Bastille Day and the Transformative Power of History

Something for the weekend.   The La Marseillaise scene from Casablanca.  Today is Bastille Day, the great national holiday in France, the equivalent our Independence Day.  In France it is known as La Fête Nationale, the National Celebration, or Le quatorze juillet, the fourteenth of July, rather like Independence Day is often known here as the fourth of July.  There the similarities end.  Although almost all Americans look back at the American Revolution with pride, many of us dedicated to the great truths embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution is looked upon much more ambiguously in France.

Bastille Day recalls an event July 14, 1789 in which the mob of Paris, joined by mutinous French troops, stormed the Bastille, a fortress-prison in Paris which had in the past held political prisoners.  The Bastille fell to the mob after a fight in which some ninety-eight attackers and one defender were killed.  After the fighting, in an ominous sign of what was to come in the French Revolution, the mob massacred the governor of the prison and seven of the defenders.  The Bastille held a grand total of seven inmates at the time of its fall, none of political significance.

So began the Revolution which promised Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in theory and delivered in practice, Tyranny, Wars and Death, with France embarked on a witches’ dance of folly which would end at Waterloo, after almost a quarter of a century of war which would leave Europe drenched in blood.  Edmund Burke at the beginning of this madness, in 1790, saw clearly where all this would lead:

Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any way, gainers by it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.

 On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.

Many Frenchmen also saw this, and fought against the Revolution and all its works.  The Revolution is a history of civil wars, and barbarous massacres.  The Church of course was enemy number one of many of the Revolutionaries, with faithful Catholics undergoing a murderous persecution without parallel up to that point in the history of the Church.

Why would anyone want to celebrate any of this?  One of the wonderful things about History is how it can often transmute events.  For more than a hundred years after the Revolution in France, France remained bitterly divided between those who celebrated the Revolution and those who mourned it.  This began to change during World War I, when Frenchmen of all shades of political opinion rallied together to defend France and some of the symbols of the Revolution, the Tri-color flag and La Marseillaise, began to take on a patriotic meaning for almost all the French, shorn of their associations with the Revolution.  This culminated in 1944 in Paris when General Charles de Gaulle, a believing Catholic, gave a speech in liberated Paris on August 24, 1944:

Why do you wish us to hide the emotion which seizes us all, men and women, who are here, at home, in Paris that stood up to liberate itself and that succeeded in doing this with its own hands?

No! We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion. These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives. Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!

Well! Since the enemy which held Paris has capitulated into our hands, France returns to Paris, to her home. She returns bloody, but quite resolute. She returns there enlightened by the immense lesson, but more certain than ever of her duties and of her rights.

I speak of her duties first, and I will sum them all up by saying that for now, it is a matter of the duties of war. The enemy is staggering, but he is not beaten yet. He remains on our soil.

It will not even be enough that we have, with the help of our dear and admirable Allies, chased him from our home for us to consider ourselves satisfied after what has happened. We want to enter his territory as is fitting, as victors.

This is why the French vanguard has entered Paris with guns blazing. This is why the great French army from Italy has landed in the south and is advancing rapidly up the Rhône valley. This is why our brave and dear Forces of the interior will arm themselves with modern weapons. It is for this revenge, this vengeance and justice, that we will keep fighting until the final day, until the day of total and complete victory.

This duty of war, all the men who are here and all those who hear us in France know that it demands national unity. We, who have lived the greatest hours of our History, we have nothing else to wish than to show ourselves, up to the end, worthy of France. Long live France!

He led the crowd in a mass singing of  La Marseillaise.  This was a significant event in French history.  De Gaulle’s parents, both devout Catholics, had not observed Bastille Day and had not sung La Marseillaise, but their son realized that the events of the 20th century had transformed the meaning of those symbols for the people that he led.  It is important that we learn from History, but we can also never forget that we live within it, as contemporary events transform how we view the past and look to the future.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. It was, indeed, a tragedy. And really it happened for no better reason than the French bankers, despairing of repayment by the bankrupt French government, engineered the Revolution so that they could loot the Church and thus recover their money. Of course, it did get out of hand – the Revolution threw up plenty of men who had other ideas beyond the age-old desire of robbing a Church or two along the way. But, really, it was a disgrace from start to finish – begun with ill motives, descending in to madness and then military dictatorship and endless war.

