Jean Jaurès, History of the French Revolution. 1901

July 14, 1789

The Revolution was in the making in many realms for decades. “For half a century the crown had been ceaselessly threatened by the state of its finances, its budget being almost constantly in a deficit.” The country’s “financial ills were too profound, too chronic to be cured without touching the tax privileges of the clergy and the clergy.”

Along with the financial woes that were shaking the rulers of the nation, Jaurès speaks of two “revolutionary forces that gripped minds.” “On one hand the French nation had reached intellectual maturity, and on the other the French bourgeoisie had reached social maturity. French thought had become conscious of its grandeur and it wanted to apply its methods of analysis and deduction to all aspects of reality.” It was this latter element that was key, for “all the generous philosophy of the eighteenth century would have been vain if there hadn’t been a new social class interested in a great change and capable of producing it. This social class was the bourgeoisie...The growth of the bourgeoisie was such that in the industrial regions, as in the business centers, even if Paris...would have poorly understood or assisted the movement, the Revolution would have broken out. But Paris was also ready to become the capital of the bourgeois revolution and the center of the great movement. It can even be said that it was the Revolution that manifested and consecrated the definitive unity of Paris and France.”

In the midst of this ferment, the Estates General were convoked, bringing together the representatives of the three orders, the clergy, the nobility, and the Third Estate, meeting on May 4, 1789 for the first time since 1614.

In preparation for this great event, throughout France Cahiers de Doléance were written, by individuals, by towns, and by professional and craft bodies laying out their grievances and the needs that had to be met. The Cahiers of the Third Estate demanded that things must be changed, that “the law must be the expression of the general will, that there is no law unless the Nation decides on it, and that the Nation must make its will known by elected assemblies.” But they don’t call for a complete overturning of affairs: “No cahier says that royal power is suspended until it’s been sanctioned by the nation.” Indeed, “the cahiers recognize that monarchical power, hereditary from male to male, must be preserved.”

But in these Cahiers is a central demand: “The vote at the Estates General must be by head and not order...this is the key to the Revolution.” “Voting by orders the clergy and the nobility would have had two votes and the Third Estate only one... [W]ith voting by head the deputies of the Third Estate were sure not only of balancing the deputies of the clergy and the nobility, but thanks to their cohesion and the divisions within the other orders they would be able to push the majority in the direction of the Revolution.”

When the Estates finally met the battle began, as the Third Estate stood firm for the vote by head, opposed by the other orders. It was in the course of this fight that the Third Estate took its Tennis Court Oath on June 20,1789 to remain in session “until the constitution of the kingdom is established and consolidated upon a solid foundation.” The king, though, was enraged by all this and sought to establish control by force. The crisis was about to reach its height.

“The great city prepared for resistance,” most particularly the bourgeoisie. “What is admirable about the revolutionary bourgeoisie of Paris, what clearly demonstrates the historical legitimacy of its advent as a class, is its absolute confidence in itself. It’s not afraid to be caught between the revolts of the poor and the king’s coup d'état.”

“On the morning of July 14 the entire people of Paris, bourgeois, artisans, proletarians, prepared for combat...”

For several days the great city had been preparing itself for resistance. Mirabeau, in demanding the establishment of bourgeois Guard on July 8 at the Assembly, was the voice of the revolutionary bourgeoisie of Paris. The Assembly adjourned, but not Paris, and its initiative would save the Revolution. We know that the elections took place by district: the sixty districts had designated 407 second-degree electors who named the deputies. But after the elections the primary district assemblies hadn’t been dissolved. They continued to meet and the events of the Revolution resonated and had repercussions in these many vibrant centers. The revolutionary echo provided by the districts enabled communication between the Assembly in Versailles and Paris.

The assembly of second degree electors had continued to meet; even after May 10, even after the cloture of electoral activities, the 407 [electors of the Third Estate] had decided to meet in order to maintain relations with their elected representatives and to keep an eye on events. After June 25, after the royal session, they assembled on rue Dauphine at the Museum of Paris, and on June 28 they moved to the great hall of the Hôtel-de-Ville. And so, before there was even a municipal law, a Parisian city government was established through the spontaneous revolutionary force of Paris, functioning alongside the former government of the city. Bourgeois and popular action, spread across Paris by the many district assemblies, was at the same time concentrated in the Hôtel de Ville by the general assembly of electors. A few priests and nobles had joined the 407 electors of the Third Estate.

On June 30 the Assembly of Electors had to deal with the affair of the Abbaye[1], and on July 6 it sent a deputation to the National Assembly that gave an account of its actions during those grave events:

The ferment was great at the Palais Royal; it took on the same character among the more than 2,000 citizens who witnessed our deliberations. The night advanced, the people became agitated, and we decided on a decree that, thanks to its just ideas, calmed matters. We declared in it that it was not permitted to doubt the justice of the sovereign, that as soon as the prisoners were returned twenty-four electors would go to Versailles to request...The night had not yet ended and the prisoners had already been returned to the Abbaye. The crowds had left the Palais Royal and calm rules in Paris.

