Bastille Daze

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How did “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” Chamfort wondered, become “Be my brother or I’ll kill you”?

The former secretary of the Jacobin Club, who had been among the first to rush inside the Bastille, eventually harbored second thoughts. He embodied a live-free-or-die ethos, so when the Terror began terrifying him he shot himself in the face and stabbed himself in the neck and chest. But he proved less efficient at killing than his former guillotine-enthusiast comrades. Chamfort’s slow suicide took more than six months. The Revolution’s took more than a decade.

But 223 years after Chamfort stormed the ancient Parisian fortress, France still celebrates the Revolution that executed the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, chased away as great a patriot as Lafayette, and invaded the Netherlands, Switzerland, and scores of other peaceful neighbors.

Saturday is Bastille Day. Enlightened people lament it. They certainly don’t ritualize it.

Ninety-eight revolutionaries and just one guard died in the assault on the Bastille. The liberators proved crueler than the jailers. They beat, stabbed, shot, and decapitated the warden, whose head they displayed through the streets on a pike. Will and Ariel Durant described the Bastille as “a place of genteel confinement for the well-to-do” and “a symbol of despotism.” So when the rabble liberated four forgers, a pair of lunatics, and a pervert from the bulwark on July 14, 1789, they set the symbol-over-substance tone of the Revolution. Wrapped in “reason” and “enlightenment,” the benighted upheaval displayed just how brutish and backward people imagining themselves as genteel and modern can become. As Robespierre put it, “The government of the revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” Say what?

The revelation of the revolution of reason was that reason’s revolutionaries weren’t terribly reasonable. Historian Simon Schama describes the savagery of the revolutionaries against Louis XVI’s Swiss guards in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. “Hunted down, they were mercilessly butchered: stabbed, sabered, stoned and clubbed,” the professor writes. “Women stripped the bodies of clothes and whatever possessions they could find. Mutilators hacked off limbs and scissored out genitals and stuffed them in gaping mouths or fed them to the dogs. What was left was thrown on bonfires, one of which spread to the palace itself. Other bits and pieces of the six hundred soldiers who perished in the massacre were loaded haphazardly onto carts and taken to common lime pits.”

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  • Stephan

    Yes, it was "kill the rich". Soon after the Revolution, the motto was sometime written as "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death". Google for revolution money — the assignates — and sooner or later you find it in the corner of the five livres notes.

  • BS77

    Read Ann Coulter's DEMONIC for an in depth examination of the vast differences between the American Revolution and the French. Excellent book.

  • tagalog

    My favorite slogan from the French Revolution has always been, "Kill the priests and rape the nuns!" That one encapsulates several French Revolutionary conceptions.

  • Schlomotion

    Ha! I've heard of people trying to roll back the 1960's cultural revolution, but trying to roll back the French Revolution is just ridiculous.

  • Iratus Vulgas

    The French Revolution remains the working template of the Left. The 30's, the 60's, and even in these contemporary times, pseudo-revolutionaries and malcontented anarchists still love a good riot..

  • SAG

    If anyone thinks that the French Revolution was a triumph of reason is defintely not thinking. This was the example of irrationalism and envy. And, it highlights what happens when Rosseau's philosophy is taken seriously and put into reality. Our country followed Locke and the Enlightenment and we got freedom. France got chaos and the gulliotine.

  • PAthena

    Maxillian Robespierre, leader of the Jacobins during the French Revolution, introduced the Reign of Terror and, in a speech of February 4, 1794, justified terror as a means of instilling virtue. This is the origin of terrorism.

  • Ghostwriter

    I read Ann Coulter's book,"Demonic." She did a good job at describing the French Revolution in all it's horrors. It's a shame our revolution was never copied as highly as France's one was. America's revolution ended far better than France's did.

  • Lady_Dr

    Did anyone else catch this "An unwitting accomplice of great evil is always extreme arrogance." ?

    Who, in America today, is noted for their arrogance? BHO. While not a big Romney fan – I say WE MUST ELECT HIM, and a GOP/TEA PARTY majority. Then we must hold their feet to the fire – the Constitution. Only then will we be free men again.

  • anotheranonymous

    1) The Day celebrates this… which has nothing to do with the storming of the Bastille

    2) If Louis XIV had not gone hand in hand with the Radicals in pushing for war with Austria and the United Kingdom as a way to rally people around him, mayhaps the early defeats of 1791 would not had permitted the radicals to grow in power.

    3) This "lawful" King, his father (Louis XV) and his grand father (Louis XIV) had already trampled the medieval French common law when for close to 100 years they imposed taxes and ordinations on the French people without consulting the Estates General as was the common law. So yes blame the Frenchmen for rebeliing against a King who trampled on the law of the land and taxed without representation.

    Before writing about the significance of a celebration, know what it actually celebrates and also know a bit about the history around it, beyond the parts you cherry pick to fit your worldview.