Louis XVI 21 January 1793

Louis was born in 1754, third son of the dauphin (the Crown Prince, son of Louis XV), and thus in his early years not expected to inherit the throne.

In the France of his day, numerous hereditary grants and privileges made it difficult to get anything done on the governmental level. Thus, for example, when Louis was young he very much wanted to learn to play the violin. His first teacher was totally incompetent. He found another teacher who was good, and from whom he was learning rapidly. But the first teacher protested that his family had the hereditary position of music-master to the royal household, and that therefore he had the sole right to give violin lessons to the prince. The fact that he was totally without ability was irrelevant. He prevailed, the prince was handed back to his care, and soon gave up music. (Some years ago, a Frenchman told me: "Things have not really changed. Vegetables from all over France are sent to the vegetable market in the center of Paris, where it has always been. The traffic in the area is a nightmare, and a large fraction of the vegetables are lost or damaged so as to be inedible. After they have been sold to the wholesalers, they are shipped out again, and more of them are lost or crushed. Common sense calls for moving the market to some spot outside the city, and indeed asks why all the vegetables sold in France have to be sent to a single central market anyway. But this is the way it has always been done, and no one is about to change it." I hope, for the sake of France and common sense, that his statement is no longer true.)

The tax system was a shambles. Many previous kings had raised large sums of money in a hurry by selling to particular districts or towns immunity from taxation. That is, a town or district, by paying a huge sum of money to the king immediately, could purchase the word of the king that it would thereafter be immune from the annual taxes that its neighbors had to pay. By this means, the tax base had been much eroded, creating serious revenue problems for the government. The kinds of tax that were applicable, and the total level of taxation, varied wildly from one small district to another.

Upon his accession to the throne in 1774, Louis re-established the Parlement of Paris, which had not met for many years. It was not an elected body, but an assembly of lawyers. Tradition was that a decree of the king did not take effect until it had been registered by the Parlement of Paris.

One history I have consulted declares that the Parlements were bastions of reactionism, supporters of the aristocracy, and that Louis's re-establishment of them shows him to have been an enemy of progress and of the people. Another says that the people greatly desired the recall of the Parlements, and that by recalling them Louis showed himself to be a friend of progress and of the people.

And this is one reason why I have abandoned my original plan to give here a brief survey of Louis' reign and the political and economic issues involved in his overthrow. I will instead give two references:

Padover tends to be unfavorable to Louis, while Cronin tends to be favorable. Read them both and make up your own mind.

Louis abolished torture and the death penalty. He abolished the corvee, or labor tax, which required peasants to spend about fourteen days a year working on the building and repair of roads. He attempted to balance the budget, but failed. He called the Estates General, the French equivalent of Parliament, which had not met for many years. Only it could lawfully pass tax bills.

Traditionally, it had 900 members, 300 clergy (the First Estate), 300 nobles (the Second Estate), and 300 commoners (the Third Estate). Traditionally, these voted separately, so that if a majority of the members of one Estate favored a measure, all 300 votes of that estate were counted for that measure. Result (simplified): whenever any "progressive" measure was proposed, a majority of the clergy opposed it, a majority of the nobles opposed it, a majority of the commoners favored it, and it was defeated by a vote of two Estates to one. Now, when the king summoned the body, he announced that there would be 600 commoners instead of 300. This meant that the commoners could win, provided that voting was by heads rather than by Estates. If it were by Estates, then nothing had changed, and any reform would be defeated two Estates to one. But if the vote were by heads, the commoners would vote almost unanimously for any measure that was clearly in the interest of the people, and they would pick up enough votes from well-meaning clergy and nobles to have a majority. When the group assembled, they were instructed to break up into the separate Estates for the purpose of checking credentials. The Third Estate refused to budge, and thus were in open defiance of the King. Here, historians disagree. Those favorable to Louis say that it was his intention throughout that in the new E.G. voting should be by heads, and that the initial separation of the three Estates was simply because the clergy, for example, would have the specialized knowledge to judge whether a clerical delegate who was challenged did in fact have adequate credentials and should be seated. They point out that if the vote was not to be by heads, the expansion of the Third Estate to 600 delegates was silly and pointless. Those historians who are unfavorable to Louis say, "Silly and pointless, exactly. The King hoped to fool the people by offering them a concession that would turn out to mean nothing."

In any case, from then on the meeting, known as the National Assembly and then as the Convention, became increasingly defiant of the King.

It seems clear that the National Assembly had no initial intention of attacking the Church. However, several factors, such as the presence in Paris of a strong anti-clerical press and anti-clerical theater led the delegates to believe that the Church was unpopular with the French people, and that any measures they took to reform or restrain the Church would meet with widespread popular approval. They accordingly passed an act known as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. It provided, among other things, that all clerical salaries should be paid out of tax funds, that all bishops should be elected by the taxpayers of the diocese, with every taxpayer eligible to vote regardless of religion. They passed the measure without consulting the clergy, and then passed a second measure requiring all clergy to take an oath to support the new arrangement. Louis was troubled, torn between his conscience as a Catholic, which told him that the measure was indefensible, and his conscience as a constitutional monarch, which told him that it was his duty to carry out the will of the people as expressed through the National Assembly. He ended up signing it in December 1790. In 1791, in the Assembly itself, 42 of the 44 bishops present refused the oath, as did two-thirds of the lower clergy present. In Strasbourg only three priests took the oath, in Montpellier, none. The mob went wild, and there were many riots and instances of violence against priests and nuns. (In May 1792, to get ahead of our story, a decree provided that any non-juring priest was to be deported if twenty good citizens declared that they suspected him of disloyalty to the state.)

Louis' confessor had taken the oath, and Louis, by now convinced that he had sinned by signing the bill, turned to a new confessor who had not taken the oath (a non-juror), who told him that he did not have a duty of publicly retracting his consent to the bill, but that he did have a duty of not receiving the sacraments from a juror. Easter arrived, and after putting off his Easter communion to the last possible date, Louis received it from a non-juror. By doing so, he sealed his fate, and he knew it. Regardless of what one thinks of his fiscal or taxing policies, it is clear that by making his Easter communion he did what he believed to be his Christian duty, knowing full well that it would probably cost him his life.

He therefore is properly reckoned a martyr.

He was tried by the Convention, found guilty of treason, and sent to the guillotine on the feast of St. Agnes, 21 January 1793. He began the day by hearing Mass and receiving the Holy Communion. At the place of execution, he addressed the crowd, saying,

The remainder of his words were not heard, as an officer hastily ordered his drum corps to beat the drums loudly and drown out the speech.

written by James Kiefer