The Black Count – Book Comment
Author: Tom Reiss
Publisher: Broadway Paperbacks, Crown Publishing Group, Random House, Inc
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 12 August 2013
Summary: The life of Alex Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas. The younger used the life of his father for his novels, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Excellent and well-researched book: some extraordinary material on life during the French Revolution. There is pertinence to today’s political science.
I read books from front to back rather than sampling the middle or peeking at the ending. Tom Reiss’s Prologue, Part 1 and Part 2 of THE BLACK COUNT nearly thwarted the journey. Once past the prologues however, I found a rich and vibrant exposition of history. It is history covered before of course. Reiss brings a freshness that is well worth the momentary distraction of the prologues. THE BLACK COUNT is another one of those sentinel histories in biographies like Emil Ludwig’s NAPOLEON. I read NAPOLEON as a teen. Ludwig was also the author who got me interested in Nostradamus.
Having been an avid explorer of the prophecies of 16th Century French seer, Michele De Nostradamus, reading BLACK COUNT was disquieting—to use a weak description. Nostradamus expresses strong views on the French Revolution. He is also expresses strong opinions about the aftermath. We are still living the aftermath. Tom Reiss’s THE BLACK COUNT frames the legacy issues by examining the life of one man—French General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.
THE BLACK COUNT has nothing to do with Nostradamus’ take on history. However, the historical minutia Reiss reveals of the political, social and economic events following the Revolution bares an un-nerving synchronicity to the state of current affairs in western democracies. The subject of Reiss’s biography was technically a former slave who achieved notoriety on level with the destroyer of the revolution. The former slave was in pursuit of liberty: the destroyer in pursuit of greatness. The two attributes are neither synonymous nor compatible.
Today, especially in the Middle East, there are peoples pursuing “liberty”. This concept of “liberty” has special meaning for Nostradamus—a sort of fool’s gold. Nostradamus discusses the life and death of “liberty” (representative government), obtusely of course, in both his Epistle to Henry II and in his prophetic quatrains.
A Template for the Modern Era
During the life and death of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the heartbeat of “liberty” evolved from the theoretical to the practical. It went from longing (aspirations of representative government), to passionate commitment (the guillotine for counter-revolutionaries), to disappointment (branded the pariah of the world by neighboring nations), to a little former corporal crowning himself emperor of the French (Napoleon). The intrinsic factor defining “liberty” here is the prerogative of the people to change. Nostradamus did not regard this as a desirable thing.
Reiss’s subject, General Alex Dumas, father of novelist Alexandre Dumas, was born on March 25, 1762 in Jeremie, Saint-Domingue. Alex the elder was born to the wayward son of a titled French family and a slave named Marie Cessette. General Dumas would die forty-two years later, kicked into the trash heap of history. The way Reiss recounts the story of Alex Dumas’ life reads much the way Nostradamus preambles the life and death of “liberty”.
There is more history here about revolutionary France than one would expect. Tom Reiss, perhaps because of his primary subject or because he has a feel for the social topography, provides a provocative view of our modern world. The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte as the capstone of the French revolution is surprising. The current turmoil in the machinery of democracy in the United States—a dysfunctional congress, curtailment of voting rights, the inordinate influence of money—are unanticipated developments in what one would think to be the land of a “mature” representative government. According to Nostradamus however, none of this should be surprising. As we look at Egypt, Libya, Yemen and even Brazil, we await a denouement in wide-eyed idealism to what “liberty” is being sought. Would it be surprising if the people chose to simply change one form of absolutism for another?
In his Epistle to Henry II, written in March 1556, Nostradamus says the following:
For God will take notice of the long barrenness of the great dame (France), who thereupon will conceive two principal children (the liberty of representative democracies—French representative government from 1771 and America from 1776). But she will be in danger, and the female to whom she will have given birth will also, because of the temerity of the age, be in danger of death in her eighteenth year (1789), and will be unable to live beyond her thirty-sixth year (1807). She will leave three males (Second French Republic 1848 to 1852, Third French Republic 1871 to 1940, Fourth French Republic 1946 to 1958), and one female (America), and of these two (Third and Fourth French Republics) will not have had the same father.
(parenthetical remarks added)
As I have stated elsewhere, Nostradamus dates the birth of liberty from 1771 when France abolished parliaments and replaced them with a system of courts to review royal decrees. The American revolution of 1776 (the one “female”) was an “offspring” of the great dame.
France intervened in the War of American Independence in 1778. Eighteen years after the birth of liberty (1771 to 1789) and eleven years after France came to the aide of the American Revolution (1778 to 1789), France had its Bastille Day. The girl liberty (“she will be in danger”) almost died with the rush of events surrounding the storming of the Bastille.
The “temerity of the age” Nostradamus mentioned is succulently clarified in Chapter 11 of THE BLACK COUNT when Reiss draws a contrast between the “brilliant artillery captain born Napoleone Bonaparte” and Alex Dumas who accepted a “general officer’s commission in the summer of 1793.” Up until 1794, Napoleon stood aloof from the Revolution; Dumas was immersed heart and soul into it. Both men were “foreigners” in French society and both were zealots of a sort. Napoleone believed in himself; Dumas believed in the Revolution. The thread that pulled them to their final destinations was “liberty”, as defined by Nostradamus. It is the same “liberty” that propels the upheavals in the Middle east. It is the same “liberty” that divides the American political system. The obvious question is what happens when, as Nostradamus phrases it , the people “will secretly have wearied of their liberty”?
