Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Greatness of King Louis XVI

Once again, on this day we remember the impious and treasonous regicide of the royal martyr His Most Christian Majesty King Louis XVI of France and Navarre, lastly “King of the French”. Much can and has been said about the spiritual greatness of this late sovereign. At a time when moral decay had taken its toll on France, and nowhere more so than the court it often seemed, King Louis XVI was a man of devout faith. He never took a mistress, never shirked his religious duties, genuinely preferred work to frivolous parties and truly saw his kingship as a sacred duty rather than an opportunity to have the best for himself. All of that is well established and should be well known. However, even those who praise King Louis XVI for his pious spirit often portray him as rather lacking in the more secular qualities most often required of kingship. At times he is contrasted with King Louis XIV who, while certainly far from being a pious man, was a more decisive leader who steered the ship of state with a firm hand, bringing glory to France and around whom almost all the affairs of Europe revolved. The exact opposite of Louis XVI we are to believe. Yet, while it is true that the two men were very different, it is certainly not true that King Louis XVI occupied himself only with other-worldly matters.

It is tragic any time a nation sets to destroying itself rather than accomplishing the great deeds possible if they worked together to channel all of that energy into the pursuit of some more lofty ambition. Although he had trepidations about some of it, there is ample reason to believe that had it not been for the outbreak of the Revolution, King Louis XVI might have gone down in history as one of the greatest Kings of France in secular as well as spiritual terms. In all the focus on the Revolution and his personal character, the great events and foreign policies of his reign are often overlooked. In the first place, he was no despot and from the very start favored giving the people a greater say in how their money was spent and how France was governed. However, even with all of the problems facing France, as a monarch, Louis XVI took a broader look at the past, present and future of France and wanted to see past losses made right and gains made for a greater future for his country. Of course, particularly after the drubbing France had taken in the recent conflicts with Great Britain, it was the British who would be the primary rival in his foreign policy. The King was not malicious or reckless by any means but he was determined to see British gains made at the expense of France reversed.

This was what ultimately led to the French intervention in the American Revolution (or more properly ‘War for Independence’). Louis XVI had deep reservations about helping any rebels in waging war against their sovereign yet he was persuaded to make an alliance with the fledgling United States by a combination of the urging of his advisors and his desire to see an end to the British domination of North America and, perhaps, a much greater French influence in the region. Although not often remembered, following the French and Indian War the French military had been reformed and greatly improved. The expeditionary force sent to North America fought extremely well and, along with the French navy, proved decisive in securing the independence of the United States by forcing Great Britain to give up on the war and come to terms with their former fellow subjects. The islands of Tobago and Grenada were taken from the British (Tobago being retained by France along with Senegal in the final settlement) but, to some extent, Louis XVI was undercut by his American allies who made a separate peace with Great Britain and effectively thwarted the greatest ambition King Louis had for the conflict which was the recovery of Canada. Had the war gone on there is every reason to believe that could have happened.

In the other great arena of colonial competition, Louis XVI also hoped to reverse previous losses and see the growing British dominance in India come to an end. He allied with the Maratha Empire and took the side of the Sultan of Mysore in the Second Anglo-Mysore War in the hope of breaking the dominance of the British East India Company, curtailing British influence in India and increasing French influence. France actually had a much larger sphere of influence in India, controlling large parts of the east coast and holding sway over the majority of the southern subcontinent. French troops and ships were active in the region but due to the distance involved the campaign was overtaken by events elsewhere and when the end of the American Revolution forced France to make a hasty peace with Britain the previous French support for the Indians was withdrawn. In the end Britain and the Indian forces made peace that restored the pre-war status quo in India. Again, had not the situation in American brought hostilities to an end, it is conceivable that France, working through local alliances, might have dethroned Britain from her place of prominence in India.

There was also the Far East to consider and, though not often remembered, it was under King Louis XVI that France first took a serious interest in Vietnam and, indirectly, helped bring about the victory of the last great imperial dynasty of Vietnamese history. Crown Prince Canh, heir of the future Emperor Gia Long, came to Versailles as a boy, converting to Christianity and symbolizing the alliance by which French support was promised to his father in exchange for favorable trade agreements and some minor territorial concessions. The previous regime in Vietnam had viciously persecuted Christians and King Louis was anxious to see a more humane dynasty put in place. A Catholic missionary had saved the life of Gia Long and he vowed that the rights of Christians would always be respected in his domain. However, by the time these great events were to take place in southeast Asia the forces of the Revolution were gaining strength and events rapidly approached a climax. King Louis was not able to play the decisive role he had wished to. Still, the Bishop of Adran acted on his own to help Emperor Gia Long take the throne and so things worked out. The only problems arose in the future when post-revolutionary French regimes tried to collect the payments promised to Louis XVI which the Vietnamese were reluctant to grant since it was the Bishop rather than the government in Paris which had actually helped them at the critical time.

