This hasn’t been a very good month for writing. If one thing hasn’t gotten in the way, it’s been another. I really wanted to write about Orde Wingate and the Gideon Force yesterday, so of course, our Internet Service Provider decided to disconnect our DSL service. And we were kind of pre-occupied anyways, owing to an ice storm. Unfortunately, the format of Today’s History Lesson means that Wingate has to wait another year. Our internet connection has been restored, so we move on…
The French Revolution in the late 18th century drew very different reactions in America, depending on who was asked. Some believed that the drastic changes in France were taking it down the road to violence, upheaval, and bloodshed. Others thought it closely mirrored the American version, fought and won against the British just 10 years before. The growing French unrest reverberated through nearly all facets of American life, including politics.
In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow writes, “Americans increasingly defined their domestic politics by either their solidarity with the French Revolution or their aversion to its incendiary methods. The French Revolution thus served to both consolidate the two parties in American politics and deepen the ideological gulf between them.”
But in France, the summer of 1792 was less about ideology and the niceties of political debate and more about violence and retribution. William Short, at one time the private secretary to Thomas Jefferson in Paris, continued in correspondence with his boss, writing from Holland of “those mad and corrupted people in France who under the name of liberty have destroyed their own government.” The streets, he said, ran red with blood.
Still, many in America (a majority, in fact) supported Robespierre and those with him, romanticizing their actions and comparing them to recent American history, while simultaneously ignoring the slaughter that these men brought upon their own countrymen. The overthrow of the government in September of 1792 was met in the States with celebrations and toasts.
And then, on January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded. A goodly number of Americans gasped. Sure, France with in the midst of turmoil and people were going to die. But even those most “akin” to the uprising in France remembered well how Louis XVI had been a staunch ally of the American cause during the Revolution. Sure, his support had been self-serving to a degree, as he was waging his own war with Britain. But he was a supporter nonetheless, and more than one American who had given him or herself the label of “Jacobin” was now given sudden pause.
Thomas Jefferson, who had once called King Louis XVI “a good man” and “an honest man”, and now desperately wanted to hold on to his support of the Revolution, said that monarchs were “amenable to punishment like other criminals.”
Americans struggled with the trickle of news that came across the ocean. Some were aghast at the reports, while others tried to downplay the news as sensationalism. But regardless, the French Revolution quickly lost what little similarity it had to its American counterpart and took on the luster of a Stalin-esque purge, with thousands and thousands of professors, priests, politicians, and “enemies of the enemy of the state” meeting the edge of the guillotine’s blade in a wide-reaching political massacre.