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Were any U.S. founding fathers present at the storming of the Bastille?

I heard that Thomas Paine was "cheering on" the French Revolution.

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    A quick web search shows that Paine got to France in 1791 while the Bastille was back in 1789. Please edit question with preliminary research.
    – Brian Z
    Feb 24 at 4:22
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    Paine (not Payne) absolutely cheered it on... from the other side of the Atlantic. Feb 24 at 14:24
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    Given the aid that Louis XVI provided during the American war for independence, I think the founding fathers would have had somewhat ambiguous feelings.
    – Roger V.
    Feb 25 at 7:25
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    @RogerV. Quite so. Had it not been for Louis XVI's brutal and reactionary royal army, there would never have been any founding of the United States of America. By a further irony Britain had, by that time, had a sovereign representative parliament for nearly a century.
    – WS2
    Feb 25 at 12:05
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2 Answers 2

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There are 2 founding fathers (that I found) that were in France at the time of the French Revolution.

1. Thomas Jefferson

On July 14, 1789, the U.S. Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, was a witness to the events of a day in Paris that is commonly associated with the beginning of the French Revolution. Jefferson recorded the events of the day in a lengthy and detailed letter to John Jay, then Secretary of Foreign Affairs. In their own words: Thomas Jefferson and the Storming of the Bastille -- The original letter (paywalled)

More about it by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation

2. Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris was in France from 1789 to 1794, first for personal reasons, before being named minister plenipotentiary by George Washington in 1792. Journal de Gouverneur Morris.

His diaries during that time have become a valuable chronicle of the French Revolution and capture much of that era's turbulence and violence (wikipedia)

Haven't found evidence that he was physically in Paris on July 14th though. But some pages of his journal refer to the events. From "Le Journal de Gouverneur Morris pendant la Révolution française. Tome premier (1789)", quoting his "Journal, I, pp. 108-112 et p. 299":

(Original) Morris assiste à la Révolution comme à un spectacle. Il est présent dans les tribunes lors de l’ouverture des États-Généraux les 4 et 5 mai 1789 et il se rend également à l’Assemblée Nationale à plusieurs reprises, comme par exemple le 26 septembre 1789, où il estime que les débats sont désordonnés, bruyants et infructueux.

(Translation) Morris attends the Revolution as a spectacle. He was present in the stands during the opening of the States-General on May 4 and 5, 1789 and he also went to the National Assembly on several occasions, such as for example on September 26, 1789, where he considered that the debates were messy, noisy and unsuccessful.


If Thomas Paine was awarded honorary citizenship by France in recognition of the publishing of his "Rights of Man", and was later elected to the National Convention (despite not speaking any French), he wasn't in France at the time "La Bastille" was under attack. He moved to London in 1787 and wasn't back to France until 1790.

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  • I am aware of at least one party of British radicals who were there and witnessed the storming of the Bastille. They were led by Dr Edward Rigby of Norwich and their experiences are described in his Letters from France published by his daughter Lady Eastlake. They were supporters of Mirabeau and Rigby quotes a conversation he had with the revolutionary Target, who was identified with Mirabeau and those who favoured France becoming a constitutional monarchy on the British pattern.
    – WS2
    Feb 25 at 12:23
  • Isn't Mr Rigby the doctor I was mentioning on a comment down the other answer? Do you think it's him? (can't search at the moment)
    – OldPadawan
    Feb 25 at 12:26
  • I suppose he could be - I am not sure where your information came from. There could conceivably have been more than one British doctor there! But if you want to know anything about Rigby I have a considerable amount of information on him, having researched radicalism in Norwich in the period. Rigby was a distinguished surgeon of his day and a founder of the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital - also a supporter of a group of young Radical Whigs in the City who published (clandestinely) support for the likes of Paine and some French revolutionary ideas.
    – WS2
    Feb 25 at 12:35
  • see Eastlake, Lady (ed) Dr Rigby's letters from France in 1789 (London 1880). There is a copy in the Forum Library in Norwich and I assume the British Library.
    – WS2
    Feb 25 at 12:38
  • Thanks, I'll check this out.
    – OldPadawan
    Feb 25 at 12:54
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This is an addendum to OldPadawan's answer, citing directly from Morris's diary regarding the events of July 14. Anne Cary Morris (ed.), The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribener's Sons 1888, p. 125:

While I am visiting M. Le Coulteux a person comes to announce the taking of the Bastille, the Governor of which is beheaded, and the Prévôt des Marchands is killed and also beheaded. They are carrying the heads in triumph through the city. The carrying of this citadel is among the most extraordinary things I have met with. It cost the assailants 60 men, it is said. The Hôtel Royal des Invalides was forced this morning and the cannon and small arms, etc., brought off. The citizens are by these means well armed, at least here are the materials for about 30,000 to be equipped with, and that is a sufficient army.

M. Le Coulteux appears to be Jean-Barthélemy Le Couteulx de Canteleu, a wealthy banker whose name is usually spelled Le Coulteux de Chanteleu in contemporary publications. He resided in a large house in Faubourg Saint-Honoré near the Champs-Élysées. So Morris was close to the action on July 14 but not an eyewitness to the storming of the Bastille.

Thomas Jefferson was likewise present in Paris on the day the Bastille was stormed, but received the news second hand. Paul Leicester Ford (ed.), The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons 1892, pp. 136-137:

M. de Corny and five others were then sent to ask arms of M. de Launay, governor of the Bastile. They found a great collection of people already before the place, and they immediately planted a flag of truce, which was answered by a like flag hoisted on the Parapet. The deputation prevailed on the people to fall back a little, advanced themselves to make their demand of the Governor and in that instant a discharge from the Bastile killed four persons, of those nearest to the deputies. The deputies retired. I happened to be at the house of M. de Corny when he returned to it and received from him a narrative of these transactions. On the retirement of the deputies, the people rushed forward & 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, and had never been taken. How they forced their entrance has never been explained. They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners, and such of the garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the Governor and Lt. Governor to the Place de Grève (the place of public execution) cut off their heads, and sent them thro' the city in triumph to the Palais royal. About the same instant a treacherous correspondence having been discovered in M. de Flesselles, prevot des marchands, they seized him in the Hotel de Ville where he was in the execution of his office, and cut off his head.

M. de Corny appears to be Louis-Dominique Éthis de Corny. He was an attorney, commissary officer, and royal prosecutor for the city of Paris who supported the French Revolution.

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  • Actually, unless people were in the delegations (Thuriot, Ethis de Corny, Fauchet, Milly, Beaubourg...) that talked to Launay (or witnessed their actions), all testimonies are second hand and written days after the events (many books have been written about that, trying to gather and cross-check the informations).
    – OldPadawan
    Feb 25 at 7:07
  • There are some (unrelated to the events and unbiased) witnesses that wrote about the events, an English doctor (?) I can't remember his name though, or some french paramedic . There's an interesting reading about how witnesses can be trusted (in french).
    – OldPadawan
    Feb 25 at 7:21

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