Voting With La Guillotine

It was on this day in 1793 that Queen Marie-Antoinette of France was beheaded by guillotine at the command of France’s revolutionary government which had convicted the royal family of treason the previous year. Marie-Antoinette was especially hated by the revolution’s adherents, for she epitomized everything that was wrong with Le Ancien Régime: inept governance, indifference to the plight of the populace, arrogance, and extravagance. Although some writers have portrayed her as a hapless victim of circumstance and bad press, for once, the revolutionaries did not need to create or exaggerate the facts against the queen: Marie-Antoinette really was guilty as charged.

Marie-Antoinette was the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and the Queen of Austria-Hungary, Maria-Theresa. Through Marie-Antoinette’s veins flowed the bluest, most regal blood in all of Europe, and she was raised to believe that her birthright entitled her to the very finest of everything. Her father considered her the loveliest of his daughters, and he spoiled her shamelessly. Marie-Antoinette was ill-prepared to take on the duties of a queen, and she had a life-long preference for gaming rather than governing.

When Marie-Antoinette married the future Louis XVI in 1770, France’s finances were already a shambles due to the long and hugely expensive war with England which had cost France all of its North American territories. Louis ascended the throne in 1774 as tensions were about to spark into flame in England’s North American colonies. The Americans immediately recognized an opportunity: France, England’s traditional enemy for more than seven centuries, would surely be pleased to see England lose her colonies. Despite the shakiness of its funding and the disarray of its financial affairs, France’s royal government decided to support the American Revolution with both huge loans and outright gifts of France’s much-needed gold reserves. As the revolution dragged on, France committed troops and ships, and then even more troops and more ships, further draining the nation’s malnourished treasury.

In retrospect, this was a fatal decision. The monetary outlay to support America’s change of regime strained France’s already overburdened financial system to the breaking point, and revolution proved to be rather like an infectious disease: unleashed upon one’s enemies, it can quickly spread and turn upon those who foster it. (Even in the 1770s, the spectacle of France’s indolent aristocracy supporting revolution, liberty and republicanism in North America was regarded as fairly bizarre.)

As France’s financial situation worsened, more and more of the nobility retreated into stark denial, and no one embodied this behavior more completely than the despised queen. Marie-Antoinette is today remembered for extravagances such as her fantasy play place, Le Hameau, an inconceivably lavish rendering of a shepherdess’ cottage. Built of Marble and exotic woods, adorned with gilded moldings and richly painted walls, Le Hameau bore as much resemblance to a true shepherdess’ cottage as a pair of $700 designer jeans does to a pair of workaday Levis. (Except that Marie-Antoinette’s indulgence at least had intrinsically expensive materials in it!)

Marie-Antoinette built other enormously expensive amusements as well, and she held sumptuous banquets with rare delicacies for her circle of favorites even as food became scarcer and scarcer for commoners. Her feasts were legendary: the food, the wine, the fireworks, the music, the bejewelled gowns of silks and exotic furs and feathers. The spendthrift queen spent enough money on parties and grand entertainments in the year 1779 alone, according to one historian, to have completely restored the decrepit main road from Paris to Lyon to Marseilles. It would be rather as if today a US President spent 35 billion entertaining at the White House one year! So Marie-Antoinette genuinely earned her infamous reputation, though she almost certainly never uttered that most famous of lines used against her: “If the people have no bread, let them eat cake!”

For all her failings, the civilized world was nevertheless horrified when the revolutionary government of France executed Marie-Antoinette, and if history has usually viewed her in a rather negative light, fiction, drama, and Hollywood have tended to render her as a more sympathetic character. Yet Marie-Antoinette has symbolized the very essence of incompetent, uncaring government for the last 220 years.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.

— George Santayana

Further Reading:

Citizens: A Chronicle Of The French Revolution, Simon Schama; Alfred A. Knopf, 1989: ISBN: 0394559487

This is the most accessible and enjoyably readable major account of the French Revolution that I know of. Schama has an engaging narrative style, and he tells a good story. A must read on the topic.

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