Fighting for freedom: the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution

The French Revolution of 1789 ushered in over half a century of civil insurrection in Europe and around the world, culminating in a second great year of revolutions in 1848. David  Andress and Mike  Rapport, who have written books on these respective years, chart the course of the uprisings and explain what the fight was for

A contemporary illustration of the Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789 – an event that helped create the idea of 'revolution' as we know it today. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

David Andress explains how the events of 1789 were an attempt to strip society of the inequalities of privilege, at a time when ‘freedom’ had a very confused meaning


The medieval fortress-prison of the Bastille loomed over eastern Paris. For centuries the enemies and victims of royal power had been carried there in shuttered coaches, and rumours ran of unspeakable tortures in its dungeons. On 14 July 1789 Parisians stormed the fortress, their rage against aristocratic enemies they thought ready to destroy the city to save their privilege driving some to suicidal bravery.

Men leapt over rooftops to smash drawbridge chains, others dismantled cannon and hauled them by hand over barricades. The tiny garrison yielded on the point of being overwhelmed, and at the news, royal troops elsewhere in the city packed up and marched away, their officers unwilling to try their loyalty against the triumphant people.

Denis Dighton's painting shows the defeat of Napoleon's Imperial Guard at Waterloo

The storming of the Bastille was the high-water mark of a wave of insurrection that swept France in the summer of 1789. Events that created the very idea of ‘revolution’ as the modern world was to know it, as a complete overthrowing of an old order, followed a failed attempt to prop up an absolute monarchy.

That monarchy had bankrupted itself, in one of the greatest ironies of this age, paying for a war of liberation halfway around the world. When the French king Louis XVI heeded the enthusiasts for American independence and sent his troops and fleets to fight the British Empire in 1778, he thought he was dealing a death-blow to an age-old foe. In fact, he launched a process that would make Britain an even more dominant global power than it had been before the United States broke free. But he would also create, against his will, a culture of equality and rights with a disputed heritage all the way to the present day.

A battle for the regency

France’s ancient enemy, Britain, was facing its own crisis as 1789 dawned. King George III had fallen into raving mania, and a bitter political battle was under way for the powers of a regency. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, after five years in office as the country’s youngest ever premier, had never shaken off the view of his opponents that his rule was an unconstitutional imposition. Placed in office in 1783 by the king’s favour, his government had faced threats of impeachment before a hard-fought 1784 election had given him a working majority. Now the opposition, led by Charles James Fox, saw the chance to eject Pitt when their royal patron, the Prince of Wales, took on the regency.

In America a transition scarcely less delicate or contested was in train. The years after independence in 1783 were a time of political and fiscal disorder. For two years the much-disputed form of a new constitution for the new nation crept towards fulfilment. ‘Federalists’ and ‘Antifederalists’ clashed vigorously, and occasionally violently, over the powers of central government, and though George Washington was unanimously chosen in January 1789 to be the first president,  many still feared that the new power-structure would subject them to a tyranny as great as the British one they had escaped.

At stake in all of these countries was a tangled web of ideas about the meaning of freedom, its connection to the concept of rights, and the besetting question of whether such terms covered the privileged possessions of a few, or were the natural heritage of all. For the Anglo-American world, freedom and rights had first been seen as the historical consequence of a very particular evolution.

From the medieval days of Magna Carta and the time-honoured maxims of English Common Law, radicals in Britain and its North American colonies drew an inspiration which blended seamlessly with the new philosophies of men such as John Locke in the 1680s, so that rebellious Virginians in 1776 could assert boldly that, “All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Yet as they did so, they also excluded their very many slaves from these same rights. To the west, in the Kentucky territory, and further north in the borderlands of the Ohio, white Americans were to show through the 1780s, and beyond, that the Indian nations of the continent also lacked the mysterious qualities necessary to participate in Locke’s ‘natural’ rights.