  2. The most significant event in the French Revolution occurred, not on the 14 July, but on the 17 June previously. Then, the deputies of the Third Estate declared themselves be the National Assembly and told the other two estates, the nobility and clergy, in effect, “We represent the nation; you represent only yourselves and your private interests.” As the priest-philosopher, Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes had written, in a recently-published book, the Third Estate represented the unprivileged majority of France. To constitute itself as the nation, it needed to assume power and abolish all privileges that placed the ruling minority above and outside the nation. Those who associate themselves with the common struggle for equality, the rights of Man and against privileges, these constituted the nation.

    This theory contains two elements that have become dominant in the French concept of the nation First, the nation is the community of all those who are not exempt from taxation, military service and other public duties, and, second, it includes all those, and only those, who are willing and capable of sharing in the service of the country. This is what Renan meant a hundred years later, when he said the nation was based on a « plébiscite de tous les jours » – on a daily vote of confidence.

    This was the great legacy of the Revolution; the monarchy could be restored, but it was impossible to re-impose feudal dues, heritable jurisdictions or the detested dine or tithe on the 10 million peasants, whom the Revolution had turned into heritable proprietors. This was also true everywhere that the armies of Napoléon had given a code of laws to a continent and restored the concept of citizenship to civilisation.

    Abbé Sieyes, by the by, was the instigator of Napoléon’s coup d’état of 18 Brumaire; so long as the nation was subject to one equal law, he saw no reason why it should not be ruled by one man.

  3. “Bastille Day is a great tragedy in Western Civilization.

    Spawning Communism, Socialism, and sexual deviancy.”

    The modern doctrine of Communism awaited Karl Marx. Primitive communist doctrines have been around since antiquity. Socialism found its first modern proponent, at least in theory, in Saint Thomas More’s Utopia. The idea of common sharing of goods and a powerful state to maintain such equality also goes back to antiquity. As Holy Writ indicates, sexual deviancy is as old as Man. The French Revolution did abolish the penalties for sodomy, but such offenses were still punished under statutes against public lewdness. There were few prosecutions, as there had been few prosecutions against sodomy under the Old Regime, although homosexuality was rife among the nobility at Versailles as many memoirs of the nobility indicate.

  4. “And really it happened for no better reason than the French bankers, despairing of repayment by the bankrupt French government, engineered the Revolution so that they could loot the Church and thus recover their money.”

    No, that is simply not true. Financial bankruptcy in state finances caused Louis to call the Estates General, but the idea that the French Revolution was caused by a cabal of French bankers to loot the Church is rubbish.

    For those interested in learning the true historical causes of the French Revolution, a good starting point is Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, which may be found online at the link below. Chapters XVI-XX can’t be beat for explaining why the Revolution happened.


  5. They sang them into the ground!

    The LOVE of the people for their country, the home of their families as long as they can remember.. I love that clip– the german soldiers occupiers were musical aggressors –even the music seems bellicose-and those de la Patrie sang them into the ground. Yay!

  6. Donald R McClary

    On the supposed connection between the French Revolution and Socialism, there is a very interesting speech of De Tocqueville that he delivered as a deputy to the National Assembly on 12 September 1848.

    He says (my translation) “And finally, gentlemen, liberty. There is one thing that strikes me above all. It is that the Old Regime, which doubtless differed in many respects from that system of government which the socialists call for (and we must realize this) was, in its political philosophy, far less distant from socialism than we have believed. It is far closer to that system than we are. The Old Regime, in fact, held that wisdom was only in the State and that the citizens were weak and feeble beings who must always be held by the hand by the hand, lest they fall or hurt themselves. It held that it was necessary to obstruct, thwart, restrain individual freedom, that to secure an abundance of products, it was imperative to regiment industry and impede free competition. The Old Regime believed, on this point, exactly as the socialists of today do. It was the French Revolution which denied this.”

  7. Mrs Thatcher on the French Revolution

    Human rights did not begin with the French Revolution; they stem from a mixture of Judaism and Christianity. We had 1688, our quiet revolution, where Parliament exerted its will over the King. It was not the sort of Revolution that France’s was. ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ — they forgot obligations and duties I think. And then of course the fraternity went missing for a long time.

    on Bastille Day
    Who can trust a people who celebrate, as their national event, a jailbreak?

