The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14

Author: William Hazlitt  | Date: A.D. 1789

French Revolution: Storming of the Bastille

A.D. 1789


In the scenes of blood and terror which accompanied it, and in the dramatic episodes and strange actors appearing upon its stage-in these respects, if not in the calculable effects of the uprising on France and the world, the French Revolution was the most extraordinary outbreak of modern times.

Matters in France at this time, or during the next few years, might have taken a very different course had not the Eastern powers of Europe been absorbed in their own quarrels, which culminated in the final "scramble for Polish territory." As it was, France was left through the early years of the Revolution to struggle with her own affairs.

Under Louis XV, loved at the beginning of his reign, execrated by his people at its close, France had fallen into bankruptcy and disgrace. The monarchy was weakened through its head. Louis determined that it should live as long as he survived; he cared nothing for its future. The peasantry of France at this time had become keenly alive to the wrongs under which they had long suffered in comparative silence. The disfranchised bourgeois, or middle class, had lately grown in wealth and now thought more about their political rights. The "common" people were staggering under the burden of taxation, from which the privileged nobility and clergy were largely exempt.

The intellectual life of France during the second half of the eighteenth century was profoundly affected by the literature of the period, especially by the radical and revolutionary writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, and their followers, and in many things the extreme views of these men seemed to find confirmation in the calmer reasonings of Montesquieu on the powers and limitations of governments. Democratic ideas were in the air, and all except the privileged classes were ready for general revolt. French-men returning from America reported the successful working of the new order of things inaugurated by the Revolution there, and this gave stronger impulse to the revolutionary tendency in France.

When the well-meaning but weak-willed Louis XVI came to the throne he found himself confronted with conditions before which a far abler monarch might well have quailed. How the storm broke upon him, and began its sweep over the kingdom which he was set to rule, is told by Hazlitt without the rhetorical flourishes indulged by many writers on this subject, but with clear narration and philosophic judgment of the facts recounted.

LOUIS XVI succeeded to the throne of France in 1774, and soon after married Marie Antionette, a daughter of the house of Austria. She was young, beautiful, and thoughtless. In her the pride of birth was strengthened and rendered impatient of the least restraint by the pride of sex and beauty; and all three together were instrumental in hastening the downfall of the monarchy. Devoted to the licentious pleasures of a court, she looked both from education and habit on the homely comforts of the people with disgust or indifference, and regarded the distress and poverty which stood in the way of her dissipation with incredulity or loathing.1

Louis XVI himself, though a man of good intentions, and free, in a remarkable degree, from the common vices of his situation, had not firmness of mind to resist the passions and importunity of others, and, in addition to the extravagance, petulance, and extreme counsels of the Queen, fell a victim to the intrigues and officious interference of those about him, who had neither the wisdom nor spirit to avert those dangers and calamities which they had provoked by their rashness, presumption, and obstinacy.

The want of economy in the court, or a maladministration of the finances, first occasioned pecuniary difficulties to the Government, for which a remedy was in vain sought by a succession of ministers, Necker, Calonne, Maupeou, and by the Parliament. Considerable embarrassment and uneasiness began to be felt throughout the kingdom when in 1787 the King undertook to convoke the States-General, as alone competent to meet the emergency, and to confer on other topics of the highest consequence, which were at this time agitated with general anxiety and interest. The necessity of raising the supplies to defray the expenses of government was indeed only made the handle to introduce and enforce other more important and widely extended plans of reform.

For some time past the public mind had been growing critical and fastidious with the progress of civilization and letters; the monarchy, as it existed at the period "with all its imperfections on its head," had been weighed in the balance of reason and opinion, and found wanting; and a favorable opportunity was only required, and the first that presented itself was eagerly seized to put in practice what had been already resolved upon in theory by the wits, philosophers, and philanthropists of the eighteenth century. From the first calling together the general council of the nation to deliberate and determine for the public good, in the then prevailing ferment of the popular feeling and with the predisposing causes, not a measure of finance was to be looked to, but a revolution became inevitable. All the cahiers, or instructions given to the deputies by the great mass of their constituents, show that the kingdom at large was ripe for a material change in its civil and political institutions, and for the most part point out the individual grievances which were afterward done away with.

