NYT Editor Defends French Revolution as America Lives Through a Small Taste of the Reign of Terror

The burning of the royal carriage during the French Revolution (Nathaniel Currier / Public domain)

Some left-leaning journalists — including an editor at The New York Times — defended the French Revolution after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested that the Democratic primary upsets on Tuesday led in part by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) showed that something like the French Revolution was taking place in that party. Their defenses of the French Revolution led to stern rebukes from those who remember how that revolution ended up.


“It appears the French Revolution has now come to the Democratic Party based on initial primary results from New York and Kentucky. If you had any doubts about who is in charge of the Democratic Party ALL doubts should have been removed,” Graham tweeted. He argued that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) “are figureheads. There is a growing radical liberal movement which will eventually cast them aside. The real power rests with [AOC], the Squad and affiliated individuals/groups.”

“Every elected Democrat in office, and every Democrat running for office, lives in fear of the mob and The Squad. The idea of working with President [Trump] to accomplish objectives to help America is a one way ticket to political exile,” Graham added. “The Democrat Party will be held captive by the most radical political mob in modern American history. Their power and electoral success appears to be growing day by day.”

The real force of Graham’s argument has less to do with the specific primary upsets on Tuesday, in which AOC-backed Jamaal Bowman defeated long-time Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and more to do with the looting and riots that followed in the wake of the horrific police killing of George Floyd — and the cancel culture and statue-toppling that followed the riots.


The lawlessness and mob rule across America arguably represents the victory of The New York Times‘s “1619 Project” and its attempt to convince Americans that the true founding of this nation did not come with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 but with the arrival of the first black slaves in 1619. The narrative of America as a racist, sexist, classist, heteronormative force of oppression helps propel AOC’s movement, the riots, and the iconoclasts.

Yet some appeared oblivious to the true force of Graham’s comparison. Major media figures stepped forward to defend the French Revolution as something to be celebrated.

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“The French Revolution, you say? In which rising social and economic inequality led to a democratic overthrow of a monarchy and the establishment of a republic? That French Revolution?” Dan Saltzstein, a deputy editor at The New York Times, tweeted in response to Graham.

Vox writer Katelyn Burns suggested the French Revolution (1789-1815) was a “forebear” for the American Revolution (1776-1783). “Ah yes, the infamous French Revolution, which overthrew an out of touch royalty and aristocracy out of power to install an American style democracy. Truly an evil forebear for… *checks notes* American democracy.” Doubtless embarrassed by just how wrong Burns was — the American Revolution predated and inspired the French Revolution, not the other way around — Burns deleted the tweet.

French Revolution

Twitter screenshot.

James Gleick, a historian of science and the inspiration for the Jurassic Park character Ian Malcolm, pondered whether Graham was “aware that the French Revolution, inspired by the American Revolution a few years earlier, toppled an authoritarian regime in the name of equality and natural rights? Liberté, fraternité, égalité, Lindsey!”

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T. Becket Adams, senior commentary writer at The Washington Examiner, shared Saltzstein’s and Burns’ tweets and concluded, “today is apparently the day i discover there are some in the news industry who a) have no idea what happened in the French Revolution or b) they know what happened and are just down for the Reign of Terror.”


For those who might not be aware, the French Revolution devolved into a Reign of Terror (September 1793-July 1794) under the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre. After the revolutionaries beheaded King Louis XVI in 1793, the squabbling factions began executing nobles, priests, and eventually revolutionaries who disagreed with them. Robespierre himself infamously found his own head chopped off after he led this terror in the name of republican “virtue.”


Under Robespierre during the Reign of Terror, France renamed the months of the year, swapped the 7-day week for a 10-day week, and murdered hundreds of priests in an attempt to wipe out Catholic Christianity in France and replace it with the Cult of the Supreme Being. Ironically, the revolutionaries cut off the heads of kings on the Notre Dame Cathedral, thinking they were the kings of France — when they were really the biblical kings of Judah.

Ultimately, the French Revolution failed. Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor in 1804, conquered large swaths of Europe, and then lost the definitive Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The victorious allies installed a new king, Louis XVIII.

One America News Network Political Correspondent Ryan James Girdusky replied to Saltzstein tweeting, “Yes, the Republic which was followed by the reign of terror, an economic collapse, a dictator, and 15 year long war… and ultimately the monarchy was restored. Saying the French Revolution led to a Republic is like saying Romeo and Juliet led to a happy ending.”

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As for the Reign of Terror, it has gone down in history as the central proof of the maxim that revolutions devour their own. This period of the French Revolution convinced many of the folly of revolution in general, and it terrified the rest of Europe. Other European leaders sought to hamstring France after the Napoleonic Wars in part to prevent anything like this from happening again. (Interestingly, some leaders of the Paris Commune, of which Seattle’s CHAZ/CHOP/Antifastan may be a distant echo, tried to emulate the Reign of Terror.)

National Review Critic-at-Large Kyle Smith tweeted, “Lefties like the French Revolution because they like Cancel Culture and Robespierre was really good at it, I guess.”

Of course, Lindsey Graham did not mention cancel culture, the toppling of statues, or the destructive riots in his tweet. This enabled Saltzstein to recover his ground and suggest he hadn’t intended to defend the French Revolution but rather to attack Graham’s analogy.

“The replies here are… interesting,” he replied. “Yes, I am aware the French Revolution was a clusterf*ck and resulted in another emperor. My point was that the original metaphor is a mess. But the number of folks actually afraid of AOC and co. rounding them up and beheading them… Yikes.”


Naturally, AOC does not intend to round up people and behead them, but radical upheavals of American culture and government of the kind that she desires are unworkable without significant pain across the board. The toppling of statues and the cancel culture are harbingers of the kind of revolution AOC would bring, and it is indeed terrifying.

If Saltzstein knew about the trajectory of the French Revolution, as he now claims, why did he initially defend it? Could it be that some leftists are inspired by the French Revolution, Reign of Terror included? The proto-Communists in the Paris Commune were, and Karl Marx hailed the Paris Commune as a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Rioters have burned churches and the City of Birmingham, Ala., canceled a church’s lease because the pastor had “liked” supposedly offensive tweets.

The mob rule spreading across America certainly does echo the Reign of Terror, and now is not the time to be defending the French Revolution. Let’s not forget: the American Revolution was far better, though it was hardly a “revolution” at all.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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