"Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it." — Thomas Paine
On this day in 1789, almost two years after Congress adopted our Constitution, Parisian revolutionaries and mutinous troops storm and dismantle the Bastille, a royal fortress that had come to symbolize the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchs. This dramatic action signaled the beginning of the French Revolution, a decade of political turmoil and terror in which King Louis XVI was overthrown and tens of thousands of people, including the king and his wife Marie Antoinette, were executed.
The Bastille was originally constructed in 1370 as a “bastide”, or "fortification," to protect the walled city of Paris from English attack. It was later made into an independent stronghold, and its name — bastide--was corrupted to Bastille. The Bastille was first used as a state prison in the 17th century, and its cells were reserved for upper-class felons, political troublemakers, and spies. Most prisoners there were imprisoned without a trial under direct orders of the king. Standing 100 feet tall and surrounded by a moat more than 80 feet wide, the Bastille was an imposing structure in the Parisian landscape.
By the summer of 1789, France was moving quickly toward revolution. There were severe food shortages in France that year, and popular resentment against the rule of King Louis XVI was turning to fury. In June, the Third Estate, which represented commoners and the lower clergy, declared itself the National Assembly and called for the drafting of a constitution. Initially seeming to yield, Louis legalized the National Assembly but then surrounded Paris with troops and dismissed Jacques Necker, a popular minister of state who had supported reforms. In response, mobs began rioting in Paris at the instigation of revolutionary leaders.
Bernard-Jordan de Launay, the military governor of the Bastille, feared that his fortress would be a target for the revolutionaries and so requested reinforcements. A company of Swiss mercenary soldiers arrived on July 7 to bolster his garrison of 82 soldiers. The Marquis de Sade, one of the few prisoners in the Bastille at the time, was transferred to an insane asylum after he attempted to incite a crowd outside his window by yelling: "They are massacring the prisoners; you must come and free them." On July 12, royal authorities transferred 250 barrels of gunpowder to the Bastille from the Paris Arsenal, which was more vulnerable to attack. Launay brought his men into the Bastille and raised its two drawbridges.
On July 13, revolutionaries with muskets began firing at soldiers standing guard on the Bastille's towers and then took cover in the Bastille's courtyard when Launay's men fired back. That evening, mobs stormed the Paris Arsenal and another armory and acquired thousands of muskets. At dawn on July 14, a great crowd armed with muskets, swords, and various makeshift weapons began to gather around the Bastille.
Launay received a delegation of revolutionary leaders but refused to surrender the fortress and its munitions as they requested. He later received a second delegation and promised he would not open fire on the crowd. To convince the revolutionaries, he showed them that his cannons were not loaded. Instead of calming the agitated crowd, news of the unloaded cannons emboldened a group of men to climb over the outer wall of the courtyard and lower a drawbridge. Three hundred revolutionaries rushed in, and Launay's men took up a defensive position. When the mob outside began trying to lower the second drawbridge, Launay ordered his men to open fire. One hundred rioters were killed or wounded.
Launay's men were able to hold the mob back, but more and more Parisians were converging on the Bastille. Around 3 p.m., a company of deserters from the French army arrived. The soldiers, hidden by smoke from fires set by the mob, dragged five cannons into the courtyard and aimed them at the Bastille. Launay raised a white flag of surrender over the fortress. Launay and his men were taken into custody, the gunpowder and cannons were seized, and the seven prisoners of the Bastille were freed. Upon arriving at the Hotel de Ville, where Launay was to be arrested by a revolutionary council, the governor was pulled away from his escort by a mob and murdered.
The capture of the Bastille symbolized the end of the ancien regime and provided the French revolutionary cause with an irresistible momentum. Joined by four-fifths of the French army, the revolutionaries seized control of Paris and then the French countryside, forcing King Louis XVI to accept a constitutional government. In 1792, the monarchy was abolished and Louis and his wife Marie-Antoinette were sent to the guillotine for treason in 1793.
By order of the new revolutionary government, the Bastille was torn down. On February 6, 1790, the last stone of the hated prison-fortress was presented to the National Assembly. Today, July 14--Bastille Day--is celebrated as a national holiday in France.
This was not the end of revolution in France. Two more Republics and a dictator were yet to come. Like all revolutions that begin in the street the French Revolution was doomed to failure as the men who led the revolution had no idea of how a constitution government that protected the rights of the citizens should be formed. This so called republic was nothing more than a government of factions with the faction having the most power prevailing until another faction secured power. All this did was to promote tyranny. The same can be said for the Russian Revolution of 1917 and every subsequent revolution since 1776.
Thomas Jefferson was a supporter of the French Revolution at its beginnings. But as he saw the violence and factionalism he changed his mind and condemned the revolution. He, as Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and Mason saw the wide difference between the French Revolution and our own war for independence from Great Britain. Our founders were believers in the philosophies of Locke and Montesquieu while the leaders of the French Revolution were following the writings of Hobbes and Moore. They were looking for a utopia overseen by a leviathan government. Our revolution and subsequent Constitution was based on limited government with powers not vested in Congress belonging to the people. Government was there to protect the rights of the citizens, not to grant them.
