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In mid-1789, a revolution was brewing in France. In Paris, popular discontent boiled over with the storming of the Bastille, a former fortress and prison that was a powerful symbol of the monarchy and old order. Its storming is considered by many historians as one of the pivotal moments of the early French Revolution, propelling the revolution forward and marking the participation of common citizens. Learn about the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the storming of the Bastille's causes, and the storming of the Bastille's significance in this explanation.
The storming of the Bastille took place on July 14, 1789. Approximately 1,000 mostly working-class people in Paris surrounded and eventually took control of the Bastille, a castle fortress used as a prison and armory. The crowd freed the prisoners and seized the arms and gunpowder stored in the fortress.
The storming of the Bastille was the first significantly violent event of the French Revolution and signaled that radical change was underway in France. It both foreshadowed the move towards constitutional government and the chaotic violence of the more radical stages of the revolution to come.
Learn more about the causes of the storming of the Bastille, the details of events of the storming of the Bastille, and the storming of the Bastille's significance for the French Revolution in the following sections.
There were both long-term and short-term causes of the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution more broadly.
1789 was a turning point in French history as the year the French Revolution began. However, the causes dated to earlier and were varied.
First, France had a lopsided social order. Second, France's support for US independence and spending on other wars, they had to raise taxes.
The Ancien Régime: France's Pre-revolutionary Social Classes
France's social order was divided into three Estates, or classes. At the top was the First Estate, composed of clergy members. Next were the members of the Second Estate: the nobility and aristocracy. These two groups made up only about 2% of France's population but owned most of the wealth and land.
The political ideas of the Enlightenment led many of the educated, bourgeoisie members of the Third Estate to call for reform. They called for a new social contract that ended absolutist rule and the lavish lifestyle of the aristocracy.
Perhaps more problematic was the bad harvest in the years leading up to 1789. These harvests meant there was less bread, which raised prices. By 1789, the price of bread had reached all-time highs, and the average working-class person was spending up to 80% of their income on bread. The day of the storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789, marked the highest bread prices on record for the entire 19th century.1
These problems created an explosive situation. To help address these problems, King Louis XVI called a meeting of the representatives of the Three Estates, known as the Estates-General, to attempt to resolve them.
One of the problems was that each estate had an equal vote, even though the Third Estate represented the vast majority of the French people. To remedy this, the Third Estate declared themselves a National Assembly with the principle of one vote per representative, which would give them a majority of votes and a chance to enact fundamental changes.
The National Assembly vowed in the Tennis Court Oath to write a new constitution for France and declared themselves the National Constituent Assembly.
The immediate cause of the storming of the Bastille was fears of a conservative counterrevolutionary reaction.
First, soldiers were called in to surround Paris, many of which were foreign mercenaries, and many feared they would have no issues with firing on French citizens if ordered by the king. By June 1, there were 30,000 troops outside the city. Second, the king fired several ministers and advisors, including Jacques Necker, a liberal reformist sympathetic to the Third Estate and very popular.
These actions provoked fear that the king was preparing to intervene to shut down the National Assembly and forcibly take control of the streets of Paris.
These fears set the stage for the events of the Storming of the Bastille on July 14.
Louis XVI fired Necker on July 11. The following day, crowds gathered in public squares in Paris. Eventually, clashes with authorities began, and widespread looting of food and weapons occurred. In many cases, French soldiers refused to fire on protestors and even joined them.
On the morning of July 14, approximately 1,000 mostly urban artisans surrounded the Bastille, an old fortress and prison. The crowd came demanding the small garrison turn over the 250 barrels of gunpowder stored there.
The Bastille was a castle fortress built in the 14th century to protect against British attack. In the 15th century, it had been turned into a prison and acquired an infamous reputation as a place where opponents to the Crown were punished. By 1789, the prison was lightly used, and there were plans to convert it to a public space. There were only seven prisoners and a small garrison of mostly older soldiers near retirement. However, the castle was still seen as a powerful symbol of the monarchy and its perceived oppression of the people.
The garrison leader Bernard-René de Launay refused to hand the gunpowder over. Around 1:30 pm, the crowd rushed into the outer courtyard. A few climbed the walls and opened the gates to the inner courtyard. Soldiers tried to order the crowd to stop to no avail.
At some point, shots rang out, and violence between the crowd and guards began. A standoff was ensured, with an outnumbered group of soldiers with only two days of supplies now facing off against an angry mob. When the besiegers brought up a cannon to fire on the fort, de Launay decided to surrender.
At 5:30 pm, the gates to the fortress were lowered, and the crowd poured in, seizing Launay, freeing the prisoners, and taking the gunpowder and other weapons in the armory. It is believed that 98 protestors and one guard were killed in the violence.
