Liege of the King, Son of the Revolutionary: The Marquis de La Fayette and Defining America

 

«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. 

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  1. Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito
    @HankRhody

    God help us should we forget
    The sacrifice of Lafayette

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KirkianWanderer: «La Fayette, nous voici!» – Charles E. Stanton, July 4th 1917

    That was a time when most Americans were well-educated on our history.


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    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito (View Comment):

    God help us should we forget
    The sacrifice of Lafayette

    God help us more with lubin’
    If we ever meet von Steuben.

    • #3
  4. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Great post!

    • #4
  5. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Outstanding.  Thank you.

    • #5
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    My favorite Lafayette tale is when Redoubts 9 and 10 were captured at Yorktown. Redoubt 9 was assigned to the French, and Redoubt 10 to the Americans under Lafayette. While the troops were preparing, the commander of the French contingent sent a message to Lafayette that if the inexperienced Americans ran into any difficulty, to let him know and he would send reinforcements.

    The Americans came under fire from Redoubt 10 and rather than wait for the pioneers to complete the gap they were making in the abatis, charged through holes in the abatis previously made by artillery and stormed the redoubt with bayonets. The French were still preparing. Once the redoubt had fallen, Lafayette sent word back to the commander of the French that if they ran into any difficulty, he would send reinforcements.

    • #6
  7. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Percival (View Comment):

    My favorite Lafayette tale is when Redoubts 9 and 10 were captured at Yorktown. Redoubt 9 was assigned to the French, and Redoubt 10 to the Americans under Lafayette. While the troops were preparing, the commander of the French contingent sent a message to Lafayette that if the inexperienced Americans ran into any difficulty, to let him know and he would send reinforcements.

    The Americans came under fire from Redoubt 10 and rather than wait for the pioneers to complete the gap they were making in the abatis, charged through holes in the abatis previously made by artillery and stormed the redoubt with bayonets. The French were still preparing. Once the redoubt had fallen, Lafayette sent word back to the commander of the French that if they ran into any difficulty, he would send reinforcements.

    It’s been awhile since I read a history book on Yorktown.  Might be time for a refresher, since the above makes me all giggly inside.

    • #7
  8. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer: «La Fayette, nous voici!» – Charles E. Stanton, July 4th 1917

    That was a time when most Americans were well-educated on our history.

     

    That’s quite true. Stanton’s uncle, Edwin M. Stanton, was also Secretary of War under Lincoln, so I think he had a sense of what it was to be a part of American history, or to be related to one. 

    • #8
  9. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…
    @GumbyMark

    Excellent post.  In 1824-25 Lafayette returned to America at the invitation of President Monroe and Congress and did a 6,000 mile tour over thirteen months to all 24 states, receiving an enthusiastic response everywhere.  He was the last surviving Revolutionary War commander and only two members of the Continental Congress who participated in the debate over the Declaration remained alive – Adams and Jefferson, both of whom he visited.  After his visit to Braintree to see the 89 year old former President, Adams wrote to Jefferson:

    You and I have been favored with a visit from our old friend General La Fayette.  What a wonderful Man at his Age to undergo the fatigues of such long journeys and constant feasts.  I was greatly delighted with the sight of him and the little conversation I had with him.

    He also visited Mount Vernon twice, Valley Forge, laid the cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument, and addressed Congress just before returning to France in September 1825.

    Perhaps most importantly, a number of American towns were founded with the name of his French home, La Grange, thus giving birth to ZZ Top’s classic song.

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):
    It’s been awhile since I read a history book on Yorktown. Might be time for a refresher, since the above makes me all giggly inside.

    Ditto. That’s a hoot.

    • #10
  11. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    Stanton’s uncle, Edwin M. Stanton, was also Secretary of War under Lincoln, so I think he had a sense of what it was to be a part of American history, or to be related to one.

    Oh, so his uncle served in Lincoln’s cabinet with one of my half-great-x-?-granduncles, William Seward?

    This is why some of us studied history. We grew up hearing about Uncle Bill or great-granddaddy Benjamin, and so forth.

    • #11
  12. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    My favorite Lafayette tale is when Redoubts 9 and 10 were captured at Yorktown. Redoubt 9 was assigned to the French, and Redoubt 10 to the Americans under Lafayette. While the troops were preparing, the commander of the French contingent sent a message to Lafayette that if the inexperienced Americans ran into any difficulty, to let him know and he would send reinforcements.

    The Americans came under fire from Redoubt 10 and rather than wait for the pioneers to complete the gap they were making in the abatis, charged through holes in the abatis previously made by artillery and stormed the redoubt with bayonets. The French were still preparing. Once the redoubt had fallen, Lafayette sent word back to the commander of the French that if they ran into any difficulty, he would send reinforcements.

    It’s been awhile since I read a history book on Yorktown. Might be time for a refresher, since the above makes me all giggly inside.

    I read it a long time ago, but that was the gist. The source was probably right and it is my memory at fault.

    • #12
  13. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    If I recall correctly, Washington not only greatly admired Lafayette, but was very fond of him as well. 

    • #13
  14. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    And now for the downer:

    I have on my bookshelf, and highly recommend, John J. Miller’s Our Oldest Enemy.  I report this as a man who married a french girl, speaks french, visits the old country regularly, is a fan of french wine and comestibles, and lives in a town named for La Fayette (the county, too).

    La Fayette was a brief bright spark in a long and gloomy history of war and betrayal.  Accolades are entirely due to him.  Much less so to France.

    (I lost a lot of respect for certain of our founding fathers when I discovered their admiration and emulation of Rousseau.)