Many on the more radical side of British politics, meanwhile, had supported the American quest for freedom, and seen it as part of a larger transatlantic struggle against tyranny. In this tradition, the ousting of the Catholic king, James II, in 1688 was hailed as a victory for liberty, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ on which British freedoms were founded. Celebrating its centenary in November 1788, the speaker at a grand dinner of such radicals expressed a wish for universal freedoms, that, “England and France may no longer continue their ancient hostility against each other; but that France may regain possession of her liberties; and that two nations, so eminently distinguished… may unite together in communicating the advantages of freedom, science and the arts to the most remote regions of the earth.”

Such talk was cheap, however. While George III recovered from his madness in Britain and the United States eased slowly into existence across the Atlantic, in France the clash between the forces of freedom and privilege, rights and subjection, was played out in a dire and epochal confrontation.

Harassed by the need for money to pay off the state’s debts, the French monarchy found itself trapped between incompatible visions of reform. On one side stood institutions that claimed to be time-honoured defenders of liberty against overweening power. French nobles and judges asserted their rights to protect the nation from arbitrary rule, in the name of an unwritten constitutional tradition much like that accepted in Britain. For such men, the route to reform was through a more consistent acknowledgement of ancient rights, a more balanced approach to government – where what was to be ‘balanced’ were the interests of Crown and aristocratic elites.


Radical renegades

On the other side were the advocates of thoroughgoing change. Some, like the comte de Mirabeau, were radical renegades from noble ranks; others, like Emmanuel Sieyès, had risen from humble birth (in his case through the ranks of the church). Though much of the late 1780s had seen such reformers in alliance with the defenders of the unwritten constitution, half a century of the philosophy and subversion of the Enlightenment had pushed the arguments of this grouping towards a dramatic divergence.

Enlightened thinking challenged the long-standing connections between belief in a universe created by God, the authority of religion over public life, and the hierarchical and authoritarian social and political order that such religion defended as ‘natural’. With sciences from physiology to physics on their side, thinkers set out a fresh role for the free individual in society. They wanted a new order – still a monarchy, but one both publicly accountable, and stripped of the buttresses of privilege that kept the talents of the majority from reaching the peaks of public office.

The Crown’s desperate straits had driven it to answer the calls of the massed ranks of its critics for an Estates-General – a national consultative assembly that had not met for almost two centuries. What should have been a panacea provoked a further sharp divide, as the privileged nobility and clergy were granted half the delegates, and possibly two-thirds of the votes. As the opening of the Estates in May 1789 approached, the mood turned apocalyptic.

Sieyès had written at the start of the year that trying to place noble privilege within a new constitution was “like deciding on the appropriate place in the body of a sick man for a malignant tumour… It must be neutralised”. His aristocratic opponents lamented “this general agitation of public insanity” to strip them of their ancient rights, making “the whole universe” seem “in the throes of convulsions”.

This conflict of words was already matched by one of deeds. Harsh weather and poor harvests had left French peasants impoverished and anxious. The political storm over the Estates-General provoked fears of an aristocratic plot to beat the people into submission. By the spring of 1789 tithes and dues owed to clergy and privileged landlords were being refused, and in some cases abbeys and châteaux were invaded, their stocks looted and records destroyed.

Meanwhile, urban populations, dependent on the countryside for food, and always suspicious of peasant motivations, increasingly saw such disruption as part of the aristocratic plot itself – for any trouble threatened the fragile supply-lines that brought grain to the cities. Town-dwellers formed militias, and waited anxiously for news from the men they had sent to the Estates at Versailles.

What played out over the summer months of 1789 was partly a violent confrontation – nowhere clearer than in the storming of the Bastille on 14 July – but also a strange mixture of dread and euphoria, as even many of the feared aristocrats came to be swept up in the idea of change.

