Episode 3: One Revolutionary War


Episode 3, ‘One Revolutionary War’, explores the character of France’s new King, Louis XVI, as well as his policies once in government. Louis’ decisions regarding the Parlements and the American Revolutionary War had a tremendous impact on French society and laid the building blocks for the Revolution of 1789.

Louis XVI

Upon the death of King Louis XV, the French nation was holding out for a hero. Louis the Well-Beloved (more accurately, Louis the Well-Hated) had spent 58 long years on the throne, and many in France were happy to see him gone.  The rise of the dead king’s grandson, Louis XVI, supposedly heralded the coming of a new golden age for France. In reality, no such golden age would occur.

An incompetent King at an inconvenient time

King Louis XVI held few of the autocratic and kingly characteristics required of a monarch who sat atop an increasingly divided and troubled society. Weak-willed and awkward,  the new King found himself at the center of an autocratic system designed for strong personalities like those of his two predecessors. His deficiency in the characteristics required of an autocratic leader was a recipe for trouble.

The young monarchs themselves knew this all too well. According to Madame Campan, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette knelt down and embraced each other having heard the news of the King’s death (Louis XV), and murmured, “My God, guide us and protect us; we are too young to ascend to the throne.”

Here is how Historians describe the character of the new King of France:

“He was deficient in that sovereign will which alone accomplishes great changes in states, and which is as essential to monarchs who wish to limit their power as to those who seek to aggrandize it.” – Historian Francois Mignet

“Totally incapable of standing by himself, he leant successively, or simultaneously, on his aunt, his wife, his ministers, his courtiers, as ready to change his policy as his adviser.” – Historian Edward Lowell

“Worst of all, for an autocrat, he had not in his nature one particle of those qualities that go to make up the man of action, decision, energy, courage, whole-heartedness.” – Historian Robert Johnson

“When Louis XVI. came to the throne of France, May 10, 1774, it was universally believed that the clumsy, conscientious, stupid young man and his beautiful wife, were to introduce a period of national prosperity such as France had not known since the earlier days of Louis XIV.” – Historian Shalier Matthews

American Revolutionary War

One of the first key policy decisions Louis XVI had to make in his reign regarded the American Revolution War. Should France commence open hostilities with Great Britain and aid the American rebels? Although an attractive opportunity to exact revenge for the defeat of the Seven Years War, not everyone in France supported the idea of intervention.

Arguments against France joining the American Revolutionary War

  • Queen Marie-Antoinette questioned if one monarchy should help replace another with a republican government. The Queen feared that aiding the political cause of the republican rebels may have unintended consequences in France where the Old Regime, an absolute monarchy, denied the French people many of the same liberties the Americans were fighting for.
  • Turgot, the Controller-General of Finances, feared the war would bankrupt France. The wars of Louis’ two predecessors had resulted in significant debt, and the French economy was still hurting from the loss of colonies as a result of the Seven Years War. Turgot believed any new conflict to be foolish, and warned that “the first gunshot will drive the state to bankruptcy.”

Arguments in favor of France joining the American Revolutionary War

  • Vergennes, the Foreign Minister, believed intervention was for the practical good of the state. He reasoned that victory would enable the French to secure trade and commerce across the high seas, and simultaneously weaken a key enemy. This argument resonated with some merchants and capitalists within the Third Estate. Vergennes also feared that a lack of intervention would have terrible consequences for France, no matter the outcome. If England won, Vergennes worried that they would use their large military presence in the region to attack the French West Indies once the Americans had been defeated. If the Americans proved victorious, Vergennes believed an alliance between America and England could result, and this English-speaking coalition would move against not only the French Sugar Islands but the wealthy Spanish interests in Peru and Mexico. Thus, Vergennes argued in favor of intervention for pragmatic and economic reasons. His embrace of realpolitik and his lack of ideological motivations can be found in his hostile attitude towards republican revolutionaries in Geneva:“The insurgents who I am driving from Geneva are agents of England while the American insurgents are friends for years to come. I have dealt with both of them, not by reason of their political systems but by reasons of their attitudes towards France. Such are my reasons of state.”
  • Public opinion was an important factor in pushing the government towards hostilities. According to  Historian Bertha Gardiner, public opinion heavily favored intervention, “the cause of the American colonies was taken up with immense enthusiasm”, and Louis’ hesitancy to engage in the conflict was essentially overruled by the public. Some members of the public supported the war due to commercial reasons, while others supported an interventionalist policy due to support for Enlightenment ideology. Historian George Bancroft argues that a movement for intellectual freedom could be found within the intellectual elites that resulted in strong support for war.

