Happy Bastille Day! July 14, 2018 commemorates the 230th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, an event more symbolic than pivotal in the French Revolution. I would venture, however, that the minds of many French people are focused less on that coup d’état and more on the Coupe du monde. Meanwhile, the Croats may be recalling their participation in the Napoleonic wars against French ambitions of global empire: at least in football/soccer, the French must not be allowed to Ba-stille the World Cup.
The French Revolution was supported, unsurprisingly, by many inhabitants of the infant republic to the far west. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was an avid supporter. While he was inconsistent on many matters (most notoriously, slavery), his enthusiasm for the revolution based on, in his words, ‘the appeal to the rights of man, which had been made in the U.S.’ and ‘taken up by France’ reflected his earlier remarks on rebellion in a 1787 letter written in Paris and addressed to William Stephens Smith: ‘What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.’ In a side comment recently deciphered by our Department of Jeffersonian Marginalia, Jefferson also urged the importance of putting down uprisings by bald men and of exterminating exhausted insects of the family Formicidae, calling for the tree of liberty to be additionally fed by ‘the blood of pate-riots & tired-ants’.
Besides the French blockade of British ships during the American Revolution and American supporters of the French Revolution, not to mention the Statue of Liberty and french fries, the historic ties between America and France run deep. This recent article by Madhvi Ramani discloses that it was in the northern French town of St-Dié-des-Vosges where Walter Lud, the local church canon, (explosively) gathered a group of scholars, including Martin Waldseemüller, to create a book and map combining ancient knowledge and information gathered from overseas European voyages. The 1507 Waldseemüller map named the continent encountered across the Atlantic after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer who claimed to have ‘discovered’ this ‘new world’ a year before Columbus. Ramani’s article helpfully discusses other innovative features of the map, and notes that ancient and medieval Europeans were more advanced in their knowledge of our planet’s shape than modern-day flat-earthers: Vespucci merely confirmed that the earth is Amerigo-round. The article neglects, however, the findings of Early Modern Times’s Department of Alt-Cartography that Waldseemüller and his colleagues had considered an alternative name for the Americas and derived from the Italian explorer’s encounter with an adorable canine fitted in a sleeveless garment by a local tribe in the southern part of the continent (a Chile Dog): the continent of Vest-poochy.
Almost three centuries later, in 1776, the Continental Congress of the United States of America (which somehow appropriated the name ‘America’ for itself, leaving the rest of us from Canada to Chile as non-‘American’ Americans) would declare independence from the British empire (depicted above in an 1819 painting by John Trumbull). This founding document, principally authored by Jefferson, is the subject of two recent news items. First, The Washington Examiner reports Facebook’s apology for flagging a section of the Declaration of Independence as ‘hate speech’, likely its reference to Native Americans as ‘merciless Indian savages’. Second, this short video notes the discovery of one of the two surviving ‘ceremonial copies’ of the Declaration in the West Sussex County Council archives in Chichester UK (the other is in Washington DC). The video does not mention (according to our Department of Revolting Beverages) the ‘ceremonial coffee’ of the newborn USA, specially picked in South Asia and processed for aroma but also to prevent jitters: Decaffeination of Indian-bean-scents. Of course, the American Revolution might never have taken place if not for the protests against tax exemptions for the East India Company, i.e., the Boston Tea Party. Altogether forgotten is the contribution of other Boston smugglers who sought to evade customs duties on large quantities of handcrafted jewellery dangling from necklaces, as recorded in the revolutionary pamphlet ‘Declare 8-tons of Indie-Pendants?!’
Early Modern Times will return on Aug. 4-5!
Director, Early Modern Freedom-Fertilising Studies Program