July 14th: Viva Bastille Day! Viva la France! Viva Revolution! Viva the modern world!

by on July 14, 2010 · 3 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Culture, History, Organizing


Originally posted on July 14, 2010.

July 14th is Frances’ July 4th -a national holiday, as it commemorates the storming of the hated Bastille – a fortress like prison in Paris – in 1789.  The date celebrates the victory of the French people in their revolution that overthrew the king and feudal system. The storming of the prison is seen as a symbol of the uprising of the first modern nation and the beginning of a constitutional government for France.

(The American revolution preceded this, of course, but our struggle was not technically a revolution per se but more of a colonial war against an imperial power. See this earlier post explaining the origin of modern politics.)

For impartiality, we turn to wikipedia:

In France, it is formally called La Fête Nationale (National Celebration) and commonly le quatorze juillet (the fourteenth of July). …

On 5 May 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates-General to hear their grievances. The deputies of the Third Estate representing the common people (the two others were the Catholic Church and nobility) decided to break away and form a National Assembly. On 20 June the deputies of the Third Estate took the Tennis Court Oath, swearing not to separate until a constitution had been established. They were gradually joined by delegates of the other estates; Louis started to recognize their validity on 27 June. The assembly re-named itself the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July, and began to function as a legislature and to draft a constitution.

… the people of Paris, fearful that they and their representatives would be attacked by the royal military, and seeking to gain ammunition and gunpowder for the general populace, stormed the Bastille, a fortress-prison in Paris which had often held people jailed on the basis of lettres de cachet, arbitrary royal indictments that could not be appealed. Besides holding a large cache of ammunition and gunpowder, the Bastille had been known for holding political prisoners whose writings had displeased the royal government, and was thus a symbol of the absolutism of the monarchy. As it happened, at the time of the siege in July 1789 there were only seven inmates, none of great political significance.

When the crowd—eventually reinforced by mutinous gardes françaises [led by Napoleon, a young artillery officer]—proved a fair match for the fort’s defenders,  …the commander of the Bastille, capitulated and opened the gates to avoid a mutual massacre. However, possibly because of a misunderstanding, fighting resumed. Ninety-eight attackers and just one defender died in the actual fighting, but in the aftermath, (the governor) and seven other defenders were killed, as was the … mayor….

The storming of the Bastille was more important as a rallying point and symbolic act of rebellion than a practical act of defiance.

Shortly after the storming of the Bastille, on 4 August feudalism was abolished and on 26 August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen proclaimed.

Bastille Day is celebrated all over the world, including in 50 cities in the United States.  It is of special importance in our country because the French people were inspired to revolt by our Revolution of 1776 – which they, of course, greatly aided.

We should all celebrate it, as it commemorates the opening of the modern nation-state, the right of revolution by an oppressed people, and a blow against tyranny.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Molly July 14, 2010 at 10:26 am

As one of the resident historians that makes noise on this here blog, this day is important to Americans – despite our recent ‘hatred’ of the French around the invasion of Iraq (which were entirely bogus – both the ‘hatred’ – do you recall french fries being renamed “freedom fries”? and the invasion )- because it does reaffirm the right of revolution.

Just because George Bush didn’t like the French because of their resistance to his rush to war, doesn’t mean we need to extend that attitude. We owe a lot to the French peoples over the ages. Modern politics began in their society, we couldn’t have won our revolution without them, and in the late Sixties, they showed us ‘how it’s done’ – how to state a showdown with the modern authoritarian state.


Frank Gormlie July 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Okay! So, I got carried away with my “viva’s”. Welcoming the “modern world” could be two -sided, I know. Is it all that great compared with the “old days” before the French revolution? Dunno, but feudalism wasn’t all that wonderful for the peasants.


Mackenzie Gunn February 5, 2012 at 11:05 pm

A big thank you for your blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Want more.


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