Except in age Louis was everything that his wife was not. She was graceful, agile, mobile, playful, impulsive, effervescent, frivolous, extravagant, self-assertive, proud, always a queen; he was clumsy, inert, hesitant, serious, quiet, industrious, thrifty, modest, diffident, every inch not a king. He loved the day, his work, and the hunt; she loved the night, the card table, and the dance. And yet, after those early tentative years, it was not an unhappy marriage; the Queen was faithful, the King was fond, and when grief came it made them firmly one.
His features were regular; he might Have been handsome if he had controlled his weight. He was tall, and might have been royal had he not walked with swinging shoulders and heavy tread. His eyesight was poor, which contributed to his awkwardness. His hair was seldom in order; “his person was greatly neglected,” reported Mme. Campan.54 He was muscular and strong; he lifted one of his pages with one arm. He ate avidly. He drank moderately, but sometimes became drunk with food, and had to be helped to his bed.55He had few passions, few ecstasies of pleasure, few extremes of pain.
He was ill at ease with the Frenchmen who surrounded him, and who were trained in alertness of mind and witty readiness of speech; however, in private converse, he impressed men like Joseph II with his wide knowledge and sane judgment. Hear Prince Henry of Prussia, brother to Frederick the Great:
The King surprised me.... I had been told that his education had been neglected, that he knew nothing, had little spirit. I was astonished, in talking with him, to see that he knew geography very well, that he had sound ideas in politics, that the happiness of his people was always in his thoughts, and that he was full of good sense, which is worth more in a prince than a brilliant intellect; but he distrusted himself too much.56
Louis had a good library, and used it. He read and in part translated Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,57 but he put it aside when he perceived its anti-Christian tendency. He read and reread Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion, as if in premonition that he would repeat the fate of Charles I. “Had I been in his place,” he said, “I should never have drawn the sword against my people.”58 For the guidance of La Pérouse’s Pacific expedition (1785) he composed detailed instructions which his ministers ascribed to the savants of the Académie des Sciences.59 He kept in close touch with the various ministries, especially on foreign affairs. Washington and Franklin admired his judgment.60 His weaknesses were rather of will than of mind, and may have been allied to his heaviness of diet and flesh. Basic was his incapacity to resist persuasion, or to conclude from reflection to action. He himself practiced economy, but he was too amiable to force it upon others, and he signed away hundreds of thousands of francs at the behest of his wife.
He had no lack of virtues. He took no mistress, and he was faithful in friendship, perhaps except with Turgot. “It is quite probable that, next to Turgot, he is the man of his day who loved the people most.”61 On the day of his accession he bade the Controller General of Finance distribute 200,000 francs among the poor, and he added, “If, considering the needs of the state, you find this too much, you will take it out of my pension.”62 He forbade collection of the “coronation tax” which made the beginning of a reign a new burden for the nation. In 1784, when Paris was suffering from inundations and epidemics, he allotted three million francs for public aid. During a severe winter he allowed the poor, day after day, to invade his kitchen and help themselves. He was a Christian in title, in fact, and in observance; he followed all the ritual and regulations of the Church scrupulously; and though he loved food, he kept all the fasts of Lent. He was religious without fanaticism or display; it was he, orthodox and pious, who gave civil rights to the Protestants of France. He tried to reconcile Christianity with government, which is the most difficult thing in the world.
Despite his love of simplicity he had to live externally like a king: to go through the formal levee, let himself be dressed by pages and courtiers, recite his morning prayers in their presence, give audience, preside in council, issue edicts, attend dinners, receptions, balls—though he did not dance. But so far as his position and appetite allowed, he lived like any good citizen. He agreed with Rousseau that every man should learn a manual craft; he learned several, from lockmaking to masonry. Mme. Campan tells us that “he admitted into his private apartment a common locksmith, with whom he made keys and locks; and his hands, blackened by that sort of work, were often, in my presence, the subject of remonstrances, and even sharp reproaches, from the Queen.”63 He was fascinated by all that concerned construction; he helped the palace workingmen to move materials, girders, paving blocks. He liked to make repairs in his apartment with his own hands; he was a good middle-class husband. One of his rooms contained geographical paraphernalia, globes, maps—some of which he had drawn himself; another held instruments for working in wood; another was equipped with a forge, anvils, and a great variety of iron tools. He labored for months to manufacture a giant clock that would record months, phases of the moon, seasons, and years. Several rooms were occupied by his library.
France loved him, even to his death and beyond, for it was Paris, not France, that guillotined him in 1793. In those early years the acclaim was almost universal. “You have a very good king,” wrote Frederick the Great to d’Alembert, “and I congratulate you with all my heart. A king who is wise and virtuous is more to be feared by his rivals than a prince who has only courage.” And d’Alembert replied: “He loves goodness, justice, economy, and peace. … He is just what we ought to desire as our king, if a propitious fate had not given him to us.”64 Voltaire concurred: “All that Louis has done since his accession has endeared him to France.”65 Goethe in old age recalled the auspicious beginning:
In France a new and benevolent sovereign evinced the best intentions of devoting himself to the removal of so many abuses, and to the noblest ends—of introducing a regular and efficient system of political economy, of dispensing with all arbitrary power, and of ruling by law and justice alone. The brightest hopes spread over the world, and confident youth promised itself and to all mankind a bright and noble future.66