Three Revolutions of July

Lessons of Fall of Second Temple, Bastille Day and July Fourth

Seeds of Freedom: The triumph of the human spirit embodied in the American and French revolutions has its roots, ironically, in the tragedy of the fall of the Second Temple.
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Seeds of Freedom: The triumph of the human spirit embodied in the American and French revolutions has its roots, ironically, in the tragedy of the fall of the Second Temple.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published July 04, 2012, issue of July 13, 2012.
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If months have personalities — April the cruelest, May the very merry, Adar the time for “increasing joy” — then July is the month of revolution. In this one month we mark the anniversaries of three historic political cataclysms that shook the pillars of human society. On July 4 we celebrate the American Revolution. July 14, Bastille Day, honors the French Revolution. And the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, which falls this year on July 28, is observed as the anniversary of the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E., 1,942 years ago.

One of these events, the French Revolution, was a triumph of the human spirit that turned into a series of horrors. One, the fall of the Temple, was a horror that led, in important ways, to a triumph of the spirit. The third, the American Revolution, is still a work in progress. Taken together, they stand as a cautionary lesson about the uncertainty of history and the certainty of change.

America’s Fourth of July holiday commemorates the formal ratification by the Continental Congress in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence, announcing the birth of the American republic. It’s been hailed ever since as the dawn of a new age of human freedom. In fact, though, the republic emerged far more quickly than the freedom. It took the Founders only a dozen years after independence to adopt a Constitution and spell out the rules of governance. The rights of individual citizens were tacked on as an afterthought, in a series of amendments, and for generations they remained more a promise than a reality.

The Constitution spoke briefly, in the preamble, of establishing justice, promoting the general welfare and securing liberty “for ourselves and our posterity,” but it took 80 years and a civil war even to begin establishing liberty and justice for all of us. Serious promotion of the general welfare took another 80 years, a great depression and a sweeping New Deal. And as the Supreme Court reminded us on the eve of our 236th birthday, we still haven’t decided what “the general welfare” actually means. The received document, the Constitution, doesn’t spell it out. It gives us the tools and expects us to fill in the blanks. That’s proving more difficult with time, not less so.

The French Revolution is celebrated on July 14 to commemorate the storming of the hated Bastille prison by a revolutionary mob in 1789. France’s revolution followed ours by just 13 years, but it approached its tasks in the opposite order. The revolutionaries spelled out their vision of individual freedom from the get-go, promulgating a formal Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen just six weeks after the fighting began. Only later did they turn their attention to defining the structure and rules of governing. What followed was violent anarchy, then a reign of terror, an imperial dictatorship, a restored monarchy and a century and a half of instability and failed republics, until a viable governing system emerged in the Fifth Republic.


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