Antoine Barnave on the failures of the king (1793)


Antoine Barnave, the lawyer and moderate revolutionary who favoured a constitutional monarchy, offered his views on the revolution while awaiting his execution in 1793:


“The democratic ideal, virtually stifled under all European governments while the feudal system remained powerful, has gathered strength and continues to grow. As the arts, trade and the pursuit of luxury enrich the industrious section of the people, impoverish the big land owners and bring the different classes closer together through money, so science and education bring them closer in their daily lives, and recall men to the basic idea of equality.

To these natural causes can be added the influence of royal power: long undermined by the aristocracy, it has called the people to its aid. Conditions in France were ripe for a democratic revolution when the unfortunate Louis XVI ascended the throne; the government’s actions favoured its explosion.

The two privileged orders who still retained control of the government were ruined through their taste for luxury and had degraded themselves by their way of life. The Third Estate, in contrast, had produced enlightened thinkers and acquired enormous wealth. The people were restrained only by their habit of servitude and the limited hope they had of breaking their chains. The government had succeeded in containing this hope; but it had nevertheless flourished in the heart of the nation.

It was already apparent that, among the growing generation, the principles of Voltaire were beginning to give way, in favour of those of Helvetius and Rousseau. For royal power to remain intact in such circumstances would have required a tyrant or a great statesman on the throne.

Louis XVI was neither; he was too well intentioned not to try to remedy abuses which had shocked him, but he possessed neither the character nor the talents to control an impetuous nation in a situation which cried out for reform. His reign was a succession of feeble attempts at doing good, shows of weakness, and clear evidence of his inadequacy as a ruler.”