French Hero of the American Revolution


Since today is Bastille Day, I’m posting the chapter from Fired Up or Burned Out entitled “French Hero of the American Revolution.”  The subject of the chapter, Lafayette, was a key figure in both the American and French revolutions, and by his action he helped create and sustain Connection Cultures where cultures of dominance or indifference formerly existed.

French Hero of the American Revolution

Visiting historical sites in the state of Virginia, you might be surprised to see recurring tributes to a Frenchman whose name and story remain unknown to most Americans today. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s hilltop home near Charlottesville, you’ll find a portrait and sculpted bust of the Frenchman. At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home on the Potomac River, you’ll learn that Washington thought of him as a son, and you will find the key to the Bastille on display, sent by the Frenchman to Washington after he ordered the notorious Paris prison torn down during the French Revolution. Perhaps most surprising of all, in the Hall of Presidents beneath the rotunda of the Virginia capitol where a statue of George Washington and busts of the other seven Virginia-born presidents reside, you’ll find a bust of the Frenchman who was neither a president nor born in Virginia.

Across America hundreds of landmarks are named after him. Every year on Independence Day, the American ambassador to France travels to his gravesite in Paris to replace the American flag that flies over it. The gravesite is unusual in France for the Frenchman’s casket and that of his wife lie beneath soil taken from Bunker Hill outside Boston, Massachusetts, the site of one of the first battles in the Revolutionary War.

As you might guess, this Frenchman was far from ordinary. His name is Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, more commonly known as the Marquis de Lafayette.

Lafayette was one of the wealthiest young men in France. His early life was not an easy one. His father, a colonel of grenadiers, was killed in battle when Lafayette was two years old, and his mother and grandfather died when he was twelve. By fourteen he had joined the Royal Army, and at sixteen he married Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, a wealthy relative of the French king.

In his late teens Lafayette became enamored with the cause of American independence. At a dinner he attended, Lafayette heard the Duke of Gloucester, a brother of England’s King George III, share his strong opposition to the English treatment of American colonists. It seems from that point, Lafayette developed a consuming desire to see the American colonists achieve their independence.

At nineteen Lafayette purchased a ship, named it the Victoire, and persuaded several French army officers to join him in helping the Americans. After he arrived in America, Lafayette approached John Hancock, head of the Continental Congress, and volunteered his services. In a letter to Hancock, Lafayette, like the signers of the Declaration of Independence, pledged his “life, his fortune and his sacred honor” to American independence. Lafayette was inspired by America’s cause, and his inspiration led him to make a commitment to do everything he possibly could to achieve it.

Lafayette was commissioned as a major general and eventually became an aide-de-camp to George Washington. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. noted that Lafayette “distinguished himself militarily . . . was an essential actor in the successful plan to trap the British Army under General Cornwallis at Yorktown . . . [and became] an invaluable ally of American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson.”

Perhaps most important, when Lafayette went back to France to secure resources for the Americans, he returned with an army of four thousand soldiers and a fleet of ships commanded by Count de Rochambeau. Before Lafayette’s return, the American effort had been losing steam after suffering several defeats. Lafayette’s presence, his infectious optimism, and the resources he brought revitalized the American effort.

Lafayette had a profound effect on the American military’s culture during the Revolutionary War. He increased inspiring identity. He encouraged everyone around him by reiterating how important the war was for the future of humankind. Later in life he would comment: “To have participated in the toils and perils of the unspotted struggle for independence . . . the foundation of the American era of a new social order . . . has been the pride, the encouragement, the support of [my] long and eventful life.”

Lafayette increased human value in many ways. He spent considerable personal wealth to purchase shoes and clothes for the men in his command. Although he could afford to buy a house to stay warm, he chose to remain with the soldiers at Valley Forge during the freezing winter of 1778. He fought alongside the infantrymen, even dismounting his horse if necessary to be closer to them. Lafayette treated soldiers with respect.

Lafayette increased knowledge flow by seeking the opinions of his soldiers, asking them what worked and what didn’t work in the battles they had fought. He later claimed that the common soldiers were his greatest teachers. The soldiers were so fond of Lafayette that they referred to him as “Our Marquis.”

The unlikely story of the French aristocrat fighting with dedication for their behalf endeared Lafayette to Americans everywhere. Author Harlow Giles Unger described it well when he said, “[Lafayette] fled from incomparable luxury . . . to wade through the South Carolina swamps, freeze at Valley Forge, and ride through the stifling summer heat of Virginia—as an unpaid volunteer, fighting and bleeding for liberty, in a land not his own, for a people not his own.”

For the Marquis de Lafayette’s extraordinary commitment to America’s cause, America passed a law on January 23, 2002, posthumously bestowing him with honorary citizenship. Only five other individuals in America’s history have been honored in this way.

Review, Reflection, and Application

Lafayette increased inspiring identity by reminding people of the importance of the Revolutionary War to the future of humankind. He increased human value by fighting beside the soldiers he commanded and suffering alongside them during the winter at Valley Forge. Lafayette increased knowledge flow by seeking the opinions of soldiers and considering their ideas. If you had been a soldier under Lafayette’s command, which of these actions would have resonated with you the most? How can you make them resonate with your colleagues?

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