Louis XVI and the French Revolution
John Hardman, a biographer of Louis XVI, argues that the king at the time of the French Revolution fails to live down to his abysmal reputation.
Louis XVI of France wearing a phrygian cap, drinking a toast to the health of the sans-culottes.The reputation of Louis XVI resembles an Adam cornice whose outlines have been obscured by many layers of paint over the two centuries of its life. Stripping away the paint has not been easy and few have attempted it. Indeed until recently the prevalent view of Louis XVI was that he was stupid, indecisive and governed by Marie-Antoinette. An examination of the evidence shows that he was fairly intelligent (and fairly hardworking). He was indecisive but this was exacerbated by the structure of decision-making. Before 1787 Louis firmly kept Marie-Antoinette out of policy-making but thereafter (when he was traumatized by the rejection of his reform programme by the Assembly of Notables) he was dependent on the Queen. Something more will be said about these three aspects.
Louis' tutors, when he was dauphin, found him proficient in Mathematics and excellent at geography, and in particular in cartography and what is today called oceanography. He taught himself to read English because his mother disapproved of the language of radicals. He read very little fiction and, if he bought the Encyclopedie out of his pocket money, it was to know the enemy. For he never had any doubt that the philosophes were the enemy. His aptitudes were exactly what was needed as king. His proficiency in mathematics translated into an excellent grasp of public finance, which was at the heart of government under the ancien regime because it was the regime's Achilles heel. His interest in cartography translated itself into a knowledge of naval matters (one hostile witness conceded that he knew as much about naval matters as one could without having gone to sea). He drew up the orders for armed naval...