King Louis XVI of France, 1754-1793
King Louis XVI was the monarch during a focal point of history in his country, the French Revolution. Being at the center of the battle for sovereignty, people hold a number of conflicting views about his actions and his policies. Some contend that he was a bumbling oaf who contributed to his demise by mismanaging affairs and finances. Others believe that he was of moral character, sympathetic to the plight of the poor, but this sympathy failed him before the sheer magnitude of hate for the aristocracy.
Louis was born in 1754, third son of the crown prince. To his general misfortune, Louis overcame the odds and ended up inheriting the throne when his grandfather died in 1774. One of his first actions as the new monarch was to convene the Parlement du Paris for the first time in a number of years. The function of this body was essentially to ratify the decisions of the king, so some point to this as a demonstration Louis's willingness to support progressive ideas of government. Others argue that this was a hollow action, pointing out that the members are not elected, and tended to support the aristocracy.
After this, Louis left affairs in the hands of his advisors, who would frequently have opposing agendas. Additionally, France was facing a financially desperate time; they had suffered economically for their involvement in the American Revolution, and ill-considered actions of previous monarchs were beginning to catch up with them. In times past, monarchs would raise funds by selling towns a permanent tax immunity for a single large payment. Now the government was faced with imminent debt and dwindling tax revenues.
Realizing the importance of the issue, Louis finally took decisive action in 1787, calling to order the Assembly of Notables. He asked their permission to tax the privileged classes (the nobles and the clergy) as a means of stymieing the growing debt. A few minor reforms were made in response to the king's request, but the noblemen refused to submit to taxation, arguing that taxes were the concern of the Estates General (which had not met since 1614).
After two more years in dire straits, Louis called the Estates General to deal with the issue. This was an interesting move, and there is some speculation on the underlying motives. Louis decreed that the Third Estate, the commoners, should be increased to 600 (from the 300 members that were in the other two houses). Since the Estates general had historically voted by Estate, rather than by individual votes, some considered this to be a hollow gesture, made to appease the Third Estate without actually aiding them. Others believed that this move indicated that he intended for vote to be conducted on an individual basis.
Regardless of his intention, this action was pivotal in his eventual downfall and execution. When the Estates General met, they were told to separate by Estate so that the credentials of all members could be checked. The Third Estate interpreted this as an indication that the vote would be run by Estate rather than by head, and so they refused to move, openly defying the king's power. After bringing the other Estates in line, they began the session, wherein they immediately began passing reforms to help the peasantry.
It was within these meetings that the revolutionary factions formed and solidified their power. In the end, it was the actions and manipulations of revolutionary leaders like Marat and Robespierre that led to the trial and execution of Louis XVI. On January 21, 1793, his final words as he climbed the steps up to the scaffold were: "I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France."