Revolutions always seem to have a “Ground Zero”. I use that term with some caution because of the obvious connotations that it has here in the States. But it’s true nonetheless. The revolution of atomic power might be said to be Alamogordo, New Mexico. The revolution of flight could be Kitty Hawk. For delicious Crispy Meat Burritos, it’s Taco Time…ok, that’s pushing it, but you’re catching on.
Other revolutions are no exception to the rule. The American Revolution?…possibly Lexington and Concord. The Berlin Wall in 1989. Tiananmen Square, also in 1989 (though with a much more sobering outcome). All of these place-names, for many of us, bring images instantly to mind, whether it’s a strange looking heavier-than-air device lifting off the ground for a few feet or that brave young man that keeps side-stepping to keep himself in front of the tanks.
There’s the Bastille as well. It’s not a city…well, it might be a city somewhere, but that wouldn’t be the focus of Today’s History Lesson. The Bastille is a prison…a medieval prison. But here I am talking in the present tense, as though it’s still standing…it’s not. The Bastille was a medieval fortress-prison.
It was a real structure, but in 1789 it was symbolic as well. For the citizens of Paris (and for many in the rest of France as well), the fortress had some to symbolize everything they hated about the monarchy in general, and King Louis XVI in particular. Though it only held a handful of prisoners, it was an icon of repression, in which a single ruling class (led by a single ruler) held absolute sway over the entire populace.
As the spring of 1789 warmed to the summer, the situation continued to deteriorate. Hard economic times and oppressive taxes were pushing the citizenry to the boiling point. King Louis, sensing trouble, had made a few concessions, such as allowing the French legislature to rename itself the National Assembly. He even seemed somewhat amenable to a constitutional monarchy.
But on July 11th, the same day Lafayette stood up in the Assembly and proclaimed the Declaration of Rights, the King banished Jacques Necker, his finance minister. Not a big deal, you might say…kings did this type of thing all the time. But Necker was a sympathizer of the reformers, and this move gave a strong indication that the King wasn’t nearly as interested in compromise as he may have let on. It didn’t help that Louis XVI had also dispersed troops throughout the cities before firing Necker.
On July 14, 1789, the pent-up fury spilled over, and hundreds of Parisians (along with some soldiers that decided to side with the people) attacked the symbol of their hatred. It’s known as the Storming of the Bastille, and it was more bloody for the attackers (who suffered nearly 100 killed) than it was for the defenders (who lost but a man).
But with the prospects of a bloodbath looming, the governor of the Bastille ordered a cease-fire. Had the governor possessed foreknowledge, he may have acted differently. First, the governor was the first casualty of the cease-fire, as the angry mob pounced on him and killed him. And second, the bloodbath he wanted to avoid was exactly what he didn’t live to witness, as an era of terror, reprisal, and thousands of executions (including the King himself) would be the order of the day.
The French Revolution had begun.