This Day in History

May 28, 1871
:
The Fall of the Paris Commune
 
This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. For ordering information on this text and our other books, please click here. 

  
Let us go, my friends, for the sake of God.”

Thus Pére Captier encouraged his companions, who were going, they were certain, to their death. Captier was the superior of a house of Dominicans who ran the College of Arcueil, near Paris. On May 19, 1871, a group of “citizens” representing the “Commune” of Paris had arrested Captier with four other Dominicans (Fathers Bourard, Cottrault, Delhorme, and Chatagneret) as well as eight lay professors and servants of the college. Six days later, the 12 men were taken first to a fortress on the outskirts of Paris and then to a prison within the city. Along the way they were jeered at and insulted, though they were accused of no crime. They now made their confessions, to prepare for another journey.

Archbishop Darboy
 “Let us go, my friends . . .”

It was about five in the afternoon of May 25. One by one, the prisoners were led into the streets that on all sides were filledwith armed men. These men now opened fire on the prisoners. Captier fell, mortally wounded. Bourard, Cottrault, Delhorme, and Chatagneret were cut down, as were the three professors (Monsieurs Gauquelin, Voland, and Petit) and the five servants (Aimé Gros, Marce, Cheminal, Dintroz, and Cathala). For 24 hours the bodies remained on the street, insulted by passersby, though a few paid the fallen the respect due to martyrs.

The government that had ordered the execution of the “martyrs of Arcueil” — as well as, the day before, of the archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur Georges Darboy — had been in power less than two months. It was voted in by the citizens of Paris as a city council, called the Commune, after the president of France, Adolphe Thiers, told the National Guard to lay down its arms. The German army had just withdrawn from the city, and Thiers wanted to make sure the unruly Parisians gave him no trouble. They did give him trouble, however; for, the National Guardsmen refused to lay down their arms, and radical workers proclaimed the independence of Paris from France.

Some of the most radical men in the city were elected to the Paris Commune. Some were Jacobins, who wanted to revive the French Revolution of 1793. Some were followers of Proudhon, who wanted to make France a federation of independent communes, with no central government. Still others were socialists and Marxist members of the revolutionary Communist organization called the First International. The flag of the Commune was not the French revolutionary tricolor, but the red banner of the Communists. These “Communards” wanted to end any government support of religion; they wanted to reestablish the revolutionary calendar and pass laws to better the lot of workers. Among the measures the Commune approved was handing over abandoned factories to organizations owned and controlled by workers.

Similar communes were established in five French cities, but they were soon suppressed. On April 2, 1871, the army of the French National Assembly laid siege to Paris. For six weeks the siege continued until, on May 21, the Assembly’s troops were able to enter an undefended section of west Paris.

Caricature of Adolphe
Thiers leading the assault
on the Commune
The French call the days that followed la semaine sanglante(“bloody week”), for the loss of life caused by both sides was horrendous. The Communards raised barricades in the city streets and, in their anger, destroyed public buildings including the Tuileries Palace and the Hôtel de Ville. It was during bloody week that Archbishop Darboy and his companions, along with the Arcueil martyrs, were killed. On May 26 another group of about 50 Catholic laity and clergy were taken from their prison and led to the last stronghold of the Communards in Paris — the heights of Belleville. There they were brutally murdered and their bodies mutilated by a mob of men, women, and even children. Two days later, the Communard resistance was at last overcome and all of Paris was in the hands of the government’s troops.

The end of the siege, however, did not spell the end of the bloodshed. In the days and weeks that followed, tens of thousands of Parisians were arrested. Thousands were executed or deported from France.

The republican government had begun its rule of France in blood.

The burning of the Tuileries

A Communard Song

L’Internationale, the anthem (under slightly different versions) embraced by socialists, anarchists, and communists, was originally written to commemorate the Paris Commune. (Its title refers to the First International.) The author of the text, Eugene Pottier, had himself been a Communard. He intended that the anthem be set to the tune of La Marseillaise, but Pierre De Geyter wrote the characteristic melody for the song in 1888. It is this melody you will hear below. 

