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The Significance of Bastille Day

Some ten days (and thirteen years) after America's Declaration of Independence that signaled the start of the American Revolution, another revolution began in France, on July 14, 1789. The trigger event was the storming of the Bastille prison, which ironically, had only eight prisoners, all noble, one of them the Marquis de Sade (who gave his name to "sadism.") The reason was that these nobles were imprisoned without trial at the behest of OTHER nobles, a privilege that the peasants wanted to abolish. (Another was the so-called droit de seigneur).

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The violent uprising forced King Louis XVI of France to call into session the three legislative branches (the so-called three Estates: representatives of the Clergy, Nobility, and the People).

The delegates took the so-called "tennis court oath," a pledge to sleep in a conveniently located tennis court, rather than go home, until they had drafted a new Constitution for France (the Americans had just done this a couple years earlier). Their leader was one Marquis de Lafayette, who had been a hero in the American Revolution also.

The country might have proceeded peacefully to a Constitutional monarchy except for one thing: The queen was Marie Antoinette, an extravagant nitwit like America's own Paris (Hilton), and a foreigner to boot. She tried to engineer the escape of the royal family to her native Austria. More to the point (since Austria was an ally of France), she planned to have Austrian troops put down the revolt.

The royal family was caught in the flight,  and the king and queen eventually guillotined. But what started out as a domestic revolution became an impetus to repel foreign invaders. The revolutionary spirit spread from Paris, to all corners, including Marseilles, the home of the national anthem, and the port of Toulon, where a young officer named Napoleon Bonaparte was about to make his mark.

In fact, the Marseillaise best captured the spirit of the time. The following is my English translation of some key lines.

Arise ye children of the Fatherland
The day of glory has arrived.

To arms, ye citizens
Form up your battalions.
Lets march, lets march
To the frontier.
Fill the soil with blood "impure" (non French).