Article Preview: Independence Day in the US, Bastille Day in France, are days on the calendar marked off for parades and parties. As happens all too often with public holidays, however, the content gets stripped out, the meaning lost, the history behind the celebration forgotten amidst the celebration. For the most part, official speeches are self-congratulatory and ahistorical; all the past leading straight to the speaker’s definition of the present. It is a conceit which ignores the possibility that a multiple of meanings can be ascribed to each Revolution, marked as they were by contrast, conflict, uncertainty. More to the point, revolutions by definition are a break from the past with a view toward creating a different possible future. That break is unseen by those satisfied by the present or whose notion of change lies in returning to a mythical (and oppressive) yesterday. If, however, we are looking for roots for a change leading to an alternative of greater democracy, genuine equality, and meaningful freedom, it may be worthwhile to recall the French Revolution in something other than the stereotypes that have become received wisdom.
The Washington Socialist: Midsummer 2016
By Kurt Stand
And here were these freemen assembled in the early morning to work on their lord the bishop’s road three days each – gratis … Why it was like reading about France and the French before the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal wave of blood … There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror – that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
(Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court)
Independence Day in the US, Bastille Day in France, are days on the calendar marked off for parades and parties. As happens all too often with public holidays, however, the content gets stripped out, the meaning lost, the history behind the celebration forgotten amidst the celebration. For the most part, official speeches are self-congratulatory and ahistorical; all the past leading straight to the speaker’s definition of the present. It is a conceit which ignores the possibility that a multiple of meanings can be ascribed to each Revolution, marked as they were by contrast, conflict, uncertainty. More to the point, revolutions by definition are a break from the past with a view toward creating a different possible future. That break is unseen by those satisfied by the present or whose notion of change lies in returning to a mythical (and oppressive) yesterday. If, however, we are looking for roots for a change leading to an alternative of greater democracy, genuine equality, and meaningful freedom, it may be worthwhile to recall the French Revolution in something other than the stereotypes that have become received wisdom.
Such stereotypes call up images of the storming of the Bastille, the Guillotine, Napoleon at Waterloo in a popular historical narrative that presents the French Revolution only as a contrast with the American. Order versus disorder, impassioned debate versus mob violence, checks and balances versus dictatorship, the images reinforce the notion of American exceptionalism – our revolution unique with an outcome that stands in contrast to all which have come since. It is a way of seeing that loses sight of the underlying issues that gave rise to and were fought out within the American and French revolutions and on the inner dynamics of each; dynamics that reveal neglected parallels and mutual influences which connect revolutionary events on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And that leads to a view of the past as process rather than resolution.
Debates that would lead to the first organized divide amongst those who fought the British – Federalists and Republicans — focused on the nature of the constitutional system being created and whether land distribution, property ownership and political rights would be more or less equal, if the extremes of wealth and poverty, rights and rightlessness that characterized England would be rejected or reproduced. These debates were similar to those that took place in France as its Revolution moved from the constitutional monarchy created in the wake of 1789 – that grantedpolitical rights to citizens while maintaining political and economic divisions based on untouched property relations – to the Jacobin constitution of 1793 ratified by a national plebiscite, which called for land to be divided equally to all peasants, declared social assistance and education a right, and made a popularly elected legislative council supreme. That soon gave way to the Thermidor reaction which recreated a strong executive, ended all attempts at wealth or property redistribution, and made advocacy of monarchy and advocacy of the 1793 Constitution punishable by death. Napoleon was to follow.
Although not as sharply drawn in the US as in France, supporters of the national bank, of legal limitations on press freedoms, and on judicial supremacy over the legislative branch sought to restrict democratic rights in order to keep such democracy from infringing on property rights – an outlook favored by land speculators, financiers, and merchants (and advocated by Hamilton, John Adams, Marshall). This stood against the perspective of Jefferson, Sam Adams, Benjamin Rush and others who sought a form of popular democracy that would encourage, preserve, and protect a widespread property-ownership they believed would inhibit the large concentrations of wealth responsible for the injustices and poverty of European societies. This was supported by western agrarian populations (both wealthy and poor) who also favored land expansion at the expense of the Native population, supported by many slave owners in the South as the basis of maintaining agricultural supremacy, and supported in more militant form by small farmers, craftsmen, the urban middle class in communities scattered across the country. At its extreme, a divide grew between limited and popular democracy.
This division was expressed by Edmund Burke and Tom Paine, who engaged in a debate over the French revolution that itself was a debate over the character of the American Revolution. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France argued the necessity of class and social stratification in order to preserve liberty, a liberty that could not survive unchecked democracy. He cited as its model England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 which left the monarchy, common law (as opposed to a Constitution), the established Anglican Church and House of Lords intact as it did the system of large estates and mercantile monopolies. The system allowed for particular rights, while eliminating the “dangers” of radical upheaval witnessed during Cromwell’s revolution of the previous generation. Paine’s response to Burke in The Rights of Man argued that popular engagement in the running of a country would prevent the dead hand of inherited wealth, privilege and property from dominating the lives of contemporaries, of holding back future generation’s freedom. An advocate of the early radicalism of the French, Paine reinforced the democratic egalitarianism within the American Revolution by linking democratic rights, individual liberty, freedom and equality. John Adams welcomed Burke’s pamphlet, Jefferson welcomed Paine’s.
Burke’s views became a common world view of dominant Whigs and Democrats in the political alignment that marked the first half of the 19th century (and remains a bulwark of conservative thinking today), even as they were sharply divided in other ways. Paine’s views, though with little influence in France (where he was jailed as a supporter of the Girondins against the Jacobins) was the principal source for radical trade union and radical agrarian movements in the US and England, including those who – in contrast to the views of Jefferson — came to embrace abolitionism and women’s equality.
Fueling these divides was the assertion of universal rights by American and French revolutionaries, marking a radical break from the particularism of Feudal society. Even though that universality did not include the majority, the assertion of rights pertaining to all was seized upon by those excluded. In 1790, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her critique of Burke, A Vindication of The Rights of Man, as a defense of the French Revolution, and as a defense of the American – interpreting it as a rejection of servility rather than simply a selfish defense of property. Two years later her A Vindication of the Rights of Women argued that women’s rights were intertwined in revolution, for the one made possible the political expression of the other and enabling other connections. As feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham put it, “In the French Revolution the feminist aspirations of the privileged and the traditions of collective action of the unprivileged women encountered each other. They regarded each other uneasily and never really combined. But each emerged tinged with liberty, equality and fraternity and the memory of revolution. Things could never be the same” (Women, Resistance & Revolution).
The actual gains women made were limited, progress in formal rights largely halted in the newly founded United States within a short time after the Constitution was ratified. The greater gains in France were set back when Napoleon rose to power and even further with the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815. But the genie of liberty, let out of the box, could not be completely pushed back again. Once equality was declared a matter of right, the question of for some or all could never be suppressed. Or as Margaret Fuller wrote in her Woman in the Nineteenth Century(first published in 1855, shortly after her death), “It should be remarked that, as the principle of liberty is better understood, a broader protest is made on behalf of Woman. As men become aware that few men have had a fair chance, they are inclined to say that no women have had a fair chance.” She then added – with a touch of irony that Twain might have appreciated — “the title [the French Revolution] gave was “citoyen,” “citoyenne,” and it is not unimportant to Woman that even this species of equality was awarded her. Before she could be condemned to perish on the scaffold for treason, not as a citizen, but as a subject.” Fuller similarly saw the promise of the American Revolution, yet recognized that the promise was unfulfilled, writing “… though freedom and equality have been proclaimed only to leave room for a monstrous display of slave-dealing and slave-keeping, though the free American so often feels himself free, like the Roman, only to pamper his appetites and his indolence through the misery of his fellow-beings; still it is not in vain that the verbal statement has been made, ‘All men are born free and equal.’ … That which has once been clearly conceived in the intelligence cannot fail, sooner or later, to be acted out.” (my emphasis)
Division over the meaning of equality and the reality of women’s subordinate status in law and practice was a contradictory legacy of both revolutions, so too was the perpetuation of slavery, as 19th-century feminists and abolitionists like Fuller (and Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Angelika Grimke, Susan B. Anthony and others) recognized. That failure led to French colonial war, led to the US Civil War. In a story of many low notes, the high note was achieved in 1791 when slavery was abolished in France itself, and 1792 – at the height of Jacobin power – when slavery was abolished throughout the French empire. With Robespierre’s downfall, that measure was rescinded, with a wave of repression aimed also at free blacks in France. Hopes aroused, then crushed, was the background of the victorious Haitian Revolution.
Napoleon’s attempt to restore French rule and slavery failed not only of its immediate purpose, but also failed to extinguish the influence of that attempt to implement the Declaration of the Rights of Man globally. Gabriel’s conspiracy – one of the most extensive planned slave rebellions in the US — was to have begun on Bastille Day in 1800; and had the uprising been successful the French (along with Quakers and Methodists) white population would have been spared on account of “their being friendly to liberty.” Despite its fatal compromise with the slave system, the American Revolution was also an inspiration; one of the slaves who took part, in a courtroom prior to execution, said, “I have nothing more to offer than what George Washington would have had to offer had he been taken by the British officers … I have ventured my life in endeavoring to obtain the freedom of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause.”
Phillis Wheatley, born in Africa, captured and raised as a slave in New England, earned her freedom through her poetry, winning the praise of Voltaire, the respect of Washington (whom she met) and racist criticism by Jefferson. She noted the contradiction of American liberty by carefully connecting oppressions. In 1771 when the colonists (Britons in the poem) were chafing under the king’s misrule, she wrote:
From Native clime, when seeming cruel fate
Me snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy Seat
Impetuous. – Ah! What bitter pangs molest,
What sorrows labour’d in the Parent breast!