King Louis also sponsored around-the-world voyages of exploration and the world (certainly North America) owes a great deal to Louis XIV for doing the same in his time. The point of all of this is that King Louis XVI was not, as he is so often portrayed, some sort of totally indecisive ditherer who fussed and prayed over one crisis after another. He had big plans for France, he had ambition, he wanted to see France recover her place of greatness in the world and had a few things gone differently there is no reason to believe that she could not have done so. There are those who will say that the Revolution proves that France was too weak to have accomplished anything in that period but this is clearly false. Look at what Napoleon was able to accomplish, once the Revolution was ended, only a few years later with the same country. Considering that the goals of Louis XVI were all about restoration and not conquering every nation in Europe, there is no reason to believe that he could not have been successful. King Louis XVI fully deserves his pious reputation as a martyr for the Kingdom of France but he should also be remembered as a potentially great King who could have done magnificent things for his country.

8 comments:

  1. Excellent post. People forget that Louis had many great accomplishments as a political leader and was widely admired by the other sovereigns of Europe while still in his 20's.

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    1. Thanks. I am really annoyed by the prevalence of the view that one cannot be a good man AND a good leader with big ideas, a plan for the future and solid opinions. All too often, particularly with sovereigns who met a tragic end, you hear, 'he was a good man but not a good king' and that sort of stuff. Usually, it is just not true. Good men (shockingly) make the best leaders but anyone can be betrayed and no one, no matter what their qualities, can succeed if they are surrounded by treason on every side.

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  2. Napoleon used the army and navy which had been equipped and built up by Louis XVI to conquer most of Europe.

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  3. Louis XVI helped decisively the American freemasons' revolt against their lawful British sovereign. I remember the scene in which Louis is musing over whether to help the British colonists commit such a sin in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" film. Without Louis' financial and military help, the American revolution would not have succeeded. He, thus, helped the American freemasons breech the biblical commandment to subject ourselves to any state authority so long as apostasy is not demanded of us. Saint Paul warns us in Romans 13, 1-2 that those who do not subject themselves to state authorities will be punished. Similarly those who help others commit such a sin deserve punishment as well. God, therefore, punished Louis XVI in a fashion similar to that of his sin: after a harsh 1788 winter (some say God-sent) that led to widespread famine, on a background of huge debts incurred mainly due to the American revolution he had financed (his wife's debts being only 1% of the total French state debts), Louis was toppled by a, yet again, masonic revolution.

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    1. Okay, so because Louis XVI helped Freemasons lead a secession movement against a Protestant monarch God punished him by allowing Freemasons to overthrow a Catholic monarchy, establish an atheistic republic and butcher multitudes of innocent Catholic people.

      Wow -that's quite a god you've got for yourself.

      If you're getting your history from a Sofia Coppola movie, I can't say I'm surprised.

      Next time you have a thought, for your own sake, just keep it to yourself.

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  4. Thank you for this wonderful article. King Louis XVI will always be my favorite King of France. He took his vow before God and people and never broke his promise to either. His love of faith, his wife and family, his deep love of the French People. Not for him the grandiose designs and never ending wars of Louis XIV nor the endless pursuit of pleasure of Louis XV. King Louis XVI was the monarch who cared truly for his people and wanted to better their lives. Rest in peace with God good King Louis XVI.

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  5. It says a lot about France that even today they still idolize Napoleon who contributed to more French deaths than maybe anyone in history, who went from a Republican with jacobin leanings to a self-proclaimed self-crowned Emperor who ended up marrying Marie Antoinette's own niece (with no one in France apparently getting the irony) while Louis XVI who had nothing but peace in his heart has been either ignored or continually derided. Compare that with Charles I in England or Nicholas II in present day Russia where even negative historians are reassessing their role and their death - but France on Louis XVI? Silence.

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  6. Perhaps you could also do a piece on the assassinations of Louis XVI's allies, King Gustav III of Sweden and Emperor Leopold II of Austria, both during the month of March of 1792, just before the war between revolutionary France and the monarchist coalition of Austria, Sweden and other European nations.

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