Victor Davis Hansen’s “Thermidor Reaction in Jacobin America”, reprinted here, explained in vivid, living color, what Americans have always found so inscrutable about the French Revolution.
Mark Twain, as portrayed by Hal Holbrook, once quipped in expressing the American common man’s dis-ease in trying to establish that a thing was wrong-headed, worse, illegal, even unconstitutional, then finally was un-American, Twain closed by simply stating “It is French”, thus ending any need for further investigation.
And in truth, the French had so dismembered their own history with the French Revolution that it was easy for people, even romantic novelists (Tale of Two Cities, Dickens and Scarlett Pimpernell, Baroness Orzcy) to reduce the Revolution to a back drop. I’ll wager very few Americans know very much about it, as the events of 1789-1799 are very convoluted, with almost impossible to connect rational links, from event to event, as most Americans had understood them to mean.
For instance, the term “Thermidor Reaction”, from Victor Davis’ title, jumps out at you, and is probably why I decided to shelve any further investigation of the French Revolution after looking it up in our family encyclopedia 60+ years ago. Too complicated for me. French.
Its definition is given as:
“A moderate counterrevolutionary stage following an extremist stage of the Revolution and usually characterized often through the medium of a dictatorship by an emphasis on the restoration of order, a relaxation of tensions, and some return to patterns of life held to be normal” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
“Thermidor” itself refers to the revolutionaries renaming of the months in 1794, to create a distance between the Church-created calendar and the blossoming political clubs in Paris, most of their members being under 30, largely the spawn of wealthy middle-classed parents.
Most were also male, which was also, well, very French.
This is not information that would have lifted an eyebrow of my Baby Boomer set at university. We were in our own late 20’s-early 30’s, but alas, there was a war on which touched most of our male population, which changed our perspective to that of the wealthy nabobs that made up the corpus of the revolutionary clubs in France’s major cities.
Even Thomas Paine was in his late 30’s when he penned Common Sense in 1776 and it still stands, per capita, as the best selling book in American history. (Tom took his earnings and his revolutionary zeal to Paris, not to mention his well-earned reputation, where he joined one of the more middle-of-the-road clubs, the more moderate Girondins, who eventually gained their month on the sun in directing the Third Estate before they were sent to meet Lady Razor. Paine barely escaped her.
You can visit the Timeline of the French Revolution here, event after event, from the storming of the Bastille, to the coming and going of Robespierre, the coming and goings of the Jacobins and other clubs, the royal beheadings, until the eventual insertion of Napoleon Bonaparte a decade later. Bonaparte was a simple Corsican when the Revolution began, but grew in talent and stature over a ten year span, compiling an extremely successful batting average fighting wars compared to the frat boys in Paris.
Call him opportunistic, Bonaparte set Europe ablaze for several years before finally being exiled to an island in the Atlantic, but in a prescient overview a generation later, Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher-historian, compared Napoleon to Oliver Cromwell in his lecture series, “Heroes and Hero-worship”. I’ve mentioned Cromwell approvingly in a few essays in this forum, despite his very unlikable religious and personal traits, suggesting a short “Cromwell institutional interregnum” versus a long rebuilding of America requiring multiple generations needed by our Constitution in 1787. Indeed, such was Cromwell to some English historians, so Carlyle’s “Heroes” is worth a read.
I could do 5000 words on the natural law ramifications of a generation being able to pass on its best seeds to succeeding generations. America is the most successful in history at the process for the simple reason that from almost the very beginning, almost everyone began on an equal plane and were always aware of the shoulders they stood on. This has largely been the case into the GenX-generation (1965-1980) with a decided turn south with Millennials (1981-1996).
Now why America’s national teat fit has been so long in revealing itself hasn’t been because of the wars our several generations have fought, and that honor, bravery, sacrifice and patriotism passed on, but in the shared values and memories also shared around the family circle. We were wired from the beginning to abstain from false pretensions of rank.
America was born middle class; literate and self-reliant, even to the point of being able to shoot a rabbit, a moose or buffalo, or even a rebel at Chickamagua. Only “earned rank” carried very much weight with Americans, which is why so many European dandies sniggered when Americans strode by in Paris, London and Rome.
France was late in allowing its middle class a place on the respectability social ladder. In the old Middle Age “estate plan”, Church and Royals sat atop the other 90% “petit bourgeoisie”, as well as owning almost all the wealth, in land. The French nobility were slow in picking up on that new-fangled notion; cash. In those days their Third Estate petite bourgeoisie mere fish-mongers and shopkeepers with no ability to get any bigger, i.e., to grow. (We’re seeing a subtle repeat of this today, if you’ve been paying attention.) From the Enlightenment grew armies of small business ideas, which by the 1780’s had grown sizeable, supported by middle-class professionals, university-educated, literate, and some quite affluent.
Victor Davis Hanson has made the great connection that makes the French Revolution relevant to what looms over America today, for he spells out in no uncertain terms that the great failure of the French Revolution was laid entirely at the feet of a decade of incompetent but affluent, educated middle class twenty-something males from the French professional classes.
So, for your own edification, a Timeline of the French Revolution. Remember to book mark.
Most of you have heard of Robespierre, the Jacobins, the Girondins, Montagnards, the political clubs. We knew about these people but not their context.
In America, since 1945, four generations have grown from a few thousand, to a few hundred thousand, to now a few million, and they have continued to march aimlessly, going hither and thither, with little more in mind other than pleasing the wants of the moment, or scratching the itch of the moment. Very French. In America, some say this goes back to the 1920s, when two rich Chicago students named Leopold and Loeb killed a teenager just to prove they could get away with it. (It was a national headline story, but mainly because America’s best known lawyer, Clarence Darrow, had to be brought in, not to beat the rap, mind you, but to avoid the death penalty. (Q: How many rich kids would even worry about that today in America?) The 1920s was when America’s rich youth could barely fill a couple of busses to walk the picket lines with striking coal miners in East Kentucky.
I’m content to start with “my generation” and Berkeley, and the first anti-Vietnam War campus takeover in 1964. A noxious person in many respects, I still recommend Ayn Rand’s The Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, (1970) being a compilation of essays beginning with Berkeley. (Stuff you wouldn’t know today.) You might also consider her chapter “Comprachicos”, about child mutilation in the Middle Ages, which is ageless.
Going from un-sponsored Columbine, CO in the Clinton years to Parkland, Aurora (just look up “school shootings”), we’ve moved on to Portland, Minneapolis, DC, Manhattan, Detroit, for organized mayhem, Antifa and BLM, and the one ring that binds them all; wealth, with nothing better to do.
You might say we knew about these people but not their context. Their connections. Today, we’re being choked on that context, and have been for several years now. What he haven’t had to endure, at least, has been the great national events, such as taking over the government by storm.