The president answered with congratulations and the Assembly of Electors, its prestige increased by this popular investiture, took on a larger role and grew more courageous.

On July 10, at the Hôtel de Ville, Carra[2] proposed to the electors that they “constitute themselves as the real and active assembly of the Communes of Paris” and that this assembly assume the rights inherent in this, notably the direct and immediate election of the officers of the Commune, the regulating of the wages of municipal magistrates, and the guarding and defense of the city, of its rights and its properties. But the Assembly of Electors felt that the most urgent need was the organization of bourgeois Guards. It postponed Carra’s proposal and on the July 11 decided that it would call for the immediate establishment of a Parisian armed force.

It was on the afternoon of Sunday, July 12 that Paris learned of Necker’s removal from office, causing an outcry. Paris felt that a coup d'état was being carried out against it, and Necker’s bust, draped in crepe, was carried around the streets. The German regiments of Reinach and Esterhazy were massed on the place Louis XV. The crowd threw stones at them, and the Germans fired in response. Colonel Lambesc entered the Tuileries Gardens with his dragoons and in the ensuing panic an old man was knocked down and trampled by the horses. That evening the people went to the theaters and the Opera and demanded that all performances be suspended as a declaration of national mourning. According to the Venetian ambassador, orders were given for houses to put lights in their windows in order to prevent any troop maneuvers or acts of brigandage, and it was amidst this tumult and illumination that Paris awaited the battles of the morrow. At that same moment the hated toll-gates of the tax farmers were burned.

The people felt that for resistance to be effective it had to be organized. They had two goals: they wanted the bourgeois militias to immediately become a legal institution and they wanted the Assembly of Electors to take the defense of Paris seriously in hand. On July 13 one of the electors, Doctor Guillotin, deputy of Paris, was sent to the Assembly to obtain a decree creating the bourgeois guard of Paris. The revolutionary bourgeoisie of Paris obviously felt it would be stronger in the face of foreign mercenaries if it was the organ of the Nation and the law.

The National Assembly, awakened from its torpor of July 11, raised itself to Paris’s height. The prudent and meticulous Mounier[3], applying against this violated legality the same noble pride as he had in the fight in the Dauphinois, protested against the dismissal of the patriotic minister and cried out: “Never forget that we love the monarchy because of France, and not France because of the monarchy.”

Guillotin’s motion inviting the Assembly to assist in the formation of a Parisian bourgeois guard momentarily encountered resistance. Several members of the Assembly were hesitant to arm Paris, as if Paris, in these tragic hours, was not the revolution itself. But Le Chapelier’s strong words swept aside the final reservations:

You must first deliberate concerning the enemy and foreign troops besieging a good and faithful people. Blood is flowing, property is not safe, and the scandal of the rioting Germans is at its height. Only the bourgeois guard can remedy this situation. Experience has taught us that it is the people who must guard the people.

Guillotin, upon his return to Paris, was able to tell the revolutionary bourgeoisie that the Assembly was being organizied with the consent of the Nation. At the same time the districts forced the assembly of electors to form a permanent committee that was a combination of the legal municipality and the new revolutionary municipal government. It consisted of eight members then in place in the city bureau and fourteen members designated by the electors. This committee’s mandate was to repel the counter-revolutionary invasion of the German hordes in the pay of the king.

What is admirable about the revolutionary bourgeoisie of Paris at that moment; what demonstrates the historical legitimacy of its advent as a class, is its absolute confidence in itself. It didn’t fear being caught between the revolts of the poor and the king’s coup d'état. A few timid souls vainly pointed out to it the sordid crowd of 9,000 workers in the charity workshops. It was not in the least afraid that this abscess of poverty would burst over it during the revolutionary turmoil. It wasn’t afraid to distribute weapons: it knew it was strong enough to supervise their use. It cast aside and disarmed all those who, having no property, provided no guarantee for property, and on July 14 Bancal des Issarts[4] announced to the National Assembly that the bourgeois militia had disarmed many individuals. In the heart of the revolutionary storm it gave its militia a bourgeois character and knew that the proletarians who were dragged along in its wake would not complain – they would throw stones at the counter-revolution if they were unable to fire on it. The ambassador of Venice noted how quickly and decisively the Parisian bourgeoisie was able to organize both revolutionary action and bourgeois order.

On the morning of July 14 all of Paris, bourgeois, artisans, and proletarians, prepared for combat. A detachment of dragoons had crossed the faubourg Saint-Antoine and approached the walls of the Bastille. The people had concluded that the Bastille was going to become the center of a great military gathering, the base of operations of a portion of the troops sent against Paris, and that Paris was to be crushed between these troops and those massed on the Champs Elysées. It was this tactical necessity that turned the efforts of the people against the Bastille. The sad, somber castle where so many state prisoners, both commoners and nobles, had suffered, and which, in cutting across the lively faubourg Saint Antoine, seemed to cut off life and joy, was odious to Paris, to all of Paris. Mercier wanted the new roads that were being planned to finally sweep away the hated prison. And in their Cahiers [des Doléances] the noble citizens of Paris decided that “His Majesty will be requested to order the demolition of the Bastille.” There was no order, no social class that didn’t have members deep in its dark dungeons. If the Third Estate and the nobility didn’t view the word “liberty” in the same way, at least bourgeois and nobles shared a common hatred for this monument of ministerial despotism. And the people’s attack on the Bastille was a revolutionary stroke of genius, for even the nobility of the great city couldn’t resist the movement without odiously putting the lieto what it had said and what it had claimed to oppose just yesterday. And so the court was isolated in its coup d'état, and it wasn’t only the revolution that rose up against the foreign regiments that surrounded the revolution, it was all of Paris.

