The Fall of the Bastille

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

Okay, so we are back from vacation and ready to plunge into the thick chaos that was France in July 1789. Hopefully everyone downloaded the tour announcement while I was gone, and if you didn’t, please go check it out. There is a brand new American Revolutions Tour and another run through England and Paris, which will include stops at the very places where most of today’s episode is going to take place. So go to Revolutionspodcast.com for all the details and then sign up because these slots are going fast. 

So we left off last time with the final disintegration of the Estates General and the King’s order for all Three Estates to come together under this self declared thing, the National Assembly. As will often be the case over the next few years, many observers at the time thought that this moment would mark the end of the revolution The demands of the Third Estate for double representation and voting by head had now been achieved. It had taken more of a fight than the Third Estate delegates had really wanted. But having emerged victorious, it was time for everyone to settle down, come together and work up a plan to save the kingdom from its many, many problems. Little did they know that this supposed finish line was about to be reduced to a mere footnote in history, because just two weeks later, the Paris mobs went nuts and stormed the Bastille and that sort of became the “it” event of the summer. At least until two weeks later, when the National Assembly got drunk on enlightened patriotism and tore down the entire feudal apparatus of the Ancien Régime in a single night. But that will wait for next week. 

Now, though, the actual storming of the Bastille could not be predicted. That something bad might be ready to erupt in Paris was something any keen observer could divine. For one thing, the bad harvest of 1787 that had led into the bad harvest of 1788 meant that the food stocks were dangerously depleted in all major metropolitan areas. The middle of July was especially bad because what had been stockpiled from the previous harvest was basically gone, and this year’s crop had yet to be brought in. These few midsummer weeks were a tough time to be a French stomach. 

So in July 1789, bread prices were as high as they had been since the Flour War, and everyone was just a wee bit on edge. On top of that, the 1st of July, marked the biannual, that is, twice yearly deadline for settling of debts, including any overdue rent. So, just as everyone’s already meager income was going to purchase a meager amount of bread, all the bills started coming due and no one had any money to pay them off. So to say that the people of Paris were restless would be a massive understatement. 

Into this dangerous mixture of hungry anger, the Royal Ministry decided to throw a spiky ball of fun into the middle of it. Slowly at first, but then increasing by the day, troops started to be reassigned from the frontiers into the city and no one didn’t notice. At first, the troop buildup actually went on behind the back of the King. 

Louis had been distracted by the death of his son and trapped by his own indecisiveness in the leadup to the royal session. And so the Minister of War had colluded with reactionary members of the Royal family to increase the garrisons of Paris and Versailles in case force would be needed to push through the King’s will

As I touched on at the very end of the last episode, when the people’s hero, Jacques Necker, didn’t show up for that Royal Session, the people of Paris and Versailles started gathering in huge numbers and going rabble, rabble, rabble. And the troop build up seemed to be justified. Even more so when the local guard units sent in to disperse the crowds straight up refused the order. With the local units clearly unreliable, four more regiments were ordered in from the frontier. In just about a week, the residents of Paris saw the soldiers in their midst go from about 4,000 to about 20,000. Like I said, no one was missing what was going on, and everyone expected the hammer to drop at any moment

In the aftermath of the little mutiny of the guard units, ten soldiers were arrested for disobeying orders and publicly denouncing their own commanding officer. But this only provoked the Parisians to further direct action. And on June 30, some 4,000 people marched on the prison the arrested guardsmen were being held in, pushed their way in and absconded with the prisoners. 

These freed guardsmen were kept out of the reach of Royal authority. But the emerging independent political leaders of Paris, who we’ll talk about more of in a second, were concerned about provoking the Crown too much, and so arranged a face saving compromise, where the mutinous guardsmen were returned to their cells for a night and then released without charges in the morning. 

But even with that crisis diffused, troops continued to arrive in Paris. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, those troops were very often foreign born mercenaries, mostly Germans and Swiss. This folded in neatly with the prevailing conspiracy theory that the Queen, Marie Antoinette, was now actively working with her brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, to, like, seize control of France and destroy the burgeoning democratic movement. And for the moment, this conspiracy theory went way too far because, as we’ll see down the road, the other European heads of state were positively delighting in the news coming out of France that the Bourbon dynasty was getting kicked around by its own people. Weak Bourbons means weak France and weak France means strong me. I can promise you there is not a lot of sympathy or sentimentality at that level of international politics. 

