Civil War History 46.4 (2000) 343-344
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From Appomattox to Montmartre:
Americans and the Paris Commune
From Appomattox to Montmartre: Americans and the Paris Commune. By Philip M. Katz. Harvard Historical Studies 131. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. Pp. xi, 274. $45.00.)
Following Louis Napoleon's self-destruction and flight into exile during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, after the declaration of the Third Republic, the brutal German siege of Paris and the capitulation of the new Republican government, the working classes of Paris rose in insurrection, declaring a Commune, which lasted for six weeks, until, with German approval, the new French government crushed it during the Bloody Week of May 21-28, 1871, slaughtering about twenty-five thousand of their co-citizens. This dramatic and appalling insurrection made an enormous impression all over the world. Here, Philip M. Katz tries to make sense out of the ways Americans interpreted these events both at the time in Paris and when they imported them back into American domestic discourse, from 1871 through 1877, the year of the first great outbreak of class violence and state repression in the United States, when the chickens of French-style class violence hatched at home in new and terrifying ways.
About five thousand Americans made their permanent homes in Paris in 1870, with tourists swelling that number to about thirteen thousand in the summer. As they had when the Germans first approached in 1870, almost all of these Americans decamped once more when the Commune was declared, mainly for Brussels or Geneva and, despite later protestations of bravery, few actually participated in the revolt, though Americans did set up one efficient medical corps modeled on the Sanitary Commission of the Civil War. Several French officers who had participated in the Union effort during the Civil War did join the Commune, spouting the virtues of plain American republicanism, most notably Gustave Cluseret, who served as War Minister from April 4 until May 1, when he was arrested after falling out with other military factions. For the Americans who lived through the Commune and its aftermath, these were stirring times, but awfully perplexing.
Almost all agreed that the Second Empire was bad, the Third Republic good--as it was somewhat of an American-style Republic in their eyes--but then when the Commune split French republicans, most Americans could not really decide who were the good guys and who the bad.
Via the transatlantic cable and the plethora of newspapers, news spread almost instantaneously to and through America, making this one of the first major instant transatlantic news events. There followed a considerable period of muddling about concerning how to make use of the Commune experience in the then raging ideological battles over Reconstruction.
Many Northern reformers believed that Commune was a good thing, demonstrating that the state ought to evolve to support liberty and justice for the downtrodden, whether in France or the American South, and some Southerners supported the communards' spirit of rebellion against a tyrannical state. Yet [End Page 343] other moderate Republicans, in the process of splitting their party, held that the communards were as unprepared for leadership as were Southern blacks. This position shored up the brand of reformism which led to the Liberal Republican movement in 1876. And most Southerners could only agree about the necessity of suppressing the revolt of the masses, of whatever race. Still, many of even these Americans viewed the Commune with some admiration, as an expression of the growth of republicanism in general, and as a demonstration of Americanism abroad. Katz does a thorough job of presenting the contradictions and confusions of many Americans as they struggled to make sense of the Commune.
However, as labor unrest spread during the 1870s, climaxing in the violent railroad strikes of 1877, which included a great deal of bloodshed, and the declaration of a sort of worker's republic in Saint Louis, the legacy of the Commune was re-deployed almost universally by middle and ruling class public figures to damn the American...