Storming the Bastille

It was on the famous quatorze juillet in 1789, 230 years ago today, that the mob stormed the Bastille fortress prison in Paris, an event taken to mark the beginning of the French Revolution, and celebrated every subsequent July 14th. It was more symbolic than real, although there was some purpose to it. France's Third Estate (the people) first stormed the Hôtel des Invalides seeking the 30,000 muskets held there. Unfortunately for the mob, the Hôtel's commandant had moved their 250 barrels of gunpowder to the Bastille a few days earlier.

The mob turned its attention to the Bastille, with nearly a thousand of them gathering outside to demand its surrender and the release of its gunpowder. The Bastille had a few defending troops of its own, plus 32 Swiss regular guards of the Salis-Samade Regiment as reinforcements. It also had 18 eight-pound guns and 12 smaller pieces mounted on its walls. Its governor, Bernard-René de Launay, refused to surrender.

After a lengthy fight during which 98 attackers and one defender were killed, the mob seized control. The governor was dragged to the Hôtel de Ville, and after much abuse, was stabbed many times to his death, and his head paraded on a spike. The three officers of the permanent Bastille garrison were also killed by the crowd, and two of the invalides of the garrison were lynched, plus two of the Swiss regulars. The mob then went and killed the prévôt dès marchands (mayor).

The Bastille's prisoners were released – all seven of them. They were four forgers, a madman imprisoned at his family's request, someone who'd tried to kill Louis XV thirty years previously, and a Count imprisoned by his father. The mob missed a much bigger catch, the Marquis de Sade, who'd left 10 days earlier. It was not a great haul, but the act was symbolic and fuelled the Revolution.

The sad record of that Revolution is written in blood and terror, as ever more extremist and radical groups practised ever more atrocities. It devoured its own, as revolutions do, with the majority of those guillotined being ordinary French men and women rather than aristocrats. The Reign of Terror came and went, as Robespierre and Saint Just were swept away in its carnage. The mob regularly rampaged the streets, getting its own way until one day a young army officer called Napoleon gave them "a whiff of grapeshot" at point blank range. Then they stopped.

The French Revolution ended in a dictatorship and a career of European conquest that only ended at Waterloo. It contrasted starkly with the English "Glorious Revolution" that made constitutional government the norm, and the American War of Independence that secured the rights of Englishmen for the American colonists, and embedded them in a constitution.

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia followed more the French style than the English or American ones. It outdid the French one in blood, terror and oppression, and was no more successful at attaining a decent life for its citizenry afterwards. One lesson is that revolutions which sweep away society to put in its place one derived from abstract principles, are less successful than ones which build up and improve what the past has done, and try to erase such of its failings as they can.