As most alert readers (ARs) know, July 14th, aka Bastille Day, is a national holiday in France. This was the day in 1789 when a mob launched the French Revolution by storming the now famous prison in Paris and freeing a grand total of seven prisoners. The most famous– or infamous– of these was the Marquis de Sade, who, if he were released from an American prison today, would most certainly be required to register as a sex offender.
In subsequent months the revolutionaries directed their wrath against the monarchy and religion. They decapitated thousands of statues, particularly those of kings, queens and saints, before publicly decapitating real people, including members of the royal family. Churches all over France were destroyed, repurposed as stables or in some cases transformed into Temples of Reason. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris became one such temple and was the site of festivals honoring the Goddess of Reason. Some contemporary critics described these rituals as depraved and licentious and dismissed the Goddess of Reason as a prostitute.
Our American Revolution preceded the French Revolution by 13 years and ten days, with the signing of The Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Throughout most of the next 244 years the Founding Fathers associated with our revolution have been honored in multiple ways, ranging from statues to images on our currency to names of cities, counties and one state. The Schlafly Tap Room is a few blocks from the intersection of streets respectively named for two of the most famous Founding Fathers: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. For reasons with which everyone is very familiar, these names are now highly controversial.
Without taking sides in this debate, I would note that, given the flaws inherent in human nature, naming anything after anyone has the potential of causing controversy. For that reason it’s fortunate that most of the other streets in downtown St. Louis are named after numbers or trees. The Tap Room, for example, is bounded by 21st, 22nd, Olive and Locust Streets. Our system of numbers is Arabic in origin and, as far as I know, isn’t tainted by association with ignoble behavior by any dead European men. Likewise, I’m not aware of anyone with major gripes about trees, which are widely praised for improving our environment by absorbing carbon dioxide.
Some ARs might also think that naming streets after numbers and letters of the alphabet, as is the case in Washington, DC, would not be controversial. These ARs would be mistaken. Granted, some ARs are probably aware of the controversy in the name of The District of Columbia, which was named after Christopher Columbus. This is a problem that proponents of statehood for DC hope to correct by changing the name to Douglass Commonwealth. But naming streets after letters of the alphabet? That couldn’t possibly be controversial… Actually, it was. And the controversy arose over two centuries ago.
ARs who have visited our nation’s capital probably know that streets named for numbers run north and south, while streets named for letters of the alphabet run east and west. The really alert ARs may have noticed the omissions in this pattern. There is no J Street and no X, Y or Z Street. As an undergraduate at Georgetown I learned the reasons for these omissions while drinking beer with fellow students. I admit that some scholars might dispute this explanation. Too bad. I’m sticking with the traditional barroom lore, no matter what some professional historians might say.
As I learned over pitchers of beer over 50 years ago, there’s no J Street in Washington because of the controversy over the 1794 Jay Treaty with Great Britain that addressed some unresolved issues after our revolution. It was negotiated by Chief Justice John Jay and was opposed by Thomas Jefferson and other Democratic Republicans. There are no X, Y or Z Streets because of the infamous XYZ Affair, a scandal involving three French diplomats who tried unsuccessfully to bribe American government officials in 1797. The Americans had traveled to France to negotiate a treaty to complement the Jay Treaty. When the Frenchmen tried to bribe them, the Americans reported the incident to their superiors in a coded message, referring to the would be bribers as X, Y and Z. They then returned home without a treaty.
Amidst all the discussion of individuals unworthy of being honored with statues or otherwise, it’s worth noting that Americans and others are about to spend two months honoring two despots who enslaved more people than all of the Founding Fathers and Confederate Generals combined; who subjugated and killed more indigenous people than Christopher Columbus; who were more anti-Semitic than St. Louis; and who wreaked more havoc in the Middle East than all of the Crusaders. I’m referring to the Roman emperors Julius Caesar and his nephew Augustus, for whom the months of July and August are named. Despite the fact that they brutalized, enslaved and murdered my ancestors, along with those of lots of other ARs, we continue to honor them in our calendar.
I should note that there have been periodic attempts to remove the Caesars from the calendar. From 1793 until 1805 France followed a calendar from which all royalist and religious references had been eradicated. In this calendar we would now be approaching the month of Thermidor or Fervidor. It is the calendar that would have been in effect when the diplomats X, Y and Z tried to bribe Americans and the Goddess of Reason was being celebrated in Notre Dame.
Chairman – The Saint Louis Brewery