Today is officially the Festival of Federation or informally known as “Bastille Day”, a national holiday for our listeners in France, the rough equivalent of July 4th in the United States.
Bastille Day commemorates an event that took place July 14, 1789 when angry mobs in Paris attacked and captured the Bastille, a large fortress and state prison on the eastern edge of the city. The Bastille was a symbol of royal tyranny and absolutism in the country and the crowds believed that it contained weapons and political prisoners.
The storming of the Bastille, however, would come to symbolize French independence from the Bourbon monarchy of King Louis the 16th. The great arsenal was gradually torn down in the following weeks; pieces from the fort were fashioned into models of the building and other souvenirs.
The raid and destruction of France’s state prison was part of a series of events that are now known collectively as the French Revolution, a brutal but important milestone for Western Civilization that lasted until 1799 and transformed both a country and continent.
The French Revolution is too broad and complex a subject to cover in today’s show, so we’re just going to examine several events that modern historians conclude caused the triumphant and tragic event.
First a little background on the Bastille. It was built beginning in 1370, during the Hundred Years War, a prolonged conflict between England and France that lasted until 1453. The Bastille was converted into a prison in the 1600’s by King Charles the Sixth. It has been described as, “a large, gloomy gray building with eight ninety-foot towers, encircled by a deep ditch that was once a moat.” Post-revolution artwork has tended to romanticize the storming by portraying the Bastille with towering walls to exaggerate the achievement of the attackers.
For generations the Bastille held a sort of ominous psychological grip over the country. Terrifying stories of its many torture chambers and rat-infested dungeons ran rampant throughout the French countryside. Most of the prisoners had been incarcerated by the command of the despotic king using a letter de cachet (cash-ay), a simple piece of paper that detained an individual without any kind of legal process.
Some early inmates were traitors, some were guilty of publishing works that slandered the monarchy; others were considered religious heretics. The prison was, in fact, less grim on the inside than imagined; prisoners reportedly lived quite comfortably (for the right price of course), and many cells had fireplaces, curtains and furniture. Notable prisoners included the philosopher Voltaire, the journalist Nicholas Linguet, and a former cavalry officer turned lecherous novelist known as the Marquis de Sade.
The walls of the Bastille were guarded by eighty-two French army veterans and thirty-two soldiers of a Swiss regiment. The walls mounted eighteen eight-pound cannons and twelve smaller guns. 250 barrels (about 30,000 pounds) of gunpowder were stored in the cellars. The prison was under the control of the Governor Marquis de Launay, an elderly nobleman, who was actually raised inside the compound and inherited the job of warden from his father.
The Seven Years War had ended in 1763 and cost France its territories in North America while ensuring that its main rival Great Britain was the dominant naval and colonial in most of the known world. The French philosopher Voltaire published his ground-breaking work Candide in 1759 and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also published two popular works in 1762, entitled Emile and The Social Contract. All three became important tracts in the rise of the Enlightenment; a mass movement of radical ideas that spread across Europe and promoted reason over faith and tradition as well as the establishment of “natural rights” for mankind.
The American Revolution began in 1775, inspired by Enlightenment ideas and the New England colonies’ desire to throw off the yoke of Great Britain and found their own representative democracy. France served as an important ally to the new United States and many in France began considering their own revolution in favor of a republican government.
Louis the 16th inherited the French throne, following the death of his father Louis the 15th in 1774. His reign has been classified by historians, in a word, as incapable. One relative wrote: “The king is back-tracking. He is always afraid of making mistakes. Once he has made a decision he is terrified that he might have got it wrong.”
Louis’ young wife, the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, was little more than a rowdy teenager, increasingly unpopular with the French people, who branded her an outsider and railed against her extravagant and debauched lifestyle. She suffered a near life-threatening public relations crisis when a rumor spread that she told starving peasants in Paris to “eat cake” after bad harvests and inflation had caused the price of bread to double. This did not happen, but like today, perception became reality.
The country was divided at the time into the so-called “three estates.” The First Estate consisted of the clergy, the second estate was designated for nobles and the third estate comprised the rest of the population: the wealthy bourgeoisie and the peasants. The three estates had been historically represented in a legislative assembly called the Estates-General, however, representatives had not met in over 150 years.
The country was in a mess and sitting on the throne was the well-meaning but incompetent Louis the 16th, “lacking in intelligence, good judgment and (the) strength of character needed for his difficult job.”
The feeble King Louis and his out-of-touch debutante of a wife enraged the people and they increasingly rebelled against the bankrupt monarchy. The unrest heightened after Louis banished the Paris parliament twice in 1787. Finally, in May 1788 the despot bowed to popular pressure and summoned the Estates-General. It was too late. The general populace, crushed by taxes, starving from the bread shortage and dissatisfied by their misrepresentation in the Estates began to revolt.
