Autobiography

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Author: Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson on the Storming of the Bastille

[1789]

The King was now [July 11, 1789] in the hands of men, the principal among whom had been noted, through their lives, for the Turkish despotism of their characters, and who were associated around the King, as proper instruments for what was to be executed.

The news of this change [of ministry as well as the plan to use foreign troops to crush the revolution] began to be known at Paris about one or two o’clock. In the afternoon a body of about one hundred German cavalry were advanced and drawn up in the Place Louis XV, and about two hundred Swiss posted at a little distance in their rear. This drew people to the spot who thus accidentally found themselves in front of the troops, merely at first as spectators, but as their numbers increased their indignation rose. They retired a few steps and posted themselves on and behind large piles of stones, large and small, collected in that place for a bridge was to be built adjacent to it.

In this position, happening to be in my carriage on a visit, I passed through the lane they had formed, without interruption. But the moment after I had passed the people attacked the cavalry with stones. They charged, but the advantageous position of the people and the showers of stones obliged the horse to retire and quit the field altogether, leaving one of their number on the ground, and the Swiss in the rear not moving to their aid. This was the signal for universal insurrection, and this body of cavalry, to avoid being massacred, retired towards Versailles.

The people now armed themselves with such weapons as they could find in armorer’s shops and private houses, and with bludgeons; and were roaming all night, through all parts of the city, without any decided object. The next day (the 13th), the Assembly pressed on the King to send away the troops, to permit the Bourgeoisie of Paris to arm for the preservation of order in the city, and offered to send a deputation from their body to tranquillize them; but their propositions were refused. A committee of magistrates and electors of the city were appointed by those bodies, to take upon them its government. The people, now openly joined by the French guards, forced the prison of St. Lazare, released all the prisoners, and took a great store of corn, which they carried to the corn-market. Here they got some arms, and the French guards began to form and train them.

The city committee determined to raise forty-eight thousand Bourgeoise, or rather to restrain their numbers to forty-eight thousand. On the 14th they sent one of their members (Monsieur de Corny) to the Hôtel des Invalides, to ask arms for their Garde Bourgeoise. He was followed by, and he found there, a great collection of people. The Governor of the In-valides came out and represented the impossibility of his delivering arms without the orders of those from whom he received them. De Corny advised the people then to retire, and retired himself; but the people took possessions of the arms. It was remarkable that not only the Invalides themselves made no opposition, but that a body of five thousand foreign troops, within four hundred yards, never stirred.

M. de Corny and five others were then sent to ask arms of M. de Launay, Governor of the Bastille. They found a great collection of people already before the place, and they immediately planted a flag of truce, which was answered by a like flag hoisted on the parapet. The deputation prevailed on the people to fall back a little, advanced themselves to make their demand of the Governor, and in that instant a discharge from the Bastille killed four persons of those nearest to the deputies. The deputies retired. I happened to be at the house of M. de Corny when he returned to it, and received from him a narrative of these transactions.

On the retirement of the deputies the people rushed forward, and almost in an instant were in possession of the fortification of infinite strength, defended by one hundred men, which in other times had stood several regular sieges and had never been taken. How they forced their entrance has never been explained. They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners and such of the garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the Governor and Lieutenant Governor to the Place de Grève (the place of public execution), cut off their heads and sent them through the city, in triumph, to the Palais Royal. About the same instant, a treacherous correspondence having been discovered in M. de Flesselles, Prevôt des Marchands, they seized him in the Hôtel de Ville and cut off his head.

These events, carried imperfectly to Versailles, were the subject of two successive deputations from the Assembly to the King, to both of which he gave dry and hard answers; for nobody had as yet been permitted to inform him, truly and fully, of what had passed at Paris. But at night, the Duke de Liancourt forced his way into the King’s bedchamber, and obliged him to hear a full and animated detail of the disasters of the day in Paris. He went to bed fearfully impressed.

The decapitation of De Launay worked powerfully through the night on the whole Aristocratic party, insomuch that in the morning those of the greatest influence on the Count d’Artois represented to him the absolute necessity that the King should give up everything to the Assembly.

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This according with the dispositions of the King, he went about eleven o’clock, accompanied only by his brothers, to the Assembly, and there read them a speech in which he asked their interpositions to re-establish order.

The demolition of the Bastille was now ordered and begun. A body of the Swiss guards, of the regiment of Ventimille, and the city horse guards, joined the people. The alarm at Versailles increased. The foreign troops were ordered off instantly. Every Minister resigned.

The King came to Paris, leaving the Queen in consternation for his return. Omitting the less important figures of the procession, the King’s carriage was in the centre; on each side of it, the Assembly, in two ranks a foot; at their head the Marquis de La Fayette, as Commander-in-chief, on horseback, and Bourgeois guards before and behind. About sixty thousand citizens, of all forms and conditions, armed with the conquests of the Bastille and Invalides, as far as they would go, the rest with pistols, swords, pikes, pruning-hooks, scythes, etc., lined all the streets through which the procession passed, and with the crowds of people in the streets, doors, and windows, saluted them everywhere with the cries of "vive la nation," but not a single "vive le Roi" was heard.

The King stopped at the Hôtel de Ville. There M. Bailly presented, and put into his hat, the popular cockade, and addressed him. The King being unprepared, and unable to answer, Bailly went to him, gathered from him some scraps of sentences, and made out an answer, which he delivered to the audience, as from the King. On their return, the popular cries were "vive le Roi et la nation." He was conducted by a garde Bourgeoise to his palace at Versailles, and thus concluded an "amende honorable," as no sovereign ever made, and no people ever received.

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Chicago: Thomas Jefferson, "Thomas Jefferson on the Storming of the Bastille," Autobiography, ed. Thomas Jefferson in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed September 20, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=MXP922FXIYKKR16.

MLA: Jefferson, Thomas. "Thomas Jefferson on the Storming of the Bastille." Autobiography, edited by Thomas Jefferson, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 20 Sep. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=MXP922FXIYKKR16.

Harvard: Jefferson, T, 'Thomas Jefferson on the Storming of the Bastille' in Autobiography, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 20 September 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=MXP922FXIYKKR16.