Bastille Day and the Eternal Revolution

Written by on July 22nd, 2014. Subject: History. Filed in Politics, about French Revolution Bastille Day

|||Preamble of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen|||

Bastille Day The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all.

When members of the French Third Estate, embittered by the dismissal of Jacques Necker, a finance minister who had been sympathetic to their cause, stormed the Bastille on the morning of July 14, 1789, they could hardly have imagined their actions would be talked about some two hundred and twenty five years later. Like many disaffected citizens of France during this time, they shared a hatred of the monarchy and the aristocracy as well as a distrust of the Catholic Church, which they viewed as a puppet of the nobility. They were concerned with only one thing on that morning—freeing political prisoners held in the Bastille, many of whom were sympathetic to the Third Estate and had been placed in prison by lettres de cachet (letters of the sign), so-called royal indictments that could not be appealed because the authority of their charges came from the king himself. They did not know the prison contained only seven inmates that morning; much less did they realize that ninety-eight of their rank would be killed in the name of liberty that day. Yet, had they known these things, it is likely they would have changed little of their plan. The grievances catalogued during the Estates-General of May that year had not been addressed, and the citizens were tired of waiting. Louis accepted the Tricolore Cockcade; the Great Fear began; the revolution was in full swing.

Less than three weeks later, feudalism would surrender after peasants revolted and demanded a republican government, forcing much of the aristocracy out of Paris. Shortly thereafter, the now famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens would be published, aristocratic offices would be abolished, monasteries would be closed, churches would be nationalized, and all semblance of authority would be dethroned. This pattern would continue during the subsequent months finally leading up to the creation of the First French Republic in 1792. Democracy was demanded by the people. Vive la Nation was their cry. Louis XVI, approving the mob’s constitution, would acquiesce to their demands in an attempt to avoid more bloodshed; yet every concession he made would cause more death, and the final result was his execution by guillotine on January 21, 1793. Robespierre, despite his assertion that he was personally against the death penalty, argued that Louis’s execution was necessary to preserve the integrity of the Republic. Regicide, he argued, is not only permissible, it is necessary to maintain political peace! Le roi doit mourir!

The ensuing Reign of Terror would bring further bloodshed to an already gruesome revolution. Priests, nuns, and religious would be raped, tortured, and beheaded; aristocrats would be imprisoned and eventually guillotined; and citizens sympathetic to the Church and nobility would be killed. Marching to the theme of La Marseillaise, the revolution devoured everything in its path. By the middle of 1794, some forty thousand Frenchmen, nobles and peasants alike, had become victims of her insatiable destruction. This is what we celebrate on Bastille Day. We honor man’s inhumanity to man. We celebrate the indomitable spirit of men who murder kings and queens in the name of liberty and equality. We elevate the dregs of society to the status of martyrs, martyrs who died for ideals directly repugnant to civil, moral, and eternal laws. We praise what shouldn’t be praised; we glorify the unworthy. Vive la Revolution!

The French Revolution was not the first revolution in history—that distinction might be given to the Glorious Revolution of 1689, or perhaps a little earlier to the Enlightenment itself, not a revolution in the sense we are discussing, but certainly a revolution from the old order. Perhaps we should go back to Luther’s 95 Theses and the Protestant Reformation for another example—again not a revolution in the strictest sense of the word, but a radical uprising of the individual against authority. We could go still further back in history, back to that very first revolution in the garden—that green and beautiful paradise—which witnessed man’s first attempt at self-government and its ultimate failure. Regardless of where we begin, the French Revolution is the revolution upon which all modern revolutions have been based. If one looks at the Haitian, Chinese, Taipan, and Russian Revolutions, it is easy to see its effects—its insistence of liberty, fraternity, and equality.

The problem, however, with liberty, fraternity, and equality, as with all revolutionary slogans, is they are just that—slogans, backed up by violence and death. Now, lest one think I am against liberty, let me state quite emphatically, that I believe liberty is a necessary and Christian idea. The whole of salvation history has been based on man’s inherent liberty. But this type of liberty, freedom to choose the Good, is not absolute, since it requires us as Christians to choose good over evil. We do not have the freedom to take someone else’s freedom in the name of freedom! We do not have the right to impose violent measures on citizens in order to ensure arbitrary political equality, a man-made equality which has no basis in nature or reality. Yet, the heinousness of revolution is that it attempts to do just that. Revolutionaries want rights, and they don’t care who is killed to ensure those rights, as long as they are free. It is truly a ridiculous proposition, yet we still praise revolutionaries for their courage, their fortitude, and their determination.

Revolutions have at their heart the destruction of all authority regardless of the authority’s legitimacy. The more legitimate the authority, the more nefarious the revolution, and the more nefarious the revolution, the more bloodshed. What the French Revolution gives modernity is two-fold. It elevates man to the status of a god and it legitimatizes murder in the name of peace. Once man is the end-all and be-all, once one’s individuality and rights are greater than that of another, once virtue, hierarchy, and authority are criminalized in favor of equality, there really is no end to the devastation that is wrought. As one revolution fades into the pages of history, another one rises to join its ranks. If one looks at history since 1650, one reads the story of revolution after revolution, each more violent than the one that preceded it. The French gave birth to the Russian, the Russian gave birth to the Mexican, Chinese, and Indo-Chinese, and all of them gave birth to the Sexual Revolution of which we suffer through today. If the symbol of the French Revolution is the guillotine, the symbol of the Sexual Revolution is the Pill. Whereas French executions were carried out in public celebrations, the executions of the Sexual Revolution occur in doctor’s offices, in hospitals, and in back-alley abortuaries. Whereas Robespierre demanded the death of Louis XVI as necessary to preserve the rights of citizens, our modern Robespierres, those debauched, greedy, and useless politicians whom we elect time after time justify, nay demand, the murder of the unborn in favor of the rights of the mother. Pornography is considered art, marriage antiquated and in need of revision, and the authority parents once exercised over their children is as arbitrary as modern blue laws.

We are outraged at such things, and justifiably so. Yet, we are to blame, for we encourage such rebellion and revolution. We encourage rebellion in our children when we teach them that the world revolves around them. We encourage their individuality at the expense of their neighbor, and think nothing of the long-term consequences such encouragement will bring. We watch CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox News looking for answers, but these organizations are so tainted with revolutionary ideas and principles that such endeavors are fruitless. Modern news outlets are really just bigger sewing circles with more gossip and less sewing. But our world goes further and further into chaos, and we do nothing. All the while, the revolution keeps advancing, claiming more and more victims each and every day. And it will continue so long as we put ourselves before God, our rights above the rights of God. It will continue until there is nothing left to consume. And when that day comes, and it will come, our salvation is not going to be found in political debates or electoral colleges; our salvation is going to be found in submission to authority, the authority of God. Then, like the nuns of Compiegne who died during the Reign of Terror, we shall be as happy as brides and grooms on the day of our wedding, confident that while revolutions can wreak havoc in this world, eternity still belongs to our Lord who reigns as king despite man’s attempt to dethrone him.

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

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