The Life and Death of Louis XVI

By Saul K. Padover | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
"The violet on the throne of the lily"

THE TEAM of honest ministers needed an expert and decisive driver, but the king had neither a formulated policy nor a strong will. Like the nation itself, the cabinet was divided and uncertain of its goal, and Louis XVI, born to autocracy, was expected to lead and at the same time to satisfy clashing expectations. A generation of wits, critics, and scholars had undermined ancient loyalties and disintegrated sacred beliefs, and at the time when Louis XVI ascended the throne, France was in a state of indecision and perplexity, not sharply aware that it had already broken with the past and unsure of the future. Altogether too much power had been concentrated in--perhaps more correctly, seized by--the hands of the monarch during the last two centuries, and if the throne failed to exercise this immense social-political-economic power in the interest of the majority, then a revolutionary situation was bound to develop.

For more than half a century the French people had been groping for a formula that would satisfy at once the need for authority and the desire for liberty (of economic action), but neither king nor ministers had any just appreciation of public opinion.

Already, as some observers felt, it was too late for mild reforms. What had been a mere rivulet of national aspirations under Louis XV became a good-sized stream of demands

-68-

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