More than anything, they needed arms. Between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. a large crowd went to the Invalides, where there was an enormous storehouse of rifles, from which they took 28,000 rifles and five cannons. The Bastille could now be forced. The permanent committee of electors, gathered at the Hôtel de Ville, tried to prevent a confrontation. And then, ceding to the irresistible passion of the people, they tried to obtain the capitulation of the fortress by peaceful means. But on the second attempt the negotiators were confronted with gunfire. Was there a misunderstanding? Treason? Governor de Launay would soon pay with his head for this violation of the rules of war. Led by a group of heroes who crossed the moat and cut the chains of the drawbridge, the crowd entered the citadel. Hesitant and divided, the soldiers surrendered. The French guardsmen played a decisive role in the assault. It is difficult to draw up an authentic list of the victors of the Bastille. By the following day countless claims were made. The newspaper Les Révolutions de Paris gave a short list of those who particularly distinguished themselves:

Sieur Arné, grenadier of the French guards, Ressuvelles Company, a native of Dôle in the Franche-Comté. Twenty-six years old, who was the first to seize the governor, fought everywhere with courage, received several light wounds, and was decorated at the Hôtel de Ville with the civic crown and the Cross of Saint-Louis worn by Sieur de Launay.

Sieur Hulin, director of the laundry of the Queen at La Briche, who had called on the grenadiers of Ressuvelles and the fusiliers of Lubersac to go to the Bastille with three cannons and two others that were soon brought there. This Sieur Hulin was one of the leaders of the action. He exposed himself to danger wherever the need demanded it. He was one of the first to leap on the drawbridge and to enter the Bastille. He was also one of those who took the governor to the Hôtel de Ville.

Sieur Élie, officer of the Queen’s infantry regiment, who intrepidly ran under the enemy’s fire to unload carts of manure and set fire to them. This clever ruse marvelously served us. It was also Sieur Élie who received the capitulation and was the first to leap onto the bridge to force the opening of the Bastille, and accompanied by Sieur Tremplement, took the perfidious governor to the Grève.

Sieur Maillard, junior, who carried the flag and placed it in other hands for a moment in order to leap on a plank laid across the moat to receive the capitulation.

Louis Sébastien Cunivier, twelve years old, son of a gardener from Chantilly, was the fifth person to enter the fortress. He ran to the top of the Bazinière tower where the flag was, grabbed it and boldly paraded it around the platform.

Sieur Humbert, living on the rue de Hurepoix, who received a dangerous wound.

Sieur Turpin, fusilier of the company of La Blache, Popincourt barracks, commanded the citizens who were the first ones killed between the two bridges. He also received a bullet in his right hand and another in the shoulder.

Sieur Guinaut received two slight wounds and brought the governor’s silverware to the Hôtel de Ville.

Sieur de la Reynie, a young litterateur, conducted himself with courage.

The assembly of representatives of the Commune, having opened an investigation, stated at its August 13 session, “That Messrs. Hulin, Élie, Maillard, Richard du Pin, Humbert, Legry, Ducostel, Georgette, and Marc distinguished themselves in the attack on and conquest of the Bastille,” and decreed that it would be recommended to the districts that “they be invited to employ them in a manner worthy of their courage and patriotism, without consideration as to the district they belong to: citizens who have so effectively contributed to the salvation of the capital should be considered as belonging to all districts.” Naturally the assembly recommended them for employment as officers in the new National Guard.

As we can see, it was professional soldiers, officers such as Élie, modest industrialists such as Hulin, and petit bourgeois such as Maillard, who led the movement, but the poorest of proletarians did their duty. On that heroic day of the bourgeois revolution workers’ blood was spilled for freedom. Among the hundred fighters killed before the Bastille there were men so poor, so obscure, so humble that for several weeks afterwards their names weren’t known. And Loustalot, in Les Révolutions de Paris, sobbed over this obscurity that concealed so much sublime devotion: more than thirty left their wives and children in such a state of distress that immediate assistance was necessary.

Twenty months later, in a letter addressed to Marat, the woodworkers denounced the selfishness of the big entrepreneurs who wanted to maintian the benefits of the Revolution, but who had hidden on the days of peril. It is certain that the woodworkers played an active role in the assault on the Bastille; skillful at handling an axe, they were impromptu sappers, or the engineer corps of the Revolution.

We don’t find on the list of combatants the rentiers, the capitalists for whom the Revolution, in part, was made. We find middle and petit-bourgeois, law clerks, artisans, and proletarians who delivered the mortal blow to royal despotism on that day. There was no distinction between active and passive citizens under the fortress’s deadly fire. Those who didn’t pay enough in taxes to be electors were allowed to fight and die for the liberty of all.

