Bastille Day – Origins
In 1789, as unrest grew in France, and the Estates-General was called to assemble, the people of France stormed the Bastille in Paris, revolting against the absolute power of the monarchy, and sparking the beginning of the French Revolution. While the Bastille was a valuable position to control, as well as being supplied with weapons and ammunition, it also was used as a prison by the monarchy for many politically motivated imprisonments, and thus symbolized the despotic power of the royal monarchy. In this way, the Storming of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789 stands as a symbol of France’s fight for freedom, and is celebrated every year as a way to recognize this very fact.
The Origins of the Bastille
During the Hundred Years War between the French and English, the Bastille was built to serve as a fortress on the eastern side of Paris. With eight towers and 100-foot high walls, the design of the Bastille proved extremely effective as a strategic position for the defense of Paris. In the centuries that followed, the Bastille also served as a prison, mostly known to be used by the monarchy to imprison political opponents and enemies.
Events Leading Up to the Storming of the Bastille
Even though there are many events and causes that led to July 14th and the French Revolution, the main forces driving these events include rising social and economic instability, political corruption and abuse of power by the monarchy, and the emergence of Enlightenment ideas.
While most of the French population suffered from food shortages due to economic mismanagement, King Louis XVI continually raised taxes and spent extravagantly. As the crisis grew worse, a meeting of the national assembly was called, known as the Estates-General. This meeting, made up by the First Estate (clergy), the Second Estate (nobility), and the Third Estate (commoners), was an attempt to relieve the tensions and instability.
Due to the extreme power inequality between the Estates, specifically the lack of power for the Third Estate, the Third Estate broke off, made the Tennis Court Oath, and formed the National Assembly with the intent of writing a new constitution. As the support for the National Assembly grew throughout France, protests against the monarchy continued to rise as well.
At this point in France, the degree of suffering the commoners were victim to, at the hands of the upper classes and royalty, had grown to such an extreme degree, revolt was bound to happen. However, it was the unity amongst the commoners, and the sympathetic nobility driven by the desire for “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” that turned the revolt into a true revolution. The day this revolutionary potential was realized was July 14th, 1789.
July 14th, 1789 – The Storming of the Bastille
On the day of July 14th, 1789, an angry mob was gathering outside the Bastille, while revolutionaries were invited in to negotiate an end to the unrest. However, as the mob grew angrier, soldiers began firing on the crowd. Control of the Bastille was quickly taken by the revolutionaries, supplies seized, and dismantling had begun. This victory for the revolutionaries proved that had a real chance at liberating France from the monarchy’s control.
One year later, July 14th would be the day of the Fête de la Fédération, (Festival of the Federation) when French citizens celebrated the French Revolution and promoted national unity.
Remembering Bastille Day Today
In 1880, July 14th became officially recognized as a national holiday, known as both Bastille Day and la Fête nationale (The National Celebration). Today, France continues to hold one of the oldest and largest military pardes along the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Along with this, all across France, celebrations are held with fireworks and parties, recognizing the importance of the events of 1789 and 1790 with chants of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”