Today is Bastille Day, celebrating the storming of the nearly deserted Paris jail. It was symbolic rather than freeing, since only 7 prisoners were there (had been over 5,000 during its history). The main focus was the status of the aristocracy-holding prison and the gunpowder reserves that were stored there. It marked a starting point for the French Revolution and the downfall of the aristocracy, though the firm establishment of the French Republic took a while longer.

A couple of years later, in 1791, the Priestly Riots began in Birmingham, England. They were labeled as such because the main focus of the popular uprising was scientist Joseph Priestly, the scientist who discovered oxygen, who was also a religious dissenter from the Church of England -specifically Unitarian. He and his fellow religious cohorts were alleged to be sympathetic to the ongoing French Revolution and thus contrary to both religious and political feelings among the English. Homes and churches were burned and citizens attacked. The riots lasted for 3 days and included protests against certain books being allowed in libraries (sound familiar) and were virtually ignored by the authorities who had no trouble with people rioting against support of the hated French.

A few years after that a similar feeling invaded the US, with the Sedition Act of 1798, passed by the Adams administration, It stated that it was a crime to write, publish, or utter false or “malicious” statements about the US government. It was brought about partly by the reaction to the French Revolution -remember that it was the French monarchy that aided the US in achieving our independence from Great Britain. And it was widely contrary to the Bill of Rights, and it was soon repealed. The restrictions it issued against freedom of speech were very vague and largely unenforceable. Yet periodically they have arisen periodically in US History – like under President Wilson during WWI and the First Red Scare, and in this 50’s with McCarthy during the Cold War and the Second Red Scare. We need to be aggressively vigilant to thwart off these efforts.

Notable people born on this date include singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie (1912), future and now past US President Gerald Ford (1913), Swedish director Igmar Bergman (1918), and actors Henry Dean Stanton (1926) and Matthew Fox (1966, Lost).

Those leaving us on this date include Quentin Roosevelt (1918) youngest son of Pres Teddy Roosevelt, who was shot down over France in WWI. Two-time presidential candidate and US Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson II (1965) and the co-founder of McDonalds, Richard McDonald (1998) also died on this date.

It is not only Bastille Day but also Republic Day in Iraq – commemorating the fall of the monarchy in 1958. And beginning in 2012 it has been remembered as International Non-Binary People’s Day.