Jefferson on the Bastille

Thomas Jefferson relayed his eyewitness account of the storming of the Bastille with shocking calm.


Embedded reporting had not yet been invented when Thomas Jefferson watched a mob of Frenchmen storm the Bastille in 1789. As a result, his account is limited only by the quality of his sources. "How they got in," he wrote of the men and women who started the revolution, "has as yet been impossible to discover. Those, who pretend to have been of the party tell so many different stories as to discredit them all." Other events Jefferson relays more confidently, and with shocking calm: how the mob released prisoners, stole weapons, walked the Bastille's "Governor & Lieutenant governor" to the Guillotine–and then "cut off their heads."

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And why not be confident? After all, Jefferson saw all of this with his own eyes. Before the riots, he'd been watching King Louis XVI call a meeting of the States General at Versailles, to discuss the country's financial crisis. When chaos broke, he followed the mobs into the streets of Paris.

Jefferson's interest was professional but also personal. As America's minister to France, he had an obligation to keep the country informed. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, he found the unfolding revolution fascinating. Perhaps as a result, rather than let his secretary transcribe the events for him, Jefferson wrote directly to John Jay, the American secretary of foreign affairs, himself–in his own hand, in a letter that filled 12 pages.

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The following is an excerpt of that letter.

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 & practicableobject. 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...