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What I learned from yesterday’s Ask Me Anything was that overwhelmingly, Ricochet wants to know more about the history of the Huguenots and their relationship to the Second Amendment. (Or, at least, Tenacious D does.)
When Ben Carson suggested that an armed populace would have been better able to resist the Holocaust, he walked off the history cliff for two reasons. The first was his failure to appreciate what it took to defeat a modern engine of death like the Nazi war machine — one that rolled over armies comprised of millions of trained soldiers with guns, planes, tanks, and artillery in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, Yugoslavia, and Greece, and often did so in a matter of days.
He also missed a chance to explain to Wolf that in all likelihood, the Founders were thinking about the extermination of a European religious minority. But that minority wasn’t the Jews — it was the Huguenots.
What he should have said was, “Wolf, as you should know, if the Huguenots had been armed, their chances would have been a lot better. It all started with the Catholics taking away their weapons. Every American in the eighteenth century would have known that.”
And they would have.
Now, historians differ about the number of dead in the French wars of religion and even its exact dates. But they now estimate that between 1562 and 1598, the war claimed between two and four million lives, and could well be described, in modern vocabulary, as a Huguenot genocide.
We all know the background. The Reformation was spread by the invention of the printing press. For the first time, there was an inexpensive way to mass-produce and disseminate books. This fueled a wildcat spread of information — in all disciplines — across Europe’s borders. (Those familiar with this period know exactly why I wonder if we should just bomb the undersea cables before this Internet business gets out of hand.)
Francis I firmly opposed heresy, of course, given that he ruled by divine right, but he was genuinely unsure whether the early Lutheranism that arrived in France during his reign was heretical. (Catholic doctrine was as yet unclear.) Distracted, perhaps, by foreign affairs — he was building an alliance with the Ottoman Empire — he failed to see that of course this was heresy, and moreover, a revolutionary doctrine. As the schism developed, he attempted to steer a middle course. But in 1534, the Affaire des Placards woke him from his naive fantasy about “moderate Protestants.”
Overnight, posters appeared in public throughout France warning of “Genuine articles on the horrific, great and unbearable abuses of the papal mass, invented directly contrary to the Holy Supper of our Lord, sole mediator and sole savior Jesus Christ.” These directly attacked the Catholic conception of the Eucharist and supported Zwingli’s position on the Mass, denying the physical existence of Christ in the sacraments. Most terrifyingly, he awoke to find such a poster on the door of his bedchamber — an unthinkable security breach. It left him deeply shaken.
Fast-forward to 1535, when the ambassadors from the Ottoman Empire accompanied him to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris to share with him the satisfying sight of Protestant sympathizers burning at the stake.
His heir, Henry II, was in no doubt that he was dealing with a heresy. On June 27, 1551, he issued the Edict of Châteaubriand: Protestants would no longer be allowed to worship, assemble, nor even speak of religion. And the 1557 Edict of Compiègne imposed the death penalty on those who preached illegally — or even assembled to discuss it.
The repression only hastened the onset of the civil war. By 1560, violent religious extremists were destroying images and statues in Catholic churches. Huguenot rhetoric changed: At first, they had opposed the policies of the monarch. Now, they began opposing monarchy itself.
Eight wars ensued. Religion had been the basis of the European social consensus for a millennium; the entire social order rested upon the belief in a single faith. And the entire social order collapsed. France was laid to waste, the crops wiped out; citizens suffered a nightmare of destruction. Whole villages were massacred. Famine and disease killed the survivors. Details here.
Now, I confess that here my memory is failing me. I can’t remember when, exactly, the policy of disarming all but the Catholic nobility came into effect. But I do remember that it did. Does anyone on Ricochet remember? I know that it happened, but I can’t remember when.
In any event, Catherine de Medici — the king’s mother, an Italian, a Catholic, and a member of the family for whom Machiavelli wrote The Prince — is widely believed to have instigated the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. (I believe some historians contest her role.) The king’s sister was to be married in Paris to a Protestant, Henry III. The wedding attracted France’s wealthiest and most prominent Huguenots. The king gave the orders that they be assassinated.
The extermination began suddenly, with the ringing of church bells. Admiral Coligny — the leader of the Huguenots — was stabbed and his body thrown out a window. There’s no evidence (as far as I know) that Charles IX and his mother intended the bloodshed to go beyond the assassination of the their leaders, but the murders inspired the mob to a frenzied massacre of Protestants that rocked the Continent. Catholic clergy were said to have fallen upon unarmed men, women, and children. Commoners began hunting Protestants throughout Paris, barricading the streets so they couldn’t escape. The bodies of the dead were collected in carts and thrown in the Seine. The fish were said to have been poisoned. The slaughter spread to other cities and the countryside. In the end, according to contemporary historical estimates, as many as 30,000 were killed.
The Huguenot movement was crippled by the loss of its leadership. Those who remained were radicalized; those who could, fled — to Germany, Switzerland, England, Ireland, and, of course, what was to become the United States.
Their descendents included George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Paul Revere.
The history of the Second Amendment is of course complicated, and this was certainly not the only event on the Founders’ minds. But if Wolf Blitzer had interviewed them at the time, very likely this is how it would have gone:
Wolf: But to make the comparison, Mr. Washington, to Catholic France, the slaughter of millions of Huguenots by the Catholics, the devastation that erupted in Europe and around the world, to the United States of America, I want you to reflect on what that potentially means.
George Washington: I think the likelihood of the Catholics being able to accomplish their goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed. There’s a reason these dictatorial people take the guns first.
And about that, he would have been right.
Whether this has any relevance to America now, I don’t know. But if you’re going to argue this point from history, that’s the example you want.