  8. Donald,

    In 1789 the National Assembly declared the property of the Church to belong to the State and did this in order to resolve the financial crisis of the French government. It was robbery, pure and simple. It was the bankers of France – who had loaned the French government vast sums the government simply could not repay – who financed the revolutionary pamphlets as well as providing funds to bring out the mob on queue (what the heck was the purpose in attacking the Bastile? Only something to get the mob fired up and, of course, fearful of Royal retribution if the King’s authority should be restored). The financiers staged the revolution – which was not needed as the King was in favor of deep and lasting reforms of French government – in order to grab the only source of money in France which could possibly repay the bankers: the Church, which owned about 10% of all property in France as well as still having the right to collect the tithe (which was also seized for the State). To be sure, there were starry-eyed (and fanatically hating) people who were willing to ride the revolutionary wave to places the bankers didn’t want to go, but someone like Robespierre could never conduct a Revolution…such as him could only take control of it after others had got rid of the old regime and replaced it with something weaker.

    The whole thing was a terrible tragedy – and the worst part of it was that Louis XVI could have stopped it had he ordered his soldiers to shoot…but honorable and gentle Christian monarch that he was, he wouldn’t do it…he didn’t realize what demons were lurking in his domains and that a little blood shed early would have saved rivers of blood later.

  9. never, never, never underestimate the willingness of financiers to use whatever comes to hand to avoid the bankruptcy they all so often richly deserve. Heck, our whole system of fake money and mounting debt was put in place simply to allow bankers to pretend they hadn’t screwed the economic pooch…and they have just carried it on and on and on through a century of mounting economic disintegration…and if they can get away with eventually shoving all their idiocy on to our backs via hyperinflation, they’ll do it (because the only place left to steal money to save the bankers is in the savings and property of the middle class…ruin the dollar and the bankers can pay back their idiot debts with debased money and still come out of it rich…the people will be ruined, but since when has that ever disturbed a banker?).

  10. Mark Noonan

    The English legal historian, F W Maitland is very good on the Revolution and corporations

    “The State and the Corporation.—in this, as in some other instances, the work of the monarchy issues in the work of the revolutionary assemblies. It issues in the famous declaration of August 18, 1792: “A State that is truly free ought not to suffer within its bosom any corporation, not even such as, being dedicated to public instruction, have merited well of the country.” That was one of the mottoes of modern absolutism: the absolute State faced the absolute individual. An appreciable part of the interest of the French Revolution seems to me to be open only to those who will be at pains to give a little thought to the theory of corporations. Take, for example, those memorable debates touching ecclesiastical property. To whom belong these broad lands when you have pushed fictions aside, when you have become a truly philosophical jurist with a craving for the natural? To the nation, which has stepped into the shoes of the prince. That is at least a plausible answer, though an uncomfortable suspicion that the State itself is but a questionably real person may not be easily dispelled. And as with the churches, the universities, the trade gilds, and the like, so also with the communes, the towns and villages. Village property—there was a great deal of village property in France—was exposed to the dilemma: it belongs to the State, or else it belongs to the now existing villagers”

    It is easy to see how this reasoning would apply to the property of ecclesiastical corporations, sole or aggregate. Plainly, the individual bishop or rector was not the owner of the lands of his benefice, for he could not dispose of them, so who was?

    Recall that the notion of a trust is quite unknown to French law of any period.

  11. No Mark that is simply incorrect. Blaming the Bankers for the French Revolution is ahistoric rubbish. Please cite one reputable history that supports this view. As for hapless Louis XVI, the man lacked the ability to be the mayor of a small town, let alone be king of a great power. He would have been better off as a locksmith. A dramatic demonstration of the weakness of hereditary monarchy: invariably the luck of the genetic draw will place on the throne for life someone completely unsuited for the job.

  12. Mark, I have small tolerance for conspiracy mongering as opposed to historical knowledge. Rants against various groups are no substitute for historical fact. I am placing you on moderation for the time being.

  13. Donald – it is your blog and you may do as you wish. But you are “Moderating” me because you cannot, by use of historical fact, controvert what I said.

    Goodbye, God bless and the best of luck to you.

  14. No Mark, you are being moderated because you persisted in blaming Bankers for causing the French Revolution, which is simply erroneous. I invited you to cite one reputable history to support your thesis and you failed to do so. History is very important to me, and I will not allow it to be treated cavalierly on this blog.

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