Hidden History Article:
Marietta & The Marie Antoinette Connection
By Jessica Wielitzka
Who was Marie Antoinette? Why was Marietta named for her?
Marie Antoinette is a woman history has maligned since the French Revolution in 1792. On the losing side of history, her character was twisted to fit the agenda of the time. The first martyrs to propaganda, she and her husband, King Louis XVI of France, were victims of their time, culture and upbringing.
Marie Antoinette was born as Antonia, in Vienna, Austria in 1755. Her mother, the formidable Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria-Hungary had born 16 children, and then assumed leadership of the monarchy when her husband died in 1765. This left Maria-Theresa very little time to influence the upbringing of her daughter, Antonia. Antonia was one of the younger children, and spent her youth in frivolity. No special role was allotted to Antonia; as all of her siblings had made grand marriages, there was little left for her. Antonia’s education was playing games, enjoying the outdoors, perfecting her fashion sense and making herself as pretty as possible. Remember, in the 17th century, women in leadership roles like Maria-Theresa’s were very rare. Women were expected to be ornaments to their husbands, not making decisions and leading the family. So Antonia’s upbringing, though neglected, was pretty typical for Princesses of that age.
However, in 1765 the heir to the French throne died, leaving Louis XV’s grandson, Louis Auguste, the next heir at age 11. He was only a year older than Antonia, and this was deemed the perfect match. Though Antonia was taught French, and some etiquette skills, she was very young and naïve to survive the back-stabbing and intrigue of the French court.
At the tender age of 14, Antonia was sent to the French Court. With little education, terrible handwriting, no diplomatic training and with the reminder to ‘obey her husband in all things’, Antonia was forced to toss off her Austrian identity and assume a falser, French one. Antonia became the Dauphine Marie Antoinette (Dauphine meaning: wife to the heir of the throne). Poor Marie Antoinette was set up for ruin before she even arrived. The French economy was plundered by the previous kings of France. The people were starving, dirty, poor, and living in hovels. They were still in awe of their French monarchs, but Marie Antoinette was not really French. So when the people learned of the excesses of court living, it was not the old kings who were blamed, it was “that Austrian woman, Marie Antoinette”. She was a convenient scapegoat.
Marie Antoinette did not know how to economize, she was raised as a wealthy Princess, and did not understand the sufferings of the poor. Nobody talked to her of the wretched state of the country, because she was a woman, and not considered important enough to influence state decisions. Her time was spent in frivolity, and she was constantly scrutinized, judged and gossiped about, not only by the people but also by the court. Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste became King and Queen in 1774. She was nineteen years old, he was twenty. Louis XVI (as he was now known), also grew up in a court of pleasure, and was not taught statesmanship because he did not expect to be King. His interests lie in the forest, hunting and making locks. A simple man, he was overwhelmed by the opinions of his ministers as they pulled him this way and that. He wanted to please his wife, and let her do as she wished, spending large amounts of money to assuage her guilt that she had not yet produced an heir to the throne, her only real role at court.
The true downfall of the monarchy was set in stone, when Louis XVI’s ministers recommended that he support the American Revolution. At this time, the colonies in America were throwing off the yoke of England, and trying to create their own country. England and France were traditional enemies. The ministers were looking to weaken the hold of England, and therefore told Louis to support the colonists by sending money the monarchy did not have. So they taxed their poor, starving people to aid another country’s poor, starving people get rid of the very type of government that they represented. It was a disaster for France, but a real success for America. Without the aid of the French government, it is unlikely that the colonists would have won their war.
Louis the XVI, and Marie Antoinette were hailed as heroes in the new United States of America. Their names were honored everywhere, in thanks for the help they had given. Marie Antoinette likely new little about what was going on in the colonies of the new world, but she was honored anyway.
The 48 settlers that created our town of Marietta were Revolutionary War Soldiers. They knew of the aid given by the French. But Marietta was not the first choice for the name of their new town. Adelphia, Castrapolis, Protepolis, Urania, Tempe, Genesis, Montgomery and Muskingum were also candidates for the name of the town. But Marietta was finally chosen, in 1788, as the official name of the town. Marie Antoinette was told of the honor through a letter sent by the patriots. Rumor has it that she sent a bronze bell as a token of her gratitude to the town, but the whereabouts of the bell are unknown.
Though honored as the saviors of the American Revolution, in France it was quite another story. Blamed for all the excess of an ancient monarchy, and seeing the success the Americans had, the French started a Revolution of their own. Instead of being led by highly educated, wealthy landowners, as in America, the French were led by hungry, bloodthirsty and vengeful peasants. They were not content to topple the regime, they wanted to annihilate every last member of the ruling royal family, as well as anyone rumored to support the king. In America, the war was far less bloody. The American soldiers did not kill unless they were in battle. The French killed everyone. Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI were beheaded in 1793, along with the majority of their friends and family.
While the name ‘Marietta’ brings to mind a happy, successful and hopeful new life for the colonists in America, the hidden history of our town’s name must also call to mind the tragic life and horrific death of her namesake.
For more fascinating Marietta History, join us every Saturday June-October at 10:30am for our public History Hikes through downtown Marietta. $15 adults, $10 children. Or schedule a private group tour by calling (740) 590-1987.