He was a good man, but hardly a good king. He had not expected to rule, but the early death of his father (1765) made him dauphin, and the tardy death of his grandfather Louis XV (1774) made him, at the age of twenty, master of France. He had no desire to govern men; he had a knack with tools, and was an excellent locksmith. He preferred hunting to ruling; he counted that day lost in which he had not shot a stag; between 1774 and 1789 he ran down 1,274 of them, and killed 189,251 game; yet he was always unwilling to order the death of a man; and perhaps he lost his throne because he bade his Swiss Guards to hold their fire on August 10, 1792. Returning from his hunts he ate to the steadily increasing capacity of his stomach. He became fat but strong, with the gentle strength of a giant who fears to crush with his embrace. Marie Antoinette judged her husband well: “The King is not a coward; he possesses abundance of passive courage, but he is overwhelmed by an awkward shyness and mistrust of himself…. He is afraid to command…. He lived like a child, and always ill at ease, under the eyes of Louis XV, until the age of twenty-one. This constraint confirmed his timidity.”21
His love for his Queen was part of his undoing. She was beautiful and stately, she graced his court with her charm and gaiety, and she forgave his tardiness in consummating their marriage. The tightness of his foreskin made coitus unbearably painful to him; he tried again and again, for seven years, shunning the simple operation that would have solved his problem; then, in 1777, the Queen’s brother Joseph II of Austria persuaded him to submit to the knife, and soon all was well. Perhaps it was a sense of guilt at so often arousing and then failing his mate that made him too tolerant of her gambling at cards, her extravagant wardrobe, her frequent trips to Paris for opera that bored him, her Platonic or Sapphic friendship with Count von Fersen or the Princesse de Lamballe. He amused his courtiers, and shamed his ancestors, by being visibly devoted to his wife. He gave her costly jewels, but she and France wanted a child. When children came she proved to be a good mother, suffering with their ailments and moderating nearly all her faults except her pride (she had never been less than part of royalty) and her repeated intervention in affairs of state. Here she had some excuses, for Louis could seldom choose or keep a course, and often waited for the Queen to make up his mind; some courtiers wished he had her quick judgment and readiness to command.
The King did all he could to meet the crises laid upon him by the weather, the famine, the bread riots, the revolt against taxes, the demands of the nobility and the Parlement, the expenses of the court and the administration, and the growing deficit in the Treasury. For two years (1774–76) he allowed Turgot to apply the Physiocratic theory that freedom of enterprise and competition, and the unhindered dictatorship of the market—of supply and demand—over the wages of labor and the prices of goods, would enliven the French economy and bring added revenue to the state. The people of Paris, accustomed to think of the government as their sole protection against greedy manipulators of the market, opposed Turgot’s measures, rioted, and rejoiced at his fall.
After some months of hesitation and chaos, the King called Jacques Necker, a Swiss Protestant financier domiciled in Paris, to be director of the Treasury (1777–81). Under this alien and heretical leadership Louis undertook a brave program of minor reforms. He allowed the formation of elected local and provincial assemblies to serve as the voice of their constituents in bridging the gap between the people and the government. He shocked the nobles by denouncing the corvée, and by declaring, in a public statement (1780), “The taxes of the poorest part of our subjects [have] increased, in proportion, much more than all the rest”; and he expressed his “hopes that rich people will not think themselves wronged when they will have to meet the charges which long since they should have shared with others.”22 He freed the last of the serfs on his own lands, but resisted Necker’s urging to require a like measure from the nobility and the clergy. He established pawnshops to lend money to the poor at three percent. He forbade the use of torture in the examination of witnesses or criminals. He proposed to abolish the dungeons at Vincennes and to raze the Bastille as items in a program of prison reform. Despite his piety and orthodoxy he allowed a considerable degree of religious liberty to Protestants and Jews. He refused to punish free thought, and allowed the ruthless pamphleteers of Paris to lampoon him as a cuckold, his wife as a harlot, and his children as bastards. He forbade his government to spy into the private correspondence of the citizens.
