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«La Fayette, nous voici!» – Charles E. Stanton, July 4th 1917 (Often mistakenly attributed to John J. Pershing)
Saturday was the 263rd birthday of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (excuse me while I take a breath). Often simply referred to as the Marquis de La Fayette, or Lafayette, the French nobleman who lived from 1757 to 1834 is a well-known and beloved figure in both France and the United States, which he fought to help establish. Most people know the story of the Marquis’ escape from France dressed as a woman to fight with George Washington’s army, his honorable service with and deep love for the General, and, on his return to Europe, his imprisonment and near escape from death during the French Revolution. All make for an interesting addition to the cast of characters of the American Revolution, especially when there were such colorful foreign actors as the Baron von Steuben.
In this case, though, I want to talk not about Lafayette himself, but about what he means to America, and her perception of herself in the world. Stanton stood in front of Lafayette’s tomb in a Paris cemetery, that bright July day, and assured his French compatriots of America’s commitment to standing at their side in their fight for freedom during WWI. Lafayette had once done so for them, and so the favor would be returned. He was a symbol of America as a global force for freedom, one that had accepted help from outside of its borders before and would now do the same for others.
Lafayette is also a kind of shorthand for the idea of the United States of America, the pull of freedom being so great as to draw even nobleman of the corrupt Ancien Régime to fight for the cause. (Of course, France being the ancient enemy of Great Britain was also a pretty good motivator for Louis XVI to eventually send more troops and supplies, commanded by said noblemen). Fighting side by side with leaders like Washington, using his own money to provide supplies, and happily associating with junior soldiers of humble origins, he seems an ideal of the ’76 revolutionary spirit.
A less commonly considered perspective, but one which I believe deserves some weight, or at least consideration, is Lafayette as a figure of legitimacy. To everyday American colonists, seeing a rich, titled man appear from across the sea, against the orders of his king, because he thought the cause for independence so bright and true, was a sign of the legitimacy of their grievances against the king and his government, of how clear it was to the world that they had been wronged. Likewise, the Marquis was well educated and connected with the philosophes of his day, and those that had come before, so his decision, based on that extensive education and personal acquaintance, helped show that the evocation of figures like Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau by prominent revolutionaries like Adams and Jefferson was justified.
Bon anniversaire, cher Gilbert. America thanks you, for your service all those years ago, and the spirit of freedom which you continue to embody as one of our heroes.
*For those that want to learn a little bit more about Lafayette, or just enjoy content about him, I’ll leave two videos. One is an episode of Liberty’s Kids devoted entirely to him, and his start in Washington’s Army, and the other a compilation of his appearances in Hamilton.