The Storming of the Bastille, Part I
In the years leading up to the French Revolution, a series of events triggered significant socioeconomic changes. The formal system of government at the time was known as the Ancient Regime, and the groups within it were labeled “Estates”. The First Estate was the Roman Catholic Clergy, the Second the Monarchy and Nobility, and the Third the remainder of the population (the poor).
Mostly rural, the Third Estate farmed and lived off the land–renting their farmland from wealthy lords and paying high taxes for the right to grow crops. The lords turned over a portion of these taxes to the King, but often kept the largest share for themselves.
At this time King Louis XVI was a strong supporter of the American War of Independence, sending the revolutionary fighters a tremendous amount of money, further adding to the already serious drain on the National Treasury. Because all worth and privileges were determined by birth and not by talent, opportunities for the Third Estate to move upward on the social and economic ladder were virtually non-existent. The surge in population, which had grown by one third during the 18thcentury, led to a major economic crisis; pushing the poorest people closer to revolt.
Desperate to secure more funds to govern the country, King Louis XVI attempted to pass a law requiring the nobility to pay more taxes (which of course, they opposed). The Catholic Clergy also refused the King’s entreaties to help him shore up the National Treasury. Finally, the King’s hand was forced and he called for a meeting of the Estates-General, something not done for over 300 years.
The meeting was held on May 5th, 1789. Maximilien de Robespierre, a young lawyer from the north of France dedicated to defending the rights of the poor and vulnerable, represented the Third Estate. The King promised them fair representation, however when he and his delegates announced the agenda of the meeting, the Third Estate discovered that the promise of representation was in fact a sham.
The nobility and the Catholic Church once again refused to accept any new taxation requirements, and the Third Estate re-organized into the National Assembly; aimed at representing all three Estates without the King’s supervision. Louis XVI canceled the Estates General meeting, a decision that arguably changed the course of the French political system forever.
The newly created Assembly, led by Robespierre and two associates, Le Comte de Mirabeau and Abbe Emmanuel Sieyes, met in secret and wrote a Constitution for France. Initially Louis XVI vehemently opposed the Constitution but, realizing that he must acknowledge the authority of the Assembly, capitulated on July 9th, 1789. The King and his court, although obliged to admit their defeat, gave little support to the new Assembly.
Three days later the King dismissed his very popular Minister of Finances, Jacques Necker, and rumors quickly spread in the streets of Paris of a counterattack by the King’s army to destabilize the newly proclaimed Assembly.
On the morning of July 14th, 1789 a group of craftsmen and salesmen decided to fight back and ran to the Invalides military prison to steal weapons, securing 28,000 rifles; unfortunately, no powder was to be found. The crowd knew powder was stocked in the Bastille, a prison that symbolized the King’s absolute and arbitrary power. Thus, an attack on the Bastille was hastily planned.
At the time of the storming only a few soldiers guarded the Bastille; 80 wounded veteran soldiers and 30 Swiss mercenaries. Marquis Bernard-Rene de Launay, the governor of the Invalides, agreed to meet some of the revolutionary representatives inside the prison, hoping to buy time.
The negotiations were cut short when another group of revolutionaries entered the Bastille. The guards were ordered to fire, killing hundreds. The wave of the revolt changed when a large group, intended to rescue the Bastille guards, instead decided to join and fight with the revolutionary mob. With cannons and professional military skills, they secured victory for the people of France in just a few hours.
At 4pm, the Marquis surrendered and let the people enter the Bastille. The guards were violently killed and the Marquis was beheaded; his head put on a stake and carried around the city. Later that night, 800 men began destroying the Bastille. When the Duc de Liancourt informed the King of what happened at the Bastille, the King asked, “Is this a revolt?” Liancourt answered, “No, Majesty, this is a revolution.”
Composed of more than 40,000 people directed by The Marquis de Lafayette, the National Guard was quickly formed following the storming of the Bastille. Tri-color rosettes became the new symbol of the Revolution– white (the color of the Monarchy), encircled by blue and red (the colors of Paris). When Louis XVI arrived in Paris with Lafayette he was welcomed with a rosette placed on his vest. The gesture made it painfully clear that the King’s life was in peril.