14th July, 1789 is a seminal day in recent Western history, for good reasons. The storming of the Bastille, the fall of which was one of the flashpoints of the French Revolution, and in France, is today commemorated as le quatorze juillet (14 July) and it’s a public holiday.
Following the Seven Year’s War (1756–1763), the French monarchy emerged both defeated and deeply in debt. The later French support for the American Revolution exacerbated their financial difficulties. Given the economic vitality of France, however, government debt was neither overly large nor disproportionate to the debts of other European powers. The problem was the government’s inability to collect sufficient taxes to service and repay the debt.
Between 1786 and 1788 Louis XVI (r. 1774 – 1792) appointed several different ministers to deal with this financial crisis, trying to raise new revenue. All failed to persuade the aristocracy and the church to pay more taxes. As these negotiations dragged on, the ‘parlement‘ of Paris declared that only the Estates General could institute new taxes. The Estates General had not met since 1614. Consequently, in July 1788, Louis XVI agreed to convene the Estates General the following year.
The Estates General had three divisions: the First Estate of the clergy, the Second Estate of the nobility, and the Third Estate, representing everyone else in the kingdom. From the beginning the Third Estate, composed largely of of local officials, professional men, and lawyers, refused to sit as a separate order as the king desired. For several weeks, there was a stand-off.
Then, on June 1 the Third Estate invited the clergy and the nobles to join it in organizing a new legislative body. A few of the lower clergy did so. On June 17 that body declared itself the National Assembly.
Three days later, the National Assembly met at a tennis court, where its members took the famous Tennis Court Oath to continue to sit until they had given France a constitution. Louis XVI ordered the National Assembly to desist, but shortly afterward most of the clergy and many of the nobles joined the assembly.
On June 27 the king capitulated and formally requested the First and Second Estates to meet with the National Assembly, where voting would occur by head rather than by order, thereby ending government by the privileged orders.
Two new factors soon intruded. First, Louis XVI attempted to regain the initiative by mustering troops near Versailles and Paris. This was the beginning of a steady, and consistently poorly executed, royal attempt to halt the revolution. Most of the National Constituent Assembly (the new name of the National Assembly) wished to create some form of constitutional monarchy, but from the start Louis’s refusal to cooperate thwarted that effort.
The second new factor was the populace of Paris. The mustering of royal troops created anxiety in the city, which had recently been rocked by several bread riots. By June the Parisians were organizing a citizen militia and collecting arms. On July 14 around 800 people, mostly small shopkeepers, tradespeople, artisans marched to the Bastille in search of weapons for the militia.
Through miscalculations and ineptitude by the governor of the Bastille, the troops fired into the crowd, killing 98 and wounding many others. The crowd then stormed the fortress, releasing the (7) prisoners, killing several soldiers and the governor, but they found no weapons. The fall of the Bastille signalled that the political future of the nation would not be decided solely by the National Constituent Assembly. As the news spread, similar disturbances took place in the provincial cities.
A few days later, Louis XVI, again bowing to events, came to Paris and recognized both the new elected government and its National Guard. The citizens of Paris were, for the time being, satisfied.