Upstate New York’s Guillotine

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July 14 is “Bastille Day.” Saturday, the Rockland County village of Piermont commemorated it. A photo gallery from LoHud newspaper captures some of the event, including its display of the French Revolution’s most enduring and infamous symbol:

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In stumbling on that photo while clicking through, I found it jarring and somewhat off-putting to see even a fake guillotine on a street amidst a party atmosphere. I suppose sticking your head into one is now considered a lot like allowing yourself to be locked into “the stocks” or “the pillory.” The real guillotine, though, was assuredly a heckuva lot more final than those.

The article led me to recall this I’d written back in March:

….when it comes to the Revolution, non-French are best advised to be cautious before shooting off their non-French mouth about it among French new acquaintances. Probe a little first, and make sure of where everyone stands, before you take to proclaiming how the Revolution was “fantastic” and that Robespierre is sadly misunderstood.

Years ago, a French inspiration for one of my characters told me, point blank, that she was never pleased when Bastille Day rolled around. To be clearer: she despised it. And why did she feel that way?

“They cut off my ancestors’ heads,” she seethed.

In 1789, the Revolution had begun seeming to be much like the American Revolution, causing Americans there at that time, such as Thomas Jefferson, to applaud it. However, he departed for home within a year, and other Americans in France looked on in horror as the Revolution descended into a chaotic, bloodthirsty mess. It did not produce many “heroes.”

Indeed, another French character inspiration pulled me up squarely on this suggestion of one perhaps vaguely arguable “hero”:

“Napoleon was a butcher, like Hitler,” she decreed.

Okay, I’ll be quiet now. And there were absolutely no George Washingtons. So while it has become France’s “national day,” underneath it all a disquiet remains: “Bastille Day” is not quite the “unifying” holiday in France that the “4th of July” is in the U.S.

After U.S. independence was recognized by Britain in 1783, those Americans who had opposed it often emigrated to Canada or other British territories, or even to Britain itself. (For example, one of Wellington’s officers killed at Waterloo in 1815 was a New York-born DeLancey, whose prominent family had opposed U.S. independence.) Or they simply stayed in the new U.S. and reconciled themselves to it – and they were allowed to do so. There were not thousands of executions of American “counterrevolutionary” loyalists who had supported remaining part of the British Empire.

The guillotine strikes me as similar to the electric chair. Or maybe I’m just too sensitive? I suppose 220 years since the Terror is deemed enough time to have passed for the guillotine to be confined safely to the realm of Renaissance fair-style history.

Further thoughts?

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