Journal_

  • Tom

    Interesting stuff!

    I’m a History teacher so it’s my pedantic responsibility to point out that Charles I was executed in 1649, not 1641.

    Simon Schama a socialist historian? Steady! (His interpretation is in any case similar to that of Francois Furet who must challenge Doyle for the title of Grand Old Man of French Revolutionary History, and an impeccable conservative as only someone who was a Communist in the Fifties can be.)

    One rather awkward reason why things went so wrong in the late 1780s and early 1790s was that it was deemed wise to abolish tariffs and price controls. Quickly. Unluckily, this coincided with some appalling weather (including hail in June) which destroyed the harvest of 1788. So by the spring of 1789 you had a lot of hungry peasants and very high food prices.

    (In the Bad Old Days of the ancien regime, price controls and the near-universally accepted notion of a ‘fair price’ ensured that food was still available at that price during times of shortage (so people didn’t starve), and that producers could still sell their products during times of surplus (so they weren’t forced to sell them below cost price and so starve themselves). Even the internal tariffs served a purpose – to prevent what happened in 1789-93, when producers exported grain from the district in which it was produced, thereby angering the peasantry and the sansculottes who saw ‘their’ food shipped out elsewhere.)

    Cross sansculottes = bad news. And one of the first things the sansculottes demanded after the execution of Louis XVI was the reinstatement of price controls.

    Interesting that it should have been provoked by the adherence first of the ancien regime, then of the ‘enlightened’ revolutionaries, to rational economics!

  • John

    I am a new, but very mature, student of history and have t write an essay on `Why was the French monarch facing bankruptcy by the late 1780s?’ Any of you guys got any good ideas?