France: March toward Revolution

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The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represented a crucial period in the history and future of France. From the extravagant Louis XIV, the Sun King, through the reign of beloved Louis XV, Louis XIV’s great-grandson, to the ruling of indecisive Louis XVI, France and its people experienced glory, wars and crises that lead to the French Revolution in 1789.

Submitted: June 20, 2011

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Submitted: June 20, 2011



25 March 2011
France: March toward Revolution
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represented a crucial period in the history and future of France. After the Treaty of Westphalia, which established that “each European state would exercise independent and supreme authority over its own territories and inhabitants” (Fiero 25), many monarchs adopted absolutism. Claiming that their power came directly from God, absolutists ruled without limits; nobody and no institution, such as the Church, influenced their ruling. Through the centuries, the monarchy changed hands, but absolutism continued to be the way they governed. From the extravagant Louis XIV, the Sun King, through the reign of beloved Louis XV, Louis XIV’s great-grandson, to the ruling of indecisive Louis XVI, France and its people experienced glory, wars and crises that lead to the French Revolution in 1789.
Louis XIV became King when he was only four years old and was crowned when he was still fifteen. From birth, Louis XIV was said to be a gift from God. As Fraser explains in her book Love and Louis XIV “[…] the circumstances of the conception, followed by the birth of the long-desired son, were widely held to be extraordinary – and above all by the baby’s mother. ‘Godgiven’: it was a view of himself as someone of special destiny that [Queen] Anne would impress upon the future Louis XIV” (10). Once King, “[…] Louis XIV governed France as the direct representative of God on earth” (Fiero 25) and called himself le roi soleil, French for “the Sun King”. During the 72 years of his monarchy, the Sun King ruled for himself – he did not respond to anyone and controlled it all. He taxed the peasants and privileged the aristocracy. The money collected from his people went to finance the military forces and the arts. At that time, the military in France was recognized as the most powerful in Western Europe. As for the cultural aspect, DeJean well observes that “by the early eighteenth century […] France had acquired a sort of monopoly on culture, style, and luxury living, a position that it has occupied ever since,” (3), and “the center of artistic patronage and productivity shifted from Italy to France” (Fiero 25), something all citizens should be proud of. But that was not the only shift France experienced: the royal palace was moved from Paris (the Louvre) to Versailles. Louis XIV “commissioned a massive renovation of his father’s hunting lodge” (Fiero 27) that lasted almost twenty years to get finished. The final product was “a synthesis of Classical and Palladian elements” (Fiero 28) that translates into the magnificent park and palace of Versailles, which “in its size and splendor—[symbolized] Louis’ supremacy over the landed aristocracy, the provincial governments, the urban councils, and the Estates General (Fiero 27). Kallen reports in The 1700s that the renovation of Versailles cost over 200 million francs in 1690 (68).
In the meantime, peasants lived in places “[…] built of mud, covered with thatch, and having only a single low room without a ceiling. The windows were small and had no glass. […] This is one of the principal causes for the epidemics that were still so frequent” (Kallen 68), “which, although less dreadful than those of the Middle Ages, were none the less quite fatal. Measles and especially small-pox, typhus and typhoid fever claimed thousands of victims. […] The peasants were almost entirely without medical attention” (Kallen 71). The epidemics were worse in the rural areas than in the cities, and, even though some peasants had it better than others, they all suffered. “The food of the peasants was always coarse, and often insufficient. […] The basic foods were bread, soup, dairy products, and butter” (Kallen 69). “During the last fifteen years of the reign of Louis XIV [1701-1715] the misery grew more serious. The winter of 1709 witnessed a veritable famine” (Kellen 70). “The government offered nothing for [the peasants’] troubles as it was bogged down in the costly War of the Spanish Succession” (Kallen 68) that finally was brought to an end in 1714.
The following year, 1715, was marked by the death of Louis XIV and his succession to the throne by his great-grandson, Louis XV.
Louis XV was only five years old when he was declared King. With his great-grandfather’s death, “it all depended now on the life of that child, the sole survivor of a once numerous family. […] That the little boy would live long enough to succeed seemed extremely probable, but, then, child mortality was appallingly high, the Dauphin himself terribly fragile” (Bernier 1-2). “At the slightest cold, people worried that his life might be in danger, and he was brought up in fear of the devil and hell. He thus became accustomed to the idea of his own death at a very early age and like to allude to it” (Lever 4).
Louis XV’s cousin, Philippe d'Orléans served as Regent of the Kingdom from 1715 to 1723, until Louis XV’s majority. Then, Cardinal Fleury was the King’s tutor and then Prime Minister for 17 years -- from 1726 until the Fleury’s death in 1743. “The King was still shy and uncertain of himself; he was quite able to analyze the situation, weigh his options and come to a sensible conclusion, but he lacked the sufficient confidence in himself to impose his views on a virtually unanimous people. Always willing to think that others knew better, since it had been the case all through his childhood and adolescence,” (Bernier 103) he was obedient to Fleury’s wishes and married at 15 years old to “ensure the dynasty’s posterity.
In the beginning he was a faithful husband to the devout Marie Leczinska [… who was his elder by seven years and] gave him two sons […] and eight daughters [, becoming] worn out by her successive pregnancies” (Lever 5-6). The King started meeting with casual mistresses until 1745, when he met Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, known as the Madame de Pompadour. She became and was his chief mistress for almost twenty years, until her death. A very powerful woman at the time, she had great influence over the King and had many enemies for that. Nonetheless, the King loved her and would listen to fulfill her requests. “Madame de Pompadour influenced state policy and dominated fashion and the arts at Versailles for almost twenty years. [Francois Boucher, who] was First Painter to the King Louis XV and a good friend of […] the Marquise de Pompadour” (Fiero 143), painted the Marquise portrait using the popular style at the time known as Rococo, the elegant and refined style very much appreciated by Louis XV.