The States-General met at Versailles on May 5, 1789. They consisted of the representatives of the nobility, of the clergy, and of the Tiers stat or people in general, the number of the last having been doubled in order to equal that of the other two. They heard mass the evening before at the Church of St. Louis, in the same dresses, and with the same forms and order of precedence as in 1614, the last time they had ever been assembled. The King opened the sitting with a speech which gave little satisfaction, as it dwelt chiefly on the liquidation of the debt and the unsettled state of the public mind, and did not go into those general measures on which the views of the assembly were bent and from which alone relief was expected. The first question which divided opinion and led to a conflict was that regarding the vote by head or by order. By the first mode, that of counting voices, the commons would be numerically on a par with the privileged classes; by the latter, their opponents would always have the advantage of two to one. In order to keep this advantage, and prevent that reform of abuses which the Third Estate was supposed to have principally at heart, the Court did all it could to separate the different orders, first by adhering to etiquette, afterward by means of intrigue, and in the end by force.

On the day following the meeting, the deputies of the three estates were called upon to verify their powers, which the nobles and clergy wished to do apart; but the commons refused to take any steps toward this object, except conjointly, or as a general legislative body. This led to various overtures and discussions, which lasted for several weeks. The Court offered its mediation; but the nobles giving a peremptory refusal to come to any compromise, at the motion of the Abbe Sieyes, the Third Estate, after in vain inviting the two others to join them, constituted themselves into a national assembly.

This was the first act of the Revolution, or the first occasion on which a part of a given body of individuals took upon them to decide for the rest, from the urgency and magnitude of the case, without the consent of their coadjutors, and contrary to established rules. It was a stroke of state necessity, to be defended not by the forms but by the essence of justice, and by the great ends of human society. The usurpation of a discretionary and illegal power was clear, but nothing could be done without it, everything with it. Yet so strong and natural is the prejudice against every appearance of what is violent and arbitrary, that serious attempts were made to reconcile the letter with the spirit of justice in this instance, and to prove that the Tiers Etat, being the representatives of the nation, and the nation being everything, the nobility and clergy were included in it and had nothing to complain of. It is not worth while to answer this sophistry. The truth is that the Third Estate erected themselves from parties concerned into framers of the law and judges of the reason of the case, and must themselves be judged, not by precedent and tradition, but by posterity, to whom, from the scale on which they acted, the benefit or the injury of their departure from common and worn-out forms will reach. Acts that supersede old established rules and create a new era in human affairs are to be approved or condemned by what comes after, not by what has gone before, them.

This first independent and spirited step on the part of the commons produced a reaction on the part of the Court. They shut up the place of sitting. The King had been prevailed on to consent to hostile measures against the popular side during an excursion to Marly with the Queen and princes of the blood. Bailly, afterward mayor of Paris, had been chosen president of the new National Assembly, and, arriving with other members, and finding the doors of the hall shut against them, they repaired to the Jeu de Paumes ("Tennis-court") at Versailles, followed by the people and soldiers in crowds, and there, enclosed by bare walls, with heads uncovered, and a strong and spontaneous burst of enthusiasm, made a solemn vow, with the exception of only one person present, never to separate till they had given France a constitution.

This memorable and decisive event took place on June 20th. On the 23d the King came to the Church of St. Louis, whither they had been compelled to remove, and where they were joined by a considerable number of the clergy; addressed them in a tone of authority and reprimand, treated them as simply the Tiers Etat, pointed out certain partial reforms which he approved, and which he enjoined them to effect in conjunction with the other orders, or threatened to dissolve them and take the whole management of the government upon himself, and ended with a command that they should separate. The nobles and the clergy obeyed; the deputies of the people remained firm, immovable, silent.

