The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier

History comes to us in many forms.  Most historians try and make sense of their time directly, or perhaps try and 6314understand their time through understanding the past. In his diary, Jakob Walter only seeks to relate his own experience.  He doesn’t even really attempt to understand  his experience in context.  He has no comments on Napoleon and his policies, wars, and treaties.  His field of vision concerned himself only.

This certainly does not make Walter a selfish man, or even a narrow one automatically.  Walter came from Germany, an area conquered by Napoleon probably around 1807.  When his army got pressed into Napoleon’s service, his main concern became hoping that he and his brother (also a soldier for Napoleon) would stay alive.  He likely cared nothing for Napoleon himself or any grand moral or political scheme Napoleon may have had.  It was not his war.

So his narrow focus has no moral overtones necessarily, but this narrow vision of Walter’s writing has occasional parallels in his actions.  We know the invasion of Russia made for a hellish retreat for Napoleon’s army.  Walter lets us know that even in the initial months of advance into Russia supplies were scanty, at least for the “allied troops” like Walter.  This meant foraging, which the Russians made difficult by hiding and burning their own supplies.  Walter writes,

If they had voluntarily removed the simple covers [of their storage areas] much of their household furniture would have remained unspoiled.  For it was necessary to raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything, and to turn upside down anything that was covered.

Walter may have cared somewhat for Russians, but his argument boils down to, “If only they wouldn’t hide their food we wouldn’t have to destroy their homes to find it.”  He doesn’t concern himself at all about the larger picture, only the practical aspects of staying alive.  Limiting oneself to purely “practical” concerns will likely have moral consequences.

Most anyone with a vague familiarity of the Russian campaign will know of the terrible retreat. Walter’s details of Napoelon’s withdraw bring out the ghastly nature of his experience.  All semblance of unity and order broke down in the quest to stay alive.  I remember years ago reading Elie Weisel’s Night, a great book that should be read, but one I never wish to read again.  What made Weisel’s experience so tragic and terrible for me was not just the inhumanity of the Nazi’s.  Instead, Weisel’s descriptions of how the prisoners often turned on each other for bread or “good” jobs really devastated me.  Perhaps, I thought, had the prisoners united against the Nazi’s they could have redeemed the situation to some degree, but in Weisel’s account they rarely, if ever, did this.  Obviously the retreat from Russia is not the same thing, yet I was reminded of Night when reading how Napoleon’s army turned on each other, stealing food and horses from their comrades in arms with no hesitations.  Hobbes might say that this is what happens to human nature when the veneer of civilization gets stripped away.

Napoleon's Retreat

While Walter had a narrow vision some larger aspects of Napoleon’s empire reveal themselves.  The FrenchRevolution proclaimed “The Rights of Man,” at least in theory.  In practice it tended to mean rights for those who agreed with the Revolution’s shifting meaning of what it meant to be French particularly, not human generally.  After Robespierre’s execution much of this petered out, and Napoleon helped end it.  But though Napoleon was in some ways an ambassador of the French Revolution’s ideals of universal equality, the “French” emphasis made itself evident.  Whatever supplies Napoleon could muster from headquarters went first to French troops (especially his Imperial Guard), then to the “Allied” troops.  In the Russian campaign, supplies were scarce enough that there was never a “then” at all.  The sham flimsiness of Napoleon’s alliance gets indirectly exposed in Walter’s account.  That many of the “allies” Napoleon fought with in Russia in 1812 would turn on him in 1813 makes perfect sense.

So perhaps sometimes narrow keyholes can open up a vision of broader vistas.

 

 

Napoleon on Napoleon

Those who find themselves ill-disposed towards Napoleon (as I am on balance) should avoid reading the 25 page introduction of his abridged autobiography.  With crackling prose Napoleon gives us

  • An explanation of the success of his siege of Toulon
  • A concise theory of his rules of war
  • A demonstration of how Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great, . . . and he himself . . .  all followed these rules (he also makes sure to say how he fought in more campaigns and battles than many of those he lists).
  • An outline of recent French campaigns that failed to adhere to these rules and failed . . . neither of which directly involved him in any way (other generals made the mistakes).
  • An explanation of Charles XII failed invasion of Russia, told with no irony or self-awareness whatsoever.
  • A comparison of his wars and the wars of Louis XIV, in which he shows that the Sun-King’s wars did far more damage to France, and had far less legality, than his own campaigns (some estimates place French casualties in the Napoleonic Wars at around 1 million).

Such audacity and restless energy is hard to comprehend and one can’t help but admire it at least on some level.  He is the consummate NYC cab driver.  If this is the imagesman in exile at the end of his life (when he wrote his memoirs, ca. 1816-17), imagine how many secretaries he drove insane in 1805. His meteoric rise to power makes perfect sense in those first 25 pages. But for those who wish to dislike Napoleon, fear not!  Simply read a bit further and one grows weary of such energy, audacity, and his utter and complete moral blindness.  You begin to understand not just his ascension to power, but why he alienated almost everyone close to him and why those characteristics would inevitably carry him too far.

Napoleon shows his best side when discussing practical matters of policy.  In the beginning of his career at least he showed a keen political sense.  He criticism of the Assembly in the days preceding the Terror ring true:

[The Assembly] committed two errors, which might have produced the total ruin of the nation.  The first was to establish a Constitution at odds with the experience of all ages, whose mechanism contrived to restrict public power [during a time of uncertainty].  Great as this error was, it was less fragrant and had less deplorable consequences than the second — that or persisting in re-establishing Louis XVI on the throne after his flight to Varennes.  It ought to have sent commissioners to Varennes not to bring the king back to Paris, but to clear the way for him to abdicate; to have proclaimed Louis XVII king, and to have created a regency, to a princess of the House of Conde and a regency council composed of principal members of the Assembly.

Later he shows the same clarity in his analysis of the controversy between the Jacobins and Girondins (though also a touch of ruthless practicality):

The factions of the Girondins and the Mountain [Jacobins] were too violent in their mutual animosity.  Had they both continued to exist, impediments to the administration of government would have multiplied and France would not have been able to maintain her territory in the face of all Europe.  The good of the country required the triumph of one of those parties.  . . . Would the result have been the same had it been the Girondin party that gained the day and the Mountain sacrificed?  I think not.  The mountain party, although checked, would always have possessed great influence, in the popular societies and armies.  There was undoubtedly more talented and better men in the Girondin, but the Girondins had more speculative men, less resolute and less decisive.

Though this kind of analysis has its darker side (many worthy Girondins lost their lives unjustly in the Terror), Napoleon at least writes convincingly in these sections.  In his campaigns he insisted on a strict unity of command and clear lines of communication at all times.  His armies marched with great speed and yet avoided confusion in the ranks.  So too, his political analysis and his prose have the same distinguishing marks.  He maintains fidelity to his emphasis on practical results and his love of the simplicity of power.  He never leaves any doubt as to what he means to say.  This is a man soldiers would instinctively respect, a man easy to follow.  All such a man would need is an opening, and the French Revolution provided many such openings for Napoleon.

Napoleon has his charms, to be sure, and should not be regarded as a vicious monster.  But his ego led him to make almost absurd claims about his career.  Even a massively abridged version of his autobiography (in this case, 275 pages as compared to about 1200), even a very sympathetic editor, cannot hide this.  Nothing is his fault, and everything has an explanation.  The fall of Cairo goes on Kleber’s shoulders, the murder of the Duke of Engheim was England’s fault, and so on, and so on.  “I never committed crimes,” he writes.

I reached the summit of greatness by direct paths, without ever having committed an act that morality could reproach.  In that respect my rise is unparalleled in history — in order to reign, David destroyed the house of Saul, his benefactor;* Caesar kindled a civil war and overthrew the government of his country; Cromwell caused his master to perish on the scaffold.  I was a stranger to the crimes of the Revolution.

We may assume that by “morality” he means “political morality,” and not personal morality, for which he seemingly cared nothing.  But even so, what of the death of the Duke of Engheim?  His murder irrevocably turned Europe’s aristocracy against him.  It turned Tolstoy against him, years later.  Even Napoleon’s exceedingly practical Chief of Police, Joseph Fouche, said of the Duke’s execution, “It was worse than a crime.  It was a mistake.”**

Explaining away the Russian disaster no doubt called upon all of Napoleon’s skills. He first argues that, “If Moscow had not been burnt [most all agree the French army did not do this], Alexander would have been compelled to make peace.”  But he offers no argument as to why, and I at least can’t see why the czar would make peace.  Whatever the case, Moscow burned, and a practical man like Napoleon should cease wondering why.

The cold of the Russian winter was “premature,” leading Napoleon to admit that, ok, I “remained in Moscow four days too long.”  I believe that this is the only place where Napoleon admits to a mistake.  It seems unlikely that the disintegration of an army 1/2 million men strong could rest entirely on this mistake alone.  And indeed,

When the army was within two days march of Vilna, and no further dangers threatened it, I conceived that the urgency of affairs required my presence in Paris — only there could I dictate to Prussia and Austria.  Had I delayed the passage might have been closed against me.  . . . The [Imperial] Guard was then entire and the army contained more than 80,000 combatants . . .   The Russian army did not now exceed 50,000 men.  [Supplies] abounded at Vilna.  Considerable stores of clothing and ammunition had likewise been established.  Had I remained with the army . . . it would never have retreated beyond Vilna.  . . . It is from this period in particular that the great losses of the campaign may be dated.  Nothing was, or could have been more totally unforeseen by me than the senseless conduct adopted at Vilna.

Again, just as in Egypt, he, being a good father, left his children with every opportunity of success.  Leave it to his prodigal subordinates to ruin everything.

But still, Napoleon had and has his devotees.  You can see the blinding effect of Napoleon’s ego even on the editor of this abridged version of his memoirs, Somerset de Chair.  Chair writes regarding Napoleon’s recounting of the Moscow campaign,

Almost all historians have treated the Russian campaign as a unmitigated disaster.  Here Napoleon sets the record straight.  After defeating Russia at Borodin . . . Napoleon withdrew.  He experienced devastating weather conditions, but this does not alter Napoleon’s claim to have achieved what he set out to do.  [He sought] to teach Russia a lesson not to interfere in French affairs in the future when his son should become Emperor and to punish the Tsar for opening his ports to Britain.  [Napoleon’s] view that he left a defeated and humiliated Russia in his wake is hard to ignore.  It was, admittedly, a harassed return . . . it was not as if the French had intended to occupy Russia indefinitely.  If Hitler had succeeded [in Russia], where Napoleon did not ever intend to remain, it would have been a very different story.

I think we can agree with Chair that yes, Napoleon was not as bad as Hitler.  Score a point for hero-worship if you wish.  But to suggest that Napoleon achieved his aims in Russia by preventing Russia from challenging his son and heir is a gross absurdity.  His failure in Russia directly led to his first abdication and the impossibility of his son ever succeeding him, and led also to the rise (not humiliation) of Russia an an expansive, imperial power in the 19th century.

Napoleon’s life can be viewed as tragic even if we don’t call him a tragic hero.  Many of Napoleon’s top generals abandoned him and defected to the Bourbons.  This must have been a bewildering and devastating blow.  But I think that such men simply learned from their master that when a situation warrants it, find a way to survive.  For Napoleon, even on St. Helena, his memoirs stand as his final battle, his last attempt to conquer.  For me at least, his autobiography has a minor appeal as a kind of grand, doomed adventure — like that of Waterloo.  And they must fail, that Napoleon might possibly learn humility.***

Dave

*Certainly not true from any glance at 1 Samuel – 1 Kings.

**Some believe that Talleyrand said this instead.  Whoever said it, the difference is the same.  Both men devoted themselves to Napoleon’s practical morality and they saw the consequences of such an “ill-considered” action.

***Towards the end of the memoirs he blames the allies for violating the Treaty of Fontanblieu and sending him to St. Helena.  Again, he is either joking or willfully blind.  He tore up that treaty when he escaped from Elba.

Still, there is some evidence at the very end of his life he may have had a genuine religious awakening.

Napoleon Dynamite

The statistical revolution has transformed how we watch and evaluate baseball, and has made similar inroads into basketball as well. Granted, this has its benefits, but one important downside for all of this is that it ends all of the fun arguments about who is the better player, and so on. With the advent of WAR (wins above replacement player value) we can’t even argue about what is the best statistic to use in player evaluations.

The Roman historian Livy includes a great vignette from the 2nd Punic War between Hannibal and Scipio, with Scipio beginning:

When Africanus asked who, in Hannibal’s opinion, was the greatest general, Hannibal named Alexander… as to whom he would rank second, Hannibal selected Pyrrhus…asking whom Hannibal considered third, he named himself without hesitation. Then Scipio broke into a laugh and said, “What would you say if you had defeated me?

But alas, some of these quips may no longer be possible, thanks to the statistical revolution. A brilliant fellow named Ethan Arsht has used statistics to rank many of the great generals of all-time. He admits that he intends his findings to spark fun debate and not be the final word, but it is impressive all the same. He explains his methodology, and you can check out the full interactive rankings here.

Arsht has many surprises for us, some of which confirm my own thoughts (I have always thought R.E. Lee overrated by most, and Grant underrated by most), some that dramatically challenge them (George McClellan has a higher WAR than Lee–have at it Civil War buffs). But perhaps the starkest shock to my own thoughts is that his model ranks Napoleon Bonaparte as history’s greatest general by a very, very wide margin.

