Footnote.com has millions of records online of historical interest. Most of those records concern events in American history. However, there are a few exceptions. Monday is Bastille Day in France; so, it seems appropriate to focus on one of those records that is an eyewitness account of the biggest event in French history. The letter was written in English and is easy to read.
In the 1780s, the Bastille was a prison in Paris. The king kept political prisoners there, along with criminals of all sorts. The Bastille was an irregularly-shaped fortress, 220 feet long (70 meters) and 90 feet wide (30 meters) with walls of up to 80 feet high (25 meters), surrounded by a broad moat.
Following several days of disturbances, a crowd stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Their purpose was not so much to release the prisoners as to capture or destroy the gunpowder and arms being stored there. The people of Paris believed that French troops would use the gunpowder and arms against the local population. In fact, on that day, only seven prisoners were incarcerated at the Bastille.
A crowd of around 1,000 people gathered outside the Bastille in mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the guns, and the release of the arms and gunpowder. In the early afternoon, the crowd broke into the undefended outer courtyard, and an exchange of gunfire began. In mid-afternoon the mutinous Gardes Françaises of the Royal Army joined the crowd. The fortress was liberated around 5:30 PM.
The storming of the Bastille is the most famous event in French history and is considered the beginning of the French Revolution.
A number of foreigners were in the area at the time, including a diplomat from the new nation called the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson was an eye-witness, and that evening he wrote about the events he had observed. He sent this report back to his government, and his words became the first report that a second nation was about to join the USA in the new social experiment called democracy.
Footnote.com has images of Thomas Jefferson's letter available online as part of the "Papers of the Continental Congress" collection. You can read about the storming of the Bastille in Jefferson's own words and, even better, in his handwriting. Best of all, this collection is available to everyone free of charge.
To read Thomas Jefferson's account of the Storming of the Bastille in his own handwriting, go to http://www.footnote.com/image/259035/bastille.
The controls in the upper left corner let you zoom in and out on the displayed words. If you want to read Jefferson’s account of events leading up to this celebrated event, use the Filmstrip controls at the bottom of the window to display preceding pages.