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The Storming of the Bastille: A Flashpoint of the French Revolution

Parisians united to attack this symbol of royal tyranny.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The French Revolution is a cornerstone of European history and serves as a brilliant example of historical class warfare. One of the most memorable moments in the French Revolution occurred on July 14, 1789, when the Storming of the Bastille took place. 

The Bastille was representative of the royal authority of France, located in the heart of Paris and fortified with medieval armory and a fortress-like level of protection. However, revolutionary insurgents stormed this center of royal power, seizing control of its fortifications and rebelling against this symbol of royal tyranny. Each year, the French celebrate Festival of the Federation—which was held on the one-year anniversary of Bastille Day—in order to commemorate the French Revolution, which brought democracy to their nation.

Louis XVI's reign was marked by a severe economic crisis in France. A regressive tax structure, low harvests in the late 1780s, and the cost of assisting in the American Revolution all contributed to this crisis. The Estates-General, a general assembly that represented different groups in the French realm, met on May 5, 1789, to address this matter. However, its attempts to solve the financial crisis were thwarted by antiquated procedures and by the conservatism of the Second Estate, which represented the nobility, who made up less than 2% of France's population.

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The Third Estate, which represented the commoners, was reformed as the National Assembly on June 17, 1789. The body's goal was to draft a French constitution with representatives chosen by the common people. The National Assembly, which on July 9 changed its name to the National Constituent Assembly, pushed the king to recognize its legitimacy even as he was hostile to this development. The Assembly made it clear that it intended to legislate with or without the support of the king or the other estates, and protests broke out when it seemed that the king might use force to suppress it.

storming of the bastille
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  • Meeting of the Estates General at Versailles on May 5, 1789.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The city of Paris was in a panic on the morning of July 14, 1789. The Bourgeois Militia of Paris, which would later become Revolutionary France's National Guard, had sided with the Assembly. Together, they had recently assaulted the Hôtel des Invalides without much resistance. Their goal was to collect the weaponry kept there. However, in the days prior, the commandant at the Invalides had taken the precaution of moving 250 barrels of gunpowder to the Bastille for storage in a more secure location.

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The Bastille served as not only a military fortress, but also a political prison. Only seven inmates were being held there at this time: Auguste-Claude Tavernier, who attempted to assassinate Louis XV 30 years prior; James F.X. Whyte, an Irish-born "lunatic" suspected of spying; four forgers captured on warrants issued by the Grand Châtelet court; and one "deviant" aristocrat suspected of murder, the Comte de Solages. The Marquis de Sade had been transferred out just 10 days earlier.

Just before the disturbances started, it had been decided to replace the garrisoned medieval stronghold with an open public space due to the expensive cost of maintaining the fortress for what was perceived to have limited use.

Around mid-morning, the mob assembled outside the stronghold and demanded that the cannons, which appeared to be a menace, be drawn back from the walls and tower embrasures and that the weapons and gunpowder that were being held there be released. Negotiations started when three municipal officials from the town hall (the Hotel de Ville) were invited into the stronghold. The discussions stretched on as the audience grew restless. 

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Finally, at around 1:30 pm, a large group of people charged into the open outside courtyard. The garrison's soldiers shouted for the populace to leave, but in the din and turmoil, these cries were taken as invitations to come in. The throng became an angry mob when what appeared to be spontaneous gunfire broke out. Attempts by deputies to organize a cease-fire were rejected by those besieging the Bastille, and the fighting grew more violent and fierce as the mob appeared to believe they had been lured into a trap on purpose. After futile attempts to appease the crowd, the governor opened the inner gates and allowed the people to occupy the Bastille. 98 members of the mob and one defender of the fortress had died in the turmoil outside; inside, several soldiers and the governor were lynched.

storming of the bastille
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  • The Bastille before the French Revolution.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Duke of La Rochefoucauld was the one who first informed the king about the storming the following morning, and Louis reportedly inquired whether he had a revolt on his hands. In fact, it is occasionally asserted in the national discourse that the storming of the Bastille served as the Revolution's impetus. However, historian Ian Davidson argued in his book The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny that Louis XVI's appeasement of the Third Estate at Versailles, which occurred two months earlier, has a better claim to being the founding event. Regardless, the collapse of the Bastille represented the first significant development in the Revolution to the commoners, known as the sans-culottes.

Members of the nobility began to emigrate from the kingdom immediately following the events of July 14 because they were unconvinced by the apparent—and ultimately temporary—reconciliation between the king and the people. The prince de Condé, the prince de Conti, the Polignac family, the comte d'Artois and his two sons, and Charles Alexandre de Calonne, the former finance minister, were among the first to go. They settled in Turin, Italy, where Calonne, acting as an agent for the prince of Condé and the count d'Artois, started campaigning for a European alliance against France and preparing for civil war within the kingdom.

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The successful uprising in Paris quickly became known throughout all of France, energizing the sans-culottes. As the "Great Fear" diffused across the rural areas from July 20 to August 5, people became suspicious that the aristocracy was attempting to stifle the revolution. Many rural residents were motivated to set fire to title deeds and a significant number of châteaux.

Today, the Storming of the Bastille is remembered as a transformative event in French history, one that cemented the power of the Revolution. To this day, the French celebrate their national holiday on July 14, the anniversary of Bastille Day and the Fête de la Fédération, a festival celebrating the French Revolution.