The Fateful Franco-American Alliance

Depiction of the signing of the treaties by Charles E. Mills

On this day in 1778, the United States and France signed two treaties – the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce – that established strong and perpetual military, economic, and political ties. As the Revolutionary War grinded on, the Patriots realized that they needed diplomatic and military support from abroad to succeed. France was the natural choice, as it was a longstanding rival to Great Britain and the only country that rival its power. Continue reading

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The World’s First Film Screening

On this day in 1895, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière used their patented cinematograph in Paris to hold the first film screening in history. It consisted of ten short films, each an average of fifty seconds.

The Lumières went on tour with the cinematographe the following year, visiting Brussels, Mumbai, London, Montreal, New York City, and Buenos Aires. Their films were also shown in Egypt.

Ironically, despite arguably being the world’s first filmmakers, the brothers stated that “the cinema is an invention without any future” and subsequently went on to focus on color photography (in which they also broke much ground).

Below is the world’s first movie poster, advertising one of the brothers’ comedies, L’Arroseur Arrosé, the first comedic film and the first film to portray a fictional story.

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If Only We Listened to De Gaulle

In 1934, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance during the Second World War, wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier (Toward a Professional Army), which formulated how France should organize its military. It was ahead of its time in advocating for a professional army based on mobile armored divisions, namely mechanized infantry and tanks. Not only did he propose this as a way to keep Germany in check, but he saw it as a means of enforcing international law.

Unfortunately for France and its allies, the book did extremely poorly in its home country: only 700 copies were sold. However, it sold ten times as many copies in neighboring Germany, where even Adolf Hitler himself reportedly studied it. Sure enough, Germany employed a very similar approach to du Galle’s, with its panzer units and mobile infantry sweeping through the country in the invasion of France in 1940.

At the time, de Gaulle, who had served with distinction in the First World War, remained a colonel, due to his bold views antagonizing France’s conservative military leaders. He nonetheless implemented many of his theories and tactics as commander of a tank regiment, and during an offensive against German armor at Montcornet on May 17th, he managed to temporarily turn back enemy forces without the benefit of air support. While this ultimately proved inconsequential in slowing the invasion, it was one of the few victories France enjoyed prior to its rapid capitulation just one month later.

Whereas French collaborators and traitors would blame French society for the fall of the country, de Gaulle – who refused to surrender and extolled his countrymen to continue fighting – took the reverse stance, blaming French military and civilian leaders while believing the French people had the courage and moral stamina to keep resisting. Given the sheer size and strategic value of the French Resistance, as recognized by Allied leaders like Eisenhower, his point was validated. If only his prescient book and ideas had been heeded, or at the very least he be placed in the higher ranking he earned. World War Two may have gone very differently, if at all.

H/T to  Jean Lacouture‘s DeGaulle: The Rebel 1890-1944 (Vol. 1)

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On This Day in 1793…

The Louvre officially opened in Paris with an exhibition of 537 paintings. Built in the 12th century as a military fortress, the building now housing the Louvre was a royal palace and then a private museum before the National Assembly, in the midst of the French Revolution, decreed it should be open to the public to display the nation’s great works.

Through centuries of government support and private donations, the Louvre’s world-famous collection has grown to nearly 35,000 objects, spanning almost every civilization, art style, and historical period from prehistory to the 21st century. The museum spans 652,300 square feet (60,600 square metres) and is the world’s most visited museum, receiving over 9 million visitors annually (about 15,000 a day).

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Jean-Baptiste Belley

Belley, with the bust of the philosophe Raynal, by Girodet

Jean-Baptiste Belley, also known as Mars, was a native of Senegal and former slave from Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) who during the French Revolution became a member of the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundred, France’s legislative chambers.

After buying his freedom and serving as a captain of the colonial infantry, he was elected to the Convention in 1793 during the height of the revolution. He was perhaps the first African and first former slave to be elected to a legislative body in any Western country. He presided over the Convention’s unanimous abolition of slavery and served as an active supporter of the rights of Africans in the French Republic.

Although he was recognized as a full citizen of the Republic, Belley had to struggle against institutional racism. He remained steadfast in helping the new country stay true to its formal claim of equality and liberty until losing his seat in 1797.

In the above painting by Girodet, he stands with the bust of Guillaume Thomas Raynal, a prominent Enlightenment thinker and abolitionist. His stylish relaxed pose was a popular way of portraying figures of the revolution. Many art critics also see in the painting the idea of the noble savage.

Thomas Jefferson, the French, and a Debate About Moose

If that title doesn’t get your attention, than that of the NPR article I just read will: “Thomas Jefferson Needs A Dead Moose Right Now To Defend America.” That in turn references the unusual book, “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking At People Looking at Animals in America.” Needless to say, both the book and the article are pretty interesting. Here’s this gem for example.

So, from his residence in Paris, Jefferson wrote his colleagues — Franklin, Madison, and others — asking them to go out and measure American animals, so he could create his own data set. As biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin describes it in his bookMr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, the Founding Fathers quickly responded. Madison sent Jefferson a precise description of a local Virginian weasel, measuring all the parts — down to the “distance between the anus and the vulva.”

Jefferson put all these measurements into a table, and published it years later in his Notes on the State of Virginia, comparing a 410-pound bear from America to Europe’s 153.7-pound version, America’s 12-pound otter to Europe’s 8.9-pounder. Mooallem describes Jefferson as a man obsessed. He had to prove Buffon wrong, and (this being an Enlightened Age) he wanted to prove it scientifically — by measuring, describing and building his argument.