With the enthusiastic support of Beaumarchais and the philosophes, and over the objections of Necker (who predicted that such a venture would complete the bankruptcy of France), Louis sent material and financial aid, amounting to $240,000,000, to the American colonies in their struggle for independence; it was a French fleet, and the battalions of Lafayette and Rochambeau, that helped Washington to bottle up Cornwallis in Yorktown, compelling him to surrender and so bring the war to a close. But democratic ideas swept across the Atlantic into France, the Treasury stumbled under its new debts, Necker was dismissed (1781), and the bourgeois bondholders clamored for financial control of the government.
Meanwhile the Parlement of Paris pressed its claim to check the monarchy through a veto power over the decrees of the King; and Louis-Philippe-Joseph, Duc d’Orléans—his cousin through direct descent from a younger brother of Louis XIV—almost openly schemed to capture the throne. Through Choderlos de Laclos and other agents he scattered money and promises among politicians, pamphleteers, orators, and prostitutes. He threw open to his followers the facilities, court, and gardens of his Palais-Royal; cafés, wineshops, bookstores and gambling clubs sprang up to accommodate the crowd that gathered there day and night; the news from Versailles was brought there speedily by special couriers; pamphlets were born there every hour; speeches resounded from platforms, tables, and chairs; plots were laid for the deposition of the King.
Harassed to desperation, Louis recalled Necker to the Ministry of Finance (1788). On Necker’s urging, and as a last and perilous resort that might save or overthrow his throne, he issued, on August 8, 1788, a call to the communities of France to elect and send to Versailles their leading nobles, clerics, and commoners to form (as had last been done in 1614) a States- or Estates-General that would give him advice and support in meeting the problems of the realm.
There were some remarkable features about this historic call to the country by a government that for almost two centuries had apparently thought of the commonalty as merely food providers, taxpayers, and a periodic tribute to Mars. First the King, again at Necker’s urging, and over nobiliar protests, announced that the Third Estate should have as many deputies and votes, in the coming assembly, as the two other estates combined. Second, the election was to be by the nearest approach yet made in France to universal adult suffrage: any male aged twenty-seven or more, who had paid in the past year any state tax however small, was eligible to vote for the local assemblies that would choose the deputies to represent the region in Paris. Third, the King added to his call a request to all electoral assemblies to submit to him cahiers, or reports, that would specify the problems and needs of each class in each district, with recommendations for remedies and reforms. Never before, in the memory of Frenchmen, had any of their kings asked advice of his people.
Of the 615 cahiers taken to the King by the delegates, 545 survive. Nearly all of them express their loyalty to him, and even their affection for him as clearly a man of goodwill; but nearly all propose that he share his problems and powers with an elected assembly that would make up with him a constitutional monarchy. None mentioned the divine right of kings. All demanded trial by jury, privacy of the mails, moderation of taxes, and reform of the law. The cahiers of the nobility stipulated that in the coming States-General each of the orders should sit and vote separately, and no measure should become law unless approved by all three estates. The cahiers of the clergy called for an end to religious toleration, and for full and exclusive control of education by the Church. Thecahiers of the Third Estate reflected, with diverse emphasis, the demands of the peasants for a reduction of taxes, abolition of serfdom and feudal dues, universalization of free education, the protection of farms from injury by the hunts and animals of the seigneurs; and the hopes of the middle class for careers open to talent regardless of birth, for an end to transport tolls, for the extension of taxes to the nobility and the clergy; some proposed that the King should wipe out the fiscal deficit by confiscating and selling ecclesiastical property. The first stages of the Revolution were already outlined in these cahiers.
In this humble call of a king to his citizens there was a noticeable deviation from impartiality. Whereas outside Paris any man who had paid a tax was eligible to vote, in Paris only those could vote who had paid a poll tax of six livres or more. Perhaps the King and his advisers hesitated to leave to the 500,000 sansculottes the selection of men to represent in the States-General the best intelligence of the capital; the democratic problem of quality versus quantity, of getting brains by counting noses, appeared here on the eve of the Revolution that was, in 1793, to declare for democracy. So the sansculottes were left out of the legitimate drama, and were led to feel that only through the violent force of their number could they express their aliquot part of the general will. They would be heard from, they would be avenged. In 1789 they would take the Bastille; in 1792 they would dethrone the King; in 1793 they would be the government of France.