Did unto Others


There are few records of someone in such a position of power that he managed, by his own decisions, to destroy himself and end a 1,000-year-old dynasty. This feat was accomplished by Louis XVI of France. Louis had taken the throne in 1774 and inherited his nation’s antipathy toward Britain. His father, Louis XV, in 1771 had managed to reduce the power of France’s parliament until it was nothing more than an advisory body. When the American colonies revolted, this seemed a good chance for France to hurt Britain at no risk to itself. Over the next five years, France sent aide and soldiers to assist the American colonists. This may well have made all the difference: The French fleet holding the bay outside Yorktown in 1881 ensured Cornwallis had to surrender and guaranteed American independence.

Louis XVI’s American intervention was a foreign policy coup that greatly discomforted the British. But in the long run, it did more harm to his own monarchy. Supporting the American war was very expensive. It virtually bankrupted the royal treasury. This, in turn, meant that the French financial system had to be modernized and taxation changed so that the losses could be replaced. A specially summoned session of the Assembly of Notables was called to approve the changes. They refused to do so. This left the French king with only one more place to turn for approval of his financial plan. This was to summon the Estates General, the grand parliament with representatives from every level of French society. That was where his encouragement of the American Revolution and its popularity in France once more turned on the king who made it successful.

To justify their independence, the American rebels had to make the point that the rights of men were more important than the prerogatives of any monarch. The Americans meant the will of George III of Britain, but the ideas also took root among the intellectuals of France. When the Americans won, again with Louis XVI’s help, the writings of such men as Paine and Adams were reflected in those of Rousseau and the leading minds of Paris.

Having financed and legitimized a revolution against a monarchy in the name of the rights of men, it should not have come as a surprise when the Estates General took the same view. Only this time, the king was Louis himself. The Estates General not only didn’t pass the laws the king had summoned them to consider but instead began to rebuild the entire French government based on the philosophy begun by the leaders of the American Revolution. By 1787, the most powerful king in Europe had become a very limited, constitutional monarch who derived his power not from his throne but from the people. By 1789, Louis XVI, never an active leader, had withdrawn from involvement in the government and spent all his time on his hobbies of locksmithing and masonry. By 1793, the man who legitimized revolution in the name of the rights of men and financed the first one was beheaded in the name of the people of France.

For Louis XVI, financing and supporting the American Revolution put into motion results, attitudes, and actions that cost him first his throne and then his head. For him, and perhaps the thousands of those who died in the Terror of the French Revolution, it was a mistake that changed the world. It also was the mistake that ensured American independence and led to the rise of Napoleon.

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