Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

The Fall of the Bastile

"The old order changeth, yielding place to new."


I T was in the year 1776 that America made her famous Declaration of Independence. France was the first nation to recognise it, and she sent over men and troops to help the young country in its struggle against oppression. Side by side Frenchmen fought with the English colonists in America. With the settlement they returned to France "with their hearts full of love and their lips loud in praise of the young Republic and its simple splendid citizens."

Among those who fought for France was Lafayette, a friend of George Washington. He now came home to find that the war had cost France more than she could pay, and that something must be done at once, to save the country from hopeless debt.

"Give us the States-General," he cried. "Let the people have a voice in the government of their country."

Soon his cry resounded from one end of France to the other, until the king was obliged to listen. Now the States-General had not met for 175 years. It was a body not unlike the English Parliament, containing members of the Church, the nobles, and the people. Under the last despotic rulers of France, the voice of the people had long been silent. There was danger to the king, when he allowed this great force to be loosened in France.

It was May 5, 1789, when the States-General assembled. The sun shone brilliantly, the streets of Versailles were gay with banners, the air rang with martial music. Eager faces looked down from balcony and window on to the famous pageant. At the head of the procession walked the 600 representatives of the people—a great black-looking mass in their black coats and breeches, black stockings, short silk mantles, and three-cornered hats. Among them walked Mirabeau, with his lion locks of black hair; among them, too, might have been seen the small frail figure of Robespierre—men to play their part in the coming tragedy.

Three hundred nobles followed, in the brilliant dresses of the age—cloaks of gold and high-plumed hats. Among them was Lafayette, the hero of the American war. They were followed by the 300 clergy in "purple and fine linen," and behind all came the King, the Queen, and the Court. Here were plumes and jewels, powdered heads and painted faces, costumes resplendent in the May sunshine. The whole solemn procession filed into the church of St Louis, and next day the States-General met for business.

A heated discussion on taxation arose. The people proposed that the nobles and clergy should pay taxes as well as themselves. The nobles and clergy refused, and the people formed themselves into a separate body called the National Assembly, and assumed entire control of the State.

Angry days came and went. A cloud hung over the gay Court at Versailles, where the little eight-year-old Dauphin lay dying. But France was too much engrossed with her new life to take much note of the dying child, though he was heir to the French throne. Only Marie Antoinette wept for the drooping of the little royal head, and rained bitter tears on the lifeless body of her eldest son.

Meanwhile the conflict between the king and the National Assembly went on. At last he addressed the whole States-General—nobles, clergy, and people—collected together for the purpose. He would not sanction the National Assembly: they must disperse at once. The king left, the clergy and nobles filed out according to orders. The 600 people sat still.

"Did you hear the orders of the king?" asked one.

"Yes," roared Mirabeau; "and let me inform you, you had better employ force, for we shall only quit our seats at the bayonet's point."

These words were repeated and applauded throughout France. Through the long sultry days of July the storm gathered fast. In Paris it reached its height, and on July 12 it burst.

"To arms! to arms!" shouted one insurgent, and the cry spread like wildfire through the excited city. Military stores were broken open, muskets carried off in triumph, prisons were opened, custom-houses burned. There was none to command, none to obey. Early on the morning of the 14th the fury of the people was directed against the Bastile, the great State fortress and prison of Paris, where for centuries past prisoners had been unjustly thrown. Its double moat and massive walls should have protected it against an unruly mob, but the people were strong and determined in their wrath. Hour after hour, through that long summer day, they fired on the old grey walls, till at last the commander had to surrender.

The Bastile had fallen, and the sun set over a triumphant city of fierce insurgents. Late that night the news reached the king. He was asleep in his palace at Versailles.

"The Bastile has fallen," they told him.

"But," said poor Louis sleepily, "that is a revolt."

"Sire," answered the messenger gravely, "it is not a revolt, it is a revolution!"

The fall of the Bastile was the fall of the old monarchy. The old order passed away on that eventful evening in July. France was shaken to its depths, and the eyes of Europe and America were directed towards the struggling nation.

Three days later, the king made up his mind to go to Paris. While Marie Antoinette wept for his safety he left Versailles. He was pale and anxious. The long highway from Versailles to Paris was "choking with people." Everywhere fluttered the new colours adopted by the people of Paris—red, white, and blue. Everywhere men and even women were armed. In front of him, on a white horse, rode Lafayette. Above them fluttered the tattered banner of the Bastile.

"Long live the Nation!" was shouted on all sides. It was not until Louis reluctantly fixed a cockade of red, white, and blue on his hat that the cry "Long live the King!" was heard.

Meanwhile the National Assembly, now joined by the nobles and clergy, drew up their famous Declaration of the Rights of Man. They swept away all existing orders, declared that all were born equal in rights, that all citizens were equal in the eyes of the law, that virtue and talent entitled a man to office and not birth, that all worship should be free.

The night was far advanced. It was the 4th of August—a marked day in the history of the Revolution.

"But the king, gentlemen," said one who had listened to these sweeping reforms, "the king who has called us after the long lapse of two centuries—shall he not have his reward?"

"Let us proclaim him the restorer of French liberty," they said.

And the Twelve Hundred representatives of the French nation left the blazing hall and made their way home through the warm summer night.

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