Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Fall of the Bastille

The heavy taxes collected from the common people (Third Estate) were still far too little to pay the interest on the public debt and the running expenses of the government. Because of the awful want of money, Louis XVI. called a small assembly of notables (1787), hoping to obtain good advice; but the nobles and clergy would not consent to be taxed, and the assembly accomplished nothing. The Parliament of Paris refused to register decrees for new taxes on the people, but was compelled to yield. However, the prime minister Brienne, in proposing an addition to the public debt, promised to convene the States-General, which had not met for one hundred and seventy-five years (since 1614), but for which the people were now clamoring.

Brienne did not intend to keep his promise, but he soon lost his place, which was given again to Necker; and Necker persuaded the king to call the States-General. The call for the election was therefore at last made; and as the king decided that he must remain in Versailles for the hunting, the nobility, clergy, and elected representatives of the Third Estate were summoned to meet there on the 6th of May, 1789.

The opening of the States-General was a solemn pageant. King, queen, court, nobles, priests, and citizens (bourgeois)—representing the thirty-two provinces in France—marched in imposing procession to the great hall, where Louis made a brief address, in which he "assured his people of his affection," and urged them to do nothing rash. Then Necker, his minister, read a long speech, in which the States-General were requested, principally, to devise means whereby state finances could be satisfactorily supplied.

When these preliminaries were all over, the members of the assembly, left alone to deliberate, immediately began to quarrel. In olden times there had been only about as many representatives of the Third Estate as of the nobles or of the clergy. But since then the population and importance of the lower class had increased greatly, and thanks to Necker there had now been summoned twice as many commoners as usual, so that they were slightly greater in number than both nobles and clergy combined. Hitherto, it had been customary for the three orders to sit and vote in separate rooms, each order casting one vote, but the Third Estate now demanded that all should meet and vote together in one room.

The king was pestered by deputations, each wanting him to do this or that, while he was distracted by the fatal illness of his eldest son, the Dauphin, who died on the 4th of June. This was the second child to leave the royal nursery, a little sister having died when a year old. Little did people then dream how fortunate the boy was to go thus, and be spared the tortures endured by his poor young brother, who is known as the second Dauphin.

When members of the States-General clamored to see Louis XVI., a few days after his son's death, he despairingly cried, "Shall I then not even be allowed to weep for my child?" But the king could not be granted much leisure to nurse paternal grief, for in spite of his many wise concessions and reforms, the people were now in such a ferment of discontent, that no less than three hundred riots took place in the country within four months' time.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


Hoping to end the disputes of the three orders, which threatened never to end, Louis XVI. suddenly ordered the hall closed, under some trifling pretext. But, thus shut out, the Third Estate met tumultuously in the Versailles Tennis Court, where, after a lively discussion, they bound themselves, by the famous "Tennis Court Oath," never to separate until they had given a new constitution to France.

Next, the king in person, at a meeting of the States-General, commanded the three orders to retire each to its own room, to sit separately. The nobles and the clergy accordingly went out when the king did, but the Third Estate remained. When again ordered to go, their spokesman, Mirabeau, boldly replied to the royal messenger, "Go and tell your master that we are here by the will of the people, and that we will not go until driven out by bayonets." Louis XIV. could say, "I  am the state!" but his successor could not, for the voices of the people were now loudly declaring, "We  are the state!"

Four days later the long dispute was ended as the Third Estate wished, and it was finally settled that the three orders should meet and vote together (June 27). This agreement was brought about mainly by the pleas of a few members of the nobility, and by many of the clergy, who, knowing how much the people suffered, were anxious to relieve their distress as soon as possible.

The States-General, instead of merely supplying funds as Necker wished, now began to discuss the causes of popular discontent. They discovered that most of the trouble could be ascribed, 1st, to ten successive years of bad harvests; 2nd, to class privileges; 3rd, to various services which the people had to render free of charge to their superiors; and 4th, to the blindness of royalty in not perceiving sooner how times had changed.

Although the king gently explained all the improvements he had already made, nothing would content the States-General save the right to have a voice henceforth in government affairs; the assurance that their assembly should not be disbanded until it had finished its constitutional work, and a formal promise that States-General should henceforth meet at regular intervals. It seemed as if after these claims had been granted, everything might have run on smoothly, had not the news come that Necker had been dismissed, and that the king was collecting troops near Versailles, presumably to awe the people and their representatives.

When these tidings reached Paris, then a city of 800,000 inhabitants,—many of whom were out of work,—Desmouins, an eloquent young patriot, made a fiery speech in the garden of the Palais Royal, urging the mob to rebel. This speech proved like a spark in a keg of powder, and when Desmoulins next suggested that the citizens stick green leaves in their caps as a rallying sign, the trees in the garden were stripped in the twinkling of an eye. The excited multitude then marched around the city, carrying a bust of Necker; and after coming to blows with a body of troops, proceeded to plunder the arsenals. Then, fully armed, they rushed madly off to tear down the Bastille, the terrible fortress where so many prisoners had once been confined, and from whose towers cannon could easily destroy the homes where so many of them lived.

Had the Bastille been properly provisioned, it could have held out for many months; but its governor being assured that no one would be injured if he opened the gates, preferred to do so rather than further infuriate the mob. No sooner were the doors opened, than the people swept in to liberate the prisoners. They found seven in all, four of whom were forgers, two insane, and one an unfortunate young man with a tendency to drink, who was kept there out of harm's way at his father's request. The Bastille had already, you see, ceased to be a prison filled with innocent people, arrested by royal warrant and detained there without trial.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


The mob had been admitted, but the promises made by some of the leaders were utterly disregarded by others, who seized the governor, and, while leading him off to the city hall (Hotel de Ville), suddenly decided to hang him. Street lamps had recently been introduced in Paris; they were swung from great iron brackets, and to be filled or lighted they were hoisted up and down by means of a rope. These iron brackets being strong, and a rope so handy, when the frantic cry suddenly arose, "To the lamp with, him!" (A la lanterne), a host of volunteer hangmen proceeded to dispose of the poor man. The rope, not designed for such an office, repeatedly broke; still, the wretches persevered until their victim's sufferings were at an end. And that terrible cry, thus heard for the first time at the execution of the governor of the Bastille, was to be repeated with alarming frequency in the course of the next few years.

While some of the mob were thus hanging an innocent man, the remainder had already begun to demolish the Bastille, many of the stones of which were used later for the construction of one of the bridges across the Seine (Pont de la Concorde). This fall of the Bastille, July 14, 1789, is considered the Declaration of Independence of the French people, who now celebrate its anniversary just as Americans do their 4th of July.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


The news about its capture reached Versailles, about ten miles away, in the middle of the night, and when the king was roused to hear what had been done, he exclaimed in dismay, "Why! this is a revolt!"

"No, Sire," replied his informer gravely, "it is a Revolution!"

This man was right; the terrible French Revolution had begun.