Bastille-Day of 1789 was the result of the state of France following the period of major economic and political crisis from 1783 to 1789.

The leaders ignored until the end the evolution of the events in progress. The financial crisis continued to worsen. This led to the convocation of the Estates General for May 1, 1789.

The consequence was a period of unrest that culminated in the storming of the Bastille on July 14 of that year. Everything then followed one another over the years ...

  • place de la Bastille, Place de la Bastille, Paris, 75012, France


Place de la Bastille
75012, Paris


Place de la Bastille
75012, Paris

Coordinates Latitude Longitude
Sexagesimal (°, ', ") 48° 51′ 11″ N 2° 22′ 09″ E
Degré décimal (GPS) 48.85313 2.36912
Description complète

Bastille-Day of 1789 was the result of the state of France following the period of major economic and political crisis from 1783 to 1789.

The state of France and of its inhabitants

At the end of the "Ancien Régime", the State was impoverished and the Treasury empty. The financial difficulties had been aggravated by the American war. The fiscal inequalities were indignant to the non-privileged. The peasants complained about the poor harvests, the poor sale of wheat and wine.

Despite the crisis, the Controller General of Finance, Calonne, refused to make savings and lived on loans.

Worried about the size of the deficit, the minister nevertheless wanted to mitigate the abuses. In August 1786, he proposed to the king a new tax, the territorial subsidy, to be levied on all landowners, noble and common, the abolition of internal customs, the free circulation of grain, the reduction of the taille and the gabelle, and the creation of provincial consultative assemblies. The assembly of notables consulted - mostly privileged people - accepted some reforms but refused to examine the tax project until they knew the size of the deficit. The king dismissed them (May 25).

It is probably at this moment that the seeds of the Revolution were fertilized. The Bastille-Day of 1789 was underway.

The incomprehension of the leaders of the evolution of the events in progress

The new minister, Loménie de Brienne, adopted the ideas of his predecessor and presented the projects to the Parliament of Paris. The latter in turn asked for the state of the finances and above all declared that only the Parliament could agree to a new tax. Faced with the obstinacy of the parliamentarians, the king exiled them to Troyes, but the general discontent forced him to recall them (September 1787).

As the financial crisis continued to worsen, Brienne wanted to launch a large loan, which the king forcibly registered, despite the opposition of Parliament. The Keeper of the Seals (Garde des Sceaux), Lamoignon, wanted to take away the right of the parliamentarians to register the edicts they had granted themselves. The king put the Parliament in vacation (May 8, 1788). Serious riots then broke out across the country. But soon, the threat of bankruptcy forced Brienne, on August 8, 1788, to announce the convocation of the Estates General (Etats Généraux) for May 1, 1789.  Louis XVI and his ministers were counting on the holding of the Estates General to calm the spirits (the last Estates General had been held in 1614). A few days later, the minister Brienne was replaced by Necker (August 25).

The convocation of the Estates General for May 1, 1789

1200 delegates meet in Versailles on May 5. The Estates General consisted of 3 "orders": the nobility, the clergy and the Third Estate (today we would say 3 "colleges of electors"). Each one has of course different objectives. Quickly, the discussions do not meet the expectations of the third state (the people) and ends in a half-hearted failure.
The deputies proclaim themselves as the National Assembly on June 17. Then on June 20, at the initiative of the Third State during the oath of the Jeu de Paume, the assembly proclaimed itself a Constituent Assembly to write a constitution and put an end to absolute monarchy.
It exercises this function from July 9. It is accepted as such by the king in October. In a few days the spiral of the events is set in motion... and will not stop any more

France is ripe for a deep break with the past regime

The storming of the Bastille was part of the popular and political mobilization movement that gradually agitated the cities of the kingdom of France during the summer of 1789. It accompanied the political revolution initiated by the deputies of the Estates General still meeting in Versailles. Since June 20 (date of the oath of the Jeu de Paume) they try to impose themselves to the king as a National Constituent Assembly. Of course, Versailles is only 15 km from Paris, and "contacts" with the Parisian representatives are usual.

The Parisian agitation just before Bastille-Day of 1789

The agitation of the Parisian people was at its peak following the dismissal in 1787 of Jacques Necker, a Genevan financier and politician, Minister of Finance. He was recalled by Louis XVI in August 1788 with the title of Minister of State due to the unwavering support of public opinion. He was also the father of Madame de Staël, a novelist, letter writer and philosopher from Geneva and France.

The second dismissal of Necker on July 11, 1789 was announced on July 12 by the journalist Camille Desmoulins.

Moreover, the presence of mercenary troops (of the royalty) on the outskirts of Paris, worries the people of Paris. They feared that the foreign troops massed around the capital since June would end up being used against the Estates General or to serve a hypothetical massacre of the "patriots" population. The echoes and the publicity of the debates of the Assembly counted as much in the popular mobilization as "the anger and the fears cumulated in the various strata of the Parisian population". Fear of an "aristocratic plot", fear of the famine fed by the fantasies of a "pact of famine" to starve the population.
On July 14, the price of bread reached its highest level since the beginning of Louis XIV's reign. The question of wheat is then in the middle of the insurrection. The rioters confirmed these concerns. They were craftsmen, store assistants, two thirds of them literate.

