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

John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton

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.

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.