Word of the Month: Liberty
July hosts the anniversaries of two great 18th century political revolutions, the American and the French. Despite their occurrence in the late 18th century and commonality of political ideals and rhetoric, the two revolutions could hardly have been more different. One was the secession of a group of colonies led by wealthy merchants and landowners. The other was an uprising by the mob in the streets. One was relatively bloodless, the worst punishment inflicted on those that supported the old regime was usually forced exile and seizure of property. The usual punishment in the other was loss of one’s head.1 One resulted in a long-lasting and stable democratic government. The other resulted in rule by a megalomaniac intent on conquering all of Europe.
The 4th of July is Independence Day in the United States, the day in 1776 when the 2nd Continental Congress approved the draft Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson and broke its political ties with Britain. Ten days later, on the 14th, is the anniversary of the 1789 storming of the Bastille prison in Paris, the event that marks the beginning the of the French Revolution.
Because of this, our word of the month is liberty, n., freedom, esp. from the political dominion of others, c.1375, taken as a rallying cry of the revolutions of the 18th C. Some other terms associated with the American and French Revolutions are:
ancien régime, n., the former system of government, esp. the French monarchy before 1789, in English use from 1794.
articles of confederation, n., a written agreement that governs an alliance between persons or states, esp. used as the proper name for an early American constitution, in force from 1777-1789. In use since 1603.
Benedict Arnold, n., a traitor, also arnold, after an American revolutionary general who offered to surrender the fortress of West Point to the British for ₤20,000; the plot was foiled when his accomplice, a Major André, was captured. Arnold’s treachery was especially galling to the Americans because he had been one of their greatest heroes. He was personally responsible for the American victory at Saratoga—the turning point in the war, and was perhaps the only truly great military leader on the American side other than Washington. Arnold escaped to Britain; André was hanged. In metaphorical use since 1793.
bill of rights, n., a legally binding declaration of political privileges and immunities, esp. the English Bill of Rights, passed by Parliament in 1689 which limited the powers of the crown, or the first ten amendments to the US constitution, passed in 1789, which limited the powers of the federal government and guaranteed certain individual liberties. In contemporary use, the term is often used as a label for legislation that provides benefits to a group of citizens, e.g., the G.I. Bill of Rights passed by Congress in 1944 that provided educational and other benefits to soldiers returning from the war and the various proposed Patient’s Bills of Rights, that seek to govern the health insurance industry.
bourgeois, adj., 1) pertaining to the French middle classes, 1564; 2) pertaining to the middle class in general, often used disparagingly to denote conventional and unimaginative styles and tastes, 1764; in Marxist usage, capitalistic, 1850; n., 1) a French freeman living in a city or town, contrasting with the peasant class and nobility, now used to denote the mercantile or middle class of any country, from 1674; 2) in Marxist usage, an exploiter of the proletariat, from 1883; 3) a socially conventional person, 1930.
commune, n., a French administrative district that governs a municipality, 1792, esp. the Commune of Paris, which usurped the power of the municipal government in 1792 and played a leading role in the Reign of Terror until suppressed in 1794, also the name for a short-lived communist government established in Paris in 1871. Since 1818 the term has also been used to denote a community established on principles of shared resources and labor.
constitution, n., the system of principles and institutions by which a nation is governed, the supreme governing principles of law. Constitutions may be unwritten, as in Britain, or written documents, as in the United States. From 1735.
émigré, n., a French royalist who fled the country in the wake of the revolution, 1792; in contemporary use to denote any political exile, 1955.
federalist, n., one who advocated for a strong, central government in the wake of the American Revolution, a member of the Federalist Party, 1787. The Federalist Papers were a series of newspaper editorials that advocated ratification of the US Constitution, written anonymously by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.
give me liberty or give me death, c.phr., motto of the American Revolution, first uttered by Patrick Henry on the floor of the Virginia House of Burgesses in March 1775.
guillotine, n. & v., a device, consisting of a blade suspended between two grooved posts, used to behead people, from the name of its inventor, Dr. Joseph Guillotin. In use from 1792 in French, 1793 in English. The verb, meaning to behead someone by a guillotine, has been in English use since 1794.