But the Queen was involved in a smaller conspiracy that would wind up sparking all that was about to explode in Paris. Specifically, she and the King’s brother, the Comte d’Artois, were working day and night to get Jacques Necker kicked out of the Royal ministry. They didn’t like him because he was foreign. They didn’t like him because he was a Protestant and they really didn’t like him because he was a commoner. They wanted the King to take a tough line on all this rebellious nonsense that was consuming the monarchy and replacing the people’s hero with someone more sensible only seemed prudent. 

So, in the lead up to the Estates General, and then over the first months of its life, they worked to undermine Necker’s influence at every step. It was probably as a result of their pressure that his speech at the opening ceremony focused almost entirely on technical matters of the budget and was definitely the result of their pressure that the Royal Session turned from conciliatory gesture to hardline stare down. 

But the Queen and the Prince were forced into a tactical retreat when confronted by the rage over the mere hint that Necker might have been dismissed. And they had to support the King when Louis persuaded Necker to stay on. But that was only a tactical retreat. Once they had enough troops in place, it would be time for the Swiss wonder boy to go and time for the monarchy to reassert its authority at gunpoint, if need be. 

The first week of July, though, was not quite the time. And the matter that started to absorb the kingdom was the escalating bread crisis. Things were bad in Paris, but the whole country was facing food shortages. There were bread riots and Flanders in Normandy and confrontations in all the areas surrounding Paris, where it seemed like any available grain was being confiscated to feed the Parisians. 

The worst of it all happened in the now dangerously underemployed manufacturing city of Lyon. Their bread prices led to mob attacks on the toll gates, whose sole purpose, it now seemed, was to make already expensive bread even more expensive. With reports like this coming in from all over, the newly harmonized National Assembly debated what to do about the bread shortages from July 4 to July 7. But they could come up with no viable solution. Discounting the arch conservative defenders of the old order, the majority of the delegates were the kind of enlightened reformers who were all about free trade and free markets. But this was not exactly the moment to be publicly defending free market principles with the mobs demanding cheap bread and we don’t care how you do it. 

So the delegates studiously talked their way around the issue without committing to anything in particular. And this is one of the main reasons Necker enjoyed such mass popularity. He was just about the only guy with any kind of power actively pursuing subsidized bread and enforced price controls. He had long positioned himself as an opponent of the old physiocrat platform and he continued to push for controlled markets now more than ever, and the people loved him for it

So it was a really bad time for the Queen to decide that the second week of July was the right time to make their final move against Necker. Obviously under the impression they now have the strength to handle whatever fallout would come, they convinced Louis to sack Necker on the afternoon of Saturday, July 11. The King did not need much personal convincing as he detested Necker going back to the showdown over the Compte Rendu in 1781. So just as Necker was sitting down to dinner, he received a note from the King that not only fired him from the Ministry, but also ordered him to leave the country at once and further to tell no one he had been fired and exiled. 

The idea here was that Sunday was a day off, so by the time everyone got up on Monday morning and heard the news, Necker would be long gone and the troops in Paris and Versailles would be ready to nip in the bud any attempt to agitate in the ousted minister’s favor. Necker, amazingly, kept up his end of the bargain. He didn’t even tell his dinner guests what the note said, and he quietly slipped out of Versailles on a roundabout route back to Switzerland. 

But the mobs in Paris most assuredly did not keep up their end of the bargain. Day off or no, as soon as they found out Necker was gone, they went bonkers. News reached Paris of Necker’s dismissal the next day, on Sunday, July 12, and it set off a shockwave. Coupled with the sudden influx of troops, it was all but taken for granted that Necker’s dismissal was the precursor to violent reprisals against the people and the probable shuddering of the National Assembly. Given the atmosphere, it was impossible for the common people not to believe that unless they did something, they were all about to be massacred

So in those heady moments of fear and anger and uncertainty, a 26 year old aspiring journalist leaped onto a table at a cafe inside the garden of the Palais Royale and started giving the speech of his life. This young man was Camille Desmoulins, and he was about to launch a revolutionary career that would eventually see him become one of the prominent children the Revolution wound up devouring. 

Desmoulins was the son of a provincial lawyer and administrator who arranged a scholarship for his son to attend the prestigious college, Louis le Grande in Paris, which is known today as the Lycée and is still probably one of the most prestigious secondary schools in France. There, he was not only steeped in classical literature and the law, but he was also a classmate of the man we’ll get to when it comes time to transition from the National Assembly to the Legislative Assembly – Maximilian Robespierre.

