The last years of the 18th century was a terrible time to live in France. The country began as an absolute monarchy (a divinely recognized king) with a feudal system (landlords commanding non-landowning peasants), but, by the last decade, several factors had combined to make it a hotbed of violence and rebellion.
First, the feudal system was crumbling as a social structure and had already disappeared in parts of Europe, mainly due to the improvement of the standard of living and education among the lower classes of the population. The peasants didn’t look like the peasants of old and they wanted more rights; those citizens who were business owners, craftsmen, or merchants wanted more power and control.
Second, the population of Europe had doubled between 1715 and 1800. France, with 26 million inhabitants in 1789, was Europe’s most populated country. There were constant demands for more food and consumer goods, while inflated prices and hoarding did nothing but increase the brutal poverty and hunger of its citizens.
Third, there was a rise of intellectualism concerning the inherent “rights of man”, led by notable philosophers like Montesquieu and Voltaire. Everything had become questionable: political structures (like the long established “Divine Right of Kings”), social environments (the class structure), economics (the opulence of the aristocracy versus the rampant poverty); and religion (the dominance of the Catholic Church, its integration with the aristocracy, the burden of tithing). This Enlightenment was spread throughout the culture by popular clubs, lodges, “societies of thought”, agricultural societies, and reading rooms, leading to many people becoming “woke”.
Fourth, France had spent heavily fighting in or supporting wars, the most recent being the revolution in America, leaving it deeply in debt. That translated into more and higher taxes, forced conscription for the military, and widespread anger with the actions of the aristocracy.
By the last decade, all that was needed was some incident to bring an eruption to the discontent.
It occurred on July 14, 1789, at the fortress of Bastille.
The stage had already been prepped. In June, a National Assembly had been formed from groups of non-aristocrats, non-upper-clergy, and non-nobles, that resembled a representative form of government. It’s proclaimed purpose was to create a French constitution, which the Assembly expected the king to accept. King Louis XVI was not so inclined and suppressed the idea, but was eventually forced by the various powers surrounding him to acknowledge that the Assembly had a popular authority. The Assembly renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9th, 1789, and blatantly stated that its power was equivalent to the king’s.
There had already been skirmishes: a crowd had broken into a prison to release grenadiers of the French guards, reportedly imprisoned because they refused to fire on locals; large crowds had formed to protest the King’s dismissal of Jacques Necker, a finance minister sympathetic to the commoners, businessmen, and crafts people; attacks were launched on customs posts that were blamed for causing increased food and wine prices; and the plundering of a number of places in Paris where food, guns, and supplies were thought to be stored.
By July 13th, the Hotel des Invalides [“hotel” was a general description, not a Holiday Inn] had been invaded to procure around 30,000 muskets. Unfortunately, the commandant of the Invalides had previously moved 250 barrels of gunpowder and shot needed for the muskets to the Bastille for safer storage.
By the morning of July 14th, Paris was in a virtual uproar. A crowd of about a thousand people gathered outside the Bastille and demanded the gunpowder and shot. Representatives were sent inside to negotiate demands. The negotiations dragged on and, around 1:30, the crowd grew restless and surged into the undefended outer courtyard. A small party climbed onto the roof of a building next to the gate and released the drawbridge that allowed access to the large, wooden door of the fortress.
This lit up the crowd, but amid the ensuing noise and confusion, as the soldiers of the garrison inside shouted for the people to withdraw, the shouts were misinterpreted as encouragements to enter. Then somebody fired a shot and the whole place erupted; the crowd became a mob. The fighting increased in intensity and violence, and any calls for a cease-fire were ignored. There were 5,000 Royal Army troops nearby that could have put down the crowd, but were not ordered to do so.
Meanwhile, the commander of the garrison inside the Bastille knew that he had enough cannons to fire cannister shot into the crowd, killing all or most, or that he could have torched the gunpowder and blown the place up (he did make that threat). He finally made the decision that the carnage was not worth it. He announced his surrender, opened the gates and the crowd swept into the fortress at 5:30 pm.
Ninety-eight attackers and one defender died in the actual fighting. The commander of the fortress was taken and stabbed to death, as was a local magistrate. Their heads were chopped off, mounted on pikestaffs, and paraded through the streets. Three officers were savaged and killed by the crowd, and two militiamen were hanged.
In retrospect, the crowd had taken a 400-hundred-year-old, decrepit, outdated, massive stone prison that they hadn’t come for in the first place. Once inside, the crowd found only seven prisoners, and it was becoming evening; I can’t imagine what the bowels of the Bastille felt like by the light of a torch. People came back in the daylight and when they did, the search became one of looking for souvenirs (some thought they found the skeleton of The Man in the Iron Mask). I found no reference to any fires being set or of any wholesale destruction. I assume that they did get their barrels of powder and shot, but there was no great hoard of food or treasure; the garrison of soldiers had been small and ill-supplied.
King Louis XVI did not learn of the action until the morning after, but it was confirmed that his troops had been defeated and the fortress taken. He told his commanders stationed in other military positions around Paris to return to the garrisons on the frontier, and then announced that he would recall Jacques Necker as finance minister, probably hoping that the de-escalation would cause the whole thing to blow over.
It didn’t. The “storming of the Bastille” became the “inciting incident” that would soon be promoted for what the revolutionaries wanted it to be: a symbol of insurrection, unity, and the defeat of tyranny. It gave the majority of the country a readily-identifiable event that allowed them to disregard royal authority, to recognize popular sovereignty, and a reason to set up parallel structures of municipalities for civic governance and local militias for civic protection. In rural areas, many people burned title-deeds as well as a number of chateaux. A “Great Fear” spread across the countryside during the weeks of July 20 to August 5, with attacks on wealthy landlords, led by the belief that the aristocracy was trying to put down the revolution. Many of the nobles fled to other countries.
The Bastille, itself, was proposed as a monument to liberation, or as housing for a revolutionary Guard, but the municipality of Paris ordered it destroyed as planned. The demolition began immediately and was finished in five months. Bricks from the rubble were carved into replicas of the fortress and sold, along with medals supposedly made from the chains used on prisoners.
In 1790, the Marquis de Lafayette [the same Lafayette of the American Revolution] gave the wrought-iron, one-pound and three-ounce key to the Bastille’s front door to the President of the United States, George Washington. It is now on display at Mount Vernon.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.