I wrote this piece about Bastille Day a few years ago, and figured I would repost it for this July 14th, as well.
Here, I make an argument that, overall, despite a bad reputation that it has earned from many for being too bloody (and not without some justification), it was nonetheless most likely inevitable and, to be honest, a necessity.
The embarrassment of riches of the top two classes of the Ancien Régime came at the expense of the rest of the country, who were hardly rich, and were in fact often dirt poor and hungry. With the tremendous expenses of indulging the lavish lifestyles of the privileged classes, including the costly maintenance of royal grounds and palaces, as well as the costs of France's involvement in the American war for independence, France was heavily in debt and in bad shape.
Payment for these crushing debts fell heaviest, predictably, on the poorest, as it always did. And while France had come close to some kind of a revolution in the past, the explosion that was the French Revolution would not only change France forever, it would change Europe, and really, even the world. It is still the traditional beginning point recognized by many as modernity. There was what came before, with the Ancien Régime (the old, feudalistic order), and then there was liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality and fraternity). Everything was challenged. The absolute rule of the monarchy, and eventually, the very idea of a monarchy. Religion was challenged, and briefly replaced by an emphasis on reason.
Of course, there was violence. Everyone remembers the violence, and you cannot escape it if you want to study this Revolution.
But there were also ideas. The Revolution was perhaps first and foremost a history of ideas. Some good, some bad.
Today, there are many iconic symbols of the Revolution. It cannot be denied that the guillotine is certainly one of them - a sobering reminder of the excesses and bloodshed that the French Revolution came to be. It represents the fear, the disorder and longing for order, the spiraling out of control of a nation at it's most vulnerable.
Yet, there are more positive icons, as well - many of them occurring early in the Revolution. it is generally agreed that the earlier part was the most positive part. There was the Oath of the Tennis Court, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man (La Declaration universelle des Droights de l'Homme et du citoyen).
But most of all, there was the storming of the Bastille, the old prison fortress inside of Paris. It happened on this day in 1789, and it is still celebrated today, recognized as the day that France not only changed permanently, but perhaps, overall, for the better. The day the people made a statement that their demands would not and could not any longer be denied.
Today, the 14th of July, marks Bastille Day, France's answer, if you will, to the American Independence Day.
All across France, fireworks displays are being lit up, barbecues and get-togethers are taking place, and people are all around just trying to enjoy themselves. It is a ritual in France, not very different than what is seen on the July 1st in Canada, or the 4th of July in the United States.
Historically speaking, of course, Bastille Day was the day that peasants successfully stormed the medieval style prison known as the Bastille, which held a handful of political prisoners. King Louis XVI, and the rest of the Old Regime, now understood that the recent unrest that had been spreading throughout the country was not merely relegated to something that could be taken care of in short order, but was an outright revolution that would disrupt the old order.
The French Revolution, of course, spun out of control. That is what identifies it the most, perhaps. We know about the "prise de la Bastille", and then the Reign of Terror of the Jacobins, with the famous images of massive crowds gathered at a square (now known as the Place de la Conchord, in between the Jardins des Tuileries and the Louvre on one side, and the Champs-Elysees on the other). The guillotine was the most famous single physical symbol of the French Revolution, most likely. We also know, of course, that Napoleon soon took over and, in the name of the Revolution, destroyed everything that the Revolution was supposed to be about in the earlier days.
If you study the French Revolution, which until only fairly recently was the historical event in world history that had the most works written about it (it has since been replaced by the Holocaust), you will come to know that there were several different phases of the Revolution, and countless interpretations by various experts and others, depending, really, on their political viewpoint.
Up until about 1791, the Revolution was entirely positive, and it seemed that all sides were willing to compromise to arrange something that was more workable. This was the era of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (La Declaration universelle des Droights de l'Homme et du citoyen), written in 1789. Ideas abounded, influenced by Rousseau and Voltaire and Diderot, as well as the fairly recent American Revolution, when France helped America gains it's independence from Britain. Possibilities were everywhere, and there was a positive sense that things would change for the better.
But the Revolution grew more chaotic and violent, and disorder became the order of the day. The Reign of Terror (from 1793-1794), saw many thousands of victims beheaded, including some of the most prominent leaders of France and the French Revolution, from Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, to Danton and Robespierre himself, who is often cited as the architect of the Terror. Even the man who invented the guillotine, and for whom this device is named, was eventually beheaded by his own invention.
Ultimately, the chaos that the Revolution became was reined in by a more dictatorial governance, and it was not long before a creative, ambitious, and dashing young general came to be the top power in France. Everyone knows of Napoleon, and how he crowned himself emperor, and took over most of Europe.
The French Revolution was a fascinating piece of history, however. So much happened in such a short period of time. It marked the end of feudalism, and on many levels, the beginning of the end of the idea of monarchy in general. An English King had been beheaded before, but when Louis XVI was beheaded, he was killed as a citizen that had perpetrated crimes against the state. Kind of equivalent to "enemy of the state" status, if you will. When the literal head of the figurative head of France was chopped off, nothing would or could be the same ever again.
On many levels, however, the French Revolution was an experiment, and several types of different political ideologies could draw their beginnings to this period - including democracy (in Europe), communism, and fascism. It marked the beginning of almost a century of political instability and subsequent revolutions in France particularly, and in much of the rest of Europe in general. There would be other revolutions, in 1830, in 1848, and in 1870-1871. In 1848, revolution was not just limited to France, but was more widespread throughout much of Europe. Things had changed for good.
The Revolution challenged many things that nobody had ever dared to challenge before. That included the feudal order with the three estates - the clergy, the nobility, and the rest of France, the peasants (who amounted to 97% of the population). The rich lived lavish lifestyles of self-indulgence, and the poor were largely left to fend for themselves over the remaining scraps. The French royalty had squandered so much money for so long, building elaborate palaces ad grounds, like at Versailles and Marly, to name just a few, and in engaging in wars against England (most recently during the American Revolution), that the country was strapped for cash. Starving peasants finally demanded a more equitable share, and the result was the de facto end of the monarchy - not just that specific king and queen, but of the monarchical system in general.
The Revolution also challenged religion, particularly the stranglehold that the Catholic Church held over the country. It had been abusive in it's own right, and held substantial wealth and power. The revolutionary ideas went quite far as well, with the church at some point being largely abolished, even to the point where a new calendar was created, completely avoiding any and all religious connections.
Feminism found it's strongest voice yet during the French Revolution, as well. Women had no rights prior to the Revolution, but this was strongly challenged during the French Revolution. Thousands of women had marched on Versailles just a few months after the storming of the Bastille, and forced King Louis XVI to move back to Paris as a token of good faith, that he would indeed address the issue of poverty. Olympe de Gouges answered the "Declaration of Rights of Man" with the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which she wrote in 1791, where she challenged the very notion of male dominance. Feminism as a movement may not have been born during the French Revolution, but it found it's first real flowering, or foothold, on a wide stage. Much like with other aspects of the Revolution, things would never be the same again, and feminism as a movement would just continue to grow and grow, until it eventually achieved it's stated aim of universal suffrage.
Finally, the Revolution was mostly about ideas, and it was an experiment. Nothing like it had ever occurred in history before, and perhaps, it can be argued, nothing quite like it has happened since (at least, not a single event like that). It all happened in incredibly short order, and it was largely started on this day back in the year 1789, when a few peasants used to having no power and almost no say in their own lives decided to take a more active roll and stormed the Bastille, which was symbolic of an old order that has since come to pass, largely as a result of the French Revolution.
Today, I recognize and honor that event, despite the excesses that the Revolution came to represent as well. Without it, the world might be a very different place today.