Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

The French Revolution beginning in 1789 followed our American one. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” and the French enthusiastically later said they agreed; the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” was influenced at least in part by the American “Declaration of Independence.” As Americans had broken away from monarchical rule, in France rule by the privileged few had been overthrown.

Some Americans who opposed independence were chased to, or fled to, Canada, the West Indies, or Great Britain. Yet the American Revolution was not aiming at a basic reordering of society. It was fundamentally about self-determination.

A main reason it did not attack the “status quo” was at least partly because in 1776 property ownership was already found among “the many.” Most Americans owned something(s) – even if it was only an isolated, rocky few acres. (Those with nothing were usually enslaved.) Aside from the enslaved (a big “aside” of course; but they were a distinct minority of the population), a basic “equality” was already at work among them as well.

That fostered a perception among Americans that they were in fact the “equal” of the likes of even a large landowner such as George Washington. All that made him different, they thought, was that he had much more than they did. Indeed, in leading them in battle against Great Britain, he was risking, in many minds, often far more than they were: they would at least likely escape with their lives if the Revolution failed and could return home to their tiny farm, whereas he would probably be dragged away to England and hanged.

Thus Jefferson’s stirring words in the Declaration were in many respects merely noting what existed already and which they felt they were fighting to protect – their revolution was, they believed, defensive. That sense of “equality” among them was also why officers sometimes had difficulty enforcing discipline in the new American army. Continental army soldiers, all of them volunteers, were adamant that as free men no one – not some King George III, and therefore certainly not some lieutenant they had known locally while growing up – was going to boss them around.

General von Steuben, a German officer who came to serve Washington much as the famous General Lafayette did, essentially taught the “backwoods” Americans how to fight “like Europeans.” He produced the U.S. army’s first real training manual. Once he had written home that the independent-minded American lads took some getting used to: In the Prussian army, Steuben wrote, he would tell a man, “Do this,” and he did it; but here in America, often he found he had to explain to a man why he should do it…and then he does it.

Compared to Americans, in France very few owned, well, nearly everything. July 14, 1789 started as a Paris disturbance that by nightfall saw what had been a mostly unarmed population – in 1776, Americans, in contrast, often owned guns – now possessing the firepower of an army. Most of the King’s soldiers – they too were mostly men who came from little – decided that they supported the uprising and not the aristocratic-dominated state. King Louis XVI’s power had evaporated within hours.

The collapse of royal power allowed liberal reformers and the middle class, who had been angling for years to have more input into governing the country, to appear to take power in the months that followed. On the surface, therefore it looked like the American Revolution repeating itself. However, stripping power from the King and the aristocracy had only moved power to another minority – the middle classes. The mass of the population, now often armed, and angry, and aware that finally they were the driving force in politics, expected their grievances to be addressed. It was not a situation likely to make for a smooth move from absolutism to American-style government.

In 1776, after King George III’s royal officials had been chased out, America’s thirteen elected colonial legislatures simply took over and restyled the colonies as “states.” The King’s statues were taken down. Royal emblems were removed from courthouses. The British flag was lowered everywhere. Laws were henceforth promulgated in the name of the people of the state, not under the royal authority. Otherwise, much went on largely as before.

Under the British, the Americans had had a great deal of governing experience thanks to their locally elected colonial assemblies. However, in 1789 France voting was a new experience. Moreover the despised former aristocratical rulers were often living among them, and often still on their long-time estates – sometimes creating great resentments in a population that expected change and quickly. The situation was made worse by foreign monarchies such as Austria and Prussia, obviously worried about a spread of “revolutionary ideas,” launching outright war on revolutionary France – thus encouraging paranoia at home among the French revolutionaries.

It was assumed “Enemies of the Revolution” were under every bed. As time passed, revolutionaries became ever more extreme, resorting eventually to mass executions of those deemed “counterrevolutionaries” – including murdering thousands of women who had never engaged in, nor even planned, a violent act against anyone. As the hysteria grew, the bloodhounds chasing “internal enemies” could find themselves suddenly the hunted, see themselves declared “counterrevolutionaires,” and find themselves imprisoned or guillotined in turn.

