The former secretary of the Jacobin Club, who had been among the first to rush inside the Bastille, eventually harbored second thoughts. He embodied a live-free-or-die ethos, so when the Terror began terrifying him he shot himself in the face and stabbed himself in the neck and chest. But he proved less efficient at killing than his former guillotine-enthusiast comrades. Chamfort’s slow suicide took more than six months. The Revolution’s took more than a decade.
But 223 years after Chamfort stormed the ancient Parisian fortress, France still celebrates the Revolution that executed the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, chased away as great a patriot as Lafayette, and invaded the Netherlands, Switzerland, and scores of other peaceful neighbors.
Saturday is Bastille Day. Enlightened people lament it. They certainly don’t ritualize it.
Ninety-eight revolutionaries and just one guard died in the assault on the Bastille. The liberators proved crueler than the jailers. They beat, stabbed, shot, and decapitated the warden, whose head they displayed through the streets on a pike. Will and Ariel Durant described the Bastille as “a place of genteel confinement for the well-to-do” and “a symbol of despotism.” So when the rabble liberated four forgers, a pair of lunatics, and a pervert from the bulwark on July 14, 1789, they set the symbol-over-substance tone of the Revolution. Wrapped in “reason” and “enlightenment,” the benighted upheaval displayed just how brutish and backward people imagining themselves as genteel and modern can become. As Robespierre put it, “The government of the revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” Say what?
The revelation of the revolution of reason was that reason’s revolutionaries weren’t terribly reasonable. Historian Simon Schama describes the savagery of the revolutionaries against Louis XVI’s Swiss guards in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. “Hunted down, they were mercilessly butchered: stabbed, sabered, stoned and clubbed,” the professor writes. “Women stripped the bodies of clothes and whatever possessions they could find. Mutilators hacked off limbs and scissored out genitals and stuffed them in gaping mouths or fed them to the dogs. What was left was thrown on bonfires, one of which spread to the palace itself. Other bits and pieces of the six hundred soldiers who perished in the massacre were loaded haphazardly onto carts and taken to common lime pits.”
Their methods ultimately became their principles. “Liberty is a bitch who likes to be bedded on a mattress of cadavers,” opined Desmoulins. “Let us be terrible so that the people will not have to be,” exhorted Danton. “There must be blood to cement the revolution,” Madame Roland maintained. Their revolutionary executioners agreed.
The French Revolution proved a dry-run for the twentieth century. Fanatics systematically liquidated internal enemies. They exported revolution to those unlucky enough to share their borders. They ignored all of history and believed all of posterity would see them as the starting point. Words, such as “Committee of Public Safety,” conveyed the very opposite of their meanings. The inability to attain the glorious ends that rationalized their terrible means left just the terror.
An unwitting accomplice of great evil is always extreme arrogance. The Jacobins attempted to replace more than a millennium of Christianity with a Cult of Reason, which smashed burial crosses and placed a “Goddess of Reason” on the altar at Notre Dame Cathedral. After overthrowing the king, they attempted to overthrow established units of weights and measures through the metric system. And they vainly replaced Gregory’s calendar with a Revolutionary one, placing their own event at the start of time, naming weeks of the month, and renaming months of the year.
The terrible irony is that the fanatics who sought to overthrow tradition instead established one. When French President Francois Hollande jettisons a budget-ceiling agreement with the European Union, seeks to hike tax rates to 75 percent on the wealthy, and pledges an oxymoronic “end to austerity” for a government that spends more than half of the gross domestic product, he acts moderately within a culture that celebrates rioters who shouted “Death to the rich, death to the aristocrats” with a national holiday. Radicals appear conservative when operating within a radical tradition.
Don’t celebrate Bastille Day this weekend. Do celebrate that July 14, 2012 isn’t du Quintidi, 25 Messidor, CCXX.
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