Liberty’s Moment: The Storming of the Bastille in the Light of Primary Sources

Storming of The Bastille, Jean-Pierre Houël, BnF

I prepared this assignment for HIST 48O (France: 1789) course at Boğaziçi University in 2021. I owe a great deal to Prof. Peter R. Campbell for his valuable criticisms and comments. All deficiencies and problems completely belong to me. 


The Storming of the Bastille is one of the turning points in the French Revolution and European history, significantly contributing to a new set of sociopolitical and cultural transformations afterward. The dismissal of Necker, finance minister, brought about an insurrection in Paris on 12 July amid soaring prices and rumors of foreign invasion, and the closing of the National Assembly. Parisian rioters, chiefly small tradesmen, and shopkeepers looked for arms to withstand royal forces, assaulting the Fortress of the Bastille that was a crucial symbol of royal oppression. Despite royal resistance led by Launay, insurgents captured the fortress and executed him on 14 July. Although they merely found seven prisoners in the castle, their uprising signified a permanent success. Forced by the crowd, Louis XVI accepted their demands on 17 July. This occasion marked an unprecedented chain of consequences. Primary sources exhibit that its significance lies in terminating the Ancien Regime with its despotic institutions, influencing various Western countries about France as a milestone, safeguarding the National Assembly and its following measures, and demonstrating the strength of ordinary people in demolishing royal institutions that culminated during the Great Fear.

The Downfall of the Ancien Regime

Initially, the Storming of the Bastille brought about the downfall of the Ancien Regime with its outdated institutions. Primarily constructed as a defensive castle, the Bastille embodied the arbitrariness of the regime as a prison. Particularly, the accounts of prisoners like Linguet and Latude contributed to the rise of Anti-Bastille literature. To illustrate, Linguet noted that “the Bastille, like death itself, equalizes all whom it engulfs.”[1] Schama contends that their horrifying accounts formed a vigorous opposition that critics of the regime maintained.[2] Hence, it became the symbol of state power and its capture was crucial to demolish the regime for various people alongside its strategic location with ammunition. Tilly expresses that after its storming “[w]ithin days, the fortress was torn down, stone by stone; within months, the regime was dismantled, privilege by privilege.”[3] Hearing the storming, Louis XVI desperately removed royal troops around Paris and recalled Necker to his former position. He also appointed popular leaders like Bailly mayor of Paris and Lafayette the commander of the National Guard on 17 July. Bailly presented him with the tricolor cockade as the symbol of the insurgent crowd. Doyle maintains that his acceptance “marked the end of royal authority. The monarch recognized that he no longer had the power to enforce his will.”[4]Furthermore, several members of the royal family fled Paris and their emigration evaporated the regime.[5] Accordingly, Godechot highlights that the uniqueness of 14 July lay in “the capitulation of the King before the insurgent population and… the fall of the ancient feudal regime which had prevailed in France for a thousand years”.[6] As a leading newspaper, Les Révolutions de Paris regarded the storming as a signal and illustrious victory.[7] Arthur Young applauded in Strasbourg on 20 July that “the taking of the Bastille in a word, is the absolute overthrow of the old government… it will be a great spectacle.”[8] Even Louis XVI admitted that “I missed my opportunity; that was on 14 July…and I’ve never found it again.”[9] Accordingly, the National Assembly swiftly erased the remaining ruins of the regime, completing the collapse of its institutions in August 1789. Repealing unpaid labor and serfdom, it abolished the seigneurial system including its courts, services, dues, tithes, and privileges on 4 August.[10] Price and Lefebvre called this exceptional step the death certificate of the old order.[11]