That more than Stone, ne’er Soft compassion mov’d
Who from its Father Seiz’d his much belov’d.
Such once my Case. – Thus I deplore the day
When Britons weep beneath Tyrannick sway.
It was the same outlook which motivated the free black David Walker in his Appeal for slave insurrection, Denmark Vesey in his attempted slave rebellion, and John Brown who, prior to the raid on Harper’s Ferry organized a convention of black and white to make explicit that the Republic they aimed to bring into being could tolerate neither slavery nor racial discrimination if it were to be true to principles of the Declaration of Independence. Slave owners, conversely, routinely denounced abolitionism as Jacobinism, and the Confederate States in their act of secession specifically disavowed the American Revolution’s pronouncement that “all men are created equal.”
The re-imposition of slavery and attempt to re-establish the colonial empire marked the victory of the party of business and order in France, while Napoleon’s defeat in Haiti helped seal his defeat in Europe. And the failure to abolish slavery ended any possibility of Jeffersonian democracy; the Republican victors in the political struggle with the Federalists were the losers in the battle over the country’s future. Inequality of wealth and rights triumphed in large part because the advocates for popular democracy compromised their vision by their complicity in slavery. Yet the alternative persisted, expressed in a popular radicalism which legitimated its claim for the rights of labor by asserting the centrality of the concept of equality to democracy and the promise of the American Revolution. It was an understanding found in the writings of Thoreau and Melville (each of whose fathers fought in the Revolution), and in the 1830s organizing of labor radicals like Thomas Skidmore and Frances Wright who advocated a combination of smallholding agrarian rights and union rights as an expression of Jeffersonian principles. Wright, a feminist and abolitionist, even wrote to an elderly Jefferson asking him for support for her plans for abolition. It was a politics that came to see the need for a different economic system; like Fuller after her, Wright was an advocate of French utopian socialist Fourier’s ideas.
In France, the last gasp of the Revolution lay in the failed uprising of the Conspiracy of Equals led by Gracchus Babeuf against the Thermidor reaction in 1796. It was the precursor of the revolutionary tradition which later found expression in the Revolutions of 1830, 1848 and eventually in the Paris Commune of 1871. In each, the cause of justice advanced, was defeated, yet the ground lost was never as much as the ground gained – and so all form part of the legacy of democratic rights upon which we continue to build.
Jean Jaures, in his Socialist History of the French Revolution – a defense of the Jacobins and the Constitution of 1793 — approvingly quotes Robespierre: “When will the interests of the rich become one with the people? Never.” Juares, a socialist leader who never wavered in his defense of democratic rights or in his opposition to war (he was assassinated in 1914 by a right-wing nationalist, later acquitted by a French court) was not an advocate of violence or intolerance, rather he saw such intolerance and violence as stemming from those who deny people the right to freedom, who allow hunger to reign even when food is plentiful.
Twain’s quote above was meant as a reminder of that truth, of the past that lay behind the French Revolution. It also stood at the time of his writing as a warning that the democratic gains of the American Revolution were threatened because the co-existing worlds of privilege and poverty that marked monarchial society was becoming replicated in our Gilded Age (the late 19th century when the Robber Barons made their fortunes exploiting labor and corrupting politics). So today we find another Gilded Age in the US, as in Europe and in much of the world. The righting of the injustice found in a society where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of the 1% recalls one of the legacies contained within both the American and French revolutions and helps form a part of the usable past as we seek to remake the future, to continue the “political revolution.”
In trying to build that future it is wise to understand how steps toward creating a genuine democracy of equality flows from one part of the legacy of the American and French Revolutions. Of course, so do other legacies that rest upon and reinforce oppressions equally rooted in that past. Here it may do well to end with Babeuf’s defense to the Court before his execution, an execution not from the Terror, but rather an execution of one who refused to close his eyes on those whose lives were cut short by poverty and hunger, the people with whom Twain sympathized:
“Republic” is not just a word, a meaningless phrase. The slogan of liberty and equality … had a certain charm in the early days of the Revolution, because you believed it contained real meaning. Today this slogan means nothing to you anymore; it is only an empty rhetorical flourish. But we must repeat again and again that this slogan, notwithstanding all our recent painful experiences, can and should connote something of deep significance for the masses …
The aim of the Revolution … is to realize the happiness of the majority. If, therefore, this aim is not fulfilled, if the people do not succeed in attaining the better life which was the object of their struggle, then the Revolution is not over. There may be those whose only concern is to substitute their own rule for that of the monarchy, but it makes no difference what such people say or want. If the Revolution is brought to an end mid-passage, it will be judged by history as little more than a catalogue of bloody crimes.” (The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf)
So indeed, today we should celebrate and enjoy a happy respite– even in times such as these where the news is ever grim – and celebrate with an eye to the happiness that should be shared by all.
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