The more time I spend in France, the more I realize how much we as Americans owe the French.
While I’m no historian of philosophy, I can’t help but note the ideas of the Enlightenment that bubbled up here…Voltaire acted as the world’s first civil rights activist, challenging injustice in the French courts, and Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ challenging just about everything else. These revolutionary stands and perspectives took shape at roughly the same time as our demands for independence exploded in the colonies across the pond.
And it wasn’t just ideas that the French contributed. Beaumarchais begged, borrowed and (maybe stole) to get funds for ships and guns to help the American cause. His shipments landed at the battle of Saratoga just in time to turn the tide, giving George Washington’s motley crew the chance to win the battle, and subsequently win the war.
One prominent figure in history–and board-certified OMG–that I recently circled back to was Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, better known to us Americans as Lafayette.
He was born into an wealthy, aristocratic family with a penchant for military service. Not exactly a late bloomer, Lafayette was a commissioned officer at age 13 and a major general at age 19.
You could chalk both of those up to the titled and entitled background, but his bravery and military expertise were his own. He was shot during the Battle of Brandywine, but carried on, made valuable contributions at the Battle of Rhode Island, and ingeniously held off Cornwallis in Virginia until reinforcements could arrive.
He lobbied the French government to increase its aid to the American cause. With Thomas Jefferson’s help, he contributed to the writing of The Declaration of The Rights of Man and of The Citizen.
During the French Revolution, he tried to steer rival, overzealous factions toward a more moderate path. As no good deed goes unpunished, a warrant for his arrest was issued, and he had to flee the country he’d done so much for.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the saying goes…he was eventually arrested in the Netherlands and thrown in jail for 5 years. Napoleon managed to free him. He returned to public office, serving the citizens of France for the rest of his days, and setting an example for all time.
He’s buried in the Picpus cemetery here in Paris. Fittingly, the soil that covers the surface of his grave comes from Boston. Every year, the US Ambassador to France participates in a ceremony at his gravesite. French and American military personnel stand side by side, and, together, they ensure that American flag that flies there is replaced, that respect is paid, that a bond is renewed.
The great service that Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette rendered to the United States and to France is acknowledged. It is not a casual affair. His contributions were global, grand, and enduring, and the French aren’t the kind of people to forget that.
As Americans, we shouldn’t either.