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 with suicidal bravery. Their rage was directed at aristocratic enemies they suspected were ready to destroy the city to save their privilege.
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.
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. It was a complete overthrowing of an old order, following a failed attempt to prop up an absolute monarchy.
The French Revolution: key questions
When did the French Revolution begin?
The French Revolution is sometimes called the Revolution of 1789, however its roots stretched back further than this. It describes a revolutionary movement that took place in France between 1787 and 1799
What is Bastille Day?
Bastille Day takes place on 14 July each year in France and marks the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, an event that helped create the idea of ‘revolution’ as we know it today
What triggered the French Revolution?
The answer is complex, writes historian Julian Swann for BBC History Magazine. “Social explanations highlight the importance of conflict between aristocrats and bourgeois, peasants and landlords, or employers and workers.
“Political interpretations point to the consequences of miscalculations by the king or his ministers; while those inspired by the cultural turn seek to identify the subtle linguistic shifts in intellectual and ideological debate that helped to sap the foundations of absolute monarchy.” Read more here
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.
Listen: Stephen Clarke argues that our views of the events of 1789 and beyond need to be completely revised
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 that 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.
Listen: Stephen Clarke argues that our views of the events of 1789 and beyond need to be completely revised
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.
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.
Listen: John Julius Norwich describes some of the key moments and personalities from French history
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.
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.
David Andress is professor of modern history at the University of Portsmouth. His books include The French Revolution and the People (2004) and The Terror (2005)