SAN JOSE, July 14, 2016 — The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and the shocking takeover of the medieval fortress-prison set off the French Revolution. Today is the anniversary of that explosive day, usually referred to as Bastille Day. It is a public holiday in France, ”Le quatorze juillet” (14 July), formally known as the “Fête de la Fédération” (Federation Holiday).
This dramatic event in the history of France is looked upon with as much respect and reverence by the French as Americans view the colonists taking on the British troops in the “shot heard ‘round the world.” However, contrary to the romanticized image, the people who seized the prison were not endowed with altruistic ideals and tempered by principled actions. They were motivated by fear and a serious concern for protecting themselves.
The Bastille, originally a medieval fortress-prison that dated back to 1370, was often utilized by tyrannical French kings to imprison their politically disagreeable or disloyal subjects. The prison became a virtual symbol of the abuses of the French monarchs and staunch royal authority at the core of Paris. It served as an appropriate target of the people because of its dark history, which included people being imprisoned because their expressed public grievances in speech or writings that were deemed threatening to the particular regime in power.
Royal imprisonment in the Bastille could not be reversed as there were no appeals allowed for such crimes.
On the morning of the attack, a crowd of about one-thousand people stood outside the prison. They feared an attack by the Royal military troops stationed on the outskirts of Paris in anticipation of public protests due to a controversial move by King Louis XVI dismissing and banishing his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate, representatives of the common people.
By Sunday, July 12th, news of Necker’s dismissal had reached Paris. The people of Paris had sensed that there had been a political coup by the royals close to the king because by that day, the king had completely reorganized his ministry based upon advice from his trusted privy council.
The King’s controversial move aroused suspicion amongst the crowds in Paris, and during these days, there were thousands of people roaming the streets of Paris. Conspiracy theories swept through the throngs of people, and the subsequent rhetoric of local firebrands raised fears within the crowds that the government was mounting an offensive against them. Indeed, the government had moved a large number of Royal troops from frontier garrisons into various areas within the vicinity of Paris, and the people became inflamed by the rhetoric of local firebrands. The people were told that they could protect themselves by getting their hands on the large cache of weapons stored in the Bastille.
The agitated crowd that marched to the Bastille did so to seize the cache of weapons, and upon first arriving at the prison, the people called upon the troops inside to surrender the weapons and gunpowder to them. Negotiators were allowed inside, but the negotiations had not progressed rapidly enough for the throng of hot and irritable people who had grown impatient in the heat of the midday sun. The crowd crushed into the outer courtyard and then on into the inner fortified area amidst rifle fire from the defenders in the prison. After fighting continued into mid-afternoon, some of the French Guard mutinied and started to assist the attacking throng.
The irony in this pivotal incident was that the commander in charge of the prison, Governor Bernard-René de Launay, actually opened the inner gates to the raucous crowd in order to avoid a bloodbath. After the smoke cleared and the dust settled, 98 people in the crowd and one defender were known to be slain in the struggle. De Launay actually surrendered the prison in the late afternoon, and was immediately seized and beaten repeatedly by the crowd. The mob dragged him through the streets toward the Hôtel de Ville where reports indicate that he demanded to be killed and the people obliged by stabbing him repeatedly, beheading him, and sticking his head upon a pike and parading it through the streets.
Although this incredible event in the history of France is looked upon with as much respect and reverence as the colonists taking on the British troops at Lexington and Concord, this treatment of de Launay could be viewed as an ominous foreshadowing of what would come in the bloody aftermath of the fall of the Bastille. While it is undeniably true that following the taking of the Bastille, in August the people abolished feudalism; and ultimately on August 26th, the people proudly proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It is also undeniable that a genuine movement toward freedom devolved into some of the most unjustifiable acts of cruelty against humanity ever committed.
Within four years of the storming of the Bastille, this initial movement toward “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” sadly deteriorated into a reprehensible bloodbath of horror during the Reign of Terror under the machinations of the notorious revolutionary, Maximilien Robespierre. He led the people’s tribunal that arrested, tried, and executed (beheaded via the guillotine) over 17,000 people. De Launay just happened to be the first to forfeit his head.
Robespierre, although only one of the powerful Committee of Public Safety, was the only member who had full support of the fanatical “Society of the Friends of the Constitution,” eventually known as the Jacobins, who were among the more radical supporters of the French Revolution. He was the individual most closely identified with the Reign of Terror. Ironically, even Robespierre was beheaded due to his opposition to the atheistic elements within the revolution.
Even the popular Marquis de La Fayette, who had returned to France in 1788, full of hope and enthusiasm for the freshly developing constitutional principles in United States, was persecuted. Impressed with George Washington and the infant United States, he advocated other nations to follow the American example. La Fayette, who served as general under Washington in the American War for Independence, was elected Vice President of the National Assembly, and eventually helped to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. La Fayette was one of the most important links between the American and the French Revolutions, but was ultimately persecuted by the people’s government under control of the Jacobins.
While the treatment of de Launay would prove to be a foreshadowing of the Reign of Terror, the treatment of La Fayette would demonstrate how such a popular revolution could be de-railed. La Fayette was ultimately forced to flee France in 1792, or risk having his own head separated from the rest of his body. Attempting to flee to the United States, he was captured in Austria, and forced to spend five years in prison, before he could safely return to a France under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French Revolution devolved into confusion, chaos, rampant suspicion, widespread accusation, and public condemnation and execution of individuals with no control.
In short, the French Revolution, despite being imbued with noble ideals, despite being supported by many good patriots, despite being romanticized by many, ultimately in the end deteriorated into a display of some of the most inhumane atrocities fueled by resentment and hatred, not only for the monarchy, or for the aristocracy, but also ultimately exhibiting disdain and intolerance towards one another. Also, initially caught up in the suspicion, accusation, and condemnation was the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, as many of the clergy were executed without mercy. In the end, this revolution was an outright rejection of God, which reflected an opposite reality of what had transpired in the American Revolution.
During these horrifying and turbulent times, France was beset with serious internal disorder and financial loss, and counter-revolution swept through the country. The powerful Committee for Public Safety became even more tyrannical than the ancient French tyrants. The fighting not only broke out within France, but the nation was forced to defend itself as the efforts to “extend the revolution” had alienated many monarchs throughout Europe. Within time Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power, and easily consolidated his authority into absolute power. By 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself the Emperor of France, with intent to conquer Europe.
Unfortunately, all revolutions are not created equally, nor do they all succeed in securing the desired outcome of the revolutionaries. After a quarter of a century of fighting and the loss of hundreds of thousands of French lives, as well as all the other lives destroyed in other nations, the French people saw an end to their struggles, and were not rewarded with freedom, but were returned to the dominion of another king – King Louis XVI.