The first Fete de la Federation was established with a proclamation issued on 11 July 1790 by the Marquis de la Fayette. He was the military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War and was a key figure in the French Revolution and later the July Revolution of 1830. The celebration was intended to commemorate the revolution, the fall of the Bastille, and the events that had occurred in 1789.
France was becoming a new country and there was great hope for freedom and prosperity. So, to celebrate the event the National Convention met on the Boulevards du Temple between the gates of St. Martin and St. Antoine at 6am on 14 July 1790. There they formed a procession with others that included the following:
- A troop of horses, with a standard, and six trumpets.
- One division of music that consisted of several hundred instruments.
- A company of Grenadiers
- The electors of the city of Paris.
- A company of volunteers.
- The Assembly of the Representatives of the Commons.
- The Military Committee.
- A company of chasseurs.
- A band of drums.
- The presidents of the districts.
- The Deputies of the Commons appointed to take the Federal Oath
- Sixty administrators of the municipalities accompanied by city guards.
- A second division of music.
- A battalion of children carrying a standard with the words, “The Hopes of the Nation.”
- A detachment of colors of the National Guard of Paris.
- Commissioners of war.
- Lieutenants of the Marshals of France.
- Deputies of infantry.
- Deputies of cavalry.
- Deputies of hussars, dragoons, and chasseurs
- General officers and deputies of the Marine, according to rank.
- Deputies of the remaining forty-one departments.
- A company of volunteer chasseurs.
- A company of cavalry, with a standard and two trumpets.
At 9am the procession began with people marching down different boulevards through the streets until they converged together and as they approached the Champ de Mars (Field of Mars), they crossed a temporary bridge strewn with flowers. The procession then entered the Champ de Mars through a triumphal arch covered with flags and patriotic inscriptions:
“At one o’clock, Lafayette appeared, riding ahead of the cavalry. He was seated on a milky-white charger and was greeted by the enthusiastic crowd with cries of ‘Vive LaFayette!’ Lafayette then spent the remainder of his time overseeing arrivals, maintaining order, and directing procession participants to their proper seats.”
Eventually, the National Assembly joined and each of the different departments was preceded by a banner that read on one side, “The National Confederation of Paris on the 14th of July 1790” and on the other side, “The Constitution.” The procession continued until midday at which time a grand salute was boomed out by one-hundred cannons.
Besides Lafayette, the first Fete de la Federation had in attendance another soon to be well-known person. It was the wax sculptor Madame Tussaud. She acknowledged that the enthusiasm for the fete by the public was “beyond description.” Thousands of people were anticipated to attend in Paris and similar scenes were to play out in communities throughout France. The projection for attendees and spectators in Paris was at least 100,000, although that number turned out to be much higher. In addition, dignitaries and delegates from foreign countries were also participating.
To accommodate the massive crowd at the first Fete de la Federation, a monstrous amphitheater, measuring two-thirds of a mile in length and one-third of mile wide, was built at the Champ de Mars. The field was far outside Paris at the time, and, today, the Eiffel Tower marks the north end of it. In addition, huge earthen stands were constructed to accommodate up to 100,000 spectators and ran the length of the field on either side. Unfortunately, as the event drew near, it appeared as if the stands would not be ready for the first Fete de la Federation. Of this Madame Tussaud wrote:
“Twelve thousand workmen were at first employed in the requisite preparations; but soon, they not being found sufficient, the Parisians voluntarily lent their aid, and the spectacle became one of the most interesting and extraordinary kind; ecclesiastics, military, and persons of all classes, from the highest to the lowest, wielded the spade and the pick-axe, whilst even elegant females lent their aid, and consistent with the feeling of the period, [I] assisted, and trundled a barrow in the Champ de Mars, and at last every section of the city sent forth its contingent, with colours and banners, proceeding, to the sound of drums, to the grand national work; and when arrived, they all united their labours, cheering each other throughout their toil; and, perhaps, never before or since was seen such a gay and animated assemblage of labourers.”
