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July 14: Bastille Day (1789)

Bastille Day (1789)

Storming the Bastille (1789) by Jean-Pierre Houël

It was on this date, July 14, 1789, in the morning, that French citizens stormed and destroyed the hated Bastille prison in Paris, ending a symbol of the human rights abuses by King Louis XVI—who had in fact supported the American colonists in their quest for independence from Great Britain—and beginning the French Revolution. Bastille, means “bastion” or “castle”; it was a structure built in the 14th century to defend the eastern approach to the city of Paris from the English threat in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453); it is known formally as the Bastille Saint-Antoine. Louis XIV used the Bastille as a prison for those had opposed or angered him, including upper-class members of French society and, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, French Protestants, but also to hold those who had differed with him on matters of religion.

The destruction of the Bastille marked the end of absolute monarchy in France—Louis XVI was executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793—and signaled the birth of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity for all French citizens and, eventually, the creation of the First Republic. The French Revolution achieved popular support among the peasants and nobles, and even a few priests, because of a cruel tyranny under Church and State that kept the populace at 90% illiteracy, oppressed them with taxes and denied them property ownership—a dangerous income inequality not unlike that increasing in the United States today. To their credit, the leaders of the Revolution took no office in the succeeding government after 1791. Still, the new Constitution treated the luxuriously and cynically corrupt Catholic Church better than it had treated the people. Of course the Church claimed religious oppression because they could no longer oppress the people as they used to—again, not unlike the whining of some churches in the U.S. today.

Bastille Day, called simply Le quatorze juillet by natives (cf. "Fourth of July" for Independence Day in the U.S.), was declared the French national holiday, La Fête Nationale, on 6 July 1880. It celebrates not only the storming of the Bastille in 1789, commemorated in a painting of that same year by a contemporary, Jean-Pierre Houël, and later by Austrian composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf in his Symphony in C Major and by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, but also celebrates the Fête de la Fédération on 14 July 1790. Celebrations of Bastille Day are held all over France to this day. They are, and always have been, secular.

Originally published July 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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