A drawing of the Bastille before its storming

The Perception of the Bastille in America and Europe

The storming also excited leading European countries with its uniqueness. The reports of ambassadors reflect their observation that a landmark revolution occurred, recollecting why the Bastille is significant. Jefferson, the American ambassador, realized that the acceptance of the National Assembly revealed Bastille’s significance since historically “no sovereign ever made (such a decision), and no people ever received”.[12] His successor, Morris, sent a report that detailed the storming to Washington, claiming that the Bastille ended the Revolution since it subdued royal authority.[13] For Washington, the storming had “so wonderful a nature that the mind can hardly recognize the fact… that nation will be the most powerful and happy in Europe.”[14] It can be claimed from their correspondence that the Bastille inspired significant enthusiasm as a surprising incident. Likewise, European ambassadors expressed similar views. The Duke of Dorset, the British ambassador, noted that the greatest revolution in history occurred with a few casualties on 16 July. This is because the Bastille molded France into “a free country; the king a very limited monarch and the nobility as reduced to a level with the rest.”[15] An English doctor was along similar lines to the ambassador. He viewed it as the most extraordinary social revolution, but more importantly, it would inspire numerous people outside France.[16] Other ambassadors similarly interpreted the Bastille. While the Austrian ambassador emphasized how unbelievable the situation was, the Russian ambassador spotlighted how royal power disappeared.[17] Rude underlines that even the Russians celebrated the storming after reading newspapers in Saint Petersburg[18]. This is because, in Doyle’s view, the unstable Ancien regime had amused observers, but the Bastille created a shock wave that suddenly spread via pamphlets and newspapers.[19] However, Godechot disputes that their numbers were scarce and increased after the capture but their aim was not documentation but propaganda.[20] Nonetheless, they inspired foreigners outside France, informing them that despotism was dead with liberty and justice.[21] To exemplify, Les Revolutions de Paris predicted that “the events of this glorious day will astonish our enemies, and foretell the triumph of justice and liberty”.[22] The circulation of such panegyric and romantic accounts fascinated European readers. A German lady wrote that “I do not know where to turn for the papers that contain such splendid news that I am hot from reading.”[23] People discussed the significance of the Bastille in cafés, bookshops, salons, and other public places. Swedish poet Kellgren confessed in his paper that he childishly wept after reading the incident because despotism eventually failed.[24]

Safeguarding the National Assembly

The Storming of the Bastille preserved the National Assembly against royal forces, making it a powerhouse in subsequent months of the Revolution. Many insurgents viewed the Assembly as the embodiment of the nation; hence, its fragile situation moved them to guard it against royal forces. The Assembly also represented liberty and popular sovereignty and the Subjugation of the Bastille signified the victory of these concepts in the eyes of the Parisian crowd.[25] Eye-witness accounts mirror the significance of these concepts. Being the first person to climb to the Bastille, J. B. Humbert told that when he emerged after the storming, “citizens who fought for liberty have already recognized me”.[26] Louis Deflue, one of the defenders, mentioned that the representative of the crowd warned Launey that “it was useless…and wrong to make war on the nation.”[27] Louis XVI acknowledged this popular power by visiting the National Assembly on 15 July. Les Revolutions claimed this was the initial victory of “holy and august liberty”.[28]Rude maintains that the royal recognition marked a decisive step, peaking with his visit to Paris on 17 July.[29] Bailly, Mayor of Paris, clarified in his memoirs that subjugating Bastille perpetuated the Assembly. Its fall was an unforgettable day to stamp an eternal alliance between Frenchmen and Louis XVI via the Assembly.[30] He told the king that “Your Majesty has summoned to your side the representatives of the nation…to lay the foundations of liberty.”[31]Bailly portrayed him as the father of his united family called the National Assembly. Therefore, neither he nor the people could ever forget July 14 as the finest day in France.[32] Young underlined that any legislator in history did not possess this magical opportunity as the Assembly had after July 14.[33] This is because “the kingdom absolutely in the hands of the assembly, they have the power to make a new constitution they think proper… and it now will remain to see what sort of architects they are at rebuilding an edifice.”[34] Saxonian and Portuguese ambassadors predicted that this extraordinary moment would cause a regime change on July 19.[35] The Assembly abolished the feudal regime as mentioned above and adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen on August 26. It proclaimed basic liberties for all men from public offices to daily life, ensuring that they have freedom of speech and thought based on equality.[36] That is, the Assembly formed a new regime with its decisions thanks to its preservation by the insurgent people before the Bastille.

The Taking of the Bastille, H. Jannin, Musée de la Révolution française.

