The Marquis de Lafayette, Inspiration of the Centuries
by John F. Di Leo
June 27, 2018 A.D.
On July 4, 1917, General Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force arrived in France, the advance team of what was to become a million-man force in support of France and England of The Great War that we now know as World War I. On a day of speeches, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stanton somberly declared “Nous voila, Lafayette!” – rendered in English, that’s “Lafayette, we are here!”
What was it about this Lafayette, this long-dead French noble, that his name need only be cited, and it would instantly call to mind a century-and-a-half old debt of honor, a justification in the American conscience for the United States to enter a foreign war, the first time in fact that American troops landed in Europe to do battle?
Well, on June 27, 1777, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier – whom we all know as the Marquis de Lafayette – arrived in Philadelphia, and offered his services to the Continental Congress. He had a great deal to offer. While France was then neutral in our conflict, the young marquis was related to the king by marriage, and brought his immense wealth to the table. Contrary to his powerful father-in-law’s orders, Lafayette had personally raised troops and paid for the ship in which he and his volunteers sailed across the Atlantic, a contribution to the American cause. But why? He was French, and we were – for all intents and purposes – English… the geopolitical enemy of the French for centuries beyond measure.
Well, to appreciate the Why, we need to go back further, to even before the day this idealistic young man first reached our shores.
Orphaned as a youth, he got his start in life young. His father died in battle when he was one, and his mother and grandfather died when he was twelve. He married at sixteen, and quickly found himself a young, wealthy, independent, married aristocrat, in an age in which the existence of an indolent nobility was already being talked about as a societal error. He read, he studied, he learned the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and he knew that it was time for the feudalism of the past to give way to the liberty that was clearly mankind’s future.
And he looked across the ocean, and heard of the Glorious Cause of independence. The French king was soon to join the fight, but not the cause; Louis XVI sided with us for an opportunity to fight his rival, nothing more. But Lafayette, and many other young French nobles too, were inspired by the cause itself, as their discussions at school and in the salons of the mid-18th century won them over to the Enlightenment.
When he learned that he might be made an officer in the American army, and could fight for the cause of freedom, it was this philosophy that attracted him to service. In August of 1777, he met General Washington, and quickly found a new family of American patriots with whom he was to feel completely at home. Washington brought him into his military “family,” and made him an aide-de-camp, helping to manage the Continental Army, along with such other young patriots as Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, and John Laurens.
Lafayette served honorably in many a battle throughout the war, most famously sharing the glory of the Battle of Yorktown by commanding one of the two key assaults on Cornwallis’ forces (friend Alexander Hamilton led the other).
After the war, he returned to France, and joined in the efforts for political reform at home. Alas, the French Revolution was nothing like the American one. After rising to the top of a thoughtfully-designed legislature, he and his many honorable colleagues were to be overwhelmed by the more numerous dishonorable ones – the Jacobins and Girondins who introduced a Reign of Terror. Lafayette and his family were imprisoned, and it took all the efforts of our nation’s envoy – Gouverneur Morris – to see to Lafayette’s safety (and to the safety of many other such French friends of American independence, who had run afoul of the homicidal maniacs who then ruled France).
Such a young man when he served – only 19 years of age when he joined General Washington’s staff – he was to spend his long life following the French Revolution as an elder statesman, a war hero on both sides of the Atlantic. He named his son after General Washington, and returned to the United States for major visits, including one shortly before Washington’s death.
Lauded as “The Hero of Two Worlds”, Lafayette was praised by the French as a visionary who kept his head while those around him were being radicalized, and by the Americans as the icebreaker, the first major individual French ally who paved the way for official Bourbon alliance. No wonder his memory was still cherished, decades and even centuries later.
But as always, when we look back on such distant periods today, it is not enough to learn the history, the names and dates, so we can rattle them off on command. “He recruited and funded his ship and crew for the patriot cause.” “He landed at Charleston on June 13, 1777, and met with Congress on June 27 at Philadelphia.” “He was wounded at Brandywine, and commanded a victorious assault at Yorktown.” And so on. There are plenty of dates and events to memorize in Lafayette’s 76 years.
But we should learn more from such anniversaries than just names and dates. There are questions to ask, as we struggle through dangerous times ourselves, times in which our national identity is under attack from within and without.
What was it about the French culture of the mid-to-late 18th century that so many young nobles volunteered to serve in America’s Continental Army against England? How powerful must have been the arguments, how moving the discussions, in those fabled Paris salons, the articles in the press, and the books bought and shared by those who could afford them. We tend to think of the Enlightenment as primarily an English movement, but a strong Enlightenment current ran through certain groups in France as well (however unsuccessfully the effort ended up in their own revolution).
And for that matter, what was it about the Glorious Cause of American independence that enabled Lafayette and his many fellow French volunteers to be so welcomed here, in a country that had fought wars with the French less than a generation earlier? This was just 15 years after the Seven Years’ War, in which many American generals (including Washington himself) had cut their teeth fighting against the French!
Nevertheless, we found common ground – in the themes of religious liberty, economic freedom – in freedoms of press, contract, assembly, podium and altar. The leaders of our own revolution were fighting to continue the progression toward true liberty that had begun 550 years earlier with the Magna Carta, and they saw this revolution as a critical step along that path. While the French had no such tradition of limited monarchy and individual freedom in their own history, the words and zeitgeist of the Enlightenment, and the practical application of it in these colonies, had filled their hearts as well. Our Founding Fathers found kindred spirits in these young French officers.
Do we have such a climate today? Do our high schools and colleges reinforce the values for which our forefathers fought? Do our students even understand what it was about King George III’s many tyrannies – forced boarding of his soldiers, closing of our ports, restrictions on our trade, taxation from abroad without even consulting our own elected legislatures – that caused relatively happy and affluent colonials to risk everything, taking up arms in pursuit of an almost impossible goal: a revolt against the most powerful military on earth!
It is said – because it is so obvious – that we live in a divided country today. The gulf between right and left is wider than ever before. Perhaps at least a part of the cause is this lack of appreciation of our own history.
If one doesn’t know that our freedom was hard-fought in a long journey lasting over 800 years, if one doesn’t know that governments have shut down our churches, our meeting halls, our businesses, in the past, and could do so again, then how can we hope to view our current events in the right light? How can we hope to carry on a successful election campaign, and cast our ballots wisely? How can we learn the lessons of the past if we haven’t even tried to study them?
On June 27, 1777, an overwhelmed Congress, touched by the generosity and commitment of a wealthy young foreigner, commissioned him a major general, and assigned him immediately to our Commander in Chief.
Today, over 240 years later, we should ask ourselves what it is that we need to do, to inspire such a commitment to the cause of liberty again, both here at home and all across a too-often suffering and nihilistic globe.
Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based Customs broker, writer and actor. While he studied his history and political science at Northwestern University, he credits the wonderful genre of historical biography for his studies of the Founding era. So many great writers, from Flexner to Chernow, from MacDonald to Brookhiser, have paved a path for the modern reader to appreciate the minds and hearts of our Founding Generation.
Originally published in Illinois Review at: