Thursday, July 14, 2016

Thomas Jefferson writes home about Bastille Day

During the first few months of what would become the French Revolution, Paris was in the grip of great unrest.  The poor were suffering from extreme hunger & privation.  By 1789, France had suffered a budget crisis for for decades, due to its wars with England; its tax structure; & its support of the American Revolution. In an attempt to implement new taxes, King Louis XVI called a meeting of the Etats-Generaux, the Estates General, on May 5, 1789. As far as the King was concerned, the upcoming meeting of the Estates General would be a rubber-stamp gathering of representatives of the Clergy, Nobility & Third Estate (the commoners) of France.  They would do his bidding to resolve the budget deficit. And the meeting also would offer a grand occasion to display the ostentatious pageantry of the monarchy.

Within weeks, the representatives of Third Estate, soon joined by members of the nobility & the clergy, formed themselves into a  “National Assembly” & pledged to give France a written Constitution. The Estates General refused to disband under royal pressure & actually became the Constituent National Assembly. In an absolute monarchy, where the only rule had been le bon plaisir of the King, that was a declaration of Revolution.  In July, King Louis XVI summoned fresh troops & dismissed Necker, a popular minister. 

King Louis XVI (1754-1793) by Antoine-François Callet (1741-1823)

On the morning of 14 July, the people of Paris took up arms at Invalides & made their way to an old royal fortress, the Bastille. After a bloody exchange of fire, they took the fortress & freed the few prisoners locked inside it.  The Storming of the Bastille was the 1st victory for the people of Paris against a symbole of the Ancien Régime. The building would be completely demolished over the following months.

Bastille was originally built as a fortress and formally known as Bastille Saint-Antoine.

The “Festival of the Federation” on 14 July 1790, celebrated the 1st anniversary of the insurrection with great pomp & circumstance. At the Champ de Mars in Paris, mass was preached by diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.  Following a proposal from the deputy for the Seine, Benjamin Raspail, July 14th became the national day of the Republic. Today, the festival is as popular as ever. In Paris, the traditional military parade along the Champs-Elysées is presented with incredible attention to detail. Balls, illuminations & firework displays are held throughout France.

The Storming of the Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813)

On July 14, 1789, the U.S. Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, was a witness to the events of that day in Paris which is commonly associated with the beginning of the French Revolution. Jefferson recorded the events of the day in a lengthy & detailed letter he sent home to the United States to John Jay, then Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

Bastille Day - Arrest of de Launay by an anonymous artist

The American Revolutionary War began as a conflict between the colonies & England. In time, what began as a civil disturbance turned into a world war drawing France, Spain, & the Netherlands into the hostilities. France sent troops, ships, & treasure to support the American effort.   During the war, one of the first priorities of the French government & its allies was to raise funds to fight the war.

Capture of Bastille 1789

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson arrived in Paris to replace Benjamin Franklin, who was retiring as ambassador to France. While in France from 1785-89, Jefferson reported back to the new American government on developments at the court of King Louis XVI; the country at large; & the rest of Europe.  Jefferson was sympathetic to the growing French revolution, opening his home in Paris to its leaders & assisting his friend the Marquis de Lafayette with drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man.  When he was appointed the 1st Secretary of State under the new Constitution of the United States of America, his support for France & the revolution continued.

The Bastille was a symbol of the old regime, & housed arms, gunpowder, & prisoners. The Duke de Liancourt, mentioned in Jefferson's letter, was a supporter of the King & the royalty, but he also was an advocate for social reform. He was a member of the Estates-General.  On July 18, 1789, after the storming of the Bastille, Liancourt was elected to the National Constituent Assembly, which was effectively the government of France.  

Arrest of de Launay, by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, 1790

Jefferson wrote to John Jay, Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the United States, describing the events of July 14, 1789, including the storming of the Bastille in Paris.  Jefferson wrote on July 19, 1789. On July 14th [afternoon]. Monsieur de Corny [a member of the States General] & five others were… sent to ask arms of Monsieur de Launay, Governor of the Bastille. They 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 deputation 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, & 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 & Lieutenant governor to the Greve (the place of public execution) cut off their heads, & set them through the city in triumph to the Palais royal.

But at night the Duke de Liancourt forced his way into the king’s bedchamber, & obliged him to hear a full & animated detail of the disasters of the day in Paris. [The King] went to bed deeply impressed… the king…went about 11. oclock, accompanied only by his brothers, to the States general, & there read to them a speech, in which he asked their interposition to re-establish order. Tho this be couched in terms of some caution, yet the manner in which it was delivered made it evident that it was meant as a surrender at discretion. He returned to the chateau afoot, accompanied by the States. They sent off a deputation, the Marquis de la Fayette at their head, to quiet Paris. He had the same morning been named Commandant en chef of the milice Bourgeoise [the King’s Militia], …A body of the Swiss guards, of the regiment of Ventimille [Italy], & the city horse guards join the people.

The alarm at Versailles increases instead of abating. They believed that the Aristocrats of Paris were under pillage & carnage, that 150,000 men were in arms coming to Versailles to massacre the Royal family, the court, the ministers & all connected with them, their practices & principles.The Aristocrats of the Nobles & Clergy in the States general vied with each other in declaring how sincerely they were converted to the justice of voting by persons, & how determined to go with the nation…

The king came to Paris, leaving the queen in consternation for his return. Omitting the less important figures of the procession, I will only observe that the king’s carriage was in the center, on each side of it the States general, in two ranks, afoot, at their head the Marquis de la Fayette as commander in chief, on horseback, & Bourgeois guards before & behind. About 60,000 citizens of all forms & colours, armed with the muskets of the Bastille & Invalids as far as they would go, the rest with pistols, swords, pikes, pruning hooks, scythes &c. lined all the streets thro’ which the procession passed, &, with the crowds of people in the streets, doors & windows, saluted them every where with cries of ‘vive la nation.’ But not a single ‘vive le roy’ was heard.

The king landed at the Hotel de ville [City of Hall in Paris].  There Monsieur Bailly [Mayor of Paris] presented & put into his hat the popular cockade, & addressed him. The king being unprepared & unable to answer, Bailly went to him, gathered from him some scraps of sentences, & made out an answer, which he delivered to the Audience as from the king. On their return the popular cries were ‘vive le roy et la nation.’ He was conducted by a garde Bourgeoise [militia] to his palace at Versailles, & thus concluded such an Amende honorable as no sovereign ever made, & no people ever received.

By the time Jefferson became President of the United States in 1801, his views toward France began to cool, & he became more pragmatic, highlighted by his quiet 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory.  (Jefferson paid France 50 million francs ($11,250,000) plus cancellation of debts worth 18 million francs ($3,750,000), a total sum of 15 million dollars (around 4 cents per acre), for the Louisiana territory.)

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