A History Lesson on Bastille Day

By Gould, John | The Christian Science Monitor, August 19, 1994 | Go to article overview

A History Lesson on Bastille Day


Gould, John, The Christian Science Monitor


The recent repetitive restoring of the Bastille was duly noted here in Maine. We held our usual observance with appropriate patriotic remarks and our traditional evening feast of knockwurst, hot German potato salad, pumpernickel, and sauerkraut topped off with a Black Forest chocolate cake.

Bastille Day is a favorite here, because it is the best example of how history, or perhaps historians, have abused the facts to create emotional excuses for the populace to rally to political, and other, purposes of the moment.

For one thing, there was no need whatever to storm the Bastille. It was obsolete, and its history was tarnished. The days of Richelieu were long gone. So when the mob stormed the fort and the Revolutionary government of Paris razed it, it was to carry out an emotional pitch that King Louis XVI had already arranged for in a peaceful manner.

He had set aside funds to demolish the Bastille by a contractor and to restyle the area in an urban renewal project well ahead of its environmental time.

The contractor, cheated of his job, was able to salvage chips of the Bastille masonry, and at a few sous apiece he gained a great fortune offering them at the flea markets of the time. He gave a free Bastille stone to the city hall of every town in France, to advertise this opportunity. When the United States Frigate Constitution was rebuilt at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in 1925, the same was done with chips of the "original" wood, and I have such a chip from the keel.

History affirms that not only the wood from Old Ironsides, but also some 800,000 board feet of new lumber, fresh from Maine sawmills, aided this project, which made a great number of shipwrights rich.

So the Bastille was stormed, and then the fairy tales came into style. Instead of liberating great throngs of political prisoners from the terror dungeons of the Bastille, the crowd actually led forth just seven men, two of whom were convicted counterfeiters who had been lawfully sentenced after appropriate court action, and who disappeared at once into the crowd and kept on going.

Others had been lodged there by their families for "good care" and would have them simply moved to a hotel. The one with the long-haired Santy Claus whiskers was cheered by the populace and gave Charles Dickens something to write home about. He was not a man of high intellect and was in the Bastille accordingly.

So, the French Revolution began. Every year on the 14th of July, we honor the moment with our faintly French connections. In that connection, I'd like to mention that in the Province of Quebec, there is a town on the highway from Woburn to Lennoxville by the name of La Patrie. …

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