Storming of the Bastille – 14th July 1789
This historical period is one of strong emphasis on freedom: the freedom of expression; freedom of belief; freedom of press; freedom of scholarly thought; and the freedom of the individual in society. Revolutions took place across the world in this era of liberty. The American Revolutionary War beginning in 1775 was one of the first with the French Revolution following swiftly. Paris is a capital that has historically prided itself on creating fashions, not just in the materialistic sense. It remains a hotbed of emerging intellectual thought and many widespread ideals were conceived in its streets and buildings and, from which, they are able to diffuse across Europe. The famous phrase of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (Freedom, equality, fraternity) originated from this revolution and the storming of the Bastille is a physical representation of this creed.
The momentous occasion of the capture of Bastille is one still celebrated annually in France. It represents more than a change of control; it signifies the strength of the French people over royal tyranny. As with all historical events, it did not happen in a vacuum. The calling of the Estate-General by King Louis XVI is arguably one of the turning points in French history, one that caused the resulting Revolution. France at this time was ruled on the basis of the Three Estates, the First Estate being those who prayed, the clergy, the Second being those who fought, the nobility, and the Third was those who worked, the peasants; the Estate-General comprised of all three. The Estate-General was called due to many domestic issues, notably the major economic problems resulting from their intervention in the American War of Independence, poor harvests, and a regressive tax system that the Second Estate refused to pay.
The meeting achieved nothing. From this lack of change, the peasants created their own assembly due to their desire for greater representation – this assembly was named the National Constituent Assembly on the 9th July. The people combined the Parisian red and blue cockade with the white cockade of the monarch to create the current French national flag, the Tricolour. This gave them an identity and the use of the Parisian colours also indicates the large influence of the capital.
There were constant talks and assemblies in Paris, many held in Palais-Royal. The winds of change were building and swirling. The firing of the finance minister Jacques Necker on the guidance of his advisors by Louis XVI escalated problems, as Necker was sympathetic to the people’s cause. Word of a monarchist militaristic coup flew around the city. The large amount of foreign soldiers in Paris, namely from Switzerland and Germany, rather than discourage dissent, aggravated the public. Officers began to fear mutiny; soldiers refused to fire upon the people, grenadiers were broken out of the prisons of the Abbaye. The military began to take up the people’s cause. Public demonstrations on the 12th July led to clashes with the Royal German Cavalry Regiment, the people, poor and starving, plundered any food that they could find, the religious property of Saint-Lazare was raided. The Royals troops made no attempt to stop the social uprising that was taking place. The relationship between army and people in revolutions is an interesting one. With the support of the military, revolutions were much more likely to succeed, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1914 being a prime example; without the military’s support, on the whole, revolutions would fail.
On the morning of July14th, the Bourgeois Militia of Paris, later to become the National Guard, stormed the Hôtel des Invalides to gain around 30,000 muskets. However, there was no powder or shot as it had recently, as a precaution, been moved to Bastille. Later that same day, around mid-morning, approximately 1000 of the French public gathered outside of the Bastille. This fortress by this point only contained seven old prisoners and was manned by 82 retired veteran soldiers and 32 grenadiers. Bastille was not a legitimate operating prison; it was, to the revolutionaries, a symbol of royal oppression. Two men from the mob were invited in for negotiations with another person soon joining after no progress had been made. However, around 1:30pm, the crowd grew impatient and swarmed the undefended courtyard. Some then climbed upon the roof of the building next to the gate, destroyed its chains and lowered the drawbridge. Mass confusion then followed, a theme seen in almost all examples of uprisings and in the throngs of masses. The people mistook the warning shouts of the guards as shouts of encouragement and rushed forwards and gunfire began. The crowed seemed to have believed they had been led into a trap and fighting intensified. Firing continued with reinforcements joining at 3:00pm, some Royal Army troops situated nearby however did not get involved. A ceasefire was finally ordered by the Bastille’s commander, Bernard-René de Launay, at around 5:00, and realising his troops had a very little amount of supplies, opened the gates 30 minutes later.
Of the casualties, 98 of the crowd died yet only one defender. (Some soldiers were killed after the ceasefire). De Launay, taken by the crowd to have his fate discussed, wanted immediate death and so, in an act of provocation, kicked a pastry chef. He was then stabbed repeatedly and his head sawn off and fixed on a pike to be carried through the streets. The building, although petitioned by some to remain as a monument for liberation, was instructed to be destroyed immediately. The clock face, which depicted chained prisoners, was melted down and its statues broken down. King Louis XVI, having heard about the capture, asked François duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancour, ‘Is it a revolt?’ to which he answered, ‘No majesty, it is a revolution’. Expecting quick retribution, the people of Paris created barricades in the street.
The French Revolution was not an historical event represented in captured castles, loss of troops or mutinous soldiers; the Revolution’s ideals and impact permeates across all forms of art, novels, poetry, paintings, scholarly articles etc. Writing in favour of the Revolution in Britain was outlawed - the aristocracy did not want the British public getting similar ideas of social uprisings. Although geographically near France, Britain, was, and remains, politically different. Unlike many other European countries less than a century later, Britain would not succumb to the revolutions of 1848. In order to understand the way constitutions, the way of life, or simply how a country works in its current form, or has evolved, then understanding events such as the French Revolution is paramount. It enables one to notice apparent connections and distinct divergence in domestic and foreign policies, the reasoning behind inter-national friendships or feuds. The storming of the Bastille is such a metaphorical victory for the people of France that a national holiday not only was created, but also remains to this day.