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The causes of the downfall of Louis XVI Essay

During 1780s to 1790s France was in total chaos. France was ruled by the Bourbon family King Louis XVI from 1754 to 1793, it was an absolute monarch and they had absolute power and did not share it with a legislature. The situation was already bad before Louis XVI began his reign, but situation got worse. In the end, there was a revolution in France and a vast amount changes to the society and the government of France. Louis XVI himself was executed and killed; while France was established as a democratic country. There were different reasons for Louis’s downfall: social, economic, political conditions. Also reasons such as the Age of Enlightenment when some philosophers had new ideas of how the country should be ruled, the inequalities between estates, the bankruptcy of the government, the attitude and behaviour of Louis XVI, and the bad economic of France. All of these factors had caused the anger of the people. Although Louis XVI couldn’t help with some of the cause that led to his downfall, he was partly responsible for his own destructions.

Louis’s family caused the bankruptcy of the government, and his indecisiveness, his act of treason and his attempt to escape, were all the causes that led to his own downfall. The income of the government mainly came from heavy taxation on the citizens and several incidences led to the bankrupt of government. One of the main reasons was Louis and his family, mainly due to his wife, Marie Antoinette, who spent a lot of money in luxuries such as clothes, jewelry, and gambling. She even spent lots of money in creating beautiful gardens structured like a real peasant village around her palace, in which many people found it pointless and silly. (Brooman, 1992, p.15,16, 19) Louis, as a king, was a bad decision maker and couldn’t control the government and his people. His characters were not suitable to be a king. He preferred the leisure life of a king, especially hunting, instead of attending assemblies and governing the country. (Gilbert, 1995, p.7)

Louis was unable to use force to crush the revolution, and he and his followers only accepted compromise when it was forced upon them, which angered the Assembly who became suspicious of the king’s motives. (Gilbert, 1995, p.18) He angered more radical revolutionaries by repeatedly going back on his promises to accept important new reforms. (Gilbert, 1995, p.7) After people’s protest in Bastille, Louis XVI considered sending his army into Paris to recapture it. But he considered that the soldiers would probably refuse his orders that he had up control of Paris and ordered his army back to its barracks. He allowed the people to set up their own military force, the National Guard; also formed a new local government, the Paris Commune. Towns and cities all over France followed the example of Paris. Rioting crowds attacked town halls, forced out the royal officials, and set up their own communes and National Guard units. (Brooman, 1992, P.33) Louis XVI and his family also attempted to escape from the Tuileries Palace to Austria in June 1791. “It made it clear that he was a reluctant associate at best and would turn his back on the constitution and its system of limited monarchy at any moment.” (Janowitz, 2006, Louis XVI’s Flight)

Louis was deeply unhappy with the Civil Constitution. He sided with the priests who refused to take the oath, which made it look like he opposed the revolution and caused angry crowds protesting. Louis decided to leave France, to get help from Queen’s brother, Emperor of Austria. The Assembly suspected that he might try to escape, there were guards at every door in the palace. They were 50km from the frontier when they were recognized. News of their escape was sent ahead and the local authorities were waiting for them in the little town of Varennes. The King and his family were arrested and sent back to Paris. Crowds shouted insults and spat at the windows as they went. People in France no longer trusted the king after their attempt to escape. (Gilbert, 1995, P.37-38)

Because of the mistrust and the tension that was growing in the country, Louis feared for his life and he sought help from Austria, in which the emperor was Queen Marie Antoinette’s brother. On April 1792, France declared war on Austria. France was easily defeated and this aroused suspicions of traitors. “The Assembly ordered every soldier in Paris to the frontier, put a watch on all foreigners, and decided that priests who refused to take an oath of loyalty should be expelled…” (Brooman, 1992, p.39) The King disagreed with the order given, which angered the citizens. They also discovered that Louis purposely weakened the army of France because he didn’t support the revolutionary war effort and wanted protection. (Gilbert, 1992, p.39-40) Louis indeed was not a good leader of a country. “He was not capable of leading a country in crisis.” (Gilbert, 1995, p.7) People even came to think he was a traitor of the country.

Other than Louis’s own fault other political factors were also responsible. In the 18th century, known as the Age of the Enlightenment, some philosophers spoke of the new ideas of how the government should rule the country. Philosophers such as John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, their ideas influenced the people in France during that time. John Locke’s main theory stated that the government should provide protective services to its citizens, mainly on life, liverty and property. The only reason why the government had the power was because the people entrusted their rights to the government. But when the government was not doing their job, people had the right to withdraw and through rebellion, everything could be restored again. (Landry, 1997-2004, LOCKE’S VIEWS ON GOVERNMENT) Montesquieu was against royal absolutism. He thought that it was very important to separate the power of executive, legislative, and judicial powers of government.

