Storming of the Bastille: Causes and Outcomes

| | April 11, 2024

The French Revolution is a famously bloody mark on France’s past. The Storming of the Bastille was just one of many striking events during the decade of discourse that ended nearly 200 years of the French Bourbon monarchy. In the end, the Storming of the Bastille showed that unified civilians were more than capable of overthrowing an absolute monarchy’s royal authority.

Gathering Storm: The Events that led to the Storming of the Bastille

In the late 1700s, France was not the place to be. The nation’s political scene was in great decline, and the “Ancien Régime” (Old Regime) was terribly unpopular. People were yearning for change and, frankly, the aristocracy was not doing a damn thing about it.

Between flagrant classism and vapid royals, the French Revolution was bound to happen at any moment.

For reference, the reigning king, Louis XVI, was responsible for managing the nation’s debts and navigating it through its present economic crisis. After aiding colonial rebels in the American Revolution, France’s coffers were left nearly empty. As a nation, it was barely scraping by. Louis’ solution was an increase in taxation.

Given the arrangement of 18th-century French society, the Church (First Estate) and nobles (Second Estate) were exempted from taxes. Instead, taxation fell entirely to the working-class peasants, known as the Third Estate. Trying to reform taxes in any way was virtually impossible because the laws had to be approved by individual judicial bodies. Ol’ King Louis couldn’t just wave his hand and make it law. Well, he could, but at the risk of pissing off nobles who enjoyed their lush, tax-free lives.

As a result, taxation became heavily oppressive across France. People were too poor to survive. This was exacerbated by a drought in the spring of 1788 that was followed by a harsh winter: combined, there was nationwide famine. An increase in food prices caused bread riots in Paris. This was after the infamous Flour War of 1775, which showed the incapability of the Old Regime and is counted as a prelude to the French Revolution.

The Failure of the Estates-General 

To remedy tensions, Louis XVI called for an assembly, known now as the Estates-General in May of 1789. Tax reform was at the forefront and each Estate was instructed to write their respective grievances, cahiers de doléances. However, with the aristocracy on one side, clamoring for things to stay the same and the peasantry on the other side, demanding that reformation happen, things weren’t simple. It quickly became apparent that the king was not in a position where he could easily please everyone.

While seeming to be a step towards progress, the Estates-General experienced a significant reversal when members of the Third Estate of the assembly were locked out of the meeting hall in Versailles. This told the people all they needed to know: their demands would not be met by the First and Second Estate, and certainly not by the king himself. Thus, they banded together in the tennis court of Versailles on June 20th, 1789, and swore the Jeu de Paume Oath (The Tennis Court Oath) that they would not separate until a constitution had been written and adapted by France.

Three days prior, on June 17th, the Third Estate declared themselves the National Assembly of France. They also proclaimed that all current taxes were illegal.

So, who was the face of the National Assembly? None other than a man by the name of Jacques Necker. Necker was a Genevan 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 Necker’s sympathy (and frequent mutiny within the French Guards) members of the National Assembly were banking on seeing real change in the Old Regime.

Of course, nothing lasts long, and Louis XVI banished Necker on July 11th. Anticipating riots once Necker’s dismissal reached Paris, the king instructed a heavy garrison of royal troops to station themselves within the city center. The people didn’t take this well. They saw it as preparation for a larger crackdown against French patriots. Camille Desmoulins, a journalist who had a great 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 monarchy ordered dissenters to be cut down in the streets.

Many members of the French Guards in Paris took up arms to serve the Third Estate. By July 13th, 1789, common people began to arm themselves amidst riots, clashes, and looting. The leaders of this now-expanding militia focused their attention on one of the greatest symbols of tyranny in France: The Bastille.

The Bastille: Symbol of Tyranny

The Bastille was a fortress that often acted as a prison for the political enemies of the king. Under King Louis XVI, the Bastille often housed those deemed “socially undesirable.” This meant those who committed some sort of societal taboo were thrown into the Bastille fortress. Common thugs, larcenists, pornographers, and grifters were all locked in the Bastille for their crimes. The infamous Marquis de Sade, also dubbed the Father of Sadism, was one of the higher-profile prisoners during Louis XVI’s rule.

Leading up to the French Revolution, the fortress was far past its glory days and hadn’t particularly been utilized to its full capacity as a prison in some years. The former garrisoned medieval fortress that once held thousands of religious and political prisoners under previous reigns was, in truth, a shadow of itself. By the time of the Prise de la Bastille, only seven prisoners were imprisoned within its walls.

Nonetheless, the Bastille was a symbolic structure in the minds of revolutionaries. It represented the king’s domination over the people. Thus, the Storming of the Bastille was no righteous prison-break, but rather a foreboding message to the king: “You have no power over us any longer.”

Those who were revolting did not aim to free any prisoners within the Bastille, they aimed to focus exclusively on the sheer amount of guns and gunpowder that was located within the prison. The shipment of gunpowder and weapons was recent and would be the backbone of any successful revolution.

Riots of 12-13 July

The convention of the Estates-General, the Tennis Court Oath, and Necker’s abrupt dismissal culminated in a series of riots in Vendôme between the 12th and 13th of July, 1789. An angry crowd gathered and clashed with loyal soldiers while members of the French Guard began to mutiny against the Crown. The mounting pressure forced the royal army troops encamped within Paris to leave the city center. By July 13th, gunsmiths and royal army weapon stores began to be looted.

