I’m a bioethicist, human rights advocate, and blogger based in Washington, DC.

  • True progress v. despair

    I’m sharing two more excerpts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land. This focuses on the idea of progress, and on Christianity’s ability to “play with death” thanks to Jesus Christ:

    Americans talk about progress with an odd kind of reverence. Progress is the unstoppable force pushing human affairs forward. And it’s a religion with a simple premise: Except for the random detour, civilization instinctively changes for the better. And it’s up to us to get on board or get out of the way; to be part of the change or to get run over by history if we try to obstruct it. Hence we Catholics are routinely warned that we’re on the wrong side of history.

    This idea of progress does have its appeal. As the economist Sidney Pollard put it: “The world today believes in progress because the only alternative to the belief in progress would be total despair.” We might go a step further: Clinging to a belief in progress is actually a product of despair, generously seasoned by sloth. History is cruel, social change is difficult, and a relationship with God involves a lot of unpleasant truth-telling—especially about ourselves. Better to just shift the burden of living in a flawed world at an imperfect time onto some positive force that will bring about the change we want “some” day.

    It’s a heartwarming delusion. But that’s all it is: a delusion. A brief glance at the twentieth century destroys the myth. In just a few decades, “progressive” regimes and ideas produced two savage world wars, multiple murder ideologies, and the highest body count in history. And yet, as Christopher Lasch noted, people still cling to the religion of progress long after the evidence wrecks their dream.

    The cult of progress is the child not only of despair, but also of presumption. It’s a kind of Pelagianism, the early Christian heresy that presumed human beings could attain salvation by their own efforts without the constant help of grace. Hence the philosopher Hans Blumenberg says that what separates the progressive idea of history from the Christian one is “the assertion that the principle of historical change comes from within history and not from on high, and that man can achieve a better life ‘by the exertion of his own powers’ instead of counting on divine grace.”

    While we can and should work for social improvement—an obviously worthy goal—we’re too riddled with sin to ever build paradise on earth. As Benedict XVI put it, authentic progress doesn’t come automatically. In every age, human freedom must be weaned over to the good.23 And because our freedom can be used for good or evil, progress is always ambiguous:

    “Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (see Eph 3:16 and 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”

    Ironically, it’s the religious subtext of progress that makes it so attractive. Again, as Friedrich Nietzsche and many others observed, progress is a kind of Christianity without Jesus and all the awkward baggage that he brings. The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw this years ago when he wrote that “the idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks.”

    This contrast is crucial. Ancient peoples like the Greeks and Babylonians had a far darker view of history than Christians do. They saw humanity as controlled by fate, whose dictates could not be resisted. Greeks and Romans also had little hope of heaven. Many ancients believed that at death, human life ended. Hence the emperor Hadrian, one of Rome’s most cultivated and humane rulers, would write of his soul: “Poor ghost, my body’s friend and guest / Erewhile, thou leav’st thy home; / To what uncertain place of rest / A wanderer dost thou roam? / Pale, cold, and naked, henceforth to forgo / Thy jests among the sullen shades below.”

    One of Christianity’s key contributions to Western civilization was to give men and women a sense of freedom from the whims of fate, a hope for life after death because of the victory of Jesus Christ. And over the centuries, that confidence in life beyond the grave has taken vivid form in the here and now.


    THE CASTEL SANT’ANGELO IN Rome, the old papal fortress near the Vatican, is also the tomb of Hadrian. Visitors can find Hadrian’s poem about his soul on the wall. But walking eastward in Rome, the pilgrim will come to a very different meditation on death. The Capuchin Franciscans have an ordinary-looking church on the Via Veneto. But its crypt contains a series of rooms decorated with human bones—thousands of them.

    The ceilings look like those of a baroque palace, except that they’re made of vertebrae. There’s a clock built of arm and finger bones. Skulls and femurs create decorative arches and columns. Through unbelieving eyes, it can easily seem ghoulish. It’s certainly a sobering encounter with our mortality. But it’s also very Franciscan. It takes death, that thing we fear most, and literally plays with it. And that couldn’t happen without a firm faith that Jesus Christ had crushed death, turning it from our ancient foe into what Saint Francis called “Sister Death,” the gateway to eternal life with God. The Capuchin bone crypt is uniquely Christian because beneath its somber appearance, it offers—for those who believe—a firm and joyful hope about what we find in Christ.

