The aftermath of Bastille Day: what happened after the 14th of July 1789

I can never walk by the Place de la Bastille without thinking of the mighty fortress that used to stand there. A medieval oddity at what was then the city limit. Yes, I wish the huge walls were still there, towering over me.

I recounted the events of that fateful summer day of 1789 in a prior post. The attackers did not care about freeing the prisoners. Most of these, including the infamous Marquis de Sade, had been transferred a few days earlier to the dungeons of another medieval castle, at Vincennes (that one fortunately still standing, and beautifully restored.) Only remained at the Bastille those too frail or elderly to be moved. The crowd simply was after ammunition to defend Paris against the anticipated attack by the foreign regiments surrounding it.

Yet this day turned the tide of history because of its political impact. King Louis XVI announced from Versailles the withdrawal of the foreign regiments that had been surrounding Paris. The city would never again have a Provost of the Merchants, but a Mayor. The first one was Sylvain Bailly, a very able astronomer and less gifted politician.

Louis XVI himself came to Paris and, on the steps of the Hotel de Ville, accepted the new tricolor cockade from the hands of the Marquis de Lafayette. The white, symbol of Paris, mixed with the blue and red, colors of Paris. Maybe it was not a coincidence that Lafayette came up with the same colors as the American flag.


Interior of the Bastille in 1785

Within days, the now harmless Bastille became a tourist attraction. Parisians flocked to the former prison, turned into an improvised museum of horrors. They saw dungeons, below river level, that were permanently flooded, rusted torture instruments, human bones strewn upon rotting straw. Madame Tussaud, in her Memoirs, recounts her own harrowing visit there. Perhaps she got there ideas she would reuse later with great acumen…

But the demolition of the fortress had been decided. Outside its once formidable walls, little temporary cafés, sheltered under striped tents, sprang up in the summer heat. The old stones were being sold for construction or turned into all sorts of souvenirs.


Demolition of the Bastille, by Hubert Robert

Soon the old fortress was all gone, though its famous figure remained a symbol of the French Revolution, reproduced in countless engravings, popular images, crockery and other everyday artifacts.

The oddest thing was that, in any case, it would never had made it to our times. Its demolition had been discussed for some time before the Revolution, and it is almost certain that it would have been carried out as part of a vast program of modernization of Paris planned under Louis XVI’s supervision.

Yes, the Bastille was doomed, whether due to the well-meant efforts of Louis XVI or the wrath of early revolutionaries. I do not mean to end this post on a sad note, though. Happy Bastille Day to all!

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