A detail from the gates of Versailles

The boys and I took the train out to Versailles today. Matthew, who is a speedreader, read Christopher Hibbert’s “The French Revolution” yesterday, and I was hoping he and I could tour the palace and better understand the convulsions of the late 18th century. As it turned out, the line to get into the chateau was hours long, and we didn’t have the patience to wait to get in. But we could still walk around outside the vast pile, Louis XIV’s monument to his own glory, and have a look at the astonishing gardens.

Versailles is a stunning place — for me, it’s hard to find anything I’ve seen to compare it to– even looking at it merely from the outside. To see its splendor, and to understand that the King and his Court lived like this while millions of his people were suffering intensely, and moreover, to read how the First and Second Estates (that is, the nobility and the clergy) refused to recognize that anything at all had to change … well, let me put it like this: in retrospect, I cannot believe that the French Revolution was on balance a good thing, but it is hard to deny, from the sight of Versailles, that absent profound change, it was an inevitable thing, a thing that could have been avoided if the King and his Court had been wiser. Gouverneur Morris, the American representative in Paris in the final days of the French monarchy, wrote at the time of Louis XVI, “he is so weak [in character] that unless he be kept out of bad Company it is impossible that he should not act wrongly.”

All of this built for the glory and pleasure of a single man, Louis XIV, and his family. If it had been for God, one could understand (well, I could understand, and approve). But for a man? I don’t know that I have felt more American on this entire trip than standing before the gates of Versailles.

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