On 4 August, in a bid to appease the restless peasantry, the first suggestion was made in the National Assembly (as the Estates-General had rebaptised itself in June) to end the various exactions that privileged lords could claim, by time-honoured right, from farmers’ harvests. The result a few hours later was a commitment to total civic equality, born of a “combat of generosity”, a “bountiful example of magnanimity and disinterestedness”. This spirit was expressed still more vividly later in August, in the voting “for all men and for all countries” of a Declaration of the Rights of Man.

From this euphoric peak, however, the only way was down. Within the year, those whose power was being directly challenged by the transformations of 1789 had coalesced into an overt ‘Counter-revolution’, and the links of this aristocratic grouping to the other powers of Europe fuelled a rising paranoia among revolutionaries, until a war to cleanse France’s frontiers of threat seemed the only way forward.

War was declared on Austria in April 1792, with Prussia entering the conflict shortly afterwards. An army wracked by dissent between ‘patriotic’ troops and ‘aristocratic’ officers (many of whom had already deserted to the counter-revolution) produced a string of military disasters. The conviction among Parisian radicals that royal treason was behind this led them to bring down the monarchy with armed force on 10  August 1792.

Newly-republican French armies rallied to save the country from defeat, but France moved inexorably towards the horrors of civil war and state terror, the revolutionary political class clawing at itself in furious division. Even amid such internal conflict, the spirit of free citizenship and newfound republicanism inspired continued prodigies of military effort. France went to war with Britain, Spain, the Netherlands and the Italian states from early 1793, plunging Europe into a generation of conflict.

Suffocated hopes

The true tragedy of this descent was that it suffocated all the international hopes of 1789. Americans found themselves forced to choose sides, with enmity towards either Britain or France a key component of the vicious factional politics reigning in the United States by the later 1790s.

Britain, where Thomas Paine in his Rights of Man had tried to bring the message of the American and French Revolutions home, saw assaults on freedoms such as habeas corpus and public assembly. The claims of the lower orders for a share of power were assimilated, in the words of one 1794 statute, to “a traitorous and detestable Conspiracy… for introducing the System of Anarchy and Confusion which has so fatally prevailed in France”.

Real revolt broke out in Ireland in 1798, fomented by exaggerated hopes of French intervention and exacerbated by the brutality of an establishment wedded to a view of the Catholic peasantry as little better than beasts. Thirty thousand died in months of savage repression. Napoleon Bonaparte, also in 1798, tried to take the war to Britain in the East, and the chaotic failure of his Egyptian expedition did not prevent him from ascending first to dictatorship the next year, and to an imperial throne in 1804. By then he had already, in 1803, broken a short-lived peace with Britain, and for the following decade was to pursue a relentless policy of expansion.

The unwillingness of the other powers to fully accept Napoleon’s legitimacy was one factor in this, but the emperor’s own determination to have dominance at almost any cost was itself a reason for that intransigent opposition. Together, they made for a spiral of warfare that criss-crossed Europe from Lisbon to Moscow, until the final insane Russia campaign of 1812 turned the tide.

Napoleon was driven back within French borders, abdicating in 1814 before returning the next year for a last hurrah at Waterloo. His final fate, to be held on the island of Saint Helena thousands of miles from Europe, reflects ironically on the power of the individual liberated by the events of 1789. Where the revolutionaries had hoped to create the conditions for the rise of free individuals everywhere, they gave power to one such man, someone so extraordinary he had to end his days like a character in a Greek myth, chained to a rock.

Napoleon’s legacy was to ensure that revolution would always be viewed through the lens of war. Abandoning a universalist rhetoric – and reinstating the colonial slavery his more radical predecessors had abolished in 1794 – the emperor of the French later claimed to have had a vision of a Europe of Nations, where Spaniards, Italians, Germans and Poles could live free of aristocratic tyranny.

Since he actually created an empire that stretched from Hamburg to Genoa, and client-kingdoms for his relations around its edges, there is little reason to take this claim seriously. That he thought it worth making, however, shows how central the new question of nationality would be, as the troubled generations to come wrestled yet again with the question of who was entitled to be free.