The Exigencies of Liberty and Freedom
The agrarian-slave society of Jeremie, Saint-Domingue shaped the early life of Alex Dumas. Reiss is scant in the details of Dumas’ early life, but thorough in describing the atmosphere. Four years after the birth of liberty in France and twelve years after his own birth, Alex Dumas stepped foot upon the soil of his French father. The possible dichotomy and symbolism here is plain. He was a twelve-year old of French and African ancestry, having a firm foothold in neither cultural mien. By the time he enlisted as a private in the French Army in 1786, Alex Dumas was a Frenchman committed to the ideals of liberty. He was twenty-four at the time.
In tumultuous times of July 1789, the forces the French king had available to reinforce the thousand or so French and Swiss guards at his disposal in Paris consisted of approximately 20,000 troops. According to Reiss, two-thirds of these troops were foreign mercenaries—contract employees. According to Reiss, Dumas’ Sixth Regiment, The Queen’ s Dragoons’ were near Paris. They had no active part in events of July 1789. A month later, Dumas and his Sixth Regiment were ordered to the Villers-Corterêts to “defend the chateau of the Orleans family” and the town’s people.
The mob attacking the Bastille on 14 July 1789 sought ammunition for the weapons they took from armories throughout Paris. All elements of the French military had undergone what Reiss called “a mysterious alchemy” in which the armed forces shifted from supporting the monarchy three months earlier to siding with the Revolution. The storming of the Bastille exemplified what Nostradamus called the “female” in danger of death in her eighteenth year. By 1807, thirty-six years after the birth of “liberty”, Napoleon, as Emperor, signed the Treaties of Tilsit, which, among other things, divided the European continent between imperial Russia and France. Liberty in Europe was dead. For the revolutionaries of France, “liberty” in practice takes on the meaning of the lyrics in Janis Joplin’s Me & Bobby McGee: “freedom is just another word for nothing else to lose.”
Deed as Seeds for Tomorrow
While revolutionary France moved toward a new kind of despotism, Nostradamus says that the one daughter left behind by the barren dame would have a different future:
The daughter (America) shall be given for the preservation of the Christian Church, the dominator falling into the Pagan sect of new infidels (Protestants), and she will have two children, the one fidelity (?), the other infidelity (?) by confirmation of the Catholic Church.
Nostradamus sees America as the repository of western civilization (the Christian Church). While “Christian Church” sounds like a purely religious reference, the concept for Nostradamus goes back to the beginning of Western recorded history and divinely inspired rulership—Sumer, Egypt, etc.. From this history, we see the Christian Church as a compendium of ideas.
It is a disruption in this adherence to tradition that results in America, like France, giving birth to “two children” (one fidelity, the other infidelity)—one of which may have already been “born”. More significantly, for Nostradamus, it is this idea of the Christian Church that defines his three Antichrists: Napoleon because he usurped the role of the Catholic Church in crowning himself emperor; Vladimir Lennin and his brand of communism which replaced theism with science (Nazism being a direct offspring of communism as religion and the terrorism of Islamic extremists—all traced back to “the great dame”). Nostradamus’ third Antichrist is sometime in the future but, like Napoleon and communism/fascism, has roots in the French Revolution.
The French Revolution morphed from a struggle for representative government to a struggle for the Rights of Man. As pursuit of liberty and pursuit of greatness are neither synonymous nor compatible in an individual life, so too are liberty and freedom opposite extremes of social order.
Reiss highlights the distinction in discussing the advocacy of French journalist Jacques-Pierre Brissot on page 122. Brissot, a widely traveled free-lancer who had even found his way to a meeting with George Washington and other greats, typified the emerging extremism of “liberty” which would culminate in the rise of Soviet Russia and the German Nazis and the current state of world terrorism. Of Brissot and others like him at the time, Reiss writes that “his main character flaw was that of so many French revolutionaries: a zeal for human-rights so self-righteous that it translated into intolerance for the actual human beings around him.” It is an extraordinary observation and is fully in accord with Nostradamus’ view of how the French Revolution spun itself into a circle and why he saw America as preserving the Christian Church.
The French king, a representative of divine will, was no longer the foci of society, it was now to be the individual as a person. Well, if the individual was a factory worker, the backbone of civilization, the factory worker should be the foci of society. If the individual was a genetically superior blue-eyed blond, then blue-eyed blonds should be the foci of society. The supremacy of the individual opened the portals of a human designed social structure. The subtle difference between the French and American revolutions was this simple distinction: France elevated the individual above society, America placed the individual within a society (“a nation of laws”, etc.).
Revolutionary France was good news for the Alex Dumas’s of the world. For a while.
By the time Alex Dumas married Marie Labouret in 1793, daughter of the Commander of the National Guard in Villers-Cotterêts, he had been promoted to a lieutenant colonel in the Free Legion of the Americans.