Desmoulins was supposed to become a lawyer, but he didn’t have quite the makeup for it. He was too hot tempered and, ironically enough, not eloquent enough of an orator. But he had a sharp and passionate mind and turned to political journalism to make a living just in time for the Ancien Régime to enter into its fatal death spiral, which was quite a time for a 26 year old with a sharp and passionate mind to go into political journalism. 

On the evening of July 12, he gathered with friends at the Palais Royale to protest the dismissal of Necker and almost spontaneously became the center attraction of the unorganized milling about that was going on. With news and rumors swirling, he stepped up on a table and started haranguing the crowd. The gist of what he said was, “This is it. They’re coming for us, and it’s only a matter of time. We can either submit or arm ourselves to see this thing through”. At a well timed moment, perhaps dramatically or perhaps honestly, Desmoulins looked off in the distance and spied the troops marching in to arrest them all. He waved a pistol in one hand and pointed at his heart with the other and said, “I would rather die than submit to servitude” or in the American version give me liberty or give me death. 

The crowd was convinced, mostly leaderless, but filled with desperate energy. They marched out of the Palais Royale to fight whatever was about to be thrown against them. The first thing they did was parade through all the theaters where the people were enjoying their day off, closing them up, and forcing everyone out into the street to join the agitation. From there, people started gathering in strength in the garden of the Tuileries Palace, basically the front yard of the Louvre if you’ve ever been to Paris and if you haven’t, there is a tour in the spring and will be standing right in the middle of it. 

With this angry crowd mobilizing, a regiment of mercenary German cavalry rode in to try to restore order but they were completely outnumbered. Then when units of the French guards showed up, ostensibly to reinforce them, well the French guardsmen, all being pulled from the ranks of the urban workers, just switched sides and started fighting against the German cavalry, forcing them to retreat from the Tuileries, leaving it in the hands of, well, no one in particular – a headless mob. 

But there was a little head that would attempt to control this outburst of public anger. Not very well ultimately, but not too bad given the circumstances. These were the electors of Paris who had taken over the Hotel de Ville, basically Paris City Hall. The Paris electors were the guys who had elected the delegates to the Estates General. But after those elections were over they had voted to keep convening as a sort of shadow government, one that would be far more responsive to public opinion than the existing administrators. With the people up in arms, the electors became the one body who might be able to lead them. 

They couldn’t move fast enough to control anything on that first explosive night and pretty soon, just as had happened in Lyon, the toll gates and customs walls surrounding the city were smashed randomly but with a great deal of relish. As it all spilled into the next morning of July 13, every swordsmith and gun shop in town was rated for weapons and then a huge group turned its attention to the abbey Saint Lazare

Now I’ve got conflicting information on what they were actually looking for, whether it was a weapons cache or grain stores, but whichever it was, what they found was a pretty big quantity of surplus grain which only fueled the paranoid rumors that the evil aristocrats had been purposely starving them out this whole time. The abbey was ransacked. In the middle of all this, the troops that had been called in over the last few weeks were just overwhelmed and their officers pulled out of the city center completely. Basically, Paris was now in revolt and winning

But the Paris electors were not wild anarchists and they didn’t like the idea of mob rule any more than the archist arch conservative. So they started organizing a citizen’s militia to help tone down the excesses and bring a little order to this rebellion. Without, obviously, the time or the means to give anyone uniforms, it was suggested that everyone wear an identifying cockade, that is, a round ribbon that could be pinned on a hat or shirt or whatever to help identify each other out in the streets

Originally, this cockade was supposed to be green, green being the color of hope. And green flags even started going up as the official color of the rebellion. But then someone pointed out that green was also the color of the Comte d’Artois, who was now rising to major villain status. And so they instead went with the red and blue, the colors of Paris. To this would later be added, for political reasons, the white of the Bourbons to produce the official revolutionary tricolor of blue, white and red. So that is where that comes from

But even with the policing now becoming self policing, it was nearly impossible to keep order. On the fateful morning of Tuesday, July 14, mobs stormed Les Invalides a complex of buildings that served as a veteran’s hospital and today houses the Musée de l’army, the Museum of the Army, which, hey, look, the revolution’s tour is going there too. Come on, you know you want to come. 