Although the earthen stands were completed on time and everything was set for the great day, the weather chose not to cooperate. Wretchedly wet weather ensued, and some form of rain lasted all day. Nonetheless, despite the rain the first Fete de la Federation proceeded. The grand procession entered the field under a triumphal arch on which were painted various insignias of war and the following:
“Under our present defender, the poor shall no longer tremble for the safety of his inheritance. The strength of the Great — the power of the wealthy shall not tear it from him.
Sacred to the great work of the Constitution, we now lay the finishing stone. Each circumstance is propitious to our happiness and every thing flatters our wishes. May the gentle breath of Peace dissipate the storm of Adversity, and may the mind glow with the ineffable delight of acknowledge Freedom.
Our country now, and its law, are the sole authority that can call us to arms; and we will die in its defence, for we only live to preserve it.”
Also, on the triumphal arch were these inscriptions:
“The power of the King consists in the Freedom of his People. Cherish the Liberty you have now obtained, and by preserving its purity make yourselves worthy its continuance.
The Rights of Man have been enveloped by darkness for ages past — but humanity at last found out the recesses of misery, opened the door, and let in the light of justice. We are now no longer in dread of that subaltern tyranny, which has so long oppressed us, under its many hundred forms — we are free.”
While the procession was entering, the National Guards entertained the spectators by performing different “evolutions.” This was done to divert the spectators’ attention as the procession on to the field was long and it also helped everyone ignore the persistent rain that continued to fall. Another diversion was also reported:
“[B]efore the federalists had taken up their position … it poured deluges. They then broke out into dancing farandoles* … and were joined by numbers of the younger citizens. Sixty thousand people, such a corps de ballet as never before was seen, were dancing in the rain around the altar, whilst the vast multitude sang, ‘Ça ira!’**”
In the center of the Champs de Mars was a 20-foot “Altar of Liberty.” It was circular and accessed by a “lofty flight” of stairs formed from four different staircases. The steps on each staircase had been created from the stones of the Bastille, which had been torn down after its storming and whose keys Lafayette had “sent to George Washington as a symbol of the end of despotism in France.”
Around the altar in massive urns were myrrh and frankincense burning. In addition, surrounding the great altar were several allegorical designs and four large paintings. The first represented the “Genius of France,” the second displayed the glorious descendants of France and included an inscription with a remembrance of the nation, the law, and the king. The third painting represented the National Deputies taking the civic oath, and the fourth honored the arts and sciences and stated:
“Men are equal. — It is their virtue, and not their birth, which distinguishes them. — The law ought to form the basis of every state; in its preference all men are equal.”
On the altar were records related to the constitution, a spear that held aloft the “Cap of Liberty,” and the “Hand of Justice,” a typical French type scepter with a finial of ivory created in a blessing gesture. Also situated on the great altar was a smaller catholic altar holding a candelabra, crucifix, and what was required for mass.
Louis XVI was escorted into the event by the National Guard. He was seated next to the president of the Assembly in a matching state chair of purple velvet sprinkled with fleurs-de-lis that had the crown removed to avoid any suggestion of the monarchy. After Louis’ arrival another discharge of artillery and beating of drums took place.
To accommodate dignitaries there was special cover seating established. It held foreign ministers, the National Assembly, the Municipality of Paris, and other persons of distinction. This is also were the King sat and behind him was a spot for the royal family, along with several of the Queen’s ladies, including the Princesse de Lamballe.
There had been much discussion about how the first Fete de la Federation would be conducted. The object of it was to inspire citizens and every Frenchman was to take the civic oath:
“The question was agitated, whether the confederates and the assembly should receive the oath from the king, or whether the king, considered merely as the first public functionary, should swear simultaneously with the other public authorities upon the altar … The last method was preferred; the assembly thus succeeded in putting its ceremonial in harmony with its other laws.”
The first Fete de la Federation began with the Grand Standard of France and the banners belonging to each district being carried to the altar. A benediction was given and then another general discharge of artillery happened. Mass came next:
“Sixty chaplains of the national guards of Paris, headed by Talleyrand, bishop of Autun, with tricolour scarfs over their robes, ascended the great altar and proceeded to perform a solemn mass at the smaller altar … Rounds of artillery marked the movements of the priests, and a startling salvo announced the elevation of the Host.”
