By: Paulina Mangubat
July 14, 1789 - Storming the Bastille
What’s the difference between rebellion and revolution? The history of Bastille Day—the holiday marking the storming of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution in 1789—might contain the answer.
In 1789, France was awash with discontent and political turmoil. The financial excesses of King Louis XVI and his wife, the infamously avaricious Marie Antoinette, had resulted in crippling national debt and food shortages. These problems were compounded by a rocky first year for the French Parliament, the dismissal of a widely admired reformist minister named Jacques Necker, and, perhaps most disconcertingly, the excessive number of military troops stationed around Paris by the royal family.
It was summertime, and the people were furious. France was ripe for revolution.
The Bastille, which was 100 feet tall and featured an 80-foot moat, provided the perfect setting. Originally built in 1370 as a bastide (“fortification”), the Bastille of the 1700s functioned as a formidable state prison populated by felons, political dissidents and spies. In a political climate where monarchy felt like imprisonment, a violent protest in Paris’ most visible state prison became the perfect clarion call for a regime change.
On July 14, 1789, enraged revolutionaries initiated a battle in one of the Bastille’s outer courtyards. They promptly began freeing prisoners, killing officers and kidnapping the governor. One hundred citizens and eight prison guards died. In the aftermath of the bloodshed, Parisians proudly displayed the decapitated heads of the governor and three prison officers on wooden pikes.
The storming of the Bastille kicked off the French Revolution, a nationwide movement calling for the dissolution of the monarchy, abolition of feudalism and implementation of freedom, liberty and democracy.
To be clear, there was never one singular French Revolution: instead, there were many revolutions that took place between 1789 and 1871. Still, the 1798 storming of the Bastille marks France’s national holiday because it was the most memorable populist overthrow of a despotic government in French history.
The storming of the Bastille remains a powerful symbol of democracy and the people’s will overcoming that of the authoritarian minority. Regardless, realizing that these monumental changes in the French political system could not have been achieved without senseless loss of life is disheartening (just imagine a proud revolutionary waving about a stick with your state governor’s head stuck on it!) It is thus worth asking: What role does violence play in revolution?
It’s also worth returning to the question: What is the difference between rebellion and revolution?
Revolution implies a years-long ferment, and a kind of majoritarian uprising. After the falling of the Bastille, Louis XVI asked, “So, is there a rebellion?”
The duke de La Rochefoucauld responded, “No, sire, a revolution!”
Paulina Mangubat is a communications intern for the EastWest Institute. She is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and East Asian studies. She tweets @paulinaVEVO.