Internationale de la Commune




This Day in History

May 23,1618:
Defenestration of Prague
  
This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations I: The History of Christian Civilization. For ordering information on this text and our other books, please click here. 

Cardinal Richelieu
Cardinal Armand de Richelieu wanted not only to make his king all-powerful in France, but to make France the supreme nation in Europe. To do this, Richelieu had to weaken the power of the Habsburgs, the most powerful ruling family in Europe.

Indeed, the Habsburgs were most powerful. The Habsburg archduke of Austria was king over Bohemia and Hungary, as well as the emperor ruling, in title at least, over all Germany. His cousin, the Habsburg king of Spain, ruled the Netherlands, northern Italy, Naples, and the vast Spanish dominions in North and South America, rich with gold and silver. Habsburg lands surrounded France to the west and the south, and Spanish fleets could attack France at any port on its long Atlantic coastline.

So powerful were the Habsburgs, so completely did they surround France, that Richelieu could not simply declare war on them. But he could take advantage of Habsburg troubles and use them to weaken Habsburg power. And the Austrian Habsburgs soon had plenty of trouble. It all began with a revolt in Bohemia.

Bohemia had long been among the most important, and troublesome, states of the German Roman Empire. Centered on the city of Prague, Bohemia was the empire’s wealthiest and most productive region. Its agriculture and mines produced the wealth that paid for most of the imperial expenses. Bohemia — the home of John Hus — had, however, experienced a good deal of unrest. Even into the 17th century, many Hussites still lived there, and Protestantism had made many inroads among both the German- and Czech-speaking populations. For this reason, many in Bohemia wanted nothing to do with the Catholic Habsburgs. They wanted a Protestant king.


Ferdinand von Habsburg
In 1612 Matthias von Habsburg, the archduke of Austria, became both Roman emperor and king of Bohemia. The old and sickly Matthias, however, had no children and so named his cousin, Ferdinand von Habsburg, to succeed him as emperor as well as king of Bohemia. It was important, if he were to become emperor, that Ferdinand become king of Bohemia, for the Bohemian king was one of the seven imperial prince electors. Of these electors, three were Catholic and three were Protestant. As the seventh elector, the king of Bohemia would cast the deciding vote for emperor. If the king of Bohemia were a Protestant, the electors might end up choosing a Protestant — and a non-Habsburg — as emperor.

Though the Protestant Bohemian nobles at first accepted Ferdinand as their future king, in May 1618, they rose in revolt against him and Emperor Matthias. Instead of Ferdinand, the Bohemian nobles wanted for their king Frederick, the elector of the Palatinate (a principality on the Rhine River). Frederick was a Calvinist; his father had been the founder of the union of Protestant German princes, called the League of Evangelical Union. Since Frederick was already elector of the Palatinate, by becoming king and elector of Bohemia, he could cast two votes for emperor.

Elector Frederick
Elector Frederick, however, did not have even the support of his fellow Protestant princes. They backed Ferdinand’s claim to Bohemia, for they feared Frederick might become too powerful if he held Bohemia as well as the Palatinate. Yet, though Ferdinand became king of Bohemia, the Bohemian Protestant nobles still supported Elector Frederick. In May 1618, they gathered in a great assembly in Prague. King Ferdinand, who was absent from Prague, sent two of his counselors,Wilhelm Slavata and Jaroslav Borsita, as his representatives to the assembly.

Feeling against Ferdinand was strong in Prague. On May 23, 1618, an angry crowd of Protestants gathered at a rally in Prague. Thousands attended, and the rally grew violent. Calling for the death of Ferdinand’s two representatives, the Protestants rushed to the royal castle in Prague, where the Habsburg governing council was meeting.

After storming the castle, the mob grabbed Slavata and Borsita and dragged them toward a high window overlooking a moat 50 feet below. The king’s counselors struggled for their lives, praying aloud to the Mother of God. According to one account of the event, as the mob pushed Ferdinand’s counselors out the window, someone taunted, “We will see if your Mary can help you!” A few seconds later, another exclaimed, “By God, his Mary has helped!” The two councilors had fallen on top of a thick pile of manure. Martinitz was unhurt, except for his dignity; Slavata was knocked unconscious but recovered.

