I could not let July 14 pass without a nod to that most French of occasions: Bastille Day. A celebration which marks both the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 and the Fête de la Fédération of 14 July 1790.
Being the unregenerate Anglo-Saxon I am, it is the storming of a nearly empty building housing only seven prisoners which takes the lions share of the point of the celebration. But committed Gallophiles are quick to remind me that it is more properly the Fête de la Fédération which is the true focus of Bastille Day: a celebration of not just the Revolution itself, but of National Unity.
Following the divisive events of 1789 and 1790, the Festival of Federation sought to salve old wounds and even, surprising though it may seem at this remove, find a place for King Louis XVI that would not only respect, but maintain his royal status in a constitutional monarchy. As the oath sworn to the coming constitution made clear:
We swear to be forever faithful to the Nation, to the Law and to the King, to uphold with all our might the Constitution as decided by the National Assembly and accepted by the King, and to remain united with all French people by the indissoluble bonds of brotherhood.
The King, for his part, made a similar counter promise:
I, King of the French, swear to use the power given to me by the constitutional act of the State, to maintain the Constitution as decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by myself.
In a show of solidarity from the fledgling United States of America, Thomas Paine, John Paul Jones and other Americans unfurled their Stars and Stripes. The first known instance of the American flag being flown outside the United States.
Yet amongst the tumult and celebration of liberté, égalité, fraternité, not all onlookers were so jubilant or hopeful. Edmund Burke saw storm clouds overhead which the revellers seem largely to have missed:
the true moral equality of mankind [exists] not in that monstrous fiction which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality which it never can remove, and which the order of civil life establishes as much for the benefit of those whom it must leave in an humble state as those whom it is able to exalt to a condition more splendid, but not more happy.
On this Bastille Day, I raise a glass to la Révolution Française, but with sober mind keep a wary eye on its modern incarnations. Every age has them, revolutions that is. Some for better, some for worse, but none without their blood letting: be it figurative or literal. My hope for humanity is we can navigate the current tumult without the Reign of Terror which followed the Revolution of 1789.
Good night, and good luck.
Fête de la Fédération 1790 is liscensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
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