Bastille Day Revisited

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Demon­stra­tion at the Place de la République in sup­port of the OXI vote in Greece, July 5th, 2015.

In 1789, con­fronted with the cri­sis of the French monar­chy, King Louis XVI chose to ini­ti­ate a polit­i­cal process by con­ven­ing the Estates Gen­eral, and opened vot­ing rights to the Third Estate: one vote per chef de feu [head of fam­ily]. Women were very often chef de feu, and con­trary to recent assess­ments on the topic, were not excluded because of their sex. As a medieval insti­tu­tion, the Estates Gen­eral main­tained the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of all sub­jects by the king, sep­a­rated into orders – the Clergy, Nobil­ity, and the Third Estate. By the fact of the Estates General’s very exis­tence, the monar­chi­cal Con­sti­tu­tion had depended upon a recog­ni­tion of the prin­ci­ple of pop­u­lar sov­er­eignty since the Mid­dle Ages. Later, in the 17th cen­tury, the king of France sought to con­sol­i­date his sov­er­eignty by not con­ven­ing the Estates Gen­eral, leav­ing that of the people’s in repose; 1789 reawak­ened it to such an extent that the vot­ers, aware of the sever­ity of the cri­sis, had appointed their deputies to give the coun­try a new con­sti­tu­tion.

The Estates Gen­eral, usu­ally held on May 1st accord­ing to medieval cus­tom, was delayed meet­ing until May 5th. How­ever, the king only addressed the finan­cial aspects of the cri­sis, and that night, a small core [noyau] of deputies, already rebelling against the refusal to be heard in the Estates Gen­eral, adopted the title of Com­munes, in ref­er­ence to the pop­u­lar upris­ings of the medieval period, which were called Com­mons or Unions, by the Eng­lish Par­lia­ment for exam­ple, and called for all other deputies to join them. By June 17th, this group of deputies, hav­ing grown con­sid­er­ably, declared them­selves the National Assem­bly, and on June 20th, with even greater num­bers, added con­stituent to their name, swear­ing to remain united until a new con­sti­tu­tion was estab­lished.

Act I of the Rev­o­lu­tion was a strug­gle to remove the leg­isla­tive power and sov­er­eignty of the king and return it to the peo­ple.

At the time, peo­ple and nation were equiv­a­lent terms, well before the jurists, sub­tle oppo­nents of democ­racy, invented such a dis­tinc­tion.

On June 24th, the monar­chy reacted with a vengeance: the army was amassed around Paris, and could be seen on the sur­round­ing hills, their weapons and can­nons shin­ing in the sun.

The National Con­stituent Assem­bly (NCA), threat­ened with sup­pres­sion, found itself at an impasse, and a cli­mate of insur­rec­tion pre­vailed through­out the coun­try. The Great Hope that com­menced with the con­vo­ca­tion of the Estates Gen­eral now min­gled with fear, but it turned into defen­sive reac­tion with the immense pop­u­lar rev­o­lu­tion of July 1789, what was then called the Great Fear.1 It unfolded in Paris and the provinces, and trans­formed the dis­pute between the NCA and the monar­chy into a con­flict between the monar­chy and the peo­ple.

And so began a new phase of strug­gle: Act II of the Rev­o­lu­tion.2

– In Paris, patri­ots occu­pied the Hôtel de Ville. Gardes Françaises, sent by the king, dis­obeyed orders and frat­er­nized with Parisians and swore to never take up arms against the peo­ple. There were dis­cus­sions of rais­ing a Parisian Guard, a cit­i­zens’ mili­tia of around 50,000 men; Deputy Mirabeau sup­ported the pro­posal, and it was adopted on July 8th.

– The NCA con­tin­ued to meet at Ver­sailles and debate deci­sions. On July 12th, it claimed its leg­isla­tive power by reject­ing the mea­sures the king and his min­is­ters had taken, and declared itself to be per­ma­nent: it would remain so until the 4th of August…

– Vol­un­teers [volon­tiers] in Paris searched for weapons in armories and royal store­houses. On July 13th an appeal was sent out to the peo­ple, and frat­er­niz­ing con­tin­ued with army corps. On July 14th, the search for weapons led to the Hôtel des Invalides, where the gov­er­nor, aban­doned by his troops, had to open the doors for the vol­un­teers. With the addi­tion of a large num­ber of desert­ers from the royal army, the Parisian Guard now totalled 300,000 men!

They went to the Bastille, the fortress that once defended the city gates, located at the cen­ter of the pop­u­lar Faubourg Saint-Antoine neigh­bor­hood, bristling with can­nons! After intense fight­ing, the gov­er­nor sur­ren­dered and low­ered the draw­bridge: the Bastille was taken and then destroyed, stone-by-stone, the first step in the strug­gle against despotism…The royal troops retreated; the Parisian vic­tory forced the king to call off direct repres­sion.

