The Taking of the Bastille
In May 1789 the States-General met at Versailles, and the king appeared before it "with simple dignity, without pride, without timidity, wearing on his features the impress of the goodness which he had in his heart."
But although the States-General had met, for weeks it was impossible to do anything, for the nobles and clergy were thwarted in all they wished to do by the deputies of the people, called the Third Estate. The deputies had come to Versailles determined that their voice should be heard and obeyed.
In the midst of the trouble caused by the Third Estate the dauphin died, and for a little while the king and queen forgot the strife of nobles and deputies alike, while they grieved for the loss of their first-born son.
Even in his grief the king could not escape from the cares of his kingdom. The Third Estate sent demanding to see him, before his child was buried. Louis sobbed as he asked, "Are there no fathers among these rough men, that I may not be left alone at such a time?"
Among the deputies of the people was Mirabeau, a noble who had flung aside his title that he might sit with the commons and help the cause of the people.
Mirabeau was a great orator, that is, he had the gift of speech, so that when he spoke he swayed people this way or that as he wished.
It pleased him now to persuade the Third Estate to openly split up the States-General by giving itself a new name. Henceforth the deputies of the people should be called the National Assembly, and without their consent the nobles and clergy of the States-General should be unable to pass any measure. On the day of its birth the National Assembly was joined by more than a hundred of the clergy.
When Louis xvi. and his nobles heard of the new title which the Third Estate had adopted, they were startled. The National Assembly had an ominous sound to their ears. The deputies, led by Mirabeau, were growing too bold. It was time that they were taught a lesson. So the king ordered that the great hall in which the Third Estate had met should be closed, and none of the members allowed to enter.
Although the deputies had heard the king's order, they went at the usual time to the hall, not quite believing that they had been turned out.
The first thing they saw was carpenters at work putting up a platform, and the deputies were told that no one save the president and secretaries could be admitted, and they only to take away their papers.
As it happened, it was a cold damp morning, and the new National Assembly wandered about, getting ever more wet and more angry.
Courtiers looking out of the palace windows laughed as they watched the dejected deputies walking aimlessly hither and thither in the rain.
At length their president, aided by a Dr. Guillotine, whose name was soon to become famous, found in a forsaken tennis-court of Old Versailles an empty, unfurnished building. To this rough shelter the National Assembly hastened out of the cold and wet.
Here the deputies took an oath, known as the "Oath of the Tennis-Court," by which they declared that they would never separate until they had done the work the people had sent them to do. This work was to reform the government of France.
A great crowd of people had followed the banished deputies to the tennis-court, and as they took the oath the cheers of the multitude rang out upon the chilly air.
The National Assembly was loyal in its attitude, for they did not believe it was Louis, but his foolish advisers, who had turned them out. So now, in their enthusiasm, they shouted, Long live the king!" while the people answering, cried. Long live the king!"
A few days later Louis himself went to meet the National Assembly. Among the members there were now a few nobles as well as clergy. These were led by the Duke of Orleans, who treacherously hoped to be raised to the post of Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom, and wrench all power from the hands of Louis xvi.
Near Mirabeau, whose harsh and ugly face wore a look of strength, sat the Marquis de La Fayette, who had fought but lately in the American War, and who had much to do in the struggle that had now begun between the king and his people. There sat also a small man, with smiling, unpleasant face, whose very name before long filled all who heard it with dismay. This was Robespierre.
When the king visited the Assembly, which so lately he had turned out into the rain, he found himself forced to grant all its demands. Having done so, however, he ordered the members to go home and never to meet again as the National Assembly.
At Louis's words the nobles cheered, but not a sound came from the deputies, and when the king and his nobles left the hall, the Third Estate did not move.
Soon a messenger from Louis arrived, and seeing the Assembly still seated, said sharply, "You heard the king's orders?"
Then Mirabeau, the orator with the ugly face which yet had power written on every line of it, jumped to his feet, and his voice rang clear and stern as he answered, "Go tell those who sent you that we are here by the will of the people, and that we will only be driven out at the point of the bayonet."
The king's messenger hastily withdrew, and the National Assembly continued to meet, clergy and nobles from the States-General joining them at different times.
Louis xvi. was not strong enough to oppose so resolute an assembly long, and in June 1789 the three orders were, with his consent, united as one body.
Paris went wild with excitement. At Versailles men ran about in the dark with torches, shouting and cheering the king, the queen, and the dauphin. The people were sure that at last their troubles were over, and that soon there would be bread enough and to spare.
But the people rejoiced too soon. The queen, as well as many of the nobles and clergy, hated the deputies, and they soon convinced the king that he had been foolish to yield to their demands.
If he wished to keep any power at all he must use force, said Marie Antoinette, and Louis, weaker now than in the early days of his reign, yielded to the queen's advice. Soldiers were sent to seize Paris.
The Parisians could scarcely believe their eyes when they saw the soldiers. Still less could they believe that they had heard aright when it was whispered that the king meant to take no notice of the National Assembly, that he meant to rule himself, with the help of the nobles.
The nobles were, as you know, hated by the people, and among them all none was more hated than Foulon, who, when he was told that the people were hungry, brutally said, "Let them eat grass."
Was it any wonder that the people were on fire with anger at the thought of being ruled by Foulon and such as he?
"To arms! to arms!" they shouted, and rushing to the Town Hall they speedily found for themselves pikes and muskets. Then, tearing up the pavements, they barricaded the city against the king's troops, and paraded the streets wearing ribbons of red, white and blue, which the women were hurriedly sewing into cockades.
These colours soon became known as the Tricolour, the emblem of the French Republic.
News travelled quickly to Versailles. The king heard that the Parisians had flown to arms, but knowing that his troops were not to be trusted, he sent no orders to disperse the mob. Many, indeed, of the royal troops had joined the people.
On July 14, 1789, as soon as day dawned, the mob, which had wandered restlessly through the streets all night, set out for the Bastille, the chief fortress and prison of Paris.
The Bastille seemed to the excited people a visible sign of the king's power. They made up their minds to destroy it.
"To the Bastille! to the Bastille!" The cry grew, until at length thousands of armed men were on their way to the grim old fortress.
The Governor of the Bastilie was brave but old, and not quite sure what to do against such a fierce and armed force.
After some hesitation he ordered the cannon to be turned upon them, but this only added to the fury of the crowd.
Then the governor, changing his mind, ordered the cannon to cease firing, and foolishly opened the great gates of the Bastilie, hoping to treat with the leaders of the mob.
But the crowd saw its opportunity, and rushing in at the gates began to destroy the huge building. In a short time it was in ruins.
The governor and his officers were ruthlessly murdered, and then the mob, mad with excitement, placed the heads of the hapless men on pikes, and carried them in triumph through the streets.
At Versailles nothing was known of what was being done at Paris. Only when all was over a noble rushed into the king's apartments and told him the terrible events of the day.
"Why, that is a revolt," said the bewildered king.
"Sire," answered the courtier, "it is a revolution."