It had been a tough year for France. A tough five years. 1783 had ended well, with arch-rival Britain losing its American colonies thanks in large part to French military and monetary support. Sweet revenge for the loss of France’s own North American colonies to Britain twenty years earlier. The problem was, the only spoils of victory were good feelings and heavy debts. By 1788, it became clear that France’s archaic economic infrastructure was not up to the task of funding a great power. Financial catastrophe loomed, and the King and the nobility could not agree on how to prevent it. Then came a series of disastrous weather events that wrought havoc on France’s fields: drought followed by record freezes followed by floods and hail. Much of the country’s food supply never made it out of the ground. Bread prices soared.
King Louis XVI, on advice of his ministers, took action (not something he was ever very good at). He summoned a meeting of the Estates General, which hadn’t happened in well over 150 years. A meeting of all three levels of society to discuss and approve weighty matters, the Estates General would have the power and the will to reform the tax system and the other other legal and political obstacles crippling France’s economy.
Each of the three estates would be responsible for selecting their own delegates to the Assembly. For the First Estate, the church, this resulted in an interesting mix of high-power bishops and low-class local priests. The Second Estate, the nobility, chose pretty much based on power, influence, and heredity, as nobles do.
The Third Estate, the vast majority of people, held a complicated system of elections. Holding elections was a new thing for France. Although they varied throughout the country and were not direct affairs, they were empowering. People got it into their heads that their opinions mattered. The winners were mostly the kind of people who were literate enough to be fully engaged in running for office and financially secure enough that they could take time away from earning a living to attend the Estates General. That is to say, many of them were lawyers. An interesting side effect of this was that, broadly speaking, the representatives of the Third Estate tended to be much more eloquent, well-educated, and informed than those of the Second. Few nobles pursued higher education, since a career as an officer in the military was the sole preserve of the nobility and the expected thing. They turned out to be ill-equipped to debate a cadre of Enlightenment-educated legal and philosophy wonks.
In Spring 1789, The Estates General came together in Versailles to meet with the King. The newly empowered Third insisted that it should be proportionally represented in the voting. After all, they stood for over 90% of the country. The King, nobles, and clergy held firm that each estate should have an equal say. The King’s compromise, that nobles and clergy together would have the same voting power as the Third didn’t resolve the issue. In a bold move, the Third decided to leave the Estates General before it had ever really met, and started their own convention: the National Assembly. They then kindly invited the others to join them. The King refused, the nobles refused, and all but a handful of the clergy refused. The National Assembly held strong through the deadlock, and eventually the King relented and ordered the other estates to join the National Assembly.
Or at least King Louis seemed to relent. The National Assembly encompassed all three estates by the end of June, 1789. It seemed to many that France was now on the path to some sort of Constitutional Monarchy, like that in Britain (which many involved admired). In fact, Louis was just buying time. He started drawing in troops from across France to the region around Paris and Versailles, mostly German and other foreign mercenaries. He did not trust that French troops would do the heavy-duty cracking down that would be necessary to dissolve the National Assembly and keep the people of Paris from successfully rising up in rebellion.
While most of the King’s ministers weren’t pleased with the National Assembly, finance minister Jacques Necker had been working hard to both help the Third Estate and do his best for the King and France’s failing economy. It put him right in the middle of the political vortex, ad as events played out his popularity with the Third Estate rose along with enmity towards him within the King’s court. As the King’s troops moved into place, his highness knew he couldn’t have Necker speaking for the government’s finances when it came time to shut down the Assembly. On July 11th, he quietly fired Necker and ordered him to leave France at once without talking to anyone. Necker, a loyal man with a good sense of self-preservation, did as he was told. Thus he was already far gone when the news of his dismissal spread the next day.
July 12th - Outrage in the Palais Royal
The Palais Royal is in the center of Paris, just next door to the Louvre (which at that time was just one of many king’s palaces and not yet a museum). It is not a Versailles-style palace, but more of a shopping mall style palace. Its rectangular arcades were (and are still) full of shops and cafes, while the carefully manicured park in the center served as a place of public recreation. These days it’s all very upscale, but back in 1789 is was full of loud political discussions over coffee, booksellers hawking new political pamphlets every day, prostitutes plying their trade, and theaters showing the latest plays. It was the center of radical thought and licentious fun times in Paris.
