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  • Patrice McDonough

Insurrection: 1789/2021

Updated: Feb 11

In France in October 1789, after a year of failed harvests and hunger—and sharpening tensions between the legislative and executive branches—the market woman of Paris marched on Versailles, picking up some male support along the way. On foot and in the rain, they slogged twelve miles, gathering weapons as they marched. Arriving late in the afternoon, they stormed the National Assembly chambers demanding bread.

Louis XVI met with a small deputation of women, but the audience with the king did not appease the crowd. After hours of an uneasy stalemate, the mob grew restless and stormed through a gate at the Palace of Versailles. They quickly overwhelmed the Gardes du Corps, decapitating two soldiers and swarming into the residence. With cries of “kill the Austrian whore,” they hunted for Queen Marie Antoinette. With only minutes to spare, the palace guards whisked the royal family to a safe chamber. When the invaders found the queen’s bedroom empty, they took out their fury on the pillows, blankets, and sheets, slashing them to pieces.

The year 1789 also marked the first time Congress counted electoral ballots and announced to the nation and the world the names of the President and Vice-President of the United States. For the next 232 years, Americans took pride in the orderly process of continuing or transferring presidential power for another four years.

Only the British, during the War of 1812, managed to trample the halls of Congress. After that, through civil war, great depression, and world wars, the Capitol’s secular sacred space remained inviolable—until now. Instead of “kill the Austrian whore,” chants of “hang Nancy Pelosi” reverberated off the stones of that storied edifice.

Of course, it was Washington’s name that was announced as President in 1789—after a count of the electors’ unanimous vote. One image from the aftermath of the 2021 insurrection stands out: a picture of national guardsmen sleeping at the foot of Washington’s figure in Statuary Hall. How appalling it is to think of him as a mute, marble witness to the desecration of the Capitol and the debasement of a free election.

Those who would overturn a constitutional regime were not done. The Reign of Terror was less than two years away.

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