“European aristocrats, who dominated artistic patronage between 1715 and 1750, found pleasure in […] Rococo” (Fiero 140). However, in the eighteenth century other styles were flourishing: Genre painting and later the Neoclassical style. Genre painting illustrated better the life of members of the middle class, while Neoclassicism “conveyed the rationalism and political idealism of reformers and revolutionaries in France” (Fiero 140). Both made more sense to be popular during the Age of Reason, “the Enlightenment -- the intellectual movement that occurred between 1687 (the date of Newton’s Principia) and 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution)” (Fiero 98).
Aristocrats like Louis XV did not appreciate the new styles in vogue or the intellectual movement that was transforming France and the French view of the world. “The quest for nonauthoritarian, secular morality led the philosophes (“nobility and middle-class thinkers [who] met to exchange views on morality, politics, science, and religion and to voice opinions on everything”) to challenge all existing forms of intolerance, inequality, and injustice” (Fiero 105). Louis XV, an absolutist, could not approve of the movement. When Diderot’s Encyclopedia was published, the King “claimed that the Encyclopedia was doing ‘irreparable damage to morality and religion,’ [and although] the crown twice banned its printing, some volumes were published and distributed secretly” (Fiero 106).
Between 1730s and 40s, France became involved in different succession wars with results that did not please the French. Later on, in 1756, France fought in the Seven Years War and lost many colonies to Britain. Louis XV’s popularity was not very high after those. “In the 1760s, a new minister, the Duc de Choiseul, managed to restore some stability to France. But the extravagances of Louis's court, the huge expense of decades of warfare and the defeat of attempts at reform left monarchy and government weakened by the end of Louis's reign. He died at Versailles on 10 May 1774 and was succeeded by his grandson who became Louis XVI” (BBC).
“Louis XVI, King of France, was the son of Louis, dauphin of France, the son of Louis XV, and of Marie Joseph of Saxony, and was born at Versailles on the 23rd of August 1754, being baptized as Louis Augustus. His father's death in 1765 made him heir to the throne, and in 1770 he was married to Marie Antoinette, daughter of the empress Maria Theresa. He was just twenty years old when the death of Louis XV on the 10th of May 1774 placed him on the throne. He began his reign under good auspices, with Turgot, the greatest living French statesman, in charge of the disorganized finances; but in less than two years he had yielded to the demand of the vested interests attacked by Turgot's reforms, and dismissed him. Turgot's successor, Necker, however, continued the regime of reform until 1781, and it was only with Necker's dismissal that the period of reaction began. Marie Antoinette then obtained that ascendancy over her husband which was partly responsible for the extravagance of the ministry of Calonne, and brought on the Revolution by the resulting financial embarrassment.
The third part of his reign began with the meeting of the states-general on the 4th of May 1789, which marked the opening of the Revolution. The revolt of Paris and the taking of the Bastille on the 14th of July were its results.
The suspicion, not without justification, of a second attempt at a coup d'état led on the 6th of October to the "capture" of the king and royal family at Versailles by a mob from Paris, and their transference to the Tuileries. In spite of the growing radicalism of the clubs, however, loyalty to the king remained surprisingly strong. When he swore to maintain the constitution, then in progress of construction, at the festival of the federation on the 14th of July 1790, he was at the height of his popularity. Even his attempted flight on the 20th of June 1791 did not entirely turn the nation against him, although he left documents which proved his opposition to the whole Revolution.
Arrested at Varennes, and brought back to Paris, he was maintained as a constitutional king, and took his oath on the 13th of September 1791. But already a party was forming in Paris which demanded his deposition. This first became noticeable in connection with the affair of the Champ de Mars on the 17th of July 1791. Crushed for a time the party gained strength through the winter of 1791-92. The declaration of war against the emperor Francis II, nephew of Marie Antoinette, was forced upon the king by those who wished to discredit him by failure, or to compel him to declare himself openly an enemy to the Revolution. Their policy proved effective. The failure of the war, which intensified popular hatred of the Austrian queen, involved the king; and the invasion of the Tuileries on the 20th of June 1792 was but the prelude to the conspiracy which resulted, on the 10th of August, in the capture of the palace and the "suspension" of royalty by the Legislative Assembly until the convocation of a national convention in September.
On the 21st of September 1792 the Convention declared royalty abolished, and in January it tried the king for his treason against the nation, and condemned him to death. He was executed on the 21st of January 1793.” (NNDB).
The reign of Louis XIV brought the glory, sophistication and the center of the arts to France, but also created a very suffering class of peasants. Louis XV’s was not very different in that respect – extravagances continued and the results of the wars brought down his popularity in France and huge financial problems to the country. The escalated problems were felt by Louis XVI, whose inability to govern together with the pressure of the intellectual middle class and the suffering population in France, brought an end to his reign and, ultimately his life during the French Revolution. Three monarchs in power for decades lived in luxury while their people suffered from the lack of the most basic. It was just a matter of time for France to explode into a revolution.

