• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On 1788

The year 1788, unlike that by which it was preceded, and that to which it unresistingly gave way, was no annus mirabilis. It hadn’t a claim to so celebrated a title, and it dared not flatter itself with so grand and everlasting an honorific. It was, rather, a quiet, if not wholly forgotten middle child, an ungainly progeny for whom even the tenderest parent (otherwise so indiscriminate and charitable in the blind distribution of her love) would find it difficult to care. It was, in a word, an age neglected by the era, a time entrenched between two much more historic, marvelous, and auspicious years. It was an interim period to which, in light of what came before and after it, its older and younger siblings were, without doubt, far superior.


It exists as an appendage, merely, to the year 1787, when the Revolution in America formally reached its end. It was then, in the late-summer of that bold and imperishable year, that the blueprint of the infant nation’s federal government was, at long last, made known to the public. Just imagine, if you can, the gleeful enthusiasm and the hope, or—depending on one’s political allegiance—the crippling skepticism and fear, with which this immortal document was finally received. How many emotions must’ve coursed through the distended veins of the reader upon whose candle-lit table it had now come to rest? How many thoughts must’ve paraded through the avenues of a brain daily awaiting the arrival of a Constitution for which history, despite being so reliable a teacher, appeared to offer no comparable example?


With the parchment in hand, its contour and its language, its figure and its genius, its ambition and its restraint, its limitations and its powers, were for the first time presented to the man, and to a nation, wearied by war, but eager for life.


She, the nation, was now inhaling, for the first time in over a decade, the vitalizing air of independence and freedom, an ennobling fragrance with which her joyous, youthful lungs now, more than ever, happily swelled. As never before, she was suddenly looking up and smelling—with the playful curiosity of an emancipated nose—an azure sky unpolluted by the smoke of cannon. She was smelling a world untarnished by the stench of many corpses, an assortment of brothers, sons, and countrymen through whom British bullets so recently, and so fatally, flew. For so many years, she had experienced an acrid debris, a sooty miasma by which her stifled nostrils were clogged, and her patriotic throat constricted. Now, cautiously, she was raising her head to stiff an air cleansed of despotism’s boundless plume, by which her fragile liberty was very nearly choked, and her republican spirit just about killed.


The fruit of the summer of 1787, those seven articles of a Constitution yet unembellished by a Bill of Rights, were now, with all care, plucked from the tree of wisdom, cleansed of all worms, and sent to the market for sale. There, in the legislatures of thirteen confederate states, it was offered to the judgment of a country known as much for its division and peculiarity, as for its perspicacity and taste. Yet it was a country uncertain of what she might expect from those fifty-five sons sequestered in the heart of Philadelphia, that fecund, fraternal city out of which the very notion of “America” was now prepared to spring. She hadn’t an inkling of the rights, the liberties, nor, god forbid, the infringements to which, at this very moment, she was being asked to consent.


Many months had transpired since those undaunted constituents first huddled in that homely metropolis of which Benjamin Franklin was, despite his growing age and waning virility, still very much the fatherly, if somewhat Zeus-like symbol. Understandably, she was sensitive to any notion, however distant, of a return to the trappings of monarchy and inherited rule. She was disquieted by the idea of a return to the centralization of power into the bottomless pockets of some well-funded Tories, or into the unscrupulous hands an oligarchic few. She’d rather die stillborn, enjoying not a whiff of the air of liberty’s sweetness, blowing now so gently along the breath of life, than endure such a heavy, noxious, intolerable fate. Now, at the conclusion of a long, tempestuous period of gestation, she was anxious to learn the structure of the house into which, finally, she was being delivered.


So stands 1788 in relation to 1787, a year about which—had I the time, and you the patience, much more could, and indeed should be said. Yet just as it’s an epilogue to the birth year of America’s Constitution, 1788 is a prologue to the subsequent Revolution in France. That sister revolution, formed by the growth of a common seed, was a world-historic event to which 1789 bore witness. Years of simmering frustration, insurmountable debt, disproportionate taxes, profligate spending, class division, collapsing faith, abstract philosophy, radical thinking, foreign wars, and pervasive ennui boiled over and—all at once, suddenly overflowing the sides of the pot by which it was so tenuously contained—set aflame the stove by which it was lit.


It was in May of this year that King Louis XVI, desperate to calm the troubled waters of his realm, declared a meeting of the Estates-General. France, at the time, and in descending order of importance, was composed of three classes: the clergy, the nobility, and the uncelebrated hoi polloi. The first two, entrenched beneficiaries of a system of ancient prestige and royal favor, owned much of the land, and paid little of the taxes. The Third Estate, into which the vast majority of the French population was unceremoniously cast, carried much of the economic burden, and enjoyed none of the political profit.


