The Marquis de Lafayette first came to the United States from France at the age of 19 to help the Americans in their fight for independence. Now an exhibition in New York pays tribute to the lasting impact the young Frenchman had on the country and its struggle for freedom and democracy. Mona Ghuneim has this report from our New York bureau.
The Frenchman Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette left his mark, and his name - albeit abbreviated - all over the United States. According to historian Lloyd Kramer, more places in the United States are named after Lafayette than after any other foreigner. But, he says, from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Fayette, Maine to Lafayette Street in New York City, the Frenchman's influence on the nation goes beyond just georgraphic naming.
A current exhibition at the New York Historical Society explores how the Frenchman, who first came to the United States to assist the Americans in their fight for independence, reaffirmed America's belief in itself.
A video in the show explains how Lafayette returned to Paris full of fervor and pride for the American cause, after spending a few years in the United States following the defeat of the British.
"When he returned to Paris in 1782, Lafayette enthusiastically talked about the American Revolution," the video explains. "Bad harvests and bad royal policy made French people eager to hear about liberty and democracy. Lafayette wrote a Declaration of Human Rights that resembled the American Declaration of Independence, written by his friend Thomas Jefferson."
Historian Lloyd Kramer says Lafayette played an important role in the founding of this nation, urging France to help the Americans during the war by sending troops and funds and then acting as diplomat and mediator when the French came.
Kramer says even after Lafayette returned to France, the United States never forgot his dedication to the American people. In 1824, at the age of 67, Lafayette was invited back to America, and the exhibition focuses on the year Lafayette spent touring the then 24-state nation. Kramer says it was a galvanizing experience for the country.
"I think one of the great themes of this exhibit is that Lafayette's tour in 1824 became one of the first and most remarkable expressions of American nationalism, national identity," he says.
Kramer says Lafayette in 1824 represented a living link to George Washington and the victories of the revolutionary era. He says Lafayette returned at a time when the nation faced political divisions, a tense election and was struggling to establish a national identity.
The show's curator Richard Rabinowitz says Lafayette's close relationships with founding leaders like Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were inspiring to the American people, but his link to George Washington was especially important. During a tour, Rabinowitz makes a point of highlighting it.
"In that corner we describe Lafayette's visit to Mount Vernon itself," he says. "He laid a wreath at the tomb of Washington. He was extraordinarily devoted to Washington, and Washington to him. So Mount Vernon became, in a sense, a kind of sacred site."
The exhibition features documents, newspaper clippings, maps, artifacts and even personal items worn by Lafayette during his trip. Audio dramatizations recount stories and anecdotes from the time. Everywhere he went, Lafayette was given a warm welcome and a dinner with the major dignitaries of the town. In one particular audio rendering based on real toasts made in his honor, we hear just how loved Lafayette was.
"Here's to General Lafayette! France claims the honor of his birth. All mankind, the benefit of his service."
Curator Rabinowitz says Lafayette provided America with a great service, both in helping to fight for independence in 1777 and then returning in 1824 to remind the nation of its committment to freedom and justice for all. Rabinowitz says it couldn't have been easy for Lafayette who was by then an old man.
"This was a service that Lafayette provided - the last great service that he provided to America," he says. "It's an extraordinary thing for a 67-year-old man to schlepp his way through the American wilderness - 6,000 miles, sleeping in 192 beds in 367 days."
Rabinowitz says the Frenchman deserves a special place in the history of the United States and this year on Lafayette's 250th birthday, he has one at a major U.S. historical insititute.