On July 12 Camille Desmoulins, a Jesuit graduate, leaped upon a table outside the Café de Foy near the Palais-Royal, and denounced the dismissal of Necker and the summons of alien troops. “The Germans will enter Paris tonight to butcher the inhabitants,” he cried, and called upon his hearers to arm themselves. They did, for the new municipal council made little resistance when they broke in and commandeered the weapons housed in the Hôtel de Ville. The armed rebels now paraded the streets, upholding busts of Necker and the Duc d’Orléans, and pluming their hats with cockades of green; when it became known that this was also the color of the uniforms worn by the servants and guard of the hated Comte d’Artois (younger brother of the King), the green cockade was displaced by one of red, white, and blue—the national colors.

Fearing indiscriminate violence, destruction of property, and financial panic, the bankers closed the Bourse, and the middle classes formed their own militia, which became the nucleus of the Garde Nationale under Lafayette. Nevertheless some agents of the bourgeoisie, to protect the now securely middle-class Assembly, contributed to finance the popular resistance to an absolute monarchy, and the winning of the Garde Française from royal to democratic sentiments.14 On July 13 the crowd re-formed; enlarged by recruits from the underworld and the slums, it invaded the Hôtel des Invalides (Veterans’ Hospital), and seized 28,000 muskets and some cannon. Besenval, doubting that his troops would fire upon the people, kept them idle in the suburbs. The armed populace now controlled the capital.

What should it do with its power? Many suggested an attempt upon the Bastille. That old fortress, on the east side of Paris, had been built, year by year since 1370, to incarcerate important victims of royal or noble ire, usually committed by lettres de cachet—secret orders of the king. Under Louis XVI very few prisoners were held there; only seven now remained; Louis himself had rarely issued a lettre de cachet, and in 1784 he had asked an architect to submit plans for the demolition of the gloomy bastion.15 But the people did not know this; they thought of it as a dungeon holding the victims of a brutal despotism.

Yet the rebels had apparently no intention of destroying it when, after a night’s rest, they converged upon it on that July 14 which was to become the national holiday of France. Their aim was to ask the governor of the prison to let them enter and appropriate the gunpowder and firearms reportedly accumulated behind those walls. They had till now found a little gunpowder, but without more their many muskets and few cannon would give them no protection if Besenval should bring in his troops against them. However, those walls—thirty feet thick, one hundred feet high, protected by towers concealing artillery, and surrounded by a moat eighty feet wide—counseled caution. Members of the new municipal council, joining the crowd, offered to seek a peaceable arrangement with the governor of the fort.

He was Bernard-René Jordan, Marquis de Launay, a man, we are assured, of genteel education and amiable character.16 He received the deputation courteously. They proposed to guarantee the pacific behavior of the rebels if he would remove the cannon from their firing stations and order his 114 soldiers to hold their fire. He agreed, and entertained his visitors for lunch. Another committee received a similar pledge, but the besiegers cried out that they wanted ammunition, not words.

While the two sides parleyed, some clever workmen climbed to the controls and lowered two drawbridges. The eager attackers rushed over these into the courtyard; de Launay ordered them to return; they refused; his soldiers fired upon them. The invaders were getting the worst of it when the Garde Française brought up five cannon and began to demolish the walls. Under this cover the crowd poured into the prison, and fought a hand-to-hand battle with the soldiers; ninety-eight of the attackers were killed, and one of the defenders, but the crowd increased in number and fury. De Launay offered to surrender if his men were allowed to march out safely with their arms. The crowd leaders refused. He yielded. The victors killed six more soldiers, freed the seven prisoners, seized ammunition and weapons, took de Launay captive, and marched in triumph to the Hôtel de Ville. On the way some of the crowd, infuriated by the casualties it had suffered, beat the bewildered aristocrat to death, cut off his head, and raised it on a pike. Jacques de Flesselles, a merchant provost who had misled the electors as to the whereabouts of arms, was cut down on the Place de Grève, and his severed head was added to the parade.

On July 15 the electors of the section assemblies made Bailly mayor of Paris, and chose Lafayette to head a new National Guard, and the happy sansculottes began to demolish the Bastille stone by stone. The King, shocked and frightened, went to the Assembly and announced that he had dismissed the troops that had invested Versailles and Paris. On July 16 a conference of nobles advised him to leave under the protection of the departing regiments, and to seek asylum in some provincial capital or foreign court. Marie Antoinette warmly supported this proposal, and collected her jewels and other portable treasures for the journey.17 Instead, on the seventeenth, Louis recalled Necker, to the delight of both the financial community and the populace. On the eighteenth the King traveled to Paris, visited the Hôtel de Ville, and signified his acceptance of the new council and regime by affixing to his hat the red-white-and-blue cockade of the Revolution. Returning to Versailles, he embraced his wife, his sister, and his children, and told them, “Happily no [more] blood has been shed, and I swear that never shall a drop of French blood be spilled by my order.”18 His younger brother the Comte d’Artois, taking his wife and mistress with him,19 led the first group of émigrés out of France.

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