Afterwards, the banners belonging to the districts of Paris formed a line on either side between the altar and the spot where Louis and the president were seated. Talleyrand then blessed each banner.
“At half past four, the real reason for the event began. It was a solemn oath that was read at the altar to which every deputy cried ‘Je le jure’, (‘I swear it’) Lafayette took the oath, and the king followed. … Louis then raised his right hand, extended his arm, looked steadfastly at the altar, and declared, ‘Je le jure’. Immediately, shouts of joy rent the air. They were accompanied by the clattering of fifty thousand swords and the booming discharge of artillery and cannons. One person noted that the effect of the king taking the oath was indescribable, and Frenchman were beyond joyous.”
After this acclamation and after hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen swore to be true to the nation, the law, and the king, and the coming constitution that was not yet finished, the signal was given to spectators that the ceremony was over:
“[T]he procession moved off in the order in which it entered; and the detachments filed off to the tents in the adjacent grounds, where a collation was provided, of which, strange as it may sound, several hundred thousand partook. Every part of the adjacent country was covered with tents, and in various appointed places, dinner and wine were delivered to the poor gratis.
In addition, more than 20,000 people were invited to continue the festivities at the Château de la Muette, which has since been demolished but was at the time located on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. There a grand feast was laid out and tables were situated under the trees in the gardens. The feast symbolized the reunification of the Three Estates – the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the King), and the Third Estate (the people) – after the heated Estates General that had been held in 1789.
“Grand illuminations crowned the triumphs of the day; and the only breach of the peace that took place through the whole, was provoked through the stubborn obstinacy of some inveterate Aristocratics, who did not light-up their houses or who had fled, with their domestics, and left their windows dark emblems of their own minds. They fell a prey to the indignation of the populace.”
The celebration of feasting, dancing, and drinking would last four glorious days. Of the first Fete de la Federation, twenty-first century historian Simon Schama states:
“The demonstrations of fraternity which climaxed in the great Paris Festival … on the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille all featured a coming together of individual will into a fresh sense of community. Right arms extended in the same direction to a single center; thousands of voices harmonized in swearing oaths to the constitution; confessional differences dissolved in revolutionary mutuality. Just as the Orator of the Lodge of Perfect Union had recommended, the Revolution would become a ‘vast lodge in which all good Frenchmen would truly be brothers.’”
Such brotherhood, community, and fraternity would not last. The September Massacres of 1792 and the Reign of Terror (5 September 1793 through 28 July 1794) would soon replace it. Neighbors would turn against one another and many, including nobility and the well-to-do, would become suspect, accused of treason or working against the revolution, they would then find themselves victims of the guillotine. Lafayette would survive, but Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Princesse de Lamballe would all be fatalities of the violence associated with the revolution.
*The farandole was an open-chain community dance popular in Provence, France that bears similarities to the gavotte, jig, and tarantella. The wild carmagnole sang and danced during the French Revolution was a derivative of this dance.
** The “Ça ira,” meaning “it’ll be fine” was an emblematic song of the French Revolution that supposedly was first heard in May 1790. It underwent several changes in wording, all of which used the title words as part of the refrain.
-  Geri Walton, Madame Tussaud: Her Life and Legacy (London: Pen and Sword History, 2019), p. 58.
-  F. Hervé, Madame Tussaud’s Memoirs and Reminiscences of France, Forming an Abridged History of the French Revolution (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), p. 116–17.
-  Philological Society, The European Magazine: And London Review v. 18 (London: Philological Society of London, 1790), p. 74.
-  Philological Society. 1790, p. 74.
-  John Cassell’s Illustrated History of England. v. 5 (London: Cassell, Peter, and Galpin, 1865), p. 491.
-  P. R. Hanson, The A to Z of the French Revolution (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2007), p. 171.
-  Philological Society. 1790, p. 75.
-  M. A. Thiers, The History of the French Revolution (London: Whittaker and Company, 1845), p. 55.
-  A History of the French Revolution (London: Robson, Lavry, and Franklyn, 1847), p. 75.
-  G. Walton. 2019, p. 59.
-  The Gentleman’s Magazine v. 68 (London: David Henry, 1790), p. 758.
-  Ibid.
-  S. Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. 500, 502.