Modern history


Despite the failure of the Turgot experiment, the young king still retained goodwill in the country at large – indeed, so unpopular had the Controller-General become by late 1775 that his dismissal gave Louis’s popularity a fillip. Despite the rumblings of reaction in the coronation, the move for reform and the mood of political renewal which had pre-dated Turgot post-dated him too. This owed a great deal to the influence of Maurepas, whose position in the king’s favour had been strengthened by Turgot’s removal – and much also to the policy issue which dominated these years, namely, France’s involvement in the War of American Independence. The ferocious sideswipes which the war allowed France to make against its traditional enemy, England, stimulated the recrudescence of a popular patriotism focused on the monarch.

Louis was still a big clumsy bear who needed licking into political shape, and he lacked any relish for rule. Though he retained much of the court etiquette inherited from his idol, Louis XIV, the young king invariably seemed more awkward on ceremonial occasions than his courtiers. His moralizing view of politics impelled him towards a style of self-presentation which stressed the humane rather than the remote and disdainful. This often emerged in a preference for a homely, familial ethos – indeed, he appeared to take most simple pleasure far removed from the stately ceremonial round, in the guise of loving husband or bourgeois paterfamilias. The duc de Croÿ recorded how, once, the king and queen and their entourages, out riding separately, chanced to encounter each other in the Bois de Boulogne. The queen ‘threw herself down from her horse, and [Louis] ran to her and kissed her on the forehead. People applauded, at which [the king] gave Marie-Antoinette two good kisses on her cheeks.’34 This informal style was sometimes rather awkward – for Louis’s natural shyness made spontaneity a bit of a problem – but was undoubtedly assisted by Marie-Antoinette’s own distaste for protocol. The queen’s patent boredom at court ceremonials was widely commented on: the Anjou priest Besnard who made a tourist visit to Versailles to witness the king’s public dinner noted the king filling his face (‘and drinking quite a bit’) while the queen scarcely opened her napkin and fiddled with her food with conspicuous ennui.35 Marie-Antoinette preferred pleasure within the ambit of a more restricted audience of courtiers and intimates. The weekly balls she organized each spring were famous – and famously exclusive. Many of the festivities in which she engaged were indeed located in the less publicly accessible royal residences such as the Trianon, where attendance was even more recherché. ‘Except for some favourites, designated by whim or intrigue’, the duc de Lévis later tartly recalled, ‘everyone was excluded: no longer were rank, service, esteem, or high birth fitting qualification to be admitted into the intimacy of the royal family.’36

The value which the royal couple accorded domestic intimacy fanned the flames of aristocratic resentment and encouraged intrigue and faction. During Louis XV’s reign, court faction had often tended to crystallize around the king’s principal mistresses. Louis XVI’s lifelong marital fidelity erased royal mistresses from the political landscape, yet by some kind of perverse and arcane political logic, faction came to hover instead around the person of Louis’s queen. A year younger than her husband and just as politically unformed, Marie-Antoinette offered political protection after his fall to Choiseul, the architect of both the Austrian alliance of 1757 and her own marriage in 1770. Choiseul’s recall to power was not at all out of the question, and many of his would-be followers – such as the ambitious archbishop of Toulouse, Loménie de Brienne, and the baron de Breteuil, who tried to displace Vergennes as Foreign Minister throughout the late 1770s – drifted towards the queen’s milieu. So did Choiseul’s supporters in the ambit of the prince de Conti, who died in 1776. In the ‘queen’s party’ were also to be found pleasure-seeking, horserace-loving young aristocrats such as the ducs de Guines and de Coigny, and the baron de Besenval; exotic foreign imports such as the dashing comte de Fersen from Sweden; close personal female friends such as the princesse de Lamballe and the comtesse de Polignac; as well as, sporadically, the maturing younger princes, Provence, Artois and Orléans’s heir, the duc de Chartres (who succeeded his father in 1785). The grouping was a loose one, which had no homogeneous views, but it did exude a certain oppositional ambience – support for Austria, the royal court and the high Sword nobility – which put it at odds with the ministry. This emergent ‘queen’s party’ could moreover boast at least one early scalp – it had a hand in 1774 in bringing down d’Aiguillon, whose scepticism over the Austrian alliance was aggravated in the queen’s eyes by his friendship with Madame du Barry.