This would surprise no one who lived in the 19th century or perhaps the early 20th. Recently, however, some have challenged the traditional adoration of Napoleon and focused on his debacles in Egypt and Russia, and the fact that he lost in the end. When he started to face reformed and refitted armies, and better leaders, from 1809 onward, his fortunes changed dramatically. My own bias often leans towards challenging prevailing opinion, and I ate this up. But the study has challenged me to reexamine Napoleon and perhaps discover that (horror of horrors) received opinion has always been correct about him.

For my rethinking of Napoleon I turned to Harold Parker’s Three Napoleonic Battles. His premise intrigued me in that he proposed to look at different battles at different points in Napoleon’s career and see what, if anything, changed about his abilities over time. He first shows Napoleon at the peak of his powers against a weak general at the Battle of Friedland. Then, at Aspern-Essling about two years later, his abilities seem to wane as he faces a decent opposing commander within a trickier geography. Finally, we see Napoleon defeated at Waterloo by an excellent opposing commander in Wellington.

Even for those like myself who tend not to like Napoleon, one cannot deny the dash, charm, and incisive brilliance of the man, and all this is on full display at Friedland in June of 1807. At Eylau months previously, Napoleon failed to get a decisive victory over Russia. He got it here.

The battle began and the Russian General Bennigsen noticed a seemingly somewhat isolated French corp commanded by Marshal Lannes. Likely Bennigsen never intended to engage the French, for to do so he would need to cross the river Alle. Still, it looked inviting enough for Bennigsen–he need not engage the whole of the French army, but merely wound it with a quick excursion against a weaker force.

Herein perhaps lies a lesson of leadership: great generals can make great things out of the unexpected, but average to poor leaders need to stay on script to achieve anything at all.

Lannes held remarkably well, and Benningsen, having put his hand to plow, did not want to pull back, assuming that victory was just a few more committed troops away. He pushed more troops over the Alle, but in so doing, put the Russians in a tight spot of having their backs to the river. Time, however, was not on his side. Lannes sent messengers to Napoleon asking him to come with all haste, and if French reinforcements could arrive in time–and the French marched very fast for their day–Russia’s numerical advantage would disappear.*

True to his sanguine spirit and quick mind, Napoleon minded not at all the surprise of the Russian attack, and saw great opportunity in it. He had the knack, too, for creating memorable vignettes of speech, such as the following as he rode hard to the battlefield:

Do you have a good memory?

Passable, sire.

Well, do you know what anniversary is today, June 14?

That of Marengo.

Yes, yes, that of Marengo–and I shall beat the Russians just as a I beat the Austrians.

Below is a map of the field at Friedland

Napoleon arrived on the field of battle, and my impression is that he gave the following orders after perhaps one to two hours of personal reconnaissance of the field.

Marshal Ney will take the right, from Sortlack to Posthenen, and he will bear to the present position of General Oudinot. Marshal Lannes will have the center, which will begin at the left of Marshal Ney from the village of Posthenen to Henrichsdorf.

The grenadiers of Oudinot, which at present form the right of Marshal Lannes, will by slow degrees bear to the left, in order to attract the attention of the enemy to themselves.

The left will be formed by Marshal Motlier, holding Henrichsdorff and the the road to Konigsberg, and and from there extending across the front of the Russian right wing. Marshal Mortier will never advance, the movement is to be made by our right which will pivot on our left.

The cavalry of General Espagne and the dragoons of General Grouchy, joined with the cavalry of the left wing, will maneuver to do the most harm to the enemy when the latter, pressed by the vigorous attack of our right, will find it necessary to retreat.

General Victor and the infantry and cavalry of the Imperial Guard will form the reserve and will be placed in Grunhof, Bothkeim, and behind Posthenen. I shall be with the reserve.

One should always advance by the right, and one should leave the initiative to Marshal Ney, who will await my orders to begin.

From the moment that the right advances on the enemy, all the cannon of the line must double their fire in a useful direction to protect the attack of the wing.

All of Napoleon’s brilliance is here–the energy of the prose, the clarity of the orders, and the strategic overlay of the entire battle are all present. Bennigsen and the Russians fought hard. But seeing Napoleon’s mental command of the situation in the above orders, it surprises us not that he gained a decisive victory and brought (for a time) the Russians in line with his empire as a result.

Parker then forwards to the Battle of Aspern-Essling, where Napoleon faced a better commander a few years later, in a more confusing situation. Here too, the geography was more difficult, and the river (the Danube), more formidable:

By this time Napoleon had occupied Vienna and controlled much of the Austrian empire, but still had not destroyed the Austrian army in the field. The Archduke Charles led the Austrians, and most rate him as a thorough and competent tactician not likely to make mistakes, but lacking in strategic vision. Napoleon sought to destroy the Austrians, but as you can see from the map above, a competent commander could make that difficult given that Napoleon was in enemy territory with problematic geography.

The battle was confusing and lacked the decisive clarity Napoleon so desired. He needed good bridges over the Danube to concentrate his forces in Lobau, but the Danube, and the Austrians, had no intention of making it easy on them. At Friedland Napoleon assumes the air of absolute mastery, but here he pleads with fate rather than commanding it. A sample of some of his orders:

The interruption of the bridge has prevented us from receiving supplies; at 10:00 we ran out of munitions. The enemy perceived this and has done us great damage. In this state of affairs, to repair the bridges, to send us munitions and food, to keep an eye on Vienna, is extremely important. Write to the Prince of Ponte-Corvo . . . that he may draw toward us.

Here we are far from the Napoleon of Friedland, a commander who seems helpless, who needs reinforcements, who has no direct command of the action.

The Austrians were thus able to pound some French detachments for hours with no threat of retaliation due to their lack of ammunition. Many of the French naturally wanted to withdraw. Napoleon had not badly blundered–the field was confusing, and he had been somewhat unlucky with the bridges. While he lacked tactical clarity in the battle’s first stages, he managed to demonstrate his trademark strategic clarity in his response to his men’s request for withdrawal.

“You wish,” he said to [his field marshals] “to recross the Danube! And how? Are not the bridges destroyed? Without that, would we not be united as victors? We can, it is true, have the men and horses cross on boats; but what will become of the artillery? Shall we abandon our wounded? Shall we say thus to the enemy, and to Europe, that the victors today are vanquished? And if the Archduke, more puffed up by our retreat than by his earlier, pretended success, crosses the Danube behind us at Tulln, at Krems, and Lintz . . . if he brings together his different corp . . . where shall we retire? Will it be to the positions I have intrenched on the Traun, on the Inn, or the Lech? . . . . No! we must run as far as the Rhine; for those allies which victory and fortune have given us, an apparent defeat will take from us and even turn against us. We must remain [in the Lobau]. We must threaten an enemy accustomed to fearing us and keep him before us. Before he has made up his mind, before he has begun to act, we will repair the bridges in a manner to defy all accident, the corp will be able to unite and fight on either bank. The army of Italy, followed by that of Lefebvre, will bring us aid. . . . Then we shall be masters of our operations.

It worked. Parker quotes from Marshal Massena, who commented, “That’s true, that’s right! Yes, the Danube alone has conquered us so far, and not the Archduke!” The French managed to turn the tide the next day enough to allow a complete withdrawal in greater safety for the entirety of their army. The battle belonged to the Austrians, but the Archduke–quite capable in a limited tactical situation–failed strategically in the aftermath. They did not follow-up appropriately. Given this breathing space, the French dealt more decisively with the Austrians later at Wagram.

In the quote above, Napoleon showed that

  • He did not foolishly underrate his opponent the Archduke
  • He framed the issue in larger strategic terms
  • He focused on the problems the river had caused, not the Austrians or their own failures.
  • He summed up their overall strategic situation in Europe honestly and accurately, as it related to their allies.

So, at Aspern-Essling one could say that Napoleon either bit off more than he could chew, or waded into a situation he failed to fully grasp immediately, as he did at Friedland. Still, his energy and sense of the moment remain with him.

For his third battle Parker examines Waterloo. So many have written so much about this battle that neither he or I have much to say about it. What seems clear to almost every observer is

  • Napoleon’s health had declined markedly and he was no longer the same in the field (though obviously still a very good general).
  • At Waterloo he faced a top notch opponent in Wellington, who had sound tactical and strategic sense, had defeated the French in Spain, and had superlatively defensive capability.
  • While Napoleon showed hints of his former self in moments, he showed little of his usual tactical brilliance, relying on frontal assaults against entrenched positions.

Sir Edward Creasy ranked Waterloo as one of the 15 decisive battles of all-time. His account of the battle is worth reading, but his sense of the importance of the battle fails to convince. Napoleon’s own words make this evident. Quoting from his comments at Aspern-Essling again,

. . . for those allies which victory and fortune have given us, an apparent defeat will take from us and even turn against us. We must remain [in the Lobau].

At Aspern-Essling his clarity about his overall grand strategical situation led to his remaining on the field. It was the right call, for he was correct about the nature of his allies. Events with Russia and Austria proved him right. I can appreciate Arsht and Parker for helping me to see Napoleon with new eyes. Napoleon was a brilliant tactician, and an excellent strategist. My push-back to Arsht would be Napoleon’s failure in grand strategy. I suppose no one can do everything. But, Napoleon’s victories never really created anything lasting for France, for it would all go away after a significant defeat, as it did after Russia in 1812, as it did after Waterloo in 1815. But even if he won at Waterloo, he would have faced similar circumstances soon thereafter, and then again, and again.

Not even the best should burden themselves with being perfect, and if they do, maybe this should be held against them.

Dave

*It seems obvious in hindsight that Bennigsen should have withdrawn back across the river when his initial attack failed. There is even the chance that he could have lured the French to counter-attack him, and he would then be in the advantageous position of defending a bridgehead. But the history of human nature shows that this is psychologically very difficult to do–akin to an act of great repentance.

The Tactics of Religious Revolution

J.E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath helped me see the early phases of the Peloponnesian War differently. From a modern perspective a stalemate between Athens and Sparta ca. 431-427 B.C. Sparta could not touch Athens’ navy, Athens could not deal with Sparta’s infantry, and so they danced. Lendon pointed out, however, that the culture of honor that permeated Greece allowed each side to declare victory–not victory over their opponents physical ability to wage war, but victory as a kind of pride of place. Confusion about what exactly constituted victory led to an expansion of the conflict.

This confusion, however, would never have happened had Athens not developed a navy, and broadened their source of strength. The growth of the navy and the growth of Athenian democracy went hand in hand. The growth of the navy meant expanding contact with others, and expanding one’s access to the material wealth of others. The growth of democracy meant more participation and involvement from more people in the daily operations of the state. Both involve movements “down the mountain” toward greater potential, but also towards more instability. This greater “diversity” in sense, would naturally bring about more confusion regarding the application of core values.

History does not always proceed in one direction, but the same patterns and connections emerge over time. “Politics flows downstream from culture,” and culture likewise with religion. This would mean, then, that Greece experienced a theological shift before its political shift. Though I believe in the theory, I am on very shaky ground in my knowledge of the history of Greek religion. But, I venture the theory that the beginnings of Athenian drama hearkened to a more “expansive” Greek religion rooted in the ecstatic reveries of Dionysius. Before, I think, they confined such “madness” to oracles located towards the periphery, and not easily accessed by the general population. Now, with the arrival of Dionysius and the dramatic arts, everyone (in theory) could taste something of such states. Significant democratic reform followed shortly thereafter.

Such is my theory, tenuous at best.

But as we move forward in time, towards epochs more easily observed, I think the connections between religion and ultimately, war itself, have more clarity. Gunther Rothenberg’s The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon makes no connections to religion and culture per se, but his thorough detail and clear analysis give one a good foundation to speculate a bit here and there.

Rothenberg starts with the armies that directly preceded the French Revolution. He focuses on the particular facts “on the ground” that influenced how armies functioned. What appears strange to us about the early-mid 18th century armies is how they often sought to avoid battle, and how quickly and easily generals broke off battles when the outcome appeared even slightly in doubt. We see this with in commanders like Prussia’s Duke of Brunswick, who refused to give battle to French Revolutionary forces at Valmy. No one thought this amiss–he retained the trust of Prussia’s king, changed little, and stayed in command until 1806, when Napoleon destroyed his forces at Jena. He was hardly alone.

A variety of factors helped bring about this template:

  • Muskets of the time had very low accuracy, so inflicting serious harm required massing of men to fire. Of course, one’s opponent would also have to mass men to do likewise. Battles where both sides actually fought hard meant very high casualties, such Torgau (1760, 30% casualties) and Zorndorf (1758, 50% casualties).
  • Artillery pieces existed, but they were much heavier in 1750 than in 1800. Thus, artillery was much less mobile, meaning that battle had to happen in pre-arranged spots for them to be used, or battle would not happen.
  • Enlisted men had a difficult life–desertion was common. To limit this, armies moved slowly, in large formations, supported by supply lines. Foraging, after all, could lead to desertion.
  • We talk of bloated military budgets today, but the dawn of professional armies paired with a pre-modern state apparatus meant that the military routinely took up to 25% of annual revenue, or sometimes as much as 50%.

All this meant that many kings and commanders naturally found decisive battle elusive, and casualties enormously expensive.