The Bastille had treacherously fired on the people, and their reprisal fell on the governor, de Launay, and the merchant provost Flesselles, who was unquestionably in cahoots with the court, having tricked the combatants by promising them rifles and then sending them trunks full of linen. De Launay, despite Hulin’s heroic efforts, was killed on the steps of the Hôtel de Ville, and the provost Flesselles had his head smashed by a pistol blow as he was being taken to the Palais-Royal to be judged.

In truth, these executions were in a way a continuation of the battle, and there is no reason to be surprised by the explosion of anger of a crowd that had just escaped danger and which had been threatened by hordes of barbarous soldiers.

Two guilty parties were missing: state counselor Foulon, who had been charged with provisioning the army of the coup d'état, and his son-in-law, Bertier. The day of the seizing of the Bastille a letter from the ministry of war to Bertier had been intercepted and seized by the people. It left no doubt concerning his complicity with the court. A few days later Foulon, who had had rumors of his death spread and had even prepared his own burial, was arrested and decapitated. The immense crowd carried his head on a pike, and Bertier, led behind the grim trophy, was soon killed as well in a cruel, joyful delirium.

It wasn’t only what is called the rabble that savored the joy of murder: according to the testimony of Gouy d'Arsy at the National Assembly, a great number of well-dressed citizens and well-to-do bourgeois exulted in this funereal and savage procession. It was the revolutionary bourgeoisie that had been directly threatened by the royal soldiery, and there was fear mixed with this sudden ferocity. Nor should we omit the ancien régime’s tradition of barbarism. Oh, how well our good and great Babeuf understood and felt all this! And what a source of pride it is for us, what a source of hope as well during those inhuman hours of the bourgeois revolution, to read the noble words of humanity and wisdom of the man who created modern communism. He was there as the procession passed, and on July 25, 1789 he wrote to his wife:

I saw the head of the father-in-law pass and the son-in-law following behind it in the hands of more than 1,000 armed men. Exposed to public view, he made the long walk across the faubourg and rue Saint Martin, amidst 200,000 spectators who shouted at him and rejoiced along with the troops of the escort, animated by the sound of the drum. Oh how this joy caused me pain. I was both satisfied and dissatisfied; I said it’s all for the better but also unfortunate. I understand that the people should mete out justice; I approve of justice when it is satisfied by the annihilation of the guilty. But can’t it not be cruel? Punishments of all kinds – drawing and quartering, torture, the wheel, the stake, the gallows, and executioners – have done so much harm to our morality. The masters, instead of rendering us orderly have made us barbaric, because that is what they themselves are. They reap and will reap what they have sowed, for all of this, my poor little wife, will have horrible after effects; we are only at the beginning.

O leaders of today: think on these words and make sure your laws and morality are as humane as possible, so that you will benefit from this on the inevitable day of revolution!

And you, proletarians, remember that cruelty is a holdover from servitude, for it attests to the fact that the barbarism of the oppressive regime is still present in you.

Remember that in 1789, when the working-class crowd momentarily surrendered itself to a cruel and murderous intoxication that it was the first communist, the first of the proletariat’s great emancipators, who had a heavy heart.

The Consequences of the Taking of the Bastille

The impact of the taking of the Bastille was immense. It seemed to all the world’s peoples that humanity’s jail had fallen. This was more than the Declaration of the Rights of Man; it was the declaration of the people’s might in service to human right. It was not only light that reached the oppressed of the universe from Paris, it was hope. And in the millions upon millions of hearts imprisoned in servitude’s dark night, liberty’s first dawning rose at exactly the same moment.

Paris’s victory put a definitive end to the offensive by the crown and the court. Pushed by the Queen and the princes, the King had marched against the Assembly and the Revolution at the royal sitting of June 23. He had just marched against Paris and the Revolution during the confused and violent events of July. Rebuffed by all, he retreated to a hypocritically defensive position, and it was he who would now suffer repeated assaults; on October 6, 1791 with the flight to Varennes, again on June 20, 1791[5] and on August 10, 1792[6] it was the revolutionary people who would go on the offensive. The mainspring of royal power was broken on July 14, or at least it was so damaged that it would never fully recover. A kind of paralysis had already set in on those days of coup d'état and aggression.

Neither Besenval nor Marshal de Broglie risked attacking the people from the rear while they were investing the Bastille. What were they waiting for and why did they give de Launay the order to hold out instead of going to his assistance?

Clearly a hitherto unknown fear of taking responsibility had gripped these unimaginative men who were accustomed to only one form of peril, and, without obliterating their courage, the vast uprising of an entire people at the very least troubled it. Their instructions must also have been vague. On July 14 Louis XVI answered the envoys of the Assembly that it could not have been the case that the events in Paris were the result of orders given to the troops. What then was the King’s plan?

It’s possible that in order to assuage his conscience he had systematically refused to foresee the possible course of events. Perhaps he imagined that Paris, subdued by the mere presence of a vast military apparatus, would cease to be the tumultuous rescuer of the Assembly and that the latter, feeling the dead weight of the immobilized capital, would act uncertainly and stumblingly, ready to fall at the least shock.