Despite Historian Bertha Gardiner’s assertions, historians debate whether public opinion or Vergennes’ influence was the key factor in driving France to war. Historian Edward Corin argues that it was Vergennes who was actually the principal force:

“The direction and momentum of French popular sentiment established, to some extent certainly, the possibilities and limitations of French official action, and this sentiment was in turn to no inconsiderable extent the product of the liberalism of the age. Yet it seems clear that the idea that France ought to intervene, if opportunity offered, between England and her North American colonies, in behalf of the latter, came in the first instance not from the salon but from the Foreign Office. And it is not less clear that the precise policy pursued by the French government toward the United States from 1776 on was shaped not by philosophers but by professional diplomatists.” – Historian Edward Corin

In the Navy

During the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War), France was outgunned on the high seas by Great Britain, and Britain’s naval superiority was only strengthened over time. France and Spain built or captured 6 ships during the war, while Great Britain built or captured 69. France’s inability to defeat Great Britain’s navy had a profound impact on the outcome of the conflict, which resulted in a stalemate in Europe but a disaster in the colonies for France.  Thus for the American Revolutionary War, France undertook a massive construction effort to build a new, larger fleet.

“It might be said also that the war in America, during which France had to build an entire fleet to oppose England’s, completed the financial ruin of the old régime and hastened its downfall.” – Historian Peter Kropotkin

To build the fleet, France required a large amount of money that the Treasury did not have. The Government was forced into debt, as it couldn’t raise taxes (the privileged orders would protest any infringements to their taxation exemptions) and couldn’t grow the economy rapidly and thus the existing tax base.

“There were only three means of meeting the expenses of the war: increased taxation, economy, and loans. The first was impossible; the second only possible to a limited extent; and Necker, therefore, was compelled to borrow.” – Historian Bertha Gardiner

Jacques Necker and the Compte Rendu

Director-General of Finances Jacques Necker undertook a major effort to ensure France could afford the new fleet.

Firstly, Necker sought to curtail unnecessary expenditure at court. This made him many enemies, including some Princes of the Blood and the Queen. Unfortunately for Necker, the savings he acquired for the budget were minimal, and yet the political capital he used to acquire them was significant.

“For three years he attempted to carry the burden of the war by small economies affected at many points, which produced the minimum of result with the maximum of friction” – Historian Robert Johnson

More importantly, Necker sought to ensure France could continue to borrow money from the credit markets as the war continued and as the French budget deteriorated. In order to reassure credit markets, Necker published a highly fictitious budget named the Compte Rendu. The document showed the French government in surplus (it was certainly not) and made Necker a hero in the eyes of the public. The fake surplus not only portrayed Necker as a financial genius but encouraged creditors to lend the government money it realistically would struggle to repay.

Unfortunately for Necker, the release of the Compte Rendu had drawbacks for his career. It outraged his enemies at court who felt the commoner had gone too far by encouraging public scrutiny of the government’s accounts, and his enemies began to move against him. Here is how various historians describe the events that unfolded:

“But when Necker, by these somewhat dubious methods, had reached the height of popularity, the small group of court conspirators succeeded in overthrowing him, like his predecessor. The moving spirit in this intrigue was the minister Maurepas, who, jealous of Necker’s influence, had been outraged by the publication of the Compte rendu, contrary as it was to every tradition of the absolute monarchy. To create difficulties for his colleague he circulated a private memorandum from Necker to the King containing criticism of the parlements, and thus roused the whole Paris parlement against him. The King’s brothers joined in the campaign out of resentment at such meagre economies as the minister had succeeded in making. Necker, believing himself assured of victory and anxious to quell all opposition, asked the King to admit him, though a Protestant, to the Council of State, as a resounding proof of confidence. Maurepas promptly seized the opportunity to play on the King’s religious prejudices, and declared that he would resign rather than allow the rights of the Catholic faith to be violated. The King, not daring to override religious scruples, offered Necker other satisfaction. Unwilling to accept a semi-victory that would have been a moral defeat, Necker wrote the King a short and discourteous note, and resigned from office on May 8, 1781.” – Historian Gaetano Salvemini

“His economy displeased the courtiers; the measures of the provincial assemblies incurred the disapprobation of the parliaments, which wished to monopolize opposition; and the prime minister (Maurepas) could not forgive him an appearance of credit. He was obliged to quit power in 1781, a few months after the publication of the famous Comptes rendus of the finances, which suddenly initiated France in a knowledge of state matters, and rendered absolute government for ever impossible.” – Historian Francois Mignet

Grey History