French Revolution #3: Bastille Day and Independence

What do you think about when you think about history? The Roman intellectual and statesman Cicero once said that those who are ignorant of history live as perpetual children. This is true to a certain degree. History should be a more important aspect of a modern person’s general education, and high schools are woefully under prepared for the task.

An 18th century Seine river.  This painting is by Nicolas Raguenet.

An 18th century Seine river. This painting is by Nicolas Raguenet.

For me, history has always been about the opportunity to live in the past. At least in my mind’s eye. Why is it important for us to imagine ourselves in another place or time? There really is no definite answer to that question. In some ways, the tales of ancient history up into the mid-19th century are tales of the rich, powerful, and respected. Historians realize this, and that is why there is a new trend that emphasizes the micro histories of villages and settlements.

Schlesinger was the last historian's historian to be active in politics. For this statement, we'll say that the title "historian" requires a PhD.

Schlesinger was the last historian’s historian to be active in politics. For this statement, we’ll say that the title “historian” requires a PhD.

Peasant tales have nothing to do with the average modern American man or woman. All we have to learn from most of those stories is that poverty breeds unhappiness, fatigue, and dissatisfaction with life. People like to analyze an event like the French Revolution in order to ascertain political and social theories, but what real impact do such analyses have on the world? Historians have no clout with public policy makers anymore. The last true historian to have clout with our President was Arthur Schlesinger, and boy was he highly active in political life. He worked as a speechwriter for President Truman after 1947, and he eventually became an increasingly active member of President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet.

But those days of real historians working in politics are long behind us, and historians are thought of as “that person who obnoxiously tells us when this has happened before.” And you know, they are right. Using the word “sociocultural” doesn’t make your analyses of medieval knights more intelligent, but don’t tell most professors that.

Video: The Zeiss Lens and Kubrick

The best movie available for a true look at 18th century life is Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). Kubrick put together a special camera to film the candle-lit scenes, and the camera used a one-of-a-kind lens known as the Zeiss lens – a 0.7 F stop lens. It’s a remarkable way to see the past, too. We have a great deal of trouble understanding the world of 18th century people, and it is important to immerse ourselves in it once in a while. I love period films for this very purpose.

Revolutions are organized around simple human wants and needs. John Locke identified them best as “life, liberty, and property.” The spark is quite strong once ignited, and the American and French Revolutions fed off of it. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was the very first act of the people during the Summer of 1789, and this is no surprise.


Statue of Thomas Jefferson at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.

The principal right that Jefferson identified in the Declaration of Independence was the right to life. He would have quoted John Locke verbatim, but a guarantee of property from any government to all of its people will always be problematic. If there are to be new revolutions in the 21st century, they will undoubtedly be centered around the human right to property. We must exist somewhere in this world, because our physical presence demands it

The Declaration is the de-facto beginning of all American government. We hold those truths to be self-evident! The right to life should never be taken away from anyone, and for this reason I say that capital punishment is against the very fabric of what American patriotism is all about. After all, modern prisons are far worse. The prison systems in California and Texas are some of the most complex in the world, yet they are modern, sanitary, and fairly secure.

Painting that depicts the storming of the French Bastille.

Painting that depicts the storming of the French Bastille.

The centerpiece of the French Revolution was, and still is, Bastille Day – the day when French soldiers and peasants stormed the entrenched Bastille prison-fortress. History tends to make things bland, and historians love sanitary chalkboards with which to make conclusions. The French Revolution wasn’t about politics and clamor from the Bourgeoisie. It was about the basic needs of food and shelter. Bastille Day would go on to be remembered as damn near the most aggressively bloody and pointless charade of all time. Hundreds died to cut a rope in defiance of the Marquis of Launey who had entrenched himself within. The Bastille was well known for its fortified towers, and the Marquis of Launey pointed cannons facing outwards from them. It must have been quite an imposing gesture – sort of like if the Governor of California had decided to park tanks around a large building in Los Angeles during a food shortage.

A mob of soldiers and people essentially overran the Bastille fortress (one desription is located here: Primary Source: A Conqueror of the Bastille Speaks), and the Marquis of Launey was killed. His head was paraded around Paris on a pike, too. But the Bastille’s passing was not enough to cause any significant change. Not on its own.

Throngs of women assaulted Paris and the royal palace at Versailles demanding bread. Some of their stories can be read here: “Primary Source: Women Testify Concerning Their Participation in the October Days (1789).” In one part, we get a record of a conversation between the crowd and the king (Louis XVI) himself:

King Louis XVI

King Louis XVI

“His Majesty answered them that he was suffering at least as much as they were, to see them lacking it, and that so far as he was able he had taken care to prevent them from experiencing a dearth.”

There are various reasons that crowds assaulted the royal family during the October that followed the Bastille’s destruction. One onlooker said the crowd wanted the royal family to reside in Paris so that he could see the deprivation of famine and poverty himself (Primary Source: The October Days of 1789).

The October Days made the Great Fear in Paris even worse. Timothy Tacket tells us that, in the wake of the mob that stormed the palace, everyone was afraid that mobs were going to loot individual homes at large (The Coming of Terror in the French Revolution 126-127). In The French Revolution in Global Perspective, the editors attribute little significance to the October storming of the palace. That book’s editors seem to think that the Declaration of the Rights of Man are all that really mattered (Desan, ed., et al, Fr. Rev in Global, pg 102-108). They avoid the October Days of 1789 entirely.

The Execution of Marie Antoinette via Guillotine

The Execution of Marie Antoinette via Guillotine

Now, you would think that after the Bastille’s downfall and the storming of Versailles – well, that the French Revolution would then kick into full swing. It was time for people to lose their heads on a Guillotine, right? Well, no. In A Short History of the French Revolution, Jeremy Popkin explains that it was relatively calm and orderly for more than a year after the October Days (pg. 44). The king’s arrival in Paris – ostensibly to oversee a major overhaul in government – had a calming effect. Leaders often have a great deal of image related power over the personal lives of their citizens and peasant-folk. King Louis XVI clearly had such a relationship with his people, but he failed to make the needed changes in French society and government during that year of relative calm.

This event may be quite interesting, but it doesn't make for very memorable history. You have to dramaticize the Tennis Court Oath just to make an impact. Heck, even the name is rather boring.

This event may be quite interesting, but it doesn’t make for very memorable history. You have to dramaticize the Tennis Court Oath just to make an impact. Heck, even the name is rather boring.

Bastille Day is similar to the day when the Berlin Wall fell. Both events were a phenomenon and whirlwind of political, social, cultural, and economic change. The poor are always looking for ways to topple the powers that be, and both structures were symbols of power set in stone. Major events like these are what shape history, and it really isn’t about a bunch of aristocrats sitting around a table deciding policy. The writers of most history books might tell you that “The Tennis Court Oath” was the most important initial feature of the French Revolution. They might be right, but the idea of a bunch of middle-class well-offs agreeing to help the poor makes me want to take a nap.

Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989)

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