    The Christian alternative to the cult of progress is not only hope, but the idea of providence. Providence is the understanding that God has a plan for each of our lives and for the whole world, and that for each of us, his plan is good. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Whereas progress might claim that history has an inevitable arc, faith in providence has confidence that the Lord of history will one day make all things right. …

    Without a final vindication of right and wrong—and without a just judge to do the vindicating—we would live in a world where good and evil have no meaning.

    As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is that just judge. He’s not only the guide of history, but its focal point.

  • I’m sharing three more excerpts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land. I was struck by his reflection on the Beatitudes in general, but particularly with this reflection on what it means to the “poor in spirit”:

    It’s worth pausing to reflect on each of the Beatitudes. And with the moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, O.P., as our guide, we can start to think about how we might live them in our own lives. So let’s begin.

    Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    The first Beatitude reminds us of one of the strongest themes of Scripture: God’s love for the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. We see this in the Old Covenant, in which God instructs the people of Israel to care for the poor and the alien in their midst. He tells the Israelites not to harvest every speck of grain in their fields, but to leave some for the poor and the stranger who have no food of their own (Lev 19:9–10). He also commands them to set aside every fiftieth year as a Jubilee. In that year property that was bought or sold must be returned to its original owners (Lev 25:8–28).

    Through the prophets God rebukes those who violate the spirit of these commands: “Therefore because you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:11–12).

    Later Jesus says that, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, he is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, the one whom the Lord has anointed to preach good news to the poor (Lk 4:16–21).19 In our own time we tend to distinguish between spiritual and material poverty. But in the Bible, these concepts are tightly linked. The rich have wealth, but they become overly proud and ignore or oppress others. They use their money to buy influence and exploit the needy. They forget their dependence on God. The poor man, by contrast, is always reminded of his dependence. He will be humble and trust in the Lord.

    We see this clearly in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man had elegant clothes and ate sumptuously. But he ignored Lazarus, who sat right at his gate, covered in sores that the dogs licked. Every time he entered or left his house the rich man would pass Lazarus, yet he did nothing to ease his needs. When the rich man died, he ended up in Hades. Now he suffered, while Lazarus sat in the bosom of Abraham.

    The story underscores a simple fact: If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.

    We might assume that Scripture condemns the wealthy. But that’s not the case. As the early Church Fathers noted, the Lazarus parable is really a tale of two rich men: an unnamed callous one, and the patriarch Abraham. Abraham was a rich man who never forgot his dependence on God. Whereas the wealthy sinner let Lazarus wallow in squalor, Abraham welcomed the three strangers in the Old Testament who visited him, and he fed them with rich food. Abraham was generous and shared his abundance, always remembering that everything he owned was a gift from God. The lesson is obvious: Possession is really about service. When it’s not, we become slaves to our goods instead of living in a culture of interior freedom.

    Poverty comes in many forms, and Father Pinckaers names some that are familiar: illness, loneliness, age, failure, ignorance, and sin. All of these come back to the poverty at the heart of our very being: We didn’t create ourselves, and someday everything we have will be taken away by death. Even our body will turn to dust. Our poverty, in turn, puts us at a crossroads. We can either rebel against God, or let ourselves be shaped by suffering and become more open to God and others.

    For believers, then, the poverty we experience purifies us. It keeps us from getting weighed down by excess baggage on the road to heaven. The first Beatitude is addressed to all of us.22 It asks us how we will respond to the blessings and sufferings of life. Even if we don’t embrace the complete poverty of a Dorothy Day, the principle of her life still speaks to us. In giving away our treasure and our very selves, we find life and freedom. Only if our hearts are open can we receive the kingdom of heaven, which is the richest gift of all.

    “If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.” A frightening, but necessary, call for perpetual conversion of heart that hits me in a deep way.

  • Thanksgiving

    Happy Thanksgiving. While Thanksgiving certainly predates the founding of the United States and stretches back to the initial settlements in North America, it’s notable that the first “National Thanksgiving” was held December 18, 1777. Sheilah Vance writes:

    On December 18, 1777, General George Washington’s army celebrated the first national Thanksgiving in Gulph Mills and on Rebel Hill. The celebration caused a one day delay in the army’s march to Valley Forge, which General Washington had decided a day earlier, was to be where the army would make its winter quarters.

