Archive for November 17th, 2015

Lafayette Life Mask- Johnson Museum Cornell University

Lafayette Life Mask- Johnson Museum Cornell University

When the Paris attacks occurred I was just finishing up the latest book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, from the always entertaining and informative Sarah Vowell.  It tells the story of the love affair between the French boy general and the then forming United States.

I was interested in Lafayette because I have a great-grandfather down in my line who had served as an aide-de-camp to Lafayette and had also hosted the general in his home.  He was given a signet ring that Lafayette placed on his hand and he never removed it, eventually being buried with it.  It is also known that he also gave my ancestor a court vest that was eventually cut into pieces and made into pincushions so that all the members of the family would have a bit of the icon.

And Lafayette was an icon.

Lafayette loved the American people and the idea of America that was formed at that time, defying his family and his government to steal across the Atlantic to engage himself in our Revolutionary War.  Without his ardor and efforts, we would have never gained the backing of the French government in the form of money, troops, ships and arms that were absolutely responsible for our eventual victory and independence.

And I mean absolutely.  At the Battle of Yorktown which brought the surrender of the British and General Cornwallis, there were more French than American troops.  And in the Brits loss in the preceding sea battle at the Chesapeake Capes which allowed us to surround Cornwallis’ troops and make that ultimate battle possible, there was not a single American present.  All French ships and sailors provided by the government that was the first to recognize us as a free and independent country and the first to join us as an ally.

The Americans of that era and in the years after recognized the importance of Lafayette’s love for this country and returned the love.  His return to America in 1824 was like the tour of a gigantic rock star or the Pope.  When his ship came into NY harbor it was met by a throng of 80,000 people at a time when the population of NYC was only about 125,000.  Wherever he traveled massive crowds turned out to see Lafayette.  There were commemorative items of all sorts produced that were sold for a number of years after the tour.

And time didn’t entirely dim the affection.  When General Pershing marched into Paris in WW I, he went to the grave of Lafayette, where he was buried under dirt from Bunker Hill, and placed an American flag.  His aide, Charles E. Stanton, said the following words, although they are often mistakenly attributed to Pershing:

America has joined forces with the Allied Powers, and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue. Lafayette, we are here.

And the American flag has flown ever since over the grave, reportedly even during the Nazi occupation.  Every year on the Fourth of July there is a ceremony to change the flag.

There have been many terrible things happening lately along with the Paris attacks– the downing of the Russian airliner and the suicide bombers in Beirut, for example.  But I think it is the depth of our historic bonds to France that makes these attacks hit us even harder.  While there has been some Franco-bashing in recent years, we recognize their freedom in the same way we view our own, drawn from the same well.  An attack on their way of life might as well be attack on ours.

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