Louis-Auguste was overlooked by his parents who favored his older brother, Louis, duc de Bourgogne, who was regarded as bright and handsome but who died at the age of nine in 1761. Louis-Auguste, a strong and healthy boy but very shy, excelled in his studies and had a strong taste for Latin, history, geography, and astronomy and became fluent in Italian and English. He enjoyed physical activities such as hunting with his grandfather and rough play with his younger brothers, Louis-Stanislas, comte de Provence, and Charles-Philippe, comte d'Artois. From an early age, Louis-Auguste was encouraged in another of his interests, locksmithing, which was seen as a useful pursuit for a child.
As king, Louis XVI focused primarily on religious freedom and foreign policy. While none doubted his intellectual ability to rule France, it was quite clear that, although raised as the Dauphin since 1765, he lacked firmness and decisiveness. His Desire to be loved by his people is evident in the prefaces of many of his edicts that would often explain the nature and good intention of his actions as benefiting the people, such as reinstating the parlements. When questioned about his decision, he said, "It may be considered politically unwise, but it seems to me to be the general wish and I want to be loved." In spite of his indecisiveness, Louis XVI was determined to be a good king, stating that he "must always consult public opinion; it is never wrong." He, therefore, appointed an experienced advisor, Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, Comte de Maurepas who, until his death in 1781, would take charge of many important ministerial functions.
On 16 May 1770, at the age of fifteen, Louis-Auguste married the fourteen-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia (better known by the French form of her name, Marie Antoinette), his second cousin once removed and the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, the formidable Empress Maria Theresa.
In addition to his biological children, Louis XVI also adopted four children: "Armand" Francois-Michel Gagné (c. 1771-1792), a poor orphan adopted in 1776; Jean Amilcar (c. 1781-1793), a Senegalese slave boy given to the queen as a present by Chevalier de Boufflers in 1787, but whom she instead had freed, baptized, adopted and placed in a pension; Ernestine Lambriquet (1778-1813), daughter of two servants at the palace, whom was raised as the playmate of his daughter and whom he adopted after the death of her mother in 1788; and finally "Zoe" Jeanne Louise Victoire (born in 1787), who was adopted in 1790 along with her two older sisters when her parents, an usher and his wife in Service of the king, had died. Of these, only Armand, Ernestine and Zoe actually lived with the royal family: Jean Amilcar, along with the elder siblings of Zoe and Armand who were also formally foster children of the royal couple, simply lived on the queen's expense until her imprisonment, which proved fatal for at least Amilcar, as he was evicted from the boarding school when the fee was no longer paid, and reportedly starved to death on the street. Armand and Zoe had a position which was more similar to that of Ernestine; Armand lived at court with the king and queen until he left them at the outbreak of the revolution because of his republican sympathies, and Zoe was chosen to be the playmate of the Dauphin, just as Ernestine had once been selected as the playmate of Marie-Therese, and sent away to her sisters in a convent boarding school before the FLIGHT to Varennes in 1791.
The reasons for the couple's initial failure to have children were debated at that time, and they have continued to be debated since. One suggestion is that Louis-Auguste suffered from a physiological dysfunction, most often thought to be phimosis, a suggestion first made in late 1772 by the royal doctors. Historians adhering to this view suggest that he was circumcised (a Common treatment for phimosis) to relieve the condition seven years after their marriage. Louis's doctors were not in favour of the surgery – the operation was delicate and traumatic, and capable of doing "as much harm as good" to an adult male. The argument for phimosis and a resulting operation is mostly seen to originate from Stefan Zweig.
This marriage was met with hostility from the French public. France's alliance with Austria had pulled the country into the disastrous Seven Years' War, in which it was defeated by the British and the Prussians, both in Europe and in North America. By the time that Louis-Auguste and Marie-Antoinette were married, the French people generally disliked the Austrian alliance, and Marie-Antoinette was seen as an unwelcome foreigner. For the young couple, the marriage was initially amiable but distant. Louis-Auguste's shyness and, among other factors, the young age and inexperience of the newlyweds (who were near total strangers to each other: they had met only two days before their wedding) meant that the 15-year-old bridegroom failed to consummate the union with his 14-year-old bride. His fear of being manipulated by her for imperial purposes caused him to behave coldly towards her in public. Over time, the couple became closer, though while their marriage was reportedly consummated in July 1773, it did not actually happen until 1777.
