Saturday, July 14, 2012

Independence Day vs Bastille Day (or Why the American Revolution is Vastly Superior to the French Revolution)

July 14 is Bastille Day, a day many French celebrate as a symbol of their liberation from monarchy and the beginning of their journey toward a republic. Culturally, it is the French equivalent to America's Fourth of July. Objectively speaking, it is anything but. Bastille Day is to respectable national birthdays what an Asylum "mockbuster" is to a full-fledged Hollywood production. (For those unfamiliar with that inside reference, the Asylum is a low-budget independent film company that produces cheap B-movie knockoffs of Hollywood hit films). For that matter, this is probably an insult to Asylum, because real people aren't hurt in the production of their movies.

Real people were indeed hurt on July 14, 1789. The day's events began when angry protesters demanded the surrender of the Bastille, a medieval prison-fortress in Paris. The Bastille was notorious for its ties to royal authority and had become a symbol for the worst of monarchical oppression. It also contained arms and gunpowder. The governor of the fortress at first refused. And when the crowd pushed in, violence broke out. Close to a hundred protesters lost their lives in the confused melee, transforming what had been an angry crowd of belligerents into an enraged, homicidal mob. When the fortress commander saw that his situation was hopeless, he tried to negotiate a surrender, but the mob would have none of it. He capitulated unconditionally. While most of the garrison's lives were spared, a handful weren't so fortunate. They were savagely murdered, their corpses mutilated, and their heads placed on pikes.

The day Americans have chosen to celebrate for their birthday is not characterized by violence, not even by dumping tea into a harbor. It's, in fact, not even the day that the Continental Congress technically voted for independence. That would be July 2, which John Adams was sure would go down as America's birthday. The American people have chosen to celebrate the Fourth of July as their Independence Day because it was the day Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, a document that clearly lays out the reasons for their break with Britain and the principles and ideals of the newly formed United States of America.

Every nation deserves of course to celebrate its birthday. And while I do not begrudge anyone the right to celebrate the positive aspects of their nation's heritage (we Americans do this ourselves after all), I honestly do not see anything worthy of celebrating when it comes to Bastille Day. It would be more understandable (and more respectable) for the French to celebrate the famous Tennis Court Oath or the formation of the National Assembly or the signing of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen." These developments were far more consequential to the sustained acknowledgment of human rights in France or the achievement of a stable Republic than a brutal mob attack on a medieval fortress with seven inmates! 


If the mob's brutality on that first Bastille Day were an aberration, that would be one thing. But it wasn't. French mobs continued to terrorize the people of France for years to come. It was said that the streets of Paris ran with blood. Revolutionaries would turn on themselves before it was all over. While the symbol of the American Revolution might properly be the Liberty Bell or the "Minuteman" volunteer, few would deny that the symbol most associated with the French Revolution is the guillotine. And yet, knowing this, the French perpetuate the remembrance of the more gruesome aspects of their Revolution by continuing to celebrate July 14 as their La FĂȘte Nationale. It is truly unfortunate. 


No one is of course suggesting that there wasn't violence in the American Revolution or that there weren't mobs. Nor is anyone saying that all the colonists in America were temperate philosophers while all French revolutionaries were violent anarchists. But there was a greater degree of deliberation and restraint evident in the American Revolution than in the French Revolution, and I think the date that each respective nation has chosen as its national day of celebration tells a story as to why that is the case. 


I mean no disrespect to the people of France. On the contrary, I appreciate their nation's moving from monarchy to republic (just as America did). And I have no problem with French citizens today celebrating this transition. But the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 is not among their nation's finer moments. It was a tragic episode that helped usher in years of even more tragedy for the French people. 


2 comments:

KAREN PERDUE said...

Great article!

Anonymous said...

The revolutionaries committed crimes but the aristocracy committed far more crimes against the peasants during their centuries long oppression of them. Yet conservatives often sympathize more with the aristocracy. It's very revealing.