The King, warned by the events of July 14, learned that he had to take the power of the Revolution into account. He would exercise cunning against it or would call foreign armies against it, but from that day forward he renounced any form of direct aggression, any open offensive.

The Assembly, still having to foil intrigues but no longer having to fear or repel royal force, was able to undertake a fight against another great power of the past, the Church.

At the same time that they liberated the National Assembly, the events of July 14 made the people aware for the first time of their strength and their role in Paris. To be sure, the Assembly was still important. During those stormy days the Permanent Committee of Electors deputized it, and the Parisian revolution felt itself truly strong and legitimate thanks to its contact with the national revolution.

What is more, the Assembly itself had set a noble example of firmness and even of heroism. Its Tennis Court Oath, its serene and invincible resistance after the sitting of June 23, had electrified the people’s hearts, and the most intrepid of Paris’s combatants sole ambition was to show themselves to be worthy of the bourgeois revolutionaries who, without weapons and solely through the force of right and courage, had emerged victorious. It is nonetheless true that on its own and without the assistance of the people of Paris, the National Assembly would have ended up succumbing. And so the Revolution, which until then had had but one base and center, the Assembly, from then on had two coinciding centers: the Assembly and the people of Paris.

A few days after July 14 Sieur Bessin, orator of the faubourg Saint Antoine, appeared at the bar of the Assembly to request financial aid for the workers of the faubourgs whose salaries had been suspended during the three days of agitation. He exclaimed, “Messieurs, you are the saviors of the Fatherland, but you too have saviors.” The minutes say that these energetic opening words grabbed the attention of the Assembly, and I fully believe this. There, standing before it, was the very embodiment of the great event of July. Whatever its power, whatever its majesty, it suddenly felt itself under the protectorate of Paris, and perhaps some unease was mixed in with their joy at the recent victory.

But these were barely perceptible niceties, and when on July 15 the Assembly sent its delegates to the capital to consecrate and legalize the Revolution they were greeted with enthusiasm and respect by a huge crowd. Mounier, the choleric bourgeois, always suspicious of democracy, was won over by the respectful and cordial fervor of this reception.

Paris was henceforth emancipated, and in the heat of events it was able to write its municipal Constitution before the Assembly was even able to organize the municipal governments through a general law, before it could write the national Constitution.

The former city bureau, whose counter-revolutionary spirit we saw in the person of Provost Flesselles, was swept away. Bailly was named mayor by acclamation and Lafayette was named commanding general of the Parisian bourgeois Guard. With these two names Paris attached itself to the National Assembly and two greatest memories of liberty: Bailly represented the Tennis Court Oath and Lafayette was the American Revolution.

At the moment when Paris, with its revolutionary and humane instincts, organized itself municipally, it opened its arms to the liberty of the two worlds. Like ramparts that can be seen against the light of deep space, the city’s walls were silhouetted against the great light of universal freedom. It was concentric with the human horizon, and one felt that this circle of municipal life would expand until it took in all of humanity. Following Paris’s example, countless communes would be established throughout France, to govern, fight, and crush any attempt at counter-revolution, and to make up for the failings of the suddenly annihilated or reduced royal executive power. And all these communes, born in the same ferment of liberty and need for order, were to join in a federation with Paris. From the first weeks numerous bourgeois Guards affiliated with the Parisian bourgeois guard, and fraternal messages were sent from all corners of France to the Parisian city government.

It comes as no surprise that one year later the Festival of the Federation should have been celebrated on July 14. For it was on July 14, 1789 that the federation of the communes of France was truly born. The same instinct warned every assemblage of citizens and every city at the same time that liberty would be precarious and weak as long as it only rested on the National Assembly, and that it must have as many centers as there were communes. Integrated into the daily life of the citizens, animated and renewed by boundless energy, the Revolution would be invincible.

But all these spontaneous and multiform energies had the Assembly as their political center, Paris as their dominant seat, and the Revolution as their ideal center. They were naturally and necessarily federated. These were great days, when in the ardor of combat a clear and crucial idea was felt. The lightning flashes of the storm seemed to melt into the splendid light of a summer’s day.

By reviving municipal life, the events of July 14 brought to the foreground of the action a proletariat that had been relegated to the background. To be sure, the workers and the poor were far from seizing municipal power. As we will soon see, they would be excluded from the bourgeois Guard and they would not sit in the district assemblies. For quite some time Parisian municipal life would continue to be marked by a more narrowly bourgeois character than the central activity of the Assembly. But it was impossible to organize the legal power in Paris, originally of sixty, later of forty-eight districts, without a certain number of these districts and Sections pulsating with popular power and passion. While Robespierre’s voice was half stifled and repressed at the National Assembly, Danton’s voice resounded in the Cordeliers district. Increasing the number of points of power meant increasing the contact points between power and the people. Despite all legal barriers, this meant increasing the possibilities and occasions for poplar intervention and for tilting the bourgeois revolution, not towards socialism – that idea had not yet been born – but towards democracy. Had there been a complete dispersal, if each commune had been a tiny self-contained world, the bourgeois oligarchy would have succeeded in laying hands on all these separate, weak mechanisms.