Mirabeau then started from his seat and appealed to the Assembly in that mixed style of the academician and the demagogue which characterized his eloquence. The words are worth repeating here, both as a sample of the unqualified tone of the period and on account of the fierce and personal attack on the King, whom he stigmatizes by a sort of nickname. "Gentlemen, I acknowledge that what you have just heard might be a pledge of the welfare of the country, if the offers of despotism were not always dangerous. What is the meaning of this insolent dictation, the array of arms, the violation of the national temple, merely to command you to be happy? Who gives you this command? your Mandatory [`deputy’]. Who imposes his imperious laws? your Mandatory, he who ought to receive them from you; from us, gentlemen, who are invested with an inviolable political priesthood; from us, in short, to whom, and to whom alone, twenty-five millions of men look up for a happiness insured by its being agreed upon, given, and received by all. But the freedom of your deliberations is suspended: a military force surrounds the Assembly! Where are the enemies of the nation, that this outrage should be attempted? Is Catiline at our gates? I demand that in asserting the claims of your insulted dignity, of your legislative power, you arm yourselves with the sanctity of your oath: it does not permit us to separate till we have achieved the constitution."

From this unbridled effusion of bombast, affectation, and real passion two things are evident: first, that the designs of the Court were already looked upon as altogether hostile and alien to the patriotic side; secondly, that the Assembly, from the beginning, felt in themselves the strong and undoubted conviction of their being called to the task of removing the abuses of power and regenerating the hopes of a mighty people. The die was cast, the lists were marked out in the opinions and sentiments of the two parties toward each other. The grand master of the ceremonies of this occasion, seeing that the Assembly did not break up, reminded them of the command of the King. "Go tell your master," cried Mirabeau, "that we are here by order of the people; and that we shall not retire but at the point of the bayonet." This was at once an invitation to violence and a defiance of authority. Sieyes added, with his customary coolness: "You are to-day in the same situation that you were yesterday; let us deliberate!" The Assembly immediately confirmed its former resolutions, and, at the instance of Mirabeau, decreed the inviolability of its members.

Such was at one time the brilliant, daring, and forward zeal of a man who not long after sold himself to the Court: so little has flashy eloquence or bold pretension to do with steadiness of principle! Indeed, the Revolution, of which he was one of the most prominent leaders, presented too many characters of this kind-dazzling, ardent, wavering, corrupt-a succession of momentary fires, made of light and worthless materials, soon kindled and soon exhausted, add requiring some new fuel to repair them: nothing deep, internal, relying on its own resources-" outliving fortunes outward with a mind that doth renew swifter than blood decays"-but a flame rash and violent, fanned by circumstances, kept alive by vanity, smothered by sordid interest, and wandering from object to object in search of the most contemptible and contradictory excitement! We may also remark, in the debates and proceedings of this early period, the fevered and anxious state of the public mind; while galling and intolerable abuses, called in question for the first time and defended with blind confidence, were exposed in the most naked and flagrant point of view; and the drapery of forms and circumstances was torn from rank and power with sarcastic petulance or a ruthless logic.

The resistance of the Assembly alarmed the Court, who did not, however, as yet dare to proceed against it. Necker, who had disapproved of the royal interference, and whose dismission had been determined on in the morning, was the same night entreated both by the King and Queen to stay. On the next meeting of the Assembly a large portion of the clergy again repaired to their place of sitting; and four days after, forty members of the noblesse joined them, with the Duke of Orleans at their head. The conduct of this nobleman, all through the Revolution, was in my opinion uncalled for, indecent, and profligate, and his fate not unmerited. Persons situated as he was cannot take a decided part one way or the other, without doing violence either to the dictates of reason and justice or to all their natural sentiments, unless they are characters of that heroic stamp as to be raised above suspicion or temptation: the only way for all others is to stand aloof from a struggle in which they have no alternative but to commit a parricide on their country or their friends, and to await the issue in silence and at a distance.

The people should not ask the aid of their lordly taskmasters to shake off their chains; nor can they ever expect to have it cordial and entire. No confidence can be placed in those excesses of public principle which are founded on the sacrifice of every private affection and of habitual self-esteem! The Court, soon after this reenforcement to the popular party, came forward of its own accord to request the attendance of the dissentient orders, which took place on June 27th; and after some petty ebullitions of jealousy and contests for precedence, the Assembly became general, and all distinctions were lost.

