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The ‘American Lafayette’ fought for Iranian freedom a century ago

Howard Baskerville, in an undated image. (Wikimedia Commons)
7 min

Growing up in Iran, Reza Aslan heard a lot about Howard Baskerville. He was a national hero, “the American Lafayette,” who died fighting in Iran’s Constitutional Revolution in the early 20th century. Schools were named after him, and his grave in the city of Tabriz was a place of pilgrimage.

Then came the Islamic Revolution in 1979, forcing Aslan and his family to flee to the United States, where he was surprised to find few Americans had ever heard of Baskerville.

Now he is trying to correct that with his new book, “An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville.”

That the book is coming out just as Iranians are engaging in massive protests is a coincidence, but Aslan hopes it can inform and inspire readers. This is not the first time the people of Iran have united in a struggle for freedom.

“I want Baskerville to become the eyes of Americans for them to look at Iran — not just Iranian history, but the people, culture and the present moment — through a different lens,” Aslan, a religion scholar and bestselling author, said in a recent interview. “And to recognize the most basic, fundamental truth, which is that we’re all the same. We all want the same things.”

Baskerville was born in Nebraska and raised in South Dakota, the son of a preacher in a long line of preachers. In 1903, he enrolled at Princeton University, where he excelled, studying religion and constitutional government. He even caught the eye of future president and League of Nations architect Woodrow Wilson, then the college’s president, who wrote Baskerville a recommendation letter upon his graduation, when the young man applied to become a Presbyterian missionary abroad.

When Baskerville arrived in Tabriz in 1907, he found an ancient frontier city, full of people of different religions — Muslims, Zoroastrians, Bahaists, Jews, Nestorian and Assyrian Christians — and ethnic groups — Persians, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Georgians, Kurds. There were black-clad gangs of outlaws, powerful local councils, tribal leaders, young revolutionaries. There were mud houses, horses and camels, jasmine gardens and the crumbling ruins of a lost empire. In short, it was the Wild West on steroids.

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In the middle of it all was the American Memorial School, a large compound where Presbyterian missionaries and their families offered a curriculum in languages, history, science and a heavy helping of evangelical Christianity. Local parents were happy to send their children there for a good education, regardless of their religious traditions at home.

Baskerville thrived as a teacher there, growing close to the head of the school, Samuel Graham Wilson (no relation to Woodrow), his fellow teachers and his students, who weren’t much younger than he was. He even started a romance with the headmaster’s daughter.

Meanwhile, the crown prince, Mohammed Ali Shah, who had been raised in a palace in Tabriz, had just left for Tehran, where he assumed the Persian throne. He might have expected to rule as an absolute monarch, as the Qajar family had for generations, but his father, shortly before his death and under significant pressure, had agreed to back a constitution, establishing the rule of law and even a parliament. Mohammed Ali Shah wanted nothing to do with it, but he was not in a position to suppress it. At least not at first.

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Eventually, pro-shah forces, with the help of czarist Russia, began to crack down on the parliament and constitutional government as a whole. While other cities fell to these forces, Tabriz resisted, and a leader emerged: Sattar Khan, a former highway robber who had transformed into a principled freedom fighter. People began to see Khan as the “father of the nation,” an Iranian George Washington. A number of his fighters, who included women, were Baskerville’s friends and students.

Baskerville was warned by other missionaries to remain neutral; the whole mission hinged on their ability to stay in the good graces of whoever held power. But as he taught about the American Revolution, he couldn’t help seeing similarities between the Founding Fathers and the struggle for freedom taking place in front of him.

First, he began secretly smuggling information to the freedom fighters, including details on bomb-making and military maneuvers he found in an encyclopedia. Eventually, he left the mission and joined their ranks. When confronted by an American diplomat, he turned in his passport.

The U.S. government had no intention of getting involved, to the shock of the Tabrizis, Aslan said. How could the Americans not see the Tabrizis were just like them? How could they not come to their aid the way France had aided the Continental Army?

Officially, the United States deferred to England and Russia — which had economic interests in the region — and stayed out of it. Unofficially, Aslan said, a stereotype reigned that people of color, especially Muslims, were “not ready” for constitutional government.

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On April 19, 1909, Baskerville led a daring dawn raid to break through the siege, a crucial move that allowed the Tabrizis to gain the upper hand, inspiring other cities to join the fight and eventually depose the shah. But it came at a cost: Baskerville was shot through the heart and died. He was 24.

Khan sent a telegram to Baskerville’s father with news of his death: “Persia regrets the honorable loss of your dear son in the cause of liberty, and we give our parole that future Persia will always preserve his name in her history, like that of Lafayette in America, and will respect his venerable tomb.”

Aslan stressed that Baskerville did not abandon his faith or his American ideals with his actions. In fact, his faith and ideals led him to do what he did. Shortly before his death, he told a fellow missionary, “The only difference between me and these people is my birthplace, and this is not a big difference.” He told another to pass a message to his mother: “Tell her I never regretted coming to Persia, and in this matter, I felt it was my duty.”

“Baskerville was a privileged White man,” Aslan said. “There is a version of this story in which he’s just a White savior ... that went to a foreign exotic world and tried to save them.” But Aslan doesn’t see it that way; in fact, he thinks Baskerville is the “antithesis and antidote to the White savior complex.”

“He gave all the agency to the people that he was trying to help. He literally said ‘What do you need from me?’ to his students, and his students said ‘Fight.’ And he said ‘Okay,’ ” Aslan said, adding that many Americans in Tabriz were sympathetic to the people’s cause but unwilling to suffer alongside them. Even when people were starving, the Americans and their families at the missionary school were eating just fine; they had worked out a deal to receive food as long as they agreed not to share it.

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“When it came down to it, [Baskerville] was willing to give up his privilege,” his passport and even his life, Aslan said.

So what happened to the constitutional government for which he fought and died? It ended in 1925, when Britain and Russia, hoping to protect their oil interests, helped install a new shah. By the 1950s, he was deposed and his son was installed and propped up by the United States, eventually leading to the Islamic revolution and the current regime with which most Americans are familiar — the one against which many Iranians are rising.

It’s “depressing as [expletive]” that Iranians are still struggling for freedom, Aslan said, not to mention that a majority of Americans now worry that democracy is under threat here, too. But he hopes young people in Iran and the United States will be inspired by Baskerville and the Constitutional Revolution.

“It’s the most perfect historical analogy for what’s happening right now,” he said. “These are young people clamoring for the exact same rights that Howard Baskerville died for 116 years ago.”