The insurrection smolders everywhere in Paris

For nearly ten days, from July 9 to 17, incidents broke out at the barriers (octroi posts) of Paris. About forty offices were burned out of the fifty-four on the wall of the Fermiers généraux. The objective of these riots is clear: to abolish the rights of entry in Paris to release the exchanges. Although it was not related to the storming of the Bastille, the "storming of the gates", mixing the Parisian people with "the brigands", was already a sign of insurrection. But it was still far from the deposition of the king and his execution on the Place de Grève (Place de la Concorde today).

The defense of Paris and the Bastille in 1789

The Bastille, where Baron de Besenval had stored the gunpowder from the arsenal, was known for its strategic weakness. His governor of the Bastille was disowned by his superiors.  Besenval himself claims to have tried to find a replacement for him at the beginning of July. In 1789, Besenval was the military commander of the Île-de-France, the bordering provinces and the Paris garrison.
In May, he firmly re-established order in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, close to the Bastille. Despite his urgings, the government refused to reinforce the Paris garrison. But he made an error of judgment. On July 12, irritated by the passivity of the government, he decided to withdraw the troops from Paris. This will have the unforeseen consequence of allowing the population to loot the Invalides (to steal weapons) and to march on the Bastille (to recover the powder and the bullets).

The Bastille in 1789 was then defended by a garrison of 32 Swiss soldiers detached from the regiment of Salis-Samade and 82 disabled war veterans.

The course of Bastille-Day of 1789 around the Bastille

The taking of the Bastille answers two practical needs.
Indeed, the insurgents who had obtained weapons from the Hôtel des Invalides needed powder and ammunition. According to several sources (rumors), the prison of the Bastille would hold some. In addition to this real need, there was the need to bring down a symbol of monarchical repression that the Bastille represented.

On the morning of Sunday, July 12, 1789, the Parisians were informed of Necker's dismissal. The news spreads in Paris. At noon, in the Palais-Royal, a lawyer and journalist then little known, Camille Desmoulins, climbs on a chair of the café de Foy and harangues the crowd of walkers and calls them "to take arms against the government of the king".

  • On July 14, at 10 a.m., the rioters seized the rifles stored at the Invalides. Faced with the refusal of the governor, a composite crowd - nearly 80,000 people, including a thousand fighters - showed up to seize them by force.
    The "invalid" soldiers who were defending the square did not seem willing to open fire on the Parisians. A few hundred meters away, several cavalry, infantry and artillery regiments camped on the Champ-de-Mars esplanade, under the command of Pierre-Victor de Besenval. He was not sure of his soldiers. He decided to abandon his position and to put his troops on the road to Saint-Cloud and Sèvres.
    The crowd seized the 30,000 to 40,000 black powder rifles that were stored there, as well as 20 pieces of firearms and a mortar. The Parisians are now armed.  All they need is gunpowder and bullets. It is rumored that there are some in the "Château de la Bastille".
  • A first delegation of the Assembly of the electors of Paris goes to the Bastille. Pressed by the crowd of rioters, especially those from the nearby popular suburb of Saint-Antoine where the Réveillon affair was a striking episode of the pre-revolution, the electors send a delegation to the governor of the Bastille, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay. This delegation was received with kindness, it was even invited to lunch, but left without having won.
  • At 11:30 a.m., a second delegation on Thuriot's initiative went to the fort of the Bastille. The governor undertook not to take the initiative of shooting. The crowd of rioters armed with the rifles taken at the Invalides gathers in front of the Bastille. They brought with them five of the cannons taken the day before from the Invalides and the Garde-Meubles (including two silver damascene parade cannons offered a century before by the king of Siam to Louis XIV!)
    An explosion, mistakenly taken by the rioters as a cannonade ordered by the governor, triggered the first assaults. Rioters entered the enclosure through the roof of the guardhouse and attacked the chains of the drawbridge with axes.
  • At 1:30 p.m., the eighty-two invalid defenders of the Bastille and thirty-two Swiss soldiers detached from the Salis-Samade regiment opened fire on the rioters, who continued their assault on the fortress, killing about one hundred people. For three and a half hours, the Bastille was then subjected to a regular siege.
  • At 2:00 p.m., in the meantime, a third delegation went to the Bastille, including the abbot Claude Fauchet, followed at 3:00 p.m. by a fourth.  This last delegation, wanted in the forms by the permanent committee of the town hall, dressed with a drum and a flag to show its official character, presents itself in front of the marquis of Launay but still obtains nothing.
    Worse, the parliamentarians receive a discharge of musketry which touches the crowd. The soldiers of the Bastille garrison and the besiegers exchange fire.
  • At 3:30 p.m., a detachment of sixty-one French guards composed largely of grenadiers from Reffuveilles and fusiliers from the Lubersac company, and commanded by Sergeant Major Wargnier and Sergeant Antoine Labarthe, presented themselves in the midst of a lively fusillade in front of the Bastille. These experienced soldiers arrived in the courtyard of the Orme, dragging five cannon and a mortar. They were put in battery and directed on the embrasures of the fort, from which they drove away the gunners and the skirmishers. The other two guns were aimed at the door that connected the inner courtyard with the Arsenal garden, and this door soon gave way under their blows.
    Immediately the crowd rushed to enter the Bastille; but the French Guards, keeping their cool in the midst of the tumult, formed a barrier beyond the bridge and by this act of prudence saved the lives of thousands of people who would have rushed into the ditch.
  • De Launay, isolated with his garrison, noting that despite the extent of their losses the attackers did not give up, negotiated the opening of the gates on the promise of the besiegers that no execution would take place after the surrender.
    The rioters, among whom there were about a hundred killed and seventy-three wounded, invaded the fortress, seized the gunpowder and bullets, and then freed the seven captives who were imprisoned there.
    The garrison of the Bastille, taken prisoner, was taken to the town hall to be judged. On the way, de Launay was beaten, massacred with a sword, decapitated with a knife by the assistant cook Desnot and his head put on a pike. The heads of de Launay and Jacques de Flesselles, provost of the merchants of Paris, assassinated on the charge of treachery, were carried at the end of a pike through the streets of the capital to the Palais-Royal. Several of the invalids also died during the journey.