Louis XVI was from the Bourbon royal line, but the Palais Royal was owned by his cousin from the Orleans royal line. The Orleans branch had a claim to the throne that fell in line of succession after that of Louis and his family, and the last king of France would in fact be the son of Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orleans and owner of the Palais Royal. As a very powerful nobleman, Louis-Philippe extended his personal protection over the building and its tenants, allowing them to get away with saying things and selling books that might get them in a lot of trouble elsewhere in Paris. The duke had a strained relationship with his royal cousin, and had been drifting farther and farther towards radicalism. He would throw himself into the revolution when it came, positioning himself as a noble champion of the people before being guillotined in 1793.
July 12th was a Sunday, meaning that much of Paris wasn’t at work and the Palais Royal’s cafes and arcades were full of people. The three biggest topics of conversation were the starvation inducing high price of bread, excitement about the National Assembly, and concern over the large numbers of foreign troops converging on Paris. Among those in the Palais were several soldiers from the French Guard who had abandoned their units over concerns about the possibility of being ordered to attack their countrymen and fellow Third Estaters. King Louis’ secret troop concentration hadn’t stayed secret. Lots of people feared an attack was coming, and were worried for their lives.
The news of Necker’s dismissal burst into the Palais, escalating the crowd’s outrage and fear to dizzying heights. Among the many who stood on cafe tables to shout their trenchant political analysis about how tyranny and death were upon us was a lawyer and writer named Camille Desmoulins. Sword and pistol in hand, he called upon the crowd at the Cafe du Foy to take up arms to protect themselves from the King’s tyrannical threats. They did just that. The crowd of thousands swirled through and around the Palais Royal. They shut down the theaters with the news of Necker’s fate, and the theatergoers joined the crowd. They made banners and held aloft waxwork busts of Necker and the Duc d’Orleans. They marched out into the streets, a mass of thousands headed towards Place Vendôme.
The Palais Royal today is very much like the Palais Royal of 1789, except that all the seediness has been banished. The Cafe du Foy is gone, but there are still restaurants and shops lining the arcades. The central area is still a public park that fills up with Parisians on a warm July Sunday, although there’s very little shouting about revolution. The two theaters that anchor either end of the Palais are still there and still performing plays. The Comedie Francaise was then and is today one of the city’s premiere venues. If the King were sending foreign troops into the city, it’s just a matter of a minute to rush over and warn the theater-goers. There’s even a restaurant from back then, The Grand Vefour, which used to be the Cafe Chartres in 1789. I don’t imagine the original was nearly as pricey, but the atmosphere remains evocative.
Stepping out of the arcades and into the streets, the first thing you notice is how narrow they are. Back then, most of Paris was like this. The wide boulevard heading west from the Palais didn’t exist - Napoleon would build it more than a decade later. The crowd from the Palais would have filled the streets to bursting as they made their way to the wide open expanse of Place Vendôme a few blocks away.
As they entered Place Vendôme, the crowd encountered some of those foreign troops they’d been so worried about. A troop of Royal German Dragoons blocked their way, soldiers mounted on horseback, armed with sabers. The dragoons tried to disperse the crowd, but were instead swallowed up by it. They had to be rescued by reinforcements, and then retreated back towards the Tuileries gardens. The growing crowd pushed forward after them.
Place Vendôme opens into a huge, wide space after the crush of narrow streets leading to it from the Palais Royal. It’s shape today is the same as it was then, but it’s the last place you’d expect to see a clash of cavalry and citizens. The giant bronze Vendôme Column erected by Napoleon in honor of his military victory at Austerlitz dominates the plaza. The Ministry of Justice has its offices here. But mostly it’s modern luxury brands piled up next to each other. The Ritz Paris dominates one quarter. Rolex, Bulgari, and other expensive shops compete for high-end customers. In the day it was not so different, and there were high-end watchmakers doing business here at the time. It was after all just a couple blocks away from the royal palace of the Tuileries.
