The Life and Death of Louis XVI

By Saul K. Padover | Go to book overview

PREFACE

THE FOLLOWING PAGES contain the first full biography of Louis XVI in any language, based almost entirely on archive materials. Here, admittedly, is the life of a little man, who during his lifetime was overshadowed by a vivid wife and after his death calumniated by a victorious Revolutionary tradition and ignored by generations of historians. The Revolutionary tradition libeled his memory because he was an inescapable and much-needed victim, and the historians neglected him because they lacked imagination to see that the figure of Louis XVI was at the core of the French Revolution. He lost his head and throne precisely because he was the sort of man he was, and had he been something else, the course of the French Revolution (if there had been a revolution at all, which is doubtful) and the direction of Europe might have been measurably altered.

What kind of man was he to whom such memorable things happened? This book tells the story of a man in a revolution, without attempting to glorify the one or belittle the other. The man was significant as a vessel and symbol of power, and the Revolution was important because it happened and, in happening, wrecked the man and changed the social system.

Louis XVI's personal tragedy (the emphasis is on the personal, since the author does not believe that any individual is sufficiently important in the general social scheme to be viewed in the light of tragedy) was that he inherited power. What he inherited he could not use, and what he used was not enough to protect his position and his life. The Jacobins

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