On July 15th, at Ver­sailles the king’s atti­tude changed: he arrived, unguarded, to address the NCA, declar­ing that he rec­og­nized and trusted its deci­sions. Paris demanded the king’s pres­ence, and he went there on July 16th, with a group of deputies. To cries and shouts of Vive la lib­erté! and Vive la nation!, he wit­nessed the armed force of the peo­ple and the city’s redis­cov­ery of peace and secu­rity.

Lim­it­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of the 14th of July only to events in Paris would be a grave error, since the entire coun­try rebelled for the same rea­sons as the cap­i­tal: dis­con­tent over the king’s reac­tion to the first steps of the Rev­o­lu­tion!

The provinces were informed of events through the accounts sent by their deputies, in let­ter-form, to their con­stituents.

– At the begin­ning of July, munic­i­pal power changed hands in the cities, cor­re­spond­ing to local rela­tions of force, and vol­un­teer national guards were formed through­out the coun­try. Urban revolts tar­geted octroi taxes, which were col­lected on goods enter­ing the cities. The octrois were destroyed with the aim of low­er­ing the price of sub­sis­tence goods; for the same rea­son, black mar­ket trade spread through­out the coun­try, soon fol­lowed by a gen­eral refusal to pay taxes.

– In the rural areas, where 85% of the pop­u­la­tion lived, seven local revolts emerged; then, sud­denly, from July 16th to August 6th, revolts sparked across the whole coun­try! The jacquerie rapidly advanced like a warn­ing bell, sig­nalling neigh­bor­ing vil­lages to take up the “relay”…

And what was this Jacquerie? One of the largest peas­ant revolts in his­tory, orga­nized into armed, mainly anti-feu­dal move­ments, fight­ing for [met­tre en acte] the abo­li­tion of feu­dal rela­tions.3

The seigneurial sys­tem was divided between two groups: the seigneurs or landown­ers, and the peas­antry. The Jacques called for a new social con­tract, founded on a redis­tri­b­u­tion of land: the lands within the “seigneurial domain” would go to the lords, while the lands of the “cen­sive [ten­ants who paid the cens, the feu­dal rent] domain” would go to the peas­antry. Along with this divi­sion, there would be a defin­i­tive abo­li­tion of seigneurial rights and oblig­a­tions – with­out rec­om­pense – and the recog­ni­tion of the com­mons, to stop the theft of this com­mon prop­erty by seigneurs.

Fur­ther­more, peas­ants took back usurped com­mon lands, like forests, that had been for­bid­den to inhab­i­tants of the flat coun­try. The Rev­o­lu­tion also saw the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion re-estab­lish hunt­ing and fish­ing through­out the coun­try and graz­ing and gath­er­ing prac­tices in these com­mu­nal lands, includ­ing royal forests!

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary agrar­ian reform began to be put into prac­tice dur­ing the Great Fear of 1789. The Jacquerie con­tin­ued the sym­bol­ism of the storm­ing of the Bastille, as a new stage in the raz­ing of despo­tism, which appeared here in feu­dal-seigneurial form: “Guerre aux châteaux, paix aux chau­mières!” [War on the castles, peace to the cot­tages!]

This was, at the same time, the col­lapse of the largest insti­tu­tion of the monar­chy: the king’s inten­dants slipped away qui­etly…

By the begin­ning of August, with the dis­ap­pear­ance of his stew­ards and the for­ma­tion of national guards and the seizure of munic­i­pal, autonomous, and decen­tral­ized power, the king had lost all of his pow­ers, includ­ing his sword.

In this way, the for­mer sub­jects of royal author­ity became cit­i­zens.


The pop­u­lar revolution’s entry onto the scene came on the night of August 4th and the vote for the Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights.

Under threat from the king, the NCA was well aware of the people’s pres­ence in this nar­ra­tive: the peo­ple were respon­si­ble for the Assembly’s very exis­tence! And it was the peo­ple that drew a divid­ing line between a new form of aris­toc­racy, that of wealth, and democ­racy.

The deci­sions of the night of August 4th expressed this deep divi­sion: the decree up for vote made an imme­di­ate homage to the Jacquerie move­ment, mak­ing a deci­sion of a con­stituent type: “The National Assem­bly abol­ishes the feu­dal sys­tem entirely.” But this prin­ci­ple was con­tra­dicted later by set­ting a rate of redemp­tion for feu­dal rights by the peas­ants, and delayed com­plete abo­li­tion…

The Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of Man and Cit­i­zen was dis­cussed and voted upon from August 20th to 26th, 1789, and con­se­crated the Repub­li­can phase of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary period. In fact, the text makes no men­tion of the monar­chy, and pop­u­lar sov­er­eignty is the com­mon wealth of the nation, as in Arti­cle 3: “The prin­ci­ple of all sov­er­eignty rests essen­tially in the nation.”

The sep­a­ra­tion of leg­isla­tive and exec­u­tive power was a con­stituent prin­ci­ple, and was clearly intended against the con­fu­sion of these pow­ers as cen­tral­ized by the king, and which had been the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for despo­tism. See, for instance, Arti­cle 16: “Any soci­ety in which the guar­an­tee of rights is not assured or the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers not set­tled has no con­sti­tu­tion.”

