It's a sad commentary on the quality of our educational system that so many Americans seem to think that Bastille Day is simply the French version of our own Independence Day. It is nothing of the sort. The American Revolution was a fight for individual liberty and against oppressive government. The French Revolution, 13 years later, produced the mindless Reign of Terror dramatized so well in Charles Dickens' great novel A Tale of Two Cities and Baroness Orczy's romantic adventure The Scarlet Pimpernel (both made into excellent motion pictures, starring Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard, respectively).
France in the eighteenth century was the most prosperous country in Europe. Its agriculture, industry, and trade flourished, and its middle class was large and contented. King Louis XVI was not the tyrant painted by propagandists, but a reformer who put an end to servitude and torture. He tolerated dissent, even to the point of soliciting lists of grievances from the provinces to aid him in instituting reform. It was Louis' very meekness that made the French Revolution possible.
The French peasants and the middle classes were, for the most part, quite fond of their king and church. But prideful nobles and arrogant intellectuals saw a chance to overthrow the authority that constrained them, and they seized it. The king's villainous cousin, Louis-Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, lusted for the throne, and he used his own immense wealth to propel the country into chaos. At his bidding, tens of thousands of bloodthirsty foreign thugs descended upon Paris to wreak havoc and spread the contagion of discontent. The duke's agents interrupted the shipment of grain from the provinces, causing famine in the city. They circulated malicious rumors, alleging that the kingdom was on the verge of collapse and the king's troops in a murderous frenzy. On July 14, 1789, they managed to incite a mob of a mere thousand citizens into storming the Bastille, not to free captives but to get the weapons that were stored there. The Bastille at the time held only seven prisoners -- four forgers, two madmen, and a profligate nobleman imprisoned at his own family's insistence.
In the ensuing Reign of Terror, three hundred thousand men, women, and children were guillotined, shot to death, or killed in mass drownings. Robespierre and the other Jacobin leaders slaughtered the clergy, ransacked the churches, and outlawed religious worship. "We must overthrow all order, suppress all laws, annul all power and leave the people in anarchy," advised Mirabeau. "What matters the victims and their numbers? Spoliations, destruction, burnings, and all the necessary effects of a revolution? Nothing must be sacred," declared this ruthless Jacobin monster.
Such was the horror that will be honored by ignorant Americans on Bastille Day. While hoisting their brews and cocktails, celebrants might reflect on the glaring differences between the American and French Revolutions -- and denounce the latter as the prototype for all the homicidal upheavals that have followed.