These factors come from “below,” so to speak. I mean by this that the particulars of strategy and tactics seemingly get created from particular physical details, such as the accuracy of muskets. We should absolutely look at history from this perspective, but we need more. We should speculate what cultural and religious underpinnings helped create these conditions from “above.” Beliefs or ideas helped bring about such conditions, just as you need rain (from above, of course) and soil to make anything grow.

Kenneth Clark pointed out that the Enlightenment defined itself by the “Smile of Reason”–a dignified, reasonable happiness, undergirded by control. Bernard Bouvier, the long-lived French Enlightenment philosophe, remarked that he had never run, and never lost his temper. When asked if he had ever laughed, he replied, “No, I have never made Ha Ha.” The thread throughout–he maintains control over his mind and body. An era devoted to such things would never value glory, which is fundamentally irrational. Also, we cannot measure glory. In a sense, glory requires an abandonment of control. This has in its religious origins “Deism”–a God who has power to create, but a God who “controls himself,” content with the benign “smile of reason.” Deism cannot brook an upsetting of the apple cart.

The French Revolution, from a political and cultural perspective, smashed all of this to pieces, and later, Napoleon finished the job. The roots of this come not from the politics of the French Revolution, but from its antecedent theological revolution.

When Louis XVI called together the Estates General, he wanted them to deal with a specific problem of taxation and tax law. Very briefly, the Estates General was comprised of three “estates,” the Church, nobility, and the “everybody else.” Each block voted as an estate, and 2 out of 3 wins. The clergy and nobility represented perhaps 5% of the population, so the third estate naturally (on this side of the American Revolution) did not want shut out by a vast minority. They insisted that Louis disband the three estates and create a new National Assembly, which would eliminate the “Estates” and obviously give the masses much more say.

This demand makes perfect sense to us, and likely we can only interpret Louis’ initial objections to this as stick-in-the-mud obscurantism. But this request contained the kernels of much more than a political revolution. We see this by looking at the medieval view of God and political power.

We know that we exist, we know that things around us exist. But in a truer sense, only God exists. That is, only God exists in a completely self-sufficient way. We need water, food, etc., to keep our existence, among other things. More importantly, we exist only because God exists–“in Him we live and move and have our being.”

God certainly has no need of us to do anything He wants done. But He creates out of fulness, out of love, to share. God shares something of His existence as well as His power. But we cannot fully participate in God’s essence–“No one has seen God at any time.” We can however, participate in His “energies,” or–in “parts” of God doled out to us (though of course God has no “parts”). Genesis 1 shows us that we cannot take everything into ourselves “in full.”

The same holds for power. In the truest sense, only God has power to accomplish His will and purpose. But, he shares, and just as He shares with us existence, so too He grants us agency and will. But we cannot have power concentrated all together. Reality, and power, must be separated and made distinct for us to have dominion over it. The works of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, hugely influential in the medieval era, make a similar point. Heaven has a distinct hierarchy, present most particularly in the angelic hosts, that we should mimic on earth, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer–“thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”

So, a governments separation of powers has particular theological roots, with a definite social and cultural purpose. If we think of the three “estates” in France, certainly the Church should not blend/meld with the world around it, lest it be captured by the world. An aristocracy in part provides guides for culture and taste. In theory, they elevate culture through their patronage and example. To blend them in with everyone else would eliminate their distinctiveness, and culture would descend to the lower level of pork rinds and Youtube fails.*

This religious shift away from traditional understanding gave way to a very different kind of army and different kinds of wars. For starters, the jumbling up of everything and the resulting political chaos meant that the French army under the Revolution had much fewer supplies. This in turn meant that the French armies had to forage for their food. But having no supply lines also made the army more mobile. It in turn made the army more offensively oriented. If you want to eat, win the next battle and take what you can from the enemy. Napoleon said as much to his army in Italy in 1796.

Tocqueville noted the immense potential power of democratic armies which comes from the concentration of resources. To reference the mountain pattern I mentioned earlier, the base has the most mass. This increase of power would not easily be contained. With the full embrace of the descent down the mountain in Romantic ideology came a dramatic increase in the ferocity of how the French fought. Rothenburg cites a variety of examples of this. St. Just (Robespierre’s lieutenant) declared that the army should emphasize “shock tactics.” Carnot, the premier military engineer of the Revolution told his generals that,

The general instructions are always to maneuver in mass and offensively; to maintain strict, but not overly meticulous discipline . . . and to use the bayonet on every occasion.

Both Carnot and St. Just both intuited the meaning of the religious and political changes for the tactics of the French army, and perhaps this synchronization made the army so effective. Gone were the days of elegant and precise movements of armies, enter the ferocity of the massed charge. Rothenberg also shows that the French revolutionary government proved much more effective at supplying bullets than food to its army, which fits the pattern above.

Napoleon inherited rather instigated these changes, but his keen intuitive sense and knack for precise detail gave the French army a direction and impetus it previously lacked. The religion of Romanticism had its apotheosis here. The political concentration that began with the Three Estates merging into the National Assembly eventually finds Napoleon to finish the job.

We need not debate Napoleon’s great strengths as a leader, but they came at a.price. Most militaries have different armies within their Army, i.e., First Army Group, Second Army Group, etc. But Napoleon had just one army, the “Grand Army.” Just as France was One, so too would the army function as One, with one in command of all. This extreme unity of command came from Napoleon’s large ego, but also from the Revolution’s hatred of “Federalism.” Being a “federalist,” which meant wanting a separation of powers within the state, could easily get one executed between 1792-94. Such a strong reaction to a political concept demonstrates the religious roots of the change. Desire for something other than extreme unity meant something akin to an existential threat. Rothenberg notes that when Napoleon had command of the field the French did very well. But when he could not be present, and had to delegate command, as in Spain, the French army collapsed.

This concentration of power influenced everything about Napoleon’s governance, strategy, and tactics.

  • Napoleon naturally wanted to screen the path of the army’s advance, so he controlled borders, controlled information, prevented foreigners from staying in the country, and so on. Such control was unheard of in his day.
  • Because Napoleon needed total control to accomplish his strategic design of one decisive blow, he valued commanders with physical bravery as their main (and only?) virtue. Certainly commanders need courage, but Napoleon cared very little for intelligence, creativity, initiative, etc. He wanted generals that served mainly as instruments of his will.
  • Napoleon’s goal to win via one decisive blow required all that has already been said, but in addition, he needed a certain type of geography, as at Friedland, for example. He needed a space where he could force, or perhaps lure, his opponents in an all or nothing contest. When his opponents could easily withdraw with depth (as in Russia, most obviously) he had real problems.

Napoleon mastered the tactics of the crushing, decisive blow, but perhaps he inherited the strategy. Robespierre wrote in 1794 that,

The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world’s destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny’s friends conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.

 If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic.

Napoleon’s own words after his participation in the siege of Toulon in 1793 differ little from Robespierre:

Among so many conflicting ideas and so many different perspectives, the honest man is confused and distressed and the skeptic becomes wicked . . .  Since one must take sides, one might as well choose the side that is victorious, the side that devastates, loots, and burns.  Considering the alternative, it is better to eat than be eaten.

My point here is not to equate Robespierre with Napoleon–I would rather have neither, but would much prefer Napoleon to Robespierre–nor even to morally condemn him. Politics is a dirty but necessary business. Instead, I think we should see a connection between the religious changes brought about by Rousseau, and see how it filters down into why Napoleon’s armies smashed through Europe. At the Congress of Vienna, we can see how the extremes of unity would inevitably swing back to making borders preeminent, and then, to nationalism in the latter 19th century.

With the rise of China, crypto, the war in Ukraine, twitter, and so on, most everyone has the sense that the world is changing, and most everyone disagrees on the meaning or direction of the change. We might get more clarity if we looked at how religion has changed over the last 30 years or so, which might equip us to head some things off at the pass.

Dave

*I don’t mean to be a high-brow curmudgeon. “Low” culture can and should exist. My point here is that most of the time that we want to partake of “high” culture we have to go back to pre-democratic ages, a Michelangelo statue, a Bach cantata, etc. Democratic cultures can produce “high” culture, but I would submit that they cannot create as much and not the same enduring quality. I also acknowledge, however, that not enough time has elapsed for democratic culture to be fairly judged.

9th/10th Grade: From Reality to Image

Greetings,

This week we looked at how Napoleon rose from literal obscurity to seize power and capture the imagination not just of France, but of all Europe as well.  How and why did this happen?

Human nature can tolerate chaos and disorder for only so long.  The French Revolution went through governments and constitutions at a rapid pace, never able to ultimately agree on exactly what they wanted to achieve.  Just as the civil wars and political violence of the late republic in Rome (ca. 100-30 B.C.) gave rise to Emperor Augustus, so too the French Revolution opened the door for someone like Napoleon.  We reflect God’s image in our need for have some kind of stability to make living truly possible, so it is natural that the French (and the Romans) would pay a high price to achieve that stability.  In the case of France, the price they paid involved giving up many of the democratic ideas espoused by many revolutionaries.  Was the price too high?  We will discuss this in the days to come.

Napoleon’s keen political opportunism, combined with a poetic military mind, gave him an excellent chance to have a shot at power in France.  The Revolution stripped the traditional ruling hierarchy in France from the 18th century bare to the bone.  Forget birth, forget status — anyone who could ride the tiger of French political forces could hypothetically seize power and keep it.  Napoleon had these circumstances in his favor, but Napoleon’s genius allowed him to coordinate the energy of the revolution and the culture created by the revolution and channel it into the military.

Like America, the French were inspired by a creed of universal values.  They had a “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” for example., just as our Declaration of Independence declared that, “All men are created equal.”  If much of the energy created by Romanticism caused destruction in France, Napoleon thought that showed the energy only needed properly harnessed.  Napoleon used this political culture to create a army that could go farther and faster than any other in Europe.  While other European armies still operated under the Enlightenment influence (emphasizing balance, order, proportion), Napoleon’s fashioned his army using the Romantic ideals of energy, spontaneity, and movement.

Napoleon had the insight to see that the values and culture of the French Revolution created a new kind of army for France.  The Enlightenment valued order, balance, and symmetry.  Enlightenment societies naturally created armies that focused on the same things.  Romanticism valued energy, instinct, “the deed,” and Napoleon’s personality and style fit right in with that mentality.  The French Revolution created a new society with new values, that would naturally lead to a new kind of army.  Not only that, the revolutionary events dispensed with large portions of the aristocratic officer corp that made up the Enlightenment oriented army of France’s past.

Military success involves many factors, and Napoleon knew how to put them together.  He often battled against superior numbers, but he knew that Enlightenment armies fear loss of equilibrium and balance above all things.  Furthermore, he knew that his army thrived on aggressive action.  He massed his troops at certain points on the field and made bold attacks totally out of character and practice for Enlightenment oriented forces.  Once he broke through at any particular point, the enemy would collapse, not just physically, but psychologically.  No one likes to face their worst nightmare.  Think of the opening lines of Beethoven’s 5th symphony smashing into a well ordered Haydn quartet and you can get the idea of the devastating effect French armies had under Napoleon.

Certain aspects of Napoleon are hard to like, but his story is certainly remarkable on its face.  Here we have a man from Corsica, a place no one cares about, rise up from utter obscurity to best all the big-wigs at their own game.  Even today, he can inspire excitement, as this 1796 painting shows:

But that youthful energy and charm diminished over time.  While the painting of him on horseback crossing the St. Bernard Pass still captures something of his dynamism, something is different.

What can account for the difference in how these two works strike us?

To my mind, Napoleon seems more remote, less human, in the second picture.  The event seems staged, which makes sense when we know that Jacques Louis-David, that arch-propagandist, painted it.  Napoleon did cross the alps to fight the Battle of Marengo, but he did it on a donkey, and certainly not in those clothes.  The expression on his face is a mask, and thus not particularly inspiring (at least to me). Napoleon drifted into becoming more of an image and less a real person.

From the above portrait, we need just a few steps and a few years until he crowned himself emperor.  His transformation from man to image seems complete.

But reality can be cheated for only so long, so there remained one final stage to complete the saga. . .

Next week we will see more of how this devolution of his person and power happened.

Many thanks,

Dave M

Festivals of the French Revolution

The modern west, and certainly the United States, has a weird relationship with sports.  Many reasons exist for this, including the fact that sports involve great skill and entertain us.  One key to their hold on us, however, certainly involves the fact that our culture has no communal rituals and emotions.  Politics remains too divisive and negative to provide this.  Democracy tends to prioritize individual vis a vis the group.  Most forms of American Protestantism have no liturgies and no “physicality” to provide the necessary framework for shared experiences.  Sporting events can provide this.  Many fans have pre-game routines, rituals, dress–“liturgies,” in effect.  These routines come with the eating of certain foods, and so on.

All this to say, sports functions much more like a religion than many of our churches–at least in terms of visible manifestations.  Perhaps too, this explains the growth of round-the-clock, all year coverage of seasonal sports.  Our need for communal “religious” experience overpowers even our well-founded moral concerns about certain sports such as football.

Because non-liturgical Protestants formed the ethos of America many of us have little experience with religious communal celebrations.  Often they involve parades, food, music, and a physical embodiment of a particular belief or historical event.  Below, for example, is footage from the festival on the Greek island of Cephalonia, where the relics of St. Gerasimos reside.  On the saint’s feast day, one such embodiment happens when the body of St. Gerasimos “passes over” the town.

