Bastille Day

Bastille Day commemorates The storming of the Bastille, which occurred in Paris, France on the morning of 14 July 1789. The medieval fortress and prison in Paris known as the Bastille represented royal authority in the centre of Paris. While the prison only contained seven inmates at the time of its storming, its fall was the flashpoint of the French Revolution. In France, Le quatorze juillet (14 July) is a public holiday, formally known as the Fête de la Fédération (Federation Holiday). It is usually called Bastille Day in English.

During the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, partially initiated by the cost of intervening in the American Revolution, and exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation. On 5 May 1789 the Estates-General of 1789 convened to deal with this issue, but were held back by archaic protocols and the conservatism of the Second Estate, consisting of the nobility and amounting to only 2% of France’s population at the time. On 17 June 1789 the Third Estate, with its representatives drawn from the middle class, or proletariats, reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose purpose was the creation of a French constitution. The king initially opposed this development, but was forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which subsequently renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July.

The storming of the Bastille and the subsequent Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was the third event of this opening stage of the revolution. The first had been the revolt of the nobility, refusing to aid King Louis XVI through the payment of taxes. The second had been the formation of the National Assembly and the Tennis Court Oath. The middle class had formed the National Guard, sporting tricolour cockades (rosettes) of blue, white and red, formed by combining the red-and-blue cockade of the Paris commune and the white cockade of the king. These cockades, and soon simply their colour scheme, became the symbol of the revolution and, later, of France itself.

Paris, close to insurrection, and, in François Mignet’s words, “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” showed wide support for the Assembly. The press published the Assembly’s debates; political debate spread beyond the Assembly itself into the public squares and halls of the capital. The Palais-Royal and its grounds became the site of an endless meeting. The crowd, on the authority of the meeting at the Palais-Royal, broke open the prisons of the Abbaye to release some grenadiers of the French guards, reportedly imprisoned for refusing to fire on the people. The Assembly recommended the imprisoned guardsmen to the clemency of the king; they returned to prison, and received pardon. The rank and file of the regiment, previously considered reliable, now leaned toward the popular cause.