The convergence of these three estates, these three mutually-hostile, stratified, and distant groups between whom, sadly, all sense of brotherhood and fellow-feeling had since been lost, occurred—for the first time since 1614—on May 4, 1789. The exigencies of the moment demanded a meeting that had, for over a century, been dismissed as not only archaic, but unbecoming of so refined and majestic a state. It was deemed unworthy of a state so proud, distinguished, and capable as was France—or, at least, as it was thought to be. Now, despite a long century of disuse, it seemed to be the only intervention by which this unraveling country (but only recently said to be the north star of the Enlightenment, and the gilded center of Western culture) might be saved.


Unsurprisingly, the three orders harbored differences of opinion that proved, especially under the guidance of a genial but incompetent king, most difficult to reconcile. The upper crust of the clergy, and the entirety of the nobility, joined in imploring Louis XVI to dismiss the Third Estate. Briefly, the hapless king entertained the idea, before remembering that any new proposal by which taxes might be raised would first have to be agreeable to this, the tertiary class. The Third Estate, conscious of the small but significant power with which it was endowed, yet pained by the great contempt with which it was regarded, was deeply offended by its treatment up to this point. With anger already kindled, its wrath was inflamed when, on 20 June, its entry into the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs (The Hall of Minor Diversions at Versailles) was inexplicably barred.


Ostensibly, Louis XVI locked its doors the evening prior, so that it might be prepared to accommodate a larger crowd two days hence. The deputies of the Third Estate, arriving that morning innocent of the knowledge of the king’s updated plans, felt themselves, yet again, the recipients of yet another royal slight. Exasperated by what appeared to be just another example of the king’s haughtiness and disrespect, they stormed off and reconvened their members at a nearby tennis court. There, in that densely-packed, historically-pregnant Salle du Jeu de Paume, the five-hundred seventy-seven members swore their immortal oath: they agreed, with all the solemnity and devotion they could muster, “never to separate”, and to meet “wherever circumstances might require, until a constitution should be firmly established”. It didn’t take long for them to make good on their pact.


Less than a month later, the Bastille was stormed. The date marking the occasion, 14 July, remains a national holiday in what’s persisted to be—despite a few paroxysms of kingship and terror, monarchy and mayhem—a nation comfortably dressed in republican garb. Like the Estates-General itself, the Bastille was, by and large, an impotent relic of an older time. It was a structure symbolic of royal excess and personal ire, as practiced in the Medieval age, but largely abandoned today. Certainly, it wasn’t, at the time of its seizure, a fully functional prison in which hordes of undeserving sans-culottes were extrajudicially kept. In truth, when its dreary walls were breached, and its gunpowder appropriated, and its poor governor (Bernard-René Jordan, Marquis de Launay) detained and, later, beaten and dispossessed of his head, only seven prisoners remained.


Really, though, the number of prisoners upon whom, premature of their sentence, freedom was conferred, mattered not. It was rather a victory of quality, than quantity. It was a symbolic triumph of the people, of the exploited and abused class, over the pompous king and his courtly elite. (Of course, barrels of gunpowder were acquired, of which the fledgling Parisian militia, soon to be renamed the Garde Nationale, and led by the world-famous Lafayette, was in desperate need.)


A little over a month later, on 27 August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was produced. With it, the world experienced yet another seminal event. Like the American Declaration of Independence on which it was based, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was an elevated statement of the country’s aspirations, and a vigorous expression of what the nation might, and very fervently desired to be. It was, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s enduring line, the golden apple around which the silver frame—in France’s case, the Revolutionary Constitution of 1790—would soon be built. It comprised seventeen distinct articles, full-bodied statements upon which, to the last, the edifying influence of Thomas Jefferson is clearly felt.


This, in a word, captures the essence of 1789. But what, I ask, are we to make of the forgotten year of 1788? Has it a claim, like those two years between which, with little hope of gathering the adornments offered by time, it quietly sits, to being remembered as a revolutionary age? Aside from being the birth year of George Gordon Byron, an alluringly rebellious, if not wholly revolutionary poet, it does not. It was a bridge, merely, by which two anni mirabiles, two wondrous and historic years, were connected. It was a point of conveyance between two fascinating years, two revolutionary epochs to which we’ll always enjoy traveling back. For this, we thank it, even if we don’t extol it. Its path bears the imprint of our grateful tread.

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