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PHOTO/ Bastille Day sets off French Revolution 222 years ago

July 14, 1989, 222 years ago today, the infamous state prison of Paris, the Bastille, was taken by a mob of revolutionaries, setting off the French Revolution.

Liberty leading the people    by Eugene Delacroix Liberty leading the people by Eugene Delacroix

Tensions were growing in Paris and throughout France after the Third Estate, made up of the middle class, declared themselves the National Assembly and sought to rewrite the Constitution, against the will of the First and Second Estates, made of noblemen and clergymen.

The country had already been moving toward a revolution because of rising food prices, actual food shortages, and resentment against King Louis XVI and his spending habits. The first two Estates, which held the reins of power, represented only 2% of the population of France. The Third Estate tried to institute reforms at the Estates-General meeting, but, when they failed to convince the other two groups, they met in a tennis court on June 20, 1989 and signed an oath to stay together and reassemble until the new Constitution could be put into place. This oath inspired revolutionary activities all over the country, including the storming of the Bastille.

The Bastille was built in 1370 as part of the fortifications of the city of Paris. It was first used as a state prison in the 17th century, and many people were put into the Bastille without a trial on the orders of the King. One hundred feet tall with an 80 foot wide moat, the Bastille was the symbol of the monarchy.

Bernard-Jordan de Launay, who was in charge of the Bastille, feared that he would come under attack, and so he transferred barrels of gunpowder there and asked for reinforcements. Swiss mercenaries came to help and they shut themselves into the Bastille and drew up the bridges.

On the morning of July 14, 1789, revolutionary leaders arrived at the Bastille with a mob of commoners. De Launay refused to come out, but promised not to fire on the crowd. This emboldened several hundred people to climb the walls and try to take the prison by force. De Launay began firing on the mob and killed about two hundred people. However, as more and more people kept arriving from the city, it become impossible to hold the Bastille, and de Launay and his men surrendered. De Launay was murdered by a mob before he could be arrested.

The taking of the Bastille symbolized the end of the old regime to the French people and added incredible momentum to the cause of the Revolution. The Bastille was torn down by the revolutionary government, and the last stone was presented to the National Assembly on February 6, 1790, while the key to the Bastille is kept at Mount Vernon, the residence of George Washington, since it was given to Washinton by Lafayette. Bastille Day is a national holiday in France, sometimes called The National Holiday.