Defenestration of Prague

This peculiar event, called the Defenestration of Prague,” marked the beginning of a long and bitter conflict. Known as the Thirty Years’ War, this conflict was one of the greatest tragedies in European history.



A German Composer of the Early 17th Century 


Johann Schein (1586-1630) was a composer of the early German Baroque period. He was among the first to introduce Italianate styles into German music. The piece featured here is Israelis Brünnlein, (“The Fountain of Israel”).








This Day in History

May 13, 1846:
President Polk Gets His War
 
This text comes from our 5th-7th grade textbook, From Sea to Shining Sea: The Story of America. For ordering information on this text and on our other books, please click here.

The United States and Mexico had not been friendly with each other. One reason for this unfriendliness was Texas. Ever since the revolution in 1836, Texas had been an independent republic. It had its own president, its own congress, and its own laws. Still, many Texians wanted to join the United States. Many people in the United States wanted this, too, but Mexico was against it. The Mexicans still said that Texas belonged to Mexico and so it would be unjust for the United States to take it. But the United States government ignored Mexico and in 1845 accepted Texas as part of the United States.

President Polk
James K. Polk, who became president of the United States in 1845, was one of those who thought the United States should spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He hoped Mexico would want to sell its lands west of the Rocky Mountains — especially California — to the United States. But the Mexican president was so angry about the United States having taken Texas that he refused to sell those lands. The United States and Mexico also disagreed over the southern boundary that divided Texas and Mexico. Mexico said it was the Nueces River, but the United States said it was the Rio Grande, a river lying 150 miles south of the Nueces River.

General Zachary Taylor, about 1845
If President Polk could not buy California from Mexico, he was willing to go to war to get it. In January 1846, he ordered General Zachary Taylor to lead his army across the Nueces River and march to the Rio Grande. Polk knew that Mexico would think this an act of war, for the Mexican government said this region was a part of Mexico. He hoped that the Mexican army would attack the American army. If this happened, Polk was sure the American people would become so angry that Congress would declare war on Mexico.

Everything happened just as Polk wished. General Taylor led his troops to the Rio Grande and laid siege to Matamoros, which lay on the south bank of the Rio Grande. For one month Taylor remained across the river from the city. Finally, on April 25, 1846, Mexican cavalry crossed the Rio Grande and skirmished with American soldiers, killing several of them.

Map showing Texas
and the region in dispute (in green)
between Texas  and Mexico
On May 11, President Polk appeared before Congress. Mexican soldiers had attacked American soldiers on American soil, he declared. This was, of course, not quite true, since there was no agreement that the land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande belonged to the United States. It made just as much sense to say that the American army had invaded Mexico. If that was so, then, Mexico had the right to attack. But most people in the United States did not care about this; they were angry that American soldiers had been killed. So on May 13, Congress declared war on Mexico. James Polk had gotten the war he wanted….

Congressman Abraham Lincoln
Though most Americans were in favor of the war with Mexico, some opposed it. Antislavery people thought that adding more territories to the United States would mean that southern slavery would spread to new areas. These people had been against making Texas part of the country for the same reason. Some pro-slavery Southerners also opposed the war because they wanted no more fights with antislavery advocates over slavery in the new territories. Some Americans opposed the war because they thought it was unjust. President Polk, they said, had picked a fight with Mexico. One of these was the young congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln said that since the Rio Grande had never been the southern boundary of Texas, it had been wrong for Polk to send General Zachary Taylor across the Nueces River. The United States, not Mexico, Lincoln said, had started the war.
  

Two Melodies from the War

These two pieces are instrumental versions of songs popular at the time of the Mexican-American War. The first, “Tejano Corrido,” is a Mexican ballad (corrido); the second, is “Old Rosin the Bow, a version of an Irish folk song. (The second starts at 0:13.)


