Today, some people celebrate what’s come to be known as “Bastille Day.” In 1789, a group of Masons, disgraced nobles, and peasants, inspired by enlightenment thinkers, broke into a prison. They set free four counterfeiters, two criminally insane lunatics, and a noble who had sexually abused his family. That’s it, seven people total.
They did this not to protest the counterfeiting laws, nor the treatment of the insane, and certainly not the laws against sexual abuse. They did this because they were hungry. They were hungry because they had been sold a false bill of goods, namely the idea that grain deregulation would lead to a richer an more prosperous France. What really happened, as with almost all deregulation, was that it enriched a few grain merchants and caused widespread famine. Deregulation created by the men who’s ideas the mob now trumpeted.
As the rabble stormed the near empty fortress, murdering and desecrating the corpses of the guards and officers, King Louis XVI sat with the estates general, listening to their complaints and working towards reform. This included re-regulation of grain. It wasn’t the King that deregulated grain, in fact he’d pushed against it. It wasn’t the clergy, it wasn’t the queen, and it certainly wasn’t the young Dauphin and his siblings. It wasn’t loyal and religious peasants in the Vendee and Bretagne. Yet all of them would pay the price.
It was the enlightenment thinkers that so inspired those who were now liberating a near empty prison, full of justly convicted criminals, who advocated for the destructive deregulation of grain. But they would not be punished. They would be held up as heroes, an one half of their political theory would be held up as remedy to the other half. The king, who fought against this destruction, would be punished. His wife and his children would too.
The King would be murdered after a show trial. The prince would die of tuberculosis, brought on by the disgusting conditions of his prison, at the age of 10. After the murder of his father, the young prince (Properly, the uncrowned King, as he had inherited the title from his father) was taken from his mother and given to an alcoholic innkeeper. The innkeeper was tasked with “Repbulicanizing” the Prince, which included eroding all his manners, forcing him to drink, fight, and curse. He was physically abused, left in filthy conditions, not given enough food or water, and isolated from any meaningful human contact. During this torturous confinement, the Jacobins coerced false testimony from him against his mother by having him sign a prewritten affidavit accusing her having abused him. All reports indicate that from the moment he signed that, until his death of tuberculosis at the young age of 10, he never uttered another word to anyone.
Queen Marie Antoinette would meet a fate similar to her beloved husband and son, convicted in a show trial on charges of theft from the royal treasury and child abuse (all of which were demonstrably false but supported by the coerced accusation of the young Dauphin, uncrowned King). By all serious historical accounts, and contrary to popular perception, she was a good woman. Kind and charitable, charming, and often ill treated by members of the French court. She did not say “Let them eat cake.” In fact, she ran multiple charitable organizations, funding them personally, that brought food to the hungry. Her last words were an apology for treading on the foot of her executioner. In her last letter, she writes of her total forgiveness of her son for signing the false accusation. She forgave him not because he was forced (it’s debatable whether she, also in jail at the time, knew that he was forced) but because she unconditionally loved him. She asks her sister to care for him, teach him the Catholic religion, and keep him safe. The letter was never delivered, burned after the death of it’s author.
Later on, many more would be murdered. In the Vendee region, bands of peasants in the Royal and Catholic Army heroically resisted the Republic, and explicit orders were given by the directory to “Leave nothing alive but the Wolves.” And so they did. The “Infernal Columns,” Republican death squads, murdered 300,000 people in the region, sparing nobody and making no distinction between insurgent and civilian. Despite this, more and more loyalists fought against the Republicans, and more and more were executed. This is considered the first modern genocide.
The republic would go on to desecrate the churches of France and nationalize the priesthood. They hated the sacred. The Notre Dame cathedral was specifically desecrated and made a “Temple of Reason.” They hated God and they hated the church. They would execute children for spoiling the symbolic liberty trees. They would tie people together and throw them into lakes. They would turn in their business competitors (nearly all of the leaders were wealthy businessmen), who would then be executed. They would seize people’s property by force. They would hang the innocent. They tore apart families and destroyed lives in a bacchanalia of blood and terror that brought nothing approaching freedom to the land. They killed because they could, and took no heed or value for human life. Ultimately, the Jacobins themselves would die as they lived, covered in blood by a guillotine.
The revolution set down the template for the genocides and murders of the 20th century, and the enlightenment ideas that inspired the Jacobins would inspire more horrors in the future. The revolution is often called the “first ideology.” In my mind it is also the “first genocide.” It unleashed hell on earth.
And still, the peasants didn’t cease being hungry.
Bastille day is quite literally nothing to celebrate. The French revolution was a mad horror show that we still have not corrected.
This is the closest I could find to the song sung by the Vendee heroes as they fought for what they held dear. It’s an adaptation of La Marseillaise.
Here’s a very good article on the Vendee c/o Gray Connolly