It says a good deal about Maurepas’s skills of political management that he was able to master the king’s continuing political immaturity and to keep the emergent queen’s party in check. In 1776, the king gave him the largely vacuous title of chef du conseil royal des finances (‘Head of the Royal Finance Council’), which helped strengthen his moral position over other ministers. He was also now allowed to sit in on the departmental business which each of the ministers transacted with the king, while rearrangements in the layout of the palace of Versailles allowed him informal access to the king via a secret passageway. He also altered the conciliar complexion of government, diverting most decision-making away from the unwieldy state council towards ad hoc committees which he found easier to manipulate. In addition, he aimed to propel Marie-Antoinette’s energies into non-political channels. He enjoyed more success with this task than had been his fate with Madame de Pompadour thirty years earlier: by the late 1780s the queen had developed into a major patron for great swathes of court, diplomatic, military and ecclesiastical appointments, and had become fashion-leader in haute couture and music. Maurepas’s masterly containment of factional pressures allowed him to piece together a relatively unified ministry. Indeed, an unanticipated era of government stability opened up after Turgot. Vergennes was to remain as Foreign Minister and Miromesnil as Keeper of the Seals until 1787, and Sartine stayed at the Navy until 1780, as did Montbarey, Saint-Germain’s successor at the War Ministry. Amelot, Malesherbes’s replacement in the Royal Household, lasted from 1776 until 1783. Following the death in office of Controller-General Clugny in 1776, the key role in finance from 1776 down to 1781 was taken by the Genevan banker, Jacques Necker.

What united ministers was not merely the fact that Maurepas had picked them. Following the fall of Turgot, there developed a foreign policy approach – and a financial strategy for implementing it – in which the ministerial principals found themselves in general agreement, and in which the king concurred. One of the few things on which Louis XVI complimented his royal predecessor was his restrained and unaggressive foreign policy. The young monarch was shocked by, and wished to reverse, the decline in the mores of international relations signalled by Frederick the Great’s seizure of Silesia in 1740 and by the Partition of Poland between Austria, Prussia and Russia in 1772. He disassembled the machinery of the old king’s Secret du roi. ‘Honesty and restraint must be our watchwords,’ he told Foreign Minister Vergennes, and the latter was in agreement that France should ‘fear rather than seek out territorial aggrandisements’.37 Both men were highly suspicious of the expansionist diplomacy of Emperor Joseph II, and refused to back the Austrian ally’s struggle against Prussia over the Bavarian succession in 1778.

Yet despite their principles, both Louis and Vergennes were resentful at the way in which England had, since the Seven Years War, eclipsed much of the international prestige of France and diminished the éclat of the Bourbon house. Consequently, they did not take much persuading to ditch their virtuous principles when, from 1775 onwards, they were served up on a platter with a golden opportunity for redressing the international balance in France’s favour, namely, the rebellion of England’s American colonies. Maurepas – a former Navy Minister and a pronounced anglophobe – was also game for engagement, though action was initially blocked by Controller-General Turgot, who was wary of submitting recuperating state finances to the demands of outright war. Turgot’s dismissal eased the drift towards military involvement. Extra resources were committed to Sartine for a naval build-up, while Vergennes worked hard to convince other European powers of France’s determination not to upset the balance of power on the Continent – the aim was only ‘to ruin [England’s] commerce and sap [its] strength’.38 While pacific protestations winged their way across the Channel with more sophistry than political moralists should have been able to manage, Vergennes and Louis began providing covert aid to the American rebels. Money, arms and provisions were supplied through shadowy front organizations such as the business run by the entrepreneurial playwright Beaumarchais out of Lisbon; grants of leave were made to French army officers which allowed them to cross the Atlantic to fight against the English; and permissions were given to rebel privateers to use French ports. Finally, in February 1778, the government signed a Treaty of Alliance and Commerce with the rebels, secret clauses of which agreed French recognition for a new post-bellum American state.

Anglo-French hostilities began in the summer of 1778. The bulk of France’s early efforts were taken up with drawing Spain into the alliance and then preparing for an amphibious landing in Britain and for the conquest of Gibraltar. In 1780, an expeditionary force of some 6,000 soldiers under the comte de Rochambeau was shipped out to America. Combined activity in 1781 around Chesapeake Bay between Rochambeau, the French admiral de Grasse and the rebel commander George Washington penned in an English army under Cornwallis at Yorktown. The ignominious surrender of the British forces had a powerful impact in Europe: it electrified French public opinion, caused a change of administration in England, and made moves towards peace inevitable. The war continued on the American mainland, in the Caribbean and in India, and England even went some way towards righting its situation by the Battle of the Saints in the Caribbean in 1782, which left over 20 million livres worth of French shipping on the ocean bed. By then, however, the overall outcome was already clear: the thirteen colonies had gained their independence.

