After years of suffering the people of Paris rose in revolt and on July 14, 1789 the great fortress prison of the Bastille was utterly destroyed.
It was in the summer of 1789 that the French revolution broke upon Europe. It was one of the most dramatic and important events of all time, and the effects of it were felt not only on France but throughout the world. It marked the beginning of a new age in history, an age in which liberty and equality came to be recognised as the right of everyone.
There were many reasons for a revolution in France in 1789. There were injustice, muddle, and misery. The government was ineffective and out-of-date. The King still had supreme power and the States-General had not been called for 175 years. Moreover, there were rigid class barriers, and it was difficult for the ordinary middle or lower classes to have any influence at all on the government of the country.
Of justice there was little. The government could imprison anyone for as long as it liked without trial. The sufferings of the poor were very severe: they bore the burden of taxation (nobles and higher clergy were exempt) and were liable to be conscripted, either into the militia or for forced labor gangs on the roads or in the mines. Everywhere there was anger and resentment, and it was all too easy for violence to break out.
By 1789 the situation in France had become desperate. The country, weakened by expensive and mainly unsuccessful foreign wars, was bankrupt; moreover, there had been a bad harvest and the poor were hungrier than ever. The King, Louis XVI, was a kindly man, anxious to do something to relieve the suffering; but he was also very weak, and much too much under the influence of his proud and foolish young wife Marie Antoinette.
Storming of the Bastille
Louis, in his despair, decided to summon the French Parliament (known as the States-General) on May 5, 1789. This caused great excitement, for the people hoped that reforms would soon be carried out. But as time went by and nothing happened they became disappointed. The Third Estate (the middle and lower classes) swore on June 20, 1789 not to disperse from the assembly until reform had been promised. In reply the King ordered them to leave the hall, and also dismissed Necker, his most liberal minister. At this the people of Paris rose in an uproar. They seized arms from a military barracks and marched on the Bastille, the grim, hated prison, where, it was believed, many innocent people were incarcerated. After a few hours the governor was induced to surrender, and the crowd, frantic with excitement, poured in. They massacred the guards and set free the prisoners – there were only a handful. Then they razed the building to the ground.
The storming of the Bastille caused tremendous excitement throughout Europe. Oppressed peoples everywhere took heart and were strengthened by their seemingly hopeless struggles against tyranny and injustice.
The first years
The French Revolution gave power at last to the Third Estate. At first things were comparatively orderly and peaceful. The amiable and gentle King was by no means unpopular and even consented to wear the tricolor cockade, the emblem of the Revolution. The States-General, now called the National Assembly, continued to meet and, under the wise and moderate influence of Count Mirabeau, passed a number of reforms which gave the French people all they needed from the Revolution. Mob violence still broke out occasionally, but generally this was checked by the new National Guard under General Lafayette. A month after the storming of the Bastille the National Assembly abolished all feudal rights and privileges belonging to the nobility. Soon afterwards they issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This stated among other things that all men are by nature equal and that the will of the people is supreme. If only the French Revolution had stopped there it would have achieved much, but unfortunately evil times were at hand.
In October 1789 the Paris mob broke loose again. Stirred up by hunger and by malicious rumors, a host of women marched on Versailles. Before Lafayette could stop them they had broken in, and could only be calmed down by a promise that the King and Queen would accompany them back to Paris, which they did, sneeringly labelled 'The baker and the baker's wife'.
In the following years the National Assembly was busy preparing the new Constitution . It was not until the summer of 1791 that things started to go seriously wrong. In the first place, the great Mirabeau died, and then the Emperor of Austria, the brother of Marie Antoinette, announced his intention of interfering in French affairs.
The reign of terror
By the end of 1791 power was slipping away from the moderates into the hands of the extreme revolutionaries. Of these the most important was a political group known as the Jacobins. The National Assembly was dissolved and the Legislative Assembly took its place. In April 1792 war was declared on Austria. The position of the King and his Austrian wife became very difficult, and more and more people suspected him of intriguing with France's enemies. Then Louis interfered with the measures proposed by the Assembly, and in August an infuriated mob broke into the Tuileries and arrested him and his family. In September 1792 the crown was abolished and a Republic declared. In this hysterical atmosphere appalling massacres of Reign of Terror began.
The Jacobins pressed for the King's execution. Despite the efforts of the more moderate party, the Girondins, on January 21, 1793 Louis was executed by the guillotine.
The Committee of Public Safety, dominated by Jacobins, was set up, and in June they arrested the leaders of the Girondins and guillotined them. The leaders of the Jacobins were a raucous lawyer called Danton, Robespierre, who was learned, precise, and pitiless, and Marat, who was a bloodthirsty and ruthless man; to him the answer to all problems seemed to be more and more bloodshed.
During this time many hundreds of people were arrested, imprisoned, and executed, often with no form of trial and on only slight suspicion of Royalist sympathy. In the midst of all this bloodshed and horror one heroic deed stands out: the murder of the ferocious Marat by a young Norman girl called Charlotte Corday. Like Joan of Arc, many centuries earlier, she felt she had a divine mission which was to save France from the monster.
Soon the Jacobin leaders began to quarrel among themselves. Danton wanted to call a halt to the slaughter that was going on in Paris; Robespierre wanted it to continue. The result was that Danton went to the guillotine, but Robespierre followed him there a few months later. Then at last the fever subsided. The downfall of Robespierre showed that the people were getting tired of bloodshed. Yet another Constitution was prepared, not as democratic as the previous one, in which the main power lay in the hands on five men known as the Directory. This government remained in power for four years, when it was overthrown by Napoleon.
At last the French revolution came to an end, although the war with the rest of Europe continued on and off until 1815. Finally France was defeated, but this was not the end of the revolutionary ideas. The Revolution was one of the most important events in the history of France, and its effects are felt even today.
The King tries to escape
In 1791 Louis was persuaded to try and escape from France into Austria. Careful plans were made: false passports were obtained, a route was chosen, and post-horses were arranged at different points. It was all kept very secret, and in the middle of the night Louis and his family made their get-away. However, on the road there were hitches and delays, and soon the alarm was raised. Then Louis was recognized while looking out of the window, and at Varennes his coach was halted. He was then compelled to return to Paris amid the jeers and boos of the people. It is said that within 24 hours Marie Antoinette's hair had turned completely white. After years of suffering the people of Paris rose in revolt and on July 14, 1789 the great fortress prison of the Bastille was utterly destroyed.