Easily brushing past the veteran guards, the mob located an arsenal of nearly 30,000 muskets, which were then just handed out indiscriminately. The mob also got their hands on a couple of heavy guns, but what they didn’t have was powder. Because the officer in charge of Les Invalides, knowing it was only a matter of time before his cache was ransacked, managed to transfer 250 barrels of gunpowder to the only place in the city that might be able to keep it out of the hands of this crazed rabble, the great fortress at the east end of Paris, the Bastille

So before we go on, we should probably stop for a minute and talk about what the Bastille actually was. The Bastille was a medieval fortress. Construction began in the mid 1300s when France was deep in the middle of the Hundred Years War with England, and the east side of Paris needed defending. It was rectangular in shape, with four towers on each of the long sides. These towers were five to seven stories tall and did indeed provide a formidable obstacle for anyone trying to come at Paris from the east. 

But though the Bastille was designed for defense against foreign enemies and then wound up being used as a pretty critical strong point in a number of different internal upheavals over the centuries, it was most famously and most reliably used as a prison, holding enemies of the state from at least the early 1400s on. 

During the reign of Louis XIII, or more specifically, the reign of Cardinal Richelieu, the Bastille really started to earn its permanent reputation as a symbol of tyrannical and arbitrary imprisonment. Employing those lettres de cachet we’ve talked about, the King and his ministers could arrest anyone for any reason at any time. Most high profile dissidents found themselves locked up in the Bastille at some point or another, as did any writer who ran afoul of the censorship laws or wrote something seditious. 

But as much as this all smacked of despotism, one of the easiest ways to wind up in the Bastille was to simply be a juvenile delinquent in a prominent noble family. Once you had ticked off mommy and daddy one too many times, they could go to the King and purchase a lettre de cachet to have their little black sheep thrown in prison to get rid of the headache for at least a little while. 

Once in the Bastille, the prisoners were held in octagonal cells in the middle stories of those eight towers. Conditions depended, obviously, on who you were, with poor sods living off meager, but adequate meals in bad but not nightmarish conditions. The wayward nobles and men of letters, though, could generally live pretty comfortably. They were allowed to bring in their own furniture and books and receive visitors pretty much whenever. Because if you had the money, it’s not like the guards weren’t going to be friendly. 

But though the conditions weren’t that bad, stays weren’t that long, and often came at the request of your own family, the popular myth of the Bastille as a symbol of torturous despotism only grew during the 1700s, as various embellished memoirs were published by former inmates that described hundreds of skeletal figures chained to the walls of pitch black dungeons with only diseased rats for company. This, even as the Bastille housed fewer and fewer prisoners and its daily upkeep became harder and harder to justify, in the face of crippling state deficits. 

So, on the eve of the Revolution, the Bastille sat on the east side of Paris, a massive living symbol of all that was arbitrarily unjust about the Ancien Régime, even if it was not really that thing in fact. But as I am now contractually obligated to tell you, none of that had anything to do with why nearly 1,000 Parisians started gathering outside the fortress on the morning of Tuesday, July 14, 1789. It had nothing to do, at least for the moment, with tearing down this symbol. It was all about getting the powder necessary to fire the muskets and guns seized from Les Invalides.

Now, inside the Bastille, Governor Bernard-René de Launey watched the crowd grow with mounting unease. He had accepted the powder, but had been given only 32 additional Swiss Guards to help him protect it. Added to his permanent complement of 82 veterans who were too old or disabled to serve in the field, de Launey was not exactly commanding an impressive defensive force. On top of that, the Bastille currently held enough food to last them all just two days and had no internal water supply. So withstanding a siege was basically out of the question. 

Soon enough, two representatives sent by the Paris electors pushed their way through the crowd and asked to be let in to parlay with Governor de Launey. They were let in to talk, but by accident or design, their conference went on far too long and the crowd started to suspect that their two representatives had just disappeared into the evil maw of the great prison. So a third representative from the Paris electors went in with specific instructions to demand the powder and the two dozen or so heavy guns stationed around the Bastille and then come back out. 

De Launey said that handing over the powder and guns was impossible without orders from Versailles, but did point out that he was in the process of removing the guns from the walls and then he sent the representatives on their way. When nothing further had happened by noon, the representatives headed back to the Hotel de Ville to confer with their electoral colleagues. But while they were gone, all hell broke loose. 