    The purpose of the Thanksgiving, according to the November 1, 1777 proclamation of the Continental Congress, was for “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise” and “to inspire our Commanders both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE…”

    Reverend Israel Evans, chaplin to General Poor’s New Hampshire brigade, preached at least one of the Thanksgiving sermons. The text of his sermon was printed by Lancaster, Pa. printer, Francis Bailey, who is credited with being the first printer to name, in print, Gen. Washington as “the Father of His Country.” General Washington received a copy of this Thanksgiving sermon on March 12, 1778.


    First National Thanksgiving Celebrated by Washington’s Army

    Here at “The Gulph” on Thursday, December 18, 1777 Washington’s Army delayed their march into Valley Forge by one day to celebrate the first Thanksgiving of the United States proclaimed by the Continental Congress with Chaplains performing the divine service. This Thanksgiving in spite of suffering the day before the march into Valley Forge showed the reverence and character that was forging the soul of a nation.


  • New York zoning codes

    Forty percent of Manhattan could not be built today:

    New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city.

    The bays and cliffs of the Empire State Building come from zoning, as do the arcades and plazas of Park Avenue. The code gave us Zuccotti Park and Billionaire’s Row, the quietude of Greenwich Village and the bustle of the High Line, the glass towers now lining the formerly industrial waterfront and the portion of subsidized apartments that fill them.

    New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. …

    Whole swaths of the city defy current zoning rules. In Manhattan alone, roughly two out of every five buildings are taller, bulkier, bigger or more crowded than current zoning allows, according to data compiled by Stephen Smith and Sandip Trivedi. They run Quantierra, a real estate firm that uses data to look for investment opportunities.

    Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today.

    It is important to note that these estimates rely on public records that can be imperfect. Still, while the data may at times be imprecise, it allows for an insightful view of zoning in New York.

    Many buildings in distinctive Manhattan neighborhoods like Chinatown, the Upper East Side and Washington Heights could not be erected now: Properties in those areas tend to cover too much of their lots (Washington Heights), have too much commercial space (Chinatown) or rise too high (the Upper East Side). Areas like Chelsea, Midtown and East Harlem, on the other hand, would look much as they do already.

    “Look at the beautiful New York City neighborhoods we could never build again,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s ridiculous that we have these hundred-year-old buildings that everyone loves, and none of them ‘should’ be the way they are.”

    As the zoning code enters its second century, it is worth considering the ways it has shaped the city; whether and where it is still working; and how it might be altered so the city can continue to grow without obliterating everything New Yorkers love about it. …

    Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

    Astounding to realize that the vast majority of Manhattan’s square footage came into being in thirty years. Even stranger to realize how much of what’s beloved is impossible to replicate today, in an allegedly more enlightened time. If we want greater affordability, a liberalization of the codes to achieve something between the codes of the present and the tenement-friendly practices of the past seems reasonable.

  • Silent reading

    Thu-Huong Ha writes:

    People think of reading as the introvert’s hobby: A quiet activity for a person who likes quiet, save for the voices in their head. But in the 5,000 or so years humans have been writing, reading as we conceive it, an asocial solo activity with a book, is a relatively new form of leisure.

    For centuries, Europeans who could read did so aloud. The ancient Greeks read their texts aloud. So did the monks of Europe’s dark ages. But by the 17th century, reading society in Europe had changed drastically. Text technologies, like moveable type, and the rise of vernacular writing helped usher in the practice we cherish today: taking in words without saying them aloud, letting them build a world in our heads.

    Among scholars, there is a surprisingly fierce debate around when European society transitioned from mostly reading aloud to mostly reading silently…

    “The default assumption in the classic period, if you were reading around other people, you’d read aloud and share it,” says Smith. “For us, the default is we’ll read silently and keep it to ourselves.”

    At some point that expectation shifted. As late as the 1700s, historian Robert Darnton writes, “For the common people in early modern Europe, reading was a social activity. It took place in workshops, barns, and taverns. It was almost always oral but not necessarily edifying.” …

    There isn’t much consensus between historians on why people started reading silently. Saenger hypothesizes that a shift in the way words were laid out a page facilitated the change. Latin words once ran all together, makingithardtoparsethem. Saenger argues that Irish monks, translating Latin in the seventh century, added spaces between words to help them understand the language better. This key design change, he argues, facilitated the rise in silent reading.

