America’s French savior |

America’s French savior

Richard Pyle

NEW YORK – “Lafayette, we are here.”So said an aide to “Black Jack” Pershing when the American general and his troops reached France in 1917, joining the Allies’ war against Germany. It was payback for the service rendered by the Marquis de Lafayette to the fledgling United States in its war for independence 140 years earlier.But “le temps marche,” as the French say – time marches on. Memories fade. And while hundreds of American counties, cities, squares, streets and schools bear the name Lafayette, how many people today could identify the Revolutionary War hero?”Not many,” said Richard Rabinowitz, curator of a new exhibit on the Frenchman at the New-York Historical Society. “The American Revolution has ceased to be a story that we tell in our popular culture.”The Historical Society – founded in 1804 when the name of the city was sometimes hyphenated – had student volunteers visit locations bearing the name Lafayette, including a city park with a statue of him, and asked passers-by who he was.”Almost nobody knew,” said Louise Mirrer, the society’s president and CEO. “One person said, ‘Sounds French.”‘Lafayette’s pivotal role in history is more compelling than most fiction: The young nobleman volunteered to fight in the American Revolution, became George Washington’s surrogate son and a general at age 19, and survived a battlefield wound to play a key role in the final victory over the British at Yorktown.His current anonymity is quite a comedown for Marie Jean Paul Joseph Roche Yves Gilbert du Motier Lafayette, who was widely described as “the greatest man in the world” during a triumphant return 40 years later to the country he had helped create.On that 1824-25 trip, “he confirmed the deepest beliefs that Americans had about themselves, a national identity of America as an exceptional nation,” said Lloyd Kramer, a historian and author of the biography “Lafayette in Two Worlds.” “It was a great national ritual of celebration.”The Historical Society exhibit, marking Lafayette’s 250th birthday and based on an earlier one at George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, opened Friday and runs through Aug. 10, 2008. It focuses on the 13-month victory lap that took Lafayette, then 67 and the last surviving general of the American Revolution, to all 24 states and as far west as St. Louis.A great-great-great grandson of Lafayette, Arnaud Meunier Du Houssoy, plans to visit the display Nov. 27.”I hope this exhibit will cause people to rethink the relationship between the United States and France,” Mirrer said.The exhibit’s artifactsThe exhibit includes a huge punch bowl, scores of badges, plates and other items decorated with Lafayette’s picture, plus clothing, hats, shoes, embroidery, instant biographies and sheet music, all produced in celebration of – and to profit from – Lafayette’s visit.The exhibit’s tours de force are an original wicker-basket carriage that Lafayette rode between stops in Vermont. There is also a chilling replica of the French Revolution guillotine that Lafayette, as a member of French nobility, escaped by attempting to flee back to America; before reaching his goal he was arrested by Prussia in 1792 and imprisoned in Austria until 1797.When he arrived in New York in July 1824, Lafayette was cheered by 50,000 people on a parade up Broadway to City Hall. That began his 13 months of travel by steamboat, stagecoach, carriage, horseback and sailing ship, covering 6,000 miles of rugged country, primitive conditions and often ghastly food.Lafayette visited Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, sat for portraits by Rembrandt Peale and Samuel F.B. Morse (who later invented the telegraph), and saw American democracy at work – the bitterly contested 1824 election in which John Quincy Adams’ victory over Andrew Jackson was decided in the House of Representatives.Ten thousand people turned out at Yorktown as he walked the field where the British had surrendered in 1781 and sat in Washington’s original command tent, brought out of storage for the occasion.Offended by slaveryBut Lafayette did not find the United States he helped to create entirely to his liking, according to Rabinowitz and Kramer.Although deeply offended by slavery, he diplomatically avoided getting into American politics and shied away from abolitionists. However, he went out of his way to greet blacks, making the point that many had served heroically in the Revolution. By tipping his hat to Lewis Hayden in Lexington, Ky., he inspired the 13-year-old slave to become an anti-slavery firebrand in adult life.Poet Walt Whitman claimed that at age 5, he was scooped up and kissed on the cheek by Lafayette during a stop in Brooklyn.After an emotional farewell speech by Adams, Lafayette returned home aboard an American warship, the USS Brandywine, built for his trip and named for the Revolutionary battle where he was wounded.Having expressed a desire to be buried in American soil, he took with him some dirt from Boston’s Bunker Hill, which was put into his grave when he died of pneumonia in Paris in 1834.

Support Local Journalism