Bastille Day or Fête de la Fédération was first celebrated in 1790. It was a day set aside to commemorate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille that occurred on 14 July 1789. That event ushered in the French Revolution and each year thereafter people celebrated their patriotism for their new republic with a fete.
The second Fête de la Fédération happened in 1791 and was nothing like the first as it was said to have passed without hardly a notice. That was because that year, a few weeks prior to the celebration, the King and the royal family made their ill-fated escape attempt. Unfortunately for them, they were captured at Varennes and brought back to Paris.
The third Fête de la Fédération, held in 1792, was a more joyous occasion. One newspaper published details about the celebration, and they are provided here almost verbatim:
The morning opened upon us as serenely as could be wished — a pleading presage of the day’s proceedings — at half an hour past five o’clock, the drums beat to assemble. The Guards of the nation, in every sense, repaired to their 60 quarters, where the citizens assisting at the Federation were to convene with the patriot troops.
They then marched towards the Boulevard St. Antoine, when the general escort formed, and the regiments of the line added their armed strength to this already formidable host.
At nine o’clock the National Assembly meeting, deputed 60 of its Members to lay the first stone of the Column of Liberty, which was decreed to stand, as a perpetual lesson, upon the ruins of despotick mischief, the Bastille.
During this period, the King, in his State carriage, accompanied by the Queen, Madame Elisabeth, the Prince Royal, Madame the King’s daughter, and the Ladies of the Court, proceeded to the military school, preceded by a detachment of cavalry, another of troops of the line, escorted by 500 volunteers, and followed by four companies of Swiss Guards.
The Ministers walked by the side of the royal carriage. When the Royal party reached the school, it was noon.
The procession then, in six divisions, marched towards the Champ de Mars. Sentiments, analogous to the occasion, were upon the several banners.
The route of the procession was from the Boulevard St. Antoine across the rue St. Denis, those of Ferronerie, St. Honré, Royale, the Point Triomphale, the streets of Bourgogn and St. Dominique, and the Esplanade of Invalids; and taking with them the King at the military school, they entered the Champ de Mars by the rue Grenelle. It was then two o’clock.
Upon the banks of the river, 34 pieces of cannon were planted.
The Glacis was adorned by 83 tents, surmounted by the National Colours.
In front of the Altar, towards the City, and upon the Glacis, a large and very splendid tent was erected for the National Assembly, the King, and the Tribunal of Cassation.
On the opposite side, another of the same description for the Notables, the Presidents, Commissaries of the Sections, and Administrant Bodies.
A Plantation of 83 Trees, marked where, at a distance from the Glacis, the Federants of the Departments were respectively to place themselves. The name of each Department was designed by the Tree, ornamented with the National Colours and the Cap of Liberty.
The Altar of the Nation was formed of a truncated Column, decorated with Oaken Garlands. In the circular Plots of earth, near and surrounding the Altar, were Basements for the Statues, and Seats for the Judges of Tribunal.
On other parts of the same plain circles, were seats for the Judges of the Peace, and Commissaries of the Police. — Before them was placed, below the seats, the Sword of Justice.
In the other front, the Municipalities, and below them the group which preceded them.
At a distance from the Altar was planted a large Tree, on the side of the water, from the branches of which were suspended, in form of garlands, the forgotten Helms and Escutcheons, together with the Sashes of the suppressed Orders, interlaced by chains; and at the foot of the Tree, a funeral pile, upon which was deposited Crowns and Coronets of every form, Hats and Doctoral Bonnets, Titles of Noblesse, and sacks of procedures.
Upon the opposite side, and at a similar distance from the Altar, rose a Pyramid, surrounded with Cypress and with laurel — Upon one side of it was written “To the citizens who died for their country upon the Frontiers” and upon the other, “Tremble, tyrants, we rise to avenge them.”
Below one of the faces of the altar, and opposite to the National Assembly, was the Orchestra for the Musick. Upon the four angles were centers filled with the most odoriferous perfumes.
It was two o’clock when the head of the procession entered the field, as had been stated. Groups of men and women, of every description and age, armed in the most promiscuous manner with pikes and staves, together with a vast number of their children, filed off, having at their head a detachment of 50 Mothers of Cavalry, and another of National Guards. — Women followed, carrying branches of trees, and various symbolic devices.
These were followed into the field by four legions of the Paris Guards, with their bands of musick; in the midst of them the Commissaries of the Sections, of the Police, Judges of the Peace, and the District, Criminal and Cassation Tribunals. These again were intermingled with strong detachments of the 104th and 105th regiments, commanded by M.M. Cherton and Maupertius. Messrs. Wittenkoff and Manou, General Officers, Commanders of the Interior Division, were with the ETAT MAJOR, in the middle of the field, opposite the Balcony of the Royal Family, where were seated the King, the Queen, the Prince Royal, the rest of the Family.
Immediately after the Fifth Legion entered the field, the NATIONAL ASSEMBLY, preceded by a Picquet of Cavalry, the miners of the Garde Nationale, and a detachment of Grenadier Volunteers, escorted by other Grenadiers, and those of the Gendarme, came into the field, and halted; upon which the King, attended by his ministers, descended from the Balcony; and his Majesty, placing himself at the left hand of the President, marched at the head of the Assembly. At the moment the Escort of the Sovereign, which had previously been drawn upon Battalia, mingled with the Escort of the Assembly, and proceeded towards the altar.
At these different movements of the great bodies, the Ordnance fired the salutes. — By half past three o’clock they were most of them upon the ground.
The King could advance no farther than the first Platform, in the midst of the Assembly, excessively incommoded by the pressure of the assistants at this solemn Ceremonial. In this situation, therefore, was the Oath taken by the King of the French, unable to approach the Volume of the Constitution. The circumstance was announced by a general discharge of the Champs-ElyséeArtillery, and the voices of 300,000 men.
By this time the two last legions were entered with the Department, and the Municipality, having at its head the Mayor, restored to office. Immediately a vociferation of Vive Pethion was heard from a few persons.
The Oath being taken, was announced by a flame upon the Altar, which started up immediately, of the National Colours, and which served for a signal to the firing of the cannon without.
The Deputies escorted the Royal Family to the military school, where getting into their carriages, the proceeded towards the Thuilleries, by the same route they arrived.
Today, Bastille Day is celebrated much differently than the first few Fête de la Fédération celebrations. It is also still considered a patriotic day. Celebrations in Paris include a military parade down the Champs-Elysées in front of the President of the Republic and other dignitaries and foreign officials. There are also celebrations throughout France and other cities in the world. For instance, last year, I attended a celebration in San Francisco. Here is a two-minute video of that celebration.
- “The French Federation,” in Oxford Journal, 21 July 1792, p. 2.