The first use of what would become the Republic’s motto, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” came from Maximilien Robespierre in a 1790 speech. Later, he would be at the fore of the 1793-94 “reign of terror” – until he too was overthrown and guillotined. Robespierre having essentially coined that phrase – which for a time became “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ou la mort,” with “ou la mort” meaning “or death” – can strike one as similar to the US having adopted Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty, or give me death!” as the country’s motto only for Henry later to have seized absolute power and killed thousands until he had been killed himself…but with his clever turn of phrase remaining the national motto.

Watching from across the Atlantic, Americans such as Jefferson and James Madison still strained in the mid-1790s to see another American Revolution amidst the increasing French chaos and butchery. With hindsight the murderous efforts to root out and eliminate “counterrevolutionaries” and to create “equality” in no way resembled America’s “1776.” As it came to be dominated by a parade of little Lenins, Stalins, and Maos “voted” into power, the French Revolution moved much closer to a frightening preview of the even more murderous communist Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century.

No George Washington emerged as a unifying “father figure” able to calm the country, nor an Abraham Lincoln as a liberator and national healer. The Revolution finally ended up a military dictatorship under the general Napoleon – who in 1794 had himself just narrowly avoided being put up against a wall and shot or guillotined. Years later Napoleon is said to have observed, “They wanted me to be another Washington.”

Most certainly he was not another Washington, and he had enough self-awareness to know that. He sought to channel the violent, nationalist energy unleashed in the Revolution by directing it abroad – using the huge, conscripted, “citizen” army created early in the Revolution to do so. To unify the country, Napoleon also attempted to meld together the pre-revolutionary royalism and revolutionary republican outlooks into an imperial-republican France built around himself as emperor.

It was too much. What had begun mid-morning on July 14, 1789 with a mob in Paris rushing the Hôtel des Invalides seeking muskets, and later that day storming the Bastille seeking ammunition, finished with most of France’s revolutionary army dying in the Russian winter retreating from Moscow in 1812-1813. France had at last worn itself out.

So France once more observes a Bastille Day. We Americans cheer the French on today as friends and allies much as Americans mostly did back in the early 1790s. However, one suspects that, like in the 1790s, often we still don’t really know what we are cheering – as indicated, for example, in our messing around with guillotines at American observances of the holiday.

What we are really doing is just cheering France – an old friend and ally. This year, the U.S.’s new president and the first lady will be at the Bastille Day parade. Later, they will have dinner with France’s new president and first lady at the Eiffel Tower – and the Eiffel Tower was not built until 100 years after the Revolution.

Much that was good did come out of the French Revolution. Emphasizing “the terror” is much like Americans focusing too much on our own domestic slaughter of 1861-1865. We would, one supposes, rather think about the good that came from that civil war – the ending of slavery in particular – and not about the horrors of the war which had made the good possible.

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A 55-year-old village mayor was arrested for allegedly attacking a prominent French right-wing parliamentary candidate while she was out campaigning. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a flamboyant 44-year-old candidate for the Republicans party, was canvassing for votes at a Paris market when a man called her a "stupid bobo" — a blend of hipster and bourgeois — and shoved her leaflets in her face, causing her to fall. The former environment minister blacked out for several minutes before being rushed to hospital. Vincent Debraize — mayor of Champignolles, a small village in Normandy in northern France — denied he had verbally or physically assaulted her, Kosciusko-Morizet's lawyer Xavier Autain told AFP. After the attack, the man left, heading for the closest metro entrance. He was photographed, and his picture made the rounds in French media. French public prosecutors quickly launched an investigation. "He was identified after witness testimony and thanks to video surveillance," said a police source. #france #mayor #fight #police #collapse #hospital #blackout #hit #viral #framebyframe #picoftheday #footage #assault #rightwing #village #people #nathaliekosciuskomorizet #vincentdebraize #champignolles #paris #world #socialmedia #europe #newsoftheday #storyoftheday #picoftheday #thegulftoday #government

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Yet history is always with us. For anyone who knows anything about the French Revolution, there is something unsettling and distasteful in seeing a woman politician passing out leaflets on a Paris street a month before Bastille Day – and being surprised and physically assailed by a far stronger, aggressive, angry man calling her names, trying to defend herself, falling backwards, hitting her head on the ground, and being knocked unconscious. It is especially disturbing given her ancestor had aided us as Americans in our struggle for independence.