As a francophile, I am nothing less than excited to celebrate Bastille Day today. Also as a historian, I enjoy learning about other country’s way of celebrating their culture and why they’ve chosen a particular date. The French National Day celebrates the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, which was a fortress-prison that typically held people jailed for royal crimes that could not be appealed.

The movement away from King Louis XVI and the royal government began with an economic crisis. France faced financial woes in 1789 due, in great part, to their regressive tax policies. These are tax policies that decrease as the wealth increases; therefore, the poor are paying higher taxes than the wealthy. The Estates-General, a general assembly that represented three parts of the government: the church (The First Estate), the nobility and 2% of France’s population (The Second Estate) and the common people (The Third Estate), met in May 1789 to offer and define solutions for the government’s financial issues. When they continually came to a standstill throughout May and June, due to the conservatism and old standards of the The Second Estate, the Third Estate created their own National Assembly on June 9th. This was one of the first steps toward a revolution against the archaic standards of The Estates-General and the King Louis XVI. Another step was the nobility’s refusal to pay the King any taxes. The third and fourth steps, the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen occurred on the morning of July 14, 1789.

Support of the National Assembly grew in popularity and political debate spilled into the public conversations and the commoners grew more and more impatient with the Royal Court. The final straw came when King Louis XVIon July 11th, under advisement of  the Privy Council (his advisers), dismissed and banished the country’s Finance Minister, Jacques Necker. Necker was a sympathizer of the Third Estate’s new government, therefore, causing an uproar in the public’s opinion as the news traveled around the country. On July 12th, the people began to publicly demonstrate against the King and fight the French troops that had been stationed around Paris and Versailles. The public believed that the troops were sent to Paris to disband the National Assembly. Also, people in and around Paris, frustrated with the increase of food and wine prices, attacked the customs posts that they believed were responsible for the costs of such items. On July 13th, the people began to plunder all of the areas that they knew held weapons, including Saint-Lazare, a property of the clergy. Concerned about unnecessary bloodshed, the Royal Troops did nothing to stop the people from attacking and destroying.

On the morning of July 14th, the Bastille was practically empty of prisoners, having been shut down to save money right before the insurrection began. The Bastille was stormed by the angry and determined demonstrators whose  purpose was to gather the large quantity of guns and ammunition, however, this invasion was a huge moment in what would be known as the French Revolution because of the Bastille being considered a symbol of France’s royal tyranny. Two of the demonstrators were called into the Bastille to negotiate and a third was allowed in later to give the definite demands of the demonstrators. After several hours, the demonstrators grew weary and impatient. They took control of an outer courtyard and cut the chains of the drawbridge. Firing began and the demonstrators surged forward into the Bastille. After several hours of fighting, Bernard-René de Launay, the Governor of the Bastille, ordered a cease-fire and opened the inner gates for the demonstrators. They captured the Governor and as his captors discussed his fate, de Launay shouted, “Enough. Let me die!” and kicked a pastry chef in the groin. He was killed immediately. de Launay’s head was cut off and placed on a spike and carried around town, to show the demonstrators’ victory. It was reported that 98 demonstrators and one defender were killed in the actual battle. There were other subsequent deaths. Paris was turned over to the Third Estate and the French Revolution and the empowerment of the French’s working class began.

As I reacquainted myself with the story of the Storming of the Bastille, I am reminded of how cyclical history is and how if we don’t maintain knowledge of our and other’s histories, we will forget where we’ve been as a culture and remember the lessons of how to move forward. So, Happy Bastille Day. What are you going to do today to celebrate freedom?

Historical Information from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storming_of_the_Bastille

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