Seize the Fort: The Storming of the Bastille

| | November 30, 2023

Perhaps no incident is more famous in French history than that of the Storming of the Bastille. It marked the beginning of a tumultuous time for France, a time where the very notion of the Divine Monarchy was overthrown and the bloody French Revolution would begin.

In the late 1700s, the political state of France was in a great deal of decline. King Louis XVI was in charge of managing the debts of a nation that was in economic duress. The financial assistance they provided the United States of America during the American revolution and taxation policies had left the coffers empty and Louis was on a quest to gain as much money as he could. His taxation become oppressive, leaving a great many people too poor to survive and hostility was beginning to sweep across the country.

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With the country of France slowly reaching a boiling point, the King made a decision, he would enact a new tax plan by calling forth an assembly known as the Estates-General. This assembly would hopefully alleviate the woes of the nation. With the aristocracy on one side, clamoring for things to stay the same and the peasantry on the other side, demanding that reformation happen, Louis was not in a position where he could easily please everyone.

With the political revolution occurring with America, where the ideal that a nation could be founded on principles of freedom and equality, it had created a longing within the heart of the French patriot. The idea of a constitution, something that could limit the power of the King, quickly became a hot button issue in the nation.

The Enlightenment had brought for reformers who desired for a King who could be held accountable for his actions, so that the long reign of despots who claimed divine power would come to an end. Instead, these reformers hoped to see a king who could be deposed if he abused his power and the people.

In 1789, the year that the Storming of the Bastille took place, things grew more desperate for the impoverished peasants. Starvation and famine spread across the land, creating tension between the poor and those who collected taxes and tithes.

The Estates-General assembly experienced a massive change when the non-noble and non-clergy members of the assembly were locked out of the meeting hall in Versailles. These representatives of the ordinary people, known as the Third Estate, realized that their demands would not be met by the King. So, they banded together in the tennis court of Versailles on June 20th, 1789 and swore an oath that they would not separate until a constitution had been written and adapted by France.

This action was the first crack in the cohesion between the classes. The Third Estate would become known as the National Assembly and they were in wholehearted support of Jacques Knecker. Jacques was the finance minister who was in charge of proposing a new, friendlier tax plan and it was one that the Third Estate felt good about. With his Jacques sympathy, they would be able to see a real change in the regime.

But everything fell apart when Louis XVI banished Jacques Knecker on the 11th of July. This was a clear signal to those who were fighting hard for legal reformation: reform would not happen underneath this king. Word reached the ears of Paris, where a heavy concentration of peasantry was located. To make matters worse, the King ordered a heavy garrison of soldiers to move into Paris. This was perceived as preparation for a strike against dissenters by the French patriots. Pressure began to escalate in the city as riots broke out.

A man by the name of Camille Desmoulins, a journalist who had great sympathy and love for the National Assembly, stood atop a café table and called out to the peasantry that it was only a matter of time before the French King ordered the dissenters and those who opposed the monarchy to be cut down in the streets. He rallied up the people and told them that it was time for France to take up arms and prepare for a real revolution.

The French militia that had been garrisoned in Paris quickly turned to the influence of the mob mentality, with many of them taking up arms to serve the Third Estate. It was clear that the political power behind this force was something to be reckoned with. Muskets were collected, but it would not be enough firepower to fight against the French reign. The leaders of this now expanding militia focused their attention to one of the greatest symbols of tyranny in France: The Bastille.

The Bastille was a fortress that often acted as a prison for the political enemies of the king. Those who displeased the King or gained his ire would be thrown in the Bastille. It had powerful historical significance, but in the recent years, it hadn’t particularly been utilized to its full capacity as a prison.

Those who were revolting did not aim to free any prisoners within the Bastille, their aim was focusing exclusively on the sheer amount of guns and gunpowder that was located within the prison. The Bastille had recently received a shipment of gunpowder and gunpowder would be the backbone of any successful revolution.

So, on July 14th, 1789, nearly a thousand peasants arrived, armed to the teeth and prepared to lay siege to the fortress. The garrison was tiny compared to the mob, the prison was no longer functioning as anything other than a symbol of tyranny and a place for nearly retired soldiers to spend their time. With only around one hundred soldiers, the prison was forced to negotiate for their own safety. The governor of the prison, Bernard-Rene de Launay tried to see what he could do with the French patriots, but his negotiation skills were near useless when compared to their fervor.

