Lafayette: Lifelong Protester
I am not native to this area. I was raised some five hours west of here in Alabama. My hometown of Fayette and my adopted home of LaGrange are, coincidentally, both named for the Marquis de Lafayette. Municipalities, counties, parishes, schools, ships, statues, streets, churches… the Marquis de Lafayette’s popularity infiltrated the United States in such a way that although he was not native to America, his legend has been memorialized across the nation. We even have a statue in the center of our town to remember him. But, why?
Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, may not have been as remarkable a man as his name, but was certainly a determined one. At the young age of nineteen, he was so convinced that the Revolutionaries were on the right side that he defied his father-in-law and the explicit orders of King Louis XVI, left his wife at home, purchased a ship and paid a crew to cross the Atlantic Ocean to join the rebellion. He landed in the marshes near Charleston, South Carolina, determined to make a real name for himself. Wounded at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 and quickly given a command, he proved to be one of General George Washington’s greatest assets and became a dear friend. Washington’s fatherly love of Lafayette would remain steadfast until our first President’s death.
Between the victorious end of the American Revolution and the storming of the Bastille, Lafayette went home to France where he joined the abolitionist group Société des Amis des Noirs or the Society of the Friends of Blacks. The Society demanded the end of slavery and advocated equal rights for free blacks. In correspondence from 1783, Lafayette urged his old friend Washington, a slave owner, to emancipate his slaves. Lafayette believed so strongly that slavery was wrong that he purchased land in French Guiana to establish a colony for emancipated slaves to farm freely.
Little time passed before Lafayette was in the grasp of another revolt. Lafayette protested the fiscal irresponsibility of the nobility that led to the French Revolution. He supported reform and called for a “truly national assembly… to represent the whole of France.” As the leader of the National Guard, Lafayette worked to preserve order among the radicals and government. The French Revolution was a long and complicated affair that led to tens of thousands being executed. While Lafayette escaped death, he was exiled and imprisoned for five years, only being freed through his wife’s tireless efforts.
Lafayette fought for liberty until the age of seventy-two. His protests bankrupted him more than once, and ultimately caused his wife’s health to decline unto the point of her death, but his determination to fight for what he believed was right, just, and fair, never ceased. He wrote that “true republicanism is the sovereignty of the people; there are natural and imprescriptible rights which an entire nation has no right to violate.” When those liberties are violated he believed that “insurrection is the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.”
Protest by definition is a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something. Our newspapers and newsfeeds are flooded with expression of disapproval. Malcontent, disappointment, frustration… passionate protest for something to be done. It brings to mind images of hundreds of thousands filling the National Mall to hear of Martin Luther King’s dream, or a single unknown man staring down a column of tanks. Peace signs and hippies, or lines of well-dressed students at lunch counters reappear in our memories. Most recently, we have witnessed students walk out of schools and lie down in front of the White House to demand their concerns for school safety be heard. Protest feels distinctly American. We, in this great land of civil rights, are not only allowed, but encouraged to question and challenge the established norm. Ironically, the Marquis de Lafayette, “America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman” who said the “one thing we can’t do is nothing,” was a foreigner.
Maybe, just maybe, a statue in the middle of a small Georgia town can reignite that passion for liberty.
Shannon Gavin Johnson