The King’s secret advisers were, however, by no means reconciled to this new triumph over ancient privilege and existing authority, and meditated a reprisal by removing the Assembly farther from Paris, and there dissolving, if it could not overawe them. For this purpose the troops were collected from all parts; Versailles, where the Assembly sat, was like a camp; Paris looked as if it were in a state of siege. These extensive military preparations, the trains of artillery arriving every hour from the frontier, with the presence of the foreign regiments, occasioned great suspicion and alarm; and on the motion of Mirabeau, the Assembly sent an address to the King, respectfully urging him to remove the troops from the neighborhood of the capital; but this he declined doing, hinting at the same time that they might retire, if they chose, to Noyon or Soissons, thus placing themselves at the disposal of the Crown, and depriving themselves of the aid of the people.

Paris was in a state of extreme agitation. This immense city was unanimous in its devotedness to the Assembly. A capital is at all times, and Paris was then more particularly, the natural focus of a revolution. To this many causes contribute. The actual presence of the monarch dissipates the illusions of royalty; and he is no longer, as in the distant province or petty village, an abstraction of power and majesty, another name for all that is great and exalted, but a common mortal, one man among a million of men, perhaps one of the meanest of his race. Pageants and spectacles may impose on the crowd; but a weak or haughty look undoes the effect, and leads to disadvantageous reflections on the title to or the good resulting from all this display of pomp and magnificence. From being the seat of the court, its vices are better known, its meannesses are more talked of.2

In the number and distraction of passing objects and interests, the present occupies the mind alone-the chain of antiquity is broken, and custom loses its force. Men become "flies of a summer." Opinion has here many ears, many tongues, and many hands to work with. The slightest whisper is rumored abroad, and the roar of the multitude breaks down the prison or the palace gates. They are seldom brought to act together but in extreme cases; nor is it extraordinary that, in such cases, the conduct of the people is violent, from the consciousness of transient power, its impatience of opposition, its unwieldy bulk and loose texture, which cannot be kept within nice bounds or stop at half-measure.

Nothing could be more critical or striking than the situation of Paris at this moment. Everything betokened some great and decisive change. Foreign bayonets threatened the inhabitants from without, famine within. The capitalists dreaded a bankruptcy; the enlightened and patriotic the return of absolute power; the common people threw all the blame on the privileged classes. The press inflamed the public mind with innumerable pamphlets and invectives against the government, and the journals regularly reported the proceedings and debated of the Assembly. Everywhere in the open air, particularly in the Palais-Royal, groups were formed, where they read and harangued by turns. It was in consequence of a proposal made by one of the speakers in the Palais-Royal that the prison of the Abbaye was forced open and some grenadiers of the French Guards, who had been confined for refusing to fire upon the people, were set at liberty and led out in triumph.

Paris was in this state of excitement and apprehension when the Court, having first stationed a number of troops at Versailles, at Sevres, at the Champ-de-Mars, and at St. Denis, commenced offensive measures by the complete change of all the ministers and by the banishment of Necker. The latter, on Saturday, July 11th, while he was at dinner, received a note from the King, enjoining him to quit the kingdom without a moment’s delay. He calmly finished his dinner, without saying a word of the order he had received, and immediately after got into his carriage with his wife and took the road to Brussels. The next morning the news of his disgrace reached Paris. The whole city was in a tumult: above ten thousand persons were, in a short time, collected in the garden of the Palais-Royal. A young man of’ the name of Camille Desmoulins, one of the habitual and most enthusiastic haranguers of the crowd, mounted on a table and cried out that "there was not a moment to lose; that the dismission of Necker was the signal for the St. Bartholomew of liberty; that the Swiss and German regiments would presently issue from the Champ-de-Mars to massacre the citizens; and that they had but one resource left, which was to resort to arms." And the crowd, tearing each a green leaf, the color of hope, from the chestnut-trees in the garden, which were nearly laid bare, and wearing it as a badge, traversed the streets of Paris, with the busts of Necker and of the Duke of Orleans, who was also said to be arrested, covered with crape and borne in solemn pomp.