The French Revolution sought to transform all of French society.  To do so, the revolutionary leaders recognized that they needed to eliminate Catholicism from the hearts and minds of the people–easier said then done.  The church dictated the calendar and its rhythms, with a proliferation of festivals.  These festivals formed the habits, which formed the hearts, of the French.

They needed new festivals to replace the traditional Catholic celebrations.  Mona Azouf takes up this oft-neglected topic in her book, Festivals of the French Revolution.  

I believe Jaroslav Pelikan made the observation that Christian feasts all celebrate events that happened in observable time.  We celebrate the Incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  We have days for remembering the Mother of God and saints of whose lives we have a record.  The only obvious exception to this is Trinity Sunday.  But the Trinitarian nature of God is not an abstract concept, but the concrete–though also mysterious–reality of the Universe.  Celebrations of actual things can have a “natural” atmosphere about them.

We can envision a joyous party for a team when they win the championship.  But what about a team that, during the season itself, had a banquet to celebrate “Victory”?  Things might get awkward quickly.

This challenge confronted France’s revolutionary leadership.  If they wanted wholesale change, then everything old would have to go.  They eliminated a great deal of the previous political leadership.  They transformed the military.  They killed or exiled many recalcitrant aristocrats.  They went farther than almost any other revolutionary group I know of and literally changed the calendar.  They understood that the Gregorian calendar, despite its mainly pagan roots, had been thoroughly Christianized and formed the unconscious rhythms of daily French life.  Some argued that the new France needed no celebrations.  Now that they had banished oppression, each day would have a moderate and joyous character.  But eventually even the die-hards realized that they needed to give the people holy-days (i.e. holidays) to create a new national liturgy.

The festivals for the new calendar attempted to change the concept of time.  They also attempted to alter the concept of space.  Most old Catholic festivals took place in the town near the church.  This meant that the majority of events happened within view of the cathedrals (always the tallest buildings) and in the town streets.  Of course having the church building silently governing the festival would not do.  But the narrow streets and the inevitable buying and selling of goods in the market, conjured up thoughts of secrecy, narrowness, “feudal conspiracy,” and the like.  Festivals of the Revolution often took place in wide fields away from towns and cities.  There they could escape the church building, and the open fields also aided their ideology of equality.  In addition the French Revolution’s obsession with “Nature” had its role to play.  Everything seems new and promising in a lush meadow at springtime.

So far so good.  Here is one contemporary description of the “Festival of Liberty:”

The procession began late, around noon; it was not that the people were made to wait, as by despots at court festivals.  The people turned up at daybreak in large numbers . . . but all waited until all had arrived.  They took pleasure in each other’s company; nonetheless it was time to leave.

On the site of the Bastille an inauguration of the Statue of Liberty was held.  Here more gathered, and it should be noted, they were favored with perfect weather.

There was no excess of pomp; no gold dazzled the eye or insulted the citizens’ humble and honorable poverty.  No soldiers dripping with braid came to cast a condescending eye on the poorly dressed crowd as they passed.  Here actors and witnesses merged, each taking part in the procession.  They had little order but a good deal accord with one another.  No one indulged in the vanity of the haughty gaze, no one set out to be a spectacle.  Boredom, that son of uniformity, found no foothold among the various groups; at each step the scene changed–everyone wanted a part in the Festival of Liberty.

The festival banished luxury, but notable commemorative objects had their role.  The procession opened with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, written on two stone tablets such as the 10 Commandments, though that is no match for the Declaration.  Four citizens proudly carried this noble burden, each reading aloud those immeasurable first lines: “Men are born free and remain free and equal.”

Four busts followed in like manner.  “Ah, there is Voltaire, that old rascal who made us laugh so much at the priests.  That other, worried looking individual [Roussaeu] loved the nobles even less and never sought their favor.  Who is the third?  It is an Englishman, Sydney, who put his head on the block rather than bend a knee to a king.  That old man there, we know him well.  It is Franklin, who can be more rightly called the Liberator of the New World than a certain fop who lives not far from here [i.e. Louis XVI].

The two coffins that followed threw a somber coloring over events as we remembered the martyrs of the massacre at Nancy [some soldiers refused to obey their royalist leaning officers and were shot].  

Preceded by their chains, suspended from trophies and born aloft by young ladies dressed in white, marched our loyal soldiers [loyal to the Revolution that is], with several regular citizen volunteers.  They in turn preceded the Chariot of Liberty, which used the same wheels as the chariot that served for the enshrinement of Voltaire at the Palace of Reason.  Let us not forget that philosophy gave us Liberty.

The chariot, modeled on the antique, was of imposing construction.  On one side David sketched the story of Brutus the Elder of Rome, himself sentencing his royalist sons to death for their disobedience to the law.  On the other he depicted William Tell, aiming a javelin, the target of which was an apple on his own son’s head.  But at his feet we spy another javelin, one that gave independence to Switzerland by slaying the Governor of Austria.  The Lady of Liberty rests on her throne, her hand at her side holding a club, with a gaze that would make king’s blush.   We should never forget that the sceptre of liberty is a bludgeon to her enemies.  It should also be said that six daggers formed the prow of the front of the chariot to threaten any despotism bold enough to impede the march of liberty.

With steady steps 20 democratic horses drew the chariot of the sovereign of the French people.  Their progress had none of the insolence of those idle coursers fed at the stables in Versailles.  They did not hold their heads high; their manes had no gold plait, nor were there plumes adorned.  They walked rather ploddingly, but they kept a steady course.  

Four hundred thousand citizens came to one spot with nary a mishap.  The soldiers on foot had no need to mark the route, none had need to go before the crowds with bayonettes to make way.  Words of peace contained this multitude, it fell into line at the sight of an ear of corn presented to it rather than a musket.

Even a breezy reading of this account reveals that the new foundation was not close to drying.

How do celebrate with the threat of force lingering?  We know of the many imprisonments and beheadings in general, but even here, “Lady Liberty” holds a club. Brutus kills his sons.  The chariot has daggers in the front, and so on. I have some sympathy . . . the only way to completely turn your country 180 degrees is by wrenching the wheel and holding on for dear life.  The question, remains, however . . . how much can you celebrate when you have the sword of Damocles hanging over your head?

A big difference exists between saying, “Everybody dance now!” and, “Everybody dance now.

No particular rhyme or reason exists for how the festival looks and proceeds.  Certain decisions will have to be arbitrary on some level of course.  Perhaps we understand, for example, that “democratic horses” would move “ploddingly” at a “steady” pace. But what if the choreographer had the horses hold their heads high and gallop down the causeway to show the “energy of liberty”?  Would that have been “democratic”. . . or “aristocratic?”

Many such confusions and differences in perception led to imprisonments and even death during the Reign of Terror.

Ultimately Azouf argues that the festivals served not as an emblem of the Revolution’s success but it’s failure.  One cannot invent out of thin air an embodiment of abstract ideals and expect everyone to go along with it.  Azouf herself comments that the revolution in general, and the festivals in particular, represented France’s attempt to reject the entirety of their history–tantamount to rejection of their very selves.  No one can sustain such efforts for long.

And yet . . . while the king eventually came back to France it did not take long to banish him again.  The cultural victory of the French Revolution’s de-sacralization campaign (which, as Azouf points out, involved “sacralizing” different values) took a long time, but France’s subsequent history shows that the revolutionaries won the political battle.

We too have a similar inheritance as the French, having undergone our own radical break from the past at much the same time.  We in time developed some national festivals (the World Series, the Super Bowl, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc.).  Time will tell whether or not this age of atomized individualism will wash those away.  If so, Azouf’s work testifies to the fact that at our core we need such celebrations, and even atomized individuals will find a way to create new festivals.

 

 

9th/10th Grade: The Gods Athirst

Greetings,

This week we continued to look at the French Revolution through a few different events.

As I mentioned last week, how the French defined the “people” of France would be crucial to how the revolution itself would take shape.  I asked the students how they would define who the “people” of America would be, and I got the following responses:

  • Anyone who lives here (but does this also include illegal immigrants, or people here legally on visas, green cards, etc.?)
  • Anyone who is a citizen (but would this include those who live here legally but are not citizens?)
  • Anyone who “believes” in American values and our way of life (but would this mean that someone living in Sweden could be part of the “people,” and would it exclude a citizen who did not believe in the American way?

The concept is obviously hard to define even for us, with a settled way of life and political traditions.  Imagine how much harder, then, it would be to define “the people” in the midst of internal upheaval and the threat of foreign invasion.  We sparked a good debate when I proposed the following scenario:

Imagine that America has undergone a major political revolution.  We have replaced our form of government with a divine-right monarchy that holds power tenuously throughout the country.  Of course, there are many who object to these changes and wish to see a return of the old ways.

Now suppose that China has decided to invade America with the express purpose of restoring the constitution and the president ousted by the revolution that replaced him with a king.  We can further suppose that the ex-president had good relations with China and the current king wants to alter all of our trade agreements with them.  Many oppose the invasion out of a sense of patriotism and/or loyalty to the Revolution, but many others hope for a Chinese victory and a restoration of the Constitution.

Which group would be more “American?”  The group that wanted to defeat China, or the group that hoped for a Chinese victory over American forces?

The question carries enormous weight, for only “the people” of France will get the rights due to the French people.

With this in mind, we can look at two key events.

1. The Storming of the Royal Residence: August 10, 1792

One of the keys to kingship working is the perceived mystical distance between the king and other men.  No one makes a king, kings are born.  He does not chose his life, God chooses him to rule by virtue of his birth.  As a man, a king is no different from anyone, but as king he takes on a different identity.

Royalty has always sought to maintain this distance through their dress, their manners, their homes, and so on.

At the start of the revolution many still wanted a strong king in France.  As the revolution progressed most slowly abandoned tat idea until Louis’ very existence threatened the revolution itself.  Finally on August 10 a mob stormed the palace, brutally slew many of the guards and servants, and might have done the same to Louis and Marie had they not escaped.  In one act, the people eradicated the perceived distance between the monarchy and themselves.  Louis had no power left.

2. The September Massacres, 1792

The events of August 10 did not cause the Austrians and Prussians to invade France all by itself, but it did propel those armies to greater alacrity in their attempt to restore Louis’ power.  As the armies moved closer to France, many feared that prisons in France (which contained ‘counter-revolutionaries’ after all) would be liberated to serve as “5th Column” to aid the foreign invasion.

From September 2-5 mobs went to various prisons, monasteries, and convents in France systematically butchering most of those inside.  The death of Marie Antoinette’ friend Princess Lamballe exemplifies France’s descent into paganism.  They cut off her head and paraded it in front of Marie’s prison window.  Then, according some accounts, they also cut out her heart and ate it.

3. The Death of Marat

Jean-Paul Marat failed at most things in life before he came to edit the tabloid “The Friend of the People.”  More than others he celebrated and encouraged the violence of the revolution, at one point calling for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of the “enemies of the people.”  A young woman named Charlotte Corday believed in the Revolution but also thought Marat a tyrant.  She gained access to him and plunged a knife into his chest.

Corday hoped that Marat’s death would quell violence, but tragically it had the opposite effect.  She hoped to end tyranny, but created a martyr.  It also served to confirm the paranoia of many other revolutionary leaders.  Who could you trust?  Corday posed as a revolutionary, but struck against it.  Anyone, in fact, could secretly be an enemy.  Marat’s death did not create the Reign of Terror, but it did help contribute to it.

If you have interest, Simon Schama has an excellent treatment of David’s famous painting of Marat’s death below.

One of the ways in which they attempted to smoke-out counter-revolutionaries was through the then equivalent of a modern day block party.  Usually attendance at such gatherings was mandatory, for they meant to celebrate the revolutionary oneness of the people.  It sounds harmless enough, but these “parties” terrified many.  You had to be careful not to stand out in the crowd.  The government had proclaimed the need to strike out against “fanaticism” and “moderation.”  If you showed too much enthusiasm for the Revolution, you probably were not being natural and so only sought to mask your true anti-revolutionary intent.  If you showed too little enthusiasm, you again showed your lack of zeal.  This is why these “parties” terrified so many.  You had to avoid standing out in the crowd.

What would you wear to such gatherings?  If you overdressed, you could be seen as “better than others.”  If you underdressed, you obviously showed no respect for the “people of France.”  What food should you bring?  Bring too little, you’re a cheapskate, don’t care about the people, etc.  Bring too much and you fall prey to the “you think you’re better than us,” suspicion, or perhaps others might think that you have secretly hoarded goods and hidden wealth from “the people.”

This fear of being labelled a hoarder proved especially potent.  The revolution had not improved economic conditions in France, contrary to expectations.  But with their Enlightenment beliefs, the removal of the bad monarchical institutions should have, by definition, fixed the problem.  The fact that everything did not work well showed that the Revolution must have been undermined from within.  Hence, the need to find hoarders, the secret enemies of the people.  Saturn had turned on his children — the gods athirst.

I also wanted the students to think about how the layout of the city can contribute to the possibility of a revolt.  Many in 1789 commented that few cities had a layout more conducive to revolution than Paris.  Here is an image of the city in 1788:

I then asked the students to redesign the city to make revolution less likely, which meant of course they had to think about why the city might be susceptible to revolution in the first place.

