The Most Popular Man in America
He was the most popular man in America. More than this, he was also the most revered. This month marks the anniversary of his Farewell Tour across Georgia. The Marquis de Lafayette was not only welcomed; he was celebrated, and wildly.
Today, popularity comes on the cheap. It is unearned. Social media permits notoriety and visibility, and this is all it takes to be famous; but fame does not choose examples to which you would have your children aspire. Kim Kardashian is not the ideal model for loyalty, integrity, and courage.
The largest crowd, ever, showed up to greet him when he arrived at New York City; more even than greeted the Beatles on their historic tour in the 1960’s. Over 50,000 people lined the harbor and clogged streets and lanes just to get a glimpse.
Mothers, his regard so esteemed in their eyes, asked him to bless their children. It was as though he could in this way install a bolus of the character his life represented.
Feeble old men endured the wait of receiving lines just to shake his hand and express a word of thanks. This treasured moment, Levasseur his chronicler observed, seemed to revitalize, to make for these elders the burdens of sacrifice worth it.
He held a special place in the hearts of people of color. They would remind him “with tenderness” of his efforts “to remove them from the ranks of those whom frightful prejudices still oppress in some regions.” Today’s “reconciliation committees” he would have found curious. All men, he would have argued, deserve respect and dignity; what is there to discuss? Levasseur, reflecting Lafayette’s thinking, considered slavery “truly appalling” and “must necessarily lead Georgia into an embarrassing situation one day, if its government does not take measures to diminish it.” Lafayette greeted African-Americans with a natural, unaffected openness. When, at Yorktown, he called James Armistead his friend, there was in it no hint of superiority, no taint of what Carson McCullers called “insolence.” He never, ever lost hope that America would remedy its people paradox. The grandeur of America, in his mind, was the promise of its creed; but he saw in America, also, the power to face its demons. His confidence in its courage to cure its malignancies was sincere.
“Where is Kayewla? I want to see Kayewla.” This from the enthusiastic Indian who had jumped into the midst of Lafayette’s visiting party. “Kayewla” was the name Indians gave him in recognition of his courage, and translates to “Great White Warrior.” The Indian introduced himself to the General, told him of the high regard in which all Indians held him, and exited with the same drama with which he had arrived. In his dealings with Indians there was no guile. They trusted him, something they could not say of others with whom they dealt.
The Georgia leg of his visit began March 19, 1825, at Savannah. “Triumphal arches,” a “fervent crowd,” and Governor Troup greeted him, but the jubilee was not limited to large cities. Warrenton, Sparta, Milledgeville, and Macon received the Nation’s Guest with all of New York City’s enthusiasm. Sparta plans, this year, a celebration to recreate his entrance to their city.
On March 31 he crossed the Chattahoochee River at what is “Engineer’s Point,” now at Lawson Field, Fort Benning, and into Alabama, at Fort Mitchell, where Creek Indians put on a spectacular display of ritual games in his honor.
Lafayette is about adventure. His story is dense with horseback riding, fencing, and sailing, more than enough kinetic energy to launch a theme park. But beyond commerce, Lafayette is about conscience. He is about doing the right thing. His story inspires and is in common cause across the ages with the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The enemy, often as not, is not ignorance, but absence of the undistracted moment to think things through.
Lafayette matters because he is relevant, and he is relevant because we all need flesh and blood reminders that integrity, loyalty, and courage count. We need heroes who have earned their stripes.
Richard L. Ingram