They had proceeded in this manner as far as the Place Vendome, when they were met by a party of the Royal Allemand, whom they put to flight by pelting them with stones; but at the Place Louis XV they were assailed by the dragoons of the Prince of Lambesc; the bearer of one of the busts and a private of the French Guards were killed; the mob fled into the Garden of the Tuileries, whither the Prince followed them at the head of his dragoons, and attacked a number of persons who knew nothing of what was passing, and were walking quietly in the gardens. In the scuffle, an old man was wounded; the confusion as well as the resentment of the people became general; and there was but one cry, "To arms!"to be heard throughout the Tuileries, the Palais-Royal, in the city, and the suburbs.

The French Guards had been ordered to their quarters in the Chaussee-d’Antin, where sixty of Lambesc’s dragoons were posted opposite to watch them. A dispute arose, and it was with much difficulty they were prevented from coming to blows. But when the former learned that one of their comrades had been slain, their indignation could no longer be restrained; they rushed out, killed two of the foreign soldiers, wounded three others, and the rest were forced to fly. They then proceeded to the Place Louis XV, where they stationed themselves between the people and the troops, and guarded this position the whole of the night. The soldiers in the Champ-de-Mars were then ordered to attack them, but refused to fire, and were remanded back to their quarters.

The defection of the French Guards, with the repugnance of the other troops to inarch against the capital, put a stop for the present to the projects of the Court. In the mean time the populace had assembled at the Hotel de Ville, and loudly demanded the sounding of the tocsin and the arming of the citizens. Several highly respectable individuals also met here, and did much good in repressing a spirit of violence and mischief. They could not, however, effect everything. A number of disorderly people and of workmen out of employ, without food or place of abode, set fire to the barriers, infested the streets, and pillaged several houses in the night between the 12th and 13th.

The departure of Necker, which had excited such a sensation in the capital, produced as deep an impression at Versailles and on the Assembly, who manifested surprise and indignation, but not dejection. Lally Tollendal pronounced a formal eulogium on the exiled minister. After one or two displays of theatrical vehemence, which is inseparable from French enthusiasm and eloquence, they despatched a deputation to the King, informing him of the situation and troubles of Paris, and praying him to dismiss the troops and intrust the defence of the capital to the city militia. The deputation received an answer which amounted to a repulse. The Assembly now perceived that the designs of the Court party were irrevocably fixed, and that it had only itself to rely upon. It instantly voted the responsibility of the ministers and of all the advisers of the Crown, "of whatsoever rank or degree."

This last clause was pointed at the Queen, whose influence was greatly dreaded. They then, from an apprehension that the doors might be closed during the night in order to dissolve the Assembly, declared their sittings permanent. A vice-president was chosen, to lessen the fatigue of the Archbishop of Vienne. The choice fell upon Lafayette. In this manner a part of the Assembly sat up all night. It passed without deliberation, the deputies remaining on their seats, silent, but calm and serene. What thoughts must have revolved through the minds of those present on this occasion! Patriotism and philosophy had here taken up their sanctuary. If we consider their situation; the hopes that filled their breasts; the trials they had to encounter; the future destiny of their country, of the world, which hung on their decision as in a balance; the bitter wrongs they were about to sweep away; the good they had it in their power to accomplish-the countenances of the Assembly must have been majestic, and radiant with the light that through them was about to dawn on ages yet unborn. They might foresee a struggle, the last convulsive efforts of pride and power to keep the world in its wonted subjection-but that was nothing-their final triumph over all opposition was assured in the eternal principles of justice and in their own unshaken devotedness to the great cause of mankind! If the result did not altogether correspond to the intentions of those firm and enlightened patriots who so nobly planned it, the fault was not in them, but in others.

At Paris the insurrection had taken a more decided turn. Early in the morning the people assembled in large bodies at the Hotel de Ville; the tocsin sounded from all the churches; the drums beat to summon the citizens together, who formed themselves into different bands of volunteers. All that they wanted was arms. These, except a few at the gunsmiths’ shops, were not to be had. They then applied to M. de Flesselles, a provost of the city, who amused them with fair words. "My children," he said, "I am your father!" This paternal style seems to have been the order of the day. A committee sat at the Hotel de Ville to take measures for the public safety. Meanwhile a granary had been broken open: the Garde-Meuble had been ransacked for old arms; the armorers’ shops were plundered; all was a scene of confusion, and the utmost dismay everywhere prevailed. But no private mischief was done. It was a moment of popular frenzy, but one in which the public danger and the public good overruled every other consideration. The grain which had been seized, the carts loaded with provisions, with plate or furniture, and stopped at the barriers, were all taken to the Grave as a public depot.

