The Fall of the Bastille

Storming of The Bastile and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789, by Jean-Pierre Houël.

On the morning of 14 July 1789 some 900 Parisians gathered in front of the Bastille prison; some were soldiers who had deserted from Louis XVI’s army and a few were men of property. But most were minor tradesmen whose businesses had long since been concentrated in the area of the faubourg Saint-Antoine which surrounded the Bastille. These people were convinced, correctly, that the king had decided to renege on his earlier promise to reform the government of France. They also knew that the governor of the Bastille, Bernard-René de Launay, was guarding 250 barrels of gunpowder. The crowd’s aim was to seize the gunpowder and somehow to neutralize the fifteen cannon which were mounted on the Bastille’s eight towers, three of which were in the inner courtyard, and also to disarm the twelve guns on the ramparts. Eighty-two retired soldiers lived in the fortress and they had been reinforced, seven days previously, by thirty-two Swiss soldiers as the threat of a riot increased. Morning negotiations resulted in the removal of the guns but by 2.30 the other demands, made in the name of the citizens’ militia representing the people of Paris, had been rejected. The governor’s authority, he reminded them, came not from the people below but from the king above.

Louis himself had by now embarked on a day’s hunting in the countryside surrounding his palace of Versailles thirty miles and a three-hour coach drive south-west of Paris. The crowd’s negotiators, needing further instructions, went to the Hôtel de Ville. The sixty Paris districts, formed for the recent elections to the national Estates-General, had produced a college of 470 electors. This assembly met at the Hôtel de Ville and was now the effective popular government of Paris. But at about 1.30 p.m. the restless crowd took matters into their own hands and pushed their way across the drawbridge, which had suddenly come crashing down. Shooting now began in the inner courtyard. The drawbridge chains had been cut by some of the crowd themselves but, unaware of that fact, most of the insurgents had assumed that they were being allowed into the Bastille. The shooting therefore seemed further confirmation of a royalist pattern of lying and plotting. By 3.30 p.m. experienced soldiers and officers, armed with guns seized from the barracks of the Invalides, had joined the crowd and were now organizing them for victory. Two cannon were aimed directly at the wooden gate of the Bastille. At 5 p.m. de Launay pushed a note through a chink in the drawbridge wall of the inner courtyard; he wanted an honourable evacuation otherwise he would light the gunpowder and so destroy most of the immediate area. His ploy failed and the request was refused. At which point, with all hope of defence abandoned, the inner drawbridge came down.

The Bastille had surrendered. Inside just seven prisoners were discovered, but eighty-three insurgents had been killed and a further fifteen would die of their wounds. Only one of the defenders had died and just one was wounded. Popular justice demanded a suitable revenge. The governor was marched through the streets of Paris filled now with crowds who abused him. Outside the Hôtel de Ville the procession stopped as the excitable crowd debated the governor’s fate. De Launay invited his own end. He kicked a pastry cook named Desnot in the groin and fell to the ground under a hail of blows as the swords of his enemies hacked him to death. Desnot then took out his pocket knife and sawed off the former governor’s head. It was the French revolution’s first political beheading and the beginning of its pursuit of the politics of atrocity.

Early July was always a particularly bad time not just for the French urban poor but also for the not-so-poor. Bread prices, just before the harvest grain became available, were then at their highest and some three-quarters of the average wageearner’s disposable income was invariably spent on bread. It was also the time when the quarterly bills, including rent, were due. The price of a loaf had hit an all-time high in Paris on that morning of the 14th and many of those who attacked the Bastille would have been very hungry. But it was also the capital’s political climate which caused them to act.

Money had always been a problem for the cash-strapped French monarchy with its tradition of aggressive, expansionist and expensive foreign wars. Need for money, rather than any genuine desire for reform, was the reason why Louis XVI decided to summon the Estates General for May 1789 – the first time it had met since 1614. Once assembled, however, that body proved less ready to grant the king his taxes than to express its own ideas about how France should be run; and its most critical element was determined to assert its own authority. On 6 May the Third Estate, the part which represented the commoners, refused to meet as a body separate from the First Estate representing the nobles and the Second representing the clergy. It went on to call itself the National Assembly and supportive members of the other two estates joined the new body. On 17 June the Assembly members took an oath not to dissolve until France had been given a constitution guaranteeing individual rights and liberties. This was an ambition which had surfaced regularly among those critical of the ancien régime – the system of inherited privilege and feudal order. It had been expressed by dissident intellectuals such as Voltaire and Diderot who were instrumental in disseminating the values of the Enlightenment in France. The constitutional agenda was no longer just chatter and pamphleteering; by the summer of 1789 it had become a sustained political challenge to the monarchy.

