The Lafayette Connection—What’s It About?
Some people seem to think:
- I live in a town with a French name, but nobody I know speaks French here.
- There’s a fountain in our downtown square with a statue of a long-dead Frenchman, but I don’t know much about him, and really am not very interested.
- Well, maybe I know his name was Lafayette, the same as the road coming into town from the east.
- But LaGrange, Lafayette, La-de-da. What’s that to me?
Well, actually it’s a lot, to you and also to everyone else here.
Lafayette was born into nobility in southern France in the year 1757. His title was The Marquis de Lafayette. His actual name was Gilbert de Motier (In fact it was Marie-Georges Paul Yves Roch Gilbert de Motier, but who remembers all that?). At age 19 Lafayette, already trained as a soldier and with important connections at the king’s court in Paris, came at his own expense to fight alongside George Washington in the American Revolutionary War against England. He played a decisive role in persuading the French King to send troops and other aid, without which the American cause could not succeed. His military successes and his later life were to become a far greater influence on you and all of us here than many are aware or realize they care about.
His story is that of a true hero of both the United States and France. No one did more than Lafayette to help gain freedom for America. He had profound influence in the causes of liberty and equality, not only in this country but also in France and ultimately across Europe. He stood boldly against slavery and other ways of dividing and exploiting people. In the darkest days of the French Revolution, he was imprisoned five years for his principles and action. He and his family were threatened with death and some were actually beheaded. But after release in 1791, from age 40 he worked tirelessly for the cause of freedom.
Memory of Lafayette is aided in America not only by our town’s being named in honor of the Chateau de la Grange, his beloved French home with his wife Adrien, but also by all those other towns, cities, counties, colleges, and societies called Lafayette, Fayetteville, Fayette, and LaGrange.
But well beyond name recognition and past honors are the values he helped instill in the cause of human betterment. The statue in our city, proudly decked in the military uniform of his day, holds aloft an emblem Lafayette designed for the French National Guard. Designated “the Cocade of Liberty,” it was a red, white and blue badge symbolizing freedom.
For 14 months in 1824 and 1825 Lafayette returned and visited every one of America’s then 24 states in the grandest hero tour ever. Supreme Court judge Joseph Story included these words in addressing him at Salem MA in August,1824:
“You have been not merely the friend of America, but that of France, and of Liberty throughout the World. During a long life in the most trying scenes, you have done no act for which virtue need blush or humanity weep. Your private character has not cast a shade on your public honors. In the palaces of Paris and the dungeons of Olmutz, in the splendor of power, and the gloom of banishment, you have been the friend of justice, and the asserter of the rights of man. Under every misfortune, you have never deserted your principles. What earthly prince can afford consolation like this? The favor of princes and the applause of senates, sink into absolute nothingness, in comparison with the approving conscience of a life devoted to the good of mankind.” — Memoirs of the Military Career of the Marquis de Lafayette (a collection published by Allen & Watts, Boston, 1824)
Like Lafayette’s uniform and his bearing in LaGrange’s statue, these flowery words appear in the style of America’s first 50 years. But they still touch on why he is especially important now.
On March 31, 1825 during his Grand Tour, Lafayette reached West Georgia from Macon, preparing to cross the Chattahoochee River opposite Fort Mitchell. The Georgia site was in current southwestern Muscogee County. Some citizens who attended from the area soon to be named Troup County returned home quoting Lafayette’s remark that the area’s topography reminded him of the Chateau de la Grange, his wife’s family home near Paris. It was thus in his honor that they chose “LaGrange” as the name of their county seat when it was incorporated in 1828.
What then is Lafayette to you?
If you live or work in LaGrange, you share identity with him by local tradition of the city’s name. His bronze image is the artistic centerpiece of your community. We all benefit from his having advanced the causes of liberty and equality, thereby taking his elevated place with others of America’s founding generation with whom he served and worked closely: Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Monroe and others. He was wounded in battle as an officer of the Continental Army. He served as aide, close friend and confidante to General George Washington. He commanded troops in several engagements, including a pivotal role in the surrender by British General Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown.
After returning to France in 1781, Lafayette lost no time getting involved in the positive parts of the new French Revolution. With Jefferson’s assistance he authored the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” He was named commander-in-chief of the French National Guard and served in the legislative bodies trying to steer a middle course. When radicals later took over and plunged France into a dark and violent period, Lafayette escaped, was captured by Austrian troops, and went into prison for 5 years. After release he spent the rest of his long life championing the cause of liberty, including major efforts to free slaves in the United States, in the Caribbean, and everywhere.
You and all of us benefit greatly from his amazing work and effectiveness. Everybody needs to know about this hero and through him to learn about the enduring values he helped ensure for all of us.
George Henry, MD