When Louis XVI acceded to the throne in 1774, he was nineteen years old. He had an enormous responsibility, as the government was deeply in debt, and resentment of "despotic" monarchy was on the rise. He himself felt woefully unqualified to resolve the situation.
In the spring of 1776, Vergennes, the Foreign Secretary, saw an opportunity to humiliate France's long-standing enemy, Great Britain, and to recover territory lost during the Seven Years' War, by supporting the American Revolution. In the same year Louis was persuaded by Pierre Beaumarchais to send supplies, ammunition, and guns to the rebels secretly. Early in 1778 he signed a formal Treaty of Alliance, and later that year France went to war with Britain. In deciding in favor of war, despite France's large financial problems, the King was materially influenced by alarmist reports after the Battle of Saratoga, which suggested that Britain was preparing to make huge concessions to the thirteen colonies and then, allied with them, to strike at French and Spanish possessions in the West Indies. Spain and the Netherlands soon joined the French in an anti-British coalition. After 1778, Great Britain switched its focus to the West Indies, as defending the sugar islands was considered more important than trying to recover the thirteen colonies. France and Spain planned to invade the British Isles themselves with the Armada of 1779, but the operation never went ahead.
This intervention in America was not possible without France adopting a neutral position in European affairs in order not to be drawn into a continental war which would be simply a repetition of the French policy mistakes in the Seven Years' War. Vergennes supported by King Louis refused to go to War to support Austria in the Bavarian Succession crisis in 1778, when Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph, tried to control parts of Bavaria. Vergennes and Maurepas refused to support the Austrian position, but the intervention of Marie Antoinette in favor of Austria obliged France to adopt a position more favorable to Austria, which in the treaty of Teschen was able to get in compensation a territory whose population numbered around 100,000 persons. However, this intervention was a disaster for the image of the Queen, who was named "l'Autrichienne" (a pun in French meaning "Austrian", but the "chienne" suffix can mean "bitch") on account of it.
France's initial military assistance to the American rebels was a disappointment, with defeats at Rhode Island and Savannah. In 1780, France sent Rochambeau and Grasse to help the Americans, along with large land and naval forces. The French expeditionary force arrived in North America in July 1780. The appearance of French fleets in the Caribbean was followed by the capture of a number of the sugar islands, including Tobago and Grenada. In October 1781, the French naval blockade was instrumental in forcing a British army under Cornwallis to surrender at the Siege of Yorktown. When news of this reached London in March 1782, the government of Lord North fell and Great Britain immediately sued for peace terms; however, France delayed the end of the war until September 1783 in the hope of overrunning more British colonies in India and the West Indies.
Louis XVI hoped to use the American Revolutionary War as an opportunity to expel the British from India. In 1782, he sealed an alliance with the Peshwa Madhu Rao Narayan. As a consequence, Bussy moved his troops to the Isle de France (now Mauritius) and later contributed to the French effort in India in 1783. Suffren became the ally of Hyder Ali in the Second Anglo-Mysore War against British rule in India, in 1782–1783, fighting the British fleet along the coasts of India and Ceylon.
Eventually, the royal couple became the parents of four children. According to Madame Campan, Marie Antoinette's lady-in-waiting, the queen also suffered two miscarriages. The first one, in 1779, a few months after the birth of her first child, is mentioned in a letter to her daughter, written in July by Empress Maria Theresa. Madame Campan states that Louis spent an entire morning consoling his wife at her bedside, and swore to secrecy everyone who knew of the occurrence. Marie Antoinette suffered a second miscarriage on the night of 2–3 November 1783.
Louis XVI also encouraged major voyages of exploration. In 1785, he appointed La Pérouse to lead a sailing expedition around the world.
France also intervened in Cochinchina following Mgr Pigneau de Béhaine's intervention to obtain military aid. A France-Cochinchina alliance was signed through the Treaty of Versailles of 1787, between Louis XVI and Prince Nguyễn Ánh.
