Monday, July 28, 2014

Flashback, July 1789: Jefferson in Early Attempt at Nation-Building in French Revolution

The Bastille, like the absolute monarchy it supported, was far stronger as symbol than reality when its 100 defenders looked outside its walls was on the afternoon of July 14, 1789. Only seven prisoners remained inside the holding pen where, for 100 years, this converted bulwark against English invaders had come to house upper-class felons, political troublemakers, and spies, usually without a trial, under direct orders of the king. The four-century-old stronghold had withstood several assaults over the years, but it is doubtful if it ever faced 80,000 of its own citizens.

But now its governor, Bernard-Jordan de Launay, who had violated his pledge not to order his men to fire on the massive assemblage, had killed more than 100 of the crowd. By mid-afternoon, deserters from the army, shielded from observation by the prison’s defenders through smoke from fires lit by the mob, had hauled five cannon into the courtyard.

Launay surrendered under a flag of truce, was promptly arrested, then pulled away from his escort by the mob. “Oh friends, kill me fast!” he cried out pitifully. Too late. He would be murdered and decapitated, with his head paraded on a pike through the streets.

Late that night, according to Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution, the Duke de Liancourt was admitted to the royal bedchamber, where he broke the news to his astonished sovereign. “Why, that is a revolt!" King Louis XVI exclaimed.

"Sire," responded Liancourt, "it is not a revolt, — it is a revolution."

The French had quite a lot to do with the American Revolution. So did we with theirs—though, eventually, not in the same way we might have desired.

The differences between the two nations’ experiences can be found in the above incident, which foreshadowed all to come in the French Revolution: a populace pushed to desperation by hunger and to madness by rumor; a law-enforcement procedure that degenerated into anarchy; and an entrenched but enervated establishment requiring a different vocabulary to describe the unprecedented.

Processing it all was an American deeply sympathetic to the protestors’ plight—and blissfully unaware that matters were about to take a turn he couldn’t imagine.The American was Thomas Jefferson (pictured), for the past three years U.S. Ambassador to France. 

Three days after the storming of the Bastille, he wrote that “the power of the States is now I think out of all danger.” Nearly two months later, less than two weeks removed from returning home as his country’s first Secretary of State, he wrote Thomas Paine: “Tranquillity is well established in Paris, and tolerably so thro’ the whole kingdom; and I think there is no possibility now of any thing’s hindering their final establishment of a good constitution, which will in it’s principles and merit be about a middle term between that of England and the United States.”

Few have so exemplified the touching American faith that the U.S. can not only inspire other countries, but also guide and even control their subsequent “course of human events,” more than the Sage of Monticello. 

Superficial comparisons might have led many objective observers to think that the early days of this new revolution would follow a path similar to what had happened in America at the same stage: 93 American dead by the end of April 1775, when hostilities broke out at Lexington and Concord, versus a little more than that at the Bastille, mostly among the insurgents. Moreover, in the first couple of years after the Bastille’s fall, the leadership of the revolutionary movement in France was largely liberal and middle-class, motivated by the belief that an entrenched aristocracy should enjoy no privileges outside what its own merit could earn—sentiments that the Founding Fathers could readily accept.

The problem was that the supremely rational Jefferson behaved like a scientist who, after a few initial events seem to confirm a hypothesis, becomes reluctant to put it aside when later phenomena contradict it. In this case, he did not want to believe that a country he had come to love, founded on Enlightenment beliefs he shared, had been taken over by a radical fringe, the Girondins, who would trample on lives and liberties in the Great Terror.

“As with so many other things he deeply wanted to be true, he let his heart's desire influence what should have been a more dispassionate analysis of how matters might settle themselves in that conflict,” notes Annette Gordon-Reed in her Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of his black slave relations, The Hemingses of Monticello. In this case, Jefferson was offering perhaps the most wrongheaded prediction by an American statesman on a foreign revolution until Jimmy Carter’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, opined that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini might go down in history as “somewhat of a saint when we get over the panic.”

In one sense, Jefferson’s mistaken assessment grew out of the same instinct as Young’s: the belief that one people’s struggle for rights resembled another’s. (He had, in fact, aided his friend the Marquis de Lafayette in writing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.) But at least Young stopped hailing Khomeini once American hostages were taken. In contrast, Jefferson stuck to his sanguine belief about the French Revolution not only after close supporters told him otherwise, but also after his own actions invited the belief that he suspected the same thing.

At the time that Jefferson wrote to Paine about post-Bastille France’s “tranquility,” the nation had been rocked by a two-week “Great Fear,” a welter of peasant rumors and bread riots, based on the notion that an “aristocratic conspiracy” was bound and determined to undo gains after the fall of the Bastille. The envoy, in fact, requested police protection and additional security measures after burglars broke into the Hotel de Langeac, his Paris residence, three times in the month after the Bastille.

Four years later, not much had changed. As the Reign of Terror began, Jefferson upbraided a friend on the spot in France, William Short, for his unillusioned analysis of the accelerating violence: “You have been wounded by the sufferings of your friends, and have by this circumstance been hurried into a temper of mind which would be extremely disrelished if known to your countrymen.”

His careful compartmentalizing about the excesses of the revolution was, in its way, of a piece with how he treated his own slaves back at Monticello. His kitchen back in Virginia was hidden in the hillside, to avoid obstructing the view of the landscape. It had an additional benefit, however: Jefferson’s euphemistically termed “servants” would be beyond the sight of curious onlookers. 

Similarly, Jefferson preferred now to think that the French Revolution was going to be a relatively bloodless affair. But, as much as his architectural ideas placed slaves beyond his sight, he still feared he and his fellow aristocrats “have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go”—and his actions at his Parisian hotel also betrayed his subconscious fear of the mob.

A natural Francophile who liked French wines almost as much French philosophes, Jefferson also could not get over the debt his young country owed to France. The older nation had not contributed nearly half the number of soldiers confronting Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, but also the 29 ships that successfully bottled up the British general on the peninsula. 

Louis XVI’s position had become imperiled at home in large part because he took such an enormous gamble abroad by underwriting the American Revolution. The monarch’s immediate objective—the undermining of France's major continental rival, England, in North America—had been achieved, but at the cost of ruinous debt that had led to the calling of the Estates-General, the legislative assembly representing the nation’s different classes, for the first time in 175 years. Louis’ firing of his finance minister at a conference at Versailles had helped trigger the fall of the Bastille.

It’s really hardly possible to overstate the shock to the trans-Atlantic world delivered by the French Revolution. In The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (1990), historian Robert Darnton pointed out how the upheaval affected cultural norms (dress, language), class, religion, geography, even basic terms of political discourse we’ve taken for granted since then (e.g., “left” and “right,” derived from the placement of factions in the newly empowered National Assembly, as well as the use of “revolution” itself to mean a violent internal conflict).

The French Revolution was inextricably mixed up with the origins of the two-party system in the United States, too. Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican supporters backed France, while Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists looked more kindly on the English.

All these years later, it can be hard for an American to understand the contention bred by the French Revolution. Darnton has suggested that Americans think of the tumult created in this country by the Sixties. The phrase he ascribes to the upheaval that brought down Louis-- “utopian energy” –also applied in France. Like 1960s lefists, French revolutionaries, he observes, “experienced reality as something that could be destroyed and reconstructed, and they faced seemingly limitless possibilities, both for good and for evil, for raising a utopia and for falling back into tyranny.”

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