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July 14, the date of this publication, marks the anniversary of a significant event in history, namely the storming of the Bastille in the middle of Paris in 1789.
The date is widely held today as the commemoration of the French Revolution, although obviously a revolution takes time, as does persuading an entire nation that revolting is an option worth pursuing with a moderate guarantee of success.
Similarly, in this country, the date of July 4, 1776, might represent independence from Britain, but the United States did not actually gain legitimacy as an independent nation until after ratification of the peace treaty more than seven years later.
There had to be a lot of bloodshed in this country between 1776 and 1784, and those who study history will have long understood that the birth of a nation is never a peaceful event. Someone has to lose, or at the very least compromise. We may jokingly refer to American independence as the first true Brexit, but to do so is to dismiss the thousands who lost their lives in the struggle for their respective cause.
Much the same can be said of France, where the revolution and its aftermath proved horrific and gruesome. The Reign of Terror that followed the initial revolt sent thousands to the guillotine. In time, however, French unity prevailed, and the modern-day republic was conceived. It would take decades more, eras of empire and collapse, overthrows and imprisonment, before the concept could not only see the light of day but also be sustainable.
We have since learned that the storming of the Bastille – a heavily guarded prison fortress believed to hold political opponents – turned out to be more of a symbolic act than anything else. The place only had seven people in it at the time, none of any great significance to the struggle.
Nevertheless, launching an attack with whatever resources were available – eventually with the support of some actual troops – became the rallying cry of a nation whose people wanted change. In many ways, the events of July 14 symbolized the genuine movement of the people, an uprising against authoritarianism, a protest in which the insurgents did a lot more than put on silly hats but actually took lethal action to achieve their aims.
Exactly a year later, possibly by coincidence, the French celebrated their unity and peaceful ambitions on the very day they remembered breaking into the state prison. The date thereafter had two rather different meanings, and it would not be until nearly a hundred years later that a carefully worded explanation for the commemoration would be offered as the glue to hold the people in unison for a celebration of today’s republic.
The 1889 centennial of the French Revolution is recognized worldwide nowadays in what is probably the most iconic piece of architecture on Earth, namely Monsieur Eiffel’s peculiar tower at the head of the Champ de Mars, that field where the first anniversary was celebrated with a grand fair in an atmosphere of promise.
In 1790, the French took popular demonstration to a new level entirely by running naked through the streets of Paris in celebration of their freedom. Anyone who has seen 21st Century French protests or who witnessed the 1968 uprising will know that the French take revolting quite seriously.
We are surrounded by anniversary dates, symbols of overthrow and rebuild, markers of significant events, and even veterans who recall being there on some day, and others around the world look to us – and to the French, if they’re not being too revolting – for examples of how to do things right and how not to do them, and how to persevere in standing up for a cause in which they truly believe.
Let us only hope that history continues to be written in all its revolting colors, not just those of the people with the most ink.