Nothing’s Been the Same Since
Two hundred years ago today a Parisian mob stormed the fortress-jail known as the Bastille, seized the cache of gunpowder stored inside and set free the handful of prisoners--two lunatics, four forgers and a sexually disturbed nobleman--who were its inmates. At other times the Bastille had held larger numbers of captives, many of whom had been arbitrarily locked up by command of the king; it was this that made the building the archetype of despotism. Its fall, one of the great symbolic events in modern history, has ever since been seen as marking both the beginning of the French Revolution and the end of royal absolutism in Western Europe.
In fact, the revolution had begun some weeks earlier, when a convention of clergy, nobles and commoners that had been summoned by Louis XVI to deal with a financial emergency defied the monarch and vowed to sit until it had produced a constitution to modify royal power. The king had been forced to convene the Estates General for the first time in 175 years because the government, battered by the cumulative consequences of royal extravagance and official inefficiency, waste and graft, was on the edge of bankruptcy. By 1789, fully half of all revenues were committed simply to servicing the massive public debt. No small part of that debt, Americans should be reminded, had been run up when France came to the aid of the United States during its own revolution.
The American Revolution brought about a change of political control. The revolution in France ultimately changed that country’s essential nature, helped inspire insurrections in a score of other countries and shaped the ideology and politics of the 19th Century. The revolution lasted for 10 tumultuous years. It produced an infamous Reign of Terror that took probably 20,000 lives in Paris alone and led to internecine strife that elsewhere claimed hundreds of thousands of lives more. And it gave rise to a new sense of nationalism that would have worldwide influences.
If the revolution unleashed terrible brutalities and hatreds, it also inspired enlightened thought and action. The revolution brought the abolition of serfdom in France and of slavery in French colonies, ended imprisonment for debt, saw the introduction of the metric system--Americans are still having problems with that--and inspired the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, with its ringing affirmation that “men are born and live free and equal under the laws.” A constitution drafted in 1793, but never put into effect because of national turmoil, was well ahead of its time in calling for universal manhood suffrage and the right of referendum. That same document also held that society owes the poor either work or the means of subsistence, and decreed that the state has an obligation to provide education to its citizens.
France for nearly two centuries remained deeply and even passionately divided over questions touching on the value, the consequences and the implications of its revolution. The political left and right still have trouble finding common meaning in their common history. The revolution in France was a time of upheaval and hope, of appalling excess and profound disillusionment. A process rather than an event, its importance was to be universal. The world has not been the same since.