Vive Le Bastille Day!

The storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789. Photo from

French Revolution started on this day 227 years ago

By Jean Jacques Bohl

Tomorrow, July 14, is the French National Holiday. All over France, from Paris to the smallest villages, there will be fireworks, parades and public revelry. The French will celebrate an event that took place in Paris 227 years previously: the storming and subsequent capture of the Bastille Saint-Antoine, a medieval fortress being used as a prison. At the time of the riots, there were just seven inmates.

In July 1789, the Kingdom of France was bankrupt. The existing social order exempted the aristocracy and clergy, who owned most of France’s wealth, from paying taxes. This left the rest of the population known as the Third Estate to finance the state’s expenses. The lavish lifestyle of King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and the Court in Versailles had drained the treasury.

Also contributing to the unrest was simple hunger. The 1788 harvest was very poor. The rising bourgeoisie was critical of an archaic political order. Many drew inspiration from the American Revolution. In May, to find a solution to the fiscal crisis, the king called for a meeting of the General Estates, an advising body with representatives from the three social orders, in Versailles.

Finance minister Jacques Necker and Third Estate delegates pressed for reforms, while the aristocracy and clergy refused all compromises. The Third Estate group, led by Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, pledged to give France a constitution and started to hold separate meetings, which the king forbade. Beginning in July, rumors started to fly that the delegates would be arrested and the king’s Swiss and German Guards would march on Paris.

On July 13, at the urging of influential journalist Camille Desmoulins, the Parisians seized guns and artillery pieces from arsenals but found themselves short of powder and ordnance. The latter were stored in the Bastille, a symbol of the king’s power for more than 400 years.

July 14 was a very hot day. Many Parisians were in the streets, talking in small groups while quenching their thirst. By early afternoon a crowd stood in front of the Bastille asking the prison governor Bernard Jordan, Marquis de Launay, to surrender the fortress and hand over the stored powder and ammunition. When he proved evasive, gunfire erupted and the crowd stormed the outer courtyard. Mutinous soldiers and officers from the French Guards reinforced the attackers, bringing a few cannons.

Having a garrison of less than a hundred men, de Launay surrendered by 5 p.m. in order to avoid more carnage. The French Revolution had begun and the world would
change with it.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, and to offer a gesture of goodwill, Louis XVI came to Paris on July 17. The Marquis de LaFayette, hero of the American Revolution, greeted him and affixed a cockade, blue, white and red, on his hat. The blue and red were the colors of Paris, the white, the color of the king’s flag.

Demolished by order of the Revolutionary government, the Bastille prison was replaced by the Place de Bastille, with a monument to revolution known as Colonne de Juillet. In 1790, LaFayette sent the Bastille key to George Washington. It is still displayed at Mount Vernon. In 1880, July 14 became the official French National Holiday.