Bertier de Sauvigny’s head on a pike


It’s hardly an original observation, but watching the last month of the American presidential contest from Europe really brings home how crackpot Americans are about their elections. From here, there appears to be very, very little difference between Obama and Romney. Obama is generally more conservative than the French conservatives, for crying out loud! Hell, he’s more conservative than Richard Nixon. And for American liberals who think Romney is a right-wing whack job, and that crazy crypto-fascists are steadily advancing, they should be in a country where the National Front is a major political player.

An American friend who lives here with her French husband and kids told me the other day that her folks back home keep sending her alerts warning her that the United States is in maximum peril from four more years of the Kenyan Muslim Marxist in the White House. If Obama is re-elected, the story goes (and I get this same narrative in my e-mail in-box daily), we will LOSE AMERICA! We just looked at each other, shook our heads, and laughed.

You wonder what in the world gets into people.

This alarmism looks even more ridiculous and self-indulgent to me as I read and think about the French Revolution. I bought earlier this week a copy of Christopher Hibbert’s history of the Revolution. I’m going to wait until I finish the entire book to comment on what I’ve learned, but I will say for now that it makes me very, very grateful for the relative peaceability with which we Americans had our revolution. I mean, a revolution is not basket-weaving, and we did fight a war to win our liberty from Great Britain. I’m talking instead about how colonial American political culture avoided scenes like this, from the early days of the Revolution (here’s a quote from Hibbert):

 In the capital a deputy lamented that there was “no more army and no more police”, and Bailly [the mayor of Paris] admitted that “everybody knew how to command but nobody knew how to obey”. The lieutenant de maire of Saint Denis on the northern outskirts of Paris was chased through the streets by an angry crowd for contemptuously refusing to reduce the price of bread. Chased to the top of the church steeple, he was stabbed to death and decapitated. One of the Ministers in Breteuil’s [the King's chief minister] reactionary government, Foullon de Doue, who was believed to have been speculating in the grain trade and plotting a counter-revolution, met an even more horrible fate. Accused of having said that the people should be made to eat hay if they were hungry, a collar of nettles was placed around his neck, a bunch of thistles was thrust into his hand and a fistful of hay was stuffed between his lips. He was then hanged on a nearby lamppost. His son in law, Bertier de Sauvigny, the Intendant of Paris and the Ile de France, was accused of similar abuses and murdered as well. His heart was torn out of his body and brandished at the window of the Hotel de Ville. Then his head was cut off and paraded through the streets and down the arcades of the Palais Royal, the one head being pushed against the other to cries of, “Kiss Papa! Kiss Papa!” Here Gouverneur Morris [the American minister] saw “the populace carrying about the mangled fragments with a savage joy.” “Gracious God,” Morris thought. “What a people!”

When we get into a situation in which the mob decapitates leading politicians and parades their heads on pikes up and down the Mall in Washington, then I’ll worry that we are losing our country. Until then, people, calm down and hush up.