On This Day

storming the bastille, bastille
Bibliotheque Nationale de France
“The Storming of the Bastille,” a 1789 painting by Bernard Rene Jourdan.

On This Day: French Revolutionaries Storm the Bastille

July 14, 2009 06:30 AM
by Liz Colville
On July 14, 1789, angry demonstrators took the Bastille, a medieval Paris fort where King Louis XVI imprisoned his enemies. The riot launched the French Revolution.

The Bastille Falls

To the armed mob of Parisians who captured it, the Bastille was “a symbol of the despotism of the ruling Bourbon monarchy,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Louis XVI had ascended to the throne in 1774, facing a debt-ridden government and a population plagued by rising food costs, unjust work conditions, and an oppressive nobility and clergy, PBS reports. The King’s inept, autocratic rule worsened matters, and widespread crop failures led to famine.

In May 1789, the Estates General met at Versailles, according to historian Frank E. Smitha. Within weeks, thousands of Parisians took to the streets, marching to the Bastille, demanding gunpowder and arms from the building and ultimately seizing control of it, The History Guide reports.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Jay, described the events of July 14, 1789, as witnessed during a trip to Paris: “[T]he people rushed against the place, and almost in an instant were in possession of a fortification, defended by 100 men, of infinite strength, which in other times had stood several regular sieges & had never been taken. How they got in, has as yet been impossible to discover." An excerpt from the letter appears on U.S. News & World Report.

Historical Context: The Reign of Louis XVI

Fordham University's Modern History Sourcebook hosts a letter Marie Antoinette wrote to her mother in 1773, a year before Louis ascended the throne. She describes a “fete” held for her and Louis, a scene of relative peace and patriotism demonstrated by the French people, who “in spite of the taxes with which they are overwhelmed, were transported with joy at seeing us.”

From 1774 onward, Louis XVI and his wife were at the helm of a ballooning French population plagued by unjust provincial governance, oppressive working conditions and poor harvests, according to the historical site Then Again. At the forefront of the economic crisis were burdensome taxes that were “distributed among districts, parishes, and individuals, at the pleasure of the [district] intendant, who could exempt, change, add, or diminish at pleasure,” wrote the British traveler Arthur Young in the 1780s. “Such an enormous power … must, in the nature of things, degenerate in many cases into absolute tyranny.”

In an attempt to bolster the economy by proposing a tax on the clergy and nobility, the king convened the Assembly of Notables in 1787 to propose this and other reforms, according to historian Frank E. Smitha. But the Catholic Church and nobles stood against being taxed, and the assembly, at an impasse, was dismissed. That summer, France endured its “worst harvest in forty years,” Smitha writes.

The Estates General, a meeting between the First Estate (the Church), the Second Estate (the nobility) and the Third Estate (the general population) was held in May 1789, for the first time since 1614. But after after a month-long stalemate over voting policies, the Third Estate declared itself a National Assembly and invited the clergy and nobility to join them. Instead, the First Estate sided with King Louis, and the king prepared his army at Versailles and in Paris, “just in case,” according to The History Guide. Three weeks later, the Bastille was seized.

Later Developments: French independence and Bastille Day

The Legislative Assembly that came out of France’s constitution of 1791 was “divided into widely divergent factions,” and the general population was increasingly radical, History.com explains. Calls for the establishment of a monarchy-free government precipitated revolutionary wars with Austria, which threatened to invade Paris to quash the revolution. Insurgents in Paris reacted by storming the Tuileries and attacking the king’s Swiss guard. The Montagnards, a group who favored an “indivisible republic” for France, gained control of the Assembly and on Sept. 21, 1792, the monarchy was abolished.

After the National Convention ordered his execution, Louis XVI was beheaded at the Place de la Revolution in Paris on Jan. 21, 1793, Napoleonic Guide reports. His final words were: “I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.”

On July 14, 1880, the anniversary of the storming of Bastille became an official holiday, often called “la fete nationale,” or “Bastille Day” in English. According to Encyclopdia Britannica, “From the beginning, speeches, parades, and fireworks, along with public revelry, were part of the celebration.”

The French Presidency’s Web site on Bastille Day offers information about the history, traditions and celebrations of the French national holiday, along with an account of the events of July 14, 1789. “The storming of the Bastille signalled the first victory of the people of Paris against a symbol of the Ancien Régime (old regime). Indeed, the edifice was razed to the ground in the months that followed.”

Key Players: Louis XVI (1754-1793); Marie Antoinette (1755-1794)

Louis XVI was born on Aug. 23, 1754, and ascended to the throne at the age of 20 after the death of his grandfather Louis XV. According to PBS, he was "introverted and apparently not very interested either in governing or his wife Marie Antoinette."

Born on Nov. 2, 1755, Marie Antoinette was the fifteenth child born to Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria. Betrothed to Louis XVI when she was only 8 years old, Marie Antoinette lived a life of free spending and decadence that angered the working class, who saw her as the embodiment of all that was wrong with the monarchy.

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