The storming of the Bastille's significance was enormous. While the fortress was not so essential anymore, it carried enormous symbolic power. The aftermath of the attack signaled a new radicalism and participation of the urban working class in the revolution and helped push it forward.
De Launay was seized by the mob and shot and stabbed numerous times. The mayor Jacques de Flesselles was also shot, and their heads were put on pikes and paraded through Paris.
In response to the events, King Louis XVI withdrew most troops stationed around Paris. He also announced that he would reappoint Necker. The Bastille was earmarked for destruction and torn down over the next five months.
Clearly, the Bastille storming had a large impact on the course of the French Revolution.
One of the significant effects of the storming of the Bastille on the French Revolution was the elevation of the urban working class as influential drivers of the revolution. They were called sans-culottes, literally translated as without breeches, due to their use of long pants instead of the knee-breeches or culottes favored by the wealthy.
Up to this point, the events of the revolution had been carried out by the most well-to-do bourgeoisie representatives of the Third Estate. The lower classes had taken a leading role in driving the revolution forward.
The storming of the Bastille set a precedent: For the first time in modern history, ordinary men and women, through their collective action in the streets, ensured the creation of a constitutional system of democratic government. Within a few years, however, the French Revolution would also show that crowds could be dangerous, even to governments that claimed to represent the will of the people."2
The reformist actions of the National Constituent Assembly had also been peaceful up to this point. Therefore, another consequence of the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution was the use of violent and direct action by the people.
The storming of the Bastille foreshadowed further direct action by the working and lower classes. Beginning a few days later, on July 20, the Great Fear started in the countryside as peasants feared a counterrevolution from landowners. In towns and villages throughout France, they seized local control and created militias, often killing landowners and nobles.
A few months later, the Women's March on Versailles occurred. Once the more radical phase of the revolution began, violence and the seeming mob rule of the sans-culottes during the Reign of Terror characterized the French Revolution.
While the storming of the Bastille was significant in that it saw the first large-scale intervention by the sans-culottes in the revolution, it was also one of the first instances of bloodshed and mob rule committed by revolutionaries in what had previously been a relatively peaceful and orderly affair. Still, the event marked a major turning point in which the powers of the king were diminished and the process of dismantling the monarchy began."3
Just as the Bastille was chosen as a target in part due to its symbolic representation of the monarchy and old order, its collapse signaled the end of that order.
While technically Louis XVI remained king of France, he had clearly lost control. He was now subject to the demands of the people, as his reappointment of Necker showed. Any hope of crushing popular demands or stopping the revolution in its tracks was now gone. The storming of the Bastille provoked many noblemen to leave France entirely, emigrating to Italy and other neighboring countries.
Historians debate whether the storming of the Bastille should be considered the start of the French Revolution. It is celebrated as a national holiday today in France. Some historians would contend the declaration of the National Assembly by the Third Estate should be seen as the start of the revolution. Meanwhile, others argue the storming of the Bastille is more important as it marked the entry of the popular classes and moved events from declarations and calls for reform to a full breakdown and eventual dismantling of the old order.
Exam questions may ask you to construct historical arguments. Consider the debate between historians mentioned above and construct an argument for why the declaration of the National Assembly should be considered more significant for the course of the French Revolution and another historical argument for why the storming of the Bastille should be considered more significant.
The storming of the Bastilles was caused by tensions in France. High taxes and high prices of bread made people angry. The immediate cause was the king's firing of a popular minister and the people's desire to arm themselves.
Peopled stormed the Bastilles because they wanted to get the gunpowder that was stored there. It was also a symbol of the monarchy and the old order.
The storming of the Bastille was a turning point in French history because it marked the entry of the working class common people as important players in the French Revolution and helped push the revolution forward, making it clear the king had lost absolutist control.
The storming of the Bastille was on July 14, 1789.
During the storming of the Bastille, mostly working class Parisians attacked the fortress, prison, and armory known as the Bastille to seize gunpowder.
What was the Bastille?
A fortress that had been used as a prison and armory later.
What date was the storming of the Bastille?
July 14, 1789
About how many people stormed the Bastille?
What were the people trying to get when they stormed the Bastille?
The gunpowder that had been stored there.
The firing of which minister helped provoke the storming of the Bastille?
Why were people afraid the king was planning to use violence against them?
Over 30,000 troops had surrounded Paris.
The high price of what good contributed to the anger and discontent at the start of the French Revolution?
What happened to the leader of the garrison of the Bastille after the attack?
He was killed and his head put on a pike.
What two significant precedents did the storming of the Bastille set?
That the lower classes were participants in the revolution and they were willing to use violence.
What did some noblemen do after the storming of the Bastille?
They fled France for other countries.
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