Alamo / Mexican American War Music / Tejano Corrido

 
Alamo / Mexican American War Music / Old Rosin the Bow


This Day in History

May 8, 1846: 
Frémont Turns Back 
 
 
This text comes from our high school textbook (currently available only as an e-book), Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North AmericaFor ordering information on this text and on our other books, please click here.

John Charles Frémont
IDecember of 1845, a party of about 60 men led by Captain John Charles Frémont of the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers arrived at John Sutter’s fort on the Sacramento River. Frémont’s party included 12 Delaware Indians; the explorer and trapper, Kit Carson; and Jedediah Smith’s old companion, William Fitzgerald.

It was Frémont’s second journey into California. He first came to California in 1843 through Nevada, westward over the Sierra Nevada, and through central and southern California. From California, he made his way home via Santa Fé in New Mexico. Frémont wrote a detailed report of his expedition that not only gave details of topography, flora, and fauna, but revealed the feeble hold Mexico had on California. The report won fame for Frémont as the “Pathfinder.”

Frémont’s father-in-law was the pro-expansionist senator from Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton; the former ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, was Frémont’s patron. After Frémont returned from his first expedition in 1844, Poinsett introduced him to both General Winfield Scott, who promoted Frémont to captain, and to President Polk. It was with the backing of such powerful men that Frémont undertook his second expedition into California. Ostensibly it was just another topographical expedition, like the first.

Sutter’s Fort, in the 1840s

From Sutter’s fort, Frémont made a leisurely journey through the San Joaquin Valley and crossed the Diablo Range into the Santa Clara Valley. Then he visited Thomas Larkin in Monterey. Yankee merchant and United States consul to California, Larkin held the trust of Mexican officials, though all the while he was privy to secret information from the United States unfavorable to Mexican interests. In one message, sent in October 1845, President Polk had told Larkin that if the people of California “should desire to unite their destiny with ours, they would be received as brethren.” Polk was making his intentions vis-a-vis California very clear to Larkin, and the U.S. consul probably knew that Frémont’s visit was connected with Polk’s message. 

José Castro
When he learned that Frémont had entered California with a corps of armed men, the Mexican commandante general, Don José Castro, was suspicious. In answer to Castro’s inquiries, Frémont said he was a captain in the United States Army Corps of Engineers surveying “the nearest route from the United States to the Pacific Ocean.” He had entered California to take on supplies. Castro accepted this explanation. But Frémont lingered in California. Setting up camp 13 miles from San José, he began receiving visits from Anglo-American settlers and continued to explore the countryside. Castro again grew suspicious and this time sent a pointed message to Frémont. While traipsing through the Salinas Valley, Frémont received Don José’s missive. It was clear and unequivocal — leave California at once!

Frémont decried Castro’s “breach of good faith.” He and his men did not leave California; instead they built a stockade near Gavilan peak, in sight of Mission San Juan Bautista, where Castro was drilling his troops. Raising the American flag over the stockade, Frémont defied Castro for three days. Then, decamping, Frémont headed north towards Mount Shasta, enroute to Oregon. Having had made his stand against the Mexican despot, Frémont could leave California with his honor intact.

Mission San Juan Bautista, as it appeared in 1934
But Frémont did not make it to Oregon. Near Mount Shasta, on May 8, he heard the sound of hoof beats. Two horsemen rode up to Frémont to inform him that Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie of the United States marines was following him with important missives. Turning south, Frémont met Gillespie at nightfall. What did the missives contain? “The information received through Gillespie,” wrote Frémont years later, “absolved me from my duty as an explorer, and I was left to my duty as an officer of the American Army, with the further authoritative knowledge that the Government intended to take California.” Retracing his steps, Frémont returned to the Sacramento River where he awaited the next act in the drama.
  
A Popular Dance in Alta California

The Fandango was a a popular dance of the Mexican rancho culture of Alta California when Frémont arrived there in the 1840s. Here is a performance of something like the Californios danced, performed by a group in La Mancha, Spain.


Manchegan traditional folk dance: Fandango