What were the origins of the French Revolution, and why did Louis XVI fail to take advantage of the opportunities to direct and moderate this movement?What were the consequences of his failure?
The origins of the French Revolution can be traced to the crippling debt France had accrued, primarily during the reign of Louis XIV, and the inequitable system of taxation which caused the tax burden to fall on those least able to afford it. A third factor was the early American Revolution.
Louis XIV's lavish lifestyle and constant warfare (he is said to have confessed on his deathbed "I have made war too much) left France heavily in debt. Louis had borrowed heavily from European Bankers to such a point that France could hardly pay the interest on the debt. He devised a temporary solution by selling titles of nobility, so called "Nobility of the Robe," who were thereby exempt from paying taxes, as were their heirs in perpetuity. Since only commoners (the "third estate" paid taxes, the sale of titles of nobility decreased the tax base and exacerbated the burden on the peasantry, including the important middle class known as the Bourgeoisie.
Pamphlets and tracts romanticized the American Revolution as an exercise of the people overthrowing a tyrannical government. Interestingly, France's financial assistance during the American Revolution had actually exacerbated the already extreme debt of the French government.
Louis XVI vacillated. He originally believed he must declare bankruptcy, later agreed to the idea of a limited monarchy, but in the end attempted to leave town but was captured. The fact that his wife, Marie Antoinette was foreign born (she was Austrian) did not help matters. Louis was perhaps not intelligent enough to deal with the situation and reluctant to part with the royal prerogatives which had been in place for many years. His failure to act eventually became his undoing.