Works Cited
"BBC - History - King Louis XV." BBC - Homepage. Web. 5 Apr. 2011. <>.
Bernier, Olivier. Louis the Beloved: the Life of Louis XV. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984. Print.
Buckley, Veronica. The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: Francoise D'Aubigne, Madame De Maintenon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. Print.
DeJean, Joan E. The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. New York ; Sydney: Free, 2006. Print.
Fiero, Gloria K. The Humanistic Tradition, Book 4 Faith, Reason, and Power in the Early Modern World. 6th ed. McGraw-Hill College, 2011. Print.
Fraser, Antonia. Love and Louis XIV: the Women in the Life of the Sun King. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2006. Print.
---. Marie Antoinette: the Journey. New York: N.A. Talese/Doubleday, 2001. Print.
Haslip, Joan. Madame Du Barry: the Wages of Beauty. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991. Print.
Kallen, Stuart A., ed. The 1700s. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 2001. Print. Headlines in History.
Klonsky, Milton. "Louis XV." The Fabulous Ego; Absolute Power in History. [New York]: Quadrangle, 1974. 313-47. Print.
Lever, Evelyne. Madame De Pompadour: a Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Print.
Lotz, Nancy, and Carlene Phillips. Marie Antoinette and the Decline of French Monarchy. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Pub., 2005. Print.
"Louis XVI." NNDB: Tracking the Entire World. Web. 6 Apr. 2011. <>.
Pevitt, Christine. Madame De Pompadour: Mistress of France. New York: Grove, 2002. Print.
Winds of Revolution, TimeFrame AD 1700-1800. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life, 1990. Print.

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