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Napoleon Bonaparte, photo source: Wikipedia

On July 14, 1789 Parisian revolutionaries and mutinous troops stormed and dismantled the Bastille, a royal fortress and prison that had come to symbolize the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchs. This dramatic action signaled the beginning of the French Revolution.

At the time, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed: that France had “been awakened by our [American] Revolution.” However, for President John Adams the news from France had signaled a warning bell. “The French Revolution,” he wrote, “will, I hope, produce effects in favor of liberty, equity, and humanity as extensive as this whole globe and as lasting as all time.” Yet he could not help foreseeing a tragic outcome, in that a single legislative assembly, as chosen by the French, could only mean “great and lasting calamities.”

Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette. Source: Wikipedia

Storming the Bastille. Source: Wikipedia

By the summer of 1789, France was moving quickly toward revolution. Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, the military governor of the Bastille, feared that his fortress would be a target for the revolutionaries and so requested reinforcements. On July 12, royal authorities transferred 250 barrels of gunpowder to the Bastille, and Launay brought his men into the massive fortress and raised its two drawbridges.

At dawn on July 14, a great crowd armed with muskets, swords, and various makeshift weapons began to gather around the Bastille. Launay’s men were able to hold the mob back, but as more and more Parisians were converging on the Bastille, Launay raised a white flag of surrender over the fortress. Launay and his men were taken into custody, the Bastille’s gunpowder and cannons were seized, and the seven prisoners were freed. Upon arriving at the Hotel de Ville, where Launay was to be arrested and tried by a revolutionary council, he was instead pulled away by a mob and murdered.

The capture of the Bastille symbolized the end of the ancien regime and provided the French revolutionary cause with an irresistible momentum. In 1792, the monarchy was abolished and Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette were sent to the guillotine for treason in 1793.

The violence that ensued was referred to as “The Terror.” The Terror accelerated, eventually consuming those who had initially set it in motion. Paul Marat was murdered; George Danton and Maximilien Robespierre went to the guillotine. The final toll would eventually reach 14,000 lives.

On November 9, 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte assumed power as First Consul, making him at age 33, sovereign ruler of France and much of Europe. The French Revolution was over. Edmund Burke had accurately predicted that dictatorship would be the inevitable outcome of the revolution.

Sources: www.history.com; www.Wikipedia.com; biography of John Adams by David McCullough, pp 417, 447, 534-535

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