The late half of the 18th century was riddled with violence, new ideas, and revolution. Throughout history, questioning the monarchical rule never allowed for a smooth transition of power; it required dissidents to tear themselves from the status quo and, unfortunately, leave a trail of bloodshed in their wake. But today, that’s not why Bastille Day (in France) is commemorated. 

The holiday celebrates French pride rather than the actual events that took place more than two centuries ago, recognizing the symbolism of the French Revolution rather than any progress it actually made. So during the marching of the military parade, the glitter of fireworks, and the fizz of Veuve Clicquot, remember that this day looked very different 232 years ago. Back then, it was about survival. 

Bastille day looked very different 232 years ago. Back then, it was about survival.

Flashback to 1789 in Paris, France. Crops are failing. Famine is widespread. Bread prices are skyrocketing. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette splurge on macaroons and silks instead of listening to the growling bellies of their people–and the emptiness of the Treasury’s coiffeurs, bankrupt from aiding the American Revolution (which, ironically, helped a nation get rid of monarchial oppression while the Bourbons acted as tyrannical as their hated English counterparts). 

Thanks to the populist, humanist ideals of the Enlightenment, and how successful Americans across the water were in beating their monarchy’s rule, the French were thinking, Now it’s our turn.

And towering in the middle of all this was the Bastille, a massive stone fort built three centuries prior during the Hundred Year’s War, intended to protect Paris’ eastern entrance. With 100-foot walls, a moat, and numerous courtyards, the place was used to imprison political dissidents (such as Voltaire) without even offering them a trial. This blatant disregard for basic legal rights was the definition of despotism, and the Bastille with its walls and its armed guards came to symbolize everything the French despised about their Bourbon rulers. 

By the summer of 1789, the king had called upon the Estates-General to figure out the country’s financial straits. The First Estate (clergy) and the Second Estate (nobility) had the ability to outvote the Third Estate (commoners) on important issues, although their group made up about 98% of the population. Recognizing that they would never establish a constitutional democracy with the Estates-General, the Third Estate disbanded and formed the National Assembly.

[Image description: A diagram of the Estates General.] Via
[Image description: A diagram of the Estates-General.] Via
It wasn’t long before King Louis sent the army to Paris to intimidate the National Assembly, but what really sparked unrest was when Louis fired Jacques Necker, his only non-noble, reform-minded minister. Crowds drive out much of the army and burned tax-imposing custom posts and just a few days later, on July 14, seized 32,000 muskets and a handful of cannon. 

Locked and loaded, they set their sights on the Bastille.  

Governor Bernard René de Launay welcomed the mob’s representatives inside for peaceful negotiation, but it dragged on for too long and an already-restless crowd grew impatient. The Bastille’s wall and drawbridge were breached, leaving it defenseless to the mob that poured in. When a second drawbridge was lowered, all bets were off. De Launay broke his original promise not to open fire on the people and from there, all hell broke loose. 

[Image description: A 19th-century depiction of the storming of the Bastille, painted by Jean-Pierre Houël.] Via
[Image description: A 19th-century depiction of the storming of the Bastille, painted by Jean-Pierre Houël.] Via
At first, the guards at the Bastille did most of the shooting, until sympathetic French Guards blasted the place with cannon, forcing de Launay to surrender. They cut off his head and mounted it on a pike. This bears noting. It foreshadowed the chaos of the impending Reign of Terror, which exemplifies the very opposite of what storming of the Bastille and the revolution itself set out to achieve. 

So what did invading (and eventually dismantling) the Bastille accomplish for the cause? And why is it still celebrated today? 

On the positive side, Bastille Day signaled a true shift from the whims of despotism to popular government, which was the first step toward enfranchising historically oppressed populations on the whole (such as women and minorities). On the downside, the disorderliness of Bastille Day (and how little time the mob wasted in beheading de Launay) represented the overall chaotic nature of the revolution’s social and political proceedings. 

Unlike the American Revolution, France’s uprising started at the hands of the lower, uneducated class. What America got right–and what France ultimately did not–was that when you give power to the people it must come with checks, balances, rules, and laws that prevent the population from engaging in anarchy and calling it “democracy”. In short, you need a constitution. 

On the positive side, Bastille Day signaled a true shift from the whims of despotism to popular government.

Note that America’s road to democracy was rocky, to say the least (let’s face it, we’re still figuring it out), but we all know that politically, its greatest political flaws existed under the Articles of Confederation before we had the Constitution. When France adopted their own Constitution in 1791, it was already too late.

Created by the National Assembly, the document’s legitimacy latest less than a year because it not only retained the monarchy (which the people obviously didn’t want), but it only gave voting rights to a small portion of the male population who could afford to pay taxes. Turning France into a constitutional monarchy wasn’t enough for the rebelling factions. Before long, the radical Jacobins controlled the Committee of Public Safety and guillotined anyone who so much as batted an eye against their rule. 

By 1793, the king and queen were executed, the monarchy was toppled, and France’s sociopolitical climate was suffocated by radicals like Maximilien Robespierre. With the Reign of Terror in full swing, thousands were arrested and executed without a trial. Sound familiar? The Bastille was toppled for this very reason back in 1789.  

The cause had turned hypocritical and was eating itself alive. 

So much for liberté, égalite, fraternité

The storming of the Bastille was just the beginning of France’s democratic journey.

The storming of the Bastille was just the beginning of France’s democratic journey. They still had to survive the rest of the Reign of Terror, the Thermidorian Reaction, and Napoleon Bonaparte–who would change the face of Europe itself. 

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  • Laurie Melchionne

    Laurie Melchionne is the editor in chief at The Argo, Stockton University's independent student newspaper. Laurie majors in Literature with a double minor in Journalism and Digital Literacy/Multimedia Design. With a concentration in creative writing, Laurie loves all things editorial and communications, and believes in people sharing their voices through the written word.