This biography accentuates the role that Louis the XVI’s own sense of fate, combined with a few chance setbacks, played in his own demise.
Hardman makes clear that, from the beginning of his reign in 1774, Louis was haunted by the example of Charles I of England, who was executed by his own people in 1649. He was keenly aware of the possibility of the monarch losing favor with and control of the people and worked to try to avoid that specific fate.
On coming into power in 1774, Louis actually backed a slate of economic reforms that would have rationalized some aspects of France’s government and alleviated some of the inequities that would later prompt outright revolution. He empowered Turgot, a Physiocrat who, viewed through the lens of history, was an economic reformer and liberalizer -- the Library of Economics and Liberty describes him as the “French Adam Smith.”
Turgot’s ambitious agenda included deregulating the grain supply, undoing the corvees or conscripted labor for public works, and curbing the rights of guilds, as well as larger tax reform. The poor harvest of 1774 made the grain reform politically unpopular, though, hurting his standing. When the nobility recoiled at the reforms, he ultimately lost the support of Louis.
Louis’ defining character trait was indecision. He wasn’t dumb or lazy or cruel. He understood the threat to France and his monarchy, and worked hard to avoid it. But he failed through indecision and waffling.
That is clear from his marriage, and his initial incredible standoffishness with respect to Marie Antoinette, who he later coddled to a fault.
Later, his inability to stand up to the nobility or the third estate, and his general waffling between factions and groups, would prove his undoing.
When he did make a timely decision, he second-guess himself and often backtracked. Of note, Hardman suggests that he turned down the opportunity to back an Indian revolution against British rule, fearing that it would be a repeat of his involvement in the American revolution, which he regretted.
-- Hardman speculates that the higher interest rates the French government faced under the stewardship of Jacques Necker might explain why France suffered a revolution and England did not.
-- Louis’ advisers warned him that anti-religious “philosophes” did have followers among the third estate
-- Nevertheless, Hardman claims that Enlightenment ideas actually played little role in the Revolution. Rather, they were invoked by some revolutionaries as a pretext or rationalization for taking power from Louis