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Posted at 12:54 PM ET, 07/14/2011

Bastille Day, France France Revolution and the Founders’ luck

Happy Bastille Day!

It seems a delightful occasion. There’s the running of the maids, the marching about singing “Allons Enfants De La Patrie,” the waving of blue, white and red flags.

On the surface, it looks like the American revolution. It even employs the same color scheme.

But the difference is as fascinating as the similarity. And Le Quatorze Juillet always reminds me of how hard democracy is, that our country is as much an exercise in luck as in anything.

We tend to forget this. Hot weather brings revolution. Crowds pour into the streets. “Marvelous!” we say. “You’ve seen the light!” Thomas Jefferson was a strong supporter of the French revolution, even as the tumbrils marked “To Behead” began rolling through the streets. “Sacrifices must be made. It’s just like our revolution, but with better wine!” he suggested.

But it wasn’t. A good general rule of history is that if you are beheading people, you are doing something wrong. The French Revolution stands as a classic reminder of the fact that sequels don’t always live up to the originals.

So Bastille Day remains relevant for reasons other than our modern mania for celebrating anniversaries. It shows how hard this thing is.

There’s always something delightfully complacent about the Fourth of July. In the light of the fireworks, America feels almost inevitable.

And on Bastille Day, France does, too. Now France has things under control, with the exception of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But it was not always so easy.

The French Revolution almost immediately fell victim to all sorts of rookie mistakes. Behead the aristocrats? Rename the months? Put a man named Maximilien in charge of things? These are textbook examples of what not to do with your revolution. The French Revolution was that class project that falls apart in your hands as you glance bewilderedly over at George and John and Ben and Thomas and James’s beautifully formed governing system, unruffled except for a Whiskey Rebellion. “You made this look so easy!” you yell. “Why didn’t you tell us that it helped to have a tradition of self-government before we whacked Louis XVI?” The revolution deteriorated so badly that it actually made having Napoleon in charge seem like an appealing prospect.

(“This is what will happen if we don’t raise the debt ceiling!” Eric Cantor suggests.)

Until we glance at France, we tend to forget how much luck our revolution required.

Ours was not trivial, but of all the things to provoke revolt — a tax on tea? Some would liken this to revolting to stop the Netflix rate hikes. We have a unique concatenation of circumstances — a robust tradition of self-government, a lot of space and a population heterogeneous enough to view this as a strength rather than a liability.

In shock, we watched 1789’s hope turn to 1793’s terror. “Come on guys, get it together,” we yelled to France. “You should be pursuing happiness by now. Stop beheading people!”

But it’s hard to stop at just one beheading. The head in the basket makes such a satisfying thump.

This spring saw a series of rebellions that started, as the French did, in the streets with people fed up with not being treated as people. And as usual, we got excited. “You’ve seen the light!” we yelled. “Welcome to the fold!”

But what comes next is the tricky part. Maybe no Napoleon will ride into Tahrir Square. But the road may be bumpy and choked with tumbrils.

France was ultimately an optimistic tale. Democracy is a hardy plant once it takes root. Today we celebrate that. But it took a while, and it was ugly. N’oubliez pas!

By  |  12:54 PM ET, 07/14/2011

Tags:  France, revolution, Bastille Day

 
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