A few generations later Napoleon III wanted the city redesigned specifically to discourage the possibility of further revolution.  The map below indicates some of his changes, with the red strips representing broad thoroughfares, and the the darker blue representing wide public spaces.

Many thanks!

Dave M

9th/10th Grade: The Inevitability of Revolutionary Violence?

Greetings,

This week we saw the French Revolution immediately take a dangerous turn, and I wanted us to consider why violence formed such an integral part of the Revolution.  I think we can offer a variety of possible answers to this question.

Historian Simon Schama made an interesting observation regarding the nature of the change that gripped France.  If we go back to the France during the heyday of Versailles, we see the king rigidly controlling events.  The spectacle of Versailles began with the king and sometimes ended with him as well.

Louis XVI had a modernist, progressive bent.  He loved science, and joyfully hosted some of the first ballooning experiments on the grounds of Versailles.  The experiments were a great triumph, but in some ways worked against Louis.  With the balloons up in the air, nature controlled the spectacle.  The wind blows,i.e., nature speaks, and the reaction occurs.  The air was public space.  We see this concept of the Revolution as a “force of nature” in David’s drawing of the Tennis Court Oath (note the rush of wind occupying the top areas of the painting).

The revolution then, was a “force of nature” in the minds of many,  outside the control of the king, or anyone else, for that matter.  One must follow where it led — you had no choice.

Traditionally historians have viewed the Revolution as happening in two phases:

1) The idealistic, peaceful, “good” phase from 1789-1792, and

2) The ugly, destructive phase that began in 1792 and lasted until 1794.

Following Simon Schama and his stellar book Citizens, I disagree with this characterization.  Violence and political action went hand in hand in 1788, for example, a year before the Revolution proper began.  Bastille Day in 1789 saw the mob beat Captain DeLaunay to death and put his head on a pike.  The language of blood had much cache in the rhetoric of the time, with orators often proclaiming their desire to shed their blood for the cause, or the need for blood to “water the soil of the fatherland,” blood as the “cement of the new republic,” and so on.

Part of understanding the violence involves understanding the nature of sin itself.  How often have we thought that if we do this one bad thing, we can quickly then step back, shut the lid on our misdeeds, and return to righteous behavior.  But as Scriptural language makes clear, once sin has room to maneuver it tends to take control.  Once they used violence to achieve small objectives, it began to have a life and logic of its own.  Pandora’s box had opened.

Part of the reason for the violence also involves what the French tried to accomplish with their revolution.  Stop and ponder for a moment how many political questions we take for granted. Who gets rights?  Who is a citizen?  How should we apportion political power?  Americans disagree a lot about politics, but nearly all our arguments deal with what to do within the existing system.

But what if we had to completely rethink all of those things on the fly, for this is what the French faced.  Naturally they had many disagreements about fundamental political questions.  Under pressure from foreign powers, did the French have the space and time to decide these questions?  The lazy way out would mean violence.  One can weary of talking endlessly, especially under pressure.  “Since we cannot agree on who gets the last cookie and I’m tired of talking, I’ll shove you out of the way and grab it myself.”

The art of the period reflected some of this change of mindset.  The artistic style called “Rococo” tended to dominate in the period prior to the Revolution, with this painting as perhaps the pre-eminent example:

The emphasis here was on light, softness, and the pleasures (though its critics used the word “frivolity) of life.  Art presaged the political shift of the Revolution.  The colors got bolder, the subject matter more serious, and the focus shifted from celebrating life to facing death.

Here is Jacques Louis-David’s “The Oath of the Horatii,” from a story in Roman history that celebrated the sacrifice of the three brothers for Rome.

And below, “Brutus and His Sons,” which again uses Rome as the narrative template.  Brutus served as one of Rome’s first consuls, its chief law enforcement officer.  But two of his sons participated in a plot to bring back the monarchy.  The punishment was death, and Brutus had the duty of executing the punishment.  As in the picture above, the men have steely resolve while the women swoon:

The semi-apocalyptic tone of the art no doubt captured the existing mood, but also propelled French society toward violence.

We also cannot underestimate the climate of fear that gripped France.  They knew that their attempts to remake their society would draw the ire of other nations.  Austria and Prussia sent armies to invade their country, and France itself had to deal with an army whose aristocratic officer corp had largely fled or been discredited.  But once the French began the Revolution, they could not turn back.  They had already done enough to face punishment from other nations or a restored Louis XVI.  If, for example, you knew you would be hung for the thefts you committed, would you try and kill the witnesses?  What more could the authorities do to you?  Facing domestic uncertainty and international pressure, success became mandatory for the revolutionaries.  This desperation surely contributed to the violence.  Tragically (and not surprisingly) they eventually turned this fear and desperation on each other.  Saturn would eat his children.

It was in this climate of fear that the French had to decide who constituted the “people” of France.  Usually nations decide this along the lines of birth, but many in France thought this could not work, since not all favored the Revolution.  If those who did not go along with the Revolution were “oppressors” of the people, could oppressors of the people be part of the people?  Why give rights to those who work against the nation? This led to the French defining citizenship along ideological lines, which had a disastrous impact on the Revolution.

Violence played a crucial part in this decision too.  On Bastille Day crowds already began executing people without trial.  If those executed were part of “the people” then their actions were obviously illegal.  But to call those actions illegal would call the whole revolution into question.  So, the natural conclusion would be that those executed were not in fact part of France after all, and not deserving of rights.

Next week we will see where these ideas lead the Revolution.

9th/10th Grade: Romanticism

Greetings,

This week we looked at Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic movement.  Last week in our examination of  the Enlightenment, we said that it both built upon the past (Scientific Revolution) and reacted against it (Louis XIV’s Versailles).  So Romanticism both reacted against the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and built upon its rejection of current society.

We think of the Romantics praising the virtues of emotion, but we should not interpret the word ’emotion’ in a narrow sense.  Rousseau focused more on our ‘gut,’ or our ‘inner man.’  For Romantics society itself was humanity’s enemy.  All of its trappings, like wigs, crevattes, five-fork dinners, etc. put a ridiculous husk over the kernel of our true selves.  Anyone who ever felt uncomfortable among the wine and cheese set, for example, can identify with at least some of what Rousseau preached.  Manners and mores, if taken too far, can be elitist, exclusionary, and anti-human.  When we consider that the picture to the left depicted actual hairstyles as worn by aristocratic ladies, we begin to identify with what the Romantics advocated.  Rousseau wanted to return to what was “natural.”  It makes sense, then, that one of his main causes involved getting mothers to breast feed their own children, rather than handing them over to wet-nurses.

Rousseau and the Romantics wanted to free people from society to live as they were truly meant to live.

For them, mankind need not fear logic and reason, but instead  needed to realize that they do not come first in human development.  We add them later, whereas our emotions arise naturally from within us from the very start.  Reason, on the other hand, must be imposed from without.  So our ‘guts’ are better guides to behavior than our reason.

From a Christian perspective one can say that God gave both emotion and reason, and that both can guide us to truth.  We come back to the idea of truth in tension.  Unfortunately we see the abandonment of this tension in Rousseau, who thought for example, that the tragic Lisbon earthquake was God’s judgment against cities.  C.S. Lewis’ famous essay “Men Without Chests” makes the point that, as valuable as our heads and our guts are, they need the “Chest” to act as a moral mediator.  Separated from right moral guidance, both emotion and reason turn tyrant. Jonah Goldberg has a humorous but insightful take on what happens when men are left to their own devices here.  When the forces of Enlightenment and Romanticism combined and then turned against each other in the French Revolution, the results would be less humorous.

Like the Enlightenment movement, the Romantics were on to at least a part of something.  One example of this is the idea of breastfeeding.  For centuries women in the elite of society considered it “vulgar” to breastfeed their own children and farmed them out to wet-nurses. One of the first goals of the “Romantic” movement was to get women to see that what was “natural” in this case was good.  What could be more “unnatural” than the separation of mother and infant child?  And yet, such practices persisted.

The problem of course lay in how one defined “natural.”  If every “natural” thing has a direct moral imperative, then we must define “natural” very carefully.  Like the Enlightenment then, the Romantics did not see the world or humanity as basically fallen, and this would bring forth terrible consequences in due course.

We looked at the tragic case of Louis XVI.  In him we have a good man who, in turbulent times, lacked the foresight to be a good king.  As a French king, he probably thought that supporting the Americans against the British was just something that French kings do.  But Louis’ aid to the colonies, which involved people trying to overthrow a monarchy, can be compared to bringing the kudzu plant to the U.S.  You are importing your own destruction, though Louis likely did not see this, just as we did not with the infamous plant.  When an idea (like some plants) gets transplanted away from its native soil the results may be much different than we anticipated.

As the official diplomat to Paris, Ben Franklin knew exactly what chord to strike with the French.  He knew that the French idealized the Americans as fulfilling Rousseau’s dream of living close to nature, and milked that as much as possible.  To the left is a famous portrait of Rousseau, and the outfit Franklin donned for his portrait in France while on a diplomatic mission.

Louis attempted to enact many helpful reforms, and this makes his tragedy more poignant.  Many have the mistaken idea that France rebelled against a decrepit regime bent on maintaining the status quo at all costs.  In fact, many philosophes felt that France had the perfect king for the times.  Louis worked hard at fiscal responsibility.  He abandoned much of the waste and foolishness of Versailles. He avidly patronized the sciences, and founded the first known school anywhere for the blind.  France did not rebel against a king who refused to change, they rebelled against a king who tried hard to modernize France.  We shall have to unpack the significance of this later when we look at his trial under the Revolutionary government.

Usually no matter how often we criticize our Presidents we profess admiration for our First Ladies.  Not so in France.  Marie Antoinette, queen of France, was hated almost from the moment she set foot in the country.  Many stood against her from the very start, but her actions, innocent though many may have been did not help her cause.

The bad press began the moment the French found out that Louis’ bride hailed from Austria, a traditional rival of France, a step-child.  Louis, and thus France as a whole, was seen as “marrying down.”

Strike one against Marie.

Marie was desperate to please.  So, if the above picture showed how high-born ladies should wear their hear, she would do one better.   She wore this hairstyle (the picture is accurate, not satirical) to commemorate a French naval victory.   The French, with their vicious eye for taste, could easily detect when someone tries too hard.

So, as the Romantic movement gained acceptance, the pendulum swung the other way.  Marie eagerly dove headfirst into the new style.  She would be “simple.”  She asked Louis to build her a special estate where she and her friends could pretend to be farm girls and feed sheep, milk cows, and so on.  Again, Marie seems to be “trying too hard” to almost ludicrous proportions.

Her friend Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun painted the famous portrait of her to the left.

This new image would surely work, right?  In this portrait she was elegantly simple, just as Rousseau would want her.  Marie very much hopedInstead, once again the French detected desperation, someone who obviously was not “natural.”   “You are queen of France.  Act like one, dress like one!”  the French seemed to say.  Marie did not figure out how to act like a queen to anyone’s liking, perhaps not even her own.

When Marie finally had children, she settled down, and enjoyed her role as a mother.  But much damage had already been done.  Part of this damage stemmed from the personality differences between Louis and Marie.  Introverted Louis never liked parties, and used any excuse to retire early (one source indicates that Marie purposely set Louis’ clocks ahead in hopes of having Louis retire even earlier).  Once Louis left, Marie felt like she could cut loose, and played cards and danced the night away.   Much of this behavior was very likely innocent, but it raised many eyebrows, and rumors flew.  Louis, did what any wealthy, decent, and befuddled husband might do and bought her lots of expensive things.  Marie got the blame for this, not Louis.  In time various epitaphs floated around France, including, “The Austrian Whore,” and “Madame Deficit.”  Marie could never understand the impact of her actions, and how important image was to her success in politics.

Next week we will see Louis lose control of events in the French Revolution, and how France’s abandonment of what Lewis called “the chest” would wreak terrible havoc.

 

 

Dave

9th/10th Grade: Truth Without Tension

Greetings.

This week we returned to Europe in the mid 18th century and began to look at the ideas that shaped the coming French Revolution.  In this “Prelude to the Revolution” unit I hope that students will see that ideas have consequences.  The French pursued truth, or at least what they believed to be truth, with a passion, but this pursuit nearly destroyed them as they attempted to entirely remake their nation from the ground up.

How then, can we recognize truth?

Christians have many answers at their disposal to this question, but we discussed in class that many of our foundational truths are truths in tension.  So we see that God is one God in three persons, Christ is fully God and fully Man, Scripture is the Word of God written by men, and so on.  Sometimes we can know that we are close to Truth when we feel pulled in different directions at once.

Christians also realize that Ultimate Reality (God Himself) is personal, not abstract or propositional.  In inviting us to know Him, God does not want us primarily to know truths about Him (though this too is necessary), but to have a relationship with Him.  So truth must have an incarnational, or personal aspect to it for it to fully achieve the status of “Truth.”

French society needed reform in the mid-18th century.  The dominance Louis XIV bought came at a cost, and one cost was the inherent contradictions that Louis’s France left unresolved, and in fact widened.   When untethered from “truth in tension” we might expect wild swings or “over-corrections” in the ideas and solutions of the time.  The Enlightenment is no exception.  But the Church needs to have judgment begin at home, for it was precisely the Church’s relative weakness in the aftermath of the wars of religion and the Scientific Revolution that opened the door for people to seek truth elsewhere.