Demolishing Royal Institutions

The Storming of the Bastille exhibited the strength of ordinary people by devastating royal institutions. Although there were minor insurrections by local people in provinces before the Bastille, the mobilization of the Parisians represented the decisive victory of the Third Estate.[37] The people who stormed the Bastille were not a single unified working class as Rude stressed.[38] Primary sources would present an idea of who “the people” were in this uprising. Calling survived people “the conquerors” (Les vainqueurs), there were official lists prepared for them after the event. One list elaborates that among 662 people there were just 76 soldiers. The majority of them were artisans, shopkeepers, and tradesmen from various trades.[39] Convincing that their revolt protected the Third Estate, people in arms began asserting their political agency as guardians of freedom.[40] Pita, an elector and eyewitness of the Bastille, expressed that only “mingled joy and fury of the crowd” provided this “glorious popular triumph”.[41] In the Austrian ambassador’s view, “the city of Paris has assumed the role of a King…it can…send an army of 40 or 50.000 citizens to surround the Assembly and dictate the laws to it.”[42] The formation of a citizen militia, the National Guard, displayed this strength. Bailly noted that the people as conquerors won back Louis XVI who accepted their cockade and conditions.[43] Newspaper and pamphlets increasingly underlined their political role. Les Révolutions de Paris applauded that “Frenchmen, you are destroying your tyrants! Your hatred is shocking! … But you will be free at last…my fellow citizens”.[44] Tilly contends that the Bastille integrated people into collective actions.[45] Contrasting news about the Bastille puzzled and disturbed peasants who assumed that an aristocratic plot was underway. Some of them even rumored that the storming failed. Young explained that “for what the country knows to the contrary, their deputies are in the Bastille, instead of the Bastille being razed…From Strasbourg hither, I have not been able to see a newspaper.”[46] As such conspiracy news repeated in public spaces within rural areas, peasants decided to collectively counter aristocracy on July 20.[47] This generated the Great Fear in which rural insurrections occurred alongside the breakdown of the central government. Popular militias inspired by the National Guard removed aristocrats from public offices, demolishing their chateaux and documents in several centers from Strasbourg[48] to Troyes.[49] Young depicted a paranoid and hysterical atmosphere besides being full of anxieties under village militias. To illustrate, at night in Strasbourg, “the Parisian spirit of commotion spreads quickly…I have been witnessed to a scene…through the square of the hotel de ville, the mob were breaking the windows with stones.”[50] These self-arming militias celebrated that they were installing a new regime by plundering the seigneurial system.[51] Narrating revolts in Lyon, Bretagne, and Bourgogne, Young claimed that like the Bastille, the price of bread brought about all kinds of violence pervaded everywhere.[52] As an outcome, “chateaus have been burnt…the seigneurs hunted down like wild beasts, their wives and daughters ravished, their papers and titles burnt, and all their property destroyed.”[53]


On the whole, the Taking of the Bastille implied far-reaching outcomes on local, national, and global scales. Obliterating the Ancien Regime with preserving the Revolution in its formative time, staggering several Western powers as an unparalleled incident, and displaying the power of ordinary people in shaping the Revolution made this occasion significant as primary sources demonstrate. Even though many accounts gave weight to armed confrontations and the attitude of Launey over the larger prominence of storming Bastille, they can offer a range of undeniably noteworthy points. France has celebrated this momentous event as Bastille Day every year since 1790. As the Duke de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt warned Louis XVI, this was not a revolt but a revolution.[54]




Browning, Oscar (ed). Despatches from Paris (1784-1790): Volume II (1788-1790). London: Offices of the Society. 1910.

Doyle, William. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2001.

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003.

Godechot, Jacques Leon. The Taking of The Bastille, July 14th, 1789. Scribner, 1970.

Humbert, Jean-Baptiste. Journée de Jean-Baptiste Humbert. Paris., 1789.

Kishlansky, Mark A., Geary, Patrick J., and O’Brien Patricia. Civilization in the West. Addison-Wesley Longman. 2005.

Linguet, S-Nicholas Henri. Memoirs of the Bastille. Edinburgh, 1884.

McPhee, Peter. The French Revolution (1789-1799). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2002.

Morris, Anne Carry. The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris: Volume I. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888.

Price, Roger. France: A Short History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005

Rude, George. London and Paris in the Eighteenth Century. Viking Compass Books, 1970.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Random House, 1989.

