Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory. — Disraeli

Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead




The Fall of the Bastille

Through the hot unquiet days of July 1789, Paris had been dreading the force of the King's armies. The citizens knew that the nobles had bidden their monarch rely on their swords rather than give way to the people. They understood that Marshal de Broglie, the veteran of the Seven Years' War, appointed to command in this time of peril, would not hesitate to turn his soldiers against the citizens. They plotted, under the secret instigation of the Duke of Orleans, to win the French guards and make them disloyal to their officers.

Foolish it was to allow the military to haunt the streets and cafes where speeches inflamed their war-like spirit, and reminded them that they, too, were of the people. More foolish still it was to alarm the jealous nation by marching up every road artillery and infantry, cavalry and musketeers to the number of twenty-six thousand men, all giving ominous signs that Paris was to be blockaded by the King.

If it came to civil war, the citizens would hold their own but where were the arms they needed to oppose the guns and cannon, the swords and muskets of the well-trained regular soldiers? It would be wise to cherish the Guards and win their weapons to the popular cause by any means whatever. Before July came, certain soldiers, punished unjustly, as the people thought, were rescued from the Abbaye prison by the mob and dragged in triumph to the Palais Royal. The men, punished by officers they refused to obey, were intoxicated by their wild reception. They were treated to a sumptuous banquet in the open air; they were lodged comfortably in a popular theatre for the night.

Disaffection spread, alarming Marshal de Broglie. He could rely on the Swiss and German regiments alone; his other troops were changed from passive automatons to creatures recognizing no higher authority than their own. He would have had the speakers of the people scattered and the crowds who listened to them. He would have quelled the republican spirit, and restored the absolute power of the monarchy by a swift and deadly onslaught of the military. So they said of him in the clubs, which were now beginning to be dangerous. The Breton club, originally formed by the deputies of Rennes to protest against the dissolution of the Parliaments, which had followed their refusal to register the King's edicts, was become the National. Barnave was among its members, a pure and honourable patriot, Sieyes, the bold Abbe, spoke there, and the Duke d'Aiguillon, who had left his order. Orators and writers had much food for discussion. They dreaded the dissolution of the States-General, the imprisonment of the deputies, the expulsion of Necker, the blockade of Paris, the starvation of the people. Yet they would not sell their liberty to gain the precious boon of living; they would resist the conspiracy of Queen, courtier, minister, and agent. They had marked the growth of a new court party which enslaved the King. They whispered vengefully of the plots hatched by the Austrian and her brother-in-law, the Count of Artois.

Marat, the doctor of the stables, could not speak with the eloquence of Mirabeau, the born leader. But he could write against injustice. He could cause panic in a whole city by his dark utterances of sixty thousand soldiers coming soon to prey upon the citizens who found it difficult to feed their children.

What wonder that nobles were attacked now when they ventured forth from Versailles! M. de Polignac, the Queen's favourite, only saved his life by sheer courage. He laughed at the timidity of the mob, and was untroubled by the sight of long queues of anxious wretches waiting before daybreak at the doors of bakers' shops. He did not harass the King by the rumour, if he heard it, that the monarch was poisoning his subjects by unwholesome bread, bought at famine prices. He returned to the Court after he had been threatened, and encouraged Louis to reply coldly to the impassioned address of Mirabeau and even to threaten the exile of the National Assembly from the capital.

Necker was dismissed. The step was taken privately. A new ministry was formed by the Queen and Count of Artois. Marshal Broglie, on whom they relied for the army to put down a national rising; the Baron de Bretueil, in charge of finance; Foulon, the unpopular, who had bidden the hungry people to eat grass, at the head of the navy—the whole ministry seemed to threaten the liberty of the people, while outside the city walls on the night of July 11th, 1789, was heard the rumbling of artillery.

Sunday came—a day of gloom, when warnings of massacre came to the citizens of Paris assembled in the Palais Royal. Necker dismissed, Foulon in office, and Marshal Broglie given the power to quell the insubordinate by the sword if he chose! Camille Desmoulins, the wild young student from the northeast province, rose to address the scared, incredulous multitude. The crowd, silenced by horror of the tidings brought from Versailles, closed round him. They welcomed a mouthpiece now in the youth who had made a name as orator in the Palais Royal, though he would never be a statesman. He was idle and giddy, and volatile—he could not hope to rival Mirabeau, but he was devoted to his service. If he never made the people tremble by his voice, he could always rouse their emotion. He swayed the mob by tears and laughter. He had a kind of wit that gave him a singular power in speaking. He could act fear and consternation admirably when he conveyed the news of the banishment of the popular idol. Possibly he did not really regret Necker more than Mirabeau, who pretended alarm and kept silent, but he mounted on a table in the Cafe de Foy and gave the signal for the Revolution.

"Citizens! You have not a moment to lose. I have just come from Versailles. M. Necker is dismissed. This dismissal is the alarm-bell of another St Bartholomew for the patriots. This evening all the Swiss and German battalions are to march from the Champs-de-Mars, where they are encamped, to slaughter us all. There is but one resource left us, which is to fly to arms and mount a cockade that we may recognize each other."

The eager crowd were excited to a frenzy of enthusiasm. They took up the cry "To arms! To arms!" and the Palais Royal echoed to the shout, which spread beyond it. Green was the color of hope. It should henceforward be the symbol of the nation. They tore down branches from the trees and fastened leaves to their hats when they could not find ribbon to make themselves cockades of Revolution.

Camille Desmoulins drew two pistols from his pocket saying, "Let all good citizens follow my example." He led a tumultuous throng about with him that evening, not the rabble of a city in rebellion, but men of education. The King's troops were defied when they tried to disperse this procession; blood was spilt when a charge of dragoons threw down the bust of Necker. The dreadful hour seemed to have come when men of the same nation were ready to rise against each other.

The city could not sleep that night—too distracting the ringing of alarm-bells, the noise of blacksmiths' shops, the tramping of the citizens, and the constant cry "To arms!" The next day all shops were closed except a few whose wares were strictly necessary.

There was to be a National Militia, and every good citizen must seek weapons. It were useless to wage war without a pike against the regular soldiers, and also against the band of brigands who descended on the city. For the dogs of war were loosed, and rumour had spread the news beyond the capital. It was the chance of the outlaw and the criminal to plunder. They advanced in hordes and fell upon a convent, where they found open cellars of wine to their own undoing. Many were destroyed after they had stupefied themselves with drinking, and others were led to prison by the citizens, zealous to prove that they had no share in such mad debauchery.

The Hotel de Ville where the electors assembled had given orders that green must not be the national color, since it figured in the livery of the family of the hated Count of Artois. Women's fingers were busy now in making cockades of tricolour, red and blue, the old Paris colours, on a ground of "constitutional" white. There was a demand for them almost as general as the clamouring for weapons.

The smiths smote their anvils furiously with strong arms and willing hearts. In six and thirty hours they had piled up pikes to the number of some fifty thousand. Gunpowder had been found after much vain searching, and women hoarded stones in their dwellings to be used as missiles when the boiling pitch should fail them in the protection of their men-folk.

The King would withdraw the royal troops if that would appease his terrible subjects, so ungovernable now in the midst of martial preparations. Versailles was dull and silent, with only a galloping courier to rouse its inmates by new rumours from Paris. Gaiety had vanished from its splendid rooms and galleries, though there was a pretence of formality still, and meals were served as usual. The generals were timid and dared not resist the people, feeling that the time had gone by for that attempt to crush the insubordinate. All night they did nothing, and on the morning of July 14th, the whole of Paris was in arms. They massed themselves in columns and looked with one accord to the frowning towers and battlements of the citadel of tyranny, known well to the breaking hearts of the last century as the prison of the Bastille.

The history of the place is obscure and difficult to follow. It had been founded originally to defend Paris from attack and had become, in course of time, the symbol of a State that hid its crimes. Men were known to have died in dungeons for their religious faith, their honor, and their courage. That mystery which fascinates and terrifies inspired countless stories of the horrors of those walls. They said prisoners languished alone during youth and manhood, and forgot in their old age that they had ever enjoyed freedom. They recounted the jealousy of nobles seeking to ruin even men of their own order by a lettre de cachet, the instrument employed to get rid of an enemy in silence. They murmured against the King's decrees that men of distinction must be sent to the fortress, where solitude broke the stoutest spirit. They trembled with indignation to realize how nearly the deputies had been incarcerated. Down with the power of kings and the tragedy of state-craft! Lay bare the hideous secrets of the bottomless abyss where men could moan unheard!

The Bastille was plainly meant to terrify by the nature of its firm defence. It had ditches, drawbridges, ramparts, keeps, and bastions, and reared itself a mass of seven towers strengthened by huge blocks of massive stone. M. de Launay was the governor, and had some hundred men for gaolers. He had been born in this grim building, and knew all its traditions. He maintained severe discipline that would not allow the prisoners to have any sort of communication with their friends outside.

