Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Taking a Leaf out of Frederick William I's Book....

Yesterday was 9 Thermidor, when the Jacobins were overthrown, the Reign of Terror ended and the White Terror began. The White Terror is an oddly unknown historical movement during the Thermidorian Reaction, where monarchists and counter-revolutionaries continued on the Terror, only focused it on a. Jacobins, b. anyone who disagreed with the new government (the quickly corrupted Directory, whose political disorganization, economic screw-ups and general inefficacy paved the way for Bonaparte's take-over), c. the peasants, and d. the government of Paris.

Frankly, it was not very funny.

However, some of the disaffected youth who joined the movement were. Gone were the ardent revolutionaries who read Rousseau and Voltaire, who debated the sources of political legitimacy and jumped up on cafe tables to proselytize. The new group, the jeunesse dorée/the Muscadins/the Incroyables, were basically a roving group of angry fops in knee-breeches, exaggerated frock coats, collars so high one would today assume they were wearing neck braces, and powdered hair cut short to emulate the haircut given to a condemned person by the executioner.

To be very basic, the Jacobins had been working to what Robespierre called "the republic of virtue", so those whom the Jacobins considered to be the enemies of France/the republic of virtue decided to reject everything that the Jacobins had proposed (except the guillotining of political opponents). Ergo, virtue of all kinds was considered rather passé so, even though France, who was still entirely without trading partners or easy access to its colonies, was in the middle of a severe famine. They also decided that actually paying attention to political issues was a waste of time, as, to top an otherwise monarchist ensemble, they also wore their powdered hair as several revolutionaries did, with most pulled back in a queue, and a lock of hair on either side of the face. Similarly, they wore cravats with prints on them, which were working-class and generally showed that one supported the sans-culottes.

Thus armed, these gentlemen ran wild in the streets of Paris, drinking very load toasts to the monarchy in front of angry, starving sans-culottes, and beating people up with sticks.

The Amateur Historian believes that the disaffected youth just wanted to beat people up with sticks. The outfits were just an excuse. That, or the collars helped when the sans-culottes, hardened from years of work, grabbed the sticks from the idle members of the aristocracy and beat them up in return.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Too Bad He Didn't Have the Holy Hand Grenade....

After the 1807 Peace of Tilsit, Napoleon decided to relax by having a hunting party for the court and, to that end, asking his scarily efficient chief-of-staff, Alexandre Berthier, to organize a rabbit hunt.

Berthier, in charge of one of the most organized and effective armies in Europe, attacked this request with his usual foresight and planning, even bringing in hundreds of rabbits should nature prove so monstrously disobliging as to fail to uphold its end, hunting-wise.

Unfortunately, Berthier proved to be too good at making the rabbit hunt entertaining. As soon as the Emperor arrived, the keepers released the rabbits and the lepine horde rushed straight at Napoleon. The freaked-our generals of the court immediately formed a skirmish line to protect the Emperor, but the rabbits somehow had a better grasp of Napoleonic strategy than Napoleon's generals and, dividing into two wings, poured around the flanks of the skirmish line.

Napoleon had to run for his carriage, but the rabbits pursued and the Emperor had to physically toss rabbits out of the imperial coach. Rabbits apparently kept flying out of the windows as the coach drove off.

Later on, Berthier discovered that he had accidentally bought a horde of domesticated rabbits who assumed the gentleman walking towards them was their feeder, not the Emperor of France and the Conqueror of Europe.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Desmoulins later shared a cordial antipathy with the prettiest member of the French Revolution, Louis Saint-Just. Saint-Just was fond of the very stiff, high collars than in fashion and was also very cold and austere, in a manner that did not endear him to Desmoulins. Desmoulins is said to have said of Saint-Just, "He carries his head like the Holy Sacrament."

"And I," Saint-Just, not to be outdone, is said to have replied, "will make him carry his head like Saint-Denis."



Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day!

A very happy 14th of July to you all, commemorating the day when Parisians, spurred on by street orators like Camille Desmoulins, panicked about the economic crisis, the food shortage, the dismissal of the enormously popular finance minister, Necker, and the fact that the king had stationed foreign troops around the city. The king had done so to keep the Parisians from rioting at the loss of the only finance minister they had liked in the past five years, but this plan backfired catestrophically. The Parisians assumed that Necker's dismissal meant the triumph of the conservative faction and therefore the violent shut down of the National Constituent Assembly (the group that had broken off from the Estates-General and demanded a government with a constitution).

Several street orators jumped up onto tables to prolethyse the crowds, but the most famous of these is Camille Desmoulins, who jumped up onto a table whilst holding two pistols and shouted, "'Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of a Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!"

Unfortunately, the people didn't really have arms, so they raided where they could and, after about two days of continuous rioting, converged on the Bastille, where they heard there were arms and gunpowder. The Bastille was an old, costly fortress that was then housing a grand total of seven prisoners: four forgers, two lunatics, and one deviant aristocrat, the comte de Solages . The Marquis de Sade had been removed from the Bastille ten days earlier for harassing the people who walked too close to his window. Though the Bastille was not popular and was going to be shut down because it was too expensive to maintain, it was the place you were most likely to end up if you were arrested on a lettre de cachet, or rather, a letter signed by the king and a cabinet minister to enforce arbitrary legislation and effectively outlawing any possibility of an appeal.

After a shoot-out lasting several hours, in the Amateur Historian's personal favorite part of the proceedings, one man actually scaled the chains holding up the drawbridge of the Bastille and cut them down, allowing his fellow Parisians to seize the fortress and completely freak out the French aristocracy.

This culminated in the very famous dialogue between Louis XVI and the Duc de Rochefoucauld.

"Then it's a revolt?" asked Louis XVI.

"No, Sire," the duc replied. "It is a revolution."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What's in a name?

There is a popular saying that one should never engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent, but that never stopped Voltaire... often to a detrimental degree, but Voltaire seems to have possessed more resilience than rubber so it often didn't matter. In his early years as a poet, Voltaire's quick wit gained him entrance into French high society and quite nearly knocked him out of it again.

Voltaire somehow or other managed to annoy one Auguste de Rohan-Chabot, perhaps by the admittedly, not very difficult task of being cleverer than Auguste de Rohan-Chabot. While Voltaire was at the opera with a group of friends, de Rohan-Chabot dropped into their box to pay his compliments and to glance distainfully at Voltaire. "Ah," he is said to have remarked, "there you are M. Voltaire, or Arouet, or whatever it is you call yourself."

Feeling pretty clever for having brought up Voltaire's low origins and lack of an important family name, he attempted to join the party, but Voltaire forestalled him.

"Yes, I am the first to honor my name," said Voltaire, "but what have you done to honor yours?"
(de Rohan-Chabot's answer was to have his lackies ambush Voltaire and beat the poet up. Ouch. Voltaire challenged him to a duel later on and de Rohan-Chabot got Voltaire exiled to England, where Voltaire became a pan-European celebrity. Yeah, real cruel punishment, there, increasing his audience and book sales.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Not-So-Romantic Friendship

The prominant literary critic Charles Lamb had an increasingly bad relationship with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was fond of sentimental friendships, all grand, sweeping emotions, declarations of love and tearful embraces. Charles Lamb grew disenchanted and ultimately rather annoyed with them. Coleridge was also fond of the Romantic, metaphysical monologues about nothing in particular.

During one particularly rambling monologue about the life, the universe and everything, Coleridge, who had once been a Unitarian minister planning on founding a utopian commune on the banks of the Susquehanna interrupted himself to ask, "Charles, have you ever heard me preach?"

Replied the weary Lamb: "I have never heard you do anything else."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy 4th!

Happy "Screw you King George III!" day to those that celebrate it! In honor of one of the more fascinating events of the 18th century, I bring you the following Founder, John Adams.

During the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams was "obnoxious and disliked", as he later wrote, and it's not entirely hard to see why the Continental Congress got so pissed off at him, since his opinion of congress was equally dismal. "In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress."

Adams was not generally one for aphorisms (that was Ben Franklin's forte and you bet he exploited it), but his letters to his beloved and generally kick-ass wife Abigail Adams have unexpected and enjoyable glimpses of wit. At one point he wrote, "I must not write a word to you about politics, because you are a woman." (ouch) He didn't let that stop him however/Abigail wasn't going to stand for that, even if his writings about politics got increasingly whiney:

"I have accepted a seat in the House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and to the ruin of our children. I give you this warning that you may prepare your mind for your fate."

"My country has contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." (Adams got elected to be the first vice president. He was less than pleased he wasn't president.)

"The Declaration of Independence I always considered as a theatrical show. Jefferson ran away with all the stage effect of that... and all the glory of it." (No wonder these biffles stopped talking to each other for a couple of years! There are more complicated reasons behind it- Jefferson was a total Francophile (he was one of the first American ambassadors to France, save Franklin and Adams himself) and Adams decided not to help the French Republic against Britain (he was the first American ambassador to England, which the Amateur Historian believes must have sucked); the moralistic Adams was outraged by the rumors about Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, etc.- but this? Rawr, Adams, sheath your claws in this catfight!)

"No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it." (Dude was never satisfied!)