This weekend, the French celebrated their national holiday, la Fête nationale or “Bastille Day” as it is known in the English-speaking world. Bastille Day is the commemoration of the culmination of events that lead to the storming of the medieval fortress and prison, the Bastille Saint-Antoine by what would later be the French Revolution’s National Guard. As providence would have it, the events that lead to the storming of the Bastille has it’s origins within the American Colonies and what would become the United States of America.
Back in the early 1750s, France controlled much of territory in North America from the Ohio Valley to the Mississippi River and beyond. When Native American traders refused to respect French sovereignty and traded with the English, it lead to military enforcement by the French, which caused Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie to send a regiment, led by 22-year old Major George Washington, to attack a French scouting party. This was the first battle of what is known nationally as the French and Indian War and internationally as the Seven Years’ War. Several skirmishes later and a French response lead to a series of alliances in Europe that caused the out-break of a full scale war with all world powers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Eventually, the French lost the war and much of it’s territory east of the Mississippi to the British. However, the French would exact its revenge upon the British over a decade later when their American Colonies declared their independence. The new French King, Louis XVI formally recognized American independence and aligned with the United States against Great Britain. However, due to the losses of land and heavy military expenditures, the French was deeply in debt. And while King Louis XVI originally sought to be a good king by abolishing serfdom and removing a land tax on the peasantry and non-nobles, this did not go over well with French nobility that resisted these changes causing French problems to persist.
Meanwhile, back in the United States of America, it should be noted that for generations the British Crown allowed the American Colonies to operate rather independently due to it’s distance from the King and parliament. This independence became what Americans came to expect from the British. However, that changed due to the French and Indian War and an overbearance of authority and rule from London against the long learned American independence lead to the American Revolution. And it is that very streak of independence, individual liberty and self-governing that has grounded our republic and every American within. And the first American to feel the brunt of American independence is none other than the former Major from the French and Indian War, former Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army and our first President, George Washington.
George Washington was a military man, through and through. Being use to a chain of command and structure, Washington favored a stronger centralized authority. This is much do the the lack of authority and often chaotic control he had over the Continental Army in the Revolution, which was often dictated by the Continental Congress during the war. For most of history, those who have assumed power have rather been born into it or have taken it with the full command of force. This was not Washington. That was not the America. So when George Washington was elected President of the United States, he shaped America and what our presidency would be, however this was only possible due to how he, himself, was shaped by Colonial America. George Washington served as President for two terms and left probably the most definitive stamp in American, if not world history, when he decided not to run for a third term. In 1796, there was no 22nd Amendment limiting the length a president may serve. Not before in history has a leader ceded power willingly. Washington’s decision to do just that not only forced our nation to live to our principles of freedom and liberty by the people, but it also molded each successive leader to follow Washington’s example to not hold on to power, even if they craved it, which many famously did not.
This, however, was not the case across the Atlantic, with America’s first ally, France. Within months of Washington assuming office, Louis XVI was going the opposite way. The debts from the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution, along with their inability to pay it down put the King in a terrible position. The French nobility, comfortable with lower taxes and exemptions, resisted any change and the French commoners bearing the brunt of taxes they could not pay poured their anger into the French Monarchy, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. When the Parlement of Paris refused to enact any reforms and the French government came to a standstill, the King tried to bypass Parlement with the “Estates General of 1789”. An archaic national assembly of the three “estates” in France(Cleargy, Nobility and Commoners), which had not met in nearly 200 years, it was meant to force the reforms France needed to pay its debt, but it only empowered the “Third Estate”, the Commoners, to usurp power from the King. The Third Estate, which had more delegates than both the First and Second Estates combined, named itself the National Assembly cutting power from the King for the duration of his reign.
On July 14th, 1789, the National Guard of the Third Estate, entered the Hôtel des Invalides with the intent on taking the muskets and cannons held within. However, the gunpowder and ammunition for these arms were moved to the Bastille, which had been nearly empty save for a half dozen prisoners. After the arms were liberated, the National Guard turned their attention to the Bastille, which had come to represent a symbol of royalty in France. As a crowd gathered, representatives were sent in to negotiate a surrender. Within hours, the crowd entered the courtyard, tore apart the drawbridge and the storming of the Bastille had begun. When the King was informed of what happened the next morning, he asked if it was a revolt. “No, sire,” he was told. “It’s not a revolt. It’s a revolution.”
The stark differences between France and the United States could not be made any clearer than seen in these few years. A tale of our two nations, born out of two days in the month of July, separated by just ten days, is a tale of two separate revolutions that spun two separate destinies. The United States of America and all of its people were not made to serve or construct a single autocratic authority. And when we won our independence, all we knew was individual liberty and freedom of being ruled by the people. After the French rebelled, deposed and executed the French Monarchy, the French Revolution produced their nation’s and one of the world’s most autocratic despots, Napoleon Bonaparte. He was able to capitalize off the chaos and failure of both the monarchy and revolution. And although he was different in name only from the autocratic rule of the Bourbon Dynasty, he was able to convince the people that he could restore the order they did not have. But it was still an autocratic rule they knew. They just wanted one that they were convinced was from the people. Unlike the Americans who they helped liberate, they knew very little of the responsibility of liberty. However, that was a responsibility the United States knew all too well.
Sixty years after the death of George Washington and the end of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens wrote the classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The book, which begins the year of the American Revolution and last through the French Revolution, it tells the story of a French noble that was arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to death and his eventual extrication. Throughout the novel, Dickens often drew comparisons of the social imbalance between the nobles of privilege and the poor who are often left at the whim of those in power. It was a theme that existed in during the revolutions of 18th Century, in Dickens’ 19th Century and present throughout the 20th Century grounding the challenges we see in the 21st Century. The social strife that existed in Colonial America and Revolutionary France all began with the will of the people and what they thought to be intolerable. However, where the American Colonist were able to divorce themselves from tyranny and trend to a rule by the people in form of a republic, the French Revolution turned to a republic which ceded power to an tyrannical autocracy. These stories and these two countries remind us of not just the power of the people, but their will to dictate their own destiny. Only the people can empower the absolutism of autocracy. But they also hold the key to the freedom and liberty promised in a rule by the people. The desire for self-rule is easy to have, but the responsibility of it often overlooked by the very people who crave it. Abdicating that responsibility only helps those to take advantage, whether they are actually of the people or only pretend to be. It is something that can’t be ignored or abdicated or taken for granted. Because… with great power comes even greater responsibility.