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Today in history: Storming of the Bastille

Parade in honor of Bastille Day
Parade in honor of Bastille Day
Photo by Franck Prevel/Getty Images

Today, Bastille Day is celebrated as a national holiday in France. It marks the beginning of the French Revolution—one of the most important movements in the country’s history.

Prelude: The Estates-General and the National Assembly

Life for France’s middle class citizens before the Revolution was harsh. They constituted 98% of the population and were at odds with the other two percent—the clergy and the nobility. Taxes were only taken from the middle class, who were already starving from poor grain harvests, and the aristocracy sat miles away in the lap of luxury at Versailles.

In an attempt to make taxes more equitable, Charles Alexandre de Colonne, the king’s controller general, proposed a new tax law that required all citizens to pay land taxes, regardless of class. King Louis XVI feared an uprising from the nobility, so he called for a meeting of the Estates-General for the first time in 175 years.

The Estates-General meeting was set for May 5, 1789 which gave time to the three Estates to prepare. The Third Estate—the middle class—knew that the odds were not in their favor. Despite their overwhelming numbers, they only got one vote at the meeting, and therefore could be outvoted by the other two classes.

On June 17th, the Third Estate met and formed the National Assembly. Their goal was to reform the constitution, creating a government that was more representative to the needs of the people, not just the aristocracy. In late June, the National Assembly started to meet at Versailles with the other two Estates.

The march on the Bastille

The National Assembly represented a step in the right direction, but Parisian citizens feared a military coup. They decided to arm themselves, planning to storm the Bastille for firearms and gunpowder. The Bastille was not only a prison fortress, but a symbol of the overbearing rule of an absolute monarchy.

On July 14, 1789, two negotiators were sent to talk to the Marquis de Launay, the governor of the prison. While negotiations were taking place, more rioters entered and the Bastille guards opened fire. A team of rebel military men appeared, giving the townspeople enough force to overtake the fortress.

More than a hundred people died in the fight, both guards and Parisians. The remaining townspeople beheaded the Marquis, placing his head on a spike and parading it through the streets of Paris.

The legacy of the French Revolution

The Bastille was overthrown and torn down by hand, one stone at a time. But the bloodshed was just beginning. For 15 months starting in 1792, an estimated 40,000 people died by the guillotine. Included in this death toll were King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and one of the former leaders of the rebellion, Robespierre. It seemed that no one was safe. People were beheaded for allegations of loyalty to the king, and were executed without trial.

After the last blade fell, France had changed. The monarchy had fallen, and out of the ashes of the Revolution and the Reign of Terror, the ideas of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood)—France’s national motto to this day—took hold as a new republic emerged.

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