(The following is a post by Erika Spencer, Reference Specialist for France, European Division.)
Many Americans view the month of July as a time to celebrate America’s Declaration of Independence and subsequent victory over the British. But July also marks the French national holiday, known as Bastille Day, which is celebrated on July 14. Not long after Americans gained their independence from the British, the French were readying for their own revolution against absolute monarchy during the reign of King Louis XVI.
The French Revolution of 1789 was one of the most spectacularly violent revolutions of the 18th century. In the span of a few decades, France’s government shifted dramatically from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, then to a republic, and then, with the rise of Napoleon, to an Empire with incursions southward into Egypt and as far north and east as Moscow. Yet, after all of these far-reaching transformations, the Bourbon monarchy — which began ruling France in the 16th century until being overthrown during the French Revolution — was restored in 1814.
The spark that ignited this series of radical changes was the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. This is what makes Bastille Day significant and it is the reason why the French continue to celebrate it. To understand Bastille Day, we need only consider the patriotic sentiments that infuse any day of national celebration associated with independence and freedom from oppression. Whereas colonists fought the American Revolutionary War to gain independence from the British motherland, the French revolutionaries struggled in an ideological and popular revolt against their own system of government, one that excluded the vast majority of its subjects. The Bastille was a prison in Paris that housed primarily political prisoners who had voiced dissent against the established system, or ancien régime. The Bastille had long been a symbol of the ruling monarchy’s absolute power.
Popular unrest began to build against the ancien régime, which divided society into three categories, or estates: the Clergy, the Nobility, and, representing the vast majority of the population in the Third Estate, the commoners, including the middle class, urban laborers, and peasants. For many in the educated professions this system seemed archaic in a rapidly modernizing world, and they became increasingly critical of the feudal aristocracy and frustrated by their own limited voice as members of the Third Estate. The divergent political, economic and social forces of this time combined to create a volatile environment that was to last for years.
A vital factor in instilling ideas of government reform in the people was a slight relaxation in royal censorship, which provided a wider venue for political discourse and led to the proliferation of newspapers and pamphlets. One such incendiary newspaper, L’ami du peuple, ou Le publiciste parisien (Friend of the people, or the Parisian reporter), started by the famous French revolutionary figure Jean-Paul Marat, was instrumental in fomenting the forces of popular outrage that fueled the French Revolution.
In France, growing discontent and greater access to radical ideas, such as universal suffrage, set the stage for the storming of the Bastille. When King Louis XVI denied the requests of the Third Estate for a greater political voice during the assembly of the three estates, or Estates-General, the commoners met on a nearby tennis court and swore the famous “Tennis Court Oath” vowing that they would not disband until they had written a constitution that protected the rights of the people and ensured them representation in the government. The King ordered the crowd to disperse, and rumors spread that he was calling in 20,000 troops. Panic ensued, and the commoners raided the Bastille looking for ammunition from the arsenal to defend themselves.
It is worth noting that the diary entry for King Louis XVI on July 14th, 1789 read simply rien or “nothing,” a poignant indication of the disconnect between the King and his subjects. As the Bastille fell, so began the French Revolution, and with it the first steps toward a modern French Republic. To this day, all over France, there are jubilant celebrations every July 14 to mark the democratic traditions and egalitarian spirit of the French people.
The political, economic, and social forces at work before, during, and after the French Revolution have been explored in countless books and other materials. The Library of Congress French collections include an abundance of materials on the French Revolution, including works that can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. Indeed, the French and American revolutions famously shared many common ideals. For instance, Thomas Jefferson in his capacity as Secretary of State worked closely with Lafayette, a French aristocrat and military officer involved in both the American and French revolutions. Jefferson’s copy of a contemporary compilation of French revolutionary writings, entitled L’ami des patriotes, ou Le défenseur de la Révolution (The patriot’s friend, or the defender of the revolution), is now part of the Jefferson Library exhibit at the Library of Congress.
The Prints & Photographs Reading Room online catalog may be searched for subjects such as “Bastille,” “French Revolution,” “French Satirical Print Collection,” “French Political Cartoon Collection,” or “Révolution française.” The Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room also holds pertinent materials on the French Revolution, such as the John Boyd Thatcher Collection.
An interesting post, particularly in these seemingly pre-revolutionary times. Mr. Trump would be just the sort of fellow to soar to prominence as a rabble rouser, as would Boris Johnson or Marine Le Pen (not to mention her dad, Jean-Marie). The Bernie Bern explicitly uses the R word.
But Trump and the others are right wing, you say? Interestingly, the French pre-revolution leading up to 1789 was fomented by rather right wing aristocrats demanding (on behalf of the nation, so they claimed) their alleged old political powers from the central monarchical government, which was suffering from grave fiscal gridlock rather reminiscent of the current “Tea Party”-led (did someone say revolutionary?) paralysis in the face of massive infrastructure spending needs of all kinds.
Robert Darnton has made clear how much the pamphleteers and other writers in Paris and holed up in Amsterdam and elsewhere changed people’s fundamental perceptions of the political order. Think rise of social media, folks…
And as Chou en Lai told us, it’s still too early to say if the French Revolution was a good thing or not. To which we say, “Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrive” et aujourdhui est celebre!
Bravo Mme. Spencer!
A wonderful reminder of the extent of the Library’s collection. The prints are wonderful as is Ms. Spencer’s text.