As Reiss points out on page 72, “’American’ was usually used synonymously with ‘man of color’.” The “free legions” were a holdover from the monarchy and were not part of the standing army. On page 133, Reiss goes into some detail on these military units which consisted of freed blacks and others of mixed white-black heritage. The free legions had to plead and beg for inclusion into the new Rights of Man French state. Successful within France itself, though always precarious, blacks and those of mixed ancestry outside continental France were still subject to the Code Noir (Black Code). Even at the time of Dumas’ marriage, the largest slave insurrection in history was underway in Saint-Domingue. It would not be until February 1794 that the French abolished slavery.
The conflict between revolutionary ideals—freedom, equality, justice—of the Revolution and the exigencies of governance are obvious. For Nostradamus, the chasm is beyond ideals and the practicality of a cohesive society. This duality is starkly underscored by Reiss in his discussion of the French American colonies. For all its talk of the Rights of Man, blacks were a special case requiring thoughtful adjudication.
Within mainland France, the adjudication was somewhat simple. According to Reiss, the revolution’s Committee of Public Safety needed bodies for its war-machine. In 1793, the size of Frances’ Army increased from 178,000 to 800,000 within the year: a practicality in which blacks and those of mixed heritage were allowed and conscripted into the Army. The colonies supplying subsistence to mainland France in the form of money and food generated from slave labor required more careful thought. Therein lies the duplicity for Nostradamus. Before 1789, men interpreted the Word of God, via the King, in determining the best interest of society. After 1789, Man made his own rules. Hence, communism, Nazism and the fascist state, the usurpation of Islamic extremist over the word of the Prophet Muhammad—all this for Nostradamus is “man unleashed”. The fickleness of Man and his ideals are aptly demonstrated when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor and attempted to re-instate slavery in the colonies in 1801.
Revolution Meets Antiquity
In the Prologue, Part 2 of THE BLACK COUNT, Reiss points out that Dumas and Napoleon emerged from the belly of the Revolution at a specific place and time. The place was the French invasion/expedition of Egypt in 1798. By this time of course, the French Revolution was in its “disappointment” stage. Napoleon was on his way to liberate Egypt from the tyrannical Mamelukes (formerly Turkish slave-soldiers serving the Egyptians). Dumas went there as Napoleon’s General-in-Chief of the cavalry. The two men “came to loathe each other.”
Reiss points out the “maddeningly contradictory legacy” of Napoleon in his reshaping of Europe. The prelude occurred in 1798 when he transformed Malta into a “modern meritocracy”. Yet, Napoleon’s attitude toward the French Revolution is aptly summed in a conversation Reiss reports as having occurred between the General and chief medical officer, Dr. Nicolas-René Desgenettes. The conversation was about General Dumas.
Dumas and other Napoleon staff members in the Army of Egypt were gripping about field conditions. The complaints lead to a confrontation between Napoleon and Dumas. In the conversation Napoleon had with Dr. Desgenettes about the Dumas “dressing down”, Napoleon said of Dumas, “Let him carry elsewhere both the delirium of his republicanism and his passing furies.”
Nostradamus, in his Epistle to Henry II and in his prophetic quatrains, stands back from the chaotic events of the Revolution like historian since and Reiss now, and pinpoints the significant tapestry of what we like to call the fight for freedom.
Both the French and the America Revolutions resulted in replacing men “divinely anointed by God”—kings—with new autocrats. France rode a wave of fervent emotion from Maximillen Robespierre to Napoleon Boneparte. A relatively short trip before arriving at where the revolution began. The American Revolution however resulted in the adoption of a constitution, establishing the federal government and delineating the powers of that government—sovereign-ship of the people. The old guard of Europe challenged the “liberty” of the French people and the people caved. The people acquiesced to a Napoleon the “emperor”. The old guard challenged the “liberty” of the American people and got the American Civil War (Nostradamus’ “fidelity”), Abraham Lincoln, and a stronger federal government.
The value of works such as THE BLACK COUNT is that they provide a roadmap of future history. If you look at current Russian “democracy”, you clearly see the French Revolution epic in-situ. Vladimir Putin is no Napoleon Boneparte, but for the Russian people he is the comfy blanket of the old guard. In Egypt and Iraq, “liberty” as an expression of societal organization follows the pathway of sectarian fears, each group looking for its own “man on the white horse”.
“Liberty” is just another name for the absolutism of social organization. The founding fathers of America got it right because the absolutism of a king was replaced by the absolutism of law—a constitution. For Nostradamus, elevating one man, one group of men, one principle of societal organization over another is the antithesis of “liberty”. God could do it because God has neither a beginning nor an ending. The mechanizations of Man however in changing their government—societal organization—are merely stop-gaps until the arrival of the “man on the white horse.” The American Revolution, almost two-hundred and forty years old, has withstood all the errant passions and political challenges against it. But there are challenges ahead and, like their French Revolution template (La Montagne), the new seekers of “liberty” may force America to abandon the true Christian Church for one of greed and sectarian supremacy (Nostradmaus’ “infidelity”).
THE BLACK COUNT is highly recommended.