Tag Archives: French Revolution

Remembering History: Storming the Bastille (14 Jul 1789)

The Storming of the Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735–1813)
National Library of France
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On 14 July 1789, the storming of the Bastille, a formidable stone prison originally built to protect the eastern entrance to Paris, is considered the launch of the French Revolution and celebrated as a holiday in France. The prison often held political prisoners and was seen as a sign of tyranny. By this time in 1789, the prison only held seven prisoners none of whom were of a political nature. Four were charged with forgery and two were considered mad or lunatics. The Bastille was actually being scheduled for demolition to make way for public square.

France was facing economic and social problems. Louis XVI had inherited considerable debt from his predecessor but continued to spend (along with his wife Marie Antoinette) considerable sums of money further deepening government debt. Crop failures in 1788 led to a national famine and the cost bread prices to soar. Unemployment was a factor as well and many thought they had lost jobs due to lessening of customs duties with England (resulting in more jobs there than in France). With violent food riots breaking out, King Louis XVI tried to resolve it through the Estates-General (a national assembly of clergy, nobility and the common person).

While in theory all three were equal, two of the other parts could outvote the third. This left many deputies upset demanding a greater voice and proclaiming their own National Assembly. This would lead to the famous Tennis Court Oath of 20 June 1789 not to separate until they had a constitution. Many nobles and clergy crossed over to this National Assembly which Louis XVI gave consent to. His ordering of army regiments into Paris though made many fear he was going to break up the assembly by force. The dismissal of Jacques Necker, a non-noble minister for the government on 11 July, triggered massive protests and destruction of custom posts. Custom posts were hated as they imposed taxes on goods.

On 14 July a mob seized muskets and cannons from a military hospital and then decided to get more at the Bastille. The governor of the Bastille saw the mob and invited them in to discuss terms of surrender. Outside the crowd grew restless awaiting word and it is possible some thought the delegates had been arrested. A group climbed over the outer wall and climbed in to open the drawbridge to the courtyard. The governor broke his pledge not to fire and bullets rang out killing 100 outright leaving others wounded. The royals only lost one soldier. The arrival of the French Guards, sympathetic to the mob, would force the governor to surrender after having cannons blasting away at the Bastille. Without adequate provisions, he surrendered the Bastille. Some of the royalist troops would be butchered after the surrender. The governor was taken prisoner and beheaded by the mob.


The Bastille was dismantled, and its only prisoner later would be Louis XVI. He would be executed on 21 January 1793 along with his wife. The French Revolution, once thought a means to reform France into a constitutional monarchy, slid into a revolutionary government that completely overturned the ancien regime. During its tenure, it became increasingly bloody killing off enemies of the new order. Anyone who was thought to disagree with them could be denounced and executed. Instead of creating a better stable system, it became one long food riot as one professor said to me once. And the revolutionaries fought amongst themselves as to who was the better one to lead. That led to more bloody executions and the guillotine became the image of the French Revolution. Ultimately the people tired of this turmoil and wanted order. And it would come from Napoleon Bonaparte, but that is another story.



Remembering History: Napoleon Defeated and Seward’s Folly (March 30)

Napoleon Defeated (30 March 1814)

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812
Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose to power during the French Revolution and became emperor of France, was defeated when allied troops entered Paris on 30 March 1814. Since 1803, the Napoleonic War had inflamed Europe. England and other powers had united against France during this period. France had expanded its power into the heart of Europe, Portugal, Spain and the Mediterranean. His failed foray into Russia and his forces being ejected from Portugal and Spain, weakened his once powerful forces allowing for the invasion of France and the taking of Paris.

Why this Is Important

Napoleon was a major figure in European and French history. He reformed the French state after French Revolution, established and streamlined the justice system under the Napoleonic Code, and sought better relations with the Catholic Church. His military tactics (wins and loses) are still studied today in military academies around the world. The Napoleonic Code laid the basis for legal administration in France today and many of its former colonies.



Seward’s Folly

William H. Seward, Secretary of State 1861-69
Date Unknown
Public Domain/U.S. Library of Congress, digital id cph.3a23003

In a purchase ridiculed at the time, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia for $7 million. While it only cost 2 cents an acre, it was widely jeered in the press and politicians alike. It was nicknamed “Seward’s Folly” and other names as well. Russia had tried to sell it to the U.S. prior to the Civil War, but talks stopped when the war began. Seward believed the landmass was important for the country. Others were not so sure and took a lot of convincing to get the Senate to ratify the treaty. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on 9 April 1867 and the formal transfer was at Fort Sitka on October 18, 1867.

At first settlement was slow (getting there required taking a ship on the Pacific side and sailing up to a port) but in 1898 gold was discovered causing a rapid influx of prospectors and of course businesses to support them. Other resources were found in due course allowing Alaska to grow into a prosperous territory (albeit a cold one). Alaska would become the 49thstate when it was admitted to the union on 3 January 1959. The folly turned out to be golden instead.

Why this is Important
The purchase of Alaska expanded the territory of the United States substantially. The West Coast borders of the country were now forming up. California and Oregon were now states and Washington would soon follow in 1889. The rich resources of Alaska would also contribute as well. By the end of the 19th century, the United States had grown across a continent with cities and settlements on each end and within it.