“….how fares it with the flock? They are not tended, they are only regularly shorn. They are sent for to do statute-labor, to pay statute taxes; to fatten statute battlefields (named ‘bed of honour’) with their bodies, in quarrels which are not theirs. Untaught, uncomforted, unfed: this is the lot of the millions. In such a France, as in a powder tower where fire unquenched and now unquenchable is smoking and smouldering all round, has Louis XV lain down to die.”
So wrote Thomas Carlyle in his history of the French Revolution, published in 1837, but written as if he was actually witnessing the events with all of the fervor of a participant. Carlyle was writing about the state of the people of France at the time of the death of their second to last of the pre-revolutionary line of monarchs, Louis XV in May of 1754. Unfortunately for his successor revolution would eventually sweep the country culminating in the Storming of the Bastille, by the Paris mobs on today’s date, July 14 in 1789. This event marked what is thought of as France’s Independence Day, when the people of France took control of their government away from the despotic Kings who had ruled them up to that point in their history, and established in it’s place a Republic. Of course revolutions are a very blunt instruments and this one proved to be very much that, but more about that in a moment.
France and Her Revolutionary Crisis
Louis XVI (at left), who succeeded his grandfather Louis XV as the King of France was neither a cowardly nor a stupid man. He realized that his government was in a perilous state at the time he ascended to the throne. Too many of the people of his Kingdom lived in poverty, and were treated as mere fodder for wars and taxation. There were ideals of the Age of Enlightenment in the air, and there was growing anger and discontent among his populace at the absolute monarchy and its mistreatment of the common man. Towards that end he attempted reforms such as the end of torture, increased tolerance towards religious minorities (such as Jews and Protestants), and the abolition of the serfdom (a kind of hereditary slavery). But his reforms did not go far enough to quell this discontent. Louis actively supported the American Revolution, but this left his governments finances in a very unsettled state. He appointed Jacques Necker as his Finance Minister. Necker also supported the spending on the backing of the American Revolution, but Necker’s policy of taking out large international loans to finance this made the financial crunch worse. Louis sacked Necker and appointed Alexandre de Calonne reform the financial system of his government. But the nobility rejected Calonnes’ reforms. This lead to the convening of the Estates General in May of 1789. This was a meeting of the three most important classes of French Society, the clergy (the First Estsate), the nobility (the Second Estate), and the bourgeoisie (the middle class and professional tradesmen, lawyers, etc.) as well as the peasants were all part of the Third Estate. But this failed to achieve any progress with the nobility digging in it’s heels to preserve it’s ancient rights and privileges. In frustration, the Third Estate broke off from the Estates General and on July 9, declared itself to be the National Assembly, and the legitimate government of France. Troops were pouring into Paris from around the country in hopes of restoring the governments control.
The Troops and the Paris Mob Storm the Bastille
With the citizenry of Paris actively supporting this National Assembly and rumors of plots to suppress the Assembly running rampant, the explosive situation flared into open violence when the Paris Mob took to the streets and finding many of the Army Troops that had been called into Paris sympathetic to their cause stormed the Bastille. The Bastille, a large and imposing fortress in Paris, was widely seen as a symbol of absolutist power and tyranny. Over the years, it had indeed held more than its share of prisoners sent there by arbitrary royal orders, or lettres de cachet. At that time, however, it held only few inmates, mostly common criminals. The Swiss guards who had been brought in were not expecting anything like the crowd of several hundred to one thousand including soldiers whom they faced that morning. The officer in charge was Bernard-René de Launay who attempted to negotiate a way out of the armed conflict he was facing. The crowds surged into the outer-courtyard. But when some shots were fired into the crowd, it moved en masse against the main gate. Eventually de Launay called it quits and was arrested (above), only to be dragged off by the crowd and torn to pieces.
One of the Participants Tells his Story…
One of the Crowd who surged into the Bastiile that afternoon was one J.B. Humbert, watchmaker living in Paris at the time. Citizen Humbert later related his experiences:
“As I left the Hôtel de Ville I heard someone say that the Bastille was being besieged. My regret at having no shot prompted an idea which I immediately carried out, namely to buy some small nails, which I got from the grocer’s at the Coin du Roi, Place de Grève. There I prepared and greased my gun and immediately set off for the Bastille, loading my gun as I went. It was about half past three. the first bridge had been lowered, and the chains cut; but the portcullis barred the way; people were trying to bring in some cannon which had previously been dismantled. I crossed over by the small bridge and from the further side helped to bring in the two guns. When they had been set up on their gun-carriages again, everybody with one accord drew up in rows of five or six, and I found myself in the front rank. The cannon were then leveled: the bronze gun at the large drawbridge and a small iron one, inlaid with silver, at the small bridge.”
Following unsuccessful attempts at negotiation, the attack continued:
“Just as we were about to fire, the small drawbridge was lowered; it was promptly filled by a crowd of people, of whom I was the tenth. We found the gate behind the drawbridge closed: after a couple minutes an invalide [veteran] came to open it, and asked what we wanted: Give up the Bastille, I replied, as did everyone else: then he let us in. My first concern was to call for the bridge to be lowered; this was done. Then I entered the main courtyard (I was about eighth or tenth). I happened to glance at a staircase on my left, and I saw three citizens who had gone up five or six steps and were hurrying down again.
“I immediately rushed over to the staircase to help the citizens, whom I assumed to have been driven back. I rapidly climbed up to the keep, without noticing that nobody was following me; I reached the top of the stairs without meeting anyone, either. In the keep I found a Swiss soldier squatting down with his back to me; I aimed my rifle at him, shouting: lay down your arms; he turned round in surprise, and laid down his weapons, saying: ‘Comrade, don’t kill me, I’m for the Third Estate and I will defend you to the last drop of my blood; you know I’m obliged to do my job; but I haven’t fired.’ “
As you can see, the Swiss Guards were in no particular mood to risk their own necks. As said, revolution is a very blunt instrument for change and this revolution set that very tone, plunging France into a full decade of political upheaval and the bloody guillotined excesses of “The Terror” until Napoleon took over in 1799. Following Napoleon’s banishment to St. Helena in 1815, France would continue in political instability until finally doing away with the monarchy once and for all with the abdication of Louis Napoleon in 1872 following his defeat at the hands of the Prussian Army in the Franco-Prussian War. But the final word on the Storming of the Bastille was delivered with delightful understatement by the British Ambassador, John Frederick Sackville who in 1789 reported to his government on the events of July 14:
“The Populace will not easily forgive the removal of M. Necker; for they seem determined to push their resentment to the utmost lengths; but God forbid that should be the case, since they have already got the upper hand, for who can trust to the moderation of an offended multitude? The regularity and determined conduct of the populace upon the present occasion exceeds all belief and the execration of the Nobility is universal amongst the lower order of people.”
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by J. Christopher Herold, American Heritage Publ. Co., New York, 1963