As authority drifted from him and reforms were becoming necessary, there were increasingly loud calls for him to convoke the Estates-General, which had not met since 1614, at the beginning of the reign of Louis XIII. As a last-ditch attempt to get new monetary reforms approved, Louis XVI convoked the Estates-General on 8 August 1788, setting the date of their opening on 1 May 1789. With the convocation of the Estates-General, as in many other instances during his reign, Louis XVI placed his reputation and public image in the hands of those who were perhaps not as sensitive to the desires of the French population as he was. Because it had been so long since the Estates-General had been convened, there was some debate as to which procedures should be followed. Ultimately, the Parlement de Paris agreed that "all traditional observances should be carefully maintained to avoid the impression that the Estates-General could make things up as it went along." Under this decision, the king agreed to retain many of the divisive customs which had been the norm in 1614 and before, but which was intolerable to a Third Estate buoyed by the recent proclamations of equality. For Example, the First and Second Estates proceeded into the assembly wearing their finest garments, while the Third Estate was required to wear plain, oppressively somber black, an act of alienation that Louis XVI would likely have not condoned. He seemed to regard the deputies of the Estates-General with at least respect: in a wave of self-important patriotism, members of the Estates refused to remove their hats in the King's presence, so Louis removed his to them. This convocation was one of the events that transformed the general economic and political malaise of the country into the French Revolution. In June 1789, the Third Estate unilaterally declared itself the National Assembly. Louis XVI's attempts to control it resulted in the Tennis Court Oath (serment du jeu de paume), on 20 June, the declaration of the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July, and eventually led to the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, which started the French Revolution. (Louis' "diary" entry for 14 July, the single word rien (nothing) has been used to show how out of touch with reality he was, but the document was a hunting log, not a personal journal. When he did not go hunting, he wrote "rien," which did not mean that nothing important had happened that day). Within three short months, the majority of the king's executive authority had been transferred to the elected representatives of the Nation.
Louis XVI's time in his previous palace came to an end on 5 October 1789, when an angry mob of Parisian working women was incited by Revolutionaries and marched on the Palace of Versailles, where the royal family lived. At dawn, they infiltrated the palace and attempted to kill the queen, who was associated with a frivolous lifestyle that symbolized much that was despised about the Ancien Régime. After the situation had been defused by Lafayette, head of the Garde nationale, the king and his family were brought by the crowd to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, the reasoning being that the king would be more accountable to the people if he lived among them in Paris.
On 21 June 1791, Louis XVI attempted to flee secretly with his family from Paris to the royalist fortress town of Montmédy on the northeastern border of France, where he would join the émigrés and be protected by Austria. The voyage was planned by the Swedish nobleman, and often assumed secret lover of Queen Marie-Antoinette, Axel von Fersen.
The 19th-century Historian Jules Michelet attributed the restoration of the French monarchy to the sympathy that had been engendered by the execution of Louis XVI. Michelet's Histoire de la Révolution Française and Alphonse de Lamartine's Histoire des Girondins, in particular, showed the marks of the feelings aroused by the revolution's regicide. The two Writers did not share the same sociopolitical vision, but they agreed that, even though the monarchy was rightly ended in 1792, the lives of the royal family should have been spared. Lack of compassion at that moment contributed to a radicalization of revolutionary violence and to greater divisiveness among Frenchmen. For the 20th century Novelist Albert Camus the execution signaled the end of the role of God in history, for which he mourned. For the 20th century Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard the regicide was the starting point of all French thought, the memory of which acts as a reminder that French modernity began under the sign of a crime.
Louis' daughter, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, the Future Duchess of Angoulême, survived the French Revolution, and she lobbied in Rome energetically for the canonization of her father as a saint of the Catholic Church. Despite his signing of the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy", Louis had been described as a martyr by Pope Pius VI in 1793. In 1820, however, a memorandum of the Congregation of Rites in Rome, declaring the impossibility of proving that Louis had been executed for religious rather than political reasons, put an end to hopes of canonization.