But when this profusion of local activities was combined with a great general movement that inspired passion in all those involved, then the cohesion and enthusiasm of the actions gradually gave power to the most ardent, the most active, and the most robust. This is why July 14, at the same time that it was a great bourgeois victory, was also a great popular victory. Of course the fighting people’s direct participation on that great day did not have immediate consequences for the proletariat. The Revolution’s origins were so profoundly bourgeois that a few weeks after July 14, when the National Assembly, freed by the people from the court’s attacks, set up the electoral regime and excluded millions of the working poor from the vote, not a single deputy, not even the most democratic of them, remembered that at the Bastille the workers of Paris had conquered the title of Constitution for the poor of France. This immediate participation of the people in the great events of the Revolution seemed a glorious and fearsome accident that could not be allowed to become the rule in the regular workings of a free and ordered society.

And yet it wasn’t in vain that from its first steps the bourgeois revolution had to resort to the fierceness of the workers’ hearts and the strength of the workers’ muscles. When the war against the Vendéens, against the émigrés, and against the foreigners would raise revolutionary tension to its highest point, when alongside the heroic bourgeois the people would guard the gates of the Revolution, they would finally have to be given the rights of the city. Like the slaves of antiquity who conquered their liberty on the battlefield, the proletarians would conquer the right to vote and a few brief hours of political sovereignty on the battlefields of the bourgeois revolution.

Difficult would be the effort and short-lived the victory. But that the proletariat was briefly able to boldly climb the ladder of events to the leadership of the bourgeois revolution – or at least participate in it alongside the most daring bourgeois – was for it a security and a promise for the future. And so it is that we have glimpsed countless fearless workers among the enormous mass that on July 14 invested the Invalides and then the Bastille. They weren’t duped when they mounted their assault. Though disarmed the next day by the distrustful bourgeoisie, and then executed on the Champ de Mars two years later, they nonetheless marked the great revolutionary day with their courage and their strength. And thanks to these valiant men there is nothing under the sun today that belongs wholly to the bourgeoisie, not even its Revolution.

The Great Fear

The taking of the Bastille had its greatest impact in the countryside, among the peasants. Since the opening of the Estates General the peasants had been waiting; when would the Assembly consider their sufferings? They followed from afar the fight of the Third Estate against the privileged and the court. If only the Third Estate were to emerge victorious, how quickly we'd bring down the tyranny of the nobles. And so July 14 was decisive. Paris had taken its Bastille; it was left to the peasants to take theirs, all the feudal Bastilles, all those châteaux with their watchtowers, and dovecotes that loomed over the villages and the plains.

Suddenly, like a spring that uncoils, the countryside rose up. And in this great uprising there could be found two distinct and even seemingly contradictory movements. First there was a movement generated by fear. The obsolete royal authority, which for centuries had sheltered the peasant while squeezing him, seemed to have been shaken. And since it was the only visible form of authority for the people of the countryside, it initially seemed to the peasants that society itself was collapsing and that they were going to be surrendered to brigandage if they didn’t defend themselves. It was in this power vacuum that a legend of terror grew. “Here come the brigands! They're coming to burn down the woods, to cut down the wheat. Let’s get ready and arm ourselves.” From one end of France to the other the peasants armed themselves and beat the countryside to uncover these much discussed “brigands,” who nonetheless could not be found.

This period of panic left a profound and enduring impression on the spirit of the peasants. In the countryside of the south they still speak of “l'annado de la paou,” the year of fear; one could say that memory has erased all others. But what was the occasion, the immediate and concrete cause of this universal fright? It isn’t enough to say that the vast social upheaval, of which the taking of the Bastille was the prologue, disposed spirits to mysterious terrors, and that when a society ends, as when a day ends, vague and terrifying phantoms arise.

This mystical interpretation has prevented people from seeking the true reasons of the phenomenon. Was there a watchword issued by the aristocracy, by counter-revolution seeking to spread fear everywhere? The Assembly seemed to believe this, or at least it attempted to explain the panic in this way.

It said in the Preamble to its Decree of August 10:

The National Assembly, considering that the enemies of the Nation, having lost the hope of preventing public regeneration and the establishment of liberty through violence and despotism, appear to have conceived the criminal plan of reaching the same goal by means of disorder and anarchy; that among other methods, they have, at the same moment and almost on the same day, spread false alarms in the different provinces of the kingdom.

In fact, the movement did not have the suddenness of a conspiracy, and it was the Assembly itself which used the words “almost on the same day.”

If this terror had broken out everywhere at the same time as the result of a watchword, they would have ended everywhere on the same date, once their futility had become clear. But I note that at the end of August the fair at Beaucaire was delayed a few days “from fear of brigands,” who may in fact have carried out quite an operation there. So this was not simply a counter-revolutionary maneuver.