    M. B. Parkes, in his 1992 book, Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West, argues something similar. He writes that a “grammar of legibility”—the visual changes made to texts, like punctuation and word spaces—changed the way we read. This early book technology was premised on the idea that the scribes, the people writing, didn’t know who their readers would be, or how fluent they might be in reading Latin, and so had to find a standardized way of telling them how to read: Pause here; these are two separate words; this is a long “a.”

    This scholarship applies for the most part to the Latin-based writing and reading of Europe. In other major reading cultures of the world like Chinese, whose script doesn’t have spaces between words, and whose literature depends heavily on prosody, silent reading may have developed differently.


  • Melissa Ohden was our keynote speaker last night for the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia‘s 36th Annual “Stand Up For Life” Dinner. This was my sixth consecutive year attending the dinner, and I think Melissa’s talk may have been the best in my experience.

    Melissa Ohden is a survivor of an attempted saline abortion, a now-banned form of abortion wherein a toxic salt solution was injected into the womb to strip the skin of a child before ending its life by causing organ failure as it seeped into the body over the course of 72 hours. As difficult as that is to read and write, Melissa’s wit, verve, and joie de vivre made her talk both emotionally moving and downright encouraging because of the love she radiates. That’s probably the only appropriate response to this barbarism of our time. Melissa’s story was shared on EWTN’s Pro-Life Weekly earlier this year:

    And Melissa’s Congressional testimony a few years ago conveys so much about the spirit of our age on this human rights issue:

    We also celebrated Edel Finnegan’s many years as the Pro-Life Union’s leader, and welcomed Tom Stevens as our new President & CEO who takes over next month.

  • Philadelphia Marathon

    Philadelphia Marathon

    I ran the Philadelphia Marathon this morning. I woke up just after 5am at my friend’s apartment at 21st and Walnut, and it was dark and raining heavily. I showered, put on my gear, and walked the twenty minutes from the apartment to Eakins Oval, where the race was set to begin at 7am. Thankfully, by the time I left the building the rain had stopped, and by 7am, the skies were beginning to clear at the first light of day.

    It had been three years since I had last run a marathon, which was the Mount Nittany Marathon in State College. I registered for the Philadelphia Marathon in early September, didn’t actively train, and hadn’t run this far in weather as cold as this morning’s weather, which ranged from about 45-55 degrees.

    Thanks to simple good fortune, along with the well managed marathon, I was able to finish setting a personal best time of 4:23:48. I suspect the cold weather helped to some degree, because I was able to run steadily until I slowed down to sporadic jogging/walking at Mile 21 and didn’t return to a steady running pace until Mile 24. It wasn’t until Mile 15 that I began to feel fatigued enough to begin thinking about how many miles there were still to go.

    The cheering spectators were super helpful compared to my experiences in State College where there would be long stretches where I found myself running alone along the course. The uniformly and overwhelmingly encouraging spectators were an incredible psychological boost throughout the course. And the number of runners helped too: I was never anywhere near to being alone at any point along the course. The pace runners were helpful too; at the starting line I began near the 5 hour group, and was able to steadily improve to near the 4 hour group, before slipping toward the finish. At one point after Mile 24 when the 4:30 pace group nearly overtook me, I found whatever energy was left to run steadily again in the final stretch:


    It was very windy at times. The most scenic stretches along Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River at times had gusts so strong that the giant trees, especially near Laurel Hill Cemetery, seemed buffeted like the creaking wooden hulls of old sea ships bearing strong waves.

    The course map and official description give a good sense of the scope of the experience:

    2017 AACR Philadelphia Marathon Route Map.png

    In Philadelphia, we redefine the experience of what a marathon should be. A beautiful course, an engaging atmosphere—it’s no wonder we’re consistently listed among the top ten courses in the country, recognized for our flat terrain, mellow weather and spirited fans.

    Expect beautiful views through Fairmount Park and along the Schuylkill River and neighborhood crowds gathering on sidewalks in University City and Manayunk. Weave through the well-traveled streets of our historic district, passing sights familiar to Franklin, Washington and the rest of the gang, and end your race speeding towards the steps of the majestic Art Museum. …

    This route takes runners down the iconic Ben Franklin Parkway passing Logan Circle, the Franklin Institute, Cathedral Basilica of Sts Peter and Paul, and the Barnes Museum all in the first ¼ mile. With City Hall in their sight lines as they continue on the parkway, they will pass Love Park and head east on Arch Street.

