Many factors were leading the populace to pass from agitation to action. The price of bread was an irritating issue with housewives, and there was a widespread suspicion that some wholesalers were keeping their grain from the market in hopes of still higher prices.76 The new municipal authorities, fearing that hunger would take to indiscriminate pillage, sent soldiers to protect the bakeries. With the men of Paris the burning issue was the knowledge that out-of-town regiments, not yet won to the popular cause, were threatening the Assembly and the Revolution. The sudden fall of Necker—the only man in the government whom the people had trusted—brought the anger and fear of the populace to a point where only a word was needed to arouse a violent response. On the afternoon of July 12 Camille Desmoulins, a Jesuit graduate but now a radical lawyer, aged twenty-nine, leaped upon a table outside the Café de Foy near the Palais-Royal, denounced the dismissal of Necker as a betrayal of the people, and cried out, “The Germans [the troops] in the Champ de Mars will enter Paris tonight to butcher the inhabitants!” Then, flourishing both a pistol and a sword, he called “To arms!”77 Part of his audience followed him to the Place Vendôme, carrying busts of Necker and the Duc d’Orléans; there some troops put them to flight. In the evening a crowd gathered in the Tuileries Gardens; a regiment of German troops charged it, was resisted with bottles and stones, fired upon it and wounded many. Dispersed, the crowd reassembled at the Hôtel de Ville, forced its way in, and seized all the weapons it could find. Beggars and criminals joined the rioters, and together they pillaged several homes.
On July 13 the crowd gathered again. They entered the Monastery of St.-Lazare, appropriated its store of grain, and carried this to the market at Les Halles. Another crowd opened the prison of La Force and liberated the inmates, mostly debtors. Everywhere the people searched for guns; finding only a few, they forged fifty thousand pikes.78 Fearing for their homes and possessions, the middle classes in Paris formed and armed their own militia; yet at the same time agents of the rich continued to encourage, finance, and arm revolutionary crowds, hoping thereby to deter the King from using force on the Assembly.79
Early on July 14 a crowd of eight thousand men invaded the Hôtel des Invalides, and captured 32,000 muskets, some powder, and twelve pieces of artillery. Suddenly someone cried out, “To the Bastille!” Why the Bastille? Not to release its prisoners, who were only seven; and generally, since 1715, it had been used as a place of genteel confinement for the well-to-do. But this massive fortress, one hundred feet high, with walls thirty feet thick, and surrounded by a moat seventy-five feet wide, had long been a symbol of despotism; it stood in the public mind for a thousand prisons and secret dungeons; some of the cahiers had already demanded its destruction. Probably what moved the crowd was the knowledge that the Bastille had pointed some cannon at the Rue and Faubourg St.-Antoine, a quarter seething with revolutionary sentiment. Perhaps most important of all, the Bastille was said to contain a great store of arms and ammunition, especially powder, of which the rebels had little. In the fortress was a garrison of eighty-two French soldiers and thirty-two Swiss Guards, under the command of the Marquis de Launay, a man of mild temper80 but popularly reported to be a monster of cruelty.81
While the crowd, composed mainly of shopkeepers and artisans, converged upon the Bastille, a deputation from the municipal council was received by de Launay. It asked him to withdraw the threatening cannon from their positions, and not to take any hostile action against the people; in return it promised to use its influence to dissuade the crowd from attacking the fortress. The commandant agreed, and entertained the deputation for lunch. Another committee, from the besiegers themselves, received de Launay’s pledge that his soldiers would not fire upon the people unless there was an attempt at forcible entry. This did not satisfy the excited assemblage; it was resolved to capture the ammunition without which its muskets could not resist the expected advance of Besenval’s foreign troops into the city. Be-senval was not anxious to move into Paris, for he suspected that his men would refuse to fire upon the people. He waited for orders from de Broglie; none came.
About one o’clock in the afternoon eighteen of the rebels climbed the wall of an adjoining structure, leaped into the forecourt of the Bastille, and lowered two drawbridges. Hundreds crossed over the moat; two other drawbridges were lowered; soon the court was filled with an eager and confident crowd. De Launay commanded them to withdraw; they refused; he ordered his soldiers to fire upon them. The attackers fired back, and set fire to some wooden structures attached to the stone walls. Toward three o’clock some members of the radical French Guard joined the besiegers, and began to bombard the fortress with five of the cannon that had been taken that morning at the Hôtel des Invalides. In four hours of fighting, ninety-eight of the attackers and one of the defenders were killed. De Launay, seeing the multitude always increasing with new arrivals, receiving no word cf help from Besenval, and having no supply of food to stand a siege, bade his soldiers to cease fire and hoist a white flag. He offered to surrender if his troops were allowed to march out, with their arms, to safety. The crowd, infuriated by the sight of its dead, refused to consider anything but unconditional surrender.82 De Launay proposed to blow up the fortress; his men prevented him. He sent down to the assailants the key to the main entrance. The crowd rushed in, disarmed the soldiers, slew six of them, seized de Launay, and freed the bewildered prisoners.
While many of the victors took what weapons and ammunition they could find, part of the crowd led de Launay toward the Hôtel de Ville, apparently intending to have him tried for murder. On the way the more ardent among them knocked him down, beat him to death, and cut off his head. With this bleeding trophy held aloft on a pike, they marched through Paris in a triumphal parade.
That afternoon Louis XVI returned to Versailles from a day’s hunting, and entered a note into his diary: “July 14: Nothing.” Then the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, arriving from Paris, told him of the successful attack upon the Bastille. “Why,” exclaimed the King, “this is a revolt!” “No, Sire,” said the Duk% “it is a revolution.”
On July 15 the King went humbly to the Assembly and assured it that the provincial and foreign troops would be sent away from Versailles and Paris. On July 16 he dismissed Breteuil and recalled Necker to a third ministry. Breteuil, Artois, de Broglie, and other nobles began the exodus of émigrés from France. Meanwhile the populace, with pickaxes and gunpowder, demolished the Bastille. On July 17 Louis, escorted by fifty deputies of the Assembly, went to Paris, was received at the Hôtel de Ville by the municipal council and the people, and affixed to his hat the red-white-and-blue cockade of the Revolution.