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The Black General in 18th Century Europe

January 12, 2017

Revolutionary France had a black general. His name was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, and he was born a slave in Haiti — then a French colony — the son of a French nobleman and his African slave. Dumas’ father had little money and actually pawned the boy in 1776, when he was fourteen, but then bought him back. Father and son moved to France, where Dumas gained his freedom and a gentleman’s education. He enlisted as a private in the army at age twenty-four and soared to the rank of general by thirty-one, thanks to courage, brains, and charisma — and thanks to the French Revolution, which created unheard-of opportunities for humble-born men. Dumas repeatedly distinguished himself in combat, and France’s Austrian enemies called him the Schwarzer Teufel: the black devil.

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Napoleon Bonaparte was another talented young officer, and Dumas served under the future emperor in Italy and Egypt. Napoleon had risen even faster than Dumas, and he was a military genius, but he was insecure. And Dumas — tall, handsome, athletic, and capable — made for a threatening rival. The two clashed more than once, so when Napoleon seized power in 1799, Dumas had an enemy at the top. He’d been captured by Italian enemies the same year and languished in a drafty dungeon, and Napoleon’s government was slow to work for his release. When Dumas finally gained his freedom in 1801, his health was broken, and Napoleon never restored his military career. In fact, the emperor soon reversed the Revolutionary government’s egalitarian race laws, ending the freedom that had made Dumas’ career possible.

Napoleon’s empire didn’t even pay Dumas his pension or back pay. The black general died of stomach cancer in 1806, at age forty-three, leaving his wife and two children poverty-stricken. But his legacy lives on. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the general’s son was Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Much of author Dumas’ writing features adventure inspired by his father’s life.

For a fun biography, check out The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss — winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

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Painting: Général Alexandre Dumas, by Olivier Pichat (1825-1912)

© 2017 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

 

The Roman Empire Survived Unbalanced Executives — Maybe America Can Too

December 12, 2016

The early Roman Empire survived two mentally unbalanced emperors: Caligula and Nero. In fact, neither seems to have harmed the economy or disrupted the lives of the common people, despite bizarre behavior. That’s encouraging in the age of Donald Trump.

Nero entertains the crowds

Nero entertains the crowds

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Here’s what I think progressives and moderates should do …

November 9, 2016

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  • Get more involved in politics, not less. The country needs you now more than ever.

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Trump, ISIS, and the Tactics of the Weak

November 6, 2016

A prominent Trump supporter recently offered a view that seems to represent much of the nation. “When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS,” said Pastor Robert Jeffress, an influential TV host, “I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find.” Few would doubt that Donald Trump is mean, but what makes Pastor Jeffress thinks he’s tough? What makes millions of Americans think Trump is tough when, in fact, his behavior suggests he’s unusually sensitive? What, for that matter, makes us think ISIS is tough — so much so that “looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS” becomes the top priority? The answer is that Americans have been fooled by bluster and the tactics of the weak.

President Theodore Roosevelt: "speak softly and carry a big stick"

President Theodore Roosevelt: “speak softly and carry a big stick”

Bluster means loud, boastful, and threatening talk. It’s meant to give an impression of power. Terrorism plays a similar role, and in fact you might call it geopolitical bluster. It is devastating for its individual victims, but it has no military impact. So on a geopolitical scale, between nations, a terrorist attack is a loud, threatening statement. Read more…

This is How Democracy Begins to Die

November 3, 2016

You might think it’s aristocrats and the rich who most threaten democracy. But actually democracy tends to die the hands of angry working people, who turn against elites and their own constitution and follow an authoritarian leader. That leader destroys democracy, or injures it so much that it begins to die.

The Acropolis - Athens: mother of democracy and of tyrants

The Acropolis – Athens: mother of democracy and of tyrants

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Trump Threatens to Jail Clinton: An Authoritarian in America

October 10, 2016
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George Washington’s legacy is restraint, particularly on presidential power. That legacy is threatened like never before.

Last night, Donald Trump told Hillary Clinton he plans to put her in jail if he’s elected President of the United States.

Dictators threaten to arrest political rivals. American presidential candidates never have. One of the central features of our democracy, since the Founding Fathers, is that we do not use the criminal justice system against political opponents. We separate the two realms as much as possible, to protect political freedom. Read more…

The Founding Fathers and the Election of 2016

July 19, 2016

The Republican Party has nominated a truly unusual candidate for President. More than any major party nominee in history, Donald Trump has spoken against the principles and policies of America’s Founding Fathers. He has opposed legal restraints on government power — laws that tie the government’s hands — which for the Founding Fathers provided the bedrock of freedom. And he has advocated open, overt religious discrimination, rejecting another of the Founding Fathers’ core values. Mr. Trump and his supporters aren’t necessarily unpatriotic. Most probably don’t realize they stand against the legacy of George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and the other founders. But as voters, we need to understand the Founding Fathers and the cornerstones they laid for our democracy.

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