“Lafayette, we are here,” legend had American General John J. Pershing saying upon arrival at the tomb of the Revolutionary War hero, after coming to aid France and her Allies in World War I. Over the past two and a quarter centuries, there has been no more powerful symbol of Franco-American friendship than the general to whom he paid tribute.
I’ve been wanting to use this image ever since I took it while visiting Brooklyn’s Prospect Park back in May. Now I have an excuse.
Exactly 225 years ago today, the Marquis de Lafayette was selected colonel-general of the National Guard of Paris by acclamation. It was a crucial post, only 14 hours after the storming of the Bastille had signaled the end of France’s Ancien Regime. For revolutionaries about to issue the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen to the international community, there hardly seemed a better man for the military post than the aristocrat who had made countless friends for his country in the new American republic a dozen years before by volunteering to serve without pay.
The bronze statue and bas relief seen here, the only one of the nine in the park that’s dedicated to a war hero, stands at the end of 9th Street, on Park West. The memorial was created by Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of choice for the first three decades of the last century on the Boston-to-Washington corridor, including, most famously, the Lincoln Memorial. (See this prior post of mine for a description of his work on that project.) It was dedicated May 10, 1917, one month after Woodrow Wilson had decided to step into the Great War. In the late 1770s, France had come to the assistance of the imperiled United States. Now it was our turn to return the favor.
Lafayette’s nickname, “Hero of Two Worlds,” bestowed on him by his friend, King Louis XVI, testifies to his enormous influence, but also hints at his vulnerability. He had journeyed home in 1779 to become a very persuasive advocate at the royal court for the American rebels, then had crossed the Atlantic again to serve out the remainder of the war in exemplary fashion. (His hit-and-run harassment had led Lord Cornwallis to seek relief on the Yorktown peninsula, where the British commander ended up cornered and forced to surrender.) He had earned the respect, among many others, of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and—what was even harder—the almost paternal affection of the more remote George Washington. Lafayette had returned home a much-feted hero.
Matters were about to take a sharp turn for the worse, though, in the summer of 1789. None of Lafayette’s actions over the next year—serving in the military post, ordering the destruction of the hated Bastille, submitting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (written with Jefferson’s assistance), even renouncing his aristocratic title—counted for much with the radicals who had increasingly seized the initiative in the French Revolution. His refusal to support the Reign of Terror resulted in his imprisonment for five years.
In 1824, Lafayette, now in his late sixties, returned to the United States as one of the last surviving generals of the American Revolution. His tour of the country was an unending triumph. Even today, no name holds such power to unify two nations whose recent history has been marked by mutual self-interest at best and hostility at worst.