Bastille Day

Bastielle Day Prise_de_la_BastilleToday is Bastille Day, seen as the beginning of freedom in France. Of course, it lead almost immediately to one of the worst tyrannies in human history. Then that lead to a more efficient tyranny that contradicted that previous tyranny and began to conquer Europe. After that, we got a weakened France that allowed itself to be conquered by Germany . . . twice. Not a great track record.

What’s more, it was an unlawful rebellion. Now, that might sound peculiar; aren’t all rebellions unlawful by their very definition? Absolutely. But I’m talking about the moral law in this case; Just War Theory, if you want to get technical.

And yet, for once, I don’t actually want to get technical. If you want to know about Just War in detail, you’ve got a lot of reading ahead of you. I’m just going to go with a summary of the Church’s just war doctrine. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (p.2309) lays out the details very succinctly.

  1. You must not be the aggressor, and the one you’re defending against must be a source of “lasting, grave, and certain” damage.
  2. You’ve tried all other means of preserving peace.
  3. You’ve got a serious chance of winning.
  4. The cure must not be worse than the disease.

St. Thomas Aquinas argued for an even stricter rule in his take on Just War Theory, saying that a just war can only begin with a call to action from a legitimate authority, it must be done to repair a fault rather than through selfish reasons, and finally must be done for the goal of peace and not revenge.

The French Revolution is commonly compared to the American edition, which at the time was still a new and world-altering event, having ended only a few years before the storming of the Bastille; but the comparison falls far short of reality. Without getting into all the historical details (which really would require a graduate thesis or even a doctoral dissertation), I’ll just point out that the attitudes were very different, and easily compared to the Church’s Just War Doctrine and St. Thomas’ Just War Theory.

The French Revolution — an event so bloody that one 11-month period during the decade-long upheaval is simply known as the Terror — was not a war to redress wrongs. The old government fell very quickly, and the rest of the Revolution was about revolutionaries fighting each other. They did not try all other means of preserving peace. They did not have peace as a primary goal. They did not want to restore a previous golden age.

The Revolution in France sought to tear down what had gone before; those who fought for the future United States wanted to restore what they had lost.

This difference is extremely important, and far more than a superficiality. If your mindset is to have something completely new, then anything that reminds you of the previous situation is to be ignored, destroyed, thrown out, and avoided. If your mindset is, instead, to restore what has been denied, you are inspired to carefully examine what happened and take steps to avoid it.

This is very much like how people react to the end of romantic relationships. If the last relationship you were in ended badly, you have two choices. You can either assume that you need something completely different — including what you previously saw as good; or you can carefully examine your past relationship(s) and determine what was good, and take steps to encourage that and defend against what was bad.

In other words, you could say that the United States went out and got a makeover, including a new wardrobe, hair, and nails, ready to try again while keeping in mind what had led to the bad relationship in the first place. Meanwhile, the Republic of France went on a bender and slept around. And I think that analogy needs to be guillotined now. Never mind.

Vive la Revolution

There’s also one other important difference. The storming of the Bastille was done because the revolutionaries felt that something might happen; the first act of rebellion was the burden of the people, and they lost their moral high ground. Had they had the same attitude as those they claimed as their spiritual and intellectual cousins in the United States, they would have waited and responded in kind to what those they claimed as their oppressors did.

In the United States, the first act of rebellion waited for the British to move first. They say no one knows who fired the first shot; in reality, it doesn’t matter who fired first. What matters is who moved first. By that point, the colonists had been placed fully in the position of self-defense. In response to colonial attempts to petition Parliament and King George for peaceful solutions, the British Army moved in. Even after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the colonists took another year before deciding on independence; until that point, they had held out hope for a redress of wrongs, a fair voice in their own government, and reasonable treatment as British subjects.

There can be no fair comparison between the Storming of the Bastille and the Battles of Lexington and Concord, just as there can be no fair comparison between the respective revolutions of the United States and the Republic of France.

You know what, forget Bastille Day. I’ve got a better idea.


Today is the Feast of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk-Algonquian woman who converted to Roman Catholicism in the 17th century. She was disfigured by smallpox scars, shunned by her tribe for converting, took a vow of virginity, died young, and reportedly became clear-skinned and radiant on the day of her death. During her life, she slept on thorns and constantly prayed for the conversion of her family.

She wasn’t the first Native American to be venerated as a possible saint by Catholics, but she was the first to be declared a saint, only a few years ago. That’s a much better event to celebrate. Go read about her instead.

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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