Adjacent to the Louvre, the Tuileries Palace was destroyed in 1870, during the Siege of Paris, but its gardens still remain (enlarged to encompass land where the building once stood). In 1789 it was a popular public venue, and no king had spent much time there since Louis XIV had moved the court to Versailles. Its position lies on the path of retreat from Place Vendôme back towards the Champs de Mars, a wide open field used to muster and drill armies. Today the Eiffel Tower sits at one end of the field. In 1789 it there were thousands of soldiers bivouacked there and nearby.
The retreating cavalry linked up with a larger force of Royal German Dragoons at one end of the Tuileries Gardens. When the crowd flooded into the garden paths, the dragoons barred their path. They charged the civilian mob, this time with sufficient numbers and force to scatter them. Although only one person died, the thousands who escaped took with them tales of a massacre. As survivors regrouped in the Palais Royal, the tales of royal butchery grew. As far as they were concerned, this was now a fight for survival.
At this point there was no leadership, just a cry for action. Groups of citizens went out into the streets of Paris, looking to attack any sign of tyranny or royal abuse they could find. A group raided an abbey based on rumors that there were weapons and food hidden there. There weren’t any muskets, but they did find vast quantities of food, which they seized. Other groups forced their way into prisons, including the nearby Conciergerie Prison, freeing prisoners that included some French Guard troops who’d been punished for insubordination. The most violence was focused on the tax barriers that sat at every gate into the Paris. Many blamed the taxes collected there for raising the price of bread and other food to unaffordable levels. Dozens of them were smashed and burned that night, but several of these tax barriers survived to the present day. They were relatively recent construction in 1789, and they are lovely buildings, no doubt designed to make the tax collection process seem as noble and important as possible.
Government institutions like prisons and tax collection stations were far from the only places attacked that night. Many small shops and businesses were raided as well, especially if they sold weapons or food. Although sympathetic to this nascent revolution, the bourgeois owners rightly feared for their livelihood if that kind of looting continued. With no sign of the army or anyone from the King’s government taking charge of the situation, they did it for on their own. Although they had no legal authority, the Electors of Paris (who had been elected to then choose the city’s delegates to the National Assembly) took it upon themselves to start governing. They had two goals, both of them sensible and motivated by self-preservation. They wanted to put a halt to anymore looting and they wanted to organize and arm the people of Paris against further attacks from the King’s foreign troops.
On July 13th, the Electors of Paris formed the Bourgeois Militia. Operating out of the traditional seat of municipal government, the Hotel de Ville, they called upon the neighborhoods to meet, form militias and ready themselves to defend Paris. Over the course of the day the looting was quashed and the center of action shifted from the Palais Royal to the Hotel de Ville. The main challenge now was to find arms for the new Bourgeois Militia. There was a lot of unsuccessful searching during the day, as well as a successful operation to seize some gunpowder stores from a barge on the Seine. In the coming weeks the Bourgeois Militia would become the National Guard, a permanent and influential army aligned with the ideals of the Revolution rather than the old regime.
Meanwhile the French army pretty much just let all of this happen. There had been some fighting on the 12th between the Royal Germans and the French Guard, which had pushed the foreign troops back across the river. The troops on the Champ de Mars were mostly French, and their commanding officer had zero confidence that they would obey his orders if he commanded them to attack their fellow Frenchmen. Already there were desertions in the ranks. With no firm direction from Versailles, they sat in camp and waited.
July 14th - To Arms, Citizens!
The morning of July 14th dawned, and the nascent Third Estate army still only had hundreds of muskets for its thousands of members. Thus far, all efforts to find arms had been disappointing, and many were starting to blame the Mayor, Flesselles who seemed to be sending them on wild goose chases. With no hidden stockpiles of guns to arm themselves with, the crowd decided it was time to take what they needed from the army. Around 8000 of them marched west from the Hotel de Ville, crossing the river and heading to Les Invalides.
