July 14, 2009
Today is Bastille Day, Frances national holiday. Too bad. The French celebrate an incredibly grisly event. This huge prison in the heart of Paris was a symbol of royal despotism. English-speakers can read about such prisons in works like Dickens Tale of Two Cities. There, the fictional Monsieur Manet, a frail and innocent shoemaker, was swallowed up for yearsimprisoned without a charge, without a day in court. In fact, many an innocent man wasted away in the Bastille. If some personal enemy purchased a lettre de cacheta document that allowed the named person to be packed away, the gates of the Bastille could close forever. But some, like the Marquis de Sade, lived in relative comfort within those massive stone walls.
Only a handful of prisoners were housed in the Bastille when a Paris mobbed stormed its gates. The new governor of the prison, DeLaunay, trying to appease the mob, let the ragged ranks stream into his courtyard. It was his last mistake. Soon, the severed heads of DeLaunay and his guardsmen were being paraded through the streets in what Dickens memorably called the carmagnolea snaking dance of merry-makers on their way to deal in death.
The French Revolution was the greatest convulsion in history. Poet William Wordsworth spoke for many when he wrote: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven! Millions all over the world identified with the ideals of the French Revolution.
More than any other event, the French Revolution shaped Americas two-party system with Thomas Jeffersons followers favoring the French and Alexander Hamiltons supporters siding more with England. The great Irish Member of Britains Parliament, Edmund Burke, condemned the French Revolution as stirring up the hot alembick of hell. Think witches cauldron.
Why should Christians care? Why should citizens of the United States care? Because the turmoil unleashed by the French Revolution spawned a host of other revolutionsthose in Russia (1917), China (1949), Cuba (1959), and Cambodia (1970). And those revolutions unloosed oceans of innocent blood.
Our Librarian of CongressJames Billington maintains that the French Revolution also spawned the Nazi movement in Germany. His work, Fire in the Minds of Men, carefully traces the malignant ideas of communism and Nazism back to their roots in revolutionary France.
Jimmy Carters domestic advisor, Stu Eisenstadt, described modern American liberalism as drawing upon the ideas of the American and French Revolutions. Hes right. And thats precisely whats wrong with modern liberalism. Carter and Eisenstadt had no use for Margaret Thatcher. She was coming into power in Britain just as they were being swept out of power here.
Prime Minister Thatchers views of this day, and the events it commemorates, should never be forgotten. When she arrived in Paris in 1989 for a G-7 Summit, her hosts were in the middle of celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the Fall of the Bastilletheir bicentenaire.
French reporters instantly mobbed the Iron Lady. What did she think of their famous revolution? It seems to me it resulted in a lot of headless bodies and a tyrant, she said.
Recovering from their shock, these reporters then asked if the French Revolution had not nonetheless advanced human rights. Certainly not, Mrs. Thatcher replied, resisting the impulse to bop them with her handbag, human rights began with Magna Cartain England in 1215.
Visitors to Washington this summer can see the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and a 1297 version of Magna Carta. Frances latest constitution may be on view in Paris; Im not really sure. There is no truth to the old story that in English libraries, French constitutions are filed in the periodicals section. But the story makes a point.
As we watch hearings in Washington on the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, keep in mind that liberalism would give us a living Constitution, not one that restrains power even as it protects American liberty. Maybe the best place for the liberals Constitution is not in the Archives, but in the Zoo.