Bastille Day

7/14/10

7/14/12


Today is the French national holiday, Bastille Day. In France today, there is a massive military parade. It’s a tradition. It’s not clear why.

The actual 14th of July 1789 was not fun. It’s not absurd to think of it as the birth date of modern totalitarianism.

The French monarchy was “absolutist” in the sense that it tried like hell to gather all the levers of command in the King’s hands. There were very few levers of command to gather, however, and precious little command. The monarchs never came close to succeeding even with those few levers because local particularisms, local liberties embodied by tradition were too numerous and too diverse to tackle. The kings mostly did not succeed in raising taxes. The best proof is that when the monarchy came under violent attack, it had hardly any armed forces to defend itself. That’s one of the reasons it succumbed so quickly.


The Bastille was an old fortress in the heart of Paris where the king imprisoned whoever he thought needed thinking time, including the Marquis de Sade (inventor of sadism, as a literary genre). It’s true that there was no due process involved. In July 1789, there were fewer than 30 prisoners in the Bastille. The place was guarded by handicapped war veterans. They were receiving a kind of dignified retirement pension under the form of a salary for what looked like an easy and safe job.


The price of bread had been going up and some wages in Paris, specifically, had not kept up. As is logical under absolutism, people who were affected blamed the central authority at the Court, in Versailles: When the government appears to be everything, everything is blamed on the government. The courtiers, headed by the pretty queen Marie-Antoinette were not helping because they were giving party after party.


A bunch of the Paris rabble, including no doubt probably some honest workers, and headed by market women, came up with the crazy idea of capturing the huge fortress close to the middle of Paris. They succeeded against all expectations because it was not defended. The Governor of the Bastille promptly opened the doors and the mob surged in. The only bloodletting was the massacre of most of the guards and of the governor himself. The mob carried his head through the streets on a lance.


Bastille Day was followed by the elaboration of representative democratic government French style (with some guidance from Thomas Jefferson, I believe but that’s another story.) This elaboration was accompanied by many more brutal excesses, including the serial killings of thousands of political enemies within a short time, all in the name of a greater ideal, of course. Some of the political enemies were early revolutionaries. The Revolution ate its own children. Others were executed because of who they were, because they belonged to the wrong social class. Many of those assassinated during the Terror were known to be individuals of enlightened and progressive ideas; you might say they were the “liberals” of their day.


For several years following Bastille Day, there were also mass executions of tens of thousands of ordinary people in the provinces. Those were simply people who did not want to have anything to do with the Revolutionary government, people who liked it the old way. All this massacring was accomplished in the name of the same greater ideal.


All in all, the Revolution killed several times more people in ten years than all the Kings of France together had killed in centuries but, it was for a good cause.


In less than 15 years, the Revolution was captured and reversed by Napoleon who established an absolutist state the kings would not have dared dream of.


It took about eighty years and much additional bloodshed for democracy (as we understand it in this country) to become well established in France. In the interim, the French example inspired political movements based on the simple idea that the end justifies the means. Most of those sounded as if their program had been a kind of fucking for chastity.


PS I am not a monarchist but there is much to learn from the old monarchies. Read up on them.

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About Jacques Delacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
This entry was posted in Socio-Political Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Bastille Day

  1. Frank says:

    That is the real history of the Bastille that the french will only tell you when you move here. They kind of like you to believe in the mickey mouse version instead.

    JD: IS THIS THE FRANK I KNOW WHO ALWAYS SMELLS FAINTLY OF GARLIC OR SOME OTHER INNOCUOUS- SMELLING FRANK I DON’T HAVE THE PLEASURE OF KNOWING? AT ANY RATE, YOU ARE LUCKY IF ANY FRENCH PERSON AT ALL TOLD YOU THE REAL STORY OF THE REVOLUTION. MOSTLY, THE FRENCH HAVE NOT PIECED IT TOGETHER ALTHOUGH THEY KNOW IT IN BITS AND FRAGMENTS. MYTH PREVAILS.

  2. Frank says:

    Dude, your totally weak for moderating the comments on your blog… Get a backbone Frenchie!!!!!

    JD: I AM NOT SITTING AT THE COMPUTER DAY AND NIGHT HOPING SOMEONE WILL MAKE A COMMENT! INSTEAD, I GO FISHING, LIKE A REAL MAN.
    WOMEN WANT ME AND FISH FEAR ME. THAT’S A FACT.

  3. Thomas H. says:

    Will say here that “Frank,” who speaks about “micky mouse,” and so forth might be a person who listened to someone a little weird about this topic and is therefore a little weird about it. Frank, negotiate with your deities and get back to us in a more civil tone, please… That said, … … Have read your column and have heard of the grand parades and so forth: “A bas Louis XVI,” etc., but you and I both know that cake was possible in that time as the harvests of that time were good. The crown of France had spent its capital and other funds on the grandeur of the Regency two or three generations before and the state could no longer support itself. In the history of ideas, Robespierre and Danton nor are nor were at the time propitious ideologues, even given the critiques of modern day iconoclasts, though they did have great influence and this probably due to moneyed revolutionary interests emanating from abroad and their successful efforts at engineering terror. The royals were mostly informed of the impending revolts, and this has been a subject in the literature for a long time, as they even in many cases welcomed and profited from the revolutionary ideas and regarded them as refreshing because they were taxed so heavily by the state. Some of the details of 1789 and so on are apocryphal and therefore must be treated ‘avec un grain de sel,’ and the actions of many revolutionaries in the Tuileries against the king’s guards were horrendous and extremely cruel (they had an army and artillery, and the guards, equipped as infantry, could not surrender under orders, and so forth.) The celebrants of the 14 July festival are therefore again taken to be quite jaded against what was a benevolent monarchy under which there were many freedoms for the time, just not financial freedoms which infuriated everyone in the end and the city of Paris became a powder keg for insurrection against bloodlines first, and then the crown.

  4. Terry Amburgey says:

    A couple of years ago I read a series of books that included large chunks of economic history. I was amazed at the extent that French kings had granted rights to various locales & entities that made the economy, for lack of a better term, sclerotic. When moving goods from point A to point B involves paying taxes & levies every few miles, commerce gets strangled. I’d never realized how circumscribed the power of the kings had become.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      The “absolute” kings of France had never had much power over anything. It was difficult to exercise power as we understand it over a very fragmented territory where small fragments all had their own special deal. By eradicating small units, by homogeneizing the country, the Revolution, followed in close order by Napoleon, made modern tyranny possible.

      The French monarchy was so weak that when the Revolution began in its armed phase, the King had only about 500 soldiers he could count on. They were Swiss mercenaries whose language was German. That fact insulating them from the revolutionary crowds The so called”French Guards” quickly joined the rioters and gave them weapons. After a couple of weeks, the King was able to bring in another 1,000 soldiers from outside Paris.

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