A combination veterans hospital and military facility, there were thousands of rifles stored in Les Invalides, protected by a small force of pensioner soldiers serving out their retirement. They offered only a token, non-violent resistance. The crowd packed in and took every weapon they could get their hands on. Several almost died in the press of the mob. They liberated thousands of muskets and a dozen cannons. There was one problem: no ammunition. The commander of Les Invalides had moved the gunpowder to the Arsenal, back across town. From there it had been moved to an even more secure location, the ancient prison-fortress called The Bastille.
The Bastille was an old prison with a fearsome reputation. It occupied a dark place in the public imagination, even though by 1789 it was almost moribund. Plans were already underway to demolish it and build something nice, but that wasn’t public knowledge. Guarded by pensioners and overseen by a nobleman who made some extra money renting out the space for shops around its outer wall, there were only seven prisoners inside. But in years gone by it had been where the King sent those he imprisoned with a letter of cache, a royal writ the required no trial and was emblematic of cruel tyranny. By 1789, several best-selling books had been written in years detailing the Bastille’s grim history.
All that history was in the minds of the citizens when the cry went up in the crowd at Les Invalides, “A la Bastille!” They took their newly requisitioned muskets and marched east, back the way they’d come from. There were already a group of citizens at the Bastille’s gates. Since that morning they’d been negotiating with Governor de Launay, commander of the Bastille, for the gunpowder he had locked inside. The Governor only had a small force under his command: a hundred or so pensioners plus a squad of Swiss Guards who’d been sent to reinforce him a few days earlier. He didn’t want to fight his neighbors, but he wasn’t about to surrender his post or the gunpowder without orders from the King.
As the crowd from Les Invalides joined those already waiting outside the Bastille’s gates, tensions grew. Governor de Launay had already withdrawn all but one of his soldiers inside the castle, leaving a sole unarmed guard to serve as messenger in the negotiations. Envoys went in and out, but there was no sign that the Bastille would be surrendering its cache of gunpowder anytime soon. A handful of men from the crowd climbed over the low, outer wall and made their way to the outer gate. They cut loose the drawbridge, sending it crashing open and crushing one poor man who was outside.
The rest of the crowd near the gate assumed that the Governor was finally doing the right thing and surrendering. They rushed forward into the courtyard towards the Bastille castle’s main gate. But they hadn’t surrendered. The soldiers in the Bastille’s towers saw a mob of attackers coming. When it was over everyone would blame someone else, but the order to fire went out. The soldiers blasted down into the tightly packed courtyard, killing around a hundred people. Now the battle began in earnest.
Over the next few hours a firefight waged around the Bastille. Down below, besiegers took shelter in the kitchen and the Governor’s house, which were outside the castle walls. Others climbed onto the roofs of nearby buildings to shoot at the soldiers atop the towers. Inside, Governor de Launay was starting to panic, considering surrender and then threatening to ignite the huge gunpowder cache and blow up the whole neighborhood.
A group of untrained citizens with muskets and not a lot of ammunition were unlikely to ever take the Bastille. The defenders could certainly have held out for a day or more, until help arrived. But the arrival of a group of French Guards changed the calculus. They had brought with them some of the cannons taken from Les Invalides, and they had both powder and shot. The French Guard leveled their guns at the castle’s drawbridge and fired a volley. Although the Bastille had plenty of its own cannons with which to return fire, they didn’t.
While the Swiss Guards inside wanted to keep fighting, the pensioners who made up the bulk of the Bastille’s garrison did not. They voted to surrender, and none of the stalwarts would or could stop them from opening the gate and putting down their arms. The crowd rushed in, wary of another trick. The men inside, including the Swiss, gave up without further resistance. The Bastille was sacked, its prisoners freed, and its defenders taken into custody.
There were only seven prisoners in the Bastille, a mix of madmen, forgers, and a noble whose proclivities had embarrassed his family. The other noble prisoner, the Marquis de Sade, had been transferred out ten days earlier, but his possessions were still in his cell, including the scroll on which he’d secretly written 120 Days of Sodom. It was discovered later and held in private hands until the 20th century. The four forgers were put back in prison by authorities not long after their release. The lack of symbolically impressive prisoners soon led Revolutionary writers to create their own perfect victim, the imaginary Comte de Lorges, who became the most famous “person” freed from the King’s tyranny.
