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Mourn Bastille Day

There is nothing to celebrate in the beginning of the French Revolution.

Storming of The Bastille, Jean-Pierre Houël

Today, July 14, is Bastille Day. It is the anniversary of the day in 1789 when French commoners stormed the Bastille prison fortress in Paris in a brazen challenge to the monarchy, marking the explosive beginning of the French Revolution. Bastille Day is celebrated in France to this day—think of it as a Gallic Fourth of July—and in several U.S. cities. But is the start of the French Revolution worth celebrating? 

In many minds, the French Revolution stands for, in the words of one of its most famous mottos, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” According to this narrative, the revolution saw the oppressed masses breaking their chains, overthrowing the unjust rule of the aristocracy, and establishing an egalitarian democracy in France. In reality, the storming of the Bastille was an event marked by cruel violence that foreshadowed a bloody revolutionary tyranny much worse than the rule of France’s kings had ever been, an era of chaos that would only end when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power a decade after the fall of the Bastille.


In his history of the French Revolution, Citizens, the historian Simon Schama recounts the violent birth of the chaos that would consume France for years. When the governor of the Bastille, Bernard-Rene Jourdan de Launay, was captured by the mob that had overtaken the fortress, he was beaten and abused so horrifically that he shouted “Let me die” before the crowd stabbed him to death and then cut off his head and paraded it on a pike.

The crowds were whipped up into a frenzy by their hatred of France’s monarchy, which they blamed for many of their wants. Though King Louis XVI was not a tyrant, as the revolutionaries claimed, he was a weak king who was unable to deal with the storm of troubles buffeting France at the close of the 18th century, including national bankruptcy and a severe food crisis. These issues exacerbated the frustrations already felt by much of France’s population, including a heavy tax burden.

De Launay wouldn’t be the new revolution’s last victim in the days that followed. Though King Louis XVI was still technically ruler of France—for only a few more years until his overthrow and eventual guillotining—he was not able to respond to the attack on the Bastille. The new revolutionary National Assembly was in effective control, and crazed revolutionaries known as sans-culottes ruled the streets.

These sans-culottes would, at the slightest pretext, launch killing sprees of innocents. In September 1792, they raided the prisons of Paris—which were full of prisoners whose only crime was opposition to the new regime, real or imagined—moved by a baseless fear that royalists were planning to liberate these “enemies of the state.” The hysterical mobs were stirred up by rabble-rousing provocateurs, one of whom exhorted: “let the blood of traitors be the first holocaust to Liberty.” 

In this “holocaust to liberty”, more than 1,000 innocents died—roughly one in two of Paris’s prisoners—often in horrific ways. And worse was to come. 


In the months following the September Massacres, paranoia grew in Paris’s streets as foreign anti-revolutionary armies marched on France and as revolts broke out in some provinces. The radicals began seeing a royalist plot in every corner, and due to this growing hysteria, the revolutionary government created the Committee of Public Safety

This executive body with an innocuous sounding name was meant to defend the revolution against foreign and domestic enemies, and it did so through a national killing spree that eclipsed the preceding bloodshed. On September 17, 1793, the government enacted the Law of Suspects, “which gave the Committee and its representatives sweeping powers of arrest and punishment over extraordinarily broad categories of people defined as harboring counter-revolutionary designs”—effectively turning the Committee into a dictatorship.

The Committee was dominated by the Jacobins, a radical faction whose tyranny was so cruel that it gave rise to the word “terrorism.” Fittingly, the Committee plunged France into what became known as the “Reign of Terror,” an almost year-long paroxysm of violence and political persecution. Maximilien Robespierre, who sat on the Committee and was one of the Jacobins’ primary leaders, summed up the radicals’ mindset when he said: “Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”

Many perished in the Committee’s “emanations of virtue.” During the Reign of Terror, the regime arrested potentially hundreds of thousands of people on the flimsiest grounds and tried them in kangaroo courts with no real due process. One didn’t need to be a royalist to get marked—even revolutionaries who were perceived as too “moderate” were sent to the guillotine, including the prominent revolutionary Georges Danton. The exact death toll is uncertain but possibly reached up to 40,000 souls who were either executed or died in prison. 

The regime crushed anyone who resisted. In 1793, in France’s western Vendee region, royalist and devoutly Catholic peasants who opposed the Jacobins’ brutality and radical anti-Christian secularization policy rose up in revolt against Paris and scored many victories over revolutionary armies. In response, Paris sent battalions of soldiers known as “infernal columns” to ravage the countryside and murder anyone associated with the revolt, killing roughly 200,000 of their own countrymen. The victims of this violence were peasants, the very people that the revolution had promised to liberate from the shackles of oppression. 

The butchery finally came to an end when moderate members of France’s national legislature decided they had had enough, arresting and executing Robespierre and his chief Jacobin allies. What followed was a more moderate, yet dithering and corrupt regime known as the Directory, which only survived for a meager four years before being overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte on his rise to the imperial throne. 

Massacres and despotism worse than anything the French monarchy had ever done—these are the fruits of Bastille Day. The revolutionaries promised liberty, equality, and fraternity, and delivered tyranny, inequality, and fratricide. Remember that today, and every July 14.


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