In their own words: Thomas Jefferson and the Storming of the Bastille

This post is part of a series, written by Jim Zeender, devoted to letters written by the Founding Fathers in their own words and often in their own hand. Jim is a senior registrar in Exhibits.

King Louis XVI of France, via Wikipedia.

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

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

When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, France was virtually broke and on the edge of social catastrophe, the result of decades of war with England and other countries. The poor suffered hunger and privation. By 1789, revolution would come to France.

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson arrived in Paris to replace Benjamin Franklin, who was retiring as ambassador to France. At the age of 81, Franklin returned to the United States where he would serve as President of the Pennsylvania Assembly and also participated in the Constitutional  Convention of 1787.

John Adams was reassigned to London where he would be the first American ambassador to the Court of St. James. Jefferson remained on duty in France until late 1789 when he returned to the United States. While in France, Jefferson reported on developments at the court of King Louis XVI, the country at large, and the rest of Europe.

Jefferson was sympathetic to the revolution, opening his home in Paris to its leaders and assisting his friend the Marquis de Lafayette with drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man. As the first Secretary of State under the Constitution and George Washington, his support for France and the revolution continued.

After the revolution passed through its bloodiest stages, with the execution of King Louis XVI and Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, Napoleon Bonaparte made his way to power and claimed the title of Emperor. It was not until he became President in 1801 that Jefferson’s views toward France began to cool and became more pragmatic, highlighted by the Louisiana Purchase Treaty.

The Duke de Liancourt, mentioned in the letter below, was a supporter of the King and the royalty, but he also was an advocate for social reform. He was a member of the Estates-General which represented the Clergy, the Nobles, and the common people. 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. Among its members were Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (diplomat), Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (clergyman and writer),  and Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (lawyer and politician) and Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (writer, diplomat and politician) and  Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (writer, economist, and government official). Du Pont was a friend of Jefferson’s and later emigrated to the United States.

The excerpt shown here is from a letter in Jefferson’s own hand to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay. In great depth, he describes the events of July 14, 1789, including the storming of the Bastille in Paris. The Bastille was a symbol of the old regime, and housed arms, gunpoweder, and prisoners.

Excerpt from letter written by Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, reporting on the events in Paris (French Revolution) 07/19/1789

Letter from Jefferson to Jay, July 19, 1789. National Archives, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention:

On July 14th [afternoon]. Monsieur de Corny [a member of the States General] and 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, 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 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 and 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 and 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, and 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, and obliged him to hear a full and 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, and 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], and 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 and carnage, that 150,000 men were in arms coming to Versailles to massacre the Royal family, the court, the ministers and all connected with them, their practices and principles.The Aristocrats of the Nobles and Clergy in the States general vied with each other in declaring how sincerely they were converted to the justice of voting by persons, and 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, and Bourgeois guards before and behind. About 60,000 citizens of all forms and colours, armed with the muskets of the Bastille and 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, and, with the crowds of people in the streets, doors and 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 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 roy et la nation.’ He was conducted by a garde Bourgeoise [militia] to his palace at Versailles, and thus concluded such an Amende honorable as no sovereign ever made, and no people ever received.

After observing the French revolution in person for another six weeks and only three weeks before departing Paris for his beloved Virginia, Jefferson wrote:

 I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789.  Original  is in Madison Papers at the Library of Congress.

In future posts to follow, we will return to Paris and review Jefferson’s letters from Paris to Jay during the months leading up to the events of July 14. You can read more about Jefferson’s experiences in Paris during the French Revolution on the National Archives website.

3 thoughts on “In their own words: Thomas Jefferson and the Storming of the Bastille

  1. Peggy — Never do I see or hear the words “Bastille Day” w/o thinking of you and Blowing Rock! And then the “Marseillaise starts playing in my head… Michele

  2. The French Revolution changed History in that it marked the end of beginning of the end of Birthright Nobility being the Ruling Class of ,European Countries. While there are still Kings, Queens and the like political parties and elected officials now manage governments.

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