The Governor and his men were marched back to the Hotel de Ville. Although angry crowds threatened to hang him from the nearest lamp post, the French Guardsman escorting him prevented mob violence for the moment. Once they arrived outside their destination, the Governor lashed out at some of the men holding him, kicking one. His captors turned on him, hacking and stabbing him and dropping him in the gutter where two men shot him with pistols just to be sure. The man he’d kicked produced a small knife and sawed off the Governor’s head, which was then affixed to a pike. Several others met the same fate, including Mayor Flesselles, who was shot on the steps of the Hotel de Ville as he stepped outside to defend himself against accusations of treachery. He was said to have hidden weapons from the people, although that might have just been ignorance or incompetence and not conspiracy on his part.
News of the Bastille’s fall reached a shocked Versailles, where no one had been sure what was going on in Paris, except that there was violence and revolt. Louis might well have been able to push forward his military crackdown, but now it was clear that doing so would require a full-scale battle against his own people and soldiers from his own army. Instead he chose to come to Paris on July 15th in search of peace and an end to discord. The soldiers were ordered to stand down, the foreign troops withdrawn. While his original decision to join the National Assembly might have been a ruse to buy time, now he was going to have to try and actually work with this strange elected body that had seized so much power for itself.
For a time it seemed like that might even happen. It didn’t work out well for him in the end, but it’s unclear that any choice he made at this point would’ve restored him to his former power and glory. His younger brother the Count d’Artois saw the writing on the wall and fled France at once, allowing him to survive until the revolution had passed and he could ascend the throne in 1824. Although he’d be ousted by another revolution six years later, replaced by a new constitutionally controlled monarch in 1830 - Louis-Philippe I, son of the Duc d’Orleans, owner of the Palais Royal.
The Bastille Day Today
There’s no Bastille to be seen at Place Bastille today, and there hasn’t been for over two centuries. The people of Paris tore the building down within a year of storming it. Pieces of the walls were carved into souvenir models of the prison. Others chunks were turned into trophies and keepsakes. Those who could prove they were part of the battle were enrolled in a list of heroes and received special medals. The Storming of the Bastille was instantly recognized as a monumental event worthy of celebrating.
It was a big deal. Even though the battle was short and the original goal - securing ammunition - became moot almost as soon as it was achieved, it was an undeniable slap across the King’s face. Armed members of the Third Estate had invaded a royal prison, executed its governor, and seized its stores of arms and gunpowder. On most days in most years that would be an act high treason. On this day in 1789 it was the act of patriots and heroes standing up to tyranny. A lot had happened to pave the way, and much more was yet to come, but when the King didn’t or couldn’t fight back, it seemed like the old days were over for good.
In 1790 there was a huge celebration on the Champ de Mars to mark the anniversary. After that it remained an important holiday during the early days of the revolution, but eventually faded in prominence. After the restoration of the monarchy of course it was not something the government wanted to remember at all. It did not become a national holiday until 1880, when the last of the kings and emperors of France had been gone for nearly a decade and the Republic seemed secure. Since then it has grown to be a huge holiday, the time to celebrate France’s national identity and patriotism, as well as a way to kick off the Summer vacation season.
Events today start off with a military parade and a speech by the president. Military personnel, including some cavalry dressed in uniforms Napoleon would’ve found familiar, march down the Champs-Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. Jets and helicopters fly overhead and afterwards the soldiers happily smile and pose for pictures with citizens and tourists alike. In the evening hundreds of thousands converge on the Champ de Mars between the Eiffel Tower and Military Academy for a concert and fireworks. It’s hard to picture the armed camp that was pitched there in 1789, its commanding officer afraid to ask his soldiers to attack their fellow Frenchmen for fear of mutiny. It is easy to picture the huge crowds of citizens who celebrated that first anniversary of the Bastille in 1790, which marked the first step in converting the field from a military space to the iconic civilian monument that it is today.