Had the peasants frightened themselves? Were the assemblies they formed in villages to march on chateaux and burn feudal property titles perceived from afar as gatherings of brigands? And was the panic a result of reciprocal misunderstandings? This is possible, indeed certain. But it is also certain that alongside this movement of peasant proprietors marching against the nobles to free their land of all feudal impositions, at that moment of universal turbulence there was also a movement of the property-less, of the poor, of vagabonds, of the hungry. In more than one place they organized themselves in bands, crying out that they had the right to eat and live.

Several municipalities advised the National Assembly that on the night of July 25 “brigands had cut down unripened wheat.” Even in the North on that date the wheat couldn’t have been far from ripe, and those that were called “brigands” operating on behalf of the counter-revolution were probably the hungry, who didn’t want to wait for the ripened harvest to fall beneath the sickle of the landlord and then be hidden away in granges.

A few partial movements of this kind sufficed to spread terror in a countryside where the fear of beggars was already chronic. I am prepared to believe that “the Great Fear” was above all the exaggeration of this chronic fright. If we read the Cahiers of the rural bailiwicks and parishes we see the cultivators everywhere complaining of being at the mercy of beggars. They had to house them, feed them, and give them succor. If not, the beggars threatened them, and nothing was easier for them than setting fire to farm buildings and harvests.

The great economic evolution of the second half of the Eighteenth Century, the growth of industry and cities, and the transformation of the rural economy had uprooted many lives. The roads and the countryside were covered with vagabonds, the fear of whom obsessed the cultivators. The latter speak of them with anger, fright, and scorn. Nothing is more poignant than to see the peasants, in the same Cahiers where they complain of being oppressed and robbed by lords, and where they demand the right to harvest the grass of the forests for their livestock, denounce the peril presented by the vagabonds and beggars, or, as they said, “the dregs of society.

Below orderly poverty there was a wandering poverty, and the latter is an object of contempt and terror for the former. We should recall the complaints of the peasant landowners against the masses of gleaners who invaded the newly harvested fields. I wonder if it was not these men and women who, impelled by hunger and excited by the revolutionary ferment, form ed themselves into troops and cut the wheat. It was thus that the poorest of each village, the landless, were mixed in with vagabonds and wanderers.

The newspaper Les Révolutions de Paris, in its news from the provinces at the beginning of September, said the following:

Letters from Geneva announce that individuals from the neighboring mountains have advanced en masse on Ferney. The Geneva garrison, backed by a large number of volunteers, has marched there. Cannons were sent there and the mountaineers fled. The ignorance or rather the stupidity of the people of a few provinces led them to believe that equality and liberty allowed them to share property. It is from this that flowed most of the ravages that desolated our provinces.

It thus appears evident that in the days that followed the upheaval of July 14 there was a rising of the poor. The Revolution would not cease to be haunted by the fear of an “agrarian law."[7]

There is no question that this fear dates from the first days of the Revolution, which were the most tumultuous, the most agitated. We have almost no precise information on this movement of the rural proletariat. It was in all likelihood purely instinctive: we nowhere find a clear formulation of their aims, and it doesn’t seem there were any conscious leaders.

For the most part it was limited to the nocturnal and furtive pillaging of crops harvested before their time, or else it was simply mingled with the revolutionary movement of peasant property. When the peasants of the regions of Mâcon and Lyon, for example, set the chateaux ablaze and burned the papers of land registry offices it’s impossible for me not to recall that it was often the case that in the Cahiers of the parishes “the rich and sterile bourgeois” were named alongside the nobles. And it would doubtless require little for the angry mobs armed with pitchforks that attacked the nobles’ chateaux to also go after large-scale bourgeois property.

The bourgeoisie understood the peril in almost all regions, and the bourgeois Guard of the cities hastened to the countryside to contain and repress the peasants. On the days of July 27, 28, and 29 the flames of the chateaux of Loras, Leuze, Comba, Pusignan, and Saint-Priest could be seen from Lyon. The bourgeois Guard marched against the peasants, and when it returned to the city it was attacked with stones and tiles by the workers of La Guillotière, who took the side of the insurgent peasants. It appeared for a moment as if the entire poor proletariat, workers and peasants alike, was going to rise against the old feudal regime and the new bourgeois regime, and that a profound and formidable class struggle, a struggle of all the have-nots against the haves, was going to be substituted for the superficial revolution of bourgeois and peasant property against the privileges of the nobles. Impotent impulses! Confused and vain attempts!

The time wasn’t right, and these first unplanned uprisings were symbolized by the furtive nighttime thefts of unripe wheat by roaming bands. But there was a moment when the settled peasants, the small landowners, the inhabitants of the villages who had an enclosure, a garden, a bit of a field, felt the movement of the poor simmering below them.

How is it possible to fully commit to the Revolution, how can one attack the feudal Bastilles if one risks being overwhelmed by a mendicant and threatening proletariat?

What’s the good of wresting from the lord sheaths of wheat he takes by feudal right if the humble gleaners of yesterday, become rebellious harvesters today, carry them all away? And will people expose themselves to losing their property in trying to liberate it?

