The 14th July 1789 is often quoted as the date when the French Revolution took place. On that day, the citizens of Paris famously stormed the Bastille prison, an imposing symbol of the King's power. However, in reality, the storming of the Bastille was not the start of the French Revolution. The citizens who took part in the storming had actually been given fresh hope by events that had taken place over the previous months. If Bastille Day represented anything, it was the end of the beginning of the revolution.
King Louis XVI’s financial problems (see the ‘Origins’ page of this website) forced him to call the Assembly of Notables. When they met, in February 1787, these aristocrats and bishops failed to reach an agreement with the King, and he closed the assembly down in May 1787.
However, the king still needed to raise taxes, and he therefore called the Estates General (representatives of the three ‘estates’ in French society: the nobles, the clergy, and the businessmen). When they met, on 5th May 1789, there was conflict between the nobles and the Third estate, as the Third estate demanded rights for the 95% of the population who could not vote.
By the 17th June the Third estate, unable to agree with the nobles, broke away from the Estates General, and began calling themselves a ‘National Assembly’. They were rapidly joined by members of the Second estate (clergy).
The King realised that he risked losing control, and he therefore tried to shut the Estates General down on 20th June. However, the National Assembly refused to be dismissed. They met at an indoor tennis court where they swore the ‘Tennis Court Oath’, vowing not to disband until they had given France a constitution (a set of rules which limits the power of the government). They immediately voted to end absolute monarchy, and set up a constitutional monarchy instead.
The National Assembly, with its clear sense of purpose, was joined by the remaining members of the other estates, and began working towards this new goal. However, it became nervous about Louis’s intentions as 20,000 French soldiers gathered around Paris. On 14th July 1789, groups of hungry protestors, who had spent two days ransacking parts of the city for weapons and flour, stormed the Bastille prison. Once inside they murdered the prison’s governor, who had ordered the prison guards to fire at them.
The storming of the Bastille is so important as the prison was an imposing symbol of the King’s power. It dominated eastern Paris, and its destruction was very symbolic. The parallels between the National Assembly’s efforts to dismantle royal power and the demolition of the Bastille were clear.
Paris was now in the hands of the mob. Louis considered using the army to crush the revolt, but he was advised that the troops might not obey. Rather than risk losing control of the army, Louis backed down, and the 20,000 troops around Paris were sent back to their bases.
The National Assembly made a series of reforms in the following weeks. Free justice and equality of taxation were introduced, and the Assembly refused to recognise Catholicism as the state religion.
By October, the citizens of Paris had become nervous about a new build-up of troops around Paris. Fearful that King Louis was planning to remove the National Assembly, a mob, mainly made up of women, marched to the King’s palace at Versailles. Once there, they demanded that the King return to Paris with them. He had little choice, and was taken back to Paris effectively a prisoner.
The National Assembly’s reforms continued, with the nobility being abolished completely in June 1790. However, they struggled to agree on the final form of the Constitutional Monarchy. (The dispute on whether the king should have the power to override the constitution under certain circumstances was particularly hard to solve).
On 20th June 1791, Louis fled from Paris, leaving behind a letter criticising the actions of the National Assembly. Although he was recaptured, this event led many to question whether France would be better off with no king, rather than have one who clearly was not willing to accept the revolution. The National Assembly hurriedly completed their preparations for a constitutional monarchy, which Louis agreed to on 14th September.
Louis’s escape attempt also drew the attention of other countries in Europe, who had been watching the events of the French Revolution with nervous apprehension. They were concerned that the ideas of the revolution might spread to their own countries. The sign that the king was the captive of his own people gave them the pretext to threaten to invade.
The king’s minister, Maximilien Robespierre, believed that the army would lose a war, and was anxious to avoid it in order to preserve the new constitution. Louis agreed, which was precisely why he wanted a war to break out. In the end, the threats of foreign nations created a ‘war fever’ in France, and Louis signed a declaration of war against Austria on 20th April 1792.
The war forced the French people to choose a side: those who supported the revolution, and those who did not. Anyone who did not support the revolution was considered ‘counter-revolutionary’, and were deemed to be traitors. The issue for Louis was that he was closely connected with the enemy. His wife, Marie Antoinette, was the sister of the Emperor of Austria, whom France was fighting. Louis’s situation was made worse when he tried to exercise a veto on measures connected with the army’s organisation. A threat by a Prussian general that Paris would be destroyed if the king was harmed, identified Louis with the enemy, making him a traitor in the eyes of the revolutionaries.
The monarchy was abolished on 10th August 1792, after the Palace of the Tuileries was stormed by a Paris mob. Louis was then tried in December, found guilty of treason, and executed on 21st January 1793 using the guillotine. The First French Republic was born.
Up Next: The French Revolutionary Wars