Belated Bastille Day

Posted: July 15, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Yesterday was Bastille Day.  I changed my Facebook profile picture for the occasion. Very few people noticed, and even fewer cared.  This is not surprising since most Americans pay little attention to their own history, much less French History.  Nonetheless, every July 14th, the anniversary of the day in 1789 when the people of Paris stormed and overtook the medieval prison known as the Bastille, I quietly commemorate the Tricolour.220px-LibertyEqualityorDeath

The French Revolution is fascinating. Everyone, including notoriously Franco-phobe Americans, should take at least a cursory notice every July 14th and maybe even sing a few bars of the La Marseillaise. Here are a couple reasons why:

  •  The litany of incredible personalities that changed the world.  Robespierre, Danton, Saint-Just, Marat, Jacques-Louis David, Olympe de Gouges, Condorcet, Lafayette, Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Thomas Paine, and of course, Napoleon Bonaparte. Paris was a political soap-opera.
  • The French Revolutionaries understood the importance of words and symbols.  From ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, to “The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen”, the Revolutionaries attempted control of language foreshadows our postmodern world, and our obsession with discourse.
  • The Revolutionaries did not just want to tweak a couple things; they wanted to create their world anew.  There is no denying such apocalyptic hopes led to terror and state-induced murder (see Louis and Antoinette, 220px-Heads_on_pikesand the guillotine,) but it is less remembered that they also produced idiosyncratically mundane social transformations. The Revolutionaries truly did ‘sweat the small stuff.’  They revolutionized places (Notre Dame became the Temple of Reason), people (name your kid Brutus, not Louis), measurements (Metric system), time (New months, days, and holidays), fashion (Hair down, no more wigs) and objects (Get rid of the Kings and Queens in chess, playing cards, etc).
  • The French Revolution, in all its gruesome violence, causes  a ‘gaper’s delay’.  Like a car crash on I-94, I just can’t look away from all those heads on pikes, Revolutionary wars, and mob killings.  Disgusting, but horrifyingly fascinating.
  • Lastly, in much of the world today, being for or against the Revolution still illustrates your political worldview. The events of 1789 are still contentious, and for many since that July day, the hope has been to put the revolutionary genie back in the bottle.  Though this hope is inevitably fruitless, as a historian, I love that events that took place over two hundred years ago can still cause heated arguments in every corner of the world.
  1. Anonymous says:

    Never forget, the Reign of Terror, the massacre of “enemies of the revolution,” the powerful Bonaparte Empire and it’s bitter Russian end, the broken Europe that grew into factions that set the stage for WW1, and the French power that died with the monarchy on that day.

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