Kyle Brennan Tackett Reflection Paper - Q1 3/17/2014
The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 began a fundamental change in the political, social and economic structures that comprised the Old Regime. Prior to 1789, France’s worsening financial and political situation forced the reigning monarch Louis XVI to convoke the Estates General, which in itself generated lists of grievances from the provinces as well as summoned representatives of the three estates. Having not assembled since 1614, the calling of the Estates General was a momentous occasion, yet in assembling this legislative body many more vexing questions were raised than the King sought to address. The Third Estate, comprising half of the assembled representatives, demanded a vote by head rather than by order seeking to upset the Old Regime’s monopolization of power within the noble and clerical orders. Bound in their convictions by the Tennis Court Oath, the Third Estate resisted the will of the King by declaring themselves representatives of the entire nation, a National Assembly, which would work towards a written constitution and much desired reform. Louis never would’ve considered himself a politician, he wrote that, “I owe it to God for having chosen me to reign” (29). Despite this, between 1789 and 1791 his interactions with the delegates of the National Assembly can be viewed as a political struggle, one which he would increasingly be judged in the court of public opinion. The ideals of the French Revolution were not incompatible with the institution of the monarchy, yet, as Louis XVI became less a King and more a politician, he faced mounting issues and inconsistences that conflicted with: his beliefs (both pious and personal), his actions and inactions, as well as his reliance on the social hierarchy of the Old Regime.
The beliefs which formed the core of Louis XVI’s character had both positive and negative impacts on his attempts to reconcile the political crises that were forming and worsening in the summer months of 1789. The complexities of his character should not be misunderstood, while Louis took to religion and a fatherly view towards his subjects, he remained “difficult to assess, uncommunicative, unpredictable. Whether from timidity and uncertainty or from political strategy, he spoke very little, remaining silent and somewhat inscrutable.” (26) Louis’s insecurities would not aid him politically, for relying on others hurt his public image as a strong King nor did it dismiss fears of the influence his wife, Marie-Antoinette, held at court. Yet what Louis lacked in strength of character, he made up for it in popular favor for “many people seemed to seize on the young king, widely praised for his perceived sincerity and his hardworking application to duty, his faithfulness to his wife, and even his religious piety” (32) These traits endeared him to the masses and convinced would-be critics that he was simply a good king badly advised. In light of Louis’s hesitance and uncertainty, his weaknesses is notable in such forms as leaving “in the midst of discussions to consult with [the queen] – much to the consternation and bewilderment of the royal ministers.” (36) Although the weaknesses of Louis and the influence of the Queen did not have ruinous effects on his “political” profile, his reliance on the advice and choices of others, especially the Queen’s, would isolate him and prevent compromise with the delegates of the National Assembly.
As the domestic situation in Paris took a turn for the worse in the latter half of 1789 with chronic bread shortages, radicalism would take grip in political clubs and appeal to the masses. Louis was not always prone to inaction, when the political situation in the Estates General turning against the nobility and clergy he attempted to bring the legislative body back to order. In his Royal Session of June 23, 1789, in which he dismissed the idea of a National Assembly and compelled the estates’ distinctions to be preserved to break the impasse, Louis states: “As the common father of my subjects, as the defender of the laws of my realm, I come to reiterate its true spirit, and put an end to the harm that may have been inflicted upon it.” (Baker, 202). Even after opposing the work of the patriot delegates and reiterating himself as the origin of law and order in his realm, these “patriots remained convinced that he was well meaning and genuinely seeking the best interests of the nation” (37). In these tumultuous times the events on the national stage were reenacted in theatres, dozens of daily newspapers, or, for the illiterate, read out by orators. While political clubs began forming and printing their own views, few publications or clubs supported the positions of the monarchy. The writer Mercier laments on the misinformation caused by hecklers of these publications: “Simple legislative proposals are transformed into formal decrees, and whole neighborhoods are outraged by events that never took place. Misled a thousand times previously by the false announcements of these peddlers, the common people continue nevertheless to believe them.” (92) The volatile atmosphere in Paris and throughout the provinces was inflamed by the instability in the heart of the kingdom, for the King’s “most pervasive impact on the train of events probably came less from what he did than what he did not do: from his very lack of leadership, his indecision and inconsistency.” (34)
When in early July of 1789 a Parisian mob stormed the Bastille, murdering its commander, a great symbol of the Old Regime was toppled but the mob’s violence showed the King that despite his authority the unruly masses were dangerously unpredictable. The next blow to royal authority and the Old Regime would follow in October when bread riots led to a march on Versailles that forced the King and his family into residence within Paris. The violence that accompanied the storming of Versailles would disillusion Louis towards the revolution and leave him to rely ever more on the hope of a counter revolution. Louis still retained the adulation of his people, but in private the royal family, feeling slighted by the patriot usurpers and horrified by the violence, would now seek means to reverse the revolution. Louis’s public devotion to the revolution would be strained again in 1790 with the passing of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The Pope’s condemnation of such assaults on the lands and hierarchy of the Church made Louis’s political position even worse, which was only compounded by the King’s use of refractory priests for his services. The growing divide between King and revolution would lead to his flight in mid-1791, yet even here Louis’s hesitance to flee endangered the plans and caused complications. If the King’s flight in itself did not sabotage his reputation permanently, his decision to leave a handwritten explanation of his grievances against the revolution behind ensured that there would no doubt of his betrayal.
These last events were Louis’s final act of political ineptitude that would seal his fate, a previous supporter of the King wrote in the aftermath: “this king whose goodness had always seemed to excuse his weakness, has abjured in an instant all of his promises and all of his oaths. With his declaration, written and signed in his own hand, he has revealed to the whole universe that the honor and duty of kings toward their people are utterly worthless” (129). The conspirators that the King allied with in his attempted to flee France had ultimately betrayed him, not intentionally, but, in a complex political situation where inaction could have resulted in a constitutional monarchy, their gamble to restore the Old Regime would cost Louis everything, the love of his people, his crown, his life, and his family’s lives.