And he suggested that “if one person or body holds several or all of these powers, then nothing prevents that person or body from acting tyrannically; and the people will have no confidence in their own security.” (Hilary, 2003, Liberty) Rousseau went further than Locke. He came up with the General Will, which suggested that instead of focusing on the interest of an individual, the interest of the majority should be the main focus. (Kemerling, 1998-2002, General Will) The ideas of these philosophers had influenced the people at that time which created the people’s desire to fight for their own rights, thus led to the revolution. Also, France wanted to build better relationship with other foreign countries, such as America. In 1780s, France engaged in a war against Britain, helping the American colonists in the War of Independence. Even in peacetime, its large army and navy continued to use lots of money. (Gilbert, 1995, p.8)

This increased the money problem that the country was having. Other than the financial problem, there was also problem in the people of the lowest class. They were unhappy with the ruling of the government that they set up the National Assembly. They encouraged the upper classes to join them. The establishment of the National Assembly was the beginning of the revolution and challenged against the king’s power. (Gilbert, 1995, p.13) Furthermore, in August 1789, from the results of the Great Fear, an incident where rumours was spread about “the nobles were trying to starve the people by hoarding grain,” (Brooman, 1992, p.33) and that led to the anger of peasant. Nobles were afraid and they gave up their rights and dues. Some times afterwards, the National Assembly issued Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. “It stated that all men were free and equal in rights. The power in France belonged to the entire people, not just the king.” (Brooman, 1992, p.33) This encourage people to fight for their rights and that all should be treated equally.

There were also many social and economic factors, which were responsible for the downfall of Louis XVI. Some of the factors existed for a long time, even before Louis XVI became king, which were known as the long term causes. One of them was the bad harvest. Over years, the population of the people increased, while there was already a shortage of food. But during 1787-1789, terrible weather destroyed many of the crops. As a result, bread prices went up and the farmers had smaller income. “The price of a loaf of bread went up by 50% between a year.” (Mantin, 1992, p.14) Families which spent everything on bread, stopped buying clothes, shoes, candles, fuel and etc. Also, the France government was lack of money for sometime, so they cut down on their expenses. As a result, the factories lost business and workers lost their jobs, which led to difficult living. (Brooman, 1992, p.21-22) Besides, another reason was the inequalities among the people in the country.

The French society was divided into three estates. The First Estate was made up of the clergy, the Second Estate was the nobles, and the Third included the middle class, which were the merchants, lawyers and government officials, and the peasants who formed the largest group and could barely feed their families. The clergy and nobles didn’t have to pay most taxes, while the third estate, especially the peasants, had to provide almost all the country’s tax revenue. The middle class were among the most important people in French society but were not recognized because they belonged to the Third estate. (World Book 2002 F7, 2002, p.525) The First and Second estates also had many privileges and rights. For example, the First estate had their own law courts and the Second estate received special treatment in law courts and didn’t have to do military service. The Third Estate had to pay taxes to their landlord and give the Church a part of their income. (Brooman, 1992, p.7)

The other example of unequal treatment could also be seen in the Estates General. In the Estates General, each estate had only 1 vote, even though the third estate had as many representatives as the other two estates combined. This means, if the first and second estate didn’t agree with the statement, it couldn’t be passed through as well. (World Book F7, 2002, p.525) In 1791, the Legislative Assembly was created to establish laws. It drafted a constitution that made France a limited monarchy with a one-house legislature. France was divided into regions, each with elected councils for local government. But the right to vote and hold public office was limited to citizens who paid a certain amount of taxes, which were called active citizen; and the rest were called passive citizen. (World Book 2002 F7, 2002, P.525-526)

This is especially unfair to those who couldn’t pay the taxes, which was one third of the population. Another trigger was the Storming of the Bastille, which happened in 1789. On July 14, a crowd of 8000 marched to the fortress of the Bastille, which was a prison and where many weapons were kept. The Bastille was a symbol of royal power that they hated. They wanted to destroy and take the weapons inside. They broke in after the governor of the Bastille refused to hand the fortress over. Although there were many soldiers in and around Paris, they refused to stop this attack and the people soon captured the Bastille. (Mantin, 1992, p.17 ; Brooman, 1992, p.30) “Louis was losing control of the army.” (Mantin, 1992, p.17) Not long after the incident, workers and peasants all over France attacked their lord’s home after rumours about nobles trying to “starve the people by hoarding grain, and paying the gangs of wanderers to attack farms and terrorize the peasants.” (Mantin, 1992, p.17 ; Brooman, 1992, p.33) These conditions, bad economic, inequality, and anger of people, affected the society a lot.

In conclusion, it was evident that there were many reasons that contributed to the downfall of Louis XVI. Among them, he was responsible for some of them, such as the wild spending of government’s money, his indecisiveness, act of treason, and coward actions of escapes. But on the other hand, there were political, social and economic causes that was beyond the King’s control: the ideas of the philosophers, bad economic, and inequalities among the citizens. The problem of France was indeed not the results of one person’s mistakes, but of complex causes and no one should be specifically blamed.



– Gilbert, Adrian, (1995) The French Revolution, England: Wayland (Publishers) LTD

– Brooman, Josh, (1992), Revolution in France, England: Longman Group UK Limited

– World Book 2002 F7 (2002). United States of America: World Book, Inc.

– Mantin, Peter. (1992) The French Revolution. Oxford: Heinemann Educational

– Hetherton, Greg. (1992) Revolutionary France. Cambridge University Press

Internet (online)

– Miss Lavelle. (2006) The Causes of the French Revolution. Retrieved 26 March, 2006 from < http://www.schoolhistory.co.uk/year8links/frenchrevolution_causes.shtml>

– Janowitz, Neil. (2006) SparkNote on the French Revolution (1789-1799). Retrieved 25 March, 2006 from .

– Landry, Peter. (1997-2004). Blupete – Literature – Biographies – John Locke. Retrieved 25 March, 2006 from

– Bok, Hilary. (2003). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat. Retrieved 25 March, 2006 from

– Kemerling, Garth. (1998-2002). Philosophypages – Enlightenment II – Rousseau – General Will. Retrieved 25 March, 2006 from

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