In the years leading up to 1789, King Louis XVI enacted various measures to prevent the establishment of the National Assembly in June 1789 at the Estates General, the establishment of a constitution in September 1791, the abolishment of the monarchy in 1792 and Louis’ eventual execution in 1793. Several errors in judgment made this inevitable however. Although Louis XVI attempted to make reforms and concessions in preventing the outbreak and slowing the course of the French revolution, his excessive spending on military and foreign conflicts, as well as his flight to Varennes, had massive ramifications for the future of the monarchy in France.
When Louis XVI took the throne in 1774, the monarchy was already in large amounts of debt. This was largely due to expensive foreign wars, such as the 1740-1748 War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War from 1756-1763. In 1775, the monarchy’s income was 377,000,000 livres. War accounted for 90,600,000 livres (roughly 22%) and the navy a further 33,200,000 livres (around 8.1%) of government expenditure. Though the country was in large debt from massive wars, the French monarchy still thought it prudent to fight against their old rival: Great Britain. After the Battle of Saratoga, in which the British were fighting revolutionary Americans, Louis XVI heard word that the British were planning on attacking French possessions in the West Indies. He was advised by his finance minister, Jacques Necker, to war with Britain. Historian Simon Schama describes this advice as “eactly the kind of spurios good cheer that led the French monarcy down the primrose path to perdition.” In 1780, Louis sent French troops to assist the American revolutionaries. The war ended in September 1783. France had gained little from the war, but the cost was 1,300,000,000 livres, which the French government had to take out massive loans to finance. Had Louis not spent so frivolously on war in the years prior to the revolution, the revolution may have altogether been avoided.
War was not the only cause of the French monarchy’s financial concerns, another problem was taxes. Recognizing this, Louis XVI made attempts at tax reforms. At the time, a feudal France was divided into three estates. The First and Second Estates (the clergy and nobility) were exempt from paying taille taxes. Tax collection was also extremely disorganized. Direct taxes were collected by tax farmers, who pocketed the difference between what they collected and what the crown demanded. Necker replaced many of these tax farmers with people answerable to him. As many of the tax farmers were nobles, they were not pleased with Jacques Necker. Necker was dismissed in 1783, and Vicomte de Calonne was made finance minister. He asked Louis to call an Assembly of Notables in February 1787 to discuss the country’s finances. This was a meeting of some of the important nobles and clergymen in France. At Calonne’s recommendation, Louis proposed several new taxes which may have improved the country’s finances, but the nobles resisted this. Had the nobles been able to agree on knew tax reforms as Louis XVI had proposed, then the Estates General which led to the National Assembly may have been avoided, and the French monarchy may have been preserved.
The final nail in the coffin of Louis XVI and the French monarchy came on June 21st, 1791. After the October Days (5-6th October 1789), when Parisian women marched on Versailles, Louis and his family moved to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. On June 20th 1791, he attempted to flee to Montmedy in Lorraine, where he could negotiate with the National Assembly. He was recognized in Varennes and sent back to Paris in disgrace. At the time, members of the National Assembly had been working towards the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and they were appalled. To attempt to maintain the path they were working on, it was declared that Louis had been kidnapped, and therefore could not be held accountable. This deception may have been successful had Louis not left a manifesto in the Tuileries which outlined which declared his revulsion at the constitutional system. This manifesto was then published in French newspapers. This radicalized much of the French public. Prior to the flight to Varennes, most of the French population had been in favour of a constitutional system, they did not desire the abolition of the monarchy. This convinced many people that the monarchy was not good for France. This led to the rise of Maximillien Robespierre and his radical, republican political club the Jacobins. The Jacobins had not always been a totally republican club, but the flight to Varennes drove most of the monarchists to join a new club, the Feuillants. Eventually, after unrest in Paris in August 1782, the monarchy was overthrown. Louis XVI was put on trial in December, and executed on 21st January 1973, Louis XVI (then known as Louis Capet) was executed. Had Louis not attempted to flee the Tuileries, and had he not left behind a manifesto outlining his reasons for doing so, the French monarchy may have survived the bloody revolution.
Although Louis XVI attempted to make reforms and concessions in preventing the outbreak and slowing the course of the French revolution, his excessive spending on military and foreign conflicts, as well as his flight to Varennes, had massive ramifications for the future of the monarchy in France.