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Alan Riquelmy: Don’t lose your head

The children of the revolution were beset from all sides.

Other European countries were upset, obviously, that the French National Convention had voted to execute the king. Add to that some rebels from within France who had scored some military successes. Then there were the patriots, the ones who supported the revolution, who imposed their will on the government at the end of a pike.

But despite all this, there was still time to make a new calendar.



It pulled from poetry and nature, this new calendar, wiping away religion and the old regime. Twelve months of 30 days each, with five special days tacked on at the end.

Today, over two centuries past the calendar’s creation, you can track the days by following @sansculotides on Twitter.




And when you do, you’ll see today is Thermidor 10 in the revolutionary calendar.

I like watching anniversaries roll around each year. I mark them on my calendar, waiting for them as they slowly approach. Birthdays, work anniversaries, they’re all there, but so are the secret days few think about. Like the day men empowered by a sweeping revolution, after having been deposed in dramatic fashion and then rushed through a quick trial, were executed by guillotine.

Great moments moved quickly back then. Blink and you might miss it. Chop chop.

After all, it was a revolution. What did you expect?

It still seems strange, though, that a society reeling under monumental change could go from idyllic, Enlightenment-tinged philosophy to the public execution of your political enemies.

One anecdote states that around 1790 a man, having just arrived at a public works site, placed his personal effects to the side before joining the group. Someone asked if he feared someone would steal his belongings. He replied that he had nothing to fear from his brothers.

Of course, three years later he’d fear denunciations. He’d fear the beginnings of a police state. Everyone worried about saying the wrong thing and a neighbor catching them. Everyone calling themselves a patriot while accusing their enemies of treason.

It almost sounds familiar.

That’s not fair, you might say, to compare a government in the throes of deadly partisanship and civil strife to America in the 21st century. In one example, there’s a nation split in two. Multiple factions are filled with self-righteousness and an assurance they are correct. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. They purge from their own ranks when heretics are discovered. They lurch toward political extremes, bringing their country closer to the brink.

And in the other example, well, you see where this is going.

There are lessons buried in French catacombs, if we care to examine them. Heroes turned into villains. Goodwill twisted into hate. A government of the people sliding into totalitarianism.

And then, when the would-be dictators are deposed, an indolent and ineffectual government follows, only to be tossed aside when a real dictator comes along.

Not tonight, Josephine.

The blueprint of what not to do is there for anyone to read. All the information is spread out on the calendar, regardless of whether you’re in the month of July or Thermidor. The lessons are clear no matter what language you use.

Governments move fast in a revolution — it’s in their nature. That’s why a government that drudges along is preferred. We may not like the snail’s pace, but it helps ensure our rights are secure and that our elected leaders truly represent us.

That’s why I like to remember these anniversaries. It gives me perspective, something to think on and study.

It’s worth a look for anybody. Just don’t lose your head.

Alan Riquelmy is the editor of The Union. He can be reached at ariquelmy@theunion.com or 530-477-4229

 


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