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August 1792 saw the demolition of the French armies at war with Austria, which precipitated the eventual downfall of Louis XVI. This essay will assess the major factors that contributed to this downfall, both in the short term and the long run. I am including what I consider to be the three main causes of the downfall of the French Monarchy. These are; firstly, the long run effects of how spiralling debt damaged the French economy and caused extreme social division. Also I will assess the decision made by the Monarchy as to why to go to war (both in Austria and USA), and how this heightened social tension and debt problems.
Finally, I will also explain how the actions of the Monarchy himself can be assessed, and to what extent they contributed to his downfall. It would be wrong to place the downfall of the Monarchy on one single factor, and inevitably all the factors I have mentioned contributed significantly in some way. However, I will attempt to make a judgement as to which of the issues contributed the most in the downfall of King Louis XVI. Debt was a serious problem existing in France during Louis’ reign. A number of ill advised financial manoeuvres further desiccated the already financially damaged government.
Why Did France Go To War In 1792
The country’s prolonged involvement in the Seven Years War (1756-63) drained the treasury, as did their perhaps avoidable involvement in the American War of Independence 1775-83, which they involved themselves in primarily as a means of getting back at the British. France was successful in both wars and had little to show for it apart from a dangerously damaged economy. But at this stage it could perhaps be considered that if money was spent wisely, then France could achieve a slow recovery. However, It was not only expenses on avoidable wars that was to blame for France’s growing situation of extreme debt.
The upper social classes of French Ancien Regime society joined the King in living excessively extravagant lifestyles. Mammoth costs were associated just with the upkeep of Louis’ Palace in Versailles, and the Queen, Marie Antionette was renowned for spending huge some of money on sustaining her lavish lifestyle. The extravagant lifestyles that were lived by the rich in France, outlined the absolute social division that was the Ancien Regime. This flamboyant, excessive spending by the nobility, not only further damaged debt problems in France, but it also brought along a hatred to the tax exempt rich from those who were struggling to get by.
I think that social division is very closely linked with the monetary and fiscal problems that France were witnessing at the time, eventually leading to the French being forced to declare bankruptcy. I think this because it was the absolute contrasts of lifestyle between classes in society that led to extreme inequality in France, perhaps angering those who were less well off, and those who were not exempt from taxation, a burden that only the lower estates had to pay.
Louis decisions to go to war in America and to spend needed money on living an over-the-top lifestyle were just two of the aspects that contributed to the downfall of the Monarchy. Altogether, Louis’ decisions that he made as a monarch were not necessarily wise ones, and although the French revolution can be seen by some as rather an unavoidable situation, inevitably, in my opinion the monarch did little to help with matters. As a person, it has been said that Louis suffered from clinical depression.
The effects of this syndrome are known to include a lack of motivation, as well as apathetic behaviour. Louis certainly showed some of these aspects with the decisions that he made during his reign and it would explain his indecisiveness over making critical decisions, usually turning to his Austrian Wife, Marie Antionette. For instance we get an insight of Louis’ indecisiveness as a monarch in such instances as The Constitution of the Clergy in July 1790. Here we saw Louis accept to the oath that the Clergy were told to take, and then go back on his decision upon the Pope’s rejection of the idea.
I don’t think that Louis was quite capable of making decisions for himself, and rather relied on other to help him. When he did make decisions for himself, they were usually of a foolish, childish nature. For instance, Louis tried to escape the country with his family during his flight to Varenne on June 20th 1791, disguised as Russian aristocrats, naturally he was stopped after being recognised from his face on a coin. This escape attempt not only outlined the King as being foolish but it also considerably weakened the king’s position and lowered his regard in the eyes of the French people.
Beforehand, although he had little real power remaining (largely due to the August Decrees (4th August 1789)), he at least still had the faith of his country. The king’s attempt to run away, however, made it clear to sceptics that he was willing to turn his back on the constitution and his position as a constitutional monarchy at any moment. The more radical revolutionaries, who had never wanted a constitutional monarchy, trusted the king even less after his attempted escape.
The more moderate revolutionaries, who once were loyal supporters of the constitutional monarchy, found themselves in a difficult situation to defend the monarch, when he was abandoning his responsibilities. Therefore, although Louis legally still retained some power after being returned to Paris, it was clear that his days were numbered. This brings me to my next point that Louis himself was perhaps not suited to the role of the monarch. In my opinion, it is a weak perception that absolutism can possibly work to run a country with the prestige and size of France effectively.
Louis was not elected for his talents as a leader, but rather that he was seen as more of a ‘chosen one’ by god. He inherited the throne, and with that he also inherited absolute power. In a country such as France at the time, with the Ancien Regime society that was adopted, it would be near impossible in my opinion to satisfy the needs of the majority of society. Louis was set a difficult task, but I also think that his inability to make decisions for himself, and thus managing to anger almost every social group in society, he did not make matters easy for himself by any means.
After all it was not just the poor that decided to revolt against the system, in fact I would say that they played a limited role. Of course there were aspects that helped heighten anger in the lower sections of the third estate, such as rising food prices, disadvantageous feudal contracts, and general mistreatment at the hands of the aristocracy. But for all of the hardships that they endured, it wasn’t the peasants who jump-started the Revolution. Rather, it was the wealthy commoners – the bourgeoisie – who objected most vocally to the sub par treatment they were receiving.
The bourgeoisie were generally hardworking, educated men who were well versed in the enlightened thought of the time. Although many of the wealthier members of the bourgeoisie had more money than some of the French nobles, they lacked elite titles and thus were subjected to the same treatment and taxation as even the poorest peasants. It was the bourgeoisie that would really act as a driving force for the Revolution, and once they started to act, the peasants were soon to follow.
The final factor that I consider to have contributed predominantly to the downfall of the monarchy in 1792 was the war with Austria on 20th April 1792. The decision to go to war with Austria was again, a foolish decision made by the King, and would inevitably result in his downfall. The fact that the king decided to go to war with the knowledge that the French would lose was careless, Louis wanted to do this as he thought that it would kill off the revolutionaries (who would be fighting in the war).
The war with Austria essentially outlines all of the problems that the constitutional monarchy faced up to this point. France could not possibly afford, to lose another war surely – they already were in a state of economic wreck. Even if they won the war, the amount of funding that would have had to be spent on providing a military strong enough to defeat the Austro-Prussian army that they faced would be too much for France to handle. Louis knew this and knew the outcome of the war before it had even started.
This I feel shows Louis cowardice and inability to make effective decisions for himself, the fact that he was willing to send all these soldiers (whilst revolutionaries) to their deathbeds, illustrates another example of where Louis tries to take an easy way out of a difficult situation, as we saw in the flight to Varennes. Furthermore, although he knew what the outcome of the war was going to be in the first place, he made sure of it by allowing Marie Antionette to send the Austrians the French battle plans.
The French, naturally, were demolished in the battle, and the only reason that they were not completely defeated was that the Austrian soldiers were ill prepared. The radical revolutionaries were so influential amongst the public in France that they would have been easily able to provide Louis and Marie Antionette as scapegoats for the loss. After all, Louis was not a particularly popular person amongst the public at the time. Effectively I think that the war, whilst perhaps not being the dominant factor as to why the monarchy was to fall in 1792, certainly acted as a final straw.
It was to be the last mistake of France under the constitutional monarchy, and Louis was to pay for it. It could be argued that possibly the war was unavoidable, as the declaration of Pillnitz August 27th 1791, surely sparked revolutionary extremists such as Jacques Brissot to go to war (although Brissot wanted the King to remain in power). But Louis’ rash decisions throughout his reign, his reluctance to reform, as well as the economic ruin that he had left France in throughout, made him an easy target to blame for French loss.
I don’t think that Louis as a person was suited to the role of the King of France, and I will again make the point that I do not feel that Absolute Monarchy can work under any circumstances, and if it was to be effective it would require a Monarch with great leadership qualities, immense charisma, and good knowledge of what to do in difficult situations. In my opinion, Louis was not charismatic (certainly towards the end of his reign), he did not have great leadership qualities, we see this as he sends his men to their deathbeds, and by no means in my opinion is he effective in difficult situations.
Therefore, critics may argue that he was placed an impossible task, I feel that even if the task were possible, as a person Louis was not the man needed to fulfil it by any means. Therefore, I will finally conclude by saying that I feel that Louis’ decisions, his personality and character, are the main issues that should be raised when discussing why exactly the monarchy witnessed a downfall in August 1792. The other reasons I have mentioned are also very significant, but perhaps could have been more successfully avoided, had the King been more able to make good decisions for the good of the whole nation, and been more wise with his money.