On this day in 1789, Parisian revolutionaries and mutinous troops storm and dismantle the Bastille, the royal fortress and prison that had come to symbolize the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchs. This dramatic action signaled the beginning of the French Revolution, a decade of political turmoil and terror in which King Louis XVI was overthrown and tens of thousands of people, including the king and his wife Marie-Antoinette, were executed.
During the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, caused in part by the cost of intervening in the American Revolution, and exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation. The status quo clearly favored the nobility, at the deep cost to and expense of the proletariat, suffering privations and injustices to an intolerable level. Wry observers may draw comparisons to post-1981 employment, fiscal, tax and social policy in the US, ultimately leading to a nadir of incompetent lethality during 2020’s Covid-19 pandemic.
On May 5, 1789, the Estates General, a rough analog of the modern middle class, convened to deal with this issue, but were held back by archaic protocols and the conservatism of the second estate, consisting of the nobility and amounting to only 2% of the populace.The third estate, with its representatives drawn from the commoners, robustly reconstituted as the National Assembly, a body whose purpose was the creation of a French constitution. The king initially opposed this development, but was forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9.
Paris, close to insurrection and, in François Mignet’s words, “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” showed wide support for the Assembly under the tri-color cockades (cocardes) of blue, white and red, formed by combining the red and blue cockade of Paris and the white cockade of the king. The press published the Assembly’s debates, and discourse spread beyond the Assembly itself into the public squares and halls of the capital.
On the morning of July 14, 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. The partisans of the Third Estate in France, now under the control of the Bourgeois Militia of Paris (soon to become Revolutionary France’s National Guard), had earlier stormed the Hôtel des Invalides without meeting significant opposition. Their intention as such to gather the weapons held there, some 29,000 to 32,000 muskets, but without powder or shot. The commandant at the Invalides had in the previous few days taken the precaution of transferring 250 barrels of gunpowder to the Bastille for safer storage.
At this stage, the Bastille was nearly empty, housing only seven prisoners; four forgers, two “lunatics” and one “deviant” aristocrat, the Comte de Solages (the Marquis de Sade, sort of an 18th century Jeffrey Epstein, had been transferred out ten days earlier). The surly crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the 30-odd cannon and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Whilst the crowd numbered some 1,000, the Bastille was garrisoned by only 82 invalides (veteran soldiers no longer suitable for service in the field) and 32 grenadiers of the Swiss Salis-Samade Regiment.
The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grimly grew impatient; around 1:30 PM, the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard. A small party climbed onto the roof of a building next to the gate to the inner courtyard and broke the chains on the drawbridge, crushing one vainqueur as it fell. Soldiers of the garrison called to the people to withdraw but in the noise and confusion these shouts were misinterpreted as encouragement to enter. Gunfire began spontaneously, turning the crowd into a mob. The crowd believed they had been intentionally drawn into a trap, and the fighting became more violent and intense; attempts by deputies to bring a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers.
Combat raged outside the inner gate for several hours, until Governor Bernard-René de Launay, who’d been born inside the Bastille, capitulated, realizing that with limited food stocks and no water, his troops could not hold out much longer. He accordingly opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the vainqueurs swept in to liberate the fortress at 5:30.
Ninety-eight attackers and one defender had died in the actual fighting, a disparity accounted for by the protection provided to the garrison by the fortress walls. De Launay was seized and dragged towards the Hôtel de Ville in a hail-storm of abuse. Outside the Hôtel, a discussion as to his fate began. The badly beaten de Launay shouted “Enough! Let me die!” and kicked a pastry cook named Dulait in the groin. De Launay was then stabbed repeatedly to his death.
An English traveler, Doctor Edward Rigby, reported what he saw: “(We) perceived two bloody heads raised on pikes, which were said to be the heads of the Marquis de Launay, Governor of the Bastille, and of Monsieur Flesselles, Prévôt des Marchands. It was a chilling and a horrid sight! . . . Shocked and disgusted at this scene, (we) retired immediately from the streets (as it was tea-time).”
Two days after the Storming of the Bastille, John Frederick Sackville, serving as British ambassador to France, reported his superior, the Duke of Leeds, “Thus, my Lord, the greatest revolution that we know anything of has been effected with, comparatively speaking—if the magnitude of the event is considered—the loss of very few lives. From this moment we may consider France as a free country, the King a very limited monarch, and the nobility as reduced to a level with the rest of the nation.”
In 1790, the Marquis de Lafayette, savior of the American Revolution, gave the cast-iron, one-pound and three-ounce key of the Bastille to U.S. President George Washington. Washington displayed it prominently at government facilities and events in New York and in Philadelphia until shortly before his retirement in 1797. The key remains on display at Washington’s residence of Mount Vernon; the heads of de Launay and Marchands remain at large.