    On Arch Street, the runners will pass more landmarks such as the Pennsylvania Convention Center, mouthwatering Reading Terminal Market, Chinatown’s Friendship gate and the African American History Museum. Reaching the National Historic district, runners will pass Independence Mall and the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin’s Grave, the National Constitution Center and the United States Mint in the first few miles.

    After turning north on 4th Street for one block, the route continues east on Race Street, with the Ben Franklin Bridge looming overhead as they approach Columbus Boulevard and head through the Penn’s Landing area paying homage as they pass the Vietnam and Korean War Veterans Memorials. Passing Old Swedes Church on Columbus Blvd going to Washington Avenue for one block and heading north on Front Street before heading west along eclectic South Street and north on 6th Street passing Mother Bethel AME Church and passing the side of Independence Hall as they turn onto Chestnut Street to run through the heart of Center City.

    The runners will proceed over the Schuylkill River via the Chestnut Street Bridge the runners will go through University City and up 34th Streets through parts of the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. The route then goes past the Patti LaBelle Mural, uphill north passing America’s First Zoo and crosses over Girard Avenue into to the Centennial District of West Fairmount Park.

    Once in the park the Runners will pass the Please Touch Museum (Memorial Hall) twice, see the Mann Music Center, and run past the Japanese House before turning down Black Road on to the Martin Luther King Drive heading back to the 14 mile mark in Art Museum area.

    From this point they will pass in front of the famous Rocky Steps of the Art Museum, head out along the Kelly drive and into the trendy and upscale Manayunk neighborhood loading with Restaurants, bars and numerous shops along Main Street. Near the end of Main Street the runners will hit the turnaround and will head back on Main Street and along Kelly Drive before finishing on the north Side of Eakins Oval at the Art Museum.

    This marathon route is sure to give the runners a potential Personal Record and Boston Qualifying times on this fast and relatively flat course throughout Philadelphia. It is truly the most Historic Marathon Course in the country and continues to excite the runners year after year.

    These photos from the Philadelphia Marathon’s Twitter account capture the scenes before/after: the first was taken around 5:30am, when it was still actively raining and wet, the second just as daybreak came before the start of the race, and the last as runners crossed the finish line:

    And here’s a short video that was available after the race. I haven’t seen this sort of thing made available before, and it was neat to see this finishing moment from another perspective:

    Worth it.

  • Flatland and scientism

    In Chapter 4 of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land,” he relates Fr. Edwin Abbot’s 1884 novel Flatland, and in so doing neatly conveys the problem with scientism—with the idea that all the matters is what can be measured, basically:

    The story imagines a world of intelligent two-dimensional figures. These creatures are straight lines, triangles, squares, and polygons, led by a priestly class of circles. The circles oversee all science, business, engineering, art and trade.

    Flatland is a complex society guided by the creed of Configuration. For Flatlanders, all of reality consists in width and length. “State doctrine condemns “those ancient heresies which led men to waste energy and sympathy in the vain belief that conduct depends upon will, effort, training, encouragement, praise or anything else but Configuration.” And what is Configuration? It’s the belief that all misconduct, all crime, comes from some deviation in Regularity of line or angle. Those who are Irregular end up in hospitals. Or prisons. Or executed.

    One night the narrator, an urbane and orthodox Square (an attorney), is visited by a Sphere. The Sphere lifts him out of his Flatland universe. It shows him the glory of three dimensions and proves that Flatland is only part of a much larger reality. Then it sends the eager narrator back to his own world as an apostle of the Gospel of the Three Dimensions. Where he’s promptly locked up for mental illness and heresy.

    Popular wisdom holds that Flatland was a satire of the conventionalism of the Victorian era. But we might find better parallels closer to our own land, in the scientism of our own time.”

    What is scientism? Basically, a false faith in “universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or the most valuable part of human learning—to the exclusion of other viewpoints.”

