(The following is a post by intern Keara Mickelson, European Division.)
In the last quarter of the 18th century, revolutionary sentiments in the United States and France were running high. Aggrieved by the rigidity and oppression of monarchy, revolutionaries circulated ideas about a new regime of liberty and equality. Central to their mission was the printing press. Printers sympathetic to the cause communicated the ideological foundations and key events of the American and French revolutions to anyone who could read, and in doing so, influenced public opinion. The press further served as a way to transmit ideas across the Atlantic, with France and the United States becoming sounding boards for emerging revolutionary voices.
The American Revolution preceded the French Revolution. The French Republic, fraught with internal divisions and radical politics, relied heavily on the example of democratic idealism in America. American printers participated in conveying these ideals to France. One particular example of these transatlantic ties and the revolutionary press is Benjamin Franklin Bache’s publication of the French “Calendrier républicain” (Republican calendar) in 1797. Bache (1769-98), the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, had spent his formative years in France and Geneva, and by all accounts felt as French as he did American. He had also absorbed radical political ideals that he promoted during his career as a printer.
A vision that Bache particularly favored was that of a sisterhood between France and America—his two homelands, connected by revolutionary threads. He pursued this ideal through his publications, expressing both American and French revolutionary views. He found an audience for bi-cultural ideas about liberty and democracy when he became a printer, after attending the University of Pennsylvania. Taking over the print shop of his grandfather, Benjamin Franklin, the young Bache printed his politically engaged newspaper, the “Philadelphia Aurora.”
However, because daily newspapers were strictly controlled by provincial laws, almanacs served as a more suitable way to express political ideas. In fact, almanacs reached an audience four times that of newspapers—they were an essential part of French and American life at the end of the 18th century. For many people, the almanac was one of the few publications they owned—only the Bible surpassed it in popularity. Almanacs included not only practical information such as a calendar, religious observances and prayers, postal information, commercial and personal directories, and state documents, but also served as a rare source of entertainment. For this reason, they have often been relied on as an excellent source for studying popular culture. Genial and humble fictional characters like “Poor Richard” and “Poor Job” in the United States, and “Père Gérard” in France, were created as a way to instruct the public. By the end of the 18th century, shrewd printers on both sides of the Atlantic had recognized the power of this widely distributed publication, and its potential to provide more just than entertainment and practical information.
Bache, whose grandfather, Benjamin Franklin, was the creator of the ubiquitous “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” witnessed the popularity of these works firsthand. He saw an opportunity to use this medium to spread his political ideas in both the United States and France; his 1797 French “Calendrier républicain” was a product of his bi-cultural education and his contacts as a printer. Bache’s French almanac differed from traditional almanacs in that it included little information that would be useful to those who were not politically minded.
Bache’s “Calendrier” was inspired by the Jacobins (revolutionaries), in France, who had also harnessed the power of the almanac to deliver their radical message. The French Republican calendars were the result of a competition held by the Jacobin Club in 1791. The Jacobins were searching for a calendar that would best convey their ideals. The winner of the competition was the “Almanach du Père Gérard” (Father Gérard’s almanac), by Collot d’Herbois, which featured the new concept of time. Designed by the mathematician Charles Gilbert Romme, the new calendar derived its authority from the natural world rather than religious doctrine, which was seen as belonging to the Ancien Régime, or the old form of government. According to Romme, the year began with the date of the declaration of the Republic on September 22, the autumnal equinox; the names of the months corresponded to the weather. Measurement of time was decimalized—the year was composed of ten months, divided into three weeks of ten days each. Despite being wildly impractical, the French Revolutionary time project symbolized the end of the Ancien Régime, and the beginning of the contemporary era.
This calendar, which had limited use in France from 1793 to 1805, had even less practical value in the United States. The fact that it was printed at all, and that it was successful enough to merit subsequent years of printing, is a testament to its powerful symbolism in a country where feelings ran high in both liberal and conservative camps. Some American almanacs, like the “South Carolina and Georgia Almanac” for 1800, included the Republican calendar on a single page as a curious historical oddity. Others, like Benjamin Franklin Bache, took it more seriously, and printed the “Calendrier’s” dates alongside the Gregorian ones. In this fashion, Bache appeared to present the two revolutions as interconnected, inextricably linked to one another by virtue of their political ideologies.
In the broader American context, Bache saw himself as a true champion of government by the people, and hoped the example of the French Revolution might restore the spirit of the American one. Bache’s zeal appalled his political adversaries, who called him a Jacobin, and criticized his willingness to champion the French Revolution during its most violent years.
Publishing the “Calendrier républicain” and other pro-French materials had precedent in English-speaking North America. French ships under the direction of the Comte de Rochambeau had docked in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island, in 1780 and 1781 to support the American Revolution. As the French soldiers mingled with Americans, Newport printers championed the French, printed pro-French anecdotes, and advertised French and English lessons to encourage amity. Later on, French émigrés and French-speaking refugees from the colonies in the West Indies, who had been cast out of their homes in the turmoil of the French Revolution, welcomed materials in their own language. In Philadelphia alone, during the 1790s, at least 110 French-language items were published, of which 22 appeared in a bilingual format. During this period, Bache and a competitor, Pierre Parent, published copies of the 1795 French Constitution in French almanacs, designed to inform the French-speaking public on both French and American matters of interest.
As time passed and both republics moved away from their early revolutionary zeal, French-language almanacs in the United States became oriented toward the French-speaking communities around major cities. Saints’ days reappeared next to the days of the month, and the Republican calendar was referred to only in the abstract, or as entertainment. Indeed, French-language almanacs printed in the United States adapted to appeal to the more traditional, Catholic values of the francophone communities in New England and elsewhere. Their primary purpose was entertainment, with an increasing focus on commercial activity. The only element of the Republican calendar that remained was the inclusion of the age of the French Republic (and often the age of the United States) in French-language almanacs. Bache’s Republican calendar now remains an intriguing chapter in the story of shared French and American Revolutionary ties and the democratic values that reached across the Atlantic by way of the press.