History's Ironies - Was America Responsible for Louis XVI Losing His Head?

The French and American Revolutions hold so many ironies, it’s impossible to touch on them all in one post. Today, I pose the question – was America responsible for the French Revolution and, ultimately, the beheading of Louis XVI? The answer to this question is full of all sorts of deliciously ironic twists.

Maximilien Robespierre
source: Wikimedia Commons
This image is in the public domain in the US since
its copyright has expired

The mastermind behind the Reign of Terror.
Ironically, he was executed by guillotine
after he fell out of favor with the movement.
"Live by the guillotine, die by the guillotine" I guess!
First of all, there’s no doubt in my mind the French were motivated by the success of the American Revolution. Men like Benjamin Franklin gained almost celebrity status during his days in France. Later, they were influenced by Thomas Jefferson, originally an enthusiastic supporter of their cause. In addition, as one of my friends recently reminded me, Thomas Paine (CommonSense, Rights of Man) was sentenced to lose his own head in France, although he managed to convince the French to let him and many other Americans go. That is an irony in itself since Rights of Man is in support of the French Revolution. Paine just happened to find himself on Robspierre's bad side during the Reign of Terror. (Even the revolt had its share of political factions.)

What’s perhaps most ironic is that France had so much early influence on the American Revolution. There’s little doubt that French philosophers such as Montesquieu influenced the founding fathers. The Marquisde Lafayette became George Washington’s Aide de Camp and Washington came to regard him almost as a son. King Louis and some of his aristocratic subjects had been secretly supporting the Americans for some time with money and weapons. However, not until Washington managed to defeat General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga did it become clear the Americans stood a chance. At that point, King Louis recognized American independence and sent aid in the form of the comted'Estaing and his fleet of twelve ships.

Charles Henri Victor Theodat comte d Estaing
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This image is in the public domain in the US since
its copyright has expired
Ironically, although the comte’s fleet almost doubled the size of the Continental Navy, he met with only failure before returning to France where he would eventually end up on the wrong end of the guillotine.

By the way, here’s another ironic twist. While France recognized America’s independence in 1778, they were not the first country to do so. That honor belongs to Morocco. Ironically, the United States paid the Moroccans back for their support by supporting them in their fight for independence from France.

While Americans might have been grateful for the King’s support, belated and ineffective as the fleet was, don’t think for a second it was due to King Louis’ love of freedom. The French and the English had been at war off and on for almost a millennium, and the American Revolution served to weaken Britain’s hold in the new world and as revenge for France losing much of her holdings during the French and Indian War.

As my rather Republican minded hero, Le Chevalier de Mont Trignon muses in Le Chevalier, [The Americans] struggle for freedom from tyranny should be admired, perhaps even encouraged, so long as it eroded England’s power.

However, the price of King Louis’ revenge was high. French Kings were not known for their frugality and Louis was no exception. His support for the American Revolution drained his resources even more, and he felt the need to raise taxes on the common people. Ironically (once again) it was fighting the French in the French and Indian War that drained the English coffers, made King George III raise taxes on his American subjects, and eventually lead to the American Revolution.

In a way, it’s a chicken and egg question. Perhaps the perpetual animosity between the French and the English contributed to America’s independence more than any other factor. King Louis might just as well lay the blame for his demise at the feet of William the Conqueror. But perhaps that’s carrying it a little too far. I’ll just lay the blame at the feet of George III as any patriotic 18th century American would.


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