What is a Bastille?

On Bastille Day, the world parties in the name of France. But do you know what makes Bastille Day so important not just for France but the history of all democracies? The occasion is typically honored with military parades and copious consumption of libations. This mix of weapons and wooziness arguably sums up the legacy of July 14, 1789.

A bastille is French for “fortress,” “castle,” or “bastion.” The Bastille Saint-Antoine is a fortress-prison in Paris that was stormed on this day 221 years ago. It was a symbol of the power of the French monarchy. Essentially, France was on the brink of revolution. A quasi-legislature called the Estates-General met to try to deal with the crisis. They failed, primarily due to the resistance of the nobility who held the most sway. The Third Estate, which represented the middle class, or bourgeoisie, rebelled and formed the National Assembly, which also started its own militia, the National Guard.

You’re familiar with how this sort of event unfolds. Keep in mind that this was the first popular revolt of its kind. Within days, the monarchy was driven out, and the nation was in the throes of the French Revolution. Paris was rioting, and a crowd gathered around the Bastille, demanding the surrender of the guards and a release of all prisoners. A bloody standoff ended with the capitulation of the royal forces. The Revolution wasn’t exactly smooth sailing (as Monsieur Guillotin would soon learn), but the storming of the Bastille is a dramatic symbol for the overthrow of tyranny in the name of the people.

Two notes on Bastille Day: the French tricolor emblem (blue, white and red), stems from the colors of the National Guard. And in France, custom has it that the president issues pardons to mostly minor criminals on Bastille Day.