I’ll let you figure out what this out-of-context quote means. It’s actually a fascinating story that touches on the power of symbolism, the amusing pettiness of even the most respectable and intelligent statesmen, and the passionate (if not quirky) dedication of one of our most prominent historical figures.

Was Napoleon Bonaparte Short?

Popular culture is full of references to the famous French emperor being short. Heck, his name is even used to describe a presumed psychological phenomenon in which men of short stature compensate for their size by being more aggressive and domineering. (How insecure to you have to be to conquer all of Europe just to make up for your height?)

But contrary to popular belief, Napoleon Bonaparte was not short — in fact, he was actually slightly taller than the average French male of his time.

After his death in 1821, the French emperor’s height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches in French feet, which translates to 5 feet 7 inches in the English equivalent. Many people didn’t take into account the distinction, since there wasn’t a standardized international system of measurements yet. (Sure enough, it would be the French that would come up with a universal metric system in 1799.)

Other factors contributed to this widespread belief. It didn’t help that the rival English had an obvious bias against Napoleon, and thus caricatured him as short in comparison to their own mighty toops. He was often seen in the company of his Imperial Guard, who were themselves even taller than average, as such elite troops tended to be. His nickname of “Le Petit Caporal” or “The Little Corporal” is also cited as evidence that he was short, but is now believed to have simply been a term of affection by his troops.

Although Napoleon’s actual height still seems unremarkable by modern standards, the average male at his time was shorter than men nowadays. The audacious emperor had many reasons for changing the face of Europe — compensating for a diminutive stature was certainly not one of them.

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Happy 194th Birthday Léon Foucault

Two centuries ago, it was difficult for scientists to model intricate planetary orbits. Léon Foucault helped devise a method to make celestial orbits a bit easier to understand. 

Wednesday marks the 194th anniversary of the French physicist’s birth. To celebrate Mr. Foucault and his breakthrough pendulum, let’s take a look at how he was able to model Earth’s rotation.

Jean Bernard Léon Foucault was born in Paris in 1819. While Foucault received a medical education, the profession did not quite suit him. The young doctor is said to have a distaste for bloody medical dissections. But Foucault was brilliant when it came to making models, tools, and devices. 

And Foucault’s craftsmanship came in handy.

Foucault and a series of teachers, bosses, and partners tackled many scientific questions by building contraptions that could make hard-to-grasp phenomenas more tangible. Foucault was able to measure the speed of light. He improved the daguerreotype, an early form of photography. He found a way to prove that light is a wave, not a beam of particles. He named the gyroscope, a stabilizing tool found in everything from toys to the International Space Station. 

In 1851, Foucault made one of his best-remembered experiments: the scientist devised the first model to demonstrate the rotation of the earth on its axis.

People had tried many different ways to explain Earth’s rotation before Foucault. One group had even launched cannon balls up into the air with the hopes that the world would spin enough that they could measure the deviation once the ball plummeted back to earth. Compared to that loud, inaccurate (and dangerous) plan, Foucault’s solution was remarkably elegant. He strung up a brass weight at the end of six-foot wire. The metal ball hung over a pile of damp sand, just close enough that the brass brushed against the sand as it swung slowly back and forth. At first, the pendulum simply carved a straight line in the sand. But over the course of several hours, the line turned into a bow-tie shape.

Newton’s laws of motion state that an object will not change direction unless another force hits it. This means that while Foucault’s pendulum kept swinging in the same direction, the earth (and the sand on the ground) turned underneath it. It’s as if you drew a line back and forth repeatedly on a piece of paper, but then slowly rotated the sheet as you kept drawing – eventually the lines would form a circle.  

Foucault’s experiment became a sensation. The French government even ordered a large-scale version that would hang inside the Pantheon in Paris, with a 219-foot, 61-pound pendulum suspended from the building’s dome. Modern-day pendulums hang in the United Nations headquarters in New York, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the Boston Museum of Science, and many other locations.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

On this day in 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, also known as the Declaration of Human and Civic Rights, was approved by the National Constituent Assembly of France.

A fundamental document of the French Revolution, it is one of the world’s first documents on human and collective rights, as well as one of the most radical. Though the revolution ultimately failed to live up to its standards, the declaration remained influential for generations, and still inspires many legal and political systems around the world. Many of its concepts were virtually unheard of at the time, and remain relevant in the modern world.

  • Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
  • The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
  • Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
  • Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.
  • Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.
  • No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Anyone soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.
  • All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.
  • Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration. A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.
  • Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of it, unless demanded by public necessity, legally constituted, explicitly demands it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity.

It’s interesting to note that to this day, we’re still debating many of these issues — social versus political rights, individual versus collective, how you balance them and on what basis, and so on. That’s what makes the document so fascinating to me — it’s quite prescient and sets the stage for many of the issues that still concern the modern nation state (as did the US Constitution and Magna Carta before it).

Happy Bastille Day!

As a Francophile, I have a particular affinity for this historical event (though the historian in me wouldn’t resist sharing it regardless). Like many commemorative events, the storming of Bastille is greatly misunderstood and rife with myths and misconceptions. But the revolution it has come to stand for, while ultimately failing in the short term, would introduce some of the most radical social and political ideas in history, unleashing powerful ideals that remain influential to this day.

Learn more about this remarkable event, and its historical context, here. I recommend you do further research, since this is just a basic and rather idealized source (though still a good start).