I just opened one of my favorite books—L’Agenda en révolution—to today’s date and realized with a chuckle that today is the fête de la pistache, or pistachio day. Allow me to be the first to wish you a Happy Pistachio Day, dear reader!
Seem weird? Not if you’re into the revolutionary calendar which I bet at least some of you are, maybe even with as much intensity as I was once had, while writing The Frankenstein of 1790. It led to an obsessive pursuit of perfect correspondences between dates, as seen in the intricate document I appended to the book (pasted below). Whoooboy, I am in awe of my own geekdom!
It’s cool to be an expert in something. The Germans have a word for it (which I’ve just spent an hour searching in vain.)
Since leaving academe, I am more aware of what academics look like in the public eye. From the outside, the views of professors appear sacrosanct or at least prevalent. That seems interesting to me now, significant. I’m sure this comment stirs up conflicting feelings in my readers who happen to be academics—French and American—who are usually angry about the way they are portrayed and not consulted by the media. Am I mellowing, becoming wistful, or just undergoing a shift in perspective?
I was struck during a recent trip to NYC by the chillingly different way revolutionary discourse sounds in the US and France. We went to Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street, near Wall Street in New York. We went on the recommendation of a young friend, to visit the exhibit on American history and have a drink. I was not expecting such a visceral response. It was the eerie sameness in rhetoric that floored me, between American revolutionary writers whose words were encased in glass before me, and the generation of French writers I know so well, from the 1790s. The “Sons of Liberty” speak in stentorian voices just like the Jacobins and Cordeliers who followed them. They use the same abstract concepts (patriotism, valor, fidelity) and stoke fears of similar external threats (“repelling every hostile invasion”). As you’ll see below, a vow of loyalty is required among the Americans, just as it was among the French so brilliantly in the summer of 1790.
Time fascinates all of us who work on revolutions. How random and changeable political regimes can be, how fast people’s fortunes and livelihoods can tank. A sense of tenuous times runs through the American documents too. Just as the French dated their works with two if not three systems of recording,* the American scribe who took dictation in 1776 felt moved to capture that date in two ways. Note the end: “Dated [at [this word is crossed out on document]] / This fourteenth of December AD. 1776. Seventy Six.” Why is the place name crossed out? Why did the author write “Seventy Six” after printing “1776”?
Another thing that began plaguing my thoughts during the visit to Fraunces Tavern Museum exhibit was the void around people of color, slavery, and/or conflicts with Indians. I came away feeling sick to my stomach, frankly. However, French history is no better—it’s just that we know black people, red people, peoples of color in all races—have been on American soil forever. To see an official museum of American history that portrays them only as helpful and subservient (the Lenape were the “skilled hunters” at Washington’s side) or absent (blacks who were used as slaves), feels bizarre. The complicity of the Americans seems more heinous than that of the French, because it is the same people who wrote our documents with all that high-falutin’ language about rights and “for all,” they themselves who bought, sold, and used slaves for their own benefit. Is hypocrisy an American trait we’ve inherited from our forefathers? Hmmm…
There’s another lesson here too, about the English and money. It has to do with a populist resentment of other people, especially the ruling classes, messin’ with our money. By forcefully refusing to pay English taxes on tea, arguing that they were suffering taxation without representation, the American revolutionaries cut the economic ties that bound them to England and with it, American access to that prosperous English market. They did so out of resentment against the faceless parliamentary forces in far-away London. Sounds like Brexit, circa 1776!
Will Brexit be remembered as the Glorious Revolution of 2016?
Not so sure …
- Manuscript 198, Commission, from archives of Fraunces Tavern, New York, NY
We, reposing especial Trust and Confidence in your Patriotism, Valour, Conduct / and Fidelity, do, by these Presents, constitute and appoint you to be a / Captain in the Regiment of Light Dragoons commanded by Lieutenant / Colonel Sheldon / in the Army of the United States, raised for the Defence of American Liberty, and for / repelling every hostile Invasion thereof. You are therefore carefully and diligently to / discharge the Duty of Captain by doing and performing all manner / of Things thereunto belonging. And we do strictly charge and require all Officers and / Soldiers under your Command, to be obedient to your Orders as Captain / And you are to observe and follow such Orders and Directions from Time to / Time, as your shall receive from this or a future Congress of the United States, or Com- / mittee of Congress, for that purpose appointed, on Commander in Chief, for the Time / being, of the Army of the United States, or any other your superior Officer, according / to the Rules and Discipline of War, in Pursuance of the Trust reposed in you. This / Commission to continue in Force until revoked by this of a future Congress. Dated [at [this word is crossed out on document]] / This fourteenth of December AD. 1776. Seventy Six. By Order of the Congress, / Attest. Chas Thomson Secy. John Hancock President.
*According to the website by Windhorst which includes a helpful article on why conversions such as this one, November 16, 2018, to 26 brumaire An CCXXVII, produce varying results: http://www.windhorst.org/calendar/
- Note on the Republican Calendar, from Douthwaite, The Frankenstein of 1790 and other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012), 239-240.
“On the Republican Calendar and Dates”
The republican calendar was adopted by the Convention government in October 1793 and postdated to refer back to the founding of the French Republic on September 22, 1792. The calendar was thus launched in and dated Year 2. However, other schemes to signal the newness of the revolutionary era were employed as early as 1789, such as, for example, “third year of the Freedom,” which dates events relative to 1789. Instead of the Gregorian calendar’s traditional start in January, the republican calendar year began at the autumn equinox. In an effort to make timekeeping more rational, the twelve months of thirty days each received new names based on nature, principally having to do with the prevailing weather in and around Paris. Because of the calendar’s ties to the equinox, there is a certain slippage in dates; thus 1 vendémiaire could be either September 22, 23, or 24, depending on the year. Five extra days – six in leap years–were national holidays at the end of every year. These were originally known as les sans-culottides (after sansculottes), but after Year 3 (1795) they were known as les jours complémentaires.
Due to the confusion that predated this decision and ensued in its wake, the dates of period newspapers underwent a series of changes. On October 7, 1793, the Journal de Paris national carried a hybrid date: October 7, 2nd Year of the Republic.” The next day is listed as “the 17th day of the 1st month, 2nd Republican Year.” Five days later, the formula became: “22nd day of first month of Year 2 of the French Republic one and indivisible. (Sunday October 13, 1793, vieux style).”
The French government employed the republican calendar from October 24, 1793, until December 31, 1805 (Year 14), and for 18 days during the Paris Commune in 1871.
In the notes and bibliography, I give both the republican date and the Gregorian date unless the text has only the Gregorian date in the original. When a republican date is given but the Gregorian date is lacking from the text, it is designated thus: Year 2 (1793-94). When no date is present and the Gregorian date is inferred from textual clues only, it is designated thus: [1793?]. When no date is present and the Gregorian date is documented in archival records or other print sources, it is designated thus: ca. 1793.
- Douthwaite, The Frankenstein of 1790, 239-240.