By 1789, the Bastille fortress had become a problem. It was too expensive to maintain and only a handful of prisoners were actually being held there. By July of that year, a grand total of seven were imprisoned: four convicted criminals, one murderer and two mentally insane.
July 1789 found Paris a hotbed of panic and rebellion. Thousands of Parisians who supported a representative assembly grew suspicious that King Louis was massing troops in the capital to put down a revolt. Mobs began seizing grain stores, mills and bakeries. On July 11, a popular finance minister who supported the Estates-General was dismissed by the king. It was the proverbial “last straw”.
By the time pro-revolution rioters reached the Bastille, furious citizens armed with stolen weapons had torn down government customs posts and looted storage compounds of grain, wine and cheese. One French patriot rallied his neighbors saying, “To arms! I would rather die than submit to servitude.” 30,000 rifles and a cannon were seized from one garrison. A counterattack by the royal army failed, after squads of soldiers turned on their commanders and joined the looters.
The Bastille was not prepared for a siege. There was no fresh water and only enough food for a few days. The towering prison’s commander the Marquis De Launay knew without reinforcements, he would be forced to surrender.
A mob of 1,000 arrived in the early hours of July 14th, furiously searching for gunpowder for their muskets. While some revolutionary leaders reportedly tried to negotiate a turnover with De Launay, impatient rioters broke into the inner courtyard of the garrison. The Bastille, with its cannons pointed at the street, fired on the crowds, killing nearly a hundred.
By mid-afternoon anti-royalist soldiers arrived to support the mob. Two cannons fired on the Bastille’s drawbridge and the mob surged inside. After a suicidal De Launay attempted to torch the gunpowder magazines below, he was forcefully subdued by his men and the garrison was quickly overtaken. The gunpowder was seized by rioters and dozens of empty cells were opened in an attempt to free the prison’s rumored inmate population. The Bastille, long a hated symbol of repression and despotism, had fallen.
De Launay and his remaining troops were quickly bayoneted and shot to death by the furious mob. One rioter cut off the head of the Marquis and hoisted it onto a pike, carrying it throughout the city in front of the advancing crowds.
That evening King Louis, upon being told of the Bastille’s fate, remarked, “Why, this is revolt!” “No sir,” answered an advisor, “This is a revolution.”
The next morning Louis called for the withdrawal of royalist troops from Paris and the city’s government was replaced by a Patriot government with a new militia under the command of the American Revolutionary hero Marquis de Lafayette. On July 17, 1789, Louis visited Paris, wearing commoner’s clothes and calling himself “Father of the French, the King of a Free People.” It was a short reprieve before more violence. The weak and contradictory monarch later rejected the new government and was arrested along with his wife Marie Antoinette. Both were condemned as traitors and executed by guillotine in 1793. The despised House of Bourbon had finally fallen.
One bright spot amidst the early violence of the French Revolution was the August 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Men which gave citizens of France freedom and equality and established a sovereign government resting in the nation. The new National Assembly abolished nobles’ rights, set up a new legal system and drafted a constitution. The French Republic was officially established on September 22, 1792.
The Bastille was dismantled immediately following its overthrow by hundreds of Paris workers in what one historian calls “the greatest demolition job in modern history… bonfires burned by day and fireworks exploded at night.”
A large dance and “people’s banquet” called the “Festival of Federation” was held on July 14, 1790, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Bastille’s destruction. Thousands marched down Paris’ Champ de Mars and the Seine River.
Every year afterward there were celebrations in Paris and throughout France. In May 1880, Benjamin Raspail proposed legislation creating a national holiday for France. The law was made official and 14 Juliette was designated to be the day. A national holiday was born. The Eiffel Tower was also constructed in 1889 to commemorate the important event.
Today military parades are held throughout Paris to mark Bastille Day. It is also a special day that the French President chooses to offer executive pardons to petty criminals.
Today the Place de la Bastille is all that is left of the infamous site. It’s home to dozens of shops, cafes, and nightclubs and the open square is a popular spot for concerts and political rallies. The moat has been converted into a marina for pleasure boats. There is the July Column there, erected in 1830 to mark that year’s anniversary of the storming. The remains of the one of the Bastille’s towers were excavated in 1899.
Several works contributed to this podcast including “The Oxford History of the French Revolution” by William Doyle, “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution” by Simon Schama and two books for children: “The Fall of the Bastille” by Stewart Ross and “Robespierre and the French Revolution” by Tom McGowen.