Despite inheriting tremendous debts from his predecessor, Louis XVI continued spending extravagantly, including by helping the American colonies win their independence from Great Britain. By the late-1780s, France’s government stood on the brink of economic disaster. To make matters worse, widespread crop failures in 1788 brought about a famine. Bread prices rose so high that, at their peak, the average worker spent 88 percent of his wages on just that one staple. Unemployment was likewise a problem, which the populace blamed in part on newly reduced customs duties between France and Britain. Following a cold winter, violent riots began breaking out across the country in bakeries, granaries and other food storage facilities.
In an attempt to resolve the crisis, Louis XVI summoned the long-dormant Estates-General—an assembly divided up by social class into three orders: clergy (First Estate), nobility (Second Estate) and commoners (Third Estate). Though it represented about 98 percent of the population, the Third Estate could still be outvoted by its two counterparts. As a result, its deputies immediately started clamoring for a more equal voice. After making no initial headway, they then declared themselves to be a new body called the National Assembly. Finding the doors to their meeting hall locked on June 20, 1789, they retired to a nearby tennis court, where, in defiance of the king, they took an oath never to separate until establishing a written constitution.
When many nobles and clergymen crossed over to join the National Assembly, Louis XVI grudgingly gave it his consent. But he also moved several army regiments into Paris and its surroundings, leading to fears that he would break up the assembly by force. Then, on July 11, he dismissed the reform-minded Jacques Necker, his only non-noble minister. Protesting crowds poured into Paris’ streets the following day, harassing royalist soldiers so much that they withdrew from the city. Crowds also burned down most of Paris’ hated customs posts, which imposed taxes on goods, and began a frantic search for arms and food. Unrest continued on the morning of July 14, when the mob seized roughly 32,000 muskets and some cannons from a military hospital prior to turning its sights on the large quantity of gunpowder being stored in the Bastille.
Built in the 1300s during the Hundred Years’ War, the Bastille’s formidable defenses included 100-foot-high walls and a wide moat, not to mention more than 80 regular soldiers and 30 Swiss mercenaries standing guard. As a prison, it had once held such political dissidents as the philosopher Voltaire. By the time the crowd of revolutionaries arrived, however, it had already been scheduled for demolition, to be replaced by a public square. Moreover, it was down to seven prisoners: four accused of forgery, two considered mentally ill and one kept in custody at the request of his own family. An eighth prisoner, the Marquis de Sade, for whom the term “sadist” comes from, had likewise been incarcerated there. But he was removed after falsely shouting out the window that the prisoners were being massacred.
Upon receiving a demand to surrender, Bernard-René de Launay, the governor of the Bastille, invited revolutionary delegates inside to negotiate. Lacking any direct orders from Louis XVI, he purportedly received them warmly and promised not to open fire. Yet as the talks dragged on, the people outside grew restless. They also may have thought their delegates had been imprisoned. Eventually, a group of men climbed over an outer wall and lowered a drawbridge to the Bastille’s courtyard, allowing the crowd to swarm inside. When men began attempting to lower a second drawbridge, de Launay broke his pledge and ordered his soldiers to shoot. Nearly 100 attackers died in the onslaught and dozens of others were wounded, whereas the royalists lost only one soldier.
The tide turned later that afternoon, however, when a detachment of French Guards showed up. Permanently based in Paris, the French Guards were known to be sympathetic to the revolutionaries’ plight. And when they began blasting away with cannons at the Bastille, de Launay, who lacked adequate provisions for a long-term siege, waved the white flag. Taken prisoner, he was marched to city hall, where the crowd separated him from his escort and murdered him before cutting off his head, placing it on a pike and parading it around the city. A few other royalist soldiers were also butchered, foreshadowing the popular violence that would play such a large role throughout the French Revolution.
In the aftermath of the assault on the Bastille, the prison fortress was systematically dismantled until nothing remained of it. Meanwhile, Parisians set up their own city government and their own militia, the latter to be commanded by American Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. Reluctant to use force against his subjects, Louis XVI chose instead to be conciliatory, at least in public. He re-instated Necker, withdrew royalist troops from the Paris region and even appeared in the city on July 17 sporting the tricolor cockade of the militia, a soon-to-be symbol of the revolution as a whole. Yet his actions did nothing to stem the uprising, which spread to the countryside. By August, the National Assembly had abolished the nobility’s feudal privileges and had adopted its famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which guaranteed such birthrights as freedom of speech and religion. A de facto prisoner from October 1789 onward, Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine a few years later.