The best thing to do then is to confront the “brigands,” to arm oneself, to organize. It was thus that from one end of France to the other village councils were formed. And when they realized that there were few if any “brigands,” that the proletarians were neither bold enough, conscious enough, nor organized enough to substitute their revolution for the Revolution, they marched light heartedly against the chateaux and turned against the ancien régime the weapons they'd seized in their instinctive fright.

We can see that there was a kind of conservative movement of contraction, of tightening, which was followed by a revolutionary expansion. Under the fear of the unknown and before the uprising of the have-nots, the communities of the villages withdrew into themselves, elected men of whom they were sure, established a militia, and, having thus guaranteed the order of property within the Revolution, attacked the feudal system.

Or rather there were two movements, one conservative and the other revolutionary, that were connected and virtually combined in this prodigious epoch, where enflamed and exalted minds seemed to be all that were needed to solve all problems. In the same way that in Paris the revolutionary bourgeoisie armed the militias against the court’s regiments and disarmed the men it considered a threat to property in the threatening days that preceded July 14, in the countryside the rural Third Estate organized itself both to protect peasant property against any aggression and to bring down feudalism.

The new order stood firm against all threats, and this was the sign of its historical legitimacy. But the historian would be guilty of being superficial if he didn’t note, beneath the revolution of the bourgeoisie and peasant property that was organized and triumphed in those fertile days of July and August, the profound disquiet and instinctive revolt of those without a scrap of land. Having no property they didn’t see the Revolution as the liberation of property freed of feudal levies. They viewed it as the liberation of man from poverty and hunger. Instinctively, with a ferocious ingenuousness, like the mountaineers of the Alps who descended on Ferney intending to distribute the property left by Voltaire, they thought that the moment had come for all men to enjoy the fruits of the earth, and they peacefully settled themselves into the Revolution as if it were their home. But they collided with the cannons of the bourgeoisie and pitchforks of the peasant landowner and they returned to their poverty, muttering to themselves that they had misunderstood.

The truth is that they understood too soon. History shut the door on these “beggars” and rudely told them: “You'll pass this way again.” And in fact they would pass that way again, and the door would one day open, on a day when they will no longer be “beggars,” on a day when they will have property of their own. I mean when they will have an idea, when they will carry in their heads the formula for a new world, when they will be peasant socialists.

While the consequences of July 14 unfurled in this way in the countryside, the victorious National Assembly sought equilibrium.

It was at one and the same time saved, enthusiastic, and worried. Necker was recalled. The King, accompanied by a deputation from the Assembly, had been obliged to go to Paris on July 17, and though people might have tried to distinguish between the King and his “evil advisors” and grant him a triumphal reception, it was nonetheless a visit paid to the victor by the vanquished.

Paris was rapidly coming of age and the Assembly sensed the arrival of a friendly and rival power. It huddled a bit nervously around the King, seeking to forget Louis XVI’s criminal errors in order to make France forget them. We have here a strange and inappropriate solidarity of the revolutionary Assembly and the king of the ancien régime, unwillingly converted to the new regime by the might of the people. Disorders broke out in Saint-Germain; the tax barriers were broken through, and the tax farmer Thomassin, accused of hoarding, was threatened with death. The moderates of the Assembly, on Lally-Tollendal’s motion, quickly proposed an address to the Nation against the disturbers of public order, an address which, through its very exaggeration, would have spread panic and worsened the threat. In addition, the movement in Saint-Germain was a continuation of the great movement in Paris. Wouldn’t these crooked proceedings disavow the magnificent revolutionary loyalty of the capital?

The Breton deputies protested, as did Robespierre. He immediately exposed the peril that conservative moderation caused the Revolution, still ensnared in intrigues and hatreds.

We must love peace, but we must also love liberty. But is there anything more legitimate than rising up against a horrible conspiracy aimed at destroying the Nation? A riot was caused in Poissy under the pretext of hoarding; Brittany is peaceful as are the provinces; the proclamation would spread alarm there and would cause the loss of confidence. We must do nothing hastily. Who dares to say that the enemies of the state are ended their intrigues?

What constituted Robespierre’s strength and what would assure it for some time, was that desiring the Revolution he accepted its consequences and conditions, and wasn’t foolishly or hypocritically troubled by the disorders that the armed resistance to royal arbitrariness necessarily caused.

The Assembly rejected Lally-Tollendal’s motion, but it had briefly applauded it, and this wavering revealed that if it needed the people it had also begun to fear them. But this fleeting worry didn’t yet slow down its momentum, and it was with a magnificent faith in reason that it immediately began the elaboration of the Rights of Man, the preface to the Constitution.


1. On June 30, 1789, a crowd had entered the Abbbaye prison to liberate French Guardsmen who had dispbeyed orders.

2. Jean Louis Carra (1742-1793) – Once a Jacobin, he was guillotined as an enemy of the Revolution.

3. Jean-Joseph Mounier (1758-1806) – Politician active in his native Dauphiné as a spokesman for the Third estate.

4. Jean-Henri Bancal des Issarts (1750-1826) – Moderate member of the National Convention.

5. Night the royal family fled the Tuileries Palace.

6. Date of the popular massacre of the Swiss Guards at the Tuileries.

7.i.e. land re-distribution.