  • Old Ironsides

    Another historical anecdote I enjoyed from David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, was the role that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s “Old Ironsides” poem played in conserving the USS Constitution, commissioned in 1794 and our oldest serving naval ship:

    Old Ironsides

    Aye tear her tattered ensign down
    Long has it waved on high,
    And many an eye has danced to see
    That banner in the sky;
    Beneath it rung the battle shout,
    And burst the cannon’s roar;—
    The meteor of the ocean air
    Shall sweep the clouds no more.

    Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
    Where knelt the vanquished foe,
    When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
    And waves were white below,
    No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
    Or know the conquered knee;—
    The harpies of the shore shall pluck
    The eagle of the sea!

    Oh, better that her shattered hulk
    Should sink beneath the wave;
    Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
    And there should be her grave;
    Nail to the mast her holy flag,
    Set every threadbare sail,
    And give her to the god of storms,
    The lightning and the gale!

  • Paris Commune

    Paris Commune

    A touching and fascinating anecdote on the Venus de Milo‘s near destruction during the 1871 Paris Commune disaster comes in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. I’m including a bit of the wider context for this drama because it was one of the most touching sections in this great book:


    Like most of Paris, Washburne went to bed and slept through that night, May 21-22, unaware of what was happening, and like most of Paris he was stunned when he awakened to the news. The Tricolor flew atop the Arc de Triomphe, he was told by an excited servant at first light. The Versailles army had entered Paris.

    He and Gratiot both dressed at once and raced out to see with their own eyes. It was true. Others already on the avenue were happily congratulating one another on delivery of Paris at last.

    The regulars had marched in at Porte de Saint-Cloud in force at three o’clock the previous afternoon, and against little opposition advanced steadily along the Right Bank of the Seine on the avenue that connected Versailles and Paris, heading for the Commune stronghold at the heart of the city, at the Place de la Concorde.

    Nothing had foretold the attack. The Commune command was taken completely by surprise. As night came on and the Versailles troops moved forward in the dark, National Guard units manning the barricades at Porte Maillot and on the avenue de la Grande-Armée, beyond the Arc de Triomphe, hastily abandoned their positions, and so another corps of regular troops poured into that quarter of the city. An enormous barricade by the Arc nearly thirty feet high that had taken great labor to build “served no earthly purpose,” as Washburne observed.

    He and Gratiot followed the regular troops down toward the Place de la Concorde, fully expecting to see the National Guard defense there quickly overrun. But it did not happen. Orders had gone out from the Central Committee at the Hôtel de Ville to throw together more barricades, barricades “in all haste,” barricades in every direction. As reported later in Galignani’s Messenger, “Everyone passing was forced to bring forward a paving stone or an earth bag, and any refusal would have been dangerous. Women and children worked just as actively as the National Guards themselves.”

    At about nine o’clock the Communard batteries on Montmartre opened fire on the city and the shells came in “thick and fast.”

    Tired of waiting and doing nothing, Washburne mounted a horse and rode off to see more, entirely without concern for his own safety, it would seem. “5:45 P.M. Have just taken a long ride,” he wrote. “The havoc has been dreadful—houses are all torn to pieces, cannon dismantled, dead rebels, etc., etc. One can hardly believe such destruction.”

    “To arms!” read an urgent appeal posted by the National Guard. “To the barricades! The enemy is within our walls! Let there be no hesitation! Forward the Republic, the Commune and Liberty.”

    By late in the day more than 80,000 Versailles troops had arrived and the western third of the city was in their hands. Still, at the Place de la Concorde and elsewhere, the fighting raged on, gunfire and the screams of the wounded filling the night.

    So began “Le Semaine Sanglante,” the Bloody Week.

    On May 23 a city of 2 million people became a deafening full-scale battlefield. For twelve hours there was no letup in the roar of cannon. Montmartre, the symbolic stronghold of the Commune, fell to the regular army, the Communards leaving behind the dreadful spectacle of twelve regular soldiers who, because they refused to join the Commune, had had their hands cut off. Vicious street fighting took heavy tolls on both sides, but of the Communards especially. Some 4,000 Communards were taken prisoner. Any suspected of being deserters from the regular army were shot at once.

    The Communard positions at the Place Vendôme, the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries Palace, and Hôtel de Ville continued to hold.

