Skip to comments.Forgotten hero: Exhibit honors Lafayette
Posted on 11/17/2007 9:41:42 PM PST by The Pack Knight
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," says 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," Mirren said.
The 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.
But 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.
It would be simple enough Pack Knight, Apple could brand their next Ipod the Von Steuben de Lafeyette..
Our history is an inspiration to all, when honestly told.
This month’s Smithsonian magazine has an excellent piece on the relationship between Washington and Lafayette. I didn’t realize how young Lafayette was, and on the surface it would seem hard to understand how two men so far apart in age could be so effective together.
Only 36% of history teachers were history majors. Only 60% of middle schools offer even one US history course.
How can we expect them to remember what they were never taught?
The relationship was both professional and personal. Lafayette became the son that Washington always wanted but never had.
With US-French relations heating back up...I’m betting on a Lafayette movie within eighteen months. Its interesting to review this whole episode...where the French intended for Lafayette to be a bit of spy and inform them of the events going on...and Washington pulled the curtain back and gave him full view...figuring that the French were only group around that might support the US.
Well, the city of Fayetteville, NC was named for him. Several other Fayettevilles around the country were too, I’m guessing.
So it’s not like the guy has been totally ignored. Being that he’s a dead white male, and French to boot, it’s a wonder he gets any attention at all.
The least we could do is remember them.
I suppose you could say that in some ways we emulate them.
If we stay focused and resist the fools then Afghanistan and Iraq will be free nations.
I spent the night on a French army base outside of Lyon, the next morning in their club they kept showing me pictures of their unit over here during the revolution but I was too hung over to make note of who they were.
I would sure love it if some French speaker could google that info. for me.
One time on a car tip I listened to some secondary coverage of a talk radio incident where some airheaded babe who happened to be a history teacher submitted herself to an on-air history quiz, and failed miserably, giving “Jay Walking” type answers to such questions as “who was the second president”, although I forget most of them.
The thing was that the people doing the show defended her for not knowing “what was the last battle of the Revolutionary War.” ... because they didn’t know, of course. They had a little discussion about it, to the effect, “who knows battles?”
Un vrai ami des Etats-Unis.
Among the many things that bear he name of the Marquis, there’s the park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. A park that is a living monument to freedom of speech. Every form of protest known to man has occurred there, and the line between activist and vagrant can get blurry, because some of the protesters live there 24/7/365. Since Penn. Ave. was closed down, a lot fewer of them get hit by cars.
If you go to Lafayette, Georgia, be advised that the locals pronounce it “luh-FAY-et,” not “la-fa-YET.” We talk funny down here.
He had a few of those -- Alexander Hamilton prominent among them. In his command tent, in his Cabinet, even in his running of Mount Vernon, Washington surrounded himself with brilliant young men, surrogate sons, most of them with more formal education than Washington himself had. Those men were as absolutely loyal to him as he was to them.
I recommend "His Excellency" by Joseph Ellis, a good and thorough Washington bio. Eliis set out to cut through the layers of legend surrounding GW, and what he found was a human, conflicted, but unquestionably great man.
I constantly tell my son stories about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Our family played their role in both wars. He's asked me about the "French and Indian" War recently and I need to look at the enlistment and deployment records up in our family book today. 168 members of our family are recorded in military service since 1635.
To put this number in perspective, there are ~2,400 of my family's traceable lineage existing today.
There's probably some enterprising PhD candidate out there writing a thesis claiming it was VERY personal. Sigh.
A personal tidbit. When we were selling some land in Upper Pointe Coupee Parish, we got a copy of the full land title, which, it turns out, traces back to a grant of land from the US government to the Marquis de Lafayette. It is of note that that small section of country has many old families that trace back to Revolutionary War Virginia (Claiborne being only one), while all the surrounding area is of French descent.
I wonder if the Marquis originally sold off that land grant to some of his "old army buddies".
I haven't been able to locate any other info about this land grant on the internet, though I did find reference to a second such grant in Florida.
I've been there -- it's now really more of a rotary than a "square", though -- a pass-through on the way to downtown from the highway.
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