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  • James Houser

July 14, 1789 - The Storming of the Bastille

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 14, 1789. An angry crowd storms the Bastille, the medieval fortress in the center of Paris that symbolizes the power of the French monarchy. 231 years ago today, the French Revolution blasts off and will shake Europe to its foundations.

The French Revolution is the BIG revolution. Even more than the American, it was taken as a model by liberal, socialist and fascist revolutionaries ever since. These imitators, people like Lenin, Mussolini, Castro and Lech Walesa, sought to avoid the French Revolution’s pitfalls and capitalize on its successes. The French Revolution, along with the equally important Industrial Revolution, probably marks the beginning of the modern world and without a doubt was the end of an era. It’s a shame that it’s so poorly understood by us Americans.

In 1789, France was in a state of crisis. The King was Louis XVI of the Bourbon Dynasty, who ruled from the opulent palace of Versailles as an absolute monarch. Much of France still lived in something approaching a medieval condition, outside of their local towns and the small but growing middle class. The French nobility lived a life of privilege and petty tyranny, and the Catholic Church held immense power and land in the countryside. France was divided into a social hierarchy known as the “estates”. The First Estate (the clergy) and the Second Estate (the nobility) were virtually free of overt taxation, but the Third Estate (everyone else) suffered the burdens of this system. This is the France of costume drama, duels, and powdered wigs.

The state of the French economy, though, was in bad shape in the 1780s. The internal economy of France was still feudal in nature, thanks to the badly outdated structure of the kingdom. Since various duchies, baronies and counties still maintained their own rights and laws, there was no unified legal code, and any goods passing through France had to pay a tariff whenever they crossed a border. (Imagine for a second if every item in your grocery store had its price raised when it passed through state or even county boundaries.)

Countries like England and Prussia had eliminated this terribly wasteful practice long beforehand, but they had to do this by curbing the power of the aristocracy. The French Crown had no interest in doing this; the Comtes and Ducs of the French nobility made a killing off these tariffs that gave them their life of ease.

This situation was, at times, tolerable, even if it stunted growth and smothered the free market. In the middle 1780s, however, the issue reached critical mass for two reasons. The first was that the King of France had borrowed vast sums of money to join the American Revolutionary War in order to pry England away from its most profitable colony and get payback for previous wars. These debts were so large that no one even knew how bad a position they had put the King in until an audit in the mid-1780s. Once again, the nature of the French state prevented the King from leaning on his rich and wealthy nobles; the pressure was on to raise more taxes on the middle and lower classes.

In 1777, even before the French intervention in the American Revolution, King Louis had called on a brilliant Swiss banker named Jacques Necker to try and take over the French finances. Necker looked at the situation, looked at the regressive tax structure, and looked at the tariffs, and immediately told King Louis that he needed to start actually taxing the nobles and clergy. His financial analysis incurred the wrath of the King’s other ministers, and Necker was dismissed. He was followed by a series of finance ministers who continued to recognize the same problem – essentially, that the Third Estate was tapped out – and who were forced out one after another by the nobility. As the French economy deteriorated further and the Crown slipped further into debt, the situation remained deadlocked.

The middle and lower classes may well have paid higher taxes with just a bit of grumbling, but there was a second reason crisis came about. Poor harvests lasting several years had started to cause widespread starvation, and food prices rose dramatically because of the broken economy and tariff system. So when the King needed their money the most, the traditional tax base of France was falling apart; tax receipts dove because the poor just didn’t have the money. When the King finally recalled Necker (who was greeted with cheering and fireworks) to the post of finance minister, Necker demanded fuller control over the country and finances in order to carry out his job. After a few months of trying to restructure the debt and reform trade policy in the face of mounting famine, Necker bluntly told the King that this would not be enough. More drastic action needed to be taken.

King Louis XVI, faced with an empty treasury and a crumbling economy, decided to do something that had not been done in 175 years – call an Estates-General. This was a massive convocation of all three Estates, voted in by the members of those Estates. Only French-born males 25 years or older who paid taxes could vote for members of the Estates-General, but the King could of course dismiss this assembly at will. It hardly had the power of Congress, or even the British Parliament. Only the Estates-General could approve broad and sweeping new financial laws like the ones the King required, but the fact that the King had to call an Estates-General at all was a serious sign of weakness.

The people who smelled blood in the water were not the nobles, the clergy, or even the peasants. They were the middle class. Under the French estate system, it didn’t matter how wealthy a merchant, trader or business owner became. Unless he could somehow gain a noble title, he would remain in the Third Estate forever, with all its limitations and lack of privilege. By 1789, this created an unusual paradox, where the men with the most wealth and global influence were still the men with the least power.

One of the most central questions to arise from the Enlightenment wave of revolution – the English, American and French Revolutions, mainly – was a simple one: where did the power reside in the nation? What group held power and controlled the government? For almost all of human history, power had been gifted to men by virtue of birth – royalty, nobility, and descent. As the new global economy had emerged across Europe, however, the relative power of a burgeoning middle class upended this old state of affairs. The bankers, merchants, lawyers, schoolmasters and urban professionals were demanding a say. Thanks to Enlightenment philosophies and waves of change in thought and politics, the middle class of France had gained a semblance of consciousness and a desire for political power. Under the Estate system, they were stifled – but Louis XVI’s calling of the Estates-General represented both weakness and an opportunity to change the system.

When the Estates-General met on May 5, 1789, it held 303 clergymen of the First Estate, 291 nobles of the Second, and 610 “commoners” of the Third. These Third Estate representatives were not a bunch of ragtag peasants, but usually well-educated lawyers, civil servants, traders or landowners. Even though they were only half of the assembly, they represented 95% of the country. Nevertheless, the Third Estate’s deputies agreed to try and use this historic occasion to push for widespread reform in the government. After a speech to the Estates-General by Necker, the whole room immediately broke into debate, as members of the Third Estate pressed for greater autonomy.