Anglo-French peace preliminaries in February 1783 were followed by the formal Peace Treaty of Versailles in September. France’s allies did well: the American colonies won their independence, and Spain was rewarded with Florida and Minorca. French territorial gains were far from great, however, amounting to a handful of colonial gains and restitutions – nothing like the reconquest of pre-1763 Canadian or Indian possessions. Yet military and naval success had done wonders for the repute in which France was held internationally – with a strong minister at the helm, its strength and prosperity would be unequalled, opined the Austrian ambassador, the comte de Mercy.39 The war had also proved popular, and allowed the king to pose as patriot monarch in much the same way as his grandfather had done in the 1760s. The great nation seemed to be back in business.

The French people, an anonymous news-sheet recorded at the outset of the American War, ‘can only talk and dream war’, and ‘breathes nothing but war and vengeance’. The aim was ‘to humiliate English pride and to give up to France its equality and superiority on the seas’. A new ‘Rebel’ hairstyle allegorically representing the war caught on furiously, though it had to be banned from court because the snake representing England was so lifelike that it risked causing fits of nerves among the ladies.40 With anglophobia driving out anglophilia, the king – as during the Seven Years War – came to represent the very cynosure of patriotic zeal. A gala showing of the Siege of Calais, de Belloy’s patriotic, anti-English hit of the 1760s,41 had been put on specially for Louis and Marie-Antoinette, on the first occasion on which they visited Paris together in 1773, and de Belloy’s death in 1775 allowed his obituarist to remind readers how the playwright had ‘revealed to the French the secret of their love for the State and taught them that patriotism did not belong to Republics alone’.42 The circumstances of war allowed Louis to bathe in the reflected glory of warrior and protector, and also to indulge that paternal streak of concern for the welfare of his people which lay at the heart of his political philosophy. Louis’s personal virtues only seemed to make his radiance more appealing. Popular prints, pamphlet accounts, newspaper articles and cheap engravings propagated the image of the ‘good king’ as humane private individual, benevolent, tolerant and utterly committed to his patriotic duty. He was depicted taking walks with his children, making acts of charity to the needy, or featuring in anecdotes which highlighted his affability and good humour. Marie-Antoinette’s childbirths, illnesses, festivities and life events were also eagerly followed through the popular prints and engravings. A royal visit in 1786 to the new naval defences being constructed on the Channel at Cherbourg highlighted the patriotic fervour which encompassed the young monarch and the wider public. A kind of mass hysteria focused on the person of Louis, with the enthusiasticcrowds yelling out, ‘Vive le roi!’ and the king, getting into the mood, rejoining, ‘Vive mon peuple!’ The militaristic context allowed the fusion of popular royalism with quasi-Fénelonian paternalism: Louis addressed the crowds as his ‘children’ at this moment of rapture ‘in the midst of his family’.43

The media exposure of royalty, evident since the times of Louis XIV, and now given added vitality on the bourgeois public sphere, made the the king’s domestic as well as his public life more widely known about by his subjects than at any time in the history of the French monarchy. Yet it was accompanied by a marked diminution of unmediated contact between king and people. Neither Louis nor his queen strayed much from the well-trodden circuit of royal palaces, making even the relatively palace-bound Louis XV seem a veritable vagabond in comparison. Indeed, the Cherbourg visit was the only occasion prior to the Revolution on which the king ventured beyond the Île-de-France. The Versailles palace gates were still open for the wider public to come and gawp at the person of the king – English tourists were shocked at some of the unsavoury types they found prowling round the corridors and gardens. But just as king and queen found it more congenial to cut themselves off from their aristocracy, they were even more committed to their privacy as regards the population as a whole.