With the rising tensions, Governor de Launay – the commander of the Bastille – ordered additional forces to guard the political prison. As a senior military official, de Launay did all he could to prioritize the Bastille’s security leading up to the fateful siege: he lifted the drawbridge, closed and locked the gates, and had artillery readied. With the situation spiraling continuously out of the Old Regime’s control, de Launay could do nothing more than hope his precautions would be enough to stave off the inevitable angry masses.

French Revolutionaries Storm the Bastille

On July 14th, 1789, nearly a thousand French rebels arrived, armed to the teeth and prepared to lay siege to the fortress. Among them were peasants, mutinous royal troops, and local business owners. Governor de Launay’s worst fears came true.

The garrison – not even 200 men strong – was tiny compared to the mob. At such a disadvantage, the prison’s garrison was forced to negotiate; their lives depended on it. Unfortunately, Governor de Launay’s negotiation skills were more than lacking. The revolutionaries were able to break through the fortress by the late afternoon and broke the chains to the drawbridge.

READ MORE: The Sans-Culottes in the French Revolution

With nearly one hundred peasants killed among the rebels, the remaining Bastille garrison had little hope against the enraged crowds. The Marquis de Launay was the least lucky of the Bastille’s bunch. He was seized and dragged through the streets towards the Hôtel de Ville. On the way to the city hall, he was accosted by the roaring crowds. Stabbed, beaten, and beheaded, Launay’s fate was a frightful foreshadowing of the legacy of the French Revolution.

In the coming weeks, the Bastille became a popular topic amongst playwrights and publishers. The once enigmatic prison was explored extensively in an attempt to prove claims of prisoner abuse and mistreatment; claims which were exclusively covered by pro-revolutionary press. In the end, Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, the Count of Mirabeau (or simply Mirabeau), who had taken a leadership position within the revolutionary movement, determined that the Bastille was better off destroyed.

Pierre-François Palloy, also called Palloy Patriote, was charged with the Bastille’s demolition. The rebels hoped that the sight of the destroyed Bastille would stir the hearts of civilians to the revolutionary cause. More importantly, however, they hoped the fall of the famous fortress was enough for them to be taken seriously by the First and Second Estate.

The Storming of the Bastille – A Turning Point in French History

The Storming of the Bastille was a highly symbolic gesture. There was no real tactical value of capturing the location and it wasn’t a smaller part of a larger coordinated effort for social reformation. However, the event undoubtedly sent shockwaves throughout the entire country. The sudden violence and the ease at which a great number of French peasants agreed to take up arms and fight against tyrannical forces signaled a turning point in French history.

There was no question that the Third Estate vastly outnumbered both nobility and clergymen. The devastation would be unmeasurable if the violence seen at the Bastille swept across the whole of France. Louis XVI was officially at a standstill. If he pressed the issue more, especially with violence, he would be met with equally violent resistance. However, acting as though nothing happened would horrify the country’s gentry.

As a response, King Louis XVI reinstated Jacques Necker as the financial minister and granted the National Assembly a voice to be heard. This was the bare minimum. Obviously, the above was nothing more than a band-aid measure. He then instructed French soldiers to don revolutionary colors and masquerade as though the monarchy supported the events of July 14th.

In retaliation, a mass exodus of the wealthy began. They didn’t want to stick around for a king that wasn’t going to stick up for them. Ironic, really, considering that was exactly the sentiment of the Third Estate – save that they couldn’t afford to leave.

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 more than ever before.

Aftermath

In the aftermath, the Storming of the Bastille marks the start of the French Revolution and the turning point in France’s history of divine rule. When the Bastille fell into the hands of French patriots, it opened the eyes of the higher Estates to the undeniable fact that change was on the horizon.

King Louis XVI had tried his best to roll with the punches. He tried – albeit, weakly – to show the rest of the people that he understood their plight and that he supported them. His efforts were wholly in vain.

The Bastille broke open a dam. 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.

The Great Fear – a widespread public panic in the later summer of 1789 as a result of limited food stocks – had begun after the Storming of the Bastille. It was thought that there was an ongoing aristocratic conspiracy to starve the poor population to easily control them. This would manifest itself in different ways as the French Revolution carried on.

Fearful of the future, peasants would attack noble homes and burn them to the ground. Food was raided, buildings were destroyed and the peasantry became a force that was unlike anything the French nobility had seen before. Early July seemed so far away as The Great Fear took off at the month’s end.

In an attempt to make amends, the king eventually abolished feudalism and submitted to a constitutional monarchy. The first ever French Constitution of 1791 was drafted by the National Assembly, which had called for the rights of all men to be free. Things were happening, but it was too late to sate the masses. The full force of the French Revolution would come soon and the brutality of the Reign of Terror would begin. The French monarchy would prove to be useless and the French Constitution of 1791 would be thrown out in favor of mob rule.

King Louis XVI 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 July 14th in France as a day to remember the three words that would fuel the fire for an entire revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

READ MORE:

How 18th Century France Made The Modern Media Circus

The February Revolution

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1 thought on “Storming of the Bastille: Causes and Outcomes”

  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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