Today is Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, and a day which always reminds me of my childhood. Growing up in Europe with an American father I knew that the United States’ Independence day came 10 days before the French national holiday, and imagined them to be more or less the same. As I grew some more, however, I learned more of the differences, as well as the similarities, between the two; and how two insurrections that had occurred for much the same reason could have such different outcomes.
On July 4th, 1776, fifty six men signed the Declaration of Independence, which made official the American Revolution, where we all know the Americans defeated the British and with it, the yoke of monarchy. It was what happened after this that is unique. The Americans had said theirs would be a country with elected leaders, who would represent the populace and be voted out of office after their terms had finished. What seems to us to be such a natural form of government had never been accomplished before. It was like saying we would be living in Thomas More’s Utopia, or the lost civilization of Atlantis.
When George Washington finished his second term almost all citizens expected him to find a pretense to continue his presidency. In fact, even after John Adams took office, senators would continue seeking George Washington’s approval and favor (which he would respectfully decline) and rather than listening to President Adams, people would heed George Washington’s opinions (until Adams asked him to please stop making public speeches). The fact that democracy endured is, in many ways, more incredible than the military victory against the British.
On July 14th, 1789, insurgents stormed the Bastille in Paris in order to attain the ammunition and weapons stored inside. Once again, this was done for the purpose of shaking off the “yoke of monarchy”. The insurgents were, of course, successful, monarchy was abolished and a republic was proclaimed. Here, however, is where the story differed. The revolutionaries still did not feel satisfied. The sentiments of revolution had to be appeased through blood sacrifices by the thousands to La Sainte Guillotine. Victims upon victims were found, seldom with any chance to defend themselves, until just an accusation would be enough to have one’s head chopped off. Many personal scores were settled during this time.
What followed was a reaction that we can now say, with the benefit of hindsight, was inevitable. A Counter-revolution broke out, with people wanting to return to normal lives on one side (secretly missing the days of monarchy), and the Jacobins commanding strict loyalty to the republic (by means of supporting the executions) on the other. By the time Robespierre, Deputy for Paris and de-facto leader of the republic, was himself beheaded, around 18,000 souls had been lost to the guillotine.
Then, of course, came the Napoleonic era, the restored monarchy, the Third Republic, two World Wars, a Cold war, and the France we know today. So should the poor French be forever stigmatized because Le quatorze juillet commemorates the spark of an extremely violent, calamitous and ultimately unsuccessful revolution? The fact is, officially speaking, it does not. Officially it commemorates July 14, 1790. This was the date of the Fête de la Fédération, a feast commemorating the events from a year earlier. The French senate decided that this day, as opposed to that in 1789, "cannot be blamed for having shed a drop of blood".
Vive la France!