The aftermath of the Bastille-Day of 1789

  • In addition to the prisoners, the fortress housed the archives of the lieutenant of police of Paris.
    They were subjected to systematic looting. The Gardes-Françaises scattered them in part in the ditches of the fortress. From July 15, the day after the Bastille-Day of 1789, the municipal authorities tried to recover them. In 1798, those recovered were kept in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal and catalogued since the 19th century (60,000 files comprising 600,000 sheets, mainly letters of seal, interrogations, petitions to the king, correspondence from the imprisoned).
  • The prisoners the Bastille-Day of 1789.
    They were seven in number. The four counterfeiters Jean Lacorrège, Jean Béchade, Jean-Antoine Pujade, Bernard Larroche disappeared definitely in the crowd. Auguste-Claude Tavernier (who had attempted to assassinate Louis XV and had been imprisoned since August 4, 1759, that is, for 30 years) and Count Jacques-François Xavier de Whyte de Malleville, who was insane and imprisoned at the request of his family, were re-incarcerated the next day. The count of Solages, imprisoned since 1784 at the request of his father for "monstrous acts", returned to his country near Albi where he died around 1825.
  • The demolition of the Bastille took one year after the Bastille-Day of 1789
    The demolition of the Bastille began on July 15 under the direction of the private contractor Pierre-François Palloy. It lasted about one year. Palloy set up a side business by transforming the chains of the Bastille into patriotic medals and selling rings set with a stone from the old fortress. Palloy also had models of the building made and sent to all the chief towns of the French departments. One can add to this the transformation into objects of piety and worship, of all that he could recover from the woodwork and ironwork of the old fortress. But most of the recovered stones were used to build the Concorde bridge.
  • As a symbol of the Bastille-Day of 1789, the Marquis de La Fayette sent one of the keys to the Bastille to George Washington, one of the great figures of the American Revolution and the first president of the United States. It is now on display at the Mount Vernon residence, now a museum.
  • Another key was sent to Gournay-en-Bray, the birthplace of the first revolutionary to enter the fortress the Bastille-Day of 1789, Stanislas-Marie Maillard. This last key has since disappeared.
  • The clock and the bells of the fortress were kept at the Romilly foundry, in the Eure region, until its recent closure. The carillon is now in the European Museum of Bell Art, in L'Isle-Jourdain (Gers).
  • The fashion "à la Bastille"
    The disappearance of the Bastille did not prevent its myth from being reborn during the Revolution in the form of a "Bastille fashion" (bonnet, shoes, fans)

The drift of the Revolution: the Terror period

The storming of the Bastille unfortunately degenerated into an authoritarian and bloodthirsty regime. It led to the guillotine execution of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette, as well as several thousand other individuals (17,000 is the number of heads cut off during the Great Terror, between 1793 and 1794).

One of those famously guillotined was the scientist Lavoisier. And do you know what one of those who condemned him said?

"The Republic doesn't need scientists, it needs justice."

With this sentence, the judge ended the life of history's greatest chemist, Antoine Lavoisier, guillotined in 1794 amidst the chaos of the French Revolution. Lavoisier is considered the father of modern chemistry. He was the first to separate the components of air, to reveal the elements of oxygen and carbon dioxide, to separate the components of water and to arrive at hydrogen. Instead, he turned his attention to biology, describing the gas. exchanges that take place in the lungs. When Lavoisier was executed on the guillotine, his friend, the famous mathematician Lagrange, declared: "It took a second to cut off this head, but it may take France hundreds of years to produce someone like him."

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