The Bastille was an appropriate, if not a planned, point of revolutionary departure. Although in 1789 it contained so few actual prisoners, it remained a place of immense symbolic power because it represented the ambition and the ability of the French monarchy to govern secretively and without reference to written law. For over a century and a half, ever since Cardinal Richelieu had first used it as a place of incarceration, the Bastille’s prisoners had been detained non-judicially because of a lettre de cachet issued by the king. Most of the prisoners were there because their views and writings were considered dangerous. This therefore was one of the most politically charged places in all of France.

It was the king’s sudden decision to dismiss his finance minister Necker on 11 July which created the crisis in Parisian public order. Necker’s appointment, just a year previously, had carried with it a commitment to the reform of taxation and of governmental corruption, since he had a deserved reputation for personal honesty. The fear of the Parisian streets, shared by a broad body of opinion among the respectable and propertied classes, was of a royalist coup d’état. Louis XVI’s own reputation for indecisiveness and double-dealing was another factor. Foreign troops, including the much-hated Austrian ones, had been ordered into Paris to maintain order. The French monarchy was losing its grip because it was forfeiting its claim to the affections and loyalty of the people. The decision of Louis XIV to leave Paris and the Louvre for his new court at Versailles had created over a century of disaffection and distance between Paris and the monarchy. In addition by 1789 newly volatile public opinion also thought the crown was unpatriotic – a judgement vindicated by Louis’ Austrian queen, Marie-Antoinette, and her reputation for spendthrift arrogance.

In the days immediately following 14 July the king had to withdraw his forces from Paris, dismiss his reactionary ministry, and then reappoint Necker. On 17 July he travelled to Paris where, on the steps of the Hôtel de Ville, he accepted the blue and red cockade which represented the city of Paris and then fixed this rosette to his hat. French kingship was no longer a sacred power and subjects were becoming citizens.

The National Assembly had wanted a peaceful reform process and one which would guarantee liberty, the rights of property and freedom of expression. Those goals were expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which was adopted on 26 August 1789. The document finished the ancien régime in France and its influence spread to most of continental Europe. But revolutionary dynamism would have its own inner, uncontrollable and totalitarian logic. New leaders such as Robespierre emerged – men who were ready to use violence to achieve political goals. Divisions between the democratic towns and the more conservative countryside led to civil war in the south and west of France. The extreme revolution also launched a brutal campaign of de-Christianization because its aim was not just a new French government but also a new revolutionary humanity. This bloody process was consumed by its own violence amidst the guillotines and murders of 1793–4, the Year of Terror. In the damp morning fog of 21 January 1793 the deposed king was taken from his prison in the mediaeval keep of the Temple and escorted by 1,200 guards to the guillotine. France had been officially a republic since the previous September and Louis XVI was now ‘Louis Capet’ – one citizen among millions. The newly elected National Convention had been both judge and jury in his trial and, by a majority of 75 among the 721 members who voted, condemned Louis to death on account of his deceitful plotting against the revolution. A twelve-inch blade fell and the executioner took the bleeding head out of the basket to show it to the people. Some dipped their fingers in the flowing blood, others used their handkerchiefs to mop it up. Kingship, as well as a king, had been slaughtered.

Nineteenth-century European politics would be shaped by the fear of the liberal and propertied classes that democracy, though inevitable and even desirable, had to be controlled. Otherwise it would lead to bloodshed followed by a dictatorship whose powers would exceed any of the abuses that had originally led to revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte, the general of genius who was thrown up by the revolution, rose from humble Corsican origins because of the new and meritocratic opportunities that were created in the 1790s. The fact that he established a military despotism which closed down French democracy was the final and sardonic culmination of the events unleashed by those who had stormed the Bastille.


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