On July 14, 1789, an angry mob stormed the dreaded Bastille in Paris, France.
Class tensions had been festering for days when some 1,000 people gathered outside the Bastille with two simple, almost comical demands: Surrender the fortress, and give us your weapons. Two of the protesters were ushered inside for negotiations.
As the hours dragged on, the mob became restless. The crowd surged into the outer courtyard and cut the chains on the drawbridge. By mid-afternoon, about 300 mutinous soldiers—and two of their cannons—had joined the fight to liberate the prison. It was all over by about 5:30.
Although romantics may imagine hundreds of oppressed peasants running from the Bastille to their freedom, in fact there were only seven inmates: four counterfeiters, two madmen, and an arrogant young aristocrat who had been sent there by his father.
Even so, to many French people—and to Parisians in particular—the fall of the Bastille looms as an enormous turning point in their nation’s history. For one thing, it sparked the French Revolution.
For another, it taught some important lessons: Most importantly, don’t keep a French mob waiting. Second, never underestimate the incredible transformative power of a few committed people, working toward a common goal.
Here’s all that remains of the Bastille today. But its legacy lives on.