The French national holiday of Bastille Day—celebrated each year on July 14, or le quatorze juillet—may spell fireworks and and a large military parade for some, but for most, it still marks the anniversary of the storming of a grand fortress that was infamous for holding political prisoners, during the first moments of the French Revolution in Paris in 1789.
But the meaning behind that action isn’t quite as poetic as the motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” sounds, says Dan Edelstein, chair of the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages at Stanford and an expert on 18th century France.
Back in July of 1789, France had already experienced a rough summer that included food shortages, high taxes (as a solution to King Louis XVI’s debts) and the militarization of Paris. Sensing distress, the king called upon the Estates-General—an assembly that hadn’t met in more than a century—to deliver a new tax plan. That resulted in the Third Estate, the non-noble/non-clergy portion of the assembly, breaking from the clergy and nobility, and demanding a written constitution from France. Their proclamation would form the National Assembly in late June. Weeks later, after the king removed a finance minister, Jacques Necker, of whom the estate approved, fears that Louis XVI was attempting to quash any political revolution began to boil.
That fear culminated on July 14 in a march to the Hôtel des Invalides to loot firearms and cannons, and a resulting (and far more famous) trip to the Bastille for proper ammunition. That hunt for gunpowder—not the hope of freeing prisoners—was the main reason for the storming of the Bastille.
The events that followed—the freeing of the few prisoners that remained at the Bastille, but also a deadly battle and the brutal beheading of the prison governor and his officers—were more of a side effect of chaotic uprising, rather than its intent.
It didn’t take long, however, for the symbolism of the Bastille to change.
“When news breaks in Versailles that people had stormed the Bastille, [the royalty] thought that this was a disaster and that people were out of control,” Edelstein says. “Within the space of about two weeks, they sort of had to revise their narrative.”
Somewhat famously, Louis XVI asked a French duke that evening if the storming of Bastille was a revolt, with the duke replying “No, sire, a revolution.” At first, the royal response was an attempt to compromise with this new situation. The king arrived in Paris days later, Edelstein says, to declare his support of the revolution and don the tricolor cockade. That event bolstered the revolution’s political meaning and the idea of the storming of the Bastille as a demonstration against political tyranny, rather than a violent event. Feudalism was abolished that August.
A year later, France would host the Fête de la Fédération on July 14 to celebrate the France’s constitutional monarchy and to honor France’s newfound unity. That unity, students of the French Revolution will know, didn’t last long—and the revolution eventually devolved into the Reign of Terror.
July 14 wouldn’t be seen as an official holiday until almost a century later.
“If there was ever a shot heard ’round the world,” Edelstein says, “it was when Parisians brought down the Bastille.”