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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.
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.

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