The singer T-Bone Burnett — better known as the producer behind the music in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and other “roots” acts — once wrote a song that inadvertently serves as a the perfect song with which to study Bastille Day:
The genius of France can be seen at a glance / And it’s not their fabled fashion scene
It’s not that they’re mean or their wine or cuisine / I refer of course to the guillotine
Those lines come to mind this July 14, which in France is the national holiday. We are not French, but there is much that we can learn from the French experience. The Storming of the Bastille did not start the civil unrest that led to the French Revolution, but it certainly accelerated it — and became its most iconic event. We’ll skip over the details to get to the main point: The French Revolution did not merely overthrow the monarchy and lead to an elected government (which as Americans we presumably agree are good things), it eventually led to the Reign of Terror which proceeded to guillotine people by the thousands (even some of the revolutionary leaders who were deemed insufficiently pro-revolution).
The French Revolution both horrified and mesmerized Americans for years to come. The early politics of the U.S. were defined partly by whether you were pro-France (Thomas Jefferson) or anti-France (John Adams). Jefferson — who had been American minister to France during the storming of the Bastille and had allowed his home to be used as a meeting place for revolutionaries — tried to explain away the revolution’s inconvenient excesses. “Was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?” he wrote. “My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.” If you’re a true fan of Jefferson, then you’re on the side of the French revolutionaries.
Where, though, did the French Revolution end and the Reign of Terror begin? Was the execution of King Louis XVI justified but the execution of 16,593 others not? We will not settle those questions today. Neither will we settle the ones we’re about to ask, but today seems an appropriate day to ask them. We are presently going through our own sort of revolution, in which old heroes — in bronze, marble and granite — are being overthrown, sometimes lawfully, sometimes not. The French Revolution presents a cautionary tale: How far should we go?
Let’s begin with what will be a controversial premise for some — that those who led the fight for a secessionist slave-holding confederacy are not worthy of our official honor. Confederate statues and names must go.
Now let’s adopt what will be a controversial premise for others — that not every historical figure that has been raised up is worthy of condemnation, even though they might have flaws we’d denounce today. We cannot expect perfection from anyone.
So where do we draw the line between those two propositions? Those are the questions we ask today. (Spoiler: You have to supply the answers).
Let’s take the Confederate statues that stand before many courthouses. Should they all go because those statues honor the wrong side? Or does it matter what those monuments say and what they depict? Is there a way to mourn ordinary soldiers who gave their lives — and may not have thought much about the cause they were serving? Or is it impossible to draw such a fine distinction as long as “Johnny Reb” stands sentinel? Would a simple listing of the war dead from each county be an appropriate memorial or is even that too honorific for a cause that deserves no honor? Germany has lots of memorials to its soldiers who died in World War I, but not World War II and there’s a reason for this — Germany, after the war, went to great lengths to separate itself from its Nazi past. The American South, by contrast, spent generations glorifying “the Lost Cause.” Should our reappraisal of Confederate figures extend beyond statues and building names to place names? If so, the town of Stuart in Patrick County must be renamed. Or do place names get a pass that building names don’t because changing place names inconveniences too many people? We’ve renamed places before. Shenandoah County used to be Dunmore County until Virginia revolutionaries chased Lord Dunmore out of the state, yet we kept King George County.
Let’s move on to non-Confederates. Princeton recently removed Woodrow Wilson’s name because Wilson was a notorious racist who resegregated a federal workforce that had previously been integrated. It’s odd to find conservatives who denounce this move because Wilson was also the great liberal of his day who introduced the income tax and an idealistic foreign policy. Conservatives didn’t approve of Wilson then; why would any defend removing his name now? The bigger question, though, is this: What should be the standard here? We’ve previously suggested that it should be based on what the person is best known for.
By that standard, Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence — words that weren’t always honored then but which still serve as the American ideal — outweighs his personal offenses as a slave owner. Others take a stricter view, which means anyone who held fellow humans as property should have their names expunged — no matter what else they did. By that strict standard, we have a lot of renaming to do — from Roanoke’s two high schools all the way up to our nation’s capital. Last month, protesters in San Francisco topped a statue of Ulysses S. Grant — who was gifted a slave, later freed him and, practically speaking, did more to end slavery than Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln signed a piece of paper; Grant — and his army — made that paper enforceable. Can we not distinguish between what Grant did and what Lee did?
Even the standard we propose presents problems. Harvard University has a building at its business school named after Carter Glass. This seems appropriate: Glass was Secretary of the Treasury (under Wilson) and played a major role in setting up our modern financial system, from the Federal Reserve to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. That’s how he’s known nationally. In Virginia, though, Glass is known as the architect of the state’s notorious 1902 constitution that intentionally set out to disenfranchise as many Black voters as possible. Which view of Glass prevails? If Wilson must go at Princeton, should Glass go at Harvard?
Those are some questions to ponder this Bastille Day — and beyond.
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