The working people of Paris decisively entered into formal politics through the French Revolution. Concentrated in the eastern part of the city, near the Bastille and in the neighborhood of Saint-Antoine, artisans and laborers were the industrial backbone of the capital. They toiled in small shops of usually less than twenty workers composed of masters, journeymen, and apprentices. Though known to historians as "workers," they actually varied broadly in their levels of education and wealth. At the upper levels of this range were those who came to lead the popular movement. They were fairly well educated and well-off but also depended upon many with middle-class backgrounds—the journalists and lawyers—who most aggressively took up the political cause of "the people." Exactly what percentage of the entire working population took up politics as well as which elements of the populace predominated remain the focus of debate. Without seeking to resolve these thorny questions, this chapter focuses on the politics that related visibly to the urban artisans and their allies. This is then the story of those who acted as the populace, whatever their precise social standing. Whereas Chapter 1 showed the "people" as a social group of sans-culottes, here they are seen directly affecting the course of the Revolution—through their daily activities, their great moments of protest, and their discussions of morality, politics, and the economy. As the documents attest, contemporaries considered them a violent, potent force.

Even before 14 July 1789, the Parisian "crowd"—as some contemporaries and many historians refer to the politically active populace—found protest and even violence an effective means to voice its desires to its members and to the rest of society.

Needless to say, the people made their most dramatic entrance onto the revolutionary stage with their seizure of the Bastille. The atmosphere in mid-July had already grown quite tense, as the Estates-General—meeting in Versailles twenty miles away—had been thwarted in a number of its initiatives by the King, and rumors circulating in the capital suggested that royal troops were preparing to disband the assembly. On 12 July, Parisians also learned that the popular finance minister Jacques Necker had been dismissed. It is difficult to know how the populace interpreted these developments and what role they played in the uprising of 14 July: Was the protest that led to the taking of the Bastille a conscious political reaction intended to protect the Estates-General against royal interference, or, given the sharply rising bread prices in Paris at the time, were the crowds that gathered on the 14th engaging in a more traditional form of protest, a large-scale "bread riot," that took on political significance only as events unfolded? Certainly, in the days prior to the 14th, some Parisians called on the people to mobilize and prevent a royal or "aristocratic" attack on the nascent Revolution. Most famously, the journalist Camille Desmoulins rose on a soapbox before a crowd assembled on the 12th in the public gardens of the Palais-Royal to urge "the people" to take action.

Throughout the next three days, crowds gathered to protest the high bread prices; royal troops sent to quell any disturbance instead fraternized with the demonstrators. On 14 July they allowed—even helped—a group looking for arms with which to take over the city search the royal veterans' hospital, but without success. At the same time, another crowd was swarming around the Bastille, a medieval royal fortress that loomed above the workers' neighborhoods at the eastern edge of the city. Lightly armed, but still impregnable to the thronging crowd, the Bastille could have held out longer, but when the threat to their position seemed to be increasing, its defenders did not really have the stomach for a fight and lowered the drawbridge, allowing the crowd into the courtyard. As a result of a miscommunication, the troops fired a volley into the crowd trapped within the outer walls, setting off a pitched battle that culminated in the commander's surrender, capture, and rapid beheading.

Though many people remained uncertain about the meaning of the day's events, the radical press immediately proclaimed the fall of the Bastille a successful blow to despotism. As the radical press increased the vehemence and volume of its reports, this interpretation soon emerged as the predominant one, and across Europe, especially in Versailles, the storming of the Bastille was portrayed as an immense defeat for absolutist authority. Ironically, as a fortress the Bastille served little purpose, and the seven inmates freed on 14 July included no actual victims of political oppression. But the taking of the Bastille had great significance to the people, who made clear their sense of triumph soon thereafter by leveling the building, an act that symbolized the felling of despotism. Images justified and recorded this sense of outrage.












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