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Lord Acton on the storming of “the instrument and the emblem of tyranny” in Paris, the Bastille, on July 14, 1789 (1910)

The English classical liberal historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) wrote a graphic description of the event which triggered the French Revolution on July 14, 1789 – the storming of the fortress and prison of the Bastille in Paris:

The Bastille not only overshadowed the capital, but it darkened the hearts of men, for it had been notorious for centuries as the instrument and the emblem of tyranny. The captives behind its bars were few and uninteresting; but the wide world knew the horror of its history, the blighted lives, the ruined families, the three thousand dishonoured graves within the precincts, and the common voice called for its destruction as the sign of deliverance. At the elections both nobles and commons demanded that it should be levelled with the ground.

The 13th was a day wasted by Government, spent by Paris in busy preparation. Men talked wildly of destroying the Bastille, as a sign that would be understood. Early on July 14 a body of men made their way to the Invalides, and seized 28,000 stand of arms and some cannon. At the other extremity of Paris the ancient fortress of the Bastille towered over the workmen’s quarter and commanded the city. Whenever the guns thundered from its lofty battlements, resistance would be over, and the conquered arms would be unavailing.

The Bastille not only overshadowed the capital, but it darkened the hearts of men, for it had been notorious for centuries as the instrument and the emblem of tyranny. The captives behind its bars were few and uninteresting; but the wide world knew the horror of its history, the blighted lives, the ruined families, the three thousand dishonoured graves within the precincts, and the common voice called for its destruction as the sign of deliverance. At the elections both nobles and commons demanded that it should be levelled with the ground.

As early as the 4th of July Besenval received notice that it would be attacked. He sent a detachment of Swiss, that raised the garrison to one hundred and thirty-eight, and he did no more. During the morning hours, while the invaders of the Invalides were distributing the plundered arms and ammunition, emissaries penetrated into the Bastille, under various pretexts, to observe the defences. One fair-spoken visitor was taken to the top of the dreaded towers, where he saw that the guns with which the embrasures had bristled, which were beyond the range of marksmen, and had Paris at their mercy, were dismantled and could not be fired.

About the middle of the day, when this was known, the attack began. It was directed by the Gardes Françaises, who had been the first to mutiny, and had been disbanded, and were now the backbone of the people’s army. The siege consisted in efforts to lower the drawbridge. After several hours the massive walls were unshaken, and the place was as safe as before the first discharge. But the defenders knew that they were lost. Besenval was not the man to rescue them by fighting his way through several miles of streets. They were not provisioned, and the men urged the governor to make terms before he was compelled. They had brought down above a hundred of their assailants, without losing a man. But it was plain that the loss neither of a hundred nor of a thousand would affect the stern determination of the crowd, whilst it might increase their fury. Delauney, in his despair, seized a match, and wanted to fire the magazine. His men remonstrated and spoke of the dreadful devastation that must follow the explosion. The man who stayed the hand of the despairing commander, and whose name was Bécard, deserved a better fate than he met that day, for he was one of the four or five that were butchered. The men beat a parley, hoisted the white flag, and obtained, on the honour of a French officer, a verbal promise of safety.

Then the victors came pouring over the bridge, triumphant over a handful of Swiss and invalids—triumphant too over thirteen centuries of monarchy and the longest line of kings. Those who had served in the regular army took charge of as many prisoners as they could rescue, carried them to their quarters, and gave them their own beds to sleep in. The officers who had conducted the unreal attack, and received the piteous surrender, brought the governor to the Hôtel de Ville, fighting their way through a murderous crowd. For it was long believed that Delauney had admitted the people into the first court, and then had perfidiously shot them down. In his struggles he hurt a bystander, who chanced to be a cook. The man, prompted, it seems, less by animosity than by the pride of professional skill, drew a knife and cut off his head. Flesselles, the chief of the old municipality, appointed by the Crown, was shot soon after, under suspicion of having encouraged Delauney to resist.

About this Quotation:

In a review of a book about the French Revolution Acton noted that “Our judgment of men, and parties, and systems, is determined by the lowest point they touch. Murder, as the conventional low-water mark, is invaluable as our basis of measurement. It is the historian’s interest that it shall never be tampered with. If we have no scientific zero to start from, it is idle to censure corruption, mendacity, or treason to one’s country or one’s party, and morality and history go asunder.” According to Acton the “lowest point” of the French Revolution was reached during the Terror when “the party of violence” of the Jacobins defeated the “liberal and constitutional wave” of the Girondin group in which Condorcet played an active part. In this colourful description of the symbolic opening shot of the Revolution Acton seems to share the optimism and enthusiasm of the liberal revolutionaries. The storming of the old prison and fortress was largely symbolic as few prisoners remained and many of those who were left were evacuated before the Bastille was stormed. Nevertheless, Acton acknowledged the symbolic importance of the razing of this “instrument and the emblem of tyranny” which overlooked the city of Paris.

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