Fête de la Fédération

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The Fete de la Federation at Champ de Mars with in the distance the King's tent. (Musee de la Revolution francaise). Fete de la Federation 1790, Musee de la Revolution francaise - Vizille.jpg
The Fête de la Fédération at Champ de Mars with in the distance the King's tent. (Musée de la Révolution française).

The Fête de la Fédération (Festival of the Federation) was a massive holiday festival held throughout France in 1790 in honour of the French Revolution. It is the precursor of the Bastille Day which is celebrated every year in France on 14 July, celebrating the Revolution itself, as well as National Unity.


It commemorated the revolution and events of 1789 which had culminated in a new form of national government, a constitutional monarchy led by a representative Assembly.

The inaugural fête of 1790 was set for July 14th, so it would also coincide with the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille although that is not what was itself celebrated. At this relatively calm stage of the Revolution, many people considered the country's period of political struggle to be over. This thinking was encouraged by counter-revolutionary monarchiens , and the first fête was designed with a role for King Louis XVI that would respect and maintain his royal status. The occasion passed peacefully and provided a powerful, but illusory, image of celebrating national unity after the divisive events of 1789–1790.


After the initial revolutionary events of 1789, France's ancien régime had shifted into a new paradigm of constitutional monarchy. By the end of that year, towns and villages throughout the country had begun to join together as fédérations, fraternal associations which commemorated and promoted the new political structure. [1] A common theme among them was a wish for a nationwide expression of unity, a fête to honour the Revolution. Plans were set for simultaneous celebrations in July 1790 all over the nation, but the fête in Paris would be the most prominent by far. It would feature the King, the royal family, and all the deputies of the National Constituent Assembly, with thousands of other citizens predicted to arrive from all corners of France.


The triumphal arch of the Fete de la Federation, by Hubert Robert. Fete federation hubert robert.jpg
The triumphal arch of the Fête de la Fédération, by Hubert Robert.

The event took place on the Champ de Mars, which was at the time far outside Paris. The vast stadium had been financed by the National Assembly, and completed in time only with the help of thousands of volunteer laborers from the Paris region. During these "Wheelbarrow Days"(journée des brouettes), the festival workers popularised a new song that would become an enduring anthem of France, Ah! ça ira . [2]

Enormous earthen stands for spectators were built on each side of the field, with a seating capacity estimated at 100,000. [3] The Seine was crossed by a bridge of boats leading to an altar where oaths were to be sworn. The new military school was used to harbour members of the National Assembly and their families. At one end of the field, a huge tent was the king's step, and at the other end, a triumphal arch was built. At the centre of the field was an altar for the mass.

Official celebration

The feast began as early as four in the morning, under a strong rain which would last the whole day (the Journal de Paris had predicted "frequent downpours").

Fourteen thousand fédérés came from the province, every single National Guard unit having sent two men out of every hundred. They were ranged under eighty-three banners, according to their département. They were brought to the place where the Bastille once stood, and went through Saint-Antoine, Saint-Denis and Saint-Honoré streets before crossing the temporary bridge and arriving at the Champ de Mars.

Lafayette leading the oath (18th c. oil painting, Musee Carnavalet) Le serment de La Fayette a la fete de la Federation 14 July 1790 French School 18th century.jpg
Lafayette leading the oath (18th c. oil painting, Musée Carnavalet)

A mass was celebrated by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, bishop of Autun. At this time, the first French Constitution was not yet completed, and it would not be officially ratified until September 1791. But the gist of it was understood by everyone, and no one was willing to wait. Lafayette led the President of the National Assembly and all the deputies in a solemn oath to the coming Constitution:

Afterwards, Louis XVI took a similar vow: "I, King of the French, swear to use the power given to me by the constitutional act of the State, to maintain the Constitution as decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by myself." [5] The title "King of the French", used here for the first time instead of "King of France (and Navarre)", was an innovation intended to inaugurate a popular monarchy which linked the monarch's title to the people rather than the territory of France. The Queen Marie Antoinette then rose and showed the Dauphin, future Louis XVII, saying: "This is my son, who, like me, joins in the same sentiments." [6]

The festival organisers welcomed delegations from countries around the world, including the recently established United States. John Paul Jones, Thomas Paine and other Americans unfurled their Stars and Stripes at the Champ de Mars, the first instance of the flag being flown outside of the United States. [7]

After the end of the official celebration, the day ended in a huge popular feast. It was also a symbol of the reunification of the Three Estates, after the heated Estates-General of 1789, with the Bishop (First Estate) and the King (Second Estate) blessing the people (Third Estate). In the gardens of the Château de La Muette, a meal was offered to more than 20,000 participants, followed by much singing, dancing, and drinking. The feast ended on the 18 July.


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  1. Hibbert, p. 112.
  2. Hanson, p. 53.
  3. "La fête nationale du 14 juillet". Elysee.fr (in French). Office of the President of the French Republic. 2015. Retrieved 6 February 2016.
  4. Mignet, p. 158: "Nous jurons d'être à jamais fidèles à la nation, à la loi et au roi, de maintenir de tout notre pouvoir la Constitution décrétée par l'Assemblée nationale et acceptée par le roi et de demeurer unis à tous les Français par les liens indissolubles de la fraternité."
  5. Mignet, p. 158: "Moi, roi des Français, je jure d'employer tout le pouvoir qui m'est délégué par l'acte constitutionnel de l'état, à maintenir la constitution décrétée par l'Assemblée nationale et acceptée par moi."
  6. Bonifacio and Maréchal, p. 96: "Voilà mon fils, il s'unit, ainsi que moi, aux mêmes sentiments."
  7. Unger, p. 266.