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To what extent was Louis XVI responsible for the revolution in France from 1789 to 1792?

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The French revolution took place in France from 1789 to 1792, during the reign of King Louis XVI. It was an expression of discontent from the poor towards the rich, and of how they thought France was governed unfairly. The revolution is considered one of the most important events in human history, as it has continued to shape societies and the ways we live today (Cody, 2008). Through examining political, economical, social and cultural factors that led up to the French Revolution, this essay aims at evaluating the extent King Louis XVI was responsible for the event. Although he was responsible in some aspects, such as his ignorance towards the discontent of the Third Estate, King Louis cannot be held fully responsible for the French Revolution.

Many long-term and short-term causes led up to the French Revolution; we will now look at some of the main ones to better understand Louis XVIs situation and analyze his actions. Long-term factors include the deteriorating economic situation at the time, the rising population in France, and the new ideas of the Enlightenment that influenced the French peoples thinking. All of these had led to the peoples discontent, especially with the economic crisis, as they could barely support their families in face of the rising food costs and unemployment. Riots such as the Reveillon riot broke out (Hetherton 1992, pg. 24). Some of the short-term causes include the wars with Britain from 1756 to 1763 and from 1778 to 1783 (Lavelle, 2008), the meeting of the Estates General and the failure of the King to secure support from the church and the aristocrats, especially on financial and political matters (Waugh 2002, pg. 89). There were also two major events that triggered the start of the French revolution: the Tennis Court Oath and the Storming of the Bastille. These were important events that marked the peoples first actions to take matters into their own hands.

At the time when King Louis XVI succeeded his father to the throne on 10th May 1774 (Louis XVI, 2008), France already faced numerous problems. Although he started out as a popular king, he was only 20 years old and was young and inexperienced. Therefore, he did not have the necessary qualities and leadership skills to steer France out of these problems (Blackwood, A., Chosson, B., 2008). It is no wonder he was later described by the people as the worst leader to take care of the situation at hand (The French Revolution, 2005).

One outstanding obstacle that King Louis XVI had to face was the economic crisis. France had a large national debt (French Revolution, 2008), largely due to its unsuccessful wars with Britain. This crisis worsened later with another war from 1778 to 1783 when France allied with the Americans to go against the British (Lavelle, 2008). The luxurious lifestyle of the royal family, especially Marie Antoinette, was also an indirect cause of the crisis (Hetherton, 1992). Another important factor was the bad harvests. The harvests in 1787 and 1788 were unfruitful due to bad weather, which led to a number of side effects including rising bread prices, less income for farmers and discontent of the people (Lavelle, 2008). These economic factors also led to social problems. In the later part of the 18th century, the population grew rapidly (Hirst, 2001), resulting in more unemployed peasants and an increased demand on food. These social and economic problems to the inexperienced King were crushing.

Alongside these social and economic problems, King Louis XVI faced many political and cultural challenges. With the Age of Enlightenment, his power and authority over others was being increasingly questioned. There was a constant power struggle between those of the upper class (people of the first and second Estate); according to Lavelle (2008), many aristocrats tried to control King Louis. Some even paid the King in return for not having to help him (Lavelle, 2008; Waugh 2002, pg. 89) In fact, when the King tried to reform the taxes, the second Estate stopped him, as they controlled Parliament. The Parliament would not agree to these new taxes as they required the second Estate to start paying taxes as well (Waugh 2002, pg. 89).

Meanwhile, the third Estate was angry and discontented with the King for his inactions. Their ideas of revolution also posed a threat, especially after the American Revolution in the later part of the 18th century, which spread ideas of independence and the setting up of a republic in France (Waugh, 2002). These political problems and new revolutionary ideas were huge challenges for the King. He could not gain support from any of the three Estates. While the third Estate was furious with the King for his irresponsible actions, the church and the nobles refused to help the King.

Despite all the evidences of the King not being directly responsible for the revolution, he nevertheless had his share of responsibility. For example, he was ignorant of the protest of the third Estate before the French Revolution (Hetherton 1992, pg. 9, 16). This is important because it also caused other factors that led up to the French Revolution, such as the meeting of the Estates General and the riots that broke out. Another example of King Louis irresponsibility was his style of spending money. Despite the economic crisis then, he allied with the Americans and declared war on Britain, from 1778 to 1783 (Lavelle, 2008). This added to the countrys financial burden. These were major factors leading up to the French Revolution.

Throughout the revolution, we can also see King Louis irresponsibility. On the midnight of 20th of June, 1791, the King and his family tried to escape the Tuileries Palace (Hetherton 1992, pg. 26). They planned to flee to Varenees, a French city close to the border of Austria. Their plan failed when they were stopped and arrested on the next day by Jean-Baptiste Drouet, a postmaster in the village of Sainte-Menehould (Hetherton 1992, pg. 27). This shows that the King was weak and unpopular with the people.

In summary, King Louis XVI was not entirely responsible for the French Revolution. Many of the factors that caused the French Revolution were long-term and therefore not of King Louis making. Yet as King, he had responsibility to solve these problems. In general however, King Louis was young at the time when he was crowned king, and he did not have the essential leadership and ability to handle the problems he was faced with. If he had been a visionary leader, the result would have been different and more responsibility would have been expected of him. Therefore, although involved in the building-up of the revolution, King Louis XVI was only responsible for a number of short-term causes, and so is not fully responsible for the emergence of the French Revolution.

List of Resources:

Blackwood, A., Chosson, B. France. Sussex, England: Wayland
Ltd, 1988.

French Revolution. 2008. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Retrieved on Friday 13th March 2008, http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-FrenchRe.htmlHetherton G. 1992. Revolutionary France: Liberty, Tyranny and Terror. Cambridge University Press.

Hirst, R. The French Revolution (The Causes), 2001. Retrieved March 18th 2009, http://www.geocities.com/thefrenchrevolution/causes.htmlLavelle. Causes, March 17 2009. Retrieved March 17th 2009, http://www.schoolhistory.co.uk/year8links/frenchrevolution_causes.shtmlLouis XVI. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved March 19th 2009, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/349122/Louis-XVIThe French Revolution. Dir. Shultz, D. Perf. Ivascu, G. and Levine, P. Videocassete. History Channel, 2005.

Waugh S. [Unit 10]. The Early Modern World Book 2. (2002). Heinemann. Oxford.

Cody. French Revolution. The Victorian Web. Hartwick College. Retrieved March 20th 2009, http://www.victorianweb.org/history/hist7.html

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