Monday, August 20, 2007

Marie-Antoinette and the Revolution

I keep reading on various sites phrases such as "Marie-Antoinette obstinately fought for the divine right of kings." Yes, it seems to be the general consensus that Marie-Antoinette did not support the French Revolution; she even had the temerity to think that monarchy was a good idea. Surprise, surprise. How could anyone expect the "Daughter of the Caesars" to see things differently? Her father was the Holy Roman Emperor, her mother an autocratic sovereign in her own right, and yet people censure Marie-Antoinette for not rejoicing when France became a Republic. Especially, it should be kept in mind that the Revolution was introduced to her in a manner of extreme violence, with herself and her family being dragged to Paris with the heads of guards on pikes before them. That the queen would dedicate herself to trying to save her family from further violence by working against the Revolution should not come as a great shock.

There are several points that need to be considered here. First of all, Marie-Antoinette was indeed an Austrian Archduchess, raised to be the consort of the European ruler. She had it instilled in her mind from early on that she was meant to be a queen, although it was not until late in her childhood that it was decided that she was to be the bride of the Dauphin of France. Therefore, Marie-Antoinette was brought up with the idea that it was the monarchy which protected the rights of the people, particularly from the excesses of greedy nobles and barbarous invaders. Without the monarchy's protection, the people would become pawns in games between politicians who would take power for themselves and become dictators. Or so she was taught to see it.

Among European monarchs who were contemporaries of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, the more "enlightened" ones, such as Marie-Antoinette's brother Joseph II, and Catherine the Great of Russia, open to the teachings of the deists and philosophes, were also the most despotic. The Enlightened Despots loved to talk about the rights of man but in actuality ruled with iron hands, especially in contrast to the benevolence of Louis XVI. Marie-Antoinette herself was not closed to the new ideas; she read Rousseau and was favorable to the masons; both she and Louis were great advocates of reform and progress.

However, the escalating violence of the Revolution and the laws against the Church, as promulgated by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790, killed any support the queen might have had for the Revolution. Nevertheless, she corresponded with prominent revolutionaries such as Barnave, in order to have some influence on the course of events. She called the constitution passed on September 14, 1791 "a tissue of impracticable absurdities," as she wrote to the Austrian ambassador; even the revolutionaries came to regard it so, and scrapped it. She wanted the foreign powers, particularly her brother the Emperor, to form a congress which would put pressure on the revolutionaries and restore order. However, she thought that any attempts of military invasion on the part of the Louis XVI's brothers would lead to more violence against the crown and her fears were proved to be right. (see Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette During the Revolution by Nesta Webster.)

Marie-Antoinette is continually being accused of betraying France, but she is the one who was betrayed. As one article says of her:
Not a crime was ever fastened upon her, while all her judges perished as villains. Yet no other woman has evoked the unanimous resentment of a nation. She was a good wife and a loving mother. She looked on the bright side of life. She was beautiful, and seemed born to bring joy into the world. Yet her mere existence set fiercely ablaze the smouldering wickedness of mankind.
She is generally considered to have touched more keys on the gamut of human feeling, through experience, than any other person of whom we have complete accounts....And if there be a measure of justice prepared for those who go beyond this world, it cannot be amiss in us to shed a tear for her, to bless her brave, beleaguered heart, to blush for human cruelty, -and pray that none so good again shall raise so many foes.
Here is the a description of Marie-Antoinette's character based upon the writings of the Comte de La Marck.


Anonymous said...

Interesting and enlightening. Thanks for sharing. As with the Russian Revolution there were several opportunities when other European monarchs could have intervened and prevented the murders of Louis and M. A as well as Nicholas and Alexandra, but it was not to be.

Unknown said...

I agree with your points and think they are well taken, but I think you are forgetting one thing: the history Marie Antoinette drew on. All the sources I read suggested she was not an avid student of history (unlike Louis XVI), but still, the story of the English revolution, only a century and a half ago, and the fate of Charles I was common knowledge in the existing culture, and she no doubt knew it. So besides the direct violence, she had good reasons, based on history, to feel directly threatened...

Unknown said...

In addition to my previous comment, I think I view the revolution more positively than you do, but I too am not surprised - nor do I think was anyone - at Marie Antoinette's hostility to it. However, I will say that by taking that position, she made herself more of an actor and less of an innocent victim than those swept along (her children, bystanders). Not because she "betrayed" anyone - I agree on you with that - but because she was a real threat. Frankly, if the royalists won, she would probably have supported strong measures against the leaders. From their point of view, she was a combatant.

elena maria vidal said...

Great points, as always, Dorit. Thank you for your contributions!

Unknown said...

Thanks for so devotedly continuing to analyze in interesting way, add information, fight misconceptions. I always learn much from your posts.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for your kind words, Dorit honey.