The national holiday of Bastille Day celebrated this weekend in France commemorates the 1790 Fête de la Federation held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille castle prison in Paris on July 14, 1789. The Bastille had long been seen as a symbol of arbitrary royal rule in a country poised for revolution. Through lettres de cachet signed by the King, and at times purchased by the wealthy, anyone could be imprisoned in the Bastille or expelled to distant colonies without trial or legal defense of any kind. Famous prisoners of the Bastille include the writers Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade. Despite its fearsome reputation, Bastille prisoners were often treated well and even allowed parole in the streets of Paris.
Several months before the storming of the Bastille, and after more than 150 years of royal privilege and church control in France, the Estates-General was convened by King Louis XVI. This was done ostensibly to address the growing tax concerns of the Third Estate, the common people who comprised 98 percent of French society. The First Estate (nobility) and Second Estate (clergy) had been largely exempt from taxes in a country ripe for revolution.
Although the King doubled the number of Third Estate representatives for the Estates-General meeting, they were not given equal voting power, a sham tactic that sparked a move on the part of the communes to seize power. Suddenly the Estates-General meeting became less about taxes and more about the structure of the French government.
When the King realized the commoners were using the proceedings to gain power, he simply closed the meeting hall. The assembly continued on the royal tennis courts nearby, where the deputies of the Third Estate, joined by many nobles and clergy, signed the "Tennis Court Oath," vowing not to separate until a constitution for France was written and agreed upon. When the King pushed this rabble off of his tennis court, the future legislators of the Constituent National Assembly met in the Church of St. Louis where they were joined by most of the King's clergy.
By August, "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" was signed by the National Assembly of France. Historians agree that the United States ambassador to France at the time, Thomas Jefferson, had a look at the declaration before it was signed. His own colony's success 12 years earlier in shaking off the royal yoke of the British had surely provided inspiration for the French communes.
Although the Bastille had been taken six times throughout its long history in France (it had little to offer strategically and housed only a handful of hapless prisoners) the siege struck a symbolic blow in the minds of French revolutionaries. The storming of the Bastille was followed by a peasant revolt that marked the beginning of the bloody French Revolution, the subsequent "Reign of Terror," and the eventual rise of a soldier from Corsica by the name of Napoleon who would change the face of Europe forever.