A small group of adventurous souls scaled the guardhouse, got inside the outer courtyard and cut down the rope holding up the drawbridge. Once it dropped, the crowd rushed inside, which is of course, when the panicked soldiers guarding the inner fortress fired their guns, either by accident or by orders, who knows? And something like 100 Parisians were killed or wounded. This, of course, only enraged the mob further. Most had no idea that their own people had cut the drawbridge and thought they had been deliberately lured into a bloody trap

Over the next few hours, the mostly civilian mob was bolstered by soldiers from the now openly rebellious guard units and defecting soldiers from the regular army. These soldiers gave the siege some much needed professional direction. They dragged down the heavy gun seeds from Les Invalides and pointed them at the door to the inner fortress. Knowing that those doors would never hold, Governor de Launey waved the white flag. Or more specifically, he stuck a white handkerchief through the door to signal that he was ready to talk.  

At around 5 o’clock that evening, he then stuck a note through the door saying he would give up as long as he and his men were allowed to go free. If not, he was fully prepared to ignite all the gunpowder and just blow the whole fortress and everyone in it to smithereens. This surrender, though, was refused by the angry crowd, who weren’t about to let the butchers inside the Bastille walk out without facing a little mob justice. So the guns were pointed back at the door and this time they dropped open. 

The crowd rushed into the inner fortress, disarmed the soldiers and seized the gunpowder. Then they excitedly looked around for the great hordes of political prisoners, no doubt still chained pitifully to dungeon walls, dying to be set free. But all they found were seven old men, four who had been convicted of forgery, two who were lunatics in the parlance of the times, so suffering from some mental health problems in the parlance of our times, and one was a deviant aristocrat held at the request of his own family. None of these guys were particularly thrilled to be caught up in the middle of all this. Even the most infamous prisoner of the Bastille, the super deviant Marquis d’Assad, had been transferred out the week before after repeatedly shouting revolutionary slogans at people passing the streets below his window and generally making a nuisance of himself. But that didn’t stop the mobs from parading these seven old men through the streets like they had just freed a gaggle of Nelson Mandelas. 

The mob then turned its attention to the now captive soldiers and most especially Governor de Launey. Demanding some kind of justice for their fallen comrades, the mob seized on de Launey as a wicked mastermind who had purposely lured them to their deaths. They marched him back towards the Hotel de Ville, and though he survived the journey, he was pretty badly beaten, kicked and spit on along the way. 

For those of you who have asked about what’s going on in the Revolutions podcast logo and in the artwork at the masthead at revolutionspodcast.com, that is poor Governor de Launey being led out of the Bastille. 

When the mob reached the Hotel de Ville, people started shouting suggestions about how exactly to dispose of this bloodthirsty little villain they had captured from the fortress of tyranny. After some creative suggestions were thrown out there, one guy tried to bring a little sanity to the proceedings and said, look, we should take him inside the Hotel de Ville and decide his fate after tempers have died down a little. Whereupon de Launey, and I’m not making this up, shouted, “Enough! Let me die!” and kicked this guy. And it’s crude, I know, but I’m just going to say it because it’s true. He kicked him right in the balls. In about two nanoseconds, de Launey was stabbed from a dozen different directions. When his lifeless body hit the ground, a barrage of pistol shots hit the corpse, just to make sure. Then his head was sawed off with a pocket knife and paraded through the streets in triumph. Shortly thereafter, three other Bastille officers and two regular soldiers were also lynched by the crowd. The Bastille had fallen. What would happen next, nobody knew.

It was not until the next day that news of all this reached the shocked members of the National Assembly and the even more shocked king up in Versailles. In one of the most hilariously out of touch diary entries in history, all Louis had noted for July 14, 1789, was, quote, “nothing today.” But as bad as that looks, I will tell you in the King’s defense that this was a hunting diary and he had simply caught nothing that day while out on a hunt. 

Then, of course, there was the likely apocryphal but still widely recounted conversation on the morning of July 15, when the Duke de la Rochefoucauld told the King that the Bastille had been stormed, Louis asked, “Is it a rebellion?” And the Duke replied, “no, sire, it is a revolution”

But was it a revolution quite yet? If it wasn’t, if this could all be written off as the kind of aimless mob uprising that sprinkled the history of all major cities, then what happened next certainly lodged it firmly in the collective historical memory as the moment that the French Revolution really began. Because, as we will see next week back up in Versailles, the King will all but concede that he was now merely a partner in government rather than an absolute monarch. Out in the provinces, an irrational panic will sweep the countryside and lead to the complete destabilization of all existing social, economic and political bonds. And in the National Assembly, the delegates will try to get out in front of this panic turmoil by tearing down whatever was left of the Ancien Régime over the course of one single delirious night.

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