The Enlightenment had many noble motives and goals.  Many “philosophes” (as French Enlightenment philosophers were known) saw that society had become a kind of anachronism, guided by long outdated feudal customs.  Certain areas in society operated autonomously, without reason or justice.  Many stories abound for example, of “press-gangs” rounding up derelicts or drunks and forcing them into the navy or infantry.  From the perspective of many, society seemed to be made only for the elite, or for those with connections, or special, secret knowledge (the echoes of Louis’s ridiculous system at Versailles form a good example).  Enlightenment thinkers sought to free society from archaic mystery and make it livable for the common man.  Reason’s clear light revealed the absurdity of class and privilege.  The Philosophes prided themselves as sensible men.  Ben Franklin, for example, records basic advice like, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”  No wild Platonistic musings here, thank you very much.

One sees this spirit animating their music as well.  Haydn, for example, wanted to write for the farmer and tradesman, so his music has a popular danceability to it that one immediately perceives.  Odd meter changes, wild swings in tempo, and so on might have been perceived as “elitist,” or inaccessible.

In the early Enlightenment one also sees a glorification of the everyday.  Those outside the nobility, like Christopher Wren in England, got picked to design St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Enlightenment era paintings depicted women realistically, and showed life as it was really lived by most people.  It elevated simple pleasures of good company and conversation.

For centuries the Church had controlled much of daily life, especially education.  This too needed freed for “the people.”  With people loosed from institutional religion, they would be freed to be their “natural” religious selves.   No more obscure doctrines, no more mystery, just the clear light of reason.  So in the end, society, education, religion, culture — all this seemed to come down from their pedestals on high and into the people’s hands.  The early years of the Enlightenment must have been quite exciting.

But this excitement masked certain key problems.

For all of their realism and so-called common sense, the philosophes tended to be quite unrealistic about human nature.  For them, part of their liberation from mankind meant liberating them from their sense of sin.  “You’re not bad, just ignorant!”  But in severing people from their sense of sin they dehumanized them.  We know we sin, and we know that it is part of being human to sin.  To say that sin doesn’t exist makes us less responsible, and if we are less responsible, we are less human.  Again, Enlightenment thinkers surely thought they were doing mankind a favor by removing the idea of punishment for sin.  I want the students to appreciate the Enlightenment’s strengths, but the tragic irony of the Enlightenment is while they sought to liberate they set us on a path of potential slavery.  We deserve to be held responsible for sin because we are human beings responsible for our actions.  Dogs are not responsible for their actions.  C.S. Lewis elaborates on this in his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.

The Enlightenment frowned on mystery.  We know that many key doctrines of Christianity are mysteries at heart, but what about other areas?  Is not life itself mysterious?  What about love?  Guys, what about women?  Again, to be fully human we must have a sense of mystery about our existence.  In its eagerness to redress an imbalance, the Enlightenment abandoned “truth in tension” and created other kinds of problems, some worse than those it fixed.

The ironic tragedy of the Enlightenment is that while they sought to liberate, they ended up dehumanizing people on a path to slavery, for dehumanization is the first step towards control.  One sees this in subtle ways in the “Smile of Reason”  in many philosophe portrayals:

The constant tight-lipped smile of these reasonable, agreeable people tips the hand of the Enlightenment.  As Clarke notes, the philosophes might smile, but never laugh.  They restricted what it meant to be human.  Life can be enjoyed, but only in moderation.  They prized control above all else.

I don’t want to overreach, but the Enlightenment insistence on control paved the way for some of the tyrannies of the French Revolution and beyond.  The Enlightenment gave us good things to be sure.  No doubt many good Christians made the best of what the Enlightenment had to offer.  But its legacy, like all heresies, continues to haunt us.

Blessings,

Dave

 

9th/10th Grade: Past and Present Imperfect

Greetings,

This week we delved quickly into our unit on the Constitution, where we focused on a few main ideas, and lay the groundwork for what we will discuss next week:

  • We sometimes have the idea that drafting the Constitution was simply a matter of getting on paper what everybody already thought.  In reality, many of those present had strongly divergent ideas of what federal government should look like.  Some wanted no executive at all, while others (like Alexander Hamilton) wanted a very strong executive elected for life.  The federal judiciary seems almost an afterthought as did the Vice-Presidency, and so on.
  • Compromise tended to be how the delegates operated, and many today praise the fact that they forged consensus amidst uncertain times, which usually give rise to fear and rigid dogmatism.  But this process of compromise extended also to slavery with disastrous moral, and long-term political, effects.  For better or worse, they decided that compromise for the sake of union (which they had already done with many other issues) on slavery was worthwhile.  A variety of theories exists as to why this happened.  Some argue that many believed that slavery would die out eventually on its own within a generation, and thus was not worth forcing some of the die-hards from South Carolina out of the nation entirely.  Others state that slavery involved directly only private moral issues that best belonged outside the purview of federal power (some make the same argument regarding abortion today).  Finally, some assert a simple exhaustion among the delegates.  Having performed so many arduous climbs, the thought of ascending Everest proved too much for them.  I enjoyed the students thoughts on the validity of their decision.  This issue we will raise again next year as we move towards the Civil War.
  • Despite their significant differences, delegates did share some basic principles, such as 1) The federal government did need strengthening, and 2) Federal power needed to avoid concentration in the hands of any particular branch, lest our liberties suffer danger, and 3) A fear of the ‘power of the people.’  While the Constitution did create a more democratic government that existed anywhere else in the West, it contains several barriers to translating the people’s desire into government action.  We often complain of gridlock in government, but may not always realize that the Constitution seems tailor made to create it.
  • For all its tremendous success, the Constitution did not foresee the quickly approaching era of a popular, national president that embodied the will of the people.  This almost led to disaster in the election of 1800, as we will discuss in a few weeks.

People did not immediately embrace the Constitution.  Patrick Henry read the first to the three words, “We the people,” and began his vehement objections.  States, in Henry’s view, should be the basis of federal power.  Henry may have been right or wrong about the wisdom of making “the people” the foundation of political power, but he certainly astutely recognize the difference.  The Constitution created a new kind of America, one where national identity would trump local identity in the long run.

Henry also believed that the proposed national capital would in fact become a vast armory, one that would inevitably destroy liberties.  In the strict literal sense, he was wrong about that.  But he was right that the creation of a national, federal army would put a great deal of power in the hands of the national government.  It is an odd and unsettling thought, but we should realize that the only thing preventing the military from taking over the government is that they don’t want to.  Should the army desire to march on the Capitol, for example, the Capitol would fall in about 15 minutes.

We spent the bulk of our week on our 4th Amendment unit.  I wanted to focus in on one particular aspect of the Constitution to help drill the down the implication of some of its core principles.  The 4th Amendment, which reads

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This amendment has tremendous relevance for us today.  Technology has changed the meaning of privacy, and our enemies have no qualms with using our system against us.  The government has extraordinary powers at its disposal.  Should privacy or security concerns take precedence?

9780815722120Scholar and author Jeffrey Rosen has done a lot of thinking in the areas of technology and privacy.  He raises many key questions, such as

  • How private can public space be in the digital age?  Do we have a right to privacy from Google or Facebook cameras if we walk down a public sidewalk?
  • Can Facebook violate the 4th Amendment, which after all, only prohibits government from infringing on our liberties, and not the private sector?
  • Europe has already done a lot to regulate the private sector in regard to digital privacy.  Many civil libertarians, for example, would applaud the upholding of privacy concerns that Europe is pioneering.  But, given the tremendous growth of technology, regulating these companies requires strong government interference.  But — the same people who applaud the privacy are usually ones who do not want government regulation of the private sector.  How should we resolve this paradox?

These are some of the issues we will attempt to tackle with out mock Supreme Court Case this past week.

Many thanks,

Dave

The Garments of Court and Palace

Despite ourselves, Machiavelli fascinates us. He writes with an enviable brevity and clarity, and then supplies a pertinent historical example to back up his point. Had he been a worse writer, we would care much less about him. There exists as well an easy transference of his thought–he fires the imagination of the global strategist and everyone who has played Risk.

The Garments of Court and Palace has a grand air about it. The title comes from a phrase of Machiavelli, describing his perception of how one had to don a different persona, in a sense, to enter into the political realm. One can write rather easily how Machiavelli advocated for a dangerous amoralism in statecraft. One could also write about how a conflicted Machiavelli seemed a chameleon of sorts depending on time and place. Again–such books would be easy to write and have no reason to exist. But Philip Bobbitt has an entirely different approach, arguing that

  • Not only was Machiavelli not a amoral thinker, and
  • Not only was he not a chameleon, but
  • He was a consistent thinker with a distinct aim of promoting virtue, whose teachings fit easily within a Christian worldview

Now there’s an argument for you. This is a book worth writing.

I have great respect for Bobbitt. I found his Shield of Achilles revelatory and prophetic in certain ways. He takes big swings and at his best writes with the clarity of Machiavelli. I found Bobbitt’s argument ultimately a bridge too far. To go along with him fully, one would have to agree that essentially all of Machiavelli’s contemporaries, and nearly every political philosopher since then, had him wrong. For me, there exists too many areas of Machiavelli’s thought one can’t quite stuff into Bobbitt’s construction, leaving Bobbitt’s only option to impersonate Michael Palin’s befuddled George Bernard Shaw, i.e., “What Machiavelli merely meant . . . “

Still, Bobbitt succeeds in getting one to see Machiavelli more clearly within his time. And while I do not agree with the totality of Bobbitt’s argument, the book reveals the problems of the modern state in fresh ways. Bobbitt rightly argues that Machiavelli had prophetic insight far ahead of his time, and we must grapple honestly with him.

Machiavelli’s world faced great changes, changes that, as usual, were not immediately obvious to nearly everyone living through them. The Black Plague and the breakdown of the Church meant that the personal connections that guided law and culture in the feudal era no longer applied–however much some still wished to make it so. Bobbitt sees Machiavelli clearly perceiving this shift, and attempting to orient Italy and all of Europe towards a new constitutional order. But periods of transition bring great uncertainty, and the need for attendant flexibility. Bobbitt writes,

Imagine you wish to train yourself to be a professional poker player. Part of that training must involve learning all the tricks of the trade, marking cards, palming a card, dealing from the bottom, and so on. But must you practice these tricks yourself? I suppose it depends on how good your game is, and whether the persons with whom you are playing will enforce the rules once you have exposed the cheat. To the question, “Must it be this way? Can’t we do better?” the answers do not lie entirely within your power.

In sum, Bobbitt sees Machiavelli playing a slippery game of poker, both in his personal life and in his writings–yet, with an ultimately just and moral goal in mind. “Republics must be founded by one man,” as Machiavelli wrote in his Discourses. So,

  • First, the chaos must end, and existing structures cannot end it. It takes someone operating outside those structures to bring order, and then
  • A republic can emerge, one that governs communally and perhaps abstractly, rather than personally

Of Machiavelli’s two major works, one can very broadly say that The Prince attempted to accomplish the first goal, and The Discourses the latter. Machiavelli must sometimes, then, assume the appearance of Janus, the Roman god who faced in opposite directions.

We can consider the idea of deception. On the face of it, people should never lie or deceive. But few people would actually make this an absolute claim. You might not like your wife’s dress, but if she loves it, you’ll say you think it looks great. In the Bible, men of faith use deception. King David pretended insanity amongst the Philistines. Ehud manipulated King Eglon so that he might kill him. Rahab protects the spies by lying. We praise them for such actions. But we know the difference between “good” lies and true lies. While David rightly deceives the Philistines, he wrongly deceives Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, and suffers for it. Bobbitt places Machiavelli within a traditional moral structure because virtuous people know how and when to deceive for the common good. Machiavellian morality is “good” morality, because he flexibly orients it towards the formation of a virtuous state. Bobbitt makes other such arguments throughout with different aspects of Machiavelli’s thought, and it has merit up to a point.

At root, Bobbitt believes that states evolve and that wise and “good” rulers adapt to changing circumstances to maintain the supremacy of “good” states over bad ones. The state will be formed via “strategy, law, and history,” to use Bobbitt’s terms, and one must use Machiavellian wisdom to appropriately ride the crest of the wave. Republics have a much better chance of adaptation because of their composite nature. Machiavelli cites the Roman example of Fabius and Cicero. Fabius was right in 218 BC to adopt his cautious approach to Hannibal, but a few years later, the situation had changed. Yet–Fabius had not changed with the changing situation. Indeed, few can do so. But because Rome was a Republic, they had the more aggressive Scipio at their disposal. And, because of the Republic’s ability to pool wisdom from a large group, they chose correctly with Scipio. A monarchy or principality had more limitations, and indeed, Hannibal, for all his greatness, could not quite adopt changes in his own strategy when his fortunes started to ebb.

Again, so far so good. But we should go deeper into the nature of the new state Machiavelli heralded and why we should remain uncomfortable with a full embrace of his ideas. I think the final answer lies in the fact that the state Machiavelli saw coming and wanted to bring about would not allow one to safely and wisely live out his advice. So, in what follows below, I make my own grand, foolhardy attempt to solve the Machiavelli conundrum.

