14th of July 1790: the Festival of the Federation, first anniversary of Bastille Day

Today is the 220th anniversary of Bastille Day. But what about its very first anniversary? I will simply let Gabrielle, the heroine of my first novel, Mistress of the Revolution, recount the events. Just a note: I found the little ditty sung by the sans-culotte in this scene on an engraving of the time. But let us listen to Gabrielle:

Fete Federation Hubert Robert

Preparations were made in Paris to celebrate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. The Champ de Mars, until then a vast empty field reserved for military exercises, had been chosen as the location for the main event, during which the King himself was to pledge allegiance to the Constitution. An “Altar of the Homeland” crowned the summit of a huge step pyramid. Grandstands were built around it, creating an oblong outdoors stadium. A triumphal ark marked its entrance on the side of the river.

Parisians of all ages and all classes of society, crippled veterans from the Invalides Hospital, National Guards, butchers, their sleeves rolled up their muscular arms, charcoal deliverers with darkened faces, priests, students, children, society ladies participated in the construction. I shoveled dirt and pushed a wheelbarrow, with Aimée’s help, for a few hours. A tavern keeper had brought a barrel of wine to quench the thirst of the volunteers. The atmosphere was one of rejoicing and hope, although I heard a sans-culotte, “without breeches”, a man of the lower classes, so named because he was wearing trousers instead of knee breeches, sing a ditty I did not find to my taste:

Damn you all aristocrats,
We’ll f*** your women,
And you’ll kiss our asses…

Fete de la Federation 14 July 1790

Fete de la Federation 14 July 1790

He seemed ready with more verses in the same vein, but was silenced in mid-song. Other men told him that he was offending the ladies and threatened to flatten his head with their shovels if he did not desist.

Every regiment in the army, every Département sent delegates, called “Federates”, to witness the celebration. It was styled “Festival of the Federation”, to signify the union of the whole country as one Nation. The King was now a constitutional monarch, subject, like all of his fellow citizens, to the terms of the Constitution. The people, through their elected Representatives at the Assembly, were now the sole sovereign.

Fete Federation Oath of Lafayette

Fete Federation Oath of Lafayette

On the 14th of July, 1790, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, 400,000 spectators waited in the grandstands under the rain for the arrival of the Federates. I was seated in the Court’s stands, in a white dress adorned with tricolour ribbons, to the side of the King’s box, facing the triumphal arch under which filed entire regiments, followed by the Representatives of Paris and all Départements. Finally, under deafening cheers, the members of the Assembly joined the official stands. I searched among the numbers and finally saw Villers and Lauzun.

Talleyrand, the Bishop of Autun, a tricolour sash tied around his priestly vestments, celebrated Mass, no doubt an unusual occurrence for him. The huge stadium was filled with the delegates and complete silence fell when Lafayette pledged allegiance to the Constitution in a voice loud enough for all to hear.

I joined the crowd in the grandstands in rising and repeating “I do”. Then it was the King’s turn to raise his right hand and swear allegiance to the new Constitution. The Queen forced a smile and held the little Dauphin aloft to present him to the acclamations of the crowd.

Fete de la Federation Thevenin

Fete de la Federation Thevenin

The rain had ceased. The sun’s rays pierced the clouds to fall upon that unforgettable scene.

I joined Villers to a dinner of cold meats in the gardens of the chateau of La Muette, which thousand of Federates and other guests attended. A ball on the ruins of the Bastille concluded the festivities. Hundreds of trees, festooned with garlands lit by candles, had been planted for the occasion. Banners with the mottos “Liberty” and “Fraternity” floated in the warm summer breeze. Villers seemed to have forgotten our differences. We danced late into the night before returning to my lodgings. We then held our own intimate celebration in the privacy of my bedroom. It was my twenty-first birthday…

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14 Comments to “14th of July 1790: the Festival of the Federation, first anniversary of Bastille Day”

  1. Cool! But I completely different thoughts myself. But I unreservedly support your right to say what you want.

  2. Yachtcharter Griechenland says:

    Good post, but have you thought about 14th of July 1790: the Festival of the Federation, first anniversary of Bastille Day before?

  3. Do you have any more info on this?

  4. Skippers Ticket says:

    Thanks for such a nice blog post….i was searching for something like that.

  5. Craft Fairs says:

    Thanks for a sharing this articles. That’s pretty interesting.

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    Thanks for a sharing this articles. That’s very interesting.

  7. Penny says:

    thank you for your response. i realised after reading it, my own country was born of not only our own bloodshed but that of the French. so i do wish you well on your holiday and joyeux anniverserie. I want details of that party etc

  8. Christina says:

    I do find myself wondering how France’s history would have been different if the hoped-for constitutional monarchy had materialized. An interesting thought indeed.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Michele!

    Penny – True, Bastille Day was marked by much violence, but on its first anniversary people did hope for a democratic, constitutional monarchy. When July 14 became France’s national holiday, some legislators emphasized that it commemorated the Festival of the Federation, and not Bastille Day itself.

  10. Penny says:

    Somehow I cannot equate this holiday with the American 4th of July. i deplore violence of any kind, having been a victim of domestic violence just thinking of all those dead bodies makes my stomach churn. and I hate the firecrackers that go off on July 4th. not my favorite holiday. don’t misunderstand i know this was a big occaision but there were too many murders and revelers about it with heads on spikes. heard for me to deal with. but congradulations on your anniversary even if it did not even lead to the demcoracy that you now have.. that took many years. my own country seems to be going the opposite way. no judge wiretaps. awufl what the world is coming to. it depresses me, it makes me a recluse.

  11. Happy Bastille Day :]

  12. Catherine Delors says:

    True, Ellen, from contemporary accounts, there was a feeling of immense hope, of trust in the ideals of the Revolution. I hope you get a long train ride to read Mistress. I would love to hear your impressions.

    Felio –  Thank you! It is not enough for a historical novelist to rely on written sources. The importance of pictorial sources cannot be stressed enough. Here we have different artists’ takes on the same event: by putting them together, we get an immediate sense of what it felt to be there.

  13. Felio Vasa says:

    I love the different paintings you put up for this post.

  14. Ellen Moody says:

    I love the pictures and will put one on ECW. There’s a good contemporary novel which recounts the happenings: Charlotte Smith’s rare English pro-Revolutionary Desmond. Helena Maria Williams’s letters from France includes an account, and also (much more recently) Stella Tillyard’s life of Edward Fitzgerald draws on his and other letters to give us a sense of the hope and new egalitarian spirits (as it was felt by many at the time).

    The sceptics, those who emphasized how all this was ceremony and cover for seething passions which erupted into counter-revolutions, the armies, the terror, wrote a little later.

    I have your book now but don’t know when I can make the time. The next train trip perhaps?


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