Does Robespierre’s ghost haunt Capitol Hill today?


I just got back from having the best of times on a visit to Paris, France. But every morning there, I’d spend a few minutes checking for updates on the worst of times in Washington, D.C.

I’m back in the USA. The shutdown is over, for now. The risk of default is put off, for a time. But the path out of the morass into which rank partisanship has led us remains unclear.

It provoked thought to read about the shutdown while sitting a few hundred yards from the Place de la Concorde. 220 years ago, it was called the Place de la Revolution. And its dominant feature was an invention known as the guillotine.

While in Paris, I plowed through A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s great, sprawling novel about the Reign of Terror.

It may seem – and it may well be – hyperbolic to compare the showdowns, shout downs and shutdowns on our Capitol Hill today with the bloody, mob-haunted rancor of the French Revolution.

But as Mantel’s novel dramatizes, striking parallels exist between the radical young Jacobins of 18th-century France and today’s young politicians who can’t seem to find a way to govern.

Mantel’s book follows three key players in the Revolution, each of whom died by the same dropping blade to which they’d condemned others. One was Maximilien Robespierre. Though his name became synonymous with the Terror, Robespierre rose to power because he was seen as a coolly rational, utterly incorruptible patriot.

Mantel’s young reformers all came to Paris from the provinces, eager to make their names by extolling liberty and decrying the sins of a debt-ridden government. They preferred sticking to principle over compromise, which they dismissed as the refuge of the corrupt and cowardly. In debate, they excelled at denunciation and accusation. And they lived 24-7 in a partisan hothouse, hanging out only with members of their own faction.

Students of history know our notion of a left-right political spectrum stems from those chaotic days in France. The pro-republic Jacobins sat on the left tier of seats in the revolutionary National Assembly. Conservatives sat on the right.

So one of our society’s most embedded metaphors harks back to this era of toxic partisanship. Is it really that crazy to worry other parts of that tragic history are beginning to repeat themselves in our nation’s capital?

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