1815–1848: The death of a dream

Mike Rapport discusses how the aims of the great 1848 revolutions – to secure constitutional liberty, individual rights, and unity for nations across Europe – were ultimately throttled at birth

Eighteen forty-eight was Europe’s great year of revolution. In the uprisings that swept the continent over half a century after the storming of the Bastille, cities from Paris to Palermo, Budapest to Berlin were littered with barricades, built from paving stones and heaped up with furniture, overturned carriages and even pianos.

Street-fighters – bourgeoisie in their top hats, workers in their smocks, students, militiamen – stood on these defences, bristling with an array of rifles, swords and machine tools, and confronted the forces of the old order. They were supported by women, who loaded weapons, tended the wounded and brought them food, while children carried messages from barricade to barricade. Their efforts – born of hope and despair – brought about the collapse of the conservative order, which had been established after the downfall of Napoleon in 1815.

That these people took to the streets under their national banners – the French and Italian tricolours, the German black-red-gold, the Polish red and white and the Romanian blue-yellow-red – showed that the inspiration behind the revolutions was freedom, but within the framework of the nation-state. It was an inspiration which, by the end of the year in most places, would also contribute to the revolutions’ tragic failure.

For the liberals who led the uprisings and then took power, ‘freedom’ meant civil rights, constitutions and parliaments (sometimes, but not always, democratically-elected), but above all it meant national independence and unity. Liberalism and nationalism stood together in 1848, but that year proved that the exclusive tendencies in the latter could too often fatally undermine the emancipating promises of the former.

An explosive legacy

How and why this European revolution came about in the first place, however, is partly explicable, on the one hand, by the way in which conservative governments after the Napoleonic Wars sought to contain, control and suppress the explosive legacy of the French Revolution and, on the other hand, by how liberals tried to realise their ideas of freedom in the unpromising atmosphere of the postwar order. By 1815, the emancipating promise of the French Revolution had turned almost entirely to ashes in the conflagration that had engulfed Europe.

In the years immediately after the carnage, Europeans had good cause to tremble at the thought of a new continental war. Policy-makers had a further reason: the French Wars of 1792–1815 had been visited on Europe by a revolutionary state which had wielded power of an awe-inspiring magnitude, driven (it seemed) by the revolutionary fervour of its citizens.

Moreover, the ferocity of the Terror of 1793–4, in which the republican regime survived its darkest crisis only by coercing its own citizens with the threat of denunciation, arrest and death, had captured the fearful imaginations of Europeans and would play on their minds for decades to come. For most, concepts such as ‘democracy’, ‘republicanism’ and even ‘the rights of man’ evoked the shadow of the guillotine.

The genteel, mainly aristocratic, diplomats who gathered at the glittering Congress of Vienna in 1815, assembling the representatives of all the European powers to reconstruct a new order from the wreckage of the Napoleonic empire, were largely successful in creating a peaceful international system. There would be plenty of localised conflicts in the 19th century, but (without downplaying the horrors of the Crimean War of 1854–6) there would be nothing on the scale of the Napoleonic cataclysm for another hundred years.

Yet the relative stability in international relations came at a price, for it was based on the assumption that not only a general European war, but also the threat of revolution, should be avoided at almost any cost. For the Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich, this meant that nationalism and liberalism (what he called the ‘mania for constitutions’) had to be suppressed.

It was no accident that Metternich should have been the chief architect of the post-Napoleonic order: from 1821, he was chancellor of the Austrian Empire, which was a polyglot patchwork of some 11 different nationalities. Should these different groups develop their own demands for constitutions and autonomy, then the empire would shatter.

Metternich wanted to maintain the integrity of this vast central European monarchy not only for the sake of his imperial masters, the Habsburg dynasty, but also because he believed that the empire was a European necessity whose role was to keep the potentially warring nationalities of Central and Eastern Europe in check. The entire postwar continent was also to be ordered so as to discourage the emergence of nation-states which might threaten the delicate political balance allegedly struck by the ‘legitimate’ ruling dynasties of Europe.

France saw the Bourbon monarchy restored, albeit with a constitution and a parliament: Louis  XVIII – brother of the guillotined Louis XVI – returned to Paris, his detractors grumbled, “in the allies’ baggage train”. Germany was divided into 39 different states, bound together by a loose, conservative confederation. Italy was also split into nine separate kingdoms and principalities: there was no federal structure and the peninsula was dominated by Austrian power. Long-suffering Poland was partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia.

The French Revolution had, however, not only visited the horrors of political terror, war and military occupation on Europe: it had also trumpeted its promises of political liberty and civil rights for the individual and of freedom and independence for those peoples subjugated by foreign rulers. Napoleon himself, in his mid-Atlantic exile on Saint Helena, began to concoct the legend that his real intentions had been to emancipate all the peoples of Europe.

There were, moreover, plenty of embittered intellectuals, over-worked but low-ranking officials, struggling military officers on half pay and idealistic students, who believed that there were fairer and freer ways to organise the postwar order than the new conservative system. These people – educated, articulate, but denied a political voice – offered a receptive ear to the arguments of liberals.

The strength of unity

In this era, liberalism and nationalism went hand-in-glove, since most liberals believed that their ideals of individual liberty would find their fullest expression within free nation-states. Liberation from foreign rule and national unification were seen as essential conditions to secure the individual rights and dignity of citizens. So when one of the greatest 19th‑century visionaries of national liberation and international brotherhood, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, established his organisation Young Italy in 1831, he declared that its aims were both “republican and unitarian”, because republican government would ensure freedom for all, while unity was necessary since “without unity there is no true nation; because, without unity there is no real strength”.

Mazzini grew out of the same soil from which, in the first decade after the Napoleonic Wars, some of the disaffected and the idealistic had sprung to try to overthrow the conservative order through conspiracy and insurrection. The two generations after Waterloo experienced a tortuous and often subterranean struggle between, on the one hand, liberal opposition in the shape of revolutionary secret societies, attempts at military coups and popular uprisings, radical journalism, intellectual and cultural criticism, mass petitions, demonstrations and (where they existed) electoral politics, and, on the other hand, government repression in the form of censorship, arrests, surveillance and military intervention.

Europe in the 1820s saw liberal uprisings in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Russia, none of them successful. More encouraging was the wave of revolutions which swept the continent in the 1830s, with liberals emerging victorious in much of Western Europe, including France (where the Bourbon Charles X was toppled and replaced by the more liberal Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans), some German states, Belgium, Portugal and (eventually) Spain. In Poland and central Italy, however, the revolutionary outbreaks were ruthlessly crushed and, after its initial flourish, liberal activity in Germany was repressed. The conservative order had buckled, but it did not collapse.

It was a different story in the greatest revolutionary maelstrom between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 (or perhaps even the collapse of Communism in 1989): the revolutions of 1848. The mid-1840s witnessed the worst economic crisis of the 19th century (these were the years of the catastrophic Irish potato famine), which popularised the liberal opposition. Meanwhile, the conservative order seemed to be impotent in the face of the distress as unemployment spiralled upwards and as hunger knotted the stomachs of the poor. At the same time, liberals across Europe pressed their demands for political reform, probing for weaknesses in the conservative edifice.

Despite – or perhaps because of – Metternich’s best efforts to dig in his heels and to yield not an inch to the opposition, the pressure was such that when the collapse came, it was sudden and dramatic. Almost every major European state – and most of the smaller ones – was wracked by insurrectionary violence in that breathtaking year. The first stirrings occurred in Italy at the beginning of the year, but it was the shock waves from the revolution in France which rocked the conservative order to its core. The monarchy was overthrown in France on 24 February and the Second Republic proclaimed.

The news electrified liberal Europeans who now demonstrated, remonstrated and rose up, so that in a matter of weeks Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Milan, Venice, Rome, Naples, Palermo, Kraków and many other places in between had become scenes of mass protests, of barricaded streets and of bitter fighting, at the end of which monarchs were forced to promise constitutions where none had existed before and to sacrifice their unpopular conservative ministers: the most impressive political scalp taken by the liberals was Metternich’s on 13 March.

In the ‘Springtime of Peoples’ which followed, hopeful liberals in Germany and Italy worked towards unification, while Polish and Romanian patriots seized the chance to try to throw off, or lighten, the yoke of foreign rule. The peoples of the Habsburg Empire, including the Czechs, the Hungarians, the northern Italians, the Poles of Galicia, the Romanians of Transylvania and the Serbs and the Croats along the empire’s southern frontier, pushed for greater autonomy or full independence.

For liberals, 1848 represented the greatest opportunity to secure national freedom with constitutional liberties and individual rights. Some permanent breakthroughs were made: France adopted universal male suffrage and has had it – almost uninterrupted – ever since. In many other countries, peasants and workers enjoyed their first taste of politics, voting in elections, joining political clubs and forming trade unions.

Although women were denied formal political rights, they participated in political societies, engaged in journalism and played important roles in supporting the revolutionaries. Serfdom was abolished where it existed in Central and Eastern Europe and slaves were freed in the French colonial empire.

Yet the nascent liberal order was throttled before it had time to develop. The main reason for its failure was the fact that it excluded too many people from the brave new world. As the liberals seized the unprecedented opportunity to realise their visions of national freedom, they did so in the interests only of their own nationality. In Central and Eastern Europe, the territorial claims of different nationalities overlapped, sowing the seeds of immediate and future conflict. Ethnic minorities within the boundaries of the putative liberal states demanded their own national rights, threatening to fracture the new order from the very start.

Consequently, the ‘Springtime of Peoples’ rapidly became a bleak winter of ethnic conflict, sometimes accompanied by the kind of atrocities with which our own age is all too familiar. Moreover, since most liberals were constitutional monarchists who wanted political reform, but denied the need for radical social change, workers and artisans struggling in the economic crisis were open to the seductions of their left-wing critics.

Because of all this, the revolutions never challenged the essential strength of the conservatives: with the exception of France, all the major states were still monarchies, where the armed forces remained under royal control – a fact that was to be essential in the survival of the Habsburg Empire and in the defeat of the liberals in Prussia.

The conservatives fight back

In the summer there were bloody confrontations between moderates and radicals on the streets of Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Frankfurt. Fear of working-class militancy and social ‘anarchy’ drove many middle-class liberals away from their original principles and into the arms of conservatives. In the countryside, after their emancipation the peasants were promised little else from the liberal order and their old habits of deference, particularly to the paternal figure of the monarch, died hard.

All this allowed the conservatives to mobilise the frightened, the disillusioned and the angry, so that they performed respectably in elections. In France, the authoritarian Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the great emperor’s nephew, won the presidency by a landslide. By the end of the year, the monarchs had struck back, usually with armed force, and destroyed the liberal regimes almost everywhere. There was a second wave of revolutions in Germany and Italy in 1849, but these were crushed. The Hungarian liberals also held out, but they collapsed under the hammer-blows of the combined Austrian, Croatian and Russian military.

The failure of the 1848 revolutions was arguably a tragedy for the long-term development of European politics. The ethnic conflicts of that year implanted visceral hatreds which would fester in Eastern and Central Europe deep into the 20th  century. Instead of Italian and German unification taking place through democratic means, they would be to a greater extent imposed by force, on terms which suited the established elites and without the same emphasis on political freedoms and civil rights.

This, some historians argue, would set Italy and Germany on the path towards authoritarianism, with disastrous consequences for Europe in the 20th century.


This article was first published in the June 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine with the headline ‘1789–1815: The world in revolt’