Today is Bastille Day. It’s kind of a big deal in France, where they commemorate the beginning of the French Revolution. On July 14, 1789, the people stormed the Bastille, the massive fortress that stood as a symbol of the absolute power of the monarchy. It was common for political prisoners to be held there. But on that day only a handful of prisoners of any kind were freed, while about a hundred people died in the violence.
The very next day, the Marquis de Lafayette, who had been instrumental in helping the Patriot side win the American Revolution, was appointed commander in chief of France’s National Guard. His job—to maintain order amidst the unrest.
The next month Lafayette introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man in the French National Assembly. The document quite intentionally echoed the language of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence with its claim of “natural, unalienable, and sacred rights.”
Lafayette’s position between order and chaos, between social order and radicalism, became increasingly difficult to navigate as the French Revolution became increasingly bloody. In this Tavern Debate, the Marquis de Lafayette and Abigail Adams discuss the challenge of keeping the peace in a time of upheaval.
When do protesters become a mob?
That question has been asked a lot lately in the United States, as legitimate protest has often been accompanied by looting, rioting, and the destruction of property.
Is this an inevitable side effect in times of dramatic change? How do we know where to draw the line on what to allow, or what measures should be used to combat violence?
Those in power, from politicians to the police, have to figure out how to balance the right of the people to protest with the need to maintain safety for everyone else.
Where do you stand?