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Bastille Day – 14 July 1789: The French Revolution begins

The Bastille was despised as a symbol of despotism and also because of the many stories that circulated about its use for torture and other cruelties


FOR 95% of the population in France in 1789 it was the worst of times; the other 5% – including King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette – lived a decadent lifestyle in the Palace of Versailles outside Paris.

The price of bread, the diet of the working class, was soaring. In August 1788, 50% of a peasant’s or urban worker’s income went towards the purchase of bread. By July 1789, this figure had risen to 80%.

On top of that, a bitter winter and a poor harvest had left the average citizen hungry and growing increasingly resentful. Anger turned into rage and rage turned into revolution. The cry of “liberty, equality, fraternity” was about to be heard outside a prison in Paris.

The Bastille, a grim fortress which served as a state prison, was located at the east end of the city of Paris. The Bastille was despised as a symbol of despotism and also because of the many stories that circulated about its use for torture and other cruelties.

A group of revolutionaries known as sans-culottes (“without breeches”, a term of contempt applied by the aristocrats) heard that there were arms at the Bastille and decided to storm the fortress.

The sans-culottes believed in the ideology that all men were equal. Ideally, each citizen would own one piece of property, such as a farm or a shop, and no one would control large enterprises or estates. The sans-culottes were not opposed to the concept of private property but they did despise the indulgent wealth by the bourgeoisie and the elite aristocrats. They believed that food should be taken from big landowners and grain merchants to be given to small workshops.

They called for a radical republic based on direct democracy. They also wanted a tax on the rich.

At the Bastille, the Marquis de Launay, the governor of the prison, was ready to defend the fortress. The walls were ten-feet thick and the towers were over 90-feet high. The garrison consisted of 82 invalides (army veterans no longer fit for active service), two artillerymen and 32 Swiss soldiers from the regular army. In the Bastille, there were 15 cannons, loads of grapeshot pointed directly at the drawbridge, 600 muskets, 12 rampart muskets with over 15,000 cartridges and 20,000 pounds of powder

While the fortress had the reputation of being a very harsh prison, there were only seven prisoners (including an Irishman) in the building.

A rumour had circulated that the fortress’s cannon had been aimed at the street of St Antoine in what appeared to be a threat to the people of Paris. Alarmed at this prospect, the sans-culotte gathered around the Bastille to demand that the cannon be redirected. A deputy from the district of St Louis de la Culture named Thuriot de la Rosiere met with de Launay, who assured him that the cannon were aimed as they always had been.

Dissatisfied with this report, some members of the crowd began to take more direct and revolutionary action.

Two men armed with axes attacked the guardhouse and tried to lower the first drawbridge by breaking the chains. The soldiers in the fortress threatened to open fire if they did not stop. The men refused and managed to lower the first drawbridge. They then set to work on the second drawbridge when the soldiers opened fire. For four hours the crowd tried to lower the second bridge and storm the fortress and for four hours their assaults were turned back with musket fire.

French Revolution Bastille

The tide of the battle shifted when some French Guards appeared with cannons. Realising that their defences could now be breeched, the defenders urged de Launay to surrender. But, instead of surrendering, de Launay threatened to blow up the fortress. Before he could realise his plan, however, the soldiers inside raised the white flag and surrendered on condition that no harm would come to them.

These assurances being given, the drawbridge was lowered. But the French Guards could not control the crowd and several soldiers were killed. De Launay had his throat cut on the steps of the town hall and his head was carried around the streets of Paris. The French Revolution had begun.

Two weeks later, on the night of 4 August 1789, the National Assembly suppressed all the privileges of the nobility and clergy. Three weeks later, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was promulgated and, later, a constitutional regime based on popular suffrage was installed.

On 5 October, between 6,000 and 7,000 of the women of Paris marched on the Palace of Versailles to force the King of France to accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

On 21 January 1793, King Louis XVI was publicly executed by guillotine in Paris. Later that year, his queen, Marie Antoinette, met the same fate

The French Revolution is the key event in the history of republicanism, the act of creation separating the light of liberty and reason from the darkness of despotism and deceit.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the citizen of 26 August 1789, passed by the National Assembly, and its extension of 24 June 1793 were to inspire revolutionaries across the globe, including Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen and Women.

Alas, the French Revolution was not to be a success. After less than six years of revolution, counter-revolution triumphed in 1795 with the execution of Robespierre.

On 14 July 1789, the French Revolution began.

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