Tournon, Antoine (ed.), Les Révolutions de Paris, Number 1, Paris,, July 17th, 1789.

Young, Arthur. Travels in France. Bohn’s Popular Library, 1913.

Washington, George. “From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris” in The Papers of George Washington, National Archives., October 13rd, 1789.


[1] S-Nicholas Henri Linguet, Memoirs of the Bastille (Edinburgh: 1884), 16.

[2] Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Random House, 1989), 391.

[3] Charles Tilly, “Introduction” in The Taking of The Bastille, July 14th, 1789, by Jacques-Leon Godechot (Scribner, 1970), 5.

[4] William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003), 110.

[5] Roger Price, France: A Short History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 122.

[6] Jacques-Leon Godechot, The Taking of The Bastille, July 14th, 1789. (Scribner, 1970), XXXI.

[7] Antoine Tournon (ed.), Les Révolutions de Paris, no 1, (Paris, July 17th, 1789),

[8] Arthur Young, “July 20th, 1789” in Travels in France, (Bohn’s Popular Library, 1913), 162.

[9] Godechot, The Taking, 257.

[10] Peter McPhee, The French Revolution (1789-1799), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 58.

[11] Price, A Short History, 122.

[12] Godechot, 211.

[13] Anne Carry Morris (ed), The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris: Volume I. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888), 111-130.

[14] George Washington, “From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris” in The Papers of George Washington, (National Archives, October 13, 1789)

[15] Oscar Browning (ed). Despatches from Paris (1784-1790): Volume II (1788-1790), (London: Offices of the Society. 1910), 243.

[16] Godechot, 262.

[17] Ibid, 262.

[18] George Rude, London and Paris in the Eighteenth Century, (Viking Compass Books, 1970), 95.

[19] Doyle, 160.

[20] Godechot, 212-213.

[21] Tilly, XIII.

[22] Antoine Tournon (ed.), Les Révolutions de Paris, no 1, (Paris, July 17th, 1789),

[23] Doyle, 160.

[24] Doyle, 160.

[25] Tilly, XII.

[26] Jean-Baptiste Humbert, Journée de Jean-Baptiste Humbert, (Paris: 1789),,

[27] Jacques-Leon Godechot, “Memoirs of Bailly: Extracts from the Collection of memoirs relating to the French Revolution” in the Taking, 294.

[28] Tournon (ed.), Les Révolutions de Paris,

[29] Rude, 95.

[30] Godechot, “Memoirs of Bailly”, 329.

[31] Ibid, 329.

[32] Lefebvre, 117, 142.

[33] Young, 166.

[34] Ibid, 162, 167.

[35] Godechot, 329.

[36] William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2001), 42.

[37] McPhee, 55.

[38] Rude, 884.

[39] McPhee, 54.

[40] Mark A. Kishlansky and others. Civilization in the West, (Addison-Wesley Longman, 2005), 614.

[41] Godechot, 318.

[42] Godechot, 262.

[43] Godcehot, “Bailly”, 330.

[44] Antoine Tournon (ed.), Les Révolutions de Paris, no 1, (Paris, July 17th, 1789),

[45] Tilly, XI.

[46] Young, 170.

[47] Kishlansky, Civilization, 615.

[48] Doyle, 113.

[49] McPhee, 56. Schama 429-433. Price, 121

[50] Young, 170.

[51] Schama, 429, 433.

[52] Young, “July 21th, 1789”, 164

[53] Young, 169.

[54] Doyle, 111.

One comment

  1. Funda Kotan

    It is interesting that there were only 7 prisoners in the Bastille.
    Well, what do they say about the misinformation in Cemal Süreyya’s poem, there is nothing in that day’s hunt.

    Cemal Süreya’s Poem “December 18”

    In that hall on December 18, 1985
    How could one predict the future?
    You, the archaeology, the destiny sciences,
    Let the years pass, like years.

    Is it okay not to remember Louis the Sixteenth
    On the evening of July 14, 1789, Louis,
    Didn’t he write in his notebook like this:
    “Nothing noteworthy today.”

    I found a short poem called “Prophecy”
    If only for that alone I loved you.

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