Tag Archives: French Revolution

The Revolutionary Age – the Winter Edition of History NOW

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 Septembe...

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 September 1782″. By John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), c. 1783 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revolution is truly like a pox, spreading from person to person.

This particularly human sickness is the subject of this winter’s issue of History NOW from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  Ten essays from a collection of eminent historians detail how the revolutionary fervor of the Americas would spread globally, to France, to Haiti, to Cuba and beyond.

Several of the essays caught my eye.  First was Patrick Spero’s interesting piece on the truly global nature of the American war of independence.  Unbeknownst to many on this side of the pond, the longest and largest battle of the War of Independence did not occur on American soil and involved no US lives: the Spanish seige of British-held Gibraltar from 1779 to 1783.  The British victory was celebrated in a painting by John Singleton Copley, demonstrating the US struggle’s overall limited place in what became a global war.

Susan Dunn’s comparison of the French and American Revolutions is also of note.   The analysis is hardly new–that the moderating nature of the American Revolution made for a long-lasting, yet flawed system, while the increasingly radical French Revolution would self-destruct.  What is new is the view of the American Revolution from the French point of view, particularly how the French perspective changes from that of doting admirers to critical ascendant revolutionaries bent on correcting and improving on the American model.

I would be remiss if I forgot the contributions of my old friend, UCLA professor emeritus Gary Nash.  In an article recovered from Gilder Lehrman’s arch, Nash examines the social and intellectual roots of the Revolution, particularly the various movements advocating for independence and social change.  The ideals of revolution manifested itself through various avenues, as Americans of all stripes struggled to create a new society–a society that would be on the backburner as forces of reaction and stability placed the war and the ensuing Constitution as a priority over social change.

As with any Gilder Lehrman product, History NOW is laden with primary sources for educators to utilize the ideas of the authors.  This issue contains the Stamp Act, Jefferson’s letters on the Haitian and French Revolutions, the Monroe Doctrine, even the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence.

The Neighborhood is usually very enthusiastic of Gilder Lehrman resources, and History NOW is no exception.  Take your time and really sift through the treasure trove of analysis and insight…it’s among the best issues yet.

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Documents for the Classroom: Tom Paine-a-Mania at the Neighborhood

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Tom Paine was always a guy I admired: honest, blunt, a professional asshole.

He was also one of the most influential writers of the late 18th century, focusing his pen on the problems of liberty, equality, government and revolution.  As for the latter, he helped push unrest on two continents, and had conservatives across Europe and America shitting in their pants.

The latest post from the Social Studies and History Teachers Blog out of Multimedia Learning focuses on Paine’s most famous work in the States, the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense.  In it, he posits a radical idea: that common, ordinary people have a place in government.  Its ideals still ring true today.

I’m also including links to two other of Paine’s works that may not be as famous as Common Sense, or his subsequent The Crisis here in the US, but are just as important in understanding this important author:

Rights of Man (1791) – Paine’s response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, it is his defense of revolution as a tool for regime change and the protection of basic rights.  It caused a sensation in England, forcing Paine to stay in France and work with the revolutionary government–as treason charges were waiting for him at home.

The Age of Reason (1794-1796) – While in the Luxembourg prison in Paris for opposing the execution of Louis XVI, and seeing the institutional atheism of the Reign of Terror, Paine penned this biting screed that took organized religion in general, and Christianity in particular, to task.  Yet he saw the danger in Robespierre’s authoritarian approach to anti-clericalism, fighting instead for religious liberty.

Enjoy these, and let us know of how you used Paine’s work in your lesson planning.


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Mr. D’s Bastille Day Flashback: “Citizen Smurf” from 12/7/2002

The following is by special request of a friend of the Neighborhood, and appropriate given today’s holiday, Bastille Day.

I wrote this in late 2002 for the now-defunct Flak magazine, an internet magazine that featured the likes of Clay Risen, an author, classmate of mine and former editor of the New Republic, as well as sports commentator for NPR Bob Cook.  This was among my first stabs at web writing.  Have fun.

Citizen Smurf

The recent death of French publisher Charles Dupuis, who introduced the world to the Smurfs, is cause for an assessment of the legacy of the three-apples-high community that captivated youths in the ’80s. The Smurfs, the happy blue creatures on our television screens on countless Saturday mornings, looked harmless enough: Happy, cute, loveable, content, ready to help each other in times of trouble, especially when the evil wizard Gargamel was lurking. A loving, functioning community.


