Sunday, July 31, 2016

Today in History

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The Hero of the Two Worlds

Today in 1777, the Continental Congress commissioned the 19 year old Marquis de Lafayette into the Continental Army with a rank of Major General. Lafayette had just arrived in America, having snuck out of France against the wishes of his King (to whom he was related by marriage) and was eager to fight in the American Revolution which he felt reflected his own beliefs.

Congress was happy to welcome such a well-connected and wealthy French nobleman into their cause and gave him what was meant to be an honorary rank. Lafayette, however, wanted to lead men into battle. Five days later at a dinner he met George Washington, commander of the Army. The Revolution was, at this point, going badly, and that dinner was one where Washington had to address very real fears that Philadelphia might soon fall to the British. Washington was not pleased at the prospect of baby-sitting a teen noble, much less one who expected the command of a division, as he wrote to Benjamin Harrison in complaint:

"What line of conduct I am to pursue, to comply with [Congress'] design and his expectations, I know no more than the child unborn and beg to be instructed."

Nonetheless, in less than a month the two men had begun to forge what would be a life-long friendship. Washington was won over by Lafayette's courage, generosity, loyalty, and eagerness to learn. Lafayette, who had lost his father to a British cannonball at age two, perhaps saw in Washington the father he had never known.

Under Washington's mentorship and command, Lafayette became one of the heroes of the American Revolution, and when he returned to France, he became a life-long hero in France. Among his accomplishments was drafting (in consultation with Thomas Jefferson) the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. He was Commander of the National Guard during the French Revolution and attempted to moderate the radicals, until they forced him to flee.

In the Second Revolution of France in 1830, Lafayette was a leading figure, and was offered rulership of France by the Chamber of Deputies (French parliament) but he declined and supported the restoration of the monarchy in the person of Louis-Phillipe, Duc d'Orleans.

Lafayette was an American legend and icon for many generations - when he came back in 1824, upon the invitation of President Monroe and Congress, he embarked on a grand tour or America. Every city and town he visited gave him an enthusiastic welcome, and his tour sparked a wave of monument construction, with Lafayette being given the honor of laying the cornerstone. One of the arguments for support of our entry into World War I was the feeling that we owed a debt to France, and to Lafayette in particular. But in this century we rarely hear him spoken of. It is rather sad that school children today only have a vague idea of Lafayette's stature and role in the birth of our nation.

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