Hamiltonian, n. & adj., a follower of the political ideas articulated by Alexander Hamilton, the first US secretary of the treasury, who advocated for a strong central government, a national bank, and for government’s role in promoting commercial interests of the nation; pertaining to those ideas; in use as a noun since 1797, as an adjective since 1843. Cf. Jeffersonian.
Hessian, adj. & n., pertaining to the state of Hesse in Germany, 1677; a native of Hesse, esp. one of the mercenary soldiers from Hesse employed by the British during the American Revolution, 1729; a mercenary regardless of state of origin, 1877.
in harm’s way, c.phr., applied to military, esp. naval, actions, from a 1778 quote by John Paul Jones: “I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not Sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”
Jacobin, n. & adj., a member of a French political society that advocated extremes of democracy and equality or sympathizers with their cause, 1790; by 1800 the term had generalized to mean any political reformer. From the nickname of the Dominican Order of the Roman Catholic clergy, c.1325; given because their first monastery in France was at the Church of St. Jacques in Littré. The political society met in a former Dominican monastery.
Jeffersonian, adj. & n., pertaining to the political doctrines of Thomas Jefferson, who advocated a minimalist and decentralized government and emphasis on individual rights and freedoms, 1799; a follower of the political ideas of Jefferson, 1803. Cf. Hamiltonian.
John Hancock, n., a signature, 1903, from John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence, which was unusually large and bold. Hancock, a prominent Boston merchant, was the president of the 2nd Continental Congress and the first to sign the Declaration.
liberté, egalité, fraternity, c.phr., motto of the French Revolution, meaning liberty, equality, brotherhood. In December 1790, Robespierre recommended that these words be emblazoned on the uniforms and flags of the National Guard; his proposal was rejected, but the phrase continued in informal use. The phrase was finally officially enshrined in the preamble to the constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, c.phr., enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence as the inalienable rights of humans, based on life, liberty, and property, advocated by John Locke as the basic rights of humans.
macaroni, n., a dandy or fop, from London’s Macaroni Club, an establishment known for serving foreign foods, hence the name, and for its stylish and well-dressed members, 1764. Now chiefly remembered because of a line in the song Yankee Doodle, popular during the American Revolution, “stuck a feather in his cap and called it Macaroni.”
Marseillaise, n., the French National Anthem, composed in 1792, the original French title was Chant de guerre pour l’armée du Rhin, but from the beginning the song was also called La Marche des Marseillois, after volunteer army units from Marseilles who adopted it as their anthem. It was being called l’hymne des Marseillais by 1795. The form la Marseillaise is not attested in French until 1832. In English, the name The Marseillaise Hymn was in use by 1794 and The Marsellois by 1815.
minuteman, n., 1) the member of an American militia unit during the Revolution who held themselves ready for immediate service, 1774; 2) more generally, a member of any militia group or political cause, esp. in the late 20th century a member of such a group that advocates military action against the US government, 1859; 3) name for a type of intercontinental ballistic missile, 1961.
patriot, n., from the French patriote, ultimately from the Latin patriota, fellow-countryman, and the Greek, patrios, of one’s father. One who sacrifices for the well-being of one’s nation, 1605.
republic, n., a state where supreme power lies with the people and their elected representatives, from either the French république or Latin respublica, 1604.
shot heard ‘round the world, c.phr., name given to the first shot fired at the Battle of Lexington that started the American Revolution, from an 1875 poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson commemorating the centennial of the event, “Here once the embattled farmers stood / And fired the shot heard round the world.”
terrorism, n., the use of violence and fear to achieve political goals, originally applied to the period from March 1793 to July 1794 where the party in power in France engaged in indiscriminate bloodshed, the reign of terror, in English use from 1795.
Tory, n., an anglicized spelling of the Irish tóraidhe, or pursuer. 1) an Irish outlaw, 1646; 2) a supporter of James, Duke of York who was excluded from the Crown because he was Roman Catholic, so called because many of his supporters were Irish, 1679; 3) a political party that arose from James’ supporters, the forerunner of the modern Conservative party, 1689; 4) in US usage, one who remained loyal to the crown during the American Revolution, originally members of the Tory party, 1775.
1 Some 15,000 died in the American Revolution, mostly soldiers from disease or in battle. Over 40,000 died by the guillotine in Paris alone.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton