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7 July 2005 Edition

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Remembering the Past - The Storming of the Bastille


Remembering the Past

The Storming of the Bastille

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 their Versailles palace outside Paris. The price of bread, the diet of the working class, was soaring. For example, in August 1788, 50% of a peasant 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 or sans-culotte (without briches) got wind of news that there were arms at the Bastille, and the Hotel des Invalides 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 shop, and no one would control large enterprises or estates. The sans-culotte were not opposed to the concept of private property, but did despise the indulgent wealth by the bourgoisie 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 Invalids, two cannoneers and 32 Swiss soldiers. In the Bastille were 15 cannons, loads of grape shot 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 re-directed. 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.

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. But before he could realise his plan, 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 Hotel de Ville(town hall) and his head was carried around the streets of Paris. The French revolution had begun.

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

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

On 21January, 1793 King Louis XVI was publicly executed by guillotine in Paris, and later that year his Queen Mary 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. It realised itself from the beginning as aiming to all members of the human race, and defined its principles as natural, universal, and eternal. The declaration of the rights of man and the citizen of August 26, 1789, passed by the National Assembly, and its extension of June 24, 1793, are one of the greatest achievements of human civilisation. These documents 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; illiteracy, religious brainwashing, the greed of the proprietors, very little experience with democracy, the only available models for a republic dating from the ancient Romans, and the threats of war and restoration of the Ancien Regime did not allow the new France to settle, to develop and to prosper or as Connolly wrote: "The working men fought, the capitalists sold out, the lawyers bluffed." After less than six years of revolution, counter revolution triumphed in 1795 with the execution of Robespierre.

On the 14 July 1789, 216 years ago, the French revolution began.

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