Behind this community of loveable little elflike creatures lurks the sinister machinations of the French Revolution. Finally, in one collection of animation cels, the culmination of the Republic of Virtue as illustrated by Maxmilien de Robespierre, the architect of the Reign of Terror. A pseudo-democratic society that values freedom, it is in reality an authoritarian regime that is neither democratic nor free, and prizes uniformity, obedience and civic virtue over all other ideals.

“But wait,” you protest. “This is a cartoon. It’s for kids! C’mon, you can’t tell me that this is ‘Tale of Two Cities.'”

It may be a cartoon, but it is by no means innocent. Let’s start with the attire. All the Smurfs wear essentially the same garment: white pants (similar to the attire of the sans-culottes of the radical Jacobins) with a hat that strangely resembles a liberty cap from the revolutionary period. Sure, there are some specialty garments, by Smurfette (the slutty little Girondist Charlotte Corday), the miner, the doofy yokel (The peasants of the Ile-de-France who suffered the brunt of the Terror) and of course the painter, who was the only Smurf with a French accent.

Their very own Jacques Louis David, the painter must do heroic portraits of none other than Papa Smurf, the de facto leader of the Smurfs. Papa Smurf, like Robespierre, has no official title as head of the republic. He, and only he, wears the virile and virtuous red pants and cap, thus painting him in the colors of the French Tricolor. One can almost picture this little blue citizen singing “Le Marseilleise.” Although the community had the trappings of a democratic society, with open discussions, arguments and debate about what to do (usually led by the one-Smurf intelligentsia Brainy Smurf), ultimately all power rested on the primary Smurf characters, a Committee of Smurf Safety (the only ones we know by name) and, ultimately, Papa Smurf, first among equals.

How did Papa Smurf come into power? He was not a king, he had no title to rule. At one time (although the series never elaborated on this), the Smurfs were under Gargamel’s more direct control. However, they banded together and cast off the chains of tyranny to form a democratic Smurf republic. Yet the royalist threat still loomed, and to ensure the safety of the republic more power ended up in the more radical Papa Smurf faction of Smurfette, Brainy, etc. They would ultimately shape Smurf society to what we now know.

And what kind of community did Papa Smurf envision? A uniform, outwardly happy society based on strict morals and ultimate obedience. Why didn’t any Smurf ever have the audacity to countermand Papa Smurf? Robespierre envisioned an orderly, virtuous proletarian republic based on imposed equality through direct democracy, punishment and violence. Now, this was a G-rated cartoon, so we, as children, saw no tumbrels filled with traitors to the Smurfs heading to Madame de Smurf-etine. However, it is safe to say that Papa Smurf had to have dealt with anonymous troublemakers here and there. In a population of a few hundred, one Smurf disappearing here and there would not make much of a difference in our eyes, especially if its of the nameless masses of Smurfs we never heard from anyway.

Where was God, or some supreme being in Smurf society? The Smurfs apparently never worshipped anything but maybe nature and a nationalistic warlike fervor against perceived attacks by the royalist Gargamel. Again, like Robespierre, Papa Smurf chose to keep the Smurfs on a permanent war footing (Their outwardly peaceful demeanor doesn’t fool anybody.). This, to me, is the only explanation as to how a three-apple-high community can outfight a wizard. Let’s not forget that Gargamel is a wizard, his Divine Right bestowed by his magic powers (ineptly used, but Louis XVI was no brain surgeon, either). The only way the Smurfs could combat enemies from without and within (Brainy was the most willing to collaborate with Gargamel) is complete suppression of dissent, instillation of uniformity in thought, word and deed, and a subtle martial demeanor to keep the community on a high state of alert. Only then could republican government in the forest be maintained.

This society, like all authoritarian societies, could not last. In the later stages of the show we saw the introduction of characters like Sassette, who eschewed the uniform whiteness of the imposed order in favor of more colorful, Directoire garb. Ultimately (It is a pity the series did not last this long), the primary Smurf characters would kill themselves off, first Brainy and his supporters, who saw no need for more Smurf bloodshed. Papa Smurf would succumb to the Smurf-etine. The younger characters would reform the government and rule in moderate, inept fashion over Smurfs who increasingly use colors in their garments.

That is, until a new leader emerges to take the Smurfs on a path of conquest. If anyone has an idea as to which Smurf works best as Napoleon Bonaparte, let me know.

–see it at http://www.flakmag.com/rejected/smurfs.html

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