The French celebrate their independence each July 14, ten days after our own celebration, in observation of the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 by Parisian dissidents, many of whom were starving. As a Francophile, I am fascinated by similarities and differences between the events of Donald Trump’s administration and his rise to power and policies of French leaders past and present. How might French figures from the Age of Reason have jibed with a Trump Sun King?
President Trump accepted President Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to celebrate Bastille Day in Paris this year. For Trump to buddy up with his French counterpart is not new. France has been our close ally since the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin and John Adams ambassadors to France.
In 1778, Ben Franklin and John Paul Jones joined writer and bon vivant Voltaire in becoming members of the Nine Sisters Masonic Lodge in Paris. French-proficient, Franklin was elected to a two-year stint (1779-1780) as Master of the Lodge. The French loved him and he loved them. French women were enthralled with the coonskin-capped septuagenarian. In his last goodbye to France, Franklin asked fellow theist Voltaire to bless his grandson; Voltaire obliged with the words, “God and Liberty.”
It was the French who bankrolled the Continental Army. Gen. George Washington could not have won the Revolutionary War without them. Sadly, by helping us they gutted their own economy, which led to thousands of deaths about 40,000 executed by guillotine during the French Revolution.
I wondered what makes for longevity in government, particularly ours. Some suggest that all governments eventually transform from one type into the next; this is called the cyclical nature of government. Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that mixed government was ideal, by which he meant a form of constitutional republic, in which the rule of one is tempered by the rule of few, tempered by the rule of many.
During the Enlightenment, the French lawyer known generally as Montesquieu caught the soul of our Founding Fathers, who were seeking to protect our infant nation from enemies without and within. Constitutionalist James Madison was intrigued by the French historian’s understanding of checks and balances. In his book “The Spirit of the Laws,” Montesquieu proposed that the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government must be separate to retain their integrity.
Montesquieu’s idea was radical for its time. It rejected the then-prevalent feudalism, which divided French society into three classes called Estates: clergy, aristocracy and commoners. His outlook threatened the purse strings of the monarchy and clergy. Under feudalism only commoners paid taxes. Clergy and nobles paid none. Even today, regressive taxation persists. To give billionaires tax breaks, the U.S. Senate endeavors to drop the Affordable Care Actand set caps on Medicaid funding. Those with fewer assets pay more, while those with more pay less. Regressive policies then and now put caps on taxes and tax expenditures.
In closing, an episode in Louis XVI’s life epitomizes when oaths of loyalty might be apropos. The Marquis de Lafayette was present when the French National Guard seized Versailles palace on Oct. 6, 1789. These Parisian militiamen were ready to execute the king’s bodyguard, whom they believed had insulted them. According to historians, the king composedly defended the innocence of his personal guard, when unexpectedly the French Guard, of their own accord, pledged him loyalty.
Happy independence day, France!