Immediately after his execution, Louis XVI's corpse was transported in a cart to the nearby Madeleine cemetery, located rue d'Anjou, where those guillotined at the Place de la Révolution were buried in mass graves. Before his burial, a short religious Service was held in the Madeleine church (destroyed in 1799) by two Priests who had sworn allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Afterwards, Louis XVI, his severed head placed between his feet, was buried in an unmarked grave, with quicklime spread over his body. The Madeleine cemetery was closed in 1794. In 1815 Louis XVIII had the remains of his brother Louis XVI and of his sister-in-law Marie-Antoinette transferred and buried in the Basilica of St Denis, the Royal necropolis of the Kings and Queens of France. Between 1816 and 1826, a commemorative monument, the Chapelle expiatoire, was erected at the location of the former cemetery and church.
Louis XVI has been the subject of novels as well, including two of the alternate histories anthologized in If It Had Happened Otherwise (1931): "If Drouet's Cart Had Stuck" by Hilaire Belloc and "If Louis XVI Had Had an Atom of Firmness" by André Maurois, which tell very different stories but both imagine Louis surviving and still reigning in the early 19th century. Louis appears in the children's book Ben and Me by Robert Lawson but does not appear in the 1953 animated short film based on the same book.
King Louis XVI has been portrayed in numerous films. In Marie Antoinette (1938), he was played by Robert Morley. Jean-François Balmer portrayed him in the 1989 two-part miniseries La Révolution française. More recently, he was depicted in the 2006 film Marie Antoinette by Jason Schwartzman. In Sacha Guitry's Si Versailles m'était conté, Louis was portrayed by one of the film's producers, Gilbert Bokanowski, using the alias Gilbert Boka. Several portrayals have upheld the image of a bumbling, almost foolish king, such as that by Jacques Morel in the 1956 French film Marie-Antoinette reine de France and that by Terence Budd in the Lady Oscar live action film. In Start the Revolution Without Me, Louis XVI is portrayed by Hugh Griffith as a laughable cuckold. Mel Brooks played a comic version of Louis XVI in The History of the World Part 1, portraying him as a libertine who has such distaste for the peasantry he uses them as targets in skeet shooting. In the 1996 film Ridicule; Urbain Cancelier plays Louis.
While Louis's blood dripped to the ground, several onlookers ran forward to dip their handkerchiefs in it. This account was proven true in 2012, after a DNA comparison linked blood thought to be from Louis XVI's beheading to DNA taken from tissue samples originating from what was long thought to be the mummified head of Henry IV of France. The blood sample was taken from a squash gourd carved to commemorate the heroes of the French Revolution that had, according to legend, been used to house one of the handkerchiefs dipped in Louis's blood.
Contrary to its intended purpose of strengthening Louis XVI's position against the Revolutionaries, the Brunswick Manifesto had the opposite effect of greatly undermining his already highly tenuous position. It was taken by many to be the final proof of collusion between the king and foreign powers in a conspiracy against his own country. The anger of the populace boiled over on 10 August when an armed mob – with the backing of a new municipal government of Paris that came to be known as the Insurrectional Paris Commune – marched upon and invaded the Tuileries Palace. The royal family took shelter with the Legislative Assembly.
At the microscopic level, the failure of the escape plans was due to a series of misadventures, delays, misinterpretations, and poor judgments. In a wider perspective, the failure was attributable to the king's indecision—he repeatedly postponed the schedule, allowing for smaller problems to become severe. Furthermore, he totally misunderstood the political situation. He thought only a small number of radicals in Paris were promoting a revolution that the people as a whole rejected. He thought, mistakenly, that he was beloved by the peasants and the Common folk. The king's FLIGHT in the short term was traumatic for France, inciting a wave of emotions that ranged from anxiety to violence to panic. Everyone realized that war was imminent. The deeper realization, that the king had in fact repudiated the Revolution, was an even greater shock for people who until then had seen him as a good king who governed as a manifestation of God's will. They felt betrayed, and as a result, Republicanism now burst out of the coffee houses and became a dominating philosophy of the rapidly radicalized French Revolution.