When Louis XVI entered the Estates-General on May 6 and addressed the whole assembly, the men of the Third Estate quickly realized that he had no intention of listening to their demands. While the Third Estate wanted every member of the assembly to have one vote, the King decreed that each estate would vote as a WHOLE – that is, the estates voted, not the representatives. This would mean that the nobles and clergy would outvote the commoners by 2-1 every time. The King wanted to skip the whole “reform” and “representation” debate and get right to the tax issue. He wanted to get what he wanted from the Estates-General and dismiss them before they had a chance to raise a fuss.

With that, the Estates-General broke into yet another long debate. The King and his ministers, expecting the common folk to roll over and accede to their demands, were stunned. Even as the royal authorities tried to steer the conversation back to taxes and finance, the Third Estate continued to push for more representation in government, more rights and a reform of the French state. The debate dragged into days, then weeks, with the Estates failing to come to an agreement on how they should even be organized and counted, let alone the key issues the King needed them to decide.

Out of frustration, the Third Estate – with a few breakaway nobles and priests who sympathized – started meeting on their own. On June 17, they passed a measure declaring themselves the “National Assembly”. They claimed not to be an assembly not of any estate now, but an assembly of the people. They invited the First and Second Estates to join them, but made it clear that they would continue with or without them.

The King reacted. On June 20, he ordered the meeting-hall of the new National Assembly – once the Third Estate – to be closed. The Assembly continued to meet in defiance of the King’s intimidation, meeting instead on a nearby tennis court in Versailles. There, they swore an oath – the “Tennis Court Oath” – that they would not disband until there was a new order in France. Even as the King attempted to outmaneuver or cancel their meetings, the National Assembly pushed forward. The Estates-General was gone, and change was on its way.

It could probably be said that the French Revolution had already begun, but there had been no shooting. The Estates-General and the Tennis Court Oath are similar to, say, the First Continental Congress in the American Revolution. It was clear that the National Assembly was on a course of conflict with the King, but at this time it wasn’t violent or irreversible. If the King and the French nobility had agreed to the Assembly’s demands, granted wider representation and suffrage, or generally just been willing to compromise, things might never have gone down the road they did. But Louis XVI was unimaginative and mediocre, and his advisors were conservative and terrified of losing any of their hoarded power. By failing to give up a little, they would lose it all.

Jacques Necker, the King’s finance minister, had slowly come to sympathize with the middle class and the Assembly. He met with Louis and privately urged him to adopt a constitution similar to that of England – one with restrictions on the power of the nobility, but a sitting Parliament that would provide a voice for the middle class and the people at large. England had a House of Lords and a House of Commons; while the Lords controlled many things, the Commons had the power of taxation and financial matters, which became the model for the American system. Necker hoped that by uniting the First and Second Estate in one house and the Third Estate in another, France could achieve some sort of political balance and avoid what everyone sensed was coming.

Something WAS coming. The tension was alive in the streets of Paris. Members of the National Assembly were stoking up support from the people of the city, and their debates were published and read across the city. The royal soldiers patrolling the streets could not help but sense an electric stress amongst the masses. The city was close to insurrection, and even some of the soldiers were clearly unreliable. All they needed was a spark.

On July 11, Louis XVI dismissed Jacques Necker – the only man who had been trying to bridge the gap between Assembly and monarch. The new ministry was composed entirely of reactionary nobles. On July 12, this news hit Paris like a bolt from the blue. Many of the city’s people and most radical citizens believed that this move was the precursor to a conservative backlash, and predicted the arrest of the Assembly. This was given further credence by the arrival on the streets of the Swiss and German regiments of the Royal Army – foreigners who were considered more reliable since they were less sympathetic to the French people.

Soon public demonstrations were rocking the city, displaying wax busts of Necker (I guess that’s what they had instead of posters). Customs posts, blamed for the high prices of food and wine, were attacked. Plunder and riots erupted, food was seized, and angry mobs even began to break into church property after rumors that supplies were being hoarded there.

These protests only grew until July 14, 1789. Paris was roiling. A popular militia had been growing, and this organization soon began assembling arms and ammunition. The Marquis de Lafayette ended up the new commander of what became the National Guard. At no one’s direction or leadership, the growing mob began to push towards the royal prison at the center of Paris – a place called the Bastille.

The Bastille was a symbol of royal power, but on July 14 it only held seven prisoners, amongst whom was the Marquis de Sade. Royal troops had been shifting many of the weapons and cannon held in vulnerable posts throughout the city to the safety of the Bastille, but it was still only defended by a handful of aged invalid troops reinforced by a platoon of the hated Swiss. As the crowd began to gather around the fortress, they demanded the surrender of the arms and the release of the prisoners. As negotiations went on, the crowd became impatient.

By 1:30 PM, July 14, the crowd’s agitation had grown out of control, and they began to surge past the sentries into the outskirts of the fortress. Some enterprising souls managed to scale the walls and break the chains on the drawbridge, and soon the mob was rushing into the Bastille. As the soldiers yelled at the crowd to stop, the crowd either did not hear them or refused to listen. In the confusion, one guard pulled the trigger, then another.

The shooting had begun. The French Revolution had started now, and there was no going back. The guillotines, the Republic, Robespierre, the tricolor, La Marseillaise, and Napoleon lay down this road. What happened after the first shot was fired stretches through all of history, so I end the story here – at 1:30 PM on July 14, 1789, the day the world became modern.

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