There were fifteen pieces of cannon mounted on the tower. A few more were brought in desperation from the arsenal now that the mob was approaching. It seemed vain enough to offer a resistance, though the Bastille had survived attacks during many a war. The governor was not capable of organizing a defence that would baffle men and women, enraged by the cruelty of centuries. He had soldiers with poor courage, and felt disposed to hold out the flag of conciliation. It would gain time, at least, and help might possibly be sent from Versailles.

Deputies were received within the very fortress and treated courteously by the governor, who was pale with terror. Other deputations followed, and refused to leave the courtyard. De Launay fired on them, and with the first shot the whole scene changed. It was useless to parley then. The Bastille was besieged.

"We will have the Bastille," cry ten thousand men of iron will and courage equal to the hour. "It is the oldest symbol of the monarchy. It shall fall and prove in falling that the people will be free from tyrants."

The drawbridge is down and countless citizens arrive to help the besiegers in their gallant purpose. There are old men and children among them as well as women. A beautiful young girl very narrowly escapes being burnt to death because the rumour spreads that she is de Launay's daughter.

The drawbridge is down, but battlements so stalwart might well daunt the leaders of the onrush. An old man inspires courage by seizing a sword with his left hand when a ball has struck his right. He can still march, he declares stoutly, after he has lost his left hand. Two sons of his have lately died in America fighting under Lafayette for the cause of freedom.

The wounded return to the fray after they have had their wounds dressed—and the physician tending them is as brave as they are. Cannon from the assailants answer the cannon of the governor. Fire is rising now from the blazing straw which is strewn about the guardroom.

The garrison begin to realize that the cowardly will not find the people merciful. They scan the roads approaching the fortress with despairing eyes, and see no aid advancing from the royal army. The day is far spent, and only death seems left for them. The governor's courage has revived, and he refuses to agree to a surrender. He will blow up the fortress in which he has lived so long before he will allow disgrace to fall upon him.

In vain de Launay seeks to prevent the Bastille falling into the hands of the people. He cannot take his own life for he is disarmed, and he has the shame of seeing his white handkerchief fluttering from a musket as a flag of truce.

Across the bridges comes the cry of "Victory," while men are streaming into the conquered fortress. It is forty minutes past five in the afternoon, and from that hour they will always date the dawn of liberty. France is saved from the government of nobles henceforth. Soon the dungeons will be reached and the few captives brought forth into daylight. Heavy locks are torn from heavy doors, rusty iron keys carried off to be displayed to the citizens of Paris. State papers are scattered before their records can be fully mastered. Grim tragedies are inscribed on them—the very walls bear the lamentable prayers of human desolation.

Only seven prisoners are found as a reward of much vain searching. It is to be feared that they are not the martyrs of a previous generation but they are glad to be free and willingly allow themselves to be the spoil of their rescuers. These, indeed, weep over them, carrying them about the streets in token of liberation. The very stones re-echo the shouts of triumph as de Launay's head is borne aloft on the pike, which begins to have a sinister meaning in the streets of Paris.

The strength of the popular cause was proven by the fall of the monarchy, crashing to ruin with the walls of the state prison. Throughout France the news spread by means of couriers who galloped furiously, proclaiming the death of tyranny by the national cockade they wore. The country districts were already in a state of ferment, rising ominously to demand bread and the destruction of papers which bound them to the lords of the soil by ancient title. They had found an example to be followed in every place where there was a Bastille of sorts. They hailed the couriers with enthusiasm, and plied them with questions that showed what real importance they attached to that Day of Revolution, the Fourteenth of July.

In all the capitals of Europe the triumph of the cause of liberty was heard as a momentous deed. Russians and Danes acclaimed the birth of the new order, the era of youth and promise. Fox, the famous English statesman, declared the fall of the Bastille the event most favourable to liberty that had ever taken place.

At the palace of Versailles the King was awakened from his sleep by the Duke of Liancourt. He had gone to rest early and thought little, it seems, of the terrible confusion of Paris; for in his diary he had noted "Nothing," as was usual when he did not hunt.

"It is a revolt," Louis Seize said drowsily, after the Duke had poured forth the amazing story of the day.

"Sire, it is a Revolution," the Duke answered, and on the morrow there was reason to believe that he spoke truth.