    • #14
  15. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    And now for the downer:

    I have on my bookshelf, and highly recommend, John J. Miller’s Our Oldest Enemy. I report this as a man who married a french girl, speaks french, visits the old country regularly, is a fan of french wine and comestibles, and lives in a town named for La Fayette (the county, too).

    La Fayette was a brief bright spark in a long and gloomy history of war and betrayal. Accolades are entirely due to him. Much less so to France.

    (I lost a lot of respect for certain of our founding fathers when I discovered their admiration and emulation of Rousseau.)

    Didn’t Jefferson love the idea of having periodic revolutions in America?

    • #15
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):
    (I lost a lot of respect for certain of our founding fathers when I discovered their admiration and emulation of Rousseau.)

    Thomas Paine nearly got guillotined, and still didn’t learn.

    • #16
  17. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    If I recall correctly, Washington not only greatly admired Lafayette, but was very fond of him as well.

    Yes. As Washington was without biological children, he became very close to some of his officers during the Revolutionary War, as well as his step children by his marriage to Martha, and Lafayette was the one he was by far the closest to. Lafayette’s father had died when he was a child, and because he took an instant liking to Washington, they bonded quite quickly and he was eager to have a real father figure.

    During the French Revolution, he even took in Lafayette’s only son (named after him) and had him tutored and well provided for. Guests who visited Washington during the period say that he was more a second father than a guardian to the boy, and adored him both for his resemblance (in personality and looks) to his father and his brightness and sense of humor. Lafayette and Washington continued to correspond until Washington’s death, and Lafayette visited Mount Vernon during his tour of the US in 1824.

    • #17
  18. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):
    I have on my bookshelf, and highly recommend, John J. Miller’s Our Oldest Enemy. I report this as a man who married a french girl, speaks french, visits the old country regularly, is a fan of french wine and comestibles, and lives in a town named for La Fayette (the county, too).

    ZUT ALORS!!

    • #18
  19. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):
    Perhaps most importantly, a number of American towns were founded with the name of his French home, La Grange, thus giving birth to ZZ Top’s classic song.

    I wish this Texan had known that when I visited Paris and happened across a Frenchman performing the song (badly).

    • #19
  20. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    I wish this Texan had known that when I visited Paris and happened across a Frenchman performing the song (badly).

    C’mon, brother Miller.  Round it out.

     

    • #20
  21. Al Sparks Thatcher
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    I just read Ron Chernow’s Washington, A Life.  Lafayette plays a prominent part.  He was the only one of his officers who could physically touch George Washington and could get away with kissing him on both cheeks in the French manner.

    When Lafayette ended up in a Austrian prison after fleeing the French Revolution it was when Washington was president.  Washington felt constrained in using his office to help Lafayette because he might offend the French who were still a necessary ally in the United States’s back and forth with Britain.

    When he was finally released, there was some talk of his visiting Washington but it didn’t come about.

    Probably one of Lafayette’s biggest disappointments with Washington was his status as a slaveholder, and his reluctance, or refusal really, to join the abolitionist cause.

    Nevertheless, the letters between them show that their affection for each other continued unabated.

    • #21
  22. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    Excellent post. In 1824-25 Lafayette returned to America at the invitation of President Monroe and Congress and did a 6,000 mile tour over thirteen months to all 24 states, receiving an enthusiastic response everywhere. He was the last surviving Revolutionary War commander and only two members of the Continental Congress who participated in the debate over the Declaration remained alive – Adams and Jefferson, both of whom he visited. After his visit to Braintree to see the 89 year old former President, Adams wrote to Jefferson:

    You and I have been favored with a visit from our old friend General La Fayette. What a wonderful Man at his Age to undergo the fatigues of such long journeys and constant feasts. I was greatly delighted with the sight of him and the little conversation I had with him.

    He also visited Mount Vernon twice, Valley Forge, laid the cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument, and addressed Congress just before returning to France in September 1825.

    Perhaps most importantly, a number of American towns were founded with the name of his French home, La Grange, thus giving birth to ZZ Top’s classic song.

    Lafayette, on visiting Mount Vernon, was particularly moved to see a gift that he had sent Washington years earlier displayed in the hallway-it was the key to the main gate of the Bastille. You can still see the key on display in the hallway if you visit Mount Vernon.

    • #22
  23. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    And now for the downer:

    I have on my bookshelf, and highly recommend, John J. Miller’s Our Oldest Enemy. I report this as a man who married a french girl, speaks french, visits the old country regularly, is a fan of french wine and comestibles, and lives in a town named for La Fayette (the county, too).

    La Fayette was a brief bright spark in a long and gloomy history of war and betrayal. Accolades are entirely due to him. Much less so to France.

    (I lost a lot of respect for certain of our founding fathers when I discovered their admiration and emulation of Rousseau.)

    Didn’t Jefferson love the idea of having periodic revolutions in America?

    Probably just in theory, @susanquinn.  Something tells me he would not have been happy about the reality of the 1861 attempt.

    • #23
  24. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    aardo vozz (View Comment):
    Something tells me he would not have been happy about the reality of the 1861 attempt.

    Or the 2016-2020 attempts.

    • #24
  25. Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito
    @HankRhody

    KirkianWanderer: One is an episode of Liberty’s Kids devoted entirely to him

    I liked the bit where they identified him as French because he was waving a white flag.

    • #25
  26. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Despite his early commitment to very revolutionary notions of natural rights, Lafayette was cancelled by subsequent revolutionaries for not being sufficiently woke.  If lefties actually did history, they would take his example as a warning and object lesson. 

    • #26
  27. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Lafayette was a traitor to his class, though far from the only one. What we need now are traitors to the international ruling class, by which I mean the international Deep Staters, the governing apparatus, and their allies in celebritydom and academia. 

    • #27