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First Blood in Paris: July 14-17, 1789

Although he had recognized the National Assembly, the king had not done so willingly. Secretly he was preparing to deal with the rebellious deputies in the only way he thought he could—by force. During the first days of July, he gathered his mostly German mercenary regiments from the frontiers to the vicinity of Paris and Versailles. The gathering of these troops did not go unnoticed by the National Assembly. It requested the troops’ removal from the capital, but the king refused. Then, on July 11, Louis dismissed Necker as finance minister.

Louis XVI

For the Parisians, Necker had stood for reform; his dismissal, along with the gathering of the frontier regiments, alerted them that the king was planning to crush the revolution. In the poor sections of the city, mobs formed, and Paris’s electoral college (which had chosen the city’s representatives to the Estates-General) took command of them. Ammunition and arms, including cannon, were seized from the government’s arms depot in the city. The people prepared for the event that would baptize their revolution in blood. In the mid-morning of Tuesday, July 14, a crowd of about a thousand armed men and women gathered outside a fortress on the eastern side of the city. Called the Bastille, the fortress had long been for the Parisians a symbol of absolute monarchy. It had served as a prison for political opponents of the government as well as a depot for arms and ammunition.

At the time of this standoff, the seemingly impregnable Bastille was manned by a very small regiment of 82 invalides (soldiers no longer capable of serving in the regular army), who had been recently reinforced by 32 Swiss grenadiers. Seeing the armed mob in the streets outside the fortress, the Bastille’s governor, Bernard-René de Launay, invited two representatives of the crowd into the fortress for negotiations that stretched on until early afternoon.

As the hours passed, the seething mob began wondering what was taking so long. Then they began to suspect treachery. At last, stung to action by anger and impatience, they pushed into the outer courtyard of the fortress. Gunfire broke out (who started it is unknown), and a violent struggle ensued. Later in the afternoon, deserters from the city’s French Guards and other French troops joined the attackers. At 5:00 p.m., Launay ordered a cease-fire and surrendered the Bastille to the crowd.

Throughout the attack on the Bastille, the Royal Army, encamped on the nearby military parade grounds, the Champs de Mars (Field of Mars), had done nothing to aid Launay; nor did it intervene when the crowd sacked the fortress and seized the unfortunate governor, dragging him to the Hôtel de Ville (Paris’s city hall). There, the defiant Launay was stabbed several times and then beheaded. Fixing his head to a pikestaff, the crowd brandished it through the streets of the city. Besides Launay, the mob killed some officers of the Bastille garrison and lynched two of the invalides. Of the attackers, around 100 had died in the assault on the fortress.


While awaiting a counterattack from the king’s forces, the people of Paris raised barricades of paving stones to block the streets and prepared for resistance. They soon learned, however, that on July 15, the king had again capitulated. He would not crush the uprising but give into its demands. He restored Necker to his old office. He agreed to organize an armed militia, called the National Guard, for the defense of Paris, and place it under the command of Gilbert du Motier, the marquis de Lafayette.

The people of Paris rejoiced at this news, not only because of the militia but also for the choice of Lafayette, who was a hero of the American Revolutionary War. An ardent Liberal, Lafayette was also one of the nobles who had supported the formation of the National Assembly, so he was doubly popular with the Parisians. Better yet, the National Guard would be subject not to the king, but to the commune—the city government the king now granted to Paris; the commune was made up of representatives elected from each of the sections of the city.

Louis XVI’s final humiliation occurred on July 17 when he entered Paris among cheering crowds and donned a hat with a cockade colored red, blue, and white (the tricolor), the colors of the revolution. Red and blue were the colors of Paris, and white was the color of the royal House of Bourbon; thus, the joining of the colors represented the union of the monarchy with the new revolutionary government of France. By wearing the tricolored cockade, the king declared he had accepted the new order of things and that the old regime, the absolute monarchy, was gone for good.

Music from the Left Bank of the Rhine

In the year the French Revolution erupted in Paris, some 270 miles away, in Bonn, a young composer was beginning the musical career that would prove revolutionary in its own way. This was the 18-year old Ludwig van Beethoven, who was to become a devotee of the revolution and of the “rights of man.” The following piece he wrote in 1789 — Two Preludes Through All Twelve Keys, Opus 39. It is performed by pianist Jeno Jando.

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