The best of times?

In a lifetime of reading, studying, and teaching history, I find myself returning again and again to certain periods of the human story which seem to me particularly intriguing or immediately instructive.  For years - and especially when I was teaching AP European History at Midlothian - I discovered a particular fascination in the terrible drama of the French Revolution.

In 1789, the year in which America’s Revolution reached a peaceful conclusion in the inauguration of George Washington, France - the great, sophisticated power which was the cultural and intellectual leader of the European world - suddenly began transforming itself into an abattoir.  The wealthy and powerful - those who were not shrewd enough to flee to Austria, Britain or other havens - made the brief, but unforgettable acquaintance of Madame la Guillotine.

Within a few years, many of the revolutionaries followed their aristocratic victims.  Still, the Revolution rolled on until, exhausted, the people of France entrusted their safety to the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.   All in all, the French Revolution began a twenty-six year drama which forever changed European - and world - civilization.  In many ways, la Revolution continues to play itself out today, in - among other places - the streets of Cairo and Damascus.  

What disturbs me is the possibility that another reappearance might also be foreshadowed in the muddy parks and campuses of our own country.  But, thus far, I have read and heard almost nothing in our media which connects the modern Occupation movement with popular revolts in the Islamic World, much less with the storming of the Bastille.

Nor is this surprising, for Americans, as a people, know almost nothing about history’s uses as a serious, practical pursuit.

Most Americans who love history choose to view it through a sentimental lens.  We visit Colonial Williamsburg or Staunton’s Frontier Culture Museum to watch costumed performers present old-time crafts.  We drag our children and grandchildren to sites such as Gettysburg, Monticello, or Fort Clatsop - where a smattering of historical information is offered up in impossibly pristine surroundings.

Other Americans are history hobbyists of a more intense sort.  Those who choose to get more deeply involved use modern technology to dig for relics - or put on the uniforms of the Revolutionary or Civil wars and march off to the gritty realism of mass re-enactments

Millions of Americans relive the past as controversialists.  Devotees of the Civil War, possessed of almost encyclopedic knowledge of its battles, debate the tactical mistakes and heroic moments of encounters famous and obscure.  Millions more, often the descendants of Confederate heroes, can go on for hours “proving” that the Civil War was not about slavery.

Others are passionate about the details of the Second World War - including, inevitably, those unhappy souls who find eternal fascination in the darker minutiae of the Third Reich.

But, as a people, Americans find little interest in how history works.  We see history as something that happened in the past - not as a practical study of the human condition with relevance for today.  And, having this perspective, we seldom see patterns in the past which might help us to understand the events of the present.

Thus, when I raise the possibility that today’s events might foreshadow something like a modern version of the French Revolution, I don’t expect many readers to follow me.  Even historically-minded Americans tend to know little about the history of France, and the Revolution is a deep subject, indeed.

But I keep coming back to something which gradually became clear to me in the years when I regularly taught the basics of the French Revolution.  

The Revolution did not begin - as many non-historians believe - with an uprising of impoverished peasants crushed by hunger and wearied by the ruthlessness of pompous aristocrats.  The Revolution began among the urban middle-classes.  It began because, put simply, France could not balance its budget - or even make interest payments on its national debt.

France was a rich country - far richer than Britain or the Netherlands.  Yet the British and Dutch could service their national debts, and France could not, for one simple reason:  In France, the rich paid almost no taxes.  

Thus, when its mounting debts could no longer be avoided, and King Louis XVI sought a way out, the rich and powerful refused to pay their share - or any part of their share - unless the King agreed to turn over all political power to a government controlled by the aristocracy.

And when France’s middle-class, already oppressed by the burdens of taxation, refused to go along with this change, the ball began rolling downhill.

Which is not, of course, to suggest that something as terrible as the Revolution could happen here.  But perhaps it is time to study more closely the history of the era which Charles Dickens called “the best of times... the worst of times.”


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