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The patriots were able to break through the fortress and quickly were able to overcome the guards who tried to fight back. Over one hundred rioters were killed, but the garrison had no chance. There are historical disputes about how many soldiers in the garrison died, some believe that all of the soldiers were massacred, others believe there was a formal surrender that allowed them to leave with their lives.

Regardless of the truth, Marquis de Launay had no such luck. After he capitulated and opened the gates to allow them in, he was seized and dragged into the streets. He was beaten severely and beheaded. Launay’s head would then be placed atop a long pike so that the French patriots could show the world that they meant business.

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The Storming of the Bastille was a highly symbolic gesture. While the tactical value of capturing the location was nonexistent and while it hadn’t been a part of any coordinated effort by those who were pushing for reformation, it undoubtedly sent shocks throughout the entire country. The sudden violence, the ease at which a great number of French peasants had agreed to take up arms and fight against tyranny signaled that things were going to be changing in France.

The next morning, when the King heard of this action, he asked the now famous question to a Duke, “Is this a revolt?” To which the Duke replied, “No sir, it’s a revolution!” This news was not good. It proved to the King that his nation was a powder keg.

The peasantry easily outnumbered both the nobility and the clergy. Should violence further sweep across France, it would indeed be a bloody nightmare. And so, as the King evaluated the situation, the French patriots prepared for a violent reply from the military. They armed themselves, barricaded Paris and readied for the King’s military force to come down on them hard.

The King, however, decided that he would not continue to put any more pressure on this movement. If he were to strike against them, the entire country would be up in arms and he would be facing a war just as brutal as the American Revolutionary war that had just come to an end. So, instead, he began to act as if the Storming of the Bastille were something to be supported. He ordered the military to stand down and chose instead to visit Paris while wearing the colors that the French patriots had adorned themselves with during the revolution.

King Louis XVI reinstated Jacques as the financial minister and granted the National Assembly a voice to be heard. This was nothing more than a band-aid measure however. The message had been clearly communicated to the French nobility: they were extremely vulnerable to the power of the peasant. A mass exodus began as the wealthy and aristocratic French made their way out of the country.

Word of the successful revolution caught across France like wildfire. Pressure began to build between the common folk and the nobility, who were now seen as enemies.

The Great Fear had begun because of the Storming of the Bastille. The Great Fear was a kind of paranoia that spread out amongst the common French rabble, paranoia that they would be killed by the aristocrats. This would manifest itself in different ways.

Rumors had spread about the nobles intentionally starving out the peasants, others talked about the danger of an imminent attack by the aristocrats in order to preserve their way of life.

Soon, roving bands of peasants would attack noble’s homes and burn them to the ground. Those who lived underneath the feudalist system for centuries rebelled and destroyed contracts that bound them to their masters. Food was raided, buildings were destroyed and the peasantry became a force that was unlike anything the French nobility had seen before.

Amongst this chaos, as the Great Fear created a greater sense of panic across the nation. Feudalism was eventually abolished by the government and the King would submit to a constitutional monarchy later. The first ever French Constitution of 1791 was drafted by the National Assembly, who had called for the rights of all men to be free.

This constitution was ratified in September 1791 but it was very short lived. The true French Revolution would come soon and the brutality of the Reign of Terror would begin. The French monarchy would prove to be useless and this constitutional document would be thrown out, for a time, in favor of mob rule.

All in all, the Storming of the Bastille was far more of a symbolic victory than it was any kind of tactical one. When the Bastille fell into the hands of the French patriots, it opened the eyes of both the King and the aristocracy that there was trouble on its way.

King Louis XVI had tried his best to roll with this, to show the rest of the people that he understood their plight and that he supported them.

His goal had been simple: preserve the state of France the way it was. But the Bastille broke open a dam that could never be put back together. As national hysteria continued to climb, as the advocates of revolution voices became louder and louder, it would only be a matter of time before the entire nation would be covered in the blood of true revolution.

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But it all started with a simple moment, a moment in which a King ignored his people’s will, as they often did. But the late 1700s was a new kind of era, one where the political forces of reformation were sweeping across the entire globe.

The King hadn’t done anything different from all of the other kings before him, yet the zeitgeist of social change ensured that the peasant’s reaction would forever change the very course of France’s history. Today, Bastille Day is celebrated every year within France as a day to remember the three words that would fuel the fire for an entire revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité.


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1 thought on “Seize the Fort: The Storming of the Bastille”

  1. Interesting article! 4YI, intriguing details and comparison of the French Revolution to the American Revolution is made in “George Washington’s Liberty Key: Mount Vernon’s Bastille Key.”


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