The way we were: 200th anniversaries

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
October 17, 2012

President Ford and Queen Elizabeth II dance at the American Bicentennial celebrations in 1976

Alexander Cockburn writes about the bicentenary of the French Revolution:

“‘The prospectus: ‘From 1st April to 15th November in the Tuileries there will be masques, games, spectacles designed to evoke what happened during the revolution, putting the accent on institutional reform, which marked the progress of parliamentary democracy.’ This would have made Saint-Just smile, given his pithy view that ‘long laws are public calamities.’

“The French government seems to have decided to remember a revolution occurring between 1789 and 1792: Mirabeau, Danton and the Girondins, who with a little touch-up here and there, can be made to look like decent moderate social democrats of the late 20th century. Robespierre, Saint-Just and the great Committee of Public Safety, who presided over the Terror and saved the Revolution, have not been invited. Lizzy Lennard has tracked down busts of Robespierre and Saint-Just. She talked to the keeper of monuments. It turned out to be as difficult as finding a statue of Trotsky in the Soviet Union.”

Patrick Marnham reports from Paris on the bicentenary celebrations in Crime and the Academie Francaise:

“This year France has invited the whole world to celebrate its history. More than 600 functions have been arranged in eighty countries. The French government has organised a succession of major international conferences in Paris this year. On 14th July the Group of Seven will be meeting here and in the autumn there will be the European summit during which France will assume the presidency of the European Community. The French are rightly confident that the world is intrigued by the bicentenary. But what do they themselves make of the Revolution, 200 years on?

“If the French have the Revolution in their bones, they do not necessarily have it in their heads. A third of those questioned among 16,000 in a recent opinion poll were unable to mention a single important Revolutionary event. Of the rest, 37 per cent recalled the Fall of the Bastille, 16 per cent the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and 16 per cent the execution of Louis XVI. Only four per cent mentioned the Guillotine or the Terror. Again, 33 per cent were unable to recall a single important social change introduced by the Revolution. The only notable Revolutionaries cited by more than 12 per cent of the population were Robespierre and Danton, and more than 50 per cent of those questioned could not name even them. Asked which French leaders in the last 200 years had continued the ideals of the Revolution, 30 per cent answered ‘General de Gaulle,’ a tribute which might have surprised him. All this should be set in the context of another opinion poll, taken a year ago, which found that 17 per cent of the French people were in favour of the return of the monarchy. French Royalists seem to be more numerous than British Republicans, even if they are less respectable.”

James Boswell describes the Shakespeare Jubilee, a celebration of the bard’s 200th anniversary, organised by the actor-manager David Garrick and held in Stratford-upon-Avon in September 1769:

“Much noise has been made about the high price of every thing at Stratford. I own I cannot agree that such censures are just: it was reasonable that Shakespeare’s townsmen should partake of the jubilee as well as we strangers did; they as a jubilee of profit, we of pleasure. As it lasted but for a few nights, a guinea a night for a bed was not imposition. Nobody was understood to come there who had not plenty of money. Towards the end of the jubilee many of us were not in very good humour, as many inconveniencies occurred, particularly there not being carriages enough to take us away but in detachments, so that those who had to wait long tired exceedingly. I laughed away spleen by a droll simile: Taking the whole of this jubilee, said I, is like eating an artichoke entire. We have some fine mouthfuls, but also swallow the leaves and the hair, which are confoundedly difficult of digestion. After all, however, I am highly satisfied with my artichoke.”

President Gerald Ford remembers the 200th anniversary celebrations of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1976:

“Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would be President of the United States on its 200th birthday, and Jack Marsh, a formidable historian, had been pressing me for the past twenty-threemonths to honor the occasion in a dignified and appropriate way.

“You have to point toward July 4,” he kept reminding me. “It’s going to be a momentous event.” The nation’s Centennial celebration in 1876, Marsh explained, had been little noticed by President Grant. Indeed, returning to the capital after attending a ceremony Concord Bridge in Massachusetts, Grant had penned a note to the proprietor of the Concord Inn: “You’ve got the best whiskey in town.” Grant’s words must have made the innkeeper proud of his stock. I hoped that my remarks that historic day—one hundred years later—would make all Americans proud of their heritage.”