The feudal kingdoms that Machiavelli saw retreating from the scene had a few things in common:

  • Relationships, more so than laws, determined the way of life in a particular region
  • Particular land was not so much owned, but held in a trust, of sorts with the surrounding culture and people
  • While various leaders had certain boundaries of church, custom, etc., power resided in people, not principles, ideas, or even laws.

Machiavelli hoped for, and foresaw, a state that would

  • Be governed more by laws than specific people
  • Be governed more by procedures of representative bodies than by people directly
  • Have a more Roman/absolute/legal concept of ownership of land

The modern state, therefore, would be more fixed and abstract in nature.

Though in many ways a modern, Machiavelli still had some roots in the traditional pre-modern world. He understood that sometimes the hero has to go the margins of behavior–like King David. He understood that when facing the evil of disintegration one sometimes has to fight fire with fire. Sometimes society’s solid moral core cannot defeat the monster. You need Godzilla to battle Ghidorah. The law can do nothing to Terry Benedict, so we cheer when “Ocean’s Eleven” take him down. But we should still remember that the guys of “Ocean’s Eleven” are not really good guys. You cannot build a society on Danny, Rusty, and the Mormon twins.

If one sees Machiavelli’s advice within this traditional pattern of reality–a Core, Fringe, and the Chaos beyond, a lot of his advice in The Prince makes sense. People can make difficult moral judgments. People can experience different levels of reality and process them accordingly. Hence–for all of its “radical” nature, The Prince can actually make sense within a traditional society, where governing relationships remain distinctly personal and not abstract.

Machiavelli reacted strongly against the medieval approach, but the irony might be that The Prince is actually a treatise that might find a place in the pre-modern world under certain circumstances.

Machiavelli’s problem . . . modern states cannot experience life this way. We remain too distant from reality with the multitude of hedges of laws and institutions. People can make judgment calls–laws cannot. Bobbitt himself declares that states get their formation through the intersection of “strategy, law, and history.” But he leaves out, “personal relationships.” Modern states have very little to do with personal connections and much more to do with contract, procedure, and so on.*

What about Machiavelli’s Discourses, which many, Bobbitt included, see as a great treatise for modern democratic-republics? The Discourses has many insightful things to say, but we must remember that Rome is the subject. The “imminence” of pagan religion shines through in Livy’s work. The Roman self, Roman religion, and Roman politics all seem intertwined. One could say that Rome worshipped Rome (I include an excerpt from the Discouses below which I think illustrates this). Thus, when the Roman state “moved” the Romans “moved” with it. Of course, if the identity of the state lies in the King/Prince, then when he “moves” we can move with him, because we have a personal tie to him, and he physically embodies the principality/realm where we live.

Not so in the modern age, which still have some tension between the state and that which resides outside the state. It can take various forms across the spectrum, including:

  • A strong sense of the Kingdom of God residing within and without the state
  • A strong sense of the autonomous individual
  • No coherent cultural “north” on the compass
  • A sense of the “destiny” or purpose of the nation, which lies at least somewhat outside the actions of the nation–this has different manifestations on the right and the left.

I believe this explains our frustration and puzzlement with Machiavelli. We recognize his wisdom. We feel that we should apply at least some of it, but our detachment from our institutions won’t allow us to access it.

Dave

*Hence–suburbia and why we do not know our neighbors, disembodied forms of exchange, and so on.

Machiavelli on Roman Religion

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances, in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle. 

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so threw them into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness . . . 

9th/10th Grade: The World Turned Upside Down

This week we discussed the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.  Certainly the whole document has great importance for us, but whereas the specific grievances have come and gone, we rightly remember the words of the first paragraphs.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

We take this wording for granted today, but Jefferson’s words espoused some revolutionary ideas.  In 1765, the colonists (for the most part) couched their dispute with England in terms of English rights, i.e. “The English government fails to give English liberties to its citizens.”  In the Declaration, however, we see the colonists fighting for human, not British rights.  Their struggle took place specifically against England, but in the broader sense the colonists fought to be more human.

Jefferson professed Deism and not Christianity, but he clearly states that these rights have universality because of the identity and purpose of our Creator.   Jefferson takes the Romans 13 dilemma we discussed a few weeks ago and turns it on its head.  Government’s exist to protect human dignity.  If they fail in this, government becomes the rebel against God, and this means people have a duty to fight them, not merely permission.  Jefferson’s stroke remains brilliant and controversial even today.

Unlike other countries (founded on shared history or shared biology), the United States founded itself on an idea.  The universality of this idea has done much to shape our history.  Critics of our policy often accuse us of “meddling” in affairs that don’t concern us.  Certainly this charge has at least some merit.  But in our defense, we might say that we can’t help it.  The Declaration makes humanity itself our business.  We might further state that we have no wish to make others more like us, rather, we wish to help them become more human.  There may be some self-deception in this line of reasoning, but I think many Americans think this way whether consciously or no.  On the flip-side, this universality has helped us be more open to other peoples emigrating and finding a place in our society.

We also discussed two other controversial aspects of the Declaration:

  • Should we have the right to “pursue happiness?”  What has this meant for us?  I touch on some of these ideas in this post here.

Author/commentator Malcolm Muggeridge thought the inclusion of the “pursuit of happiness in the Declaration a great disaster.  He said,

There is something ridiculous and even quite indecent in an individual claiming to be happy. Still more a people or a nation making such a claim. The pursuit of happiness… is without any question the most fatuous which could possibly be undertaken. This lamentable phrase ”the pursuit of happiness” is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.

The truth is that a lost empire, lost power and lost wealth provide perfect circumstances for living happily and contentedly in our enchanted island.

I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.

  • Jefferson’s original draft of the Constitution contained a strong anti-slavery section, but in the end he removed it to allow for all colonies to join in signing the document.  This may have helped us fight the war for independence, but it disastrously postponed our nation dealing with the terrible crime of slavery.  Was this worth it?

We then moved on to finish the fighting in the war, and focused on the battles of Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781).  On Friday we played a game in class where the rules gave certain advantages to the “favorite.”  But the “underdog” also had key advantages. .

  • They could afford to play more recklessly as they had less to lose
  • If they got luck or could bluff their way to one big success, they could simply fold (i.e. retreat in orderly fashion) and wait until time ran out in the game.

Many of you may have seen an action movie where the lone hero has to fight his way into a compound, boat, or other structure.  Despite being badly outnumbered, he manages to get the bad guys and escape.  Along with Hollywood convention at work, the hero does have some actual advantages.  He knows that every person he sees is a bad guy, where his opponents must exercise much more caution.  They hesitate and give the hero the advantage, who can shoot first and ask questions later.

This analogy could easily get stretched too far, but British failures at Saratoga and Yorktown show the great difficulty the British faced to win the war.  How could they solve the problems that created the war in the first place through violence?  The deteriorating situation between England and the colonies between 1763-1775 craved a political response that the English proved unable to provide.  Victory through violence therefore demanded an absolutely crushing military victory, and would have to take great risks to achieve it.  Both times they attempted this, it backfired on them.

Americans had more “freedom” in their strategy because their failures mattered little and their successes got magnified greatly in their political effect.  England’s political bungling prior to the war itself paved the way for their defeat.

Here is the march the British played when they surrendered at Yorktown, “The World Turned Upside Down.”

The Way of the Fox

I can always count on a few “Let’s conquer Canada!” “jokes” a year from my students.  We might be studying the Mexican-American War and someone will say, “No, no, no.  We need to find our ‘true north’ and fight Canada!”  If it’s the Spanish-American War it could be, “Spain?  Why Spain?  We should fight Canada!”  If it’s W.W. II . . . “We fought on the same side?  Phooey.  After the Germans, on to Canada!”

Mild groans or exasperated rebukes (from the girls) usually ensue.

So it comes as a delightful surprise (to the boys) to actually find out that we did try and conquer Canada in 1775.

Because the idea of conquering Canada is such a passe joke, we assume that George Washington was crazy to order such an attempt.  In the minds of many our invasion comes to nothing more than a madcap escapade, a schoolboy’s lark.

Dave R. Palmer argues in his book The Way of the Fox (newer editions have a different title indicated by the cover to the right) that in fact such an invasion not only nearly succeeded, but also made sound strategic sense.  Palmer seeks to rescue Washington from his saccharine and wooden image and recasts him as an effective and in some ways brilliant grand strategist for the American Revolution.  And yes, this includes his invasion of Canada.

Today many think of Washington as either a great man/demi-god or nothing more than a member of elite/exploiting class.  Both views are cardboard cutouts.  Palmer shows us someone who thought carefully and with subtlety, someone who adjusted his thinking on multiple occasions to deal with changing reality.  British generals often referred to Washington as the “old fox,” sometimes with contempt because he would not fight, sometimes with admiration for his cleverness.  The moniker should stick — it brings Washington and the war to life.

First and foremost Washington stood as the perfect symbol for the Revolution. Certain qualities made him the obvious choice for command, such as his experience, his height, his bearing, and the fact that he hailed from the South.  But none of these things would matter if Washington failed to think in broad strategic terms effectively. Palmer divides the Revolution into three stages, and correspondingly sees Washington adjust his strategy each time.  Washington made specific mistakes as he went, but in terms of broad strategic goals Palmer has Washington never miss a beat.

Palmer argues that revolutions possess an offensive character by their very nature.  They seek to effect change and so must act accordingly.  Thus, Washington was entirely right to begin the war with an aggressive strategy that sought to expel the British.

This failed to fully succeed, which allowed the British to send massive reinforcements.  This meant that Washington, now outmanned and outgunned, needed to withdraw and avoid having his army destroyed by a pitched battle he could not win.

France’s entry after 1778 changed the situation yet again.  Now momentum and manpower lay with the Americans. Washington needed to take advantage of the alliance while it lasted.  So during this period Washington should have sought to press his dramatic advantage, which he did with great effect at Yorktown.

I take no issue with either Palmer’s interpretation or Washington’s actions for phases two and three.  But it’s the first phase, which includes the invasion of Canada, where we can push back most easily.  It seems to me that Washington should have been cautious until the final phase where the advantage finally tipped in his favor.  His aggressiveness at the start of the conflict seems out of place to me.

True, at the beginning of the war you have an emotional high that you can capitalize on.  But you will have undisciplined and untested troops. What’s more, they will not yet have developed that cohesion that great armies have of sharing routines, time, space, and danger.  Think of Caesar’s legions — nothing remarkable when they started into Gaul, and unbeatable five years later.  In our Civil War one reason for the South’s early success had to do with the offensive burden the North faced.  When General Irwin McDowell objected to offensive action at Bull Run in 1861 due to the lack of experience of his men, Lincoln replied that “[both sides] are green together.”  Yes, but McDowell knew that a green attacker has a lot more to worry about than a green defender, and so it proved.

Beyond this psychological reason, Palmer asserts another more narrowly strategic goal for invading Canada.  America’s size and her numerous ports put a huge strategic burden on England.  Colonial armies could easily retreat inland and lead British forces on goose chases through the wilderness.  Add to that, the layout of the land presented very few “choke points” at which the British could use their superior manpower to any real effect.  Perhaps the only such point lay at the nexus between England and Canada — the Hudson River.

Flowing from north of Albany down to New York City, British control of the Hudson would have allowed them to control the upper third of the colonies.  Controlling New York and Boston would have meant control of America’s biggest ports.  Cutting off New England would further mean nabbing most of the colonies financial resources and a hefty portion of its intellectual political capital.  Everyone on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that control of the Hudson could determine the war.

So if it makes sense for Washington to defend the Hudson, why not go just a bit further into Canada itself?  To capture Quebec would have given the colonies everything else in Canada.  Success would have prevented England from having a free “back door” entry point into the colonies via the St. Lawrence River.  Shutting down the St. Lawrence would topple another domino by cutting off England from potential Indian allies* out in the west.

Reading Palmer’s lucid and logical defense, I found myself almost persuaded.  Palmer urges us to remember that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s invasion (yes, that Benedict Arnold) — and it nearly succeeded, does not prove that the idea or the goal was faulty.  Had it paid off, the war might have been over within a year or two instead of eight.

Yes, but . . .

Arnold  lost in Quebec and Washington lost in New York City.  Palmer gives a generous interpretation of Washington’s actions in New York and believes that politically speaking, Washington had to defend the city.  Maybe so.  But if he had to defend the city for the sake of politics, then why also invade Canada and divide your forces? Palmer wants it both ways.  He believes that circumstances called for an aggressive campaign in 1775-early ’76, but that politics and not military necessity alone forced Washington’s hand to defend New York.  This seems to admit the fact that Washington should have given ground and played defense in New York alone.

All in all I agree that Washington brilliantly guided the colonies to victory, and Palmer argues this decisively.  He points out also that Washington faced a bungling and confused command structure in England.  But Washington had Congress to deal with, who although more intelligent and capable by far than their British counterparts, had much less experience in running a war.  By any measure, Washington deserves his place as one of the great generals of the modern era.

But I can’t let go of the invasion of Canada.

If we try and evaluate Washington’s gambit in Canada we should try and compare it to similar kinds of military actions across time.  My case remains that the invasion made logical sense in a certain way.  He was not reckless or foolhardy to try.  But I feel that he should have focused more on defense, and perhaps even success might have hurt him in the long run.  The colonies might have had the direct motivation to expel the British, but would they support long-term the occupation of Canada?**

I can think of three campaigns that might be comparable in certain ways . . .

