The one problem I’ve always had with the American Revolution is that, unlike the infinitely better one they had in France, the movement that began in 1776 and ended in 1783 at the Battle of Yorktown never went through a radical phase.
The initial stage of the French Revolution that began in 1789 had their George Washingtons, Ben Franklins and Thomas Jeffersons, their moderate Whigs who wanted a constitutional monarchy based on the British model, but they quickly grew out of that childish phase of history. Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau died of natural causes in 1791, but on August 10, 1792, after a Jacobin mob sacked the Tuileries, where they found documents proving that he had been in the pay of the king all along, his remains were removed from the Pantheon and replaced with those of Jean Paul Marat. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who ordered the National Guard to fire on working-class Frenchman at the Champs de Mars Massacre on July of 1791, probably should have been guillotined, but since he was a hero of both the American and French Revolution, he was merely banished to his estate for the rest of the 1790s. Abbe Sieyès, who wrote famous pamphlet “What is the Third Estate,” as good a document in its own way as the Declaration of Independence, survived the red terror of 1793 and lived all the way to 1835 mainly because he was too dumb to be much of a threat. I think he may have one or two statues in and around Paris, but if you’re an American, I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard his name.
The French, in other words, have a healthy disrespect for their leaders. They have always looked at the French Revolution as incomplete, and their history as a struggle between liberalism and royalism, between democracy and capitalism. There are Americans, like the unjustly forgotten progressive historian Vernon Lewis Parrington, or his intellectual heir Howard Zinn, who believe pretty much the same thing, that the history of the United States is the history of a war between freedom and slavery, between racism and anti-racism, between immigrants looking for a better life, and nativists trying to keep them out. Conservative Americans, however, look at the American Revolution, not as a historical event, but as a form of holy annunciation. They see the “founding fathers,” not as flawed, secular intellectuals, but as agents of God himself. They look for the “original intent” in the Constitution as though they were interpreting the Bible, not a document written by slave owning aristocrats to eliminate the threat of democracy to their property. More serious liberal intellectuals like Hannah Arendt will put the American Revolution above the French Revolution. They’ll tell you all about the Terror of 1793, which may have killed 20,000 people, the bloody civil war in the Vendée, or Napoleon’s dictatorship, but they will neglect to mention how the American Revolution ended in a slave owners republic, one that took a bloody civil war that would eventually kill more than a million Americans to end.
So should we tear down statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington? Thomas Jefferson,who did pay some lip service to the Jacobins and the execution of King Louis, was a slave owning rapist who pedaled human flesh to pay off the debts on his ugly McMansion at Monticello. George Washington and his miserable, power hungry lackey Alexander Hamilton, betrayed his old allies, the only reason the American Revolution had even been successful, to maintain a cowardly policy of neutrality between Revolutionary France and the British Empire. John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Don’t get me wrong, unlike the people who wrote the 1619 Project, I still think the American Revolution was a historically progressive event, that replacing royalism with liberal capitalism was a good step back in 1776. I’m even willing to offer some grudging admiration for the Constitution — the fact that we rarely follow it today speaks in its favor — but the idea that history somehow ended in 1787, or that the only way it can progress is through an amendment process almost impossible to put into effective practice has been a disaster. The idolatrous worship of the United States Constitution and the “founding fathers” has effectively destroyed not only democracy, but our ability even to imagine what democracy might be like. By putting our old ruling class, our Thomas Jeffersons and George Washingtons, up on pedestals, we have made Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg inevitable.
The main concern I have about Black Lives Matter is not that they’ll tear down statues of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, but that they’ll replace them with statues of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Iconoclasm means nothing without radicalism, be it religious like the Byzantines or secular like the French. If all the current wave of social discontent means is the replacement of racist old Donald Trump with senile old Joe Biden then leave the monuments alone. Pigeons have to shit somewhere. But if demolishing the Lincoln Memorial and burning Monticello to the ground makes it possible once again to fight for the ideals they’re supposed to represent then by all means burn baby burn.