The Daily

The Cuckoo Bird

Americans are all cuckoos because we make our homes in the nests of other birds.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

My people came to America in a very long and winding way from the Avesnes region of France. But it goes back further than the ancestors my Grandmother marked down in the family tree (who I’ll get to later). First, a little background.

Julius Caesar wanted to invade Romania but the Iron Age (1,000 – 500 BC) presented more pressing challenges for the Roman Empire in Gaul, where trading tribes became more homogeneous and started migrating east and south. This caused a period of paranoid nativism, Romans fearing that the Gallic tribes presented an existential threat to them. In particular, Caesar was concerned about the Helvetians, a Celtic tribe from Switzerland that migrated to southern France. The Helvetti tribes figure prominently in Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War – a written work detailing his campaigns in Gaul that is famous for its direct simplicity.

The Commentaries were an effort by Caesar to directly communicate with the plebeians – thereby circumventing the usual channels of communication that passed through the Senate – to propagandize his activities as efforts to increase the glory and influence of Rome. By winning the support of the people, Caesar sought to make himself unassailable from the boni.

Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). “Cæsar’s Commentaries“. Encyclopedia Americana.

As part of Caeser’s propaganda to overturn Rome’s Republic into a monarchy, he wrote that “I would rather be the first among these humble mountaineers (the Gallic tribes) than the second man in Rome”. Michael Grant, The Twelve Caesars, Page 47. This kind of populist appeal is now the formula for would-be tyrants and dictators – stoking fear of outsiders and citing solidarity with common folk to overturn the confines of a duly elected and regularly operating democracy or a republic. A “man of action” who scorned the lazy intellectuals and ruling aristocracy, Julius Caeser used his battlefield exploits to successfully overturn everything the Roman Republic had built.

At the Battle of Alesia (52 BC), Caesar effectively ended the Gallic Wars by avenging his loss at the hands of Chief Vercingetorix. The Chief surrendered himself to save his troops and was then paraded through the streets of Rome and executed by strangulation on Caesar’s orders. Immortalised in Caeser’s Commentaries, Vercingetorix is considered a folk hero in Auvergne (his native region, named for his tribe the Averni).

For his part, Caeser was memorialized for all time by Lucan Pharsalia in an ode befitting any tyrant or emperor.

Thinking naught done while aught remained to do … His manhood knew no rest / His only shame to lose a fight / Keen and untamed where hope or anger called / He turned his hand, nor quailed to turn his sword … To make a path by havoc was his joy.

Lucan Pharsala, II, 657, 144 AD

And we all know how that ended.

If Caeser’s Commentaries are to be believed, Vercingetorix may be the real hero of this story. As leader of a confederation of tribes living according to their own rules, he was not intent on imposing his will on even members of his own region – let alone an empire. He truly was first among the mountaineers. And let them live in dignity without bowing to him – even though they enjoyed fighting under him.

America’s first President, George Washington, had famously aristocratic tendencies. Many were suspicious of his membership in the lordly and secretive Order of the Cincinnati and surmised that he may not be the best caretaker of democracy. There was support for this notion. As noted in this blog here and here Washington’s experience with America’s mountaineers was more exploitive than admiring – resulting in the Federal military occupation of Appalachia during the Whiskey Rebellion. I also blogged about the early attempt to turn over the American experiment to the French Monarchy that resulted in the Hamilton vs. Burr duel at Blennerhassett Island. 

So we shouldn’t take our democracy for granted. There is plenty of historical reason to believe it could be put in jeopardy.

Gonna build me a log cabin
On a mountian so high
So I can see Willie
As he goes on by

Doc Watson, The Coo Coo Bird

As noted by Greil Marcus in his book on American folk music, Invisible Republic

The Thompson Law Firm