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.