QUITO, Ecuador, July 14, 2015 — One of the most dramatic events in French history was the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789. This event is now viewed as the spark which set off the French Revolution.
This singular event is a public holiday in France: ”Le quatorze juillet” (14 July), formally known as the “Fête de la Fédération” (Federation Holiday). It is usually referred to as Bastille Day, marking the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, and in France and much of the rest of Europe, it is looked upon with respect and reverence.
A comparable event in the history of the United States is the “shot heard ‘round the world,” when American colonists fired on British troops in the battles of Lexington and Concord. Unlike the U.S. event, which lead to the birth of a new country based on freedom and liberty, however, the French event did not immediately prompt the same result.
Within four years of the storming of the Bastille, the movement toward “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” sadly deteriorated into the Reign of Terror, a horrific bloodbath under the machinations of the notorious revolutionary, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre and his compatriots. Robespierre led the powerful people’s tribunal known as the Committee for Public Safety that arrested, tried, and executed (beheaded via the guillotine) over 17,000 people.
The powerful Committee for Public Safety became even more tyrannical than King Louis XVI. Although Robespierre was only one member of the fanatical committee, he was the only member who had full support of the political organization known as the “Society of the Friends of the Constitution,” eventually referred to as the Jacobins, who were among the more radical supporters of the French Revolution. Robespierre was the individual most closely identified as being behind the Reign of Terror.
Ironically, even he fell victim to the Committee for Public Safety. Robespierre was beheaded due to his opposition to the atheistic elements within the Jacobins.
An objective reflection on the French Revolution, beginning with the storming of the Bastille through the Reign of Terror, does not yield a clear vision of a glorious fight for freedom. Such a vision is murky at best, and becomes even more of an illusion the more one digs into the actual events.
Although the Bastille was originally a medieval fortress-prison used by French kings to imprison their politically disagreeable or disloyal subjects, it held no infamous prisoners at that time. It served mainly as a symbol of staunch royal authority and the abuses of the French monarchs; thus, it represented French monarchical tyranny.
The majority of the people that took over the prison were not endowed with altruistic ideals and tempered by principled actions. On the morning of the attack, a mob of angry and rebellious Parisians, who had been riled up by false rumors about being attacked by the Royal military marched to the prison, not to free political prisoners, but to secure a cache of weapons stored there. Rumors had cleverly been spread that the Royal military were going to attack the masses, so these “altruistic revolutionaries” seemed to be motivated by fear and a serious concern for protecting themselves.
On that day, a crowd of around one thousand people marched to the prison, and by mid-morning, they had gathered outside the walls. Upon arriving at the prison, the people called on the troops inside to surrender the weapons and gunpowder to them. Negotiators were allowed inside, but the negotiations had not progressed rapidly enough for the throng of hot and irritable people who had grown impatient in the heat of the midday sun. The agitated crowd crushed into the outer courtyard and then proceeded to the inner fortified area amidst rifle fire from the defenders in the prison.
Contrary to the romanticized image of the seizing of the Bastille, the commander in charge of the prison, Governor Bernard-René de Launay, actually ordered his soldiers to cease firing at the crowd to spare lives. After the smoke and dust cleared, it became clear that approximately 100 members of the mob and 2 soldiers had been killed. The shooting was brought to a stop by the Governor of the prison to avoid a bloodbath, but De Launay, who represented royal authority, became the most famous victim of the mob.
When the commander got his troops to stop shooting, De Launay surrendered the prison in the late afternoon. He was immediately seized by the crowd and beaten repeatedly. By this time, the frenzied mob had become uncontrollable with rage and dragged Launay through the streets toward the Hotel de Ville. Reports indicate that it is near there he demanded to be killed, and the people obliged by stabbing him repeatedly.
One may think that the murder was unnecessary because the attackers had seized their objective, but what came next was even more extreme because the mob then cut off his head and stuck the severed head upon a pike and paraded it through the streets.
While the storming of the Bastille is recognized as the event that sparked the French Revolution, the treatment of de Launay could be viewed as an ominous foreshadowing of the Reign of Terror in which so many thousands lost their heads to the guillotine. Even the popular Marquis de La Fayette, who served as general under General George Washington during the American Revolution and who was one of the most important links between the American and the French Revolutions, was ultimately accused and persecuted by the people’s government under control of the Jacobins. La Fayette was deemed an enemy of the people and targeted by the Committee for Public Safety.
The Marquis de La Fayette was ultimately forced to flee France in 1792 in order to hold on to his head. While attempting to flee to his beloved United States through the Dutch Republic, he was captured in Austria and imprisoned there for five years. He was forced to spend those years in prison while France went through even greater changes and an even more drastic transformation. When La Fayette was released and could safely return to France, it was to a France that had squandered the vision of freedom and had willingly fallen under the grip of Napoleon.
A month after the fall of the Bastille, in August, the people abolished feudalism. On August 26, the people proudly proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
Nevertheless the move toward freedom in the French Revolution devolved into some of the most unjust acts of cruelty against humanity ever committed.
The treatment of La Fayette, who had crafted an initial draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen with input from Thomas Jefferson, demonstrated how such a popular revolution for freedom could be de-railed and devolve into confusion, chaos, rampant suspicion, widespread accusation, and condemnation and execution of individuals with little control.
The French Revolution, despite being imbued with noble ideals, despite being supported by many good patriots who died serving the cause, despite being romanticized by many, from the very beginning represented little resemblance to the American revolution.
From the actions of the mob at the Bastille, as they descended into the primitive release of rage with the grisly murder of de Launay and other royalists serving as a prelude to the Reign of Terror, to the reign of Napoleon, this revolution deteriorated into a display of some of the most inhumane atrocities fueled by resentment and disdain.
The mobs not only acted against the monarchy or the aristocracy, but also ultimately exhibited contempt towards one another, towards the Roman Catholic Church, and even a rejection of God.