Back when I was in the fifth grade, the United States was celebrating its Bicentennial. Believe if or not, the American Revolution was widely discussed. Our American ruling class had been so freaked out by the 1960s it was using the 200th Anniversary of the birth of our slave owners republic to re-indoctrinate us young people with American nationalism, to make us patriotic again. One of my teachers was clearly a hippie who had protested the Vietnam War but still he went along with the celebration. He took us to see the movie 1776. We visited the Caldwell Parsonage, the site of the Battle of Connecticut Farms.
I was very fond of American history. I was also obsessed with the Beatles. On one of our little carpooled road trips, the song All You Need is Love came on the radio. Noticing that my teacher liked it as much as I did, I asked him what the trump music opening the song was.
“That’s the French National Anthem,” he said, “The Marseillaise.”
(he pronounced it wrong)
“So that’s like their Star Spangled Banner?” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“Did they have a revolution too?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “But the American Revolution was about freedom. The French Revolution was about chopping peoples’ heads off.”
“Why did they do that?” I said.
“Because almost every revolution ends badly,” he said. “The Russian Revolution ended in a communist dictatorship. The French Revolution ended up as a military dictatorship under Napoleon. Even the American Revolution kept slavery.”
“Who was Napoleon?” I said.
“Napoleon,” he said, “was like George Washington, only he was motivated by greed and power, and not love of his country. But even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had slaves. That’s what John Lennon is trying to say in that song, that the only genuine revolution is love, that a violent revolution always leaves people worse off than before, that love is the only way of breaking the cycle.”
“So that’s all you need?” I said.
“That’s all you need,” he said.
But it wasn’t. That very evening I went home, pulled out the “N” volume and started reading about Napoleon. Then I read about Robespierre and guillotines, then read about the 10th of August 1792, the most violent and radical single day of the French Revolution. The 10th of August is also my birthday. It felt like being born on the Fourth of July. I decided that simply for happening on my birthday, the French Revolution was better. Later I would learn that The French Revolution was better than the American Revolution in all sorts of ways. And to be honest, these days, at least for the ruling class, we need guillotines a lot more than we need love. John Lennon was great for his day, but if I granted one wish and could resurrect anybody I wanted from history, it would certainly be Robespierre or Danton, and not one of the Beatles.