There were dangers with this kind of peekaboo style of monarchical presentation. Familiarity, for example, might breed contempt. It was the view, not of some stuffy courtier, but of the enlightened Intendant and literary figure Sénac de Meilhan, for example, that ‘it is good for the monarch to come close to his subject, but this needs to be through the exercise of sovereignty and not by the familiarity of social life … This familiarity allows too much to be seen of the man, and reduces respect for the monarch.’44Furthermore, the taste for news and information on the domestic doings of the royal couple which royal propaganda stimulated could not necessarily be kept within homely and cosily domestic bounds. Thus, a whispering campaign began very early in Louis’s reign about his alleged inability to consummate his marriage to Marie-Antoinette as a result, allegedly, of a malformation of the penis (though possibly as a result of a psycho-sexual malfunction).45 The problem had disappeared by 1778, when babies started appearing: first, a girl, then, to popular acclaim, a dauphin in 1781. Yet doubts and innuendoes about the sexual life of the royal couple would never disappear. An even more vitriolic whispering campaign – started by the anti-Austrian court faction – was also directed against Marie-Antoinette, who was represented at first as maritally unfaithful, then as sexually voracious (with young aristocrats, maybe even with the king’s brothers) and finally as polymorphously perverse (notably in alleged lesbian relationships with the comtesse (later duchesse) de Polignac and the princesse de Lamballe). Long before the Revolutionary pamphleteers got their hands on her, Marie-Antoinette had become an unwitting star of underground pornography.

The political risks inherent in the media packaging of Louis XVI were particularly intense over the years of the American War: after all, a soi-disant absolute monarchy was assisting a would-be republic to achieve its freedom from tutelage by a constitutional monarchy. Vergennes led moves to smooth over and explain away this apparent contradiction. As Foreign Minister, he had authority over the circulation of the foreign press on which the French public had come to depend for its political and international news, but he extended his influence more generally to develop a veritable news-management machine. Censorship was tightened up: the Gazette de France did not carry any mention of the American Declaration of Independence, and even downplayed rebel victories such as the battle of Saratoga of October 1777. He used the police to harass journalists and writers who threatened not to toe the line. He also provided doctored briefings to the international press, bribed editors and journalists and was not above financing a new newspaper, the Affaires de l’Angleterre, with the specific task of countering republican sentiments which surfaced elsewhere in the press.

Pro-government organs portrayed French aid to, then alliance with, the thirteen colonies as a purely instrumental means of achieving age-old anti-English goals: the American alliance was an epiphenomenon of a visceral and enduring anglophobia. In addition, the American alliance was also presented as a masterwork of political beneficence, with Louis lending a characteristically generous and fatherly arm to a young people. To be politically anodyne, the latter argument depended on representing the colonists’ political aspirations as qualitatively different from those of French men. And indeed, government propaganda placed great emphasis on the Americans as ‘a new people’, locked into an earlier stage of societal organization, trying to establish the kind of polity which European societies had long enjoyed. Thus the American envoy to Paris, Benjamin Franklin, with his homespun manners, beaver hat, farmer’s suit and straggling hair, cut a conveniently archaic, even primitive figure among the powdered wigs and fashionable dress of the court and of polite society.

France was far from immune, however, from the ideological contagion which Vergennes and the king feared. One conservative writer questioned Vergennes’s strategy of putting ‘into the mouth of a king of France or his minister paradoxical assertions concerningnaturalliberty, inalienable and inadmissable rights of the people and its inherent sovereignty.’46 Although successes in the Americas accrued to the patriotic glory of the ruler and highlighted the reinstatement of France at the pinnacle of the international system, there were many who were willing to regard the Americans’ struggle for freedom as an allegory which might one day be transported from the New World to the Old. While readers of government propaganda were encouraged to see Franklin as only one step up from the noble savage, for example, others grasped the more immediate relevance of the humane virtues he embodied. Some were moved to view the quest for American freedom as a prelude to transplanting liberty within France. Particularly prominent among the latter group were the career soldiers who served in the War of Independence, either as volunteers in the late 1770s or else with Rochambeau’s forces after 1780. The political outlook of individuals such as the marquis de Lafayette, for example (who had married into the archi-ancient Noailles clan), the Lameth brothers, or Rochambeau himself was transformed by their involvement in the struggle for American freedom. They saw the Americans less as uncivilized semi-primitives than as France’s political pedagogues.

The American sauce with which patriotism was so cheerfully consumed from the late 1770s could thus be confected in a variety of ways. Patriotism had broken out of the juridico-theological Jansenist straitjacket in which it had before been confined to become a more manifestly secular ideology. Even so, it was still open to miscellaneous construal. On one hand, it denoted enthusiastic support for a populist monarch, the patriotism of a Fénelonian ruler seeming to incarnate the patriotism of his social body. On the other hand, the word could also evoke fraternal sympathy with fellow liberals transforming their political culture. The term would, moreover, be placed under further semantic pressure as the American War ended and as France woke up to the fact that patriotism had to be paid for. The American War had severely aggravated the state of the nation’s finances and produced circumstances which would make the word ‘patriotic’ synonymous with ‘revolutionary’.

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