  • Athens’ invasion of Sicily in 415 B.C.
  • Hannibal attacking Rome directly instead of defending Spain
  • Napoleon going on the offensive in Belgium in 1815 instead of rallying the people to “defend France.”
  • Our invasion of Iraq in 2003***

Sometimes foxes can be a bit too clever.  Still, unlike Athens, Hannibal, and Napoleon, Washington committed a relatively small portion of his forces to the plan.  As a general most would not rank Washington with Hannibal, Napoleon, and the like.  But Palmer argues that not only should we put Washington in their company, but given his military and political success, make him the general of the modern era.

Dave

*This no mere fancy.  In 1777 the British did invade via the St. Lawrence and did gather some Indian allies for their “Saratoga” campaign.  That escapade ended in disaster for the British, but Washington’s strategic fears did come true nonetheless.

**Strange as it may sound now, Palmer points out that the motivation to occupy and settle Canada ourselves might have existed not on strategic but religious grounds.  Many in 1775 saw Canadian Catholicism as a mortal threat to our freedoms and would have gladly occupied it in the name of liberty.  Certainly we showed the ability to expand and settle territory in the west. Why not in the north as well?

***Right or wrong, Bush enjoyed overwhelming support to fight in Afghanistan in 2001.  It made sense to us in the way that (again, right or wrong) responding to Pearl Harbor made sense.  But his case in 2003 was much less compelling, at least to the international community.

From Puritan to Yankee

Recently I found myself talking politics with a Trump supporter.  Interestingly, he mentioned very little about his policies or personality.  Rather, he seemed drawn to him because of the multitude of attacks against him.  No one, he argued, deserved what Trump receives from at least some in the media.  Politics had very little to do with this, for this same person said that he liked both Obama and Hillary Clinton for much the same reason–in his mind of them have been attacked to an unfair extreme.

I have no great love for the Puritans, and perhaps this might explain why I sometimes seek to defend them.  I certainly felt this way at the start of Richard Bushman’s From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765.  When describing Puritan society in the first chapter he invariably uses words like, “austere,” “imposing,” “monolithic,” and that most dreaded word for an academic who originally published this book in 1967, “conformity.”*

Later in the book Bushman shows his excellence as a historian of a certain type, but I did not like the first chapter.

We naturally have difficulty in understanding and evaluating the Puritans.  They look like us in many respects, but then part with modern society in other radical ways.  It is the heretic, rather than the unbeliever, who always poses the greater threat.  Hence, our natural distaste for the Puritans.  But we must keep certain things in mind.

First of all, the Puritan ideal of social order oriented around religion hardly broke new ground.  They borrowed from the medieval idea of the “great chain of being,” and in orienting their society around religion they merely did what most civilizations practiced up until that point.  Numerous examples of this exist, with the Egyptians, early Romans, the Mezo-American civilizations, and the aforementioned medievals to name a few (this should clue us in on the radical nature of post-Enlightenment western society–more on this later).

Secondly, many moderns, progressive or otherwise, would likely admire some of the main goals of Puritan society.  The Puritans sought to live a common life together by minimizing  (though not eliminating) economic competition and distinctions in wealth.  Bushman himself notes that in the early days of settlement even the richer members of society lived much in the same way as their neighbors, working fields and milking cows like anyone else.  Bushman and others may not realize that such a society cannot exist with modern notions of liberty that tell us to “find our own way,” “follow your heart,” and so on.  Societies like the early Puritans must get their formation from shared conviction that only comes with religious belief. You cannot have one without the other.  One Puritan stated, “Law should serve free exercise of just privileges.  Without this, lives and liberties would be a prey to the covetous and cruel.”  Modern notions of liberty, in the view of early Puritans, would lead to exploitation and alienation.

Bushman himself cites early in chapter two that this shared communal life allowed government in Connecticut to be, in his words, “flexible” in ways that “minimized local conflicts.”  This hardly seems “austere,” or “monolithic.”

True, certain “upper-crust” Puritans (apologies for the emotionally laden word choice) had a fear of any of the “lesser sort” getting into political power.  We can snub our noses at this.  But we should remember that it is 1700.  Puritan Connecticut was more democratic than the England of William and Mary, and infinitely more so than Louis XIV France or Frederick the Great’s Prussia.  Almost every other European society at the time shared these same fears of “lesser men” ruining everything. We have good evidence that many of our founders decades later had these same fears, as of course did every major western political thinker from Homer on down the line.

Finally, nearly all the early Puritan settlers came from the same east-Anglia towns and villages.  They knew the content of Puritan theology, they knew Puritan leadership.  It’s not as if the Puritans pulled a bait-and-switch on the journey across the Atlantic–“You thought you signed up to run wild and free in the woods, but no!  Now that we have you in the middle of the ocean, welcome to John Calvin!”

If some settlers grew frustrated with Puritan leadership, well, they knew what to expect.

So yes, the Puritans need criticism, but criticism with the right context in mind, and aimed in the right place.

After chapter one, Bushman shows his great skill at sifting through data to form larger conclusions.  He puts the focus on the problems settlers faced due to a growing population, which would necessitate an inevitable territorial expansion of the colony.  Some civilizations, like the Romans, link most everything in life to land.  Some see the beginning of the  Roman Republic’s political problems beginning the moment land in Italy disappeared for their soldiers.**  Not every civilization operates with this mentality.  Carthage, for example, and possibly Periclean Athens, largely freed themselves from land as a measure of identity (they had different problems).  But our early settlers fit well within the Roman mindset.

In the first generation or two land distribution remained equitable.  The size of the colony allowed everyone to attend the most important churches pastored by the acknowledged town leaders in piety and purpose.  The population’s proximity to these churches and to town hall bound the colony together politically.

But time marches on, and fathers want the same for their younger sons as for the oldest. In a settled mostly aristocratic society like England of the time, the younger sons of even minor aristocracy join the army or perhaps the clergy.  You see this even in Austen’s novels 100 years later.  Settlers in the new world, however, believed in equality, more or less, and wanted everyone to have an equal chance.

Expanding the size of the colony meant greater distances from the town center.  Naturally those predisposed to want to lead the settlement would stay close to its center.  Those with some disaffection towards leadership might more easily head a few miles outbound.  With this even small scale migration came an inevitable tension, and an inevitable choice.

The colony could either, a) Split off in different settlements and grant autonomy to each.  However, this came with the problem of effectively ending the Puritan dream.  Those who left for outbound land tended towards a more enterprising, individualistic mindset.  Or they could, b) Increase the power of the original settlement’s leaders and weaken the participatory democracy carefully crafted by the original settlers.

As is typical of most any democratically government they chose neither absolutely, though probably favored option ‘b.’  Everyone recognized that the social order had suffered due to increased wealth–a wealth occasioned by expansion (again, similar to Rome ca. 200-75 B.C.).  But try as they might, too many things swirled in conflict with one another to make sense of it all.  In the end tensions increased between eastern and western settlers in most religious and economic matters.  Once they let the’Yankee’ mentality of individual enterprise get its foot in the door, their social construct had its days numbered.

Let us give credit where due.  Bushman’s work should help us to see certain larger issues with more clarity.  For example, Thomas Jefferson bucked historical convention in his belief that a republic should have lots rather than a little territory.  He hoped that the Louisiana Purchase would allow everyone to practice self-government and live free and independently on their own land.  But–if everyone can live free and independently from one another, how can we maintain order?  Only by doing as the Puritans attempted to do–by increasing executive authority.  If we want the kind of liberty envisioned by Jefferson, let us count the cost.  Rome saw this same increase of executive authority as their territory expanded beyond Italy.  Whatever our uniqueness as a nation, we cannot escape history.

But in the end I think Bushman misses the real point.

Bushman mentions religious issues and gives them due treatment, but he gives pride of place to the decline of Puritanism to land and economic issues.  He deals with the source material masterfully.  But he seems to argue that certain geographic and social issues caused the religious issues to manifest themselves later.  We can acknowledge the influence of geographic and economic factors.  But in the end, I think he puts the cart before the horse.  The key to Puritan disintegration must be found in their religion.

For example . . . the Roman Republic experienced some of the same stresses faced by the CT settlers, with a much larger population over much larger territory.  Yet, the Republic maintained its central identity for at least two and perhaps three and half centuries, in contrast to Puritan ideals lasting no more than  two generations.  Egyptian civilization also had some of the same issues regarding land, and though obviously not a republic, maintained their identity for perhaps 1500 years.

Yes, democracies traditionally have a problem maintaining identity and cohesion.  One can a make a good case that Pericles built the Parthenon primarily as a way to reestablish unity by calling people back to their religious roots, whereas we today tend to look at this period in Athens as the pinnacle of democratic experience. This “pinnacle of democratic experience” may have had more cracks than we initially assume.  Athens at this time certainly had lots of money, which tends to work ill upon democracies.  If Thucydides tells only mostly the truth, they did not have much social cohesion. Rome lasted longer than CT or Athens with similar geographic and economic factors at play, and so I feel a reason exists beyond land distribution and the expansion of trade that Bushman focuses on.^

In the Puritans particular case we should note that their theology departed from traditional orthodox Christianity in certain respects.  Their emphasis on the will of God rather than the love of God reduced their faith to more of a philosophy, a handbook of propositions for life.^^  They had no appreciation for sacraments and thus no way for the grace of God to be made manifest in their lives except by how they thought. This led to impersonal abstractions gaining sway.  The famous (or infamous if you prefer) 5 Points of Calvinism work on the mind like a geometric proof, inexorably moving toward a foreordained conclusion.  Abstract ideas, however, are slippery things, and ideas floating in the air don’t always land on the ground in the same form for repeated generations.  Like a point in infinite space, various lines can connect with it and go almost anywhere.

Interestingly, Puritans created a government structure that tended toward defending an abstract notion of rights.  As the colony expanded, Bushman documents a swell of lawsuits and disputes centered around the “claims” of one settler vs. another.  Communal relationships disappeared as “rights” dominated public discourse.  Religious revivals like the Great Awakening followed this pattern in some ways..  The religious impulse coming from this revival did not push people back into communal life.  Rather, we see a rise in the individualistic idea of the “liberty of the conscience” gaining the upper hand among the (formerly) Puritan settlers.

Whatever the merits of my very incomplete analysis above, by the early 19th century New England certainly had adopted a vague mixture of theism and deism as its unofficial religion–a death by abstraction.

We see hints of 1776 as this abstract notion of rights grew.  In time colonial corporations made grants of land to settlers.  When royal officials came over and examined these title deeds they annulled them outright.  No “corporation,” they argued, can grant title to anything.  What is a “corporation” after all?  It’s surpra-personal identity meant it had in effect no personality, and with no personality, how could it truly exist?  A king can grant title, for the king is an actual person, and actual people can own things and give them to others.

The colonists may have nodded “sure!” to these royal representatives, but likely crossed their fingers behind their backs. Though kingship has the advantage of being personal, a king across an ocean has perhaps even less personality than a corporation.  In any case, they no longer had a connection to government rooted directly in either religious belief or social ties. They put their eggs in propositions, in “rights,” in “liberty of conscience,” which no one can touch.  Their point in infinite space must be free to go where it pleases.

A standard debate among historians of the American Revolution involves the question of whether or not the founders were radical or conservative in their ideas.  Years ago I would have answered with the latter, but not anymore.  Bushman’s work accompanies Bernard Bailyn’s and Gordon Wood’s thesis that our stodgy, wig-wearing founders had radical ideas.  For the first time, society would not be oriented around God/the gods.  Nor would social order have its roots in personal relationships, i.e., feudal society, or the lives and patronage of prominent families.  Now for the basically the first time, society would be organized around certain ideas, or we might almost say, geometric axioms.  What Bushman’s book shows us is that you don’t need to go to 1776 to see these principles at work.  If you wish, you can content yourself with a small CT settlement, ca. 1700.

*******************

*Here I must give credit to the playwright Arthur Miller.  His work The Crucible certainly criticized certain aspects of Puritan society.  And yet in his preface to the play he spends most of his time trying to get the reader to sympathize with the Puritans.  This sympathy, in fact, serves as the only solid basis for critique.

**I think the land issue a contributing factor accompanying deeper causes for Rome’s Republic, much in the same way I think Bushman overstates land issues as the primary cause for the collapse of the Puritan ideal.  In Rome’s case, one can see a shift in religious belief occasioned by their contact with Greece and the Mediterranean as the precursor to their political and social fragmentation.

^This is another great example of how Bushman’s book shed’s light on larger issues.  Most every commentator on Plato’ Laws calls Plato a grumpy old fart for banning trade from his theoretical realm.  But increased trade undeniably negatively impacted CT’s social order. Farmers deal roughly with the same soil and the same weather.  Surplus food grown by one poses no real threat to other farmers.

But trade seems to encourage more of the competitive spirit.  Trade deals more with luxuries than necessities, so unsold surpluses can ruin a merchant.  Hence, the extra competition to sell, and so on.  The rise of money and trade certainly played a role in the demise of Rome’s Republic.

^^I realize that this one sentence is hardly a reasonable defense for my views on Puritan theology,   My apologies–to defend them here is a bridge too far for me.  If I am correct, however, there are some  similarities in Puritanism to Stoicism (I stress “some”–the Puritans probably gave much more room for the emotions than the Stoics), a religion for Greece and Rome’s intellectual elite, but not for the masses.