Reflecting upon the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution

The storming of the Bastille was the spark which set off the French Revolution.  Sadly, not all revolutions are created equally. Photo: Public Domain

SAN JOSE, July 14, 2013 — The storming of the Bastille and its shocking takeover on July 14, 1789, was the symbol of the spark which set off the French Revolution. The medieval fortress-prison represented the staunch royal authority at the core of Paris. This ancient fortress dated back to 1370 and was often utilized by French kings to imprison politically disagreeable subjects, and the prison had been a clear symbol of the abuses of the French monarchs.

The control of the Bastille fell into the hands of rebellious Parisians, who had not stormed the prison to free political prisoners but had stormed the Bastille to capture the arms, ammunition, and gunpowder stored in the fort in order to protect themselves from the powerful French military. The people had become fearful of being attacked by the Royal military that had stationed troops within the vicinity of Paris in anticipation of public protests due to controversial move by King Louis XVI.

The people of Paris had sensed that there had been a political coup by the royals close to the king because the king had completely reorganized his ministry based upon advice from his trusted privy council. A most highly controversial move was made when the king dismissed and banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the common people. By Sunday, July 12th, news of Necker’s dismissal had reached Paris, and Parisians sensing a coup, became fearful that the government, which had moved a large number of Royal troops from frontier garrisons into various areas within the vicinity of Paris, would move against the crowds.

The people also saw that their hope of freedom resting in the National Assembly, which had been renamed as the National Constituent Assembly by that time, could be crushed by the king’s forces. Thousands of people gathered in the streets of Paris and became inflamed by the reports and the rhetoric of the firebrands, marched upon the Bastille, to secure the large cache of weapons.

The Bastille was also a symbol of the absolute control of the French monarchy. It served as an appropriate target of the people because of its dark history, which included people being imprisoned because they were pereceived as threats to whatever regime was in power at the time. Royal imprisonment such as this could not be reversed as there were no appeals allowed for such crimes. The storming of the Bastille was as much an attack upon such a symbol of tyranny as a practical effort to secure arms.

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On the morning of the attack, the crowd of around one-thousand people proved to be quite confrontational. Gathering outside the prison in the mid-morning hours, they called upon the troops to surrender and to give up the weapons and gunpowder. Negotiators were allowed inside, but the negotiations had not progressed rapidly enough for the throng of impatient people. By early afternoon, the crowd pushed into the outer courtyard and then on into the inner fortified area amidst firing from the defenders in the prison. Fighting continued into mid-afternoon when the French Guard mutinied and started to assist the attacking throng.  

The irony in this pivotal incident was that the commander in charge of the prison, Governor Bernard-René de Launay, actually opened the gates to the raucous crowd in order to avoid a bloodbath. After the smoke cleared and the dust settled, 98 people in the crowd and one defender were known to be slain in the struggle. De Launay surrendered the prison in the late afternoon and was seized and beaten repeatedly by the crowd. The mob dragged him through the streets toward the Hôtel de Ville where reports indicate that he demanded to be killed and the people obliged by stabbing him repeatedly, beheading him, and sticking his head upon a pike and parading it through the streets.

Although this incredible event in the history of France is looked upon with as much respect and reverence as the colonists taking on the British troops in the “shot heard ‘round the world,” this treatment of de Launay could be viewed as an ominous foreshadowing of what would come in the aftermath of the fall of the Bastille. While it is undeniably true that following the taking of the Bastille, in August the people abolished feudalism; and then ultimately on August 26th, the people proudly proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It is also undeniable that this movement toward freedom devolved into some of the most unjust acts of cruelty against humanity ever committed.

Although the storming of the Bastille represents the spark which ignited the French Revolution, within four years, this initial movement toward “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” sadly deteriorated into a reprehensible bloodbath of horror during the Reign of Terror under the machinations of the notorious revolutionary, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre. He led the people’s tribunal that arrested, tried, and executed (beheaded via the guillotine) over 17,000 people. De Launay just happened to be the first victim.

Robespierre, although only one of the powerful Committee of Public Safety, was the only member who had full support of the fanatical “Society of the Friends of the Constitution,” eventually known as the Jacobins, who were among the more radical supporters of the French Revolution. He was the individual most closely identified with the Reign of Terror. Ironically, even Robespierre was beheaded due to his opposition to the atheistic elements within the revolution.

Even popular Marquis de La Fayette, who served as general under General George Washington during the American Revolution, and who was one of the most important links between the American and the French Revolutions, was ultimately persecuted by the people’s government under control of the Jacobins and ultimately was forced to flee France in 1792. He was trying to flee to the United States, he was captured and forced to spend five years in prison before he could safely return to France when it was under the control of Napoleon.  

While the treatment of de Launay would prove to be a foreshadowing of the Reign of Terror, the treatment of La Fayette would demonstrate how such a popular revolution could devolve into confusion, chaos, rampant suspicion, widespread accusation, and condemnation and execution of individuals without much control. Lafayette returned to France in 1788 full of hope and enthusiasm for the freshly developing constitutional principles in United States. Impressed with George Washington and the infant United States, he advocated other nations to follow the American example. As a confidant of King Louis XVI, he served as captain of the National Guard of Paris, and helped to draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Then, he took an oath to the new constitution, just before the king did so.

Ultimately, Lafayette was appointed commander-in-chief of the National Guard in response to violence, and as he attempted to maintain order during the chaos in France in 1791, was condemned by the Jacobins. In short, the French Revolution, despite being imbued with noble ideals, despite being supported by many good patriots, despite being romanticized by many, ultimately in the end deteriorated into a display of some of the most inhumane atrocities fueled by resentment and disdain, not only for the monarchy, or for the aristocracy, but also ultimately exhibiting contempt towards its one another, towards the Roman Catholic Church, and even disdain toward God.

During these turbulent times, France was beset with serious internal disorder and financial loss, and counter-revolution swept through the country. Fighting not only broke out within France, the nation of France was forced to defend itself as the efforts to “extend the revolution,” alienated many monarchs throughout Europe. During this time Napoleon rose to power, and it was fairly easy for him to consolidate his authority into absolute power. By 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself the Emperor of France.

Unfortunately, all revolutions are not created equally, nor do they guarantee the desired outcome of the revolutionaries.



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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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