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the last Bourbon King of France, 1774-1793
Louis-Auguste was born at Versailles on August 23, 1754, the third son of the Dauphin Louis and Maria Josepha of Saxony. He became heir to the throne upon his father's death in 1765; married Marie Antoinette, daughter of Emperor Francis and Maria Theresa of Austria, a match intended to consolidate an alliance between France and Austria, in 1770; and succeeded his grandfather, Louis XV, as king on May 10, 1774.
King Louis XVI inherited a government that was deeply in debt, and a society in which entrenched privilege made it difficult if not impossible to effect the social, economic, and political reforms that were necessary to solve the monarchy's financial problems. He made Anne-Robert-Jaques Turgot Minister of Finance and promised to support him in dealing with public debt, but Turgot met opposition when he tried to abolish some of the privileges of the nobles and higher clergy, and Louis was forced to dismiss him in 1776.
Louis replaced Turgot with Jacques Necker, who financed France's support of the American War for Independence by taking out huge international loans. The addition of even more debt made Necker equally unpopular with the nobles and he was forced to resign in 1781.
By 1788 France was so heavily in debt that the king was forced to call the Estates General -- comprised of representatives of the nobility, clergy, and commoners -- into session for first time since 1614. When those representatives came together in Versailles on May 5, 1789, they proved unwilling or unable to agree even upon how the deliberations should take place and votes should be counted. While the Estates General argued, representatives of the Third Estate claimed power as the National Assembly, marking the beginning of the French Revolution.
Rumors that the king intended to suppress the Assembly provoked the popular storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789. On August 5 the king formally accepted the authority of the National Assembly by endorsing its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. On October 6, 1789, Louis and his family were forced to move from Versailles and live under guard in the Tuileries Palace in Paris.
As the Revolution became more radical and the masses more uncontrollable, several of its leading figures began to doubt its benefits, and some even began plotting with the king to return him to power, as a constitutional monarch. Louis also began secretly looking for foreign support, especially from his wife's native Austria. On June 21, 1791, the royal family was caught trying to escape to the Austrian border and forcibly returned to the Tuileries Palace. A disastrous war with Austria followed, which in turn led to the capture of the Tuileries by the people of Paris and provincial militia on August 10, 1792. On September 21, 1792, the new National Convention abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic.
In November 1792, proof of Louis' secret negotiations with counter-revolutionaries and foreign powers was found in a secret cupboard in the Tuileries. On December 3, the National Convention decided that the former king and queen should be tried for treason. Louis defended himself with dignity in his two appearances before the Convention (on December 11 and 23), but he was found guilty on January 18, 1793, by 387 votes (including 26 in favor of a debate on the possibility of postponing execution) to 334 (including 13 for a death sentence with the proviso that it should be suspended). When a final decision on the question of a respite was taken on January 19, Louis was condemned to death by 380 votes to 310. He was guillotined on January 21, 1793.
This page was last updated on January 18, 2017.