By Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
July 14, 2017
On July 14, 1789, French commoners took to the streets of Paris. They had recently raided the Hôtel des Invalides for weapons and were now turning to find ammunition, a large store of which had just been delivered to the Bastille, a prison that housed political dissidents. Quickly, they swarmed it, demanding admittance. By midday, the attackers, who had steadily grown in number, became impatient and stormed the fortress. Gunfire erupted, resulting in the deaths of 98 attackers and one defender. Overwhelmed by the mob, the facility’s military governor, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, was forced to surrender. The gate was opened, and the few prisoners inside were released. Launay was captured and taken to the Hôtel de Ville to be tried, but was later murdered. In a final effort to seal its newfound power, the mob erected Launay’s head on a stick.
Thousands of miles away sat George Washington, only a month and a half into his presidency. He would not learn of the events in France until September, and he would not acknowledge them until October 13/14.1 When he finally did, Washington only briefly discussed the revolutionary activity. His first responses are limited to five letters, three of which recycle the same uninterested reaction:
The Revolution, announced by the intelligence from France, must be interesting to the Nations of the World in general, and is certainly of the greatest importance to the Country in which it has happened. I am persuaded I express the sentiments of my fellow-citizens, when I offer an earnest prayer that it may terminate in the permanent honor and happiness of your Government and People.2
In the only letter in which he addressed the topic with more than one paragraph, his conclusion remained calm and measured: “I declared to you in the beginning that I had little to say. I have got beyond the second page, and find I have a good deal to add; but that no time or paper may be wasted in a useless preface I will come to the point.”3
So, why did Washington appear unconcerned by the violent outburst that occurred in the capital of America’s greatest ally, France? In order to answer that question, this first part of a two-part series will look at Washington’s knowledge and sense of the French political spirit leading up to the revolutionary outbreak on July 14, 1789.
Nearly a decade before, Washington had predicted that France’s financial involvement in the American Revolution would result in a higher taxes, “which the People in France are not in a condition to endure for any duration.”4 He continued, “When this necessity commences, France makes war on Ruinous terms.”5
Years later, on October 9, 1787, the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s good friend and protégé, confirmed Washington’s prediction. Onerous taxes, combined with the republican ideals learned from participation in the American Revolution, had precipitated restlessness in the masses: “The affairs of france are still in an Unsettled Situation—a large deficiency is to be filled up with taxes, and the Nation are tired to pay what they Have not Voted. The ideas of liberty Have Been, since the American Revolution, spreading very fast.”6
A year later, Washington reiterated his prediction in a now-famous letter to James Madison. Often quoted for its poetic introduction (“Liberty when it begins to take root is a plant of rapid growth”), the letter includes Washington’s assertion that “[t]he checks [the king] endeavors to give it … will, more than probably, kindle a flame which may not easily be extinguished; tho’ for a while it may be smothered by the Armies at his command.”7
While Washington believed revolution in France was inevitable, he could not anticipate when exactly it would break out. As early as January 1789, Rochambeau wrote Washington with evidence of unrestrained discontent in France. In his letter, he warned Washington that conversations among the three estates of France—the nobles, clergy, and general public—were becoming worrisome, foretelling drama yet to come: “We come out, my Dear General, of an assembly of chief men Where We treated the Wearisome preface of a Drama Which is to become of a great concern and of Which We must Expect a fine unravelling.”8
Gouverneur Morris, who was then in France on business, gave more detailed reports. On April 29, 1789, he sent a lengthy assessment of the French revolutionaries’ supposed predilection toward corruption and immorality:
A hundred Anecdotes and an hundred thousand Examples are required to shew the extreme Rottenness of every Member. … It is however from such crumbling Matter that the great Edifice of Freedom is to be erected here. Perhaps like the Stratum of Rock which is spread under the whole Surface of their Country, it may harden when exposed to the Air; but it seems quite as likely that it will fall and crush the Builders. I own to you that I am not without such Apprehensions, for there is one fatal Principle which pervades all Ranks: It is a perfect Indifference to the Violation of Engagements. Inconstancy is so mingled in the Blood, Marrow, and very Essence of this People, that when a Man of high Rank and Importance laughs to Day at what he seriously asserted Yesterday, it is considered as in the natural order of things. Consistency is the Phenomenon. Judge then what would be the Value of an Association, should such a thing be proposed and even adopted.9
Despite his “apprehensions,” Morris did not repudiate the French revolutionaries. Indeed, before describing these cultural difficulties, he extolled the significance of the French Revolution to American interests and the general cause of liberty:
We have I think every Reason to wish that the Patriots may be successful. The generous Wish which a free People must form to disseminate Freedom, the grateful Emotion which rejoices in the Happiness of a Benefactor, and a strong personal Interest as well in the Liberty as in the Power of this Country, all conspire to make us far from indifferent Spectators. I say that we have an Interest in the Liberty of France. The Leaders here are our Friends, many of them have imbibed their Principles in America, and all have been fired by our Example. Their Opponents are by no Means rejoiced at the Success of our Revolution, and many of them are disposed to form Connections of the strictest Kind with Great Britain.10
Morris wrote his next letter on July 31, two weeks after the storming of the Bastille. Skipping over the event that bore out his earlier assessment of the French revolutionaries’ capriciousness, he discussed its consequences. He reported that the country was so much in the hands of the common masses that the French monarch was considering abdicating his seat and fleeing to Spain.11 Believing the revolutionaries were moving much too quickly, and with little political experience or judgment, he was concerned about the form the new constitution would take: “I tremble for the Constitution. They have all that romantic Spirit, & all those romantic Ideas of Government, which happily for America, we were cured of before it was too late.”12
These are only a few of the many letters circulating within Washington’s social network that reveal the perspectives of the political climate in France. They excite the reader with promise of violence and imminent upheaval. But Washington’s responses to the events unfolding were few in number and unhurried in their reply. So, what could have contributed to such a reaction? We’ll discuss in the next part of this blog series.
- Washington’s letters to Armand, D’Estaing, Morris, and Rochambeau are dated October 13; his diary entry for October 14, however, notes that he “[w]rote several Letters to France” that day. “[Diary entry: 14 October 1789],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0005-0002-0014. Also available in print: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 5.
- “From George Washington to Armand, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0124; “From George Washington to D’Estaing, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0119; “From George Washington to Rochambeau, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0127. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
- “From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0125. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
- “From George Washington to Joseph Jones, 22 July 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-02623. To be published: Papers of George Washington Revolutionary War Series, vol. 27.
- “To George Washington from Lafayette, 9 October 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0332. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 5.
- “From George Washington to James Madison, 2 March 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0115 . Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 6.
- “To George Washington from Rochambeau, 31 January 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-01-02-0202. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1.
- “To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 29 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0125. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2.
- “To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 31 July 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-03-02-0206. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 3.