    Everyone in Paris tried to keep out of harm’s way, indoors. Washburne, for his part, decided to make still another effort to save the archbishop. He went by carriage to the Versailles army headquarters at Passy to urge Marshal MacMahon to take possession of the Mazas Prison as quickly as possible…

    Two days earlier Police Chief Rigault and a coterie of extreme Communards had met in secrecy and ordered the execution of Archbishop Darboy and five other priests. The hostages were then moved from Mazas to La Roquette Prison in the Belleville quarter, which was still under Communard control.

    At approximately six o’clock on the evening of May 24, as Paris was burning, the archbishop and the others were ordered out into the courtyard of the prison. They then descended a stairway, stopping at the ground floor, where they embraced one another and exchanged a few last words. When a cluster of National Guard soldiers at the door made insulting remarks, an officer demanded silence, saying, “That which comes to these persons today, who knows but what the same will come to us tomorrow?” Darkness had come on, and the six prisoners had to be led into the courtyard and up to the wall by the light of lanterns. The archbishop was placed at the head of the line. At a signal the firing squad shot all six at once.

    Late that night the bodies were tumbled into a cart, hauled to nearby Père Lachaise Cemetery, and thrown into an open ditch.

    At the Mazas Prison another fifty-three priests were murdered in cold blood.

    Nothing of these atrocities was reported until late the next day. Nor was it yet generally known that on the afternoon of May 24, before the execution of the archbishop, Versailles soldiers had found Raoul Rigault hiding in a hotel on rue Gay-Lussac and, upon discovering who he was, took him into the street and shot him in the head. The body lay in the gutter for two days. …

    Although estimates of the total carnage inflicted by the regular troops vary, there seems little doubt that they slaughtered 20,000 to 25,000 people. No one would ever know for sure what the total numbered, but nothing ever in the history of Paris—not the Terror of the French Revolution or the cholera epidemic of 1832—had exacted such an appalling toll. At one point the Seine literally ran red with blood.

    The value of the architectural landmarks and other treasures destroyed was inestimable.

    Olin Warner, like Washburne an eyewitness to events, was later to write a lengthy defense of the Communards, in which he compared their initial idealism to that of the American rebels of 1776. At the time, however, in a letter to his “Dear Ones at Home” he said he had seen more than enough. “I hope it will never be my lot to see a drop of blood shed again. I never want to hear another cannon roar as long as I live. … I am disgusted with everything pertaining to war.”

    On June 1, three days after the fighting had ended, Elihu Washburne went to La Roquette Prison to see the cell in which the archbishop had been held, and to pay homage at the spot in the prison yard where the archbishop and the five priests had been executed. The marks of the bullets on the wall could be plainly seen.

    The body of the archbishop, having been rescued from the ditch at Père Lachaise before decomposition had taken place, lay in state at the palace of the archbishop at 127 rue de Grenelle. For several days thousands came to pay their respects, Washburne among them. On June 7, still greater numbers lined the streets to see the funeral procession pass on the way to Notre-Dame, where services were held with all appropriate majesty. To Washburne is was one of “the most emotional and imposing services he had ever attended.”


    Charred beams, dead animals, shattered doors and window frames, the remains of broken lampposts, wagons, mountains of wreckage, and all the barricades were hauled away. With people working day and night, life steadily resumed. Omnibuses began running, restaurants opened. It was not that the horrors of what had happened were put out of mind, any more than the horrendous damage done vanished entirely from sight. The blackened ruins of the Palace of the Tuileries were to be left standing for more than ten years as a mute reminder. …

    The Hôtel de Ville would be rebuilt, the Column of the Place Vendôme put together again and restored to its old pedestal.

    The Venus de Milo was recovered from a secret hiding place and returned to the Louvre. The incomparable Greek statue, dating from before the birth of Christ, had been buried during the siege in, of all places, the cellar of the Prefecture of Police. Packed into a giant oak crate filled with padding, it was taken in the dead of night to the end of one of the many secret passages in the Prefecture, where, as only a few knew, a wall was built to conceal it. Stacks of documents of obvious importance were piled against the wall, then a second wall built to make it appear the hiding place was for the documents. When the Prefecture caught fire the night so much of Paris went up in flames, the anxiety of those in the know about the Venus was extreme. It seems a broken water pipe “miraculously” saved the statue. Once the smoking ruins were removed, the oak crate was found intact and brought back to the Louvre…