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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 148-152
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John Hardman and Munro Price, eds. Louis XVI and the Comte de Vergennes. Correspondence 1774-1787 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, #364, 1998). Pp. xx + 403. $45 cloth.
Munro Price. Preserving the Monarchy: The Comte de Vergennes 1774-1787 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Pp. xii + 256. $59.95 cloth.
John Hardman. Louis XVI (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993). Pp. viii + 264. $22.00 paper.
John Hardman. Louis XVI, the Silent King (London: Arnold and New York: Oxford, 2000). Pp. xvi + 224. $19.95 paper.
The publication of the correspondence between King Louis XVI (reigned 1774-1792) and his chief foreign minister, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes (minister from 1774-1787), is certainly a noteworthy occasion for all students of eighteenth-century politics. Until now, we have had only glimpses of this important relationship. For decades scholars have milked Vergennes's letters to the king, which are available in the foreign ministry archives in Paris. But Louis's letters to Vergennes were thought to be lost, or at least unavailable. While pursuing his study of Vergennes, Munro Price located them in the private Vergennes family archives in Marly-le-Roi, just outside Paris. Using his own diplomatic skill, Price was not only able to use these letters for his own book on Vergennes, but he won permission to publish them in this impressive edition.
It was natural and perhaps inevitable that Price would collaborate with fellow British historian John Hardman, whose work on Louis XVI has established him as that king's most important biographer. Indeed, Price and Hardman have informally collaborated before, often citing each other in their work, clearly building upon one another's scholarship. The result is an editorial collaboration that is splendidly complimentary.
The exquisite introduction to the correspondence is practically a small book in itself, synthesizing Hardman's and Price's biographies of their subjects. They elegantly lay out the most important themes of the letters: the structure of French Old Regime politics, France's involvement in the American War of Independence, and relations with Austria and Russia. Even more than their own books or the correspondence itself, this 150-page essay serves as a superb introduction to late eighteenth-century European high politics from the French viewpoint. That perspective certainly appears unique among eighteenth-century great powers. Whereas England, Prussia, Austria, and Russia all had expansionist foreign policies that routinely required them to participate in (if not initiate) wars, France under Louis XVI was decidedly pacifist. With the notable exception of the American War of Independence, Vergennes spent most of his time avoiding war and trying to put out brush fires among his neighbors. Vergennes and his king both believed that while France deserved a place at the head of the European state system, it already had enough territory under its belt. They had virtually no ambitions to expand its borders. Even when Joseph II proposed giving up some of his Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) to France in return for support for an Austrian [End Page 148] claim on Bavaria, Vergennes and Louis passed up this wonderful Machiavellian opportunity. Unfortunately, they were unable to set a compelling example among their neighbors. The partitions of Poland are only the most glaring examples of how nearly every sovereign hoped to upset the balance of power to his or her advantage. Only France seemed dedicated to preserving it.
Even in its strained relationship with England, Louis was not someone whom the English needed to fear. Unlike his great-great-great-grandfather Louis XIV, who at least dreamed of forcibly converting every free-born Englishman to Catholicism, Louis had no intention of influencing domestic affairs in England, nor even of taking away lands that were historically British. Rather, he was angry at Britain for the humiliating way it had treated France after the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and he was determined only to retard British colonial expansion.
Hardman and Price make a compelling case that the correspondence may reveal...