Over the ensuing year France drifted from the tyranny and violence initiated in 1789 to the Tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte and back to the Second Republic of of Napoleon the Third. When the constitution of the Second Republic was finally promulgated and direct elections for the presidency were held on December 10, 1848, Louis-Napoléon won a surprising landslide victory, with 5.6 million votes (75%) to 1.5 million for his closest rival, Cavaignac. His platform was based on the restoration of order, strong government, social consolidation, and national greatness. The Monarchist right (supporters of either the Bourbon or Orléanist royal households) and much of the aristocracy supported him as the "least bad" candidate, as a man who would restore order, end the instability in France which had continued since the overthrow of the monarchy in February and prevent a proto-communist revolution. A good portion of the industrial class, on the other hand, were won over by Louis-Napoléon's vague indications of progressive economic views. Despite this support among sectors of the upper classes, his overwhelming victory was above all due to the support of the biggest class in France: the peasants. To these non-politicized rural masses, the name of Bonaparte meant something, as opposed to the other little-known contenders. He appealed with all the credit of his name, that of France's national hero: Napoleon I, who in popular memory was credited with raising the nation to its pinnacle of military greatness and establishing social stability after the turmoil of the French Revolution. During his term as President, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte styled himself the Prince-President (Le Prince-Président).
I was introduced to Bastiat’s book several years ago and I was blown away at his insight’s to what government should be and do. After reading the book I was convinced that a liberal-arts education without an encounter with Bastiat is incomplete. Reading Bastiat made me keenly aware of all the time wasted, along with the frustrations of going down one blind alley after another, organizing my philosophy of life. The Law did not produce a philosophical conversion for me as much as it created order in my thinking about liberty and just human conduct.
Many philosophers have made important contributions to the discourse on liberty, Bastiat among them. But Bastiat’s greatest contribution is that he took the discourse out of the ivory tower and made ideas on liberty so clear that even the unlettered can understand them and statists cannot obfuscate them. Clarity is crucial to persuading our fellowman of the moral superiority of personal liberty. Philosophers and economists such as F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Ludwig von Misses, Walter, Williams, Thomas Sowell, and Milton Friedman are all devotes of Bastiat. Even Ron Paul often refers to Bastiat.
Like others, Bastiat recognized that the greatest single threat to liberty is government. He clearly employs simple language to help us identify and understand evil government acts such as legalized plunder. Bastiat says, “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” With such an accurate description of legalized plunder, we cannot deny the conclusion that most government activities, including ours, are legalized plunder, or for the sake of modernity, legalized theft.
Frederic Bastiat could have easily been a fellow traveler of the signers of our Declaration of Independence. The signers’ vision of liberty and the proper role of government was captured in the immortal words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men….” Bastiat echoes the identical vision, saying; “Life, faculties, production — in other words individuality, liberty, property — that is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.” Bastiat gave the same rationale for government as did our Founders, saying, “Life, liberty and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it is the fact that life, liberty and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” No finer statements of natural or God-given rights have been made than those found in our Declaration of Independence and The Law.
Bastiat pinned his hopes for liberty on the United States saying, “… look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person’s liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation.” Writing in 1850, Bastiat noted two areas where the United States fell short: “Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property.” Both of these issues were corrected over the ensuing years through a Civil War and legislation.
If Bastiat were alive today, he would be disappointed with our failure to keep the law within its proper domain. Over the course of a century and a half, we have created more than 50,000 laws. Most of them permit the state to initiate violence against those who have not initiated violence against others. These laws range from anti-smoking laws for private establishments and Social Security “contributions” to licensure laws and minimum wage laws. In each case, the person who resolutely demands and defends his God-given right to be left alone can ultimately suffer death at the hands of our government. The latest case of government plunder is the onerous Patient and Protective Health Care Act.
Bastiat explains the call for laws that restrict peaceable, voluntary exchange and punish the desire to be left alone by saying that socialists want to play God. Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations. To them — the elite and the mastermind—“the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter.” And for people who have this vision, Bastiat displays the only anger I find in The Law when he lashes out at do-gooders and would-be rulers of mankind, “Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough.”
Bastiat was an optimist who thought that eloquent arguments in defense of liberty might save the day; but history is not on his side. Mankind’s history is one of systematic, arbitrary abuse and control by the elite acting privately, through the church, but mostly through government. It is a tragic history where hundreds of millions of unfortunate souls have been slaughtered, mostly by their own government. A historian writing 200 or 300 years from now might view the liberties that existed for a tiny portion of mankind’s population, mostly in the Western world, for only a tiny portion of its history, the last century or two, as a historical curiosity that defies explanation. That historian might also observe that the curiosity was only a temporary phenomenon and mankind reverted back to the traditional state of affairs — arbitrary control and abuse.
Hopefully, history will prove that pessimistic assessment false. The worldwide collapse of the respectability of the ideas of socialism and communism suggests that there is a glimmer of hope. Another hopeful sign is the technological innovations that make it more difficult for government to gain information on its citizens and control them. Innovations such as information access, communication, and electronic monetary transactions will make government attempts at control more costly and less probable. These technological innovations will increasingly make it possible for world citizens to communicate and exchange with one another without government knowledge, sanction, or permission. Just ponder the thought that what might have happened had Madison, Hamilton, and Jay had access to the Internet when publishing the Federalist Papers.
Collapse of communism and technological innovations, accompanied by robust free-market organizations promoting Bastiat’s ideas, are the most optimistic things I can say about the future of liberty in the United States. Americans share an awesome burden and moral responsibility. If liberty dies in the United States, it is destined to die everywhere. A greater familiarity with Bastiat’s clear ideas about liberty would be an important step in rekindling respect and love, and allowing the resuscitation of the spirit of liberty among our fellow Americans.
So, without the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 would the world have had a Frédéric Bastiat? One of my all-time favorite movies lines comes from Graham Green’s The Third Man. In the scene at the giant ferriswheel in Vienna Harry Lime(Played by Orson Wells) confronts Holly Martin (played by Joseph Cotton) saying:
Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.
While Harry Lime takes a cynical view of the world he does make the point that sometimes is takes Sturm und Drang to produce men of great thought while the comfort of a utopian state produces men who cannot achieve their greatest potential. It took a war of independence to produce our Founders and the Constitution. On the other hand revolutions that begin in the street always end badly.