Pub­lic offi­cials answered to, and were respon­si­ble for, their elec­torates, as clar­i­fied in Arti­cle 15: “Soci­ety has the right to hold account­able every pub­lic agent of the admin­is­tra­tion.”

This Dec­la­ra­tion rec­og­nized equal­ity not only through the nat­u­ral rights of all indi­vid­u­als, but also that their pro­tec­tion and secu­rity be assured by soci­ety and its insti­tu­tions in a remark­able for­mu­la­tion, the famous Arti­cle I: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”4

Free by birth: Every human indi­vid­ual is born free and not in slav­ery, because accord­ing to nat­u­ral right, human nature is to live free and to be able to develop one’s capac­i­ties. Yet slav­ery represses this per­sonal lib­erty; the term takes on a polit­i­cal dimen­sion, too, and any regime that repu­di­ates pop­u­lar sov­er­eignty and leg­isla­tive con­trol by the cit­i­zenry is said to be despotic, a term that qual­i­fies the type of power a mas­ter exer­cised over his slaves in ancient Greece (by Aris­totle in his Pol­i­tics, for exam­ple).

To remain free: Polit­i­cal and civil soci­ety are here com­mit­ted to defend­ing and pro­tect­ing the rights of indi­vid­u­als, and all pub­lic power.

And yet, it was on this pre­cise point that the ene­mies of democ­racy con­cen­trated their efforts against the Rev­o­lu­tion of the Rights of Man and Cit­i­zen that had been set in motion.

The deputies of the slave­hold­ing colony at Saint-Domingue had man­aged, since June 20th, to slip unno­ticed into the NCA. They took part, silently, in all of these events, and noti­fied their con­stituents of the sit­u­a­tion in France. Greatly unnerved by the Revolution’s pop­u­lar char­ac­ter, these deputies pointed to Arti­cle I of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights as the cru­cial ele­ment that needed to be excised, in terms that were par­tic­u­larly indica­tive of their con­cep­tion of human­ity and pol­i­tics:

First of all, we felt that this new state of things…demands our most care­ful circumspection…it induced a kind of ter­ror when we saw that the Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights posed absolute equal­ity and the iden­tity of lib­erty and rights for all indi­vid­u­als as the basis for the Con­sti­tu­tion.

To the degree that we know the spirit of the Assem­bly, we are eas­ily convinced…that the frank­ing [affran­chise­ment]5 of the slaves is desired by the major­ity as an act pre­scribed by human­ity and reli­gion, and which would serve the glory of the reform­ers.6

A new theme is encoun­tered here: the Ter­ror exer­cised by the Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights.

To qual­ify the rights of man as a form of ter­ror is quite sur­pris­ing! If today the Ter­ror is viewed as a vio­la­tion of the rights of man, at that time it was exactly the oppo­site view that was expressed! And it was the colo­nial pro-slav­ery fac­tion that assumed lead­er­ship of the coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion, seek­ing out all pos­si­ble means for repu­di­at­ing any con­sti­tu­tion founded upon these rights of lib­erty and resis­tance to oppres­sion.

Barely born, the future of the Rev­o­lu­tion was already threat­ened by antipa­thy towards the nat­u­ral rights of man and cit­i­zen…

-Trans­lated by Patrick King

  1. On the Great Fear, see Georges Lefeb­vre, The Great Fear: Rural Panic in Rev­o­lu­tion­ary France, trans. Joan White (New York: Vin­tage, 1973 [1932]). 

  2. For an account of these ini­tial phases, see Albert Math­iez, Les Grandes Journées de la Con­sti­tu­ante, 1789-1791 (Paris: Édi­tions de la Pas­sion, 1989 [1913]). 

  3. For a gen­eral overview, see Ana­toli Ado, Paysans en Révo­lu­tion, Terre, pou­voir et jacquerie, 1789-1794 (Paris: Société des études Robespierristes,1996); also Flo­rence Gau­thier, “Une révo­lu­tion paysanne: Les car­ac­tères orig­in­aux de l’histoire rurale de la rev­o­lu­tion française,”1789-1794,” 2011,

  4. For a his­tor­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal account of these themes, see Flo­rence Gau­thier, Tri­om­phe et mort du droit naturel en révo­lu­tion, 1789-1795-1802 (Paris: Syllepse, 2014 [1992]). 

  5. Translator’s note: “frank­ing” is a tech­ni­cal term, mean­ing indi­vid­ual and polit­i­cal free­dom, and can be traced to the medieval ori­gins of the term “fran­chise” and “enfran­chise­ment.” 

  6. Flo­rence Gau­thier, L’Aristocratie de l’épiderme: Le Com­bat de la Société des citoyens de couleur, 1789-1791 (Paris: CNRS, 2007), 163. 

Author of the article

is a historian based at the University of Paris 7-Denis Diderot. She is the author of several books on the French Revolution, including Triomphe et mort du droit naturel en révolution, 1789-1795-1802.