Today is Bastille Day. For most Americans, it is as unobservable as other obscure events, such as “Constitution Day,” or even our own spectacular celestial cosmology.
But if one makes the effort to dig below our loud American veneer of opulence, and self-proclaimed greatness, an enormously impressive wave of French ideology, financial and militaristic aid, scientific, artistic, and cultural influences emerge that have contributed to enrich our very own sense of identity, freedom, and prosperity. And for that we owe a debt of gratitude, or at the very least a heartfelt acknowledgement.
For the French, Bastille Day is a celebration of Independence: Egalité, fraternité et liberté! Do you recognize the meaning of the French words? The first two words, Egality and fraternity, fell out of fashion in English in the late 18thcentury, but we still seem to enjoy the idea of “liberty!”
The reason you recognize the three words in French so readily, is that approximately 45% of the English language as spoken today is derived from the French language.
Growing up, I learned that the English language is derived from German, Anglo-Saxon. Yes, “Old English” was, but then the Romans came to England and lived for 400 years (43 B.C. to 410 A.D.) and influenced 29% of the language. In 1066, the French Normans invaded with William the Conqueror and took control of the British Isles, ruling and speaking French for 300 years. This added another 29% French influence, including other cultural influences. In total, German has influenced a total 26% of the modern English spoken.
Our American Revolution
Ben Franklin went four times to speak with French King Louis XVI to ask for assistance to fight the British. The French assistance began in 1775. Ultimately, France shipped supplies and money to the United States, which encouraged the Dutch and Spanish to also assist us. In all, the French spent 1.3 billion French livres (gold coins) to support the Americans, in addition to fighting Britain on land and sea outside the United States. It is not an exaggeration that America could have easily lost to the English if not for the aid for France.
The American Independence War was the first to successfully get the monarchy out of our political reality. With that said, if it wasn’t for the French ideologies offered during the Age of Reason, or “Enlightenment,” by thinkers such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Montesquieu, (Of course other key thinkers contributed, such as John Locke and E. Kant), we would live in a very different constitutional context. A very simplified look at what they offered:
- Rousseau offers in “The Social Contract,“ the idea that, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”
- Voltaire wrote the book, “Candide” in which he states, “It is up to us to cultivate our own garden.” Meaning that government can no longer be trusted to do sofor us. He was a strong believer in freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade, and separation of church and state.
- Montesquieu believed strongly in a separation of powers that would include legislative, executive, and judicial branches. His most influential work was “On the Spirit of Laws,” in which he also stated that women could be effective heads of state.
In short, thank you France for your invaluable contribution in helping us to construct a framework for a society that values individual freedom, balance of power, and a separation of church and state, however challenged these ideals may become.
Our Cultural Fabric
The French have contributed enormously to the world, and to our culture, by inventing the following, to name a very few:
- If you use a calculator to add numbers.
- Use a pencil to draw.
- Reach for a can of soup.
- Visit the doctor and they listen to your body with a stethoscope.
- Ride a bicycle.
- Take a photograph.
- Take a video on your phone.
- Use a hair dryer on your hair.
- Play the Oboe.
- Give a child an “Etch A Sketch.”
- Go to a movie.
- Have drinks and enjoy the entertainment at a Cabaret!
- Require oxygen after your faint.
- Have a headache and take an aspirin.
- Need to go to the dentist.
- Require cataract surgery for your vision.
- Need a blood transfusion.
- Need antibiotics for an infection.
- Want to jump on a motorcycle and see the country.
- Ride in a Hot Air Balloon in New Mexico.
- Hop on a scooter or moped and boogie around town.
- Show off your “muscle car’s” V8 Engine.
- Need to be airlifted on a helicopter.
- Land on a deserted island in the tropics in a Seaplane.
- You lose your vision and want to read a book in Braille
- Watch a Disney movie, inspired by French literature: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
- Next time your ready to buy a new automobile, thank Nicolas Cugnot!
- When you buy that lovely painting in the style of Impressionism for your home.
For a more comprehensive list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_French_inventions_and_discoveries
Our “Louisiana Purchase” of 1803
In return for $15 million dollars, the U.S. bought from France a total of 828,000 square miles, or 530,000,000 acres. The Louisiana Purchase extended United States sovereignty across the Mississippi River, nearly doubling the size of our country.
War of 1812
Again, we must thank the French for aiding us to a victory against the British monarchy. In the decisive confrontation at Battle of New Orleans, in the War of 1812, under the leadership of Andrew Jackson, Jackson used the talents of pirate smugglers in the area Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre, and Lafitte’s very talented “gunners” to deliver the final blow and defeat the British.
“Democracy in America” Alexis de Tocqueville
In 1831, Alex de Tocqueville, a French diplomat, scientist, and historian arrived to the United States to observe the young social democratic experiment and wrote a book published in 1835, “Democracy in America.” It is generally agreed that his work, and writing, contributed to the importance of the contemporary study of sociology and political science. The book is filled with many fascinating observations of the day, however I find this observation particularly prophetic and interesting, as observed by The New Yorker‘s James Wood:
“Tocqueville warned that modern democracy may be adept at inventing new forms of tyranny, because radical equality could lead to the materialism of an expanding bourgeoisie and to the selfishness of individualism. “In such conditions, we might become so enamored with ‘a relaxed love of present enjoyments’ that we lose interest in the future of our descendants…and meekly allow ourselves to be led in ignorance by a despotic force all the more powerful because it does not resemble one.”
During the United States invasion of Iraq, there was frustration among some Americans that the French were not supplying the manpower and financial assistance that we felt we deserved at the time. There was even an effort to change the so-called “French Fries” to the “Freedom Fries!” I remember some Americans making comments like, “If it weren’t for us, they’d be speaking German!
I was really put off by that, because I have a keen understanding of the enormous French contribution to this country, since our inception, and the countless other ongoing contributions. Never mind the obvious fashion, culinary offerings, and fun popular culture. Or, the fascinating and inspiring places we love to visit in France that the French patiently allow us to tromp around often not speaking their language: Paris, French Riviera, French Alps, Pyrenees, Bordeaux, Cote du Rhone, Champagne, or the lovely chateaus of the Loire.
I was also bothered by the off-color comments based on the fact that on my mother’s side, half of my bloodline is French. The French who first came to America, before the English settled Jamestown, to Canada, and the first French settlers to occupy Alabama at Fort Toulouse, and New Orleans.
So for me, France, and the French people, are in my blood, in my heart, and in my appreciation for the enormous gifts they have offered to our culture, and the world. For this, and many other reasons, I wish France a very happy Bastille Day and independence celebration with hope that we continue to share the best we have to offer as two creative and innovative cultures, and more importantly, as friends. Vive La France!