Bastille Day: Celebration of an illusion of freedom

Execution of Robespierre

SAN JOSE, July 14, 2014 —  Today is the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, a public holiday in France: ”Le quatorze juillet” (14 July), formally known as the “Fête de la Fédération”  (Federation Holiday). Today it is usually referred to as Bastille Day.

The Bastille was originally a medieval fortress-prison that had often been utilized by French kings to imprison their politically disagreeable or disloyal subjects. The shocking takeover of this prison on July 14, 1789, is now viewed as a symbol of the spark which set off the French Revolution. Angry and rebellious Parisians stormed the prison and took control of the Bastille after shots were fired and approximately 100 members of the mob and 2 soldiers were killed. Ironically, the shooting was brought to a stop by the Governor of the prison to spare lives.

This dramatic event in the history of France is looked upon with as much respect and reverence by the French as Americans view the colonists taking on the British troops in the “shot heard ‘round the world.” However, contrary to the romanticized image, the people that seized the prison were not endowed with altruistic ideals and tempered by principled actions. They were motivated by fear and a serious concern for protecting themselves.

On the morning of the attack, a crowd of around one-thousand people had marched to the prison, and by mid-morning, they had gathered outside the walls. But, the agitated Parisians had not gathered there to free political prisoners; they had actually become fearful of being attacked by the Royal military, and marched upon the Bastille, to secure a cache of weapons there.

Despite the rumors to the contrary, that the Royal troops stationed near the outskirts of Paris would soon attack and slaughter them, the troops never actually came to the rescue of the troops defending the prison, nor did they attack the angry mob of Parisians that had stormed the Bastille. Such troops could have moved with ease against the restless crowds. It is likely that if such a scenario had unfolded, the history of France and the history of Europe would have turned out much differently. But the rumors of attack mingled with suspicions of a political coup by the royals close to the king agitated the crowds. A great number of these people of Paris had fears that their hopes for freedom could be easily crushed by monarchical power.

By Sunday July 12th, news had reached Paris that the king dismissed and banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate, representatives of the common people. This aroused suspicion amongst the crowds of a royal coup, and during these days, thousands of people roamed the streets of Paris and became inflamed by such conspiracy speculation and the subsequent rhetoric of the local firebrands. The agitated crowd that marched to the Bastille the following Tuesday were concerned that the government was mounting an offensive against them. Indeed, by that time, the king had completely reorganized his ministry based upon advice from his trusted privy council, and one of the most controversial moves was the king’s banishment of his finance minister.

By July 14th, the crowd that marched to the Bastille did so to seize the cache of weapons stored inside. Upon first arriving at the prison, the people called upon 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 crowd crushed into the outer courtyard and then on into the inner fortified area amidst rifle fire from the defenders in the prison. After fighting continued into mid-afternoon, some of the French Guard mutinied and started to assist the attacking throng. The commander in charge of the prison, Governor Bernard-René de Launay, actually halted his soldiers firing at the crowd in order to avoid a bloodbath.

The irony of this pivotal event was that by the time the commander got his troops to stop shooting, 98 people in the crowd and one defender were found to be slain in the struggle.

De Launay surrendered the prison in the late afternoon, but 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, this treatment of de Launay could be viewed as an ominous foreshadowing of what would come to France in the aftermath of the fall of the Bastille. It is undeniably true that following the taking of the Bastille, a month later in August, the people abolished feudalism; and ultimately on August 26th, the people proudly proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which had been crafted by the Marquis de La Fayette in writing an initial draft. Even Thomas Jefferson had a hand in helping La Fayette with the writing. Nevertheless, it is also undeniable that the move toward freedom in the French Revolution devolved into some of the most unjust acts of cruelty against humanity ever committed.

Within four years of the storming of the Bastille, the initial movement toward “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” sadly deteriorated into a reprehensible bloodbath of horror during the Reign of Terror under the machinations of the notorious revolutionary, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre. He 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. De Launay, who was the man responsible in the Bastille, the ancient fortress-prison, which represented the staunch royal authority and a symbol of the abuses of the French monarchs, just happened to be the first victim.

The Bastille had long been a symbol of the absolute control of the French monarchy. It served as an appropriate target of the people because of its dark history, which included people being imprisoned because their vocalized views or expressed writings that were deemed threatening to the particular regime in power at the moment. Royal imprisonment such as this could not be reversed as there were no appeals allowed for such crimes. In essence, the storming of the Bastille was as much an attack upon such a symbol of tyranny as a practical effort to secure arms. Yet the actions of the mob descended into the primitive release of rage with the grisly murder of de Launay and other royalists. It is hard to accept as an opening act of the glory of the Revolution. In reality it served as a prelude to the Reign of Terror.

Eventually, the powerful Committee for Public Safety became even more tyrannical than King Louis XVI. Especially, Robespierre, although only one of the absolutist committee, was the only member who had full support of the fanatical “Society of the Friends of the Constitution,” eventually known as the Jacobins, who were among the more radical supporters of the French Revolution. Robespierre was the individual most closely identified with the Reign of Terror. Ironically, even Robespierre was beheaded due to his opposition to the atheistic elements within the revolution. Even the popular Marquis de La Fayette was ultimately accused and persecuted by the people’s government under control of the Jacobins as he was deemed an enemy of the people.

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 targeted by the Committee for Public Safety, and was ultimately forced to flee France in 1792 in order to hold on to his head. Unfortunately, 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 transformations. When he was released and could safely return to France, it was to a France that had squandered the vision of freedom and would soon willingly fall under the grip of Napoleon.

While the treatment of de Launay would prove to be a foreshadowing of the Reign of Terror, the treatment of La Fayette would demonstrate 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. In short, the French Revolution, despite being imbued with noble ideals, despite being supported by many good patriots, despite being romanticized by many, ultimately in the end deteriorated into a display of some of the most inhumane atrocities fueled by resentment and disdain, not only for the monarchy, or for the aristocracy, but also ultimately exhibiting contempt towards one another, towards the Roman Catholic Church, and even rejection of God.

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Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.