Monday, July 14, 2008

Bastille Day: "Le jour de gloire est arrivé..."

In a letter to U.S. Foreign Secretary John Jay, Thomas Jefferson offered the following account of the seizure of the Bastille in Paris by a revolutionary mob on July 14, 1789. Jefferson was the U.S. Minister to France at the time.
This was the signal for universal insurrection, & this body of cavalry, to avoid being massacred, retired towards Versailles. The people now armed themselves with such weapons as they could find in armourer shops & privated houses, and with bludgeons, & were roaming all night through all parts of the city without any decided & practicable object. The next day the states press on the King to send away the troops, to permit the Bourgeoise of Paris to arm for the preservation of order in the city, & offer to send a deputation from their body to tranquilize them. He refuses all their propositions. A committee of magistrates & electors of the city are appointed, by their bodies, to take upon them its government. The mob, now openly joined by the French guards, force the prisons of St. Larare, release all the prisoneres, & take a great store of corn, which they carry to the corn market. Here they get some arms, & the French guards begin to to form & train them.

The City committee determine to raise 48,000 Bourgeoise, or rather to restrain their numbers to 48,000, On the 16th they send one of their numbers ( Monsieur de Corny whom we knew in America) to the Hotel des Invalides to ask arms for their Garde Bourgeoise. He was followed by, or he found there, a great mob. The Governor of the Invalids came out & 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, retired himself, & the people took possession of the arms. It was remarkable that not only the invalids themselves made no opposition, but that a body of 5000 foreign troops, encamped with 400 yards, never stirred. Monsieur De Corny and five others were then sent to ask arms of Monsieur de Launai , Governor of the Bastille. The found a great collection of people already before the place, & they immediately planted a flag of truce, which was answered by a like flag hoisted on the parapet.

The depositition prevailed on the people to fall back a little, advanced themselves to make their demand of the Governor. & in that instant a discharge from the Bastille killed 4 people of those nearest to the deputies. The deputies retired, the people rushed against the place, and almost in an instant were in possession of a fortification, defended by 100 men, of infinite strength, which in other times had stood several regular sieges & had never been taken. How they got in, has as yet been impossible to discover. Those, who pretend to have been of the party tell so many different stories as to destroy the credit of them all. They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners & such of the garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the Governor and Lieutenant Governor to the Greve (the place of public execution) cut off their heads, & sent them through the city in triumph to the Palais royal...

I have the honor to be with great esteem & respect, Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant.

Thomas Jefferson
On July 19th, Jefferson added, in another letter to John Jay:
I went yesterday to Versailles to satisfy myself what had passed there; for nothing can be believed but what one sees, or has from an eye witness. They believe there still that 3000 people have fallen victims to the tumults of Paris. Mr. Short & myself have been every day among them in order to be sure of what was passing. We cannot find with certainty that any body has been killed but the three beforementioned, & those who fell in the assault of defence of the Bastille. How many of the garrison were killed no body pretends to have ever heard. Of the assailants accounts vary from 6. to 600. The most general belief is that there fell about 30.
Vive la Révolution!

[Sample page in Jefferson's handwriting.]

GRAPHIC: Prise de la Bastille, by Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Hoüel (1789) - Wikimedia Commons

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