The crowd incessantly repeated the cry for arms, and were pacified by an assurance that thirty thousand muskets would speedily arrive from Charleville. The Duc d’Aumont was invited to take the command of the popular troops; and on hesitating, the Marquis of Salle was nominated in his stead. The green cockade was exchanged for one of red and blue, the colors of the city. A quantity of powder was discovered, as it was about to be conveyed beyond the barriers; and the cases of fire-arms promised from Charleville turned out, on inspection, to be filled with old rags and logs of wood. The rage and impatience of the multitude now became extreme. Such perverse, trifling, and barefaced duplicity would be unaccountable anywhere else; but in France they pay with promises; and the provost, availing himself of the credulity of his audience, promised them still more arms at the Chartreux. To prevent a repetition of the excesses of the mob, Paris was illuminated at night and a patrol paraded the streets.

The following day, the people being deceived as to the convoy of arms that was to arrive from Charleville, and having been equally disappointed in those at the Chartreux, broke into the Hospital of Invalids, in spite of the troops stationed in the neighborhood, and carried off a prodigious number of stands of arms concealed in the cellars. An alarm had been spread in the night that the regiment quartered at St. Denis was on its way to Paris, and that the cannon of the Bastille had been pointed in the direction of the street of St. Antoine. This information, the dread which this fortress inspired, the recollection of the horrors which had been perpetrated there, its very name, which appalled all hearts and made the blood run cold, the necessity of wresting it from the hands of its old and feeble possessors, drew the attention of the multitude to this hated spot. From nine in the morning of the memorable July 14th, till two, Paris from one end to the other rang with the same watchword: "To the Bastille! To the Bastille!" The inhabitants poured there in throngs from all quarters, armed with different weapons; the crowd that already surrounded it was considerable; the sentinels were at their posts, and the drawbridges raised as in war-time.

A deputy from the district of St. Louis de la Culture, Thuriot de la Rosiere, then asked to speak with the governor, M. Delaunay. Being admitted into his presence, he required that the direction of the cannon should be changed. Three guns were pointed against the entrance, though the governor pretended that everything remained in the state in which it had always been. About forty Swiss and eighty Invalids garrisoned the place, from whom he obtained a promise not to fire on the people unless they were themselves attacked. His companions began to be uneasy and called loudly for him. To satisfy them, he showed himself on the ramparts, from whence he could see an immense multitude flocking from all parts, and the Faubourg St. Antoine advancing as it were in a mass. He then returned to his friends and gave them what tidings he had collected.

But the crowd, not satisfied, demanded the surrender of the fortress. From time to time the angry cry was repeated: "Down with the Bastille!" Two men, more determined than the rest, pressed forward, attacked a guard-house, and attempted to break down the chains of the bridge with the blows of an axe. The soldiers called out to them to fall back, threatening to fire if they did not. But they repeated their blows, shattered the chains, and lowered the drawbridge, over which they rushed with the crowd. They threw themselves upon the second bridge, in the hopes of making themselves masters of it in the same manner, when the garrison fired and dispersed them for a few minutes. They soon, however, returned to the charge; and for several hours, during a murderous discharge of musketry, and amid heaps of the wounded and dying, renewed the attack with unabated courage and obstinacy, led on by two brave men, Elie and Hulia, their rage and desperation being inflamed to a pitch of madness by the scene of havoc around them. Several deputations arrived from the Hotel de Ville to offer terms of accommodation; but in the noise and fury of the moment they could not make themselves heard, and the storming continued as before.

The assault had been carried on in this manner with inextinguishable rage and great loss of blood to the besiegers, though with little progress made, for above four hours, when the arrival of the French Guards with cannon altered the face of things. The garrison urged the governor to surrender. The wretched Delaunay, dreading the fate which awaited him, wanted to blow up the place and bury himself under the ruins, and was advancing for this purpose with a lighted match in his hand toward the powder-magazine, but was prevented by the soldiers, who planted the white flag on the platform, and reversed their arms in token of submission. This was not enough for those without. They demanded with loud and reiterated cries to have the drawbridges let down; and on an assurance being given that no harm was intended, the bridges were lowered and the assailants tumultuously rushed in. The endeavors of their leaders could not save the governor or a number of the soldiers, who-were seized on by the infuriated multitude, and put to death for having fired on their fellow-citizens.

Thus fell the Bastille; and the shout that accompanied its downfall was echoed through Europe, and men rejoiced that "the grass grew where the Bastille stood!" Earth was lightened of a load that oppressed it, nor did this ghastly object any longer startle the sight, like an ugly spider lying in wait for its accustomed prey, and brooding in sullen silence over the wrongs which it had the will, though not the power, to inflict.

[The Bastille was taken about a quarter before six o’clock in the evening (Tuesday, July 14th), after a four-hours’ attack. Only one cannon was fired from the fortress, and only one person was killed among the besieged. The garrison consisted of 82 Invalids, 2 cannoneers, and 32 Swiss. Of the assailants, 83 were killed on the spot, 60 were wounded, of whom 15 died of their wounds, and 13 were disabled. A great mane barrels of gunpowder had been conveyed here from the arsenal, in the night between the 12th and 13th. Delaunay, the governor, was killed on the steps of the Hotel de Ville, as also Delosme, the mayor. Only seven prisoners were found in the Bastille; four of these, Pujade, Bechade, La Roche, and La Caurege, were for forgery. M. de Solages was put in 1782, at the desire of his father, since which time every communication from without was carefully withheld from him. He did not know the smallest event that had taken place in all that time, and was told by the turnkey, when he heard the firing of the cannon, that it was owing to a riot about the price of bread. M. Tavernier, a bastard son of Paris Duverney, had been confined ever since August 4, 1759. The last prisoner was a Mr. White, who went mad, and it could never be discovered who or what he was: by the name he must have been English.

When Lord Albemarle was ambassador at Paris, in the year 1753, he by mere accident caught a sight of the list of persons confined in the Bastille, lying on the table of the French minister, with the name of Gordon at their head. Being struck with the circumstance, he inquired into the meaning of it; but the French minister could give no account of it; and on the prisoner himself being released and sent for, he could only state that he had been confined there thirty years, but had not the slightest knowledge or suspicion of the cause for which he had been arrested. Nor is this wonderful, when we consider that lettres de cachet were sold, with blanks left for the names to be filled up at the pleasure or malice of the purchasers.

If it was only to prevent the recurrence of one such instance (with the feeling in society at once shrinking from and tamely acquiescing in it), the Revolution was well purchased. When the crowd gained possession of this loathsome spot, they eagerly poured into every corner and turning of it, went down into the lowest dungeons with a breathless curiosity and horror, knocking with sledge-hammers at their triple portals, and breaking down and destroying everything in their way. The stones and devices on the battlements were torn off and thrown into the ditch, and the papers and documents were at the same time unfortunately destroyed.

A low range of dungeons was discovered underground, close to the moat; and so contrived that, if those within had forced a passage through, they would have let in the water of the ditch and been suffocated. In one of these a skeleton was found hanging to an iron cramp in the wall. In reading the accounts of the demolition of this building, one feels that indignation should have melted the stone walls like flax, and that the dungeons should have given up their dead to assist the living!

The Bastille was begun in 1370, in Charles V’s time, by one Hugh Abriot, provost of the city, who was afterward shut up in it in 1381. It at first consisted only of two towers: two more were added by Charles VI, and four more in 1383. Two days after it was taken, it was ordered by the National Assembly to be razed to the ground, and in May, 1790, not a trace of it was left.-ED.)

The stormers of the Bastille arrived at the Place de Ia Greve, rending the air with shouts of victory. They marched on to the great hall of the Hotel de Ville, in all the terrific and unusual pomp of a popular triumph. Such of them as had displayed most courage and ardor were borne on the shoulders of the rest, crowned with laurel. They were escorted up the hall by near two thousand of the populace, their eyes flaming, their hair in wild disorder, variously accoutred, pressing tumultuously on each other, and making the heavy floors almost crack beneath their footsteps. One bore the keys and flag of the Bastille, another the regulations of the prison brandished on the point of a bayonet; a third-a thing horrible to relate-held in his bloody fingers the buckle of the governor’s stock. In this order it was that they entered the Hotel de Ville to announce their victory to the Committee, and to decide on the fate of their remaining prisoners, who, in spite of the impatient cries to give no quarter, were rescued by the exertions of the commandant La Salle, Moreau de St. Mery, and the intrepid Elie.

Then came the turn of the despicable Flesselles, that caricature of vapid, frothy impertinence, who thought he could baffle the roaring tiger with grimace and shallow excuses. "To the Palais-Royal with him!" was the word; and he answered with callous indifference, "Well, to the Palais-Royal if you will." He was hemmed in by the crowd and borne along without any violence being offered him to the place of destination; but at the corner of the Quai le Pelletier an unknown hand approached him and stretched him lifeless on the spot with a pistol-shot. During the night succeeding this eventful day Paris was in the greatest agitation, hourly expecting, in consequence of the statements of intercepted letters, an attack from the troops. Every preparation was made to defend the city. Barricades were formed, the streets unpaved, pikes forged, the women piled stones on the tops of houses to hurl them down on the heads of the soldiers, and the National Guard occupied the outposts.

While all this was passing, and before it became known at Versailles, the Court was preparing to carry into effect its designs against the Assembly and the capital. The night between the 14th and 15th was fixed upon for their execution. The new minister, Breteuil, had promised to reestablish the royal authority within three days. Marshal Broglie, who commanded the army round Paris, was invested with unlimited powers. The Assembly, it was agreed upon, were to be dissolved, and forty thousand copies of a proclamation to this effect were ready to be circulated throughout the kingdom. The rising of the populace was supposed to be a temporary evil, and it was thought to the last moment an impossibility that a mob of citizens should resist an army. The Assembly was duly apprised of all these projects. It sat for two days in a state of constant inquietude and alarm. The news from Paris was doubtful. A firing of cannon was supposed to be heard, and persons anxiously placed their ears to the ground to listen. The escape of the King was also expected, as a carriage had been kept in readiness, and the bodyguard had not pulled off their boots for several days.

In the orangery belonging to the palace, meat and wine had been distributed among the foreign troops to encourage and spirit them up. The Viscount of Noailles and another deputy, Wimpfen, brought word of the latest events in the capital, and of the increasing violence of the people. Couriers were despatched every half-hour to gather intelligence. Deputations waited on the King to lay before him the progress of the insurrection, but he still gave evasive and unsatisfactory answers. In the night of the 14th the Duke of Liancourt had informed Louis XVI of the taking of the Bastille and the massacre of the garrison on the preceding day. "It is a revolt!" exclaimed the monarch, taken by surprise. "No, sire, it is a revolution," was the answer.

1 Edmund Burke passed a splendid and well-known eulogium on the beauty and accomplishments of the Queen, and it was in part the impression which her youthful charms had left in his mind that threw the casting-weight of his talents and eloquence into the scale of opposition to the French Revolution. I have heard another very competent judge, Mr. Northcote, describe her entering a small anteroom, where he stood, with her large hoop sideways, and gliding by him from one end to the other with a grace and lightness as if borne on a cloud. It was possibly to this air with which she trod or rather disdained the earth," as if descended from some higher sphere, that she owed the indignity of being conducted to a scaffold. Personal grace and beauty cannot save their possessors from the fury of the multitude, more than from the raging elements, though they may inspire that pride and self-opinion which eK-pose them to it.

2It was observed that almost all the greatest cruelties of the Reign of Terror were resolved on by committees of persons who had been in the immediate employment of the great, and had suffered by their caprice and insolence.


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Chicago: William Hazlitt, "French Revolution: Storming of the Bastille," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed February 21, 2024,

MLA: Hazlitt, William. "French Revolution: Storming of the Bastille." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 21 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Hazlitt, W, 'French Revolution: Storming of the Bastille' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 21 February 2024, from