What Led to the Storming of the Bastille?

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Remember in January of 2021 when the United States Capitol building was stormed by protestors? Imagine that, but on an exponentially larger scale that ended up causing a war, and you’ll start to get an idea of what happened three centuries ago in France. The Bastille was a building that represented the authoritative presence of French royalty. The building is tall, built similarly to the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. However, instead of being a monument for a person, the Bastille was used as a medieval fortress, armory, and prison.

The storming of the Bastille is considered to be the catalyst of the French revolution. On July 14, 1789, protests by members of the French middle and lower classes turned into a full-on uprising as they stormed the Bastille. Somewhere between 600-1000 insurgents participated in the revolt. There were over 98 deaths, and 73 people were wounded. 

What Led to the Storming of the Bastille?

At that period of time, France was divided into three classes or “estates”. The First Estate was royalty, government, aristocrats. The Second Estate consisted of the clergy. The Third Estate was literally everyone else, over 90% of the population. Not enough of France’s resources were being given to the Third Estate, and eventually the anger and frustration of the people of the working classes boiled over. 

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You can contextualize the storming of the Bastille, and the subsequent French Revolution by looking at France’s economy at the time. In the late 1700s, the country was in a financial crisis, which set in motion the sequence of events that led to the storming of the Bastille.

King Louis XVI convened a meeting of the Estates General in 1789 in an attempt to implement a new land tax. The tax was opposed by the Second Estate, which represented France’s nobility. The Third Estate, which represented the middle and lower classes and thus most of the population of France, was dissatisfied with their relatively low level of influence. They independently formed a National Assembly to create a constitution for the country.

Three days prior to the storming of the Bastille, King Louis XVI fired Jacques Necker. Necker was the Minister of Finance and also one of the few government officials that was sympathetic towards the Third Estate. His dismissal created anguish and enflamed anger among the Third Estate.

The economic situation was partly due to a massive crop failure, that had resulted in widespread hunger. Unable to feed themselves or their childre, workers formed mobs in the streets of Paris. Plundering began, and military forces were ordered to fire upon the mobs. Several grenadiers who were been jailed for refusing to fire on the people were freed by force. The Third Estate formed a militia and raided the Hotel des Invalides for arms. They found guns there but no powder or shot. The Bastille was chosen as the next target both for its stock of gunpowder, and for being a symbol of the royalty.

Immediately following the storming of the Bastille, both sides bolstered and organized their forces and would engage in several more months of combat. Ultimately, the French revolutionaries did not have enough support to sustain a full-on war with their own government. The war ended a few months after it started on November 9, 1789. While the Third Estate was not victorious, France did eventually move from a Monarchy to an Empire, a government system that’s more similar to what the United States has today. 

Bastille Day: An Annual Tradition

Today, Bastille Day is celebrated every July 14th. Since 1880, France has celebrated this with a military parade in Paris accompanied by fireworks at night. It is the oldest and largest military parade in Europe that is still observed today. Aside from parades and fireworks, people spend the day going on pub crawls and picnicking.

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France was not able to hold its annual parade in the 1940s and 2020 due to World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic, respectively. Aside from those years, Bastille Day celebrations have persisted, and the French continue to celebrate the French Revolution and all of its impacts on history.

Bastille Day celebrations have spread across the globe. In the U.S., 20 cities hold official celebrations to commemorate the moment in history. Many compare the French Revolution to the American Revolution. Other countries that formally celebrate Bastille Day include the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Wherever you are, you can